The first place I ever visited in Brazil was Sao Paulo. It was the city closest to the port, Santos, from which my cruise was departing. It was also the home of my cousins. My grandmother’s sister’s grandchildren. For a family that was decimated by World War 2, all relatives are precious, but my cousins Lia and Roberto are incredibly special. They are both unbelievably smart, kind, and woke and they embraced as if the prodigal son returned. They could not wait to show off their city and they spent a day and a night doing just that.
I learn from them that Sao Paulo has a metropolitan area that has over 21 million inhabitants which makes it the largest in Brazil, the Americas, and the Western and Southern Hemispheres. It is also an “alpha global” city meaning that it is a center of finance and business whose actions can have a serious impact on the global economy. It is the richest city, by far, in Brazil and sees itself as the leader in commerce, arts and entertainment. My cousins show me many of the cities cultural institutions and shopping areas but also provide me with a sense of the city beyond that. I see a city of the future. Where the population is so dense that cars are only allowed to drive on designated days (if your license plate ends in even number, even number days, etc.) Where there is a thriving helicopter taxi business allowing businessmen and the wealthy to avoid the crawling traffic down below. This is both a matter of convenience and of safety as the wealthy need to do what they can to prevent kidnapping and robbery.
As we approach the city of Sao Paulo I think of this first trip and of the motto of the city that I learned during the last Presidential election in Brazil: “I am not led, I lead.” Sadly, in respect to the Covid 19 this is true. It leads Brazil and South America in infections and deaths, even with bogus statistics that only show the tip of the viral iceberg.
The highways in Sao Paulo resemble the dioramas I recall from “The City of the Future” exhibit at the New York Worlds Fair. Multiple highways embedded within each other. The center highway is designated for cars passing through the area and has extremely limited exits. The next layer is for those who are planning to leave the highway eventually but not immediately and the outer layer is those who plan to exit locally. It is a system that if you are unaccustomed is confusing and stressful. But Marcus is an experienced driver and with a little help from Waze manages to exit off the highway and onto the approach road to Guarulhos International airport.
The airport is the largest in Brazil. Each year 40 million passengers pass through its portals. In normal times, the access roads would be crowded with cars ferrying passengers to the terminal. The din of airplanes taxing, taking off and landing would be audible even through the closed windows of an automobile. On the long approach road to the terminal we see no other cars. We hear no aircraft. It is oddly unsettling.
Normally, when you arrive at the departure level of an airport you have an exceedingly difficult time finding a spot by the curb in which you can exit your vehicle. There are traffic wardens and police officers to direct you, whistle you along or tell you to leave. Finding a space at the curb is not a problem. We are one of three cars at the terminal. The silence is deafening.
I stiffly get out of the car after our six-hour drive. Marcus gets my rollaboard out of the trunk and places it on the curb for me. As I fasten my backpack to the handles of my bag, I wonder how to say thank you to this man who has risked life and limb to bring me here. I do not know enough Portuguese to express myself adequately. I cannot give him a hug or even a handshake. Instead, I simply say “Obrigado” and hope that he can see the depth of gratitude in my eyes. I think he can because his response “Bom viagem, senhor Paul. Vá com Deus” is rich with emotion. As he drives away, I suddenly feel very alone.
I have transited through Guarulhos airport many times in the past. Its terminals are often so packed walking requires more dodging than crossing a midtown street against the light. The terminal I enter is silent. Normally, where you would see scores of passengers standing in line to check in you see just a few groups of people milling about. It is as quiet as a cathedral.
I look for and find the entrance to passport control and make my way towards it. Halfway there I pause. This cannot be right. There is nobody in line at all. The last time I cleared customs here the line was 45 minutes long. But I am not mistaken. There is no que. As I enter the line I am greeted by two persons clad from head to toe in white Tivek suits and respirators who signal to me that wish to see my boarding pass and passport. They take a cursory glance at my documents but then place a handheld device near my forehead to take my temperature. They wave me on, apparently feverless.
There is an elaborate Disneyworld type maze set up entering passport control. It is devoid of people yet I have to make my way through all of the twists and turns to reach a passport control officer. She asks for my documents and when I hand them to her, she asks me to remove my mask. I know it is necessary but nonetheless it makes me feel uncomfortable. I have been wearing it for more than six hours and has become a part of me; my protection against an unseen enemy who is ready to attack me given any opportunity. But I comply and when she signals me to put it back on I do so quickly. She asks why I have been here so long and I tell her, with unexpected emotion, that my wife is Brazilian and we have a home here. When will I return to our home in Rio again? When will I see Elaine again? I don’t think the officer sees the flush of my lament as she hands me back my papers.
I look at my watch. It is 4:30 pm. My flight is not scheduled to board until 10:40 pm. I need to find a place where I can hunker down for the next six hours where I will have the least chance of exposure to the virus. But first I have an errand to run. Whenever I travel overseas, I try to bring back to my niece and nephew large Milka chocolate bars. They are way to old for this sort of a treat, but I persist in giving it to them as I hope it reminds them that they are never too far from their Uncle’s thoughts.
The concourse that leads to duty free is so empty that I can hear the squeak of my rubber soled shoes as they contact the floor. Most of the stores are shuttered and dark. Signs on the metal grates protecting them say they are closed due to the Virus and promise to return once the crisis is over. I doubt the posters of the sign have any idea of when that will be nor whether they will have the financial where with all to open then. Brazil, I think bitterly, is on the brink and the government seems unwilling or unable to help prevent it from going over the cliff.
Will Elaine be able to escape this mess in July? If not then, when? Will I need to come back to pull her from the morass of economic depression, disease and the subsequent social unrest that is sure to follow. These thoughts stab at my heart.
DutyFree is open. But they do not seem to be taking the pandemic very seriously. The clerk who comes to assist me in my search for chocolate and Cachaca only puts on a mask when he approaches me. The cashier never puts one on at all and I stand 2 meters away as she rings up my purchase. I hate the fact that she needs to touch my credit card, boarding pass and passport. I shiver as I collect them and the items I purchased and when I have moved out of sight from them, I quickly douse my hands with alcohol gel.
I go in search for a “VIP Lounge” in which I can while away the next six hours in relative safety. They are located on a balcony that overlooks the shopping area and are accessed by a set of slow-moving escalators that, today, are devoid of passengers. The first club I approach is American Airline’s Admirals Club. I have belonged for years and hoped against hope that had remained open despite the limited number of flights leaving the airport. They were shuttered and dark. I saw that around the corner there were two additional clubs. One operated by Sala that I could have paid to sit in and an American Express Club whose membership was payed for with my Platinum Card. I went there.
The receptionist upon seeing me enter the club puts on her black mask and asked me politely in Portuguese for my boarding pass and credit card. As she played with her computer and further contaminated my documents, I surveyed the club. It was a large modern room with high ceilings and a design palette of neutral colors and grays. Divided into several seating areas, I am delighted to see that the club had the foresight to block adjacent chairs, and couches to ensure that people maintained social distancing. Other than me there are only two other people in the room. A middle age man who sits in a banquette near the bar area with his mask keeping his neck warm and a woman in her early 30’s, with short dark hair, gayly talking on the phone without mask or inhibition. From all the animations I have seen on television and the internet I can easily visualize the bloom of microdroplets emanating from each of my fellow travelers.
When the receptionist hands me back my papers I find a seat as far as I can from these two as possible and then quickly visit the bathroom where I wash my hands to the full verse of “Miss Mary Had A Steamboat.”