The Super Mercado

I would love to say that I slept well that night. I would also love to say that I was a multi millionaire with a  sure fire way to end the pandemic within hours. But I could say neither. Instead as I often do when it is late and sleep has either come and gone or not come at all I sweat my challenges and problems.

This particular night I had enough to keep me busy.

Getting back to the USA was important. While I have no confidence in Donald Trump and his ability to handle any crisis, let alone one as big as this, I have more confidence in our health care system than the one in Brazil. In Brazil I have no Dr’s although Elaine’s sister and brother in law are both physicians. At home I had a fleet of Dr’s who knew me and I felt comfortable with. But medical care was only part of it. I had prepared for this at home. I had enough food and water to last 30 days without leaving the house. I had enough toilet paper to last  a single man a century and a married man a month.

In Brazil we had challenges. The water system in our part of Rio had been having problems for months. Cedae was sending water to the homes that smelled and tasted funny and as a result we were buying bottled water and I was not sure of the length of supply. Our food supply was limited. We did not have emergency rations or anything close.

But further conversations with the folks at American Airlines produced only a limited success. I managed to get a seat on a flight to NYC on March 27th but was told by the kindly American Airlines agent that it was subject to change.

It made it clear that we had to prepare for the short and long haul and spent a good part of my sleepless hours thinking about the things that needed to get done in the coming day. When the thoughts became too fraught I turned to reading, my favorite way of defusing chains of thought. The book, “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larsen was a good choice on my part. It reminded me that the British in 1940 and 41 had it far worse than I did right now and lived by the code “Stay calm and carry on.” A good credo for now although perhaps it should be “Stay calm and carry on after washing your hands.” It reminded me that calamity can be overcome and allowed me, after a time, to return to a world of dreams.

I woke early and while my wife was still in the land of nod I went to my computer and began the task of letting those who needed to know of my predicament. Sister, brother, Wonder Dog Studios to let them know they were going to have to board Rosie a little longer than anticipated.

I woke early and while my wife was still in the land of nod so I went to my computer and began the task of letting those who needed to know of my predicament. Sister, brother, Wonder Dog Studios where Rosie was having a spa holiday  to let them know that I didn’t quite know when I was going to be home but that I hoped for sooner as opposed to later. There were a few other outliers but before too long Elaine called me to breakfast.

She too had spent a restless night. She too had spent time thinking about what needed to get done and over a Brazilian breakfast of papaya, bread, butter, honey, tapioca pancakes filled with farmers cheese and rich black coffee we decided on our plan of attack for the day.

First we would go to the Cambio and exchange dollars for Reals. Then to the bank for more cash. I am of the belief, as is Elaine, that in times of crisis relying too much on the banking system is probably unwise. Then we needed to go to the pharmacy. I wanted to buy some supplies such as Zinc supplements, mouthwash, and other odds and ends that might serve as a prophylatic for Covid-19 and finally the most daunting task of the day, the Super Mercado or Supermarket.

After leaving the gated community where I home is, we immediately noticed that traffic was somewhat lighter than in the past. The parking lot at St.Francis church where we normally parked our car was less than half full which was very unusual for Tuesday at 10AM. Normally it would have been packed. That doesn’t mean there were not people out and about. There were. But far fewer than normal and those we saw we gave wide berth to as social distancing was the watch word of the day.

I changed dollars at the Cambio. It did not take long and they had an ample supply of alcohol gel as I remembered that the filthiness of money makes toilet seem pristine. The pharmacy, surprisingly, had few customers and the shelves still stocked to capacity. We did our business quickly buying the supplies we needed and were out the door as quickly as possible. The bank and its ATM’s had a machine but the folks in line were using the machines that allowed deposits so I quickly got money from one of the units that was withdrawals only using only my knuckles to hit the keys. On the way back to the car a man, several meters in front of us, sneezed into the air without bothering to cover with out elbow or hand to block his effluvia. I was horrified and scared. When we got back to the car I insisted that we gel up before entering.

Brazilian supermarkets, or SuperMercados, are very different than those in the United States. It starts with the parking lots. Unlike in the US they charge you for parking. As a consequence, they make the spots in which you park so tiny that even skilled drivers need several moves to get into the tight spaces. The market we were going to, Guanabara on Avenue of the Americas, was no different and it took us a bit of time to find a space and park.

We had chosen Guanabara because it is gigantic, a city block by a city block, and the logic of the day was they were most likely to have the supplies we needed. We knew because of it size that it was likely to be very crowded but nothing prepared us for what we saw. At 11 am on a Tuesday the place was packed to the gills. It was impossible to maintain any social distance at all as the shoppers hurried through the massive aisles on hunt and gather missions dependent of their needs. Instead of a shopping experience it was more similar to a scrum in rugby. It was especially bad when the PA system would announce especially desired items such as disinfecting wipes when calm shoppers turned into piranhas thrown meet. Items like water were disappearing off the shelves as fast as they could be stocked and we felt lucky to get 4 6 liter bottles of spring water. We were there a long time trying to check off all the items on our list not only because the foot traffic but because the store was unfamiliar to us.

The most horrifying moment of our time at Guanabara was when Elaine asked a clerk where to find olive oil. The man, who been unpacking bottles of some detergent to put on the shelves, paused to think and to aid his recall lifted the bottle to his lips and then used it as a pointing device before putting it on the shelves.

The check out line lasted over an hour. Several of the people had multiple carts of supplies. One couple had three. The wait gave me time to think about this whole experience and how truly unnerving the times we were living in had become. How the world had gone a little mad and we were powerless to stop it. It made me wish that Hunter Thompson was still alive to write “Fear and Loathing at Guanabara.” It made me wish my parents were still alive to say the things that parents say to nervous children even when they are 756 months old.

Needless to say we were grateful that we made to the car in one piece and we gladly gelled up before entering the car.

Our ride home was unnerving in another way. Not only had traffic picked up but the buses that passed us were jammed to capacity. It made us realize that for many Carioca’s there was no such thing as social distancing. That life had to go on. That they needed to work to get paid and if that meant them exposing them to a virus that could make them very sick or kill them it was what they needed to do. The implications of what that meant for the future of this place scared us silly.

When we got home both of us were emotionally and physically exhausted but it didn’t prevent us from washing our hands for more than the recommended 20 seconds.

However, seeing the crowded buses stayed with us. It made Elaine realize the risk her two employees took coming to our home everyday. Each of them commuted via the BRT for over an hour, each way, every day. We discussed it and eventually Elaine decided that they needed to cut back their schedules from 5 days a week to 2 or 3. Hopefully it would limit their exposure and ours to the virus.

One of the emails I sent in the morning had been to the US Consulate in Rio. I wanted them to know I was here and stranded and asked for guidance. There response was less than helpful.

Dear sir,

All matters related to airlines or flights should be resolved with your airline directly.

Actions to take to stay safe:

• Consult the CDC website for the most up-to-date information.
• For the most recent information on what you can do to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 please see the CDC’s latest recommendations.
• Visit the COVID-19 crisis page on for the latest information.
• Check with your airlines or cruise lines regarding any updated information about your travel plans and/or restrictions.
• Visit our Embassy webpage on COVID-19 for information on conditions in Brazil.
• Visit the Department of Homeland Security’s website on the latest travel restrictions to the United States.
In case of emergency:

U.S. Consulate General Rio de Janeiro
Av. Presidente Wilson, 147 Castelo
Rio de Janeiro, RJ — 20030-020
Entrance at Rua Santa Luzia
Phone: (21) 3823-2000
After-Hours Emergencies: (21) 3823-2029

American Citizen Services
Consular Communications and Outreach
U.S. Consulate General | Rio de Janeiro

Needless to say I am less than reassured.



About 34orion

Winston Churchill once said that if you were not a liberal when you were young you had no heart, and if you were not a conservative when you were older then you had no brain. I know I have both so what does that make me?
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