On Christmas Day, I flew out of O'Hare to reach Recife, Brazil, the following day. My friend Eduardo and his family were waiting for me. I spent three very pleasant weeks with them until flying out of Recife on January 14th for a grueling return trip of 28 hours total plus another 11 hours of waiting combined with a swell Amtrak ride from Chicago to Indianapolis.
My arrival in São Paulo, at Guarulhos International Airport, was uneventful. The immigration official, a coy young woman, asked me no questions. I got my bags and changed $100 at the exchange near the baggage carousel, which was a bad idea: The fees were high—R$60 conversion fee, I think—and the rate was around $1=R$2.5 instead of the current R$3.3. However, I finally had some Brazilian cash, which I had not been able to arrange beforehand in the US. I cleared customs without a problem then walked through the doors into São Paulo. There were people milling about, a large exit where buses and taxis were coming and going, and a couple small stands selling food.
Not sure where to go to put my luggage for it to continue its domestic journey, I wandered about, gawking at everything. Eventually I happened across an information booth, where a young woman amused by my feeble Portuguese told me in English she where to check my bags. After doing so, I queued for the domestic flights. After feeding my ticket through a wicket, I passed the airport employee and moved down a glass hallway for the passenger inspection, essentially the same as what the TSA does. The signs were fairly clear, so I walked to my gate through an airport that felt more like a bus station because of the somewhat monotonous grey concrete, all very public and functional in feel. There were nice eateries and stores along the way.
At my gate, there were very few people, so I connected to the airport's free WiFi to use Skype to call my friend in João Pessoa. He said his family would meet me at Recife's airport then we hung up. For the next couple of hours, I walked about my gate, watching and listening to passengers, watching the TV screens with their alternating headline news and ads, and occasionally reading my Portuguese materials.
For breakfast, I bought dark coffee, unsweetened juice, and warm soft bread from the Casa do Pão de Queijo chain, which started in São Paulo, near my gate. The prices were high, what I expect in every international airport. The girl waiting on my was very charming, but she asked for meal options that I could not understand. Eventually a young man came up and translated. He was originally from Brazil but living in the US doing HVAC work in Connecticut. What a coincidence!
My flight to Recife was uneventful, but clouds obscured much of the Brazil passing beneath me. About 30 minutes from Recife, the clouds vanished and the Northeast spread inland. It looked rather hilly, largely brownish with yellow roads, not the red dirt roads of the tropics that I had expected. Then Recife began to appear, large areas of favelas one or two stories high. The city's core high rises gleamed white with the blue ocean beyond them.
Recife's airport had clearly been recently renovated. It was shiny and clean, plenty of glass and natural light. Everything moved well, and it took little time for my baggage to appear. While waiting for it, a young man approached me to ask about why I had arrived in Recife: He was doing research for the state tourism board. Then I gathered my stuff, walked through the opaque doors, and immediately found my friend's family waiting for me—superb! We were quickly out of the airport, in tropical sounds and smells, and on our way.
I gave them an OK sign, but it wasn't until some days later that Eduardo told me that the US gesture for OK is a rude gesture in Brazil. We shared a laugh about it.