I awoke as the orange rays of the sun bled through my bedroom window. Nerves always eat at me before I travel, and so it wasn’t surprising for me to rise early. Day one of my cachaça trip. There were so many unknowns. I shuffled around my apartment, ensuring my belongings were together, made my coffee, and ate a bit of breakfast. By the time that was done, my wife and kids were up.
Besides being a travel day, it also happened to be my kids’ first day of school. Their focus was not on me, but on a new situation—new teacher, new classroom, new friends. We got them fed and dressed and headed to the car. They hardly noticed that I’d brought a rather large suitcase with me. My wife reminded them, as we left our apartment and descended to the garage, that I’d be gone for 11 days.
My son didn’t even want us to go into the school building with him. That’s the way that seven year olds are, I suppose. But we did anyway, and while he tried to get away from me, I squeezed him and told him I loved him and that I’d see him soon. He scurried quickly away into his classroom, eager to get into his groove.
My daughter was a different matter. She’s a mama’s girl, and so as we waited at the entrance to her classroom, she clung to my wife and wouldn’t let go. The tears came and didn’t seem like they would stop. But with a bit of coaxing, and assurances that my wife would return to get her, we got her inside.
On the short ride to the airport, I thought about the kids and how my time away would impact them. My wife told me not to worry, that I needed to concentrate on the trip. But maybe I didn’t want to? Was this crazy? Was I making a mistake? Maybe I should scrap the whole thing.
“Have fun,” she said as I kissed her goodbye at the airport. “Really. Try to enjoy it.”
My airport focus kicked in, and since I’d already checked in and paid for my bag to be checked, I didn’t have much to do before I passed through security. I hustled through the checkpoint, which is conveniently pleasant compared to the morose security theater of the U.S., only to find my flight delayed for 45 minutes.
I downshifted a bit, realized that I wasn’t in a rush. I had no timetable. Everything on the trip was up to me. Each moment was my own.
I touched down in Porto Alegre a couple hours later after an uneventful flight. I’d been there a year and a half earlier with my family on our way to Gramado, a city that prides itself on its year-round Christmas celebration. But I didn’t know Porto Alegre particularly well and felt the anxiety rise again, knowing I would soon drive into the unknown.
I’d prepared well for the rental car counter and encountered no problems. A Renault Duster would be my chariot for the following days. Once I’d gotten my bags in, plugged in my cellphone, and programmed my first stop at a distillery, I was off.
The initial route was a series of twists and turns leading toward the highway. Porto Alegre, near the airport, presented a series of crumbling buildings, a commuter rail, and shiny new steel construction. There was an urgency for change, pulling the new from the old.
There were familiar brands housed in unremarkable buildings along the highway: Ford, McDonald’s, Nissan, and even Subway. I couldn’t help but feel the tension between those multi-nationals and the very domestic distilleries I would visit over the coming days, which represented something very essentially Brazilian.
The city receded momentarily as lush green overtook the landscape. I saw mountains in the near distance carving up the sky. But suddenly the urban feel returned. Was I still in Porto Alegre? No, the signs told me, I’d made it all the way to Novo Hamburgo, 47 kilometers away. It was a nice German name for a city that didn’t, from the freeway, remind me much of Germany.
The roads began to narrow as I left Novo Hamburgo. But there was still plenty of traffic as we began our ascent into the mountains. Large tractor trailers belching black smoke began to tailgate me as the highway slipped to four lanes and then to two. They were anxious to get somewhere, and I wasn’t, so I was happy to get out of their way when I could.
Google Maps told me to turn into Ivoti, which announced itself with a welcoming archway. I was close, I realized, to my first stop. Not more than a few kilometers. I was both excited and uncomfortable—I needed to use the bathroom.
At some point during the twists and turns, I found myself on a narrow, two-lane road, and realized that I’d lost my 4G connection and potentially my Google guide. Not exactly what I wanted. For a moment, I worried that I wouldn’t make it, that I’d have to stop for directions, no one would understand me, and my bladder would explode, making for an embarrassing car-rental return.
But then I heard words that melted my stress: you have arrived at your destination.