A Personally-Inspired, Wholly Vicarious Experience of Porto Alegre

Our first talk was brief; a ward against loneliness. I wasn’t familiar with the place he was from but its distance impressed me. At first I thought it was warm; a party city at night, that’s how my mind’s eye imagined it.

But as it happened, the first time we had a real conversation was in his small apartment about a week later. Only then did I notice his dark hair; his delicate nose, features on his round, pale face rimmed with blue glasses. It was summer and the afternoon felt long. I was surprised by his volubility; of his detailed descriptions of an early modern European philosopher he studied; of how he came to date and his relationships; about his city.

His origins were equally foreign to me – but intriguing, unexpected. He was born in a small, rural town, a descendant of a historic German community that had settled in the area. Unlike the majority of Brazil, which is Catholic, he was Mormon, having converted after missionaries came to his birthplace. That he was also gay was directly in conflict with being Mormon. It was also the basis of our link.

We quickly established a rapport, and Felipe and I talked nearly every day. I felt that we were not so different: most of our conversations revolved around our moods, articles we had read online, silly jokes, or just flirtation. I started calling him by “flowery” nicknames in Portuguese, Fel-Ipe (“Ipe,” a word with native origins, is how the Brasilians call the genus Jacaranda), Fapoula (a joke on “poppy”), etcetera.

The sense of place I created with Felipe began with him and his apartment and radiated outward. He showed me things on his desk that were meaningful to him – a slim Buddha statue, cards from around the world. Every now and again, his city would creep into the picture, as if waiting to be called. He would show me photos from walks around town – the fog in a park with mossy trees on a wintry day; a library at the glassy campus where he’d studied, layered with tropical trees; a selfie he’d taken in a mall bathroom. Each photo was a puzzle piece; irregular, difficult to arrange.

I turned to modern tech to understand the place on a basic level. Wikipedia: Porto Alegre is the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. It also provided that the city has a colonial history tracing back to its founding in the late eighteenth century (skimmed). Google Maps gave me a visual. Zooming out, here was the city, located in the southern tip of Brazil, bordering Uruguay and Argentina.

But the attempt to comprehend slice-of-life Porto Alegre was confounded by details he would regularly share. The climate is not hot and humid as I had expected, but rather, varied and with yearly frosts (and snow in the higher regions.) He shared that he had been robbed at knife-point twice, once during the day, and once at night. (Brazil has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and Porto Alegre’s homicide rate is in the Top 50, according to a report released early this year by the Center for Public Security and Criminal Justice.) Had he not told me a picture he sent me was of a notorious favella, a Brazilian slum, I would have assumed it was a nice area because it was on a hill. (Favellas are usually on hills because these areas are less developed; and are at a high risk for flooding and landslides.) Once, he sent me a video he’d recorded of a traditional Brazilian-African drum ceremony at the mall without comment; I was left flabbergasted.

After a continued economic downturn, on April 17, 2016, the lower house of Brazil’s parliament voted for impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff. Suddenly Felipe, who usually wore an easy smile and laughed often, became miserable and worried. He told me that with Dilma’s impeachment, there would be less funding of public universities in the coming years. Universities were one of the few places where Brazilians had opportunity and were tr