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The Milk House: The overseas mission

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 April 2020

It has recently been announced that the Trump administration has granted Brazil the go-ahead to export beef to the U.S., despite vocal opposition from many American agricultural groups.

In 2017, the U.S. banned beef imports from Brazil due to numerous health and safety violations. Last year, Brazil became the largest beef exporter in the world, further worrying American producers over the ability of the Latin American country to lower U.S. farmgate prices. Upon learning this, I took it as my duty to do all I could to protect the American cattle industry.

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I went to Brazil to eat all their beef.

In order to sell the mission to my girlfriend, Alessandra, I pointed out that the world-famous Carnival party was happening in Rio de Janeiro at the same time. One of the most renowned festivals in the modern era, people come from all over the planet to chance the somewhat-dangerous city on the south coast and join in the fun.

Due to Carnival’s popularity, the accommodation possibilities in our budget were rather limited. We ended up taking an Airbnb in a small, musty apartment with an eccentric owner. The vent to the bathroom opened up over the kitchen table, and all surfaces had small insects crawling over them. The proprietor, a 59-year-old architect named Marcos, took an active involvement in our stay there. He insisted on having breakfast with us each morning, invited himself to our Carnival activities and often talked to me through the vent while I was on the toilet. Every night, the decision of whether to stay in the apartment and cook versus go to a restaurant and eat picanha (Brazillian steak) was an easy one.

One morning, I turned on the light over the kitchen table and gasped.

“What is it?” Alessandra asked.

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“It’s best I not tell you.”

I had seen cockroaches before, but not like this one. In a tropical climate they grow twice the size of those in North America. Marcos, having heard us, burst out of his bedroom to join us for breakfast. The very act stirred three or four more cockroaches from the shadows.

“Ooppah!” Marcos yelled, slamming his flipflops on top of them as they scurried across the floor. I thought I felt something brush my ankle but decided not to look. Marcos stomped his foot underneath the table and then bent to pick up the dying insect, its legs still moving. Coincidence, I told myself. A cockroach did not touch my ankle.

“Very sorry, very sorry,” Marcos said in broken English. “Let’s eat.”

Suddenly, I felt something heavy clinging to the hair of my legs. I looked down to find a giant cockroach climbing up my knee.

Carnival in Rio is spread among the city in bloquinhos, or scheduled street parties that last about five hours each. I only brought along limited cash and an old phone, Rio being notorious for thieves. Our first bloquinho was at Santa Teresa, in the middle of Rio. It was known to be one of the more authentic parties, with a band playing that we all followed through the street and sang with. The bloquinho started at 7 a.m., but it wasn’t coffee that everyone was drinking. In keeping with Carnival tradition, most people wore costumes of bright colors and little fabric.

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Apparently, however, I was a little too engrossed in the activities. At one point, Alessandra turned around and asked why the pocket of my cargo shorts was unbuttoned.

I reached down and felt the pocket in question. My phone was gone.

The thing about losing a phone that you “don’t care if it gets stolen or not” is that once it does get stolen, it is still pretty annoying. I didn’t use this particular phone any more, but I still didn’t appreciate getting turned into the typical tourist who gets pickpocketed in Rio. “Let them get a job and buy their own phone,” I declared at the height of my indignancy. To make myself feel better, I suggested we return to the original mission and find a good restaurant, where we ordered a large plate of churrasco (grilled meat).

One of the defining events of the Rio Carnival is the parade in the Sambódromo. Having picked up our ticket a few days before (while eating a beef pastel, similar to the empanada found in other countries), we headed to the 90,000-capacity stadium built solely for this Sunday parade. Like many of the Brazilians themselves, we started queuing at 6 p.m. to get a good seat. The parade started at 10 p.m. In hindsight, I should have known there was something intense about a parade that starts at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night.

The fireworks erupted into the sky, the samba music started playing and dancers in brightly-colored feathers flooded the runway of the Sambódromo. Behind them were incredibly elaborate three-story floats with moving parts and dancers shaking their hips all over them. (I have to believe that each float cost more than the average American home.) After 40 minutes of the glitz, glamor and dance routines, the last float went by, followed by the street cleaners.

I turned to Alessandra. “That was shorter than expected, but very impressive. Shall we go?”

She grabbed the end of my shirt and pulled me back down. “That was one segment of the parade,” she said. “There are six more to go.”

It turns out, there are seven “schools” of samba in Rio, each one its own community. Every school competes in the parade with their own themed presentation. Each segment has the same song blaring over the speakers on repeat for the full length of the display (making me glad I couldn’t understand the words).

I’m at the age now where my last all-nighter was plenty of years ago. The floats and samba dancers kept coming, but my eyelids grew heavier and heavier. Eventually, they all started to look the same. When I closed my eyes, bright pastel colors still flashed across my mind. By the time the parade was finally over, it was 6 a.m., and the sun was fully up. While most of the crowd was still standing, and maybe even dancing where they stood, myself and a few old ladies were slumped with our heads in our laps, dozing. On the way home, we stumbled across a vendor selling a beef sandwich, but I didn’t have it in me.

We left Rio a little worn out, a bit heavier and down one phone. However, I was happy to fulfill my duty to American farmers as best I could and prevent some of Brazil’s beef from reaching a homeland port. I anxiously await the new market reports to see the extent of the good work I have done, as well as the day when I finally get these samba songs out of my head. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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