While in Belém I pictured my friend, Ana, living there. I met her in the U.S. while she was on her Science without Borders study abroad program where I went to grad school. She’s the only person I know from Belém, so when I found out I’d be going there for a Literature and Linguistics conference, I was curious to see her backdrop.
On arriving in Belém, I was hit hard by the heat. Belém is 1 degree south of the equator, and even though it’s not even South America’s summer right now, the humidity feels like you’re breathing water. A minute after walking outside your skin is slick with the water in the air, then the water from your own body as you start to sweat profusely and NEVER STOP. I was in a constant state of dehydration, even though I always had a water bottle with me. I understood why Ana always looks sweaty in her pictures.
Belém is a city of contradictions. The fanciest apartment I’ve ever been in is next to a landfill. The gentrified upscale dock area is reached via a shantytown where homeless zombies ramble around calling out things in English and pulling people’s hair. I imagined Ana feeling homesick for this place and seeing this place as home. The cost of living there is comparable to Rio or São Paulo, but I’ve never seen such a run-down city overall. I was warned by two bus people with solemn faces to be careful and to not walk around here or there. At the same time, I’ve never been so verbally welcomed to a new place. Several times strangers on the street told us ‘Welcome to Belém’ in English.
A recurring theme for me throughout the week was that everything is relative. I was initially underwhelmed by São Paulo when I first arrived in Brazil, but then I went to Rio Preto, my city, and now I see the beauty and variety of SP. I was underwhelmed by Rio Preto, but then I visited Belém and now I see the order and money here. Even within Belém, I was surprised by the poverty at first, but throughout the week I began to see and appreciate the small beauties surrounded by the shit. The beautiful, shirtless man with shiny skin hanging clothes to dry in the sun on the roof of his house. The hippies sitting on the street weaving necklaces hooked onto their toes. The sunset and lightning over the brown river.
I’ve never eaten so much açai in such a short period of time. Belém boasts the widest array of tropical flavors (of ice cream, juice, liquor) I’ve ever seen, and it was wonderful. I tried un-sweetened açai with fish. It tasted like purple mud. I much prefer the sweetened version, which I ate whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also tried cupuaçu, tapioca (another famous Belem treat), and countless other fruit flavors at Cairu, the best ice cream place ever. Seriously. If I could replace all the Coldstones in the U.S. with Cairus, I would.
My friends and I drank jambú cachaça in a crumbly street-corner cachaçaria, which was served with soup and made our mouths feel like stars. In my cachaca-induced state I thought of the odds of sitting on that corner in that far-flung place in Brazil with a bunch of Americans I would have never met in America. It’s funny how things work out.