Here is the quick lesson on how to rent a car in Brazil: Don't.
Walk. It'll be easier.
Everything about every mode of vehicular conveyance in this country is fraught. On a recent night, I ran out of the Olympic Stadium to catch a cab. The driver invites me to sit up front. This is where the 12-inch TV is mounted to his dash. He hopes we can watch the volleyball together. While he drives.
I demur. He jacks down the front passenger seat so that my view is unimpeded. He says something very urgently to me in Portuguese. I shrug. Frustrated, he pokes at his phone.
After a quick conversation, a spectral voice fills the cab: "Hello? Hellllooo??"
The driver turns back to me (still driving) and motions that this is my cue.
"Hello. The driver wants you to know that he is stopping for gas. You should not be afraid."
Good work, Ryan Lochte. You've traumatized a whole generation of Rio cabbies.
All of this is happening while we're Goggles Paesano'ing our way down the Avenida Paulo de Frontin, presumably named for the man who invented fiery explosions.
Any time you're being driven anywhere, you are trying to forget that more than 40,000 Brazilians die yearly in road accidents. Sadly, we can never know how many of them were watching TV at the time.
So you decide to rent your own car. You're going to game the system. You're going …
Then you get to the car-rental place and there are two people ahead of you in line. This is bad luck.
Globe photographer John Lehmann and I arrived at 8:30. At 9, we were still in line. At 9:15, we were informed that we were at the wrong desk. Where was the right one? The guy sitting right beside her. So you shuffle a foot to the left and line up again.
Once it finally got under way, this process was only slightly less complicated than adopting a child. There were 45 minutes of forms. There was a (rebuffed) attempt to take a $6,000 deposit. There was insurance, which nearly tripled the quoted price.
This was the worst car-rental experience of my life. And I've driven a Fiat Punto through the less salubrious parts of the former Soviet Union, which is like riding a motorized goat back in time.
An hour later (Lehmann timed it on a stopwatch to increase our joy in consumer outrage), we were shown to a Ford somethingsomething. We made plans to run it into a tree in order to justify expensing all that insurance.
We were headed to Sao Paulo, a short four, six or possibly eight-hundred-hour drive away, depending on how many people up ahead of us were watching TV.
It was time to get outside the Olympic bubble to see a little of Brazil (i.e. make it impossible for anyone to send us to a track meet that wraps up at 2 a.m. every night).
The trick to driving in this country is understanding the average Brazilian's geometric mindset. If he/she is piloting a vehicle that is four metres long, they need to find gaps of four metres plus one centimetre between two other automobiles and then wedge themselves in there at high speed.
Lanes don't matter. Flow of traffic certainly doesn't matter. Just keep leapfrogging from space to vertical space. Mix in some kamikaze motorbikes. That's how you keep the World Health Organization in the death-tabulating business.
We almost die for the first time about 20 minutes outside Rio, when a guy in a Jeep decides he must be 10 feet closer to his destination, like, right now. When I hammer the brakes, Lehmann yelps. From then on, he will helpfully yell, "WATCH OUT!" any time anyone anywhere does anything that isn't driving in a straight line.
Even after you've left the city and hit pasture land, there is so much generalized aggro going on around you, a fight is inevitable. Lehmann and I get into it after about an hour over Tim Hortons coffee. I'm for it. He calls it "as bland as your writing." We agree that that's a good enough line to end it.
I pull over to retrieve a cord from my bag in the trunk. While I'm rooting around in there, a guy in a pickup pulls over to ask if everything's okay. I give him a thumbs-up and he leaves.
When I get back in the car, Lehmann points me to something he's been reading about the stretch of highway we're on. It's considered very safe – unless you are stupid enough to pull over and open your trunk. That's when people will stop to rob and kill you. Then he gives me what I'm beginning to think of as "the Lehmann look."
We stop at a roadside diner named Bubi. It costs $15 for three coffees, three waters and a heaving selection of homemade pastries. A beer at the Olympics will run you $16.
When we get to the giant replica Statue of Liberty somewhere in … honestly, I have no idea … we decide to stop. Not for the 100-foot-tall plaster hood ornament, which is sitting in the parking lot of a semi-derelict shopping mall. But because it is beside a place that claims to have "the best burgers in the world." That lie cannot go unexposed, even if we have to pay to do it.
Lehmann takes a few photos. I point to a man who has fallen asleep beside a dozing dog. To my keen visual eye, this is a picture. I point it out to Lehmann. He starts snapping. A couple of minutes later, he comes in behind me, a bit wide-eyed.
"That's the second time you've almost killed me."
"The guy woke up. And he was not happy."
Oh well. I'm sure those pictures won't be bland.
We had the burgers. They're actually pretty good. Lehmann accuses me of stealing all the ketchup. We get back on the road.
Hours drag by. Traffic is ceaseless. Brake application is random. Every once in a while, you'll pass a fire. There are seven – SEVEN! – tolls to pay over 400 kilometres. We get to the hotel just before sundown.
"We're going to the stadium tomorrow," I tell the clerk. "What's the best way to get there?"
"Are you driving?"