Eleven years ago I took my first trip abroad to study in Rome, Italy. I’ve written pretty extensively about how that trip changed my life in a variety of ways, but one of the best ways is that it brought some amazing friends into my life. One of those friends happens to be a handsome Brazilian, Erico. Over the years of our friendship, I heard many stories from him about this dream of a place where he grew up–Paraty–about halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The way he spoke of it conjured up so many images in my mind, to the point where I was already fantasizing about living in this small town in a country that I’d never even stepped foot on.
For years, Erico tried to get me to visit him in Brazil. Every time I’d start to plan for it, something else would come up. The timing never truly aligned for us, such is the case for most things in life. Finally, in January of this year, I agreed that I’d plan a trip to see him, and that this time I was serious and would go no matter what came up. So, at the end of June, I boarded my flight to Brazil to see Erico for the first time in 10 years, and to finally see this beautiful country (and town) that he spoke so fondly of.
We spent some time in Rio first before taking a long and winding 5-hour bus trip to Paraty, arriving too late to see much of anything. I reluctantly hopped on the back of his motorbike, holding on to him for dear life, for the 5-minute trip from the bus station to his house. I was immediately enamored by the way Brazilians live in Paraty: the houses are walled like a fortress, and when the car door slides open, you’re greeted with the most amazing outdoor living spaces. Lush grass surrounding the house, leading to a wooden patio area that opens up to an outdoor kitchen, complete with a bar, grill, and everything else you’d need for a night of entertaining. Inside, you leave all the doors and windows ajar to let the cool air flow throughout the house.
In the morning, I sneaked onto the balcony from Erico’s room and finally got my first peek: overgrown bushes and trees in the deepest greens imaginable lining a grassy field where a horse grazed. Beyond it, rooftops and palm trees. I couldn’t wait to see more.
There’s so much to Paraty that it’s hard to even describe. Imagine a town sandwiched between an island-dotted sea and the tropical forest-laden mountains. Then envision that this town is buzzing with life–motorbikes, cars, bicycles, people, business, marketplaces, etc.–all around except for one small area: the historic district. The historic district is off-limits to vehicles of any kind, large cement posts with chains blocking their entrance. This pedestrian-only center is lined with cobblestone, making it difficult to walk quickly; you must carefully take each step, slowing down to ensure safe footing, but also to enjoy the sleepiness of the area. You’ll often see horse-drawn carts carrying loads of goods or hauling out debris from construction on old houses. Stray dogs both follow and guide you through the streets, lying on the cobblestone periodically to soak up the sun. During religious festival periods, the streets are strung up with flags, zigzagging back and forth overhead.
Once every couple weeks, there’s a hard rain or a small flood in the historic area–sometimes the water rises so much that it’s up around your ankles or your calves. Other times it only fills the spaces between the cobblestones. Either way, it makes for some beautiful reflections as the sun goes down and the street lights come on.
I spent several days in Paraty, walking along the water, retracing my steps on the cobblestones, sipping hot chocolate and reading at an outdoor cafe one quiet morning, popping in shops and buying indigenous artwork, tasting feijoada, eating all the seafood I could get my hands on, taste-testing all flavors and makes of caipirinhas (lime with rum won; with cachaça in close second), petting stray dogs, letting my hair blow wild in the wind while island hopping, learning to ride on the back of a motorbike like a pro, and wishing every minute that I didn’t have to eventually leave.
On my last morning, I came downstairs to find that Erico had made a big breakfast and hot tea for me (as he did most mornings). We quickly gathered up my things to go to the stop where the bus back to Rio would pick me up. We stood there for probably 15 minutes, chatting about past adventures and future hopes for adventures. I thanked him and teared up behind my sunglasses realizing it was soon time to go. He put me on the bus and I watched as he zipped off on his motorbike as we pulled away. I sat in the very back of the bus, watching the trees fly by on my left and the islands fade into the distance on my right, hiding my tears from all the other passengers. I wasn’t ready to leave Paraty, to leave Brazil, or to leave Erico. I’m home now, still not feeling ready to leave.
Paraty was everything I’d imagined it to be when I heard those first stories about it from Erico. It was as beautiful, welcoming, and familiar as I’d expected. Erico asked me one day, “so, do you think you could live here in Paraty?” And in less than a beat I responded, “yes, I’m actually planning to build a house right next to yours, neighbor.” Until then..