Uberlandia, a Bittersweet Reunion

Uberlandia, a Bittersweet Reunion

» Featured Columnists | By Mike Cooney | September 16, 2011 9:15 AM ET

Uberlandia, a Bittersweet Reunion

After two weeks in Barra da Lagos, it was time to move on.  The owner of the guesthouse was almost as disappointed for us to leave as we were.  He was the perfect landlord and had adopted us as his family.  Kim had left a week earlier and was replaced by a Dutchman traveling by himself.  He was physically one of the largest and tallest people we had ever met and a very nice guy, but no Kim.  Alejandro offered to take us to the bus station, but we declined opting for the local bus instead.  We wanted to arrive alive, and his insane driving could not guarantee that outcome.  Our little utopia was about to disappear into the mist just as the fabled Brigadoon did in the play by the same name.

Our next bus ride promised to be the longest of any during our entire four-month trek.  It was scheduled to take at least 20 hours from beginning to end.  We would be traveling from the south of Brazil to almost its dead center, just south of the capital Brasilia.  If someone had told us in the early days of our trek that we were going to ride a bus for 20 hours, we would have told them they were loco - no way, no how, just forget it, impossible!  However, I guess we really had become travelers, because none of the tribe voiced any opposition or seemed to mind.  It was just a means to an end.

We decided to splurge and travel on a First Class motorcoach; after all we were going to spend nearly an entire day on a bus.  The distance between the two cities was nearly 800 miles and cost $72 USD per person (as of December 2008).  That is almost the same distance as between Jacksonville, Florida and Baltimore, Maryland; however, the cost to ride between those two locations is nearly double.  My regular readers are probably sick of hearing about our bus travels.  I have mentioned it frequently for two reasons throughout the series of articles.  First, because it was nearly our only means of transportation and provided a lot of great story fodder.  And second, because in doing so, I hoped a few people might ask themselves why the U.S. does not have the same competitive, multi-company, low cost transportation option.  The current system in the U.S. is more akin to the chicken buses of Guatemala than the luxury buses of Argentina.  The terminals are usually in the most unsavory part of any city, and your seatmate may have just appeared on the most recent episode of America's Most Wanted - a bit harsh, but reasonably accurate.  I know we have many other options such as (allegedly) low cost flights (when you can find them), and of course our God given right to own at least one car.  But if the U.S. is ever going to be serious about reducing our dependence on fossil fuel, a competitive, clean, safe, multi-company bus system must be part of the solution.

The Brazilian's really have bus transportation down to a science.  In addition to regular stops to pick up or drop off passengers, we also stopped at huge rest areas with large buffets that offered the per kilo concept mentioned previously.  In addition, they had lots of other stuff to buy.  The largest one was completely decked out for Christmas.  It was a Cracker Barrel on steroids.  That one also had the largest bathrooms any of us had ever seen.  It would have been possible to fit an entire Florida Turnpike rest area into the men's and women's restrooms.

On the way to Uberlandia, we saw tens-of-thousands of acres of farmland.  If the U.S. is the breadbasket of North America, then Brazil is the bread store of South America, and the region surrounding Uberlandia is the bakery.  We'd seen beautiful farmland in many of the countries we've visited, but nothing like what we saw on the way to our destination.  Brazil's agricultural production is enormous.  In addition to livestock of all varieties, the country is a huge producer of rice and sugar cane.  However, the sugar cane is mostly used to produce ethanol for gasoline, and is sold for nearly half the price to incentivize purchasing it over regular fossil fuels.

Finally, after 20 hours by bus and a good night's sleep in a hotel in Uberlandia we were reunited with our friends.  It had been more than two years since we had seen any of them, and it was a happy, tearful, bittersweet reunion.  What brought us together was a common thread that ran between our two families.  In 1998 we hosted a Brazilian exchange student.  Her name was Juliana and the daughter of our hosts.  She was a high school teenager that lived with us for five months and became our surrogate daughter and the boy's big sister.  She returned home and worked with her dad in the family business and taught English at a private school.  Tragically, she was killed in a car accident in Uberlandia in August 2003.  It was as if we had lost one of our children.

We put up a brave front, but it was obvious everyone was thinking of her during our four-day stay.  We held it together until one day her mom, dad and sister took us to visit her maternal grandfather.  There was a picture of Juliana on the bookcase and we all lost it.  We wanted to talk about her, the good times we shared and what she meant to us.  However, it was obvious the lose was still too fresh and the emotions too raw for any of us to have a conversation without copious quantities of tears being shed.  I hope on a future visit we can talk about her, but it was simply not possible during this visit.  I wrote two blogs about our time with Juliana and our visit with her family.  They can be found in the blog archive section of Cooney World Adventure web site.  Both were posted Christmas eve 2008.

The family treated us like royalty.  They put us up in one of the best hotels in the city, which just happened to be located in a huge high-end mall.  Compared to all of our previous accommodations, it was pure luxury.  They chauffeured us everywhere, paid for all of our meals, hosted us at their beautiful home and took us to their private club.  But it was not just any club.

The Praia Clube is located on several hundred acres near the city center.  Juliana's paternal grandfather was one of the club's founders, and we thought it had probably been started in the '70s or early '80s.  Not so, it was first conceived and developed in 1934.  Now that is progressive thinking!  It all began with a small plot of land on the banks of the river that runs through Uberlandia.  Juliana's grandfather, along with other local businessmen saw a need to create a club for families to enjoy.

The complex is so vast and diverse that many times during the walking tour we thought we had come to the end, only to be shown another section we had not seen.  The outside tennis courts, soccer fields, swimming pools, running tracks and basketball courts took up acres, while the buildings that housed the indoor versions were massive.  There were numerous indoor and outdoor courts for Brazilian peteca; a game similar to badminton but played with an oversized shuttlecock using the players' hands not rackets.  Praia Clube has over 40,000 members who pay a monthly fee.  It's not an elitist club, but one that boasts a very broad middle-class base.  In addition to the two-legged animals that frequent the club, there was also a family of capybaras (world's largest rodents) that inhabited the banks of the river, which flowed through the club.

We said good-bye to our adopted Brazilian family and took the last bus ride of our journey through South America - a mere eight-hour ride to Sao Paulo.  We caught a taxi to the airport and then an overnight flight home to Orlando via Chicago - that's the kind of routing you get with cheap around the world tickets.  Our trek was coming to an end, but only in the physical sense.  We learned and experienced so much that it will live on in our memories forever.  Next week's article will recap our South American odyssey.

And remember . . . "Travel is the ultimate education."

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