Johannesburg, South Africa.
What do these four places have in common? Well, along with Sao Paulo, Brazil, they make up the list of the five places that I'd actually prefer to stay home than visit.
Me? Stay home?
Sao Paulo, a work-minded city of 17 million with no wordly fame except that it used to be Earth's most-polluted place and where solitary drivers are sometimes kidnapped at night by gun-carrying bandits, did give me three reasons to go. My flight home was from there. Gabby, a friend from college whose ever-festive, nice personality had probably convinced me the most that I needed to visit her country, lived there. And Geogia, my girlfriend, was there.
So, I went, staying in the part of town called Paraiso (meaning "paradise"). (I opted to stay here over places like Smog Pit, Traffic Jam Junction, and Dirty Armed Kidnapping Bandit Shady Oaks.) And from what I saw of Sao Paulo (pretty much just Paraiso), it was ... actually very, very nice. It was:
A place where people sit in cozy diners and eat the paulista's favorite sandwich, the bauru, made with fresh french bread, melted cheese, ham, and tomatos.
A place with quiet apartments and clean-aired streets you can walk on safely at two in the morning.
A place where the first paulista I met, a young graduate student on my bus, let me stay with him for two days until I got a hold of Gabby.
A place where I re-paid Gabby for her hospitality by helping out around the delicious restaurant her family owns ... I mean, by helping myself to gluttonous feijoada and dried-meat meals there. (I'll help out next time.)
A place, even, where I could engage in one of my favorite pasttimes, chasing animals.
(The chas-ee, in this case, was my girlfriend's fluffy puppy, Tchoko. He's a tiny guy with white hair that falls over his eyes and paws. When he sees you, he gets so excited he doesn't know what to do but hop around in circles until he sees you again and pounces on your knees.
Tchoko's favorite sniffing grounds lie among the patch forests and muddy lakes of a green park near Paraiso. Here, Tchoko grows impatient when Geogia and I stop to kiss, but then has nothing better to do when let off his leash but to hop around in circles until he sees us and pounces on our knees.
Once, a jogger passed when Tchoko was free, making the puppy crazy with desire for the fast, new knees he could pounce on. Tchoko took off afterwards. A chase ensued. The jogger led, Tchoko followed, Geogia chased him, a scrawny dog with a crush on Tchoko came after, and I was the tail.
Tchoko had to be stopped. I accelerated. Taking to the outside track, a grassy hill, I sped past the scrawny dog and left my girlfriend in the dust. I passed Tchoko and leapt from my hill to the path in front of him.
The determined puppy came right for me. Though white hair covered his eyes, he was barreling. Though his four legs were only a combined foot-and-a-half long, he was trucking. Though he'd aten dog food that morning and had sniffed a bunch of dogs' butts, he was zooming. I put out my arm, like a shortstop fielding a grounder, and pressed Tchoko's chest into a screeching halt. I hated to burst the little guy's excitement, but he was still too young to be pouncing knees with every stranger he meets at the park, just because the stranger shows a little leg.)
Sao Paulo was:
A cold place, forcing Geogia into a baggy sweatshirt and rosy cheeks, better bringing out her wicked sweet smile (cute girls ALWAYS look better in cold-weather clothes), as we viewed the city's distant skyscrapers from the peaceful park and engaged in some park bench snuggling.
The type of place I could look for a career, buy an apartment, and settle down in.
Pffffhhh ... yeah, right. Me? Stay in one place?
No, but, seriously, I was starting to fall for this Geogia. When I finally left Brazil at the end of July, it was pretty sad.
I'd spent a lot of time in Brazil. The country was beginning to rub off on me.
As my friend, Gabby, told me, "Justin, you're starting to become like a Brazilian. First of all, you don't ever show up when you say you're going to. And second, you're dating a much-younger girl."
Brazil did have some good effects on me, too. In over five months:
I learned to tell my feelings, good or bad.
I learned to touch my friends more and be touched.
I learned never to buy a camera, no matter how cheap, because I'm still about as responsible with technological devices as a kid.
I learned Portuguese.
I learned to use my arms more when speaking, especially the Brazilians thought I was speaking Spanish.
I learned that whatever music is playing, no matter how crappy, to just dance.
I learned not to enter the world's biggest jungle - it's painful and confusing.
I learned, from Bruno, to talk gibberish.
I learned that I'm a scrawny guy - I can't beat up two criminals at once.
And that's about it.
For now. I'll be back for my Brasiliana.