The bus driver comes upstairs and inspects each of our seat belts. He encourages us to get under the provided blanket. He motions that I should eat something out of the care package. My Brazilian dad is driving the bus.
I had been hoping to see something of the countryside. But Angry Man beside me refuses to open the crepe curtains. Neither will anyone else. It is close to total darkness in the cabin. You’re being ferried around in a coffin with wheels.
The first generation of American astronauts – John Glenn et al – revolted when they learned NASA engineers didn’t plan to put windows on the Apollo spacecraft. They weren’t “flying” the rocket, but they wanted the illusion of control. You don’t realize how important that is until you’re a passenger in a vehicle you can’t see out of.
Here’s a wrinkle – Brazil’s roads are not in the best shape. They’re not crumbling. It is as if they have been mined. For 20 kilometres or so out of town, we are trapped in a rinse cycle. The height of the bus encourages a structural wave effect. The bus is not only heaving, it’s swaying wildly from side to side. A woman ahead of me unwisely rises and tries to get to the bathroom on the first level. Halfway there, she topples over into my lap. Without saying anything, she manages to get herself planted on all fours and crawls back to her seat. I feel her pain.
I’m looking around for a bag. There is no bag. Angry Man beside me is about to hate me a whole lot more.
Then it evens out. We pick up speed. How fast? I don’t know. Faster than sound. That’s how it feels. Everyone else is sleeping by now. I’m waiting for skidding and the weightlessness of free-fall.
Angry man has already reclined flat. Here’s a new problem. You don’t want to be the second guy to lie down in what is very like a double bed. It’s bizarrely intimate. So I wait until he’s turned away and snoring. Then I get into bed with him.
The best part of covering these tournaments is not the football. It’s the small moments of clarity you can only find while on the road. Routine dulls our senses. Travel sharpens them. It provides big-picture context to life and makes you ruminative. I don’t listen to much music while travelling in my daily life. On the road, I consume it. Every big event I’ve ever covered plays back in my mind with a soundtrack – Metric for Germany 2006, M-83 for Euro 2008, Jack Parow in South Africa, Sky Ferreira in Sochi. This time around it’s War on Drugs and Real Estate.
I’m all blissed out when the bus stops. We’ve been talking a lot about banditry among ourselves, trying to figure out who goes for the gun and who gets to survive. From behind I can hear another one of my road pals, Morris, say, “Brigands?!” That’s the word he used. Honest.
It isn’t brigands. It’s a smoke break.
I fall asleep during the second half of the trip. I am woken shortly before arrival when one of Morris’s shoes – which he has placed in the overhead rack like an IED – falls off and hits me square in the face. While I’m yowling, Angry Man looks over happily.
We’re dumped into an even less appealing bus station at 6 in the morning. So much for traffic. So much for bandits. This is all coming together.
Sixteen hours later, we’re back in the terminal, feeling grimy, drinking Brahma beers in a dingy little coffee shop tucked into an extreme corner of the terminus. We’re surrounded by blind drunk fans, one of whom has brought a speaker. He’s bullhorning mariachi music, and very badly harshing my calm.
There is, for no good reason at all, a baby grand piano set among the tables. From nowhere and seemingly alone, a young man appears and sits down at it. He begins to play.
Without any sighing, the drunken fans turn off their stereo and quiet down. Others begin to drift over. By the look of them, some are vagrants who live here. I’m not up on my classical, but I spot some Beethoven and some Bach. I begin to construct a story in my mind for this kid – that he comes here to play late at night because he has nowhere else to practise.
He’s deeply into it now, compacting the works into medley. He comes to the end of one dramatic piece and stops with great flourish. The crowd bursts into applause.
Our bus leaves in 10 minutes. But I’d rather not.