I’d gotten vague directions once before from Boca over the phone: go past Águas Claras, turn left off the highway and…. I tuned the last bit out. I figured I’d Google Map it before I headed out the door.
I was reporting a story for Modern Farmer about a CSA-like organic food cooperative founded in Porto Alegre. Boca was one of the suppliers, and my trip out to his farm, an hour or so from town, was my first journalistic venture beyond the city limits. After picking up the rental Fiat and throwing my stuff in, I pulled up Google Maps to confirm the route. It threw me a curve, pointing to a spot at least 20 kilometers before Águas Claras.
Possibly I’d misunderstood Boca over the phone. Then again, a lesson of prior experience with mapping software in Brazil: don’t mistake Google Maps for Gospel Truth.
By sheer luck, I’d once before driven that stretch of road through Águas Claras (on the way to the birding weekend at Lagoa do Peixe), and knew there was a toll plaza near there. By extra sheer and random luck, thanks to a translated Calvin & Hobbes strip, I’d just learned the Portuguese word for toll plaza. I called Boca back.
“Could you walk me through directions again?”
“OK, so do I go through the toll booth?”
“Like how far past it?”
“OK, hopefully I’ll find you.”
Just starting asking for Boca when you get close, he said, laughing. Everybody around here knows me.
I roared off in the Fiat, made it to Águas Claras, proceeded through the toll plaza and eventually reached – I thought – a certain bus stop with a dirt road branching off to the left, the landmark at which point I was to begin relying on “ask for Boca” as a navigational technique. I went about a mile down the road before I found an old dude tinkering in his front yard. I pulled up, hopped out and asked in my best, howdy-doodiest Portuguese where I might find Boca.
The guy gave me a blank look.
“Boca!” I said, louder. “Boca!”
“Is this the assentamento?” [No time to describe this in detail, but basically it’s an area that’s been turned over to formerly landless farmers through land reform programs; Boca lives and farms on a very large one named Filhos de Sepé.]
Back on the main highway, I wandered into a mechanic’s shop and started blabbering about Boca and the assentamento. The guy seemed to know nothing about either, but suggested I try the other dirt road branching left off the highway from a second bus stop (with, of course, the same number as the first one) a stone’s throw further east.
And thus began a game of hot-cold, as I drove my rental Fiat ever further into the unmapped, unsigned, twisty-turves of Assentamento Filhos do Sepé. The first guy I asked gave me a simple, unconvincing wave of the hand. “Keep going, I think.” I kept going. Guy number two confirmed the existence of Boca, started to give a complicated set of directions, saw the look on my face and reconsidered. “Take a left up there where the road curves hard to the right. Ask the next person you find.”
The next person I found enthusiastically nodded: “Boca, yes, a few kilometers. Go that way and keep going down the big hill.”
Down the big hill, I found a boy walking home from school. “Head toward that tractor!” he said, pointing toward a tractor chugging further yet into the unknown.
Sensing the end of my quest was near, I pulled up beside the tractor. “Boca?”
“We’re headed to his house now! Follow me!”
I caravaned with the tractor over the home stretch. Boca was not there when I arrived, but calls were placed – “that journalist is here” – and things eventually came together. An interview was conducted, the Fiat was returned on time and my son was picked up from daycare on time. Another day in the life.