Monthly Archives: May 2014

Dragonforce at Starbucks Guadalajara: A Return to Living Mexicanishly

…whereupon the omniscient gray-bearded gods of good husbandry and fatherhood grant one gringo’s petition of relief from bad Brazilian weather, extortionately priced Panamanian airport chicken wraps, and an encroaching swarm of Mexican airport mosquitos.

Flying from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Saturday, May 24 has been a day of precipitated and inexplicable awesomeness. A 50-megaton downpour engulfed Rio this morning, strapping up every taxi in town. Three hours before my flight departed, and I still hadn’t left my apartment. My hand wringing was well underway. Then a one-legged man (another story altogether) stepped (yes, with one leg) into the street on my behalf and, his kindly and knowing booger-pickin’ finger jutting into the inundated avenue (where I spotted a robed man gathering two of every mammal and leading them toward a wood-framed flotilla), hailed by Divine Providence an unoccupied cab. That taxi-hailing finger served as a figurative weather vane for the good fortune to come, for we got to the airport in 30 minutes. No traffic, no delays, the taxista driving at a steady and legal clip, peppering me with inspired queries about (!!!) the ease of handgun purchase in the United States, Stand Your Ground laws, and how he wished that Brazilians could shoot each other when, you know, “one feels threatened”.

At the Galeao International Airport in Rio, then, a series of fortunate occurrences transpired, each one compounding into the next like interest accumulating in a cleverly selected index fund. First, my flagging self-esteem got a long-overdue boost. While in line at the Copa counter to check my luggage, I met a Colombian dermatologist who assured me the vitiligo spots on my head are barely visible and probably “all a figment of your imagination”. Next, said Colombian and I went for cafe before heading to our gate, and whereas I generally despise the Brazilian devil bean for its overly-robust roast, this was actually a cup I’d take home to mom, my beseeching lips seizing upon it greedily with two big-assed buns of pao de queijo. Third, our gate was practically devoid of human presence and our flight to Panama City consequently empty, so I had an entire row to myself. I spread out and read Pantera’s ex-bassist Rex Brown’s autobiography in its entirety. Find me a better way to begin a long trip.

In Panama City, I have to admit, my mood soured somewhat. I paid 11 bucks for a spring chicken wrap, the terminal’s air conditioning was on the fritz (I invite you to try this in tropical Panama; ‘tis an unpleasant experience by any measure), the announcement system may as well have been a Motorhead concert for its ear-shredding volume (even the Brazilians present were covering their ears, so you KNOW it went to 11), and my connecting flight to Guadalajara was delayed due to an electrical failure on the plane’s navigation system. Once in Guadalajara – into which I rolled bleary-eyed at nearly 2 AM – I stood in line at customs and immigration being eaten alive by famished mosquitos, an invading swarm of Biblical proportions, and watched Mexicans slap at the air and each other amidst comments regarding the pinche dengue we were all sure to contract in the aftermath.

But just as with the morning’s sudden taxi luck, the gods of good husbandry and fatherhood, those ageless graybeards grinning down from their benevolent diaper changing thrones, smiled upon me when I reached the customs/immigration x-ray and declaration point. I presented my tourist passport and explained, when queried why I’d be two months in Ciudad Juarez, that I’m here to wed the hot tamale to whom I am betrothed and assume charge of my demon seed. She examined me dubiously, and I thought perhaps she required additional identification, at which juncture I produced my diplomatic passport with a sheepish grin and shrug of the shoulders. She waved the diplo passport away, informing me that her shock was merely over the fact that I have come from a continent away to do something which, in her words, “I couldn’t even get a guy in my same barrio to do.” And so she waved me through without x-ray, body cavity search or further ado on a tourist passport.

Emerging on the other side of the electrical door to the terminal, what should greet me but a Starbucks. Whereupon I presented the Starbucks gift card my mother sent me last Christmas (which the Brazilians will not honor), ordered a white chocolate mocha (which the Brazilians have not yet made correctly for me), and noted that on the Starbucks house sound system was playing “Through the Fire and the Flames” by DRAGONFORCE, sending me into spasms of Guitar Hero.

Next stop in a few hours is Ciudad Juarez, where I’ll be received by the hug-starved arms (and kiss-starved lips) of one Maria Vega. We’ll proceed with all haste to the Chulo Vista Hotel, whereupon I shall slumber after 26 sleepless hours in airports and on planes. Tonight I shall sup loudly at a plate of nachos, my first in 13 months, for a long-anticipated return to living Mexicanishly.

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Hijacked (Sorta) on the 415!

…in which we learn of the inherent dangers of living Brazilishly astride the have-nots of the Rocinha and Vidigal favelas and riding high on Rio’s rickety public transportation grid.

This morning on the bus, me and a coworker nearly revisited an episode from Rio de Janeiro’s past captured in the documentary Bus 174. Or maybe any of the Speed trilogy, really. We’d just picked the 415 between Leblon and Ipanema when two scraggly neighborhood toughs bounded through the front door and began arguing intensely with another man who followed them on. The toughs were shirtless and in sandals, looked to be three sheets, shouted in vocabulary woven of malice-laced palavroes, definitely straight out of the favelas. The man who followed them aboard seemed a concerned local citizen of some variety, though initially we did not know for what reason, and he argued fiercely, feathers ruffled and hairs bristled. The scenario rapidly deviled into a shoving match with the two against the one, for reasons still unbeknownst to us, with the man apparently trying to get them off the bus. Budge they would not. Eventually, shouting and shoving reaching a crescendo, the man descended, at which point the door slammed shut, the driver floored it, and one of the thugs turned to us and announced we were being taken hostage: Voces estao sendo secuestrados hoje!

The day before I go on paternity leave and fly to Ciudad Juarez. Brazil’s timing with World Cup preparations is sufficiently unfortunate already, and now they add THIS to my mix? 

My initial reaction was a tightening of the chest and stomach. The generic “blood running cold” shit. But seriously: things crawled to a standstill, the reel running slow. I was glad there was a turnstile between us and them – at least one barrier buying some time before first contact – and I was glad they didn’t seem to be armed. I did not see bulges in their short pockets suggesting hidden weapons, or knives/firearms tucked into their waistbands, though perhaps something was tucked into the small of their backs. And what of the sizable black duffel bag they’d brought on the bus – to which one of them kept repeatedly reaching before straightening up and screaming additional threats – might it have contained a weapon?

So while these guys were slight of stature, I wasn’t about to take on BOTH, unsure if they had weapons, and with my back only recently on the mend from my two herniated lumbar discs. And anyhow, I’m a bureaucrat; when was unleashing a furious flurry of judo chops written into my job description? Also, it did occur to me that since I’m about to be a husband and father, maybe going spider monkey on these douches and getting pig-poked with a hidden knife wasn’t in my new family’s best interest. History is littered with lots of dead heroes. Not to mention that others on the bus could get hurt. And believe me, I labored under no delusion that they’d be sprinting to my aid: seeing how immediately silent and immobile the whole lot of morning riders fell, it occurred to me that the deployment of a scorpion death lock would be, indeed, a solo endeavor.

The next thing was to look left and right and estimate the bus ground speed, and if any of the windows had enough space to squeeze thru and dive to sweet escape. But into the street? Negative, Ghostrider. Brazilians are bad enough behind the wheel even when the stoplight is a mile off and they have ample opportunity to brake. A random dude spilling into the street out of nowhere would most certainly result in fatality, a bloody gringo variant of the classic Frogger video game.

So that option was out as well.

Really, what was left? Get your money ready to hand over and pucker thy lips, for thou may need to kiss thy sweet ass goodbye.

As quickly as the episode began, the bus halted a few blocks later along the same route, the door sprung open, the toughs sprinted off and into the interior of Ipanema. Dead silence for a pregnant few seconds, chased by laughter and the kind of chatter Brazilians are compelled to when dumping adrenaline and fear after a reasonably frightening commuting experience.

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A Lesson in Perspective on the Beaches of Rio

Whereupon we divine that “fun” is what you make it, as illustrated by a valiant group of prosthetic limb-bearing boys on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. Wherein we glean an estimable lesson on the importance of perspective. And in which your dauntless scribe queries, why doesn’t anything this cool happen to ME?

Today was not dissimilar from any Sunday in Rio. Rising mid-morning from slumber, I went for groceries, cleaned the apartment, ironed shirts for the office, dutifully called home to Virginia, then set out for the beach two blocks away to engage in my usual bout of self-flagellating afternoon exercises. This hindmost element on my agenda was rendered none the easier by a steadily-aching lumbar column and blisters on my toes, the product of walking barefoot on a scorching hot boardwalk earlier. Indeed, as I hobbled a wayward limp, you might even say I appeared disabled, which was certainly how I felt, and was likely the sensation I remitted to otherwise disinterested passersby.

Alighting on the exercise station near Posto 11 in Leblon, and slamming back a few quick sets of pull-ups, through the haze of the humid afternoon and my sweat-stained sunglasses, I discerned a generous gathering of Brazilians at water’s edge. ‘Twas not the every-space-choked-by-Brazilians-loafing-under-sun-umbrellas you witness on most beaches here, for that ilk of multitude is the daily oats ‘round these parts. Brazilians have an almost extraterrestrial notion of spatial orientation that we Americans are loathe to accept (another blog entry entirely) but I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them elbow-to-asshole in the sand, sipping beers and filling the air with puffs of olha so’ and para caralho permeating their every uttered phrase. No, by the looks of the gathering something unique was afoot. And so I forewent the workout and sauntered over to the group.

At the horde’s epicenter was a cadre of handicapped children. All boys ages 7-11 and displaying physical disability, prosthetic limbs were the remarkable common denominator betwixt them. And yet even more remarkable were the smirks, grins, and simpers hee-hawing across their faces, the direct and certain product of a number of female surfers hugging and kissing each of these beaming boys. In the skimpiest of bikinis revealing taut bronzed bodies, with sun-streaked hair cascading down their shoulders’ perfect curvatures, strategically-located tattoos accentuating key physical attributes and begetting all manner of naughty fantasy to all but the most repressed observer, these women exuded a collective ambience of keen sensuality. They smooched cheeks, rubbed impish boy heads upon sun-freckled bosoms, and flirted recklessly. I would venture to say that, indeed, their hotness was the incarnate nocturnal emission of these handicapped lads.

A group of muscle-bound men intervened – they appeared to be surfers as well, and part of the show – extracting the kids from their wheelchairs, removing their prosthetic limbs rapid abandon and hauling them, slung upon rippled shoulders, into the knee-deep surf. I beheld astonished as they chucked each boy into the water, allowing him to flail about, head subsumed by the frothy breaking waves and clearly unable to hold himself above the water’s surface. 10 or so seconds into the affair, the burly men would yank the kids from the water, allow them to regain their lungs, and fling the boys anew. And these kids LOVED it. As rapidly as they were dunked, they abruptly emerged from the water each time howling with glee, shrieking for more of the same. In the water’s gravity-less aura, if only for a fleeting second, the boys were unencumbered by the corporeal barriers curbing their mobility in everyday life. They were free.

And suddenly my back did not pain me so lavishly, and my blistered paws ceased to radiate discomfort. For these were only impairments in the loosest figurative sense, and temporary ones at best.

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Restoring Balance to North-South Relations: The Argentine Parable

Act I

Wherein we learn of a petty one-man economic blockade launched by a representative of the Mighty Eagle against the entire Argentine nation, after being ordered to purchase a tourist visa he did not desire. And whereupon we learn that the history of protest against economic injustice in South America predates the Brazilian dilemma of mid-2013 by at least four years, as our intrepid author will demonstrate.

September 2010. I arrive in Santiago, Chile at the Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. Like all South Cone nations, Chile compels visiting Americans to procure a tourist visa upon arrival in the country. This compulsory travel document gets stamped into one’s passport and is available for purchase at the customs and immigration booths before exiting the airport. But this American desires not to pay the extortionate $140 “reciprocity tax”. So at the booth, I grinningly bugle a litany of praises through the tinted glass, snake-charming the uniformed asp staring at me unmoved for an eternity of moments: Si senor, I adore this fabled land of Allende and Nerudo! And verily cannot I wait to ingest one of thy national dishes, my zenithal hopes reserved for the goulash I hear is served in your Polish quarter. Why, I’ve been off the flight eight minutes and everything already seems superior here; even your air is clearly healthier than the carbonized death being sucked into the lungs of dwellers of lesser nations, especially that cad of Argentina to your east. May they suffer a thousand more economic collapses for nearly pushing Chile into the Pacific! May their soccer team flatline on the pitch!

And to my unadulterated confoundment, the methodology yields results. The magnanimous jefes of the Chilean Ministerio de Hacienda, and their worthy aduanero vassals, simper knowingly upon me this day, granting my petition of favorable economy and resolving that I shall instead blow the $140 on kitsch and luxury items in this truly righteous nation. And so I do, spreading the salvaged funds lavishly on a hostel that is $5 more per night so I can have a view of snow-capped Andes in Santiago; three extra coffees and a pizza in La Serena while hiking the Elqui Valley; and a pictorial history book in Valparaiso.

A week later, waddling full of airport Starbucks and appeased to my with the friendly leniency of Chilean authorities, I board a plane for my next destination: Buenos Aires, Argentina. After hearing for 18 years about the bedazzlement and wondrousness of the purported Switzerland of South America, I envisage low-grade miracles to come spiraling from the sphincters of every porteno I meet, such is the otherworldly caliber of yarn spun about this country elsewhere in the world. Oh, the beef! The wine! The physical beauty of the Argentine people and their unparalleled fun-loving disposition! And yet all I see on the tarmac is cloud-laced gray sky, and a figurative torrential downpour of antipathy upon the countenance of every Argentine customs and immigration agent in the airport. Can there exist collectively another group so pregnant with disdain for American tourists – neigh, for fellow man? – as this customs folk?

Equally desirous to avoid paying the $140 “reciprocity fee” in Argentina, I attempt the same ploy as with the Chileans. And like in Karate Kid II when Ralph Macchio gets tossed on his fat ass after attempting one Crane Kick too many, so does my plan splatter onto its face. The Argentine authorities are in no mood to heed the melancholy entreaties of an errant gringo wishing to hoard his Benjamins. Their mood grows ever the dourer once comb my passport and discerning that this babbling WORKED with the Chileans. And so now both the intelligence and forthright, law-abiding constitution of the Argentine nation is in need of demonstration. For not in the recorded history of this mighty republic has a public servant ever, for any reason, bent the rules, and not certainly not to aid a yanqui in saving his duckies. And so these eminent agents of the Ministerio General de Aduanas, inform me of the tourist visa requirement. I attempt defense – read: playing dumb – but ‘tis feeble and we both know it. MMA fighters stepping into the octagon can forecast defeat when gazing into an opponent’s eyes; and so the Argentine authorities intuit my lack of battle animus this morning. Nothing now to do but ask me if I will pay with cash or credit, and dismissively wave me to the payment booth.

Unlike in Chile, I make an executive decision in the airport NOT to spend $140 on kitsch and consumer items. No, I will not be paying the favor of a waived visa forward to local vendors and enterprise. Instead, I forswear, this one-time powerhouse of wheat exportation will know my gringo wrath, for I will deny at least the visa cost equivalent in purchases on the open market. A one-man economic blockade! That very afternoon, indeed, I will visit the open-air market at La Recoleta cemetery, examining an estimated $140 in items at various stands, tables, and booths. I high-octane haggle for these cheap fridge magnets and misshapen Evita Peron statues. Yet when a price has been agreed upon and the negocio nearly closed, I move on, leaving baffled vendors in my purchase-less wake.

But is it enough? Have I taken back the pound of flesh exacted from my wallet and my pride this morning in the Ezeiza International Airport?

Act II

Whereupon we learn how equilibrium is finally restored to North-South relations in the aftermath of an ink-stain mishap initially perpetrated by officials of the Rio Plata.

April 2014. Now I reside in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A span of nearly four years has transpired and scarcely does my mind summon the visa trauma in Buenos Aires, so blackened is the memory and so distressing its recollection. Yet it lingers – despite what ought to be the calming effect of Ipanema’s beaches – ever ready to creep from behind the closed curtains of my mind and haunt me anew. What may ultimately and finally deliver me from this episode, that I might feel this weight lifted from upon my shoulders?

Closure comes via strange and unexpected avenues, for today I interview a Brazilian applying for a new American tourist visa. I examine her passport, strangely noting that its American visa is still valid. A conundrum: why doth she apply for a new one if this one’s still ok? I pose the query unto her. She steels herself to recount the tale, stoutly recalling her last trip to Argentina. The customs functionary stamped the passport page opposite her American tourist visa, shutting it tightly with the ink still wet, injuriously smooshing the two together and besmirching her sacred American travel document. Shortly thereafter, she arrived in the United States on a separate trip, whereupon Customs and Border Patrol informed her that the blue ink on her American visa constituted a kind of “damage” rendering it invalid, instructing her to renew and replace it upon her return to Brazil.

And now here she stands before me. This Brazilian seems a decent woman, surely upstanding in her values and of solid moral fiber. She has called me forth to defend her honor, and so shall I heed! And so I produce my cancellation stamp. I slam it down upon her “damaged” but still valid American visa, and close the passport rapidly while the ink is still moist. When I open the pages again a few seconds later, the Argentine stamp on the page opposite her American visa is now covered in fresh, black, beautiful cancellation stamp ink.

A double negative. In algebraic terms, this creates a positive. Balance is restored to North-South relations and I finally let go of Argentina.

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