The stuffed armadillo was everywhere. Our train creaked forward as a man produced the bright yellow creature with a flourish to a captivated child standing in the aisle, himself swallowed whole in a flag bearing the white and blue colors of Honduras. Mimicking a nearby couple with matching Ecuador flag emblazoned on their cheeks, I fidgeted with my camera to avoid eye contact. Too late.
Moments later I felt the armadillo’s plush blue scales run up and down my arm. The animated man smiled and gave his stuffed friend — known as Fuleco, or the official mascot of the 2014 World Cup — a wiggle as I inched closer to the window and returned a half frown. Granted a brief reprieve, I glanced outside to watch the periphery of Curitiba, Brazil slowly fade into rugged farmland. A day away from clashing in the world’s biggest sporting event, fans of Ecuador and Honduras were eager see breathtaking views of Brazil’s depleted Atlantic Forest on the Serra Verde Express. And I was along for the ride.
Wheezing bursts of cold air slipped through the train windows as conversations in different Spanish accents filtered through the cabin. Offers to purchase the train ride’s official DVD in one of five languages joined the cacophony of voices trumpeting Fuleco’s virtues. I tried putting the opening stages of the trip into perspective; an overwhelming amount of litter, dirty mattresses, and homeless people passing in and out of view after leaving the station. The scenes were a sobering reminder not everyone in Brazil was reaping the rewards of its country being on the grandest of stages.
The landscape finally began to shift. We rounded a curve and plunged into semi-darkness underneath a canopy of trees. Our car’s designated tour guide chirped out short warnings for picture-worthy views in a scene ripe for a comedy skit. Passengers shuffled to whichever side the guide pointed towards as if part of an elaborate, prearranged dance. Cameras were readied to fire on a moment’s notice. More often than not, a waterfall flashed into view for mere seconds, only to disappear amongst the thick vegetation. Other instances left everyone scratching their heads and wondering what warranted the call for pictures in the first place.
Luckily, the man across the aisle with his cheek painted in the red, yellow, and blue of Ecuador made for a friendly partner in the game. We took turns giving each other room around our seats, myself leaning over his wife to snap pictures of my reflection off a dirty window and him having slightly better luck — using my opened window to take snapshots of trees as other passengers behind my seat muttered about the cold. The ritual was mostly a fool’s errand and repeated itself until more cameras than not found their way back into coat pockets.
I was about to give up on prospects of notable scenery when the train trundled past a mostly vacated station with streaks of black soot smeared down its side. Rail workers also appeared out of nowhere, teetering on the edge of the tracks as we passed with nothing but grins on their faces. The train provided the only point of access for miles and I imagined the workers taking the last train back home at the end of the day after eight hours spent alone in a forest — with only the occasional clatter of wheels on train tracks to interrupt the sounds of nature.
The designated time to reach the end of our trip at the riverfront town of Morretes came and went. Still waiting for the views promised in the brochures, my choice to forgo a life of luxury in first class — complete with food and drinks — was being put under the microscope by my growling stomach. Time, it seemed, stood still in the Atlantic Forest.
After nearly falling asleep, I was awakened by the clicks of camera shutters and a new-found sense of urgency amongst everyone on board to press against the windows and capture the moment on film. The views had finally opened up. Distant mountains appeared and competed for space in the sky with low hanging clouds. The expansive views and feeling of clouds literally entering the cabin left me ready to conquer the world. And a big plate of food.
We entered into another sea of trees and soon passed promising signs of life. A final series of turns led us to a small train station sitting at the western edge of Morretes’ town center. The tranquil town of about 15,000 people is known for its abundance of restaurants catering to hungry tourists right off the train. I clambered out of the cabin ahead of my fellow passengers, passed the main square, and found perfection personified: an open-air restaurant offering a buffet of local dishes and big screen TVs playing the day’s soccer games.
Settling into my plastic chair with a steaming bowl of barreado — a popular local stew cooked in a clay pot and sealed with dough, I plucked a banana off the top and took a long slug of beer. Only four hours remained before the last train back to Curitiba. I leaned back and noticed the couple from Ecuador strolling down the adjacent dirt road in search of their own restaurant oasis. Tomorrow, all of us would again be packed together — only this time to watch the world’s most popular game. Again craning our necks for the best views. And again surrounded by Fuleco. The armadillo is everywhere.