From the car window, I pictured the little man climbing a tree. Dexterously, he went to the highest branch and then on to the top. When he stood at the peak of the tree with his body upright, it was time to start running. His tiny legs kept up with the car’s speed, even though his road wasn’t made of concrete but of branches, trunks and leaves. His path was the dark green contour of the forest that grew on the valley and hills next to the road where my family and I drove. Sometimes the little man had to jump to the ground and start climbing again; other times, he would find an odd misplaced house in his way and had to walk on fragile roofs — luckily, no one else was ever able to see him. In less busy bits of the race, he would look down to see little yellow flowers scattered across an otherwise green landscape in spring and, in winter, would be terrified by the thick fog blanket covering his feet. My imagination finally let the little man rest when the hills were no longer visible on the horizon and we approached our favourite snack place. His adventures were instantly replaced by delicious meat croquettes and chorizo sandwiches — a family tradition and a necessary break before covering the last 20 minutes to my grandparents’ house.
In the last 30 years, I have spent a significant number of weekends on the road to Petrópolis. It was there that the royal family would go in the summer to escape Rio de Janeiro’s heat. Before the road was built, it would take a whole day for the emperor Pedro II to complete the journey. He and his entourage had to leave Rio on a steamboat, cross the Guanabara Bay and then climb the hill on carriages or horseback — they probably didn’t need to fantasize about someone else’s adventures to pass the time. The railway made the trip less of an odyssey in the second half of the 1800s and, in 1928, the president Washington Luís inaugurated the road named after himself that people still take to Petrópolis.
Until I was a teenager, the only part of the route that interested me came after the toll station — when the mismatched buildings were replaced by the mountain’s green blanket. It was an indication that it wouldn’t take long until we could stop for food and, after that, turn left at Bonsucesso Bridge on the way to my grandparents’ house. In roughly one hour, I would be running around the garden and throwing my plastic animal toys in the pool. As I grew up, however, the urban setting started to catch my eyes: “Mengão Fogos”, a shop named after one football team (Flamengo) that displays the shield of another (Botafogo) and sells not only fireworks, but fishing material and household items; the everlasting fire coming out of Reduc oil refinery’s tall chimneys, tainting the distant landscape with dense black smoke; the permanent piles of garbage that border Washington Luís in front of a cluster of poor houses, a wall separating the unpaved streets from the once modern road.
Duque de Caxias is the city I observed from the car window — a glimpse of a different reality on the way to my weekend retreat. Years later, the car direction would change and Caxias would be my main stop each day. My first job as a journalist was to cover the 13 municipalities of Baixada Fluminense, the “lowland” surrounding Rio that has more than 3 million residents but is acknowledged by the media almost exclusively in the crime section. Growing violence rates are real and worrying, as is the endemic corruption and state negligence — however, it is a gross misrepresentation to only associate this region with negative stories. In Caxias, I witnessed solidarity like I’ve never seen before, between people who had lost their few belongings to the ruthless strength of the summer floods (some of them more than once); I met people who dedicated their lives to maintaining or enhancing local culture — be it traditional events, like the Wise Men’s Day parade, or movie clubs created by young people to screen new local productions, like Mate com Angu; and I also had the pleasure of trying hearty meals and Kilomania’s incomparable banana meringue pie.
At the end of a work day in the field, our car would go back to Washington Luís and head to the newsroom in Rio’s centre, inevitably stopping in the rush hour gridlock at Linha Vermelha. Besides connecting Rio to Baixada and, further along, to the mountains, the “red line” is the path I take to and from Tom Jobim international airport. After a year and a half spent living abroad, I found myself in that familiar traffic jam on a Friday evening, last January. The cars seemed to be glued to the ground and their speed was inversely proportional to my desire to get home. I had time to observe the degradation of the once colorful panels that were installed separating the expressway from the huge Favela da Maré — some would say to protect the residents from the noise, others to hide the favela from tourists during the Olympic Games. From the holes in the walls, men now jump into the road with bags of polvilho biscuits and coolers filled with water bottles to refresh the stranded drivers.
Six months later, I was watching the hawkers on Linha Vermelha again — now on my way to leave Rio on a permanent basis. The heat that welcomed me to the country had given us a winter break. From the car window, I observed that familiar view and regretted not going to Petrópolis one more time before I left (my grandparents keep threatening to sell the house).
It was only a few weeks ago, though, that the little man woke up in my memory, during a trip to the North of England. As the train ran along the British countryside, I tried to retrace in my mind the Brazilian road: an entanglement of recollected facts and romanticized memories. I opened my eyes and the little man was there, warming up to run on unknown ground: a flat race track dyed a mix of green and yellow, often interrupted by a lazy sheep.