Photo: Juliana F Rodrigues/Shutterstock

Smells in a Brazilian ÔNibus

by Megan Kimble Aug 12, 2011
In the latest from our nonlinear narrative series, Megan Kimble remixes a day in Recife, Brazil, from the smells of a bus.

Recife, Brazil | July

5:15 p.m., the stoplight at the Cabanga Iate Clube

Leftover limes and desiccated cachaça: the sour tang after too many caipirinhas. Three drunk men crowd in the aisle. Grating music from a cell phone, unidentifiable songs. The oldest of the men barks in guttural, lifetime-smoker sounds, and blood-shot eyes look directly at me. I don’t know what they’re yelling about, and they keep leaning out the bus windows, motioning to people on the street, shoving each other. I look to my seatmate, and she smiles and rolls her eyes and gives me a look that says, plain as day: men.

8:55 a.m., the right-turn onto Avenida Caxangá.

The smell of mud and puddles, the night’s leftover rain, sun breaking through clouds and a breeze. There are no open seats, so I stand. It is a long hour from my apartment to Portuguese class two blocks from the beach: this hour is the space between my expectation of life in Brazil and Recife’s reality.

9:26 a.m., corner of Rua Real da Torre and Av. Caxangá

Spring Daisy scent. My cuticles are dusted in blue powder, detergent left over from a morning of laundry. Laundry here is quiet—pinning clothes on a line—and, unlike so many other things—learning Portuguese—it is piece by piece by piece. A wad of wet fabric spreads into human forms. Panties revealed, socks unpaired, skirts billowing up to expose presumed legs.

9:45 a.m., Rua Real da Torre

Meu dues, where is it coming from? It is a burst sewage pipe, pants pooped, or a milky rag left in the sun. The smell will not end.

9:50 a.m., Av. Agemenon Magalhães

The smell of wet cement, melting and shinny and spread like black jam over the street. Recife is in motion, tumbling over itself to build more city, up and out, brimming at its corners, bubbling over, and still it isn’t enough. At the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, talk is that Brazil doesn’t have enough engineers to construct all the new buildings it needs, it will need. Copa is coming—World Cup 2014—and cities, infrastructures must be re-built, re-designed, re-engineered to handle the rush, but Brazil’s budding future, promised by education reform, is still in high school.

10:05 a.m., the left turn onto Av. Domingos Ferriera

The first glimpse of the beach, and I imagine the smell of salt water. A banner of green water, beach umbrellas, and skyscrapers. Buildings ten, twenty, forty stories tall butt up against the sand, loom over the water; the horizon stretches away in a half-moon of blue water and silver skyscrapers, columns of white tile.

4:30 p.m., Av. Domingos Ferriera

I dart onto the bus just in time. The rain patters into the bus before all the windows can be closed, and it smells like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland: stagnant water. A woman lurches upwards and I squeeze into her seat before anyone else does. On Estrada dos Remédios, the smell expands, punches pungent, and I look up into the armpit of a tank-topped man.

5:02 p.m., the bridge over Capibaribe River

The river spilling into the Atlantic, the sun strutting over the water, and the smell of newsprint: a damp newspaper, three days old, finally folded closed on the back page. I have read a newspaper in Portuguese from cover-to-cover. It took me three days worth of afternoons, but it is still triumph.

9:15 a.m., Av. Agemenon Magalhães

The smell of hair gel: she’s wearing a stripped sundress, wavy hair spread over slim shoulders. I wish I were a dude: Brazilian women are gorgeous.

5:30 p.m., Praça do Derby

Cloudy sky, post-rain, almost cold, almost night. A sudden smoky smell: firewood, camping and pine. It disappears as soon as the bus lurches forward again.

5:38 p.m., Rua Real da Torre, in front of Hospital Real Português

Senhores e senhoras, estou pidiendo a sua ajuda, meu filho ficou enfermo e precisa medico que, pela graça de deus, pode salvar a vida…

He hands out handwritten postcards with his plea and a photo of his son, and they smell like sweat and cardboard, passed from hand to hand to hand, through the bus, through the day, through the week.

5:40 p.m., Av. Caxangá

Hungry and dark, the last leg before home. Carne-de-sol from a street cart, fried cheese, sweet coal smoke, salt and burnt.

9:46 a.m., Rua Real da Torre

The surprising cologne of a dude in a soccer jersey, baseball hat, and blue eyes—the smell of a sweet shower. Eyes meet and a half smile, but you don’t meet someone on the ônibus.

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