Turds and Tea Leaves: Zuli’s On Solid Ground

…whereupon a gushing progenitor sounds a trumpet in proclamation of his newborn daughter’s impending inclusion in the next X-Men film based on the hue, shape, odor, and consistency of her poo. And wherein you, dear reader, shall learn of the proud family history baby Zuli has inherited. All of this and more in what has grown to be an unanticipated, but heartily welcomed, break from living Brazlishly now that your scribe is on paternity leave in northern Mexico.

Zuli’s legal birth name is Azul Eileen Straight Vega, but for our purposes here only the first name counts. Azul is Spanish for “blue” (her artist mother’s favorite color on the palate), so despite the felicity she’s indisputably felt to her baby core since daddy launched her alluring likeness into the digi-age milliseconds after birth, you might say she’s a blue, or indigo, child. Wikipedia describes indigo children as ones that, “according to a pseudoscientific New Age concept, are are believed to possess special, unusual and sometimes supernatural traits or abilities. The idea is based on concepts developed in the 1970s by Nancy Ann Tappe and further developed by Jan Tober and Lee Carroll. The concept of indigo children gained popular interest with the publication of a series of books in the late 1990s and the release of several films in the following decade. The interpretations of indigo children range from their being the next stage in human evolution, in some cases possessing paranormal abilities such as telepathy, to the belief that they are more empathetic and creative than their peers.”

With this definition, the pickle morphs into how, precisely, might we distinguish an indigo child like Zuli from her peers, those snot-nosed sucklings of the sniveling masses? While assuredly no expert in these matters, I’m inclined to believe you can predict greatness in the consistency of an toddler’s poop, uncannily similar to Babe Ruth calling his left field homer, a shaman interpreting tea leaves, or a santeria practitioner tossing chicken bones.

Bowel movements being a predictive mechanism for future performance is hardly a novel barometer to the Straight family. Truth be told, our gatherings normally devolve into scatological sideshows, particularly once my father and Aunt Jo lock into one of their staple reminisces about a random toilet clogged yesteryear. All specimen of chortle and guffaw perennially supplant decency at such times, but we’re a of blue collar background and don’t purport to uphold the heightened standards of a finishing school grad, so whatever. The lightness and blessing of these comedic commode communions has trailed me my whole life, even into the bloom of adulthood, hence I am gleefully attentive to the occurrences of my lower intestine. Sometimes, though, it is a curse, like the time I messed my drawers twice in a day my freshman year of college, or losing 40 pounds during my first six months of Peace Corps in El Salvador due to an unbroken chain of parasitic infestations.

Lest you, dear reader, find thyself getting high n’ mighty about the standards of public decency you believe I’m defiling here, keep something in mind: it ain’t just me. As one particular best-selling illustrated children’s book is titled, Everybody Poops. I am oft warmed at the recollection of a RIP Magazine interview with Motley Crue in 1990, released at the zenith the LA bad boys’ commercial conquest while eating hearty at the trough of their Dr. Feelgood album. The interview revealed that newfound sobriety hadn’t dissuaded Motley from their core distasteful principles, nor had pregnant bank accounts after selling millions of records rendered them upstanding young men to you could intro mom. Before every gig, as the interview detailed, they’d gather in a circle while bassist Nikki Sixx shat into a Kleenex. And if it was chunks, they’d rock.

And so all of the foregoing – the strew now brought to a steady boil – brings me to my point. Last night, I awoke to find Maria changing Zuli’s diaper at 4 AM. By the dim light of a street lamp slithering through a crack in our curtains, Maria’s eyes scarcely hovered open and alert while executing what have already become muscle-memory motions. I intervened, assuming charge of the scenario, judging the culprit to be a pissy Pamper. The velocity with which I was dispossessed of this spurious conceit was prompt: without realizing ’twas a literal shit-show into which I marched, poop was suddenly smooched between the chubby digits of my fingers. Still lingering half slumbered myself, I had a fleeting itch on my chin and reactively lifted a feces-filled finger to scratch, besmirching my goatee with a goodly poo. But was I disgusted? Hellz no, amigos. For my daughter’s log was brown and solid. I say: BROWN and SOLID! A harbinger, an omen, heralding grandeur itself foretold.

Of what will presumably be a multitude of majestic moments in my daughter’s life, this may be my eminently proudest one, after her actual birth. For in just five days of life, Zuli’s already abandoned the incipient green purges of her accumulated pre-natal waste, repositioning herself atop the plateau of The Real Human Dump. I know nothing of children, but this doesn’t seem the normal course of events; I’m inclined to believe that, indeed, Zuli is a true-to-form Indigo Child. I won’t be shocked when the begins communing with defunct relatives, bending forks thru mind power, and telepathically warning her mother and I about traffic jams on highways yet unseen as we travel on family vacations. Someone call Professor X; I’ll be sending her to the academy, that he might assist my daughter in honing this mutant-like power.

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Sonoran Hot Dogs and the Mogwai Chicken Titty

…wherein we discover Briancito’s deftness at steering his fiancé to another brand of hot dogs, lament how this did not translate into a concurrent capacity for guiding his newborn daughter’s alimentary schedule, and address a quandary: why do babies, like Gremlins, always seem to feed after midnight?

Mexicans from the state of Sonora fashion themselves hot dog experts. Have you ever eaten one from there? It’s hardly an unpleasant experience, and their preparation certainly rivals, or exceeds, the quality of franks served at other “mega-doggo” establishments throughout northern Mexico. A decent folk, the Sonorans will be the first to admit that history has treated their state wretchedly, and perhaps this compels their tenacious belief in the superiority of their state’s hot dogs, a ready fidelity to hold alight the weenie torch in both word and deed.

Maria, my Mexican fiancé hailing from Ciudad Obregon in Sonora, is no exception to that belief system. Standing at just over five feet in height and of delicate corporeal constitution, she speaks softly in a voice that sends a thousand purring kittens scampering through my heart. A humble and polite woman by nature, she keeps her accomplishments mum (at 28 she’s finishing a doctorate and is already a tenured art professor at a major university in Ciudad Juarez). These attributes favoring humility, combined with her general humane and warm treatment of others regardless of station in life, she gives the truthful impression of a woman who loathes competition and avoids conflict at all cost. However, when hot dogs are at stake, she is unequivocal regarding Sonora’s dominance. It’s damn near a petty nationalism, though fortunately for humanity one over which no blood has spilt, save that of the swine perishing for this noble cause.

In the days before our daughter’s birth, I flew into Ciudad Juarez, where Maria lives. We crossed the border into El Paso, Texas, to purchase groceries and supplies before holing up in a temporary apartment back in Juarez for two months. In the meat section of the Target supermarket, Maria asked if I’d like hot dogs for dinner that night. A resounding yes, of course, being a gringo with fond memories of franks consumed at family barbeques and block parties all throughout childhood and adolescence. I’m predisposed and will greedily suckle at a tightly-skinned and condimented frank any time, any place.

Yet despite green-lighting the purchase and merely awaiting her selection, Maria remained static and dumbfounded, scrutinizing the available hot dog variety. I’m no expert in micro-expressions, but I know my woman well and spotted the desperation hegemonically creeping over her countenance. I asked what was wrong. As it turns out, came Maria’s apply in a nearly catatonic disbelief, Target did not offer hot dogs from FUD, the Aztec nation’s largest packaged meats purveyor and, given the fact that Sigma Alimentos (FUD’s parent company) wields a monopoly on franks sold south of the border and is consequently the only hot dog to which Mexicans of most stripes are ever exposed, Maria’s preferred brand. It took some doing, but I ultimately convinced her that this was not, in fact, the end of days as foretold in the Maya Codex, and that another variety of frank might still do the trick. Oscar Meyer, Hebrew National, and Ball Park Franks could all deliver the goods this very night. But baby, I reasoned with every iota of charisma I could conjure, you gotta let it happen. Similar to every man, my relational influence will wane severely once hitched. It is the unfortunate nature of things that I’ll go from Mighty Baby Maker to being the stiff knocking out rent and paying for cable. But on this single occasion, it pleased me greatly to wield such influence over Maria’s alimentary habits. To convince a Sonoran to consume a hot dog that is not FUD is, indeed, no dismal feat.

So foolish of me to assume that same influence would translate into guiding my daughter’s feeding schedule. As a first-time father at nearly 38 years of age, I’ve labored for years under the theorist’s assumption: babies are solely a matter of conditioning, and their eating habits may be controlled rather rapidly with the proper parental firmness, resolve, and consistency. I put this theory to the Pepsi Challenge last night once I got both Maria and Zuli discharged from the hospital and back to our apartment. At precisely midnight, Zuli’s baby lungs demonstrated fortuity unexpected by her Papi Briancito when she tore the bedroom asunder with a rapturous spate of shrill sobbing. For the next six hours, she brought shocked parents to heel, exhibiting that the proverbial new sheriff has arrived in town.

Since these sleepless nights will doubtless be my nemesis for at least the next 12 calendar months, I tore a quick page from Michael Corleone’s playbook: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Thus enthralled was I to learn the innermost mechanics of this terrible phenomenon, the slumber-less eve. I paid careful attention to how Zuli attacked Maria’s jugs with gums, grit, and determination. The sole image that popped to mind was the evil mogwai, of Gremlins fame, tearing up chicken wings. Just like my daughter on her first night at home, the mogwai were irrepressible, seeking fortification as they readied to launch themselves into the world. It seemed to me at that moment, indeed, that Zuli had been duly possessed by Maria’s mogwai chicken titty.

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Minor Adventures at the Ciudad Juarez Civil Registry

Fearing the worst, Maria and I zipped Zuli to the Civil Registry in Ciudad Juarez today for her Mexican birth certificate, for a CRBA may not be wrought for a stateless child. I was expecting a horror show of bureaucratic hurdles, and pre-stiffened my jaw for the knocks it would doubtless endure. Instead, what we got was a smooth ride peppered with unexpected humor along the way.The smoothness included a stupefyingly helpful civil servant named Alejandra who personally shepherded us through the birth cert process in under 3 hours, evidently a land speed record for getting documents done in any government office locally. The humor commenced when having to get our daughter’s name authorized – no kidding, since Mexico has laws about naming a kid anything that will get invite bullying – and they didn’t recognize our choice of middle name, Eileen. The secretary who assisted us with this component of the process said they get parents attempting to use everything from Star Wars characters (Annakin and Yoda being local faves) to stuff that’s literally downright scary, like Frankenstein.

But the salient ha-ha instance materialized when a guy hit Maria up for help with the paperwork for his daughter’s birth certificate. Scented of moonshine, his gold front incisor shimmering in the morning sunshine and his gangsta tattoos keeping everyone in the room at a fair distance out of self-preservation, he explained to Maria and I that he was illiterate and thus incapable of completing the paperwork. The Good Samaritan in her being too grand an alter-ego to deny, Maria rose to the challenge. While he waited, dude discerned correctly that I’m a gringo, turned to me and rattled off a few recent chapters of his life story, proclaiming he’d just lived four years in Dallas and Denver. I asked if he went up with a coyote – since he certainly fit the profile of a hard-luck rider of La Bestia – and with great pride the fool splooged, “NO! I used my tourist visa!!!”

He went on to explain how one might turn a tourist visa into an unofficial work permit by twisting the rules like a balloon animal: “I always take a bus across the border. When they ask where I’m going, I tell them I’ll be seeing relatives in Dallas, which is true, but I don’t tell them I’m also going to live there and work. They authorize me to stay for six months, and every six months I come back to Juarez for a few days, then go back to Dallas. I work in carpeting and roofing there. My relatives are residents and they got me the job. They even helped me get a fake social security number and a driver’s license using someone else’s name!” He’s back in Juarez now and plans to renew his Border Crossing Card soon, since “I’m planning to go live in the US again.” I decided to skip the part about “by the way, I work for the government, and you shouldn’t waste your time applying, trust me”. After all, we could use his $160.

Initial Thoughts on Parenthood, and the Metal Power Ballad Swooning

Conventional wisdom dictates that a baby is a miracle. I understand the sentiment behind that, but really, it isn’t. I’m very much a literalist on this point. A miracle is, like, changing water to wine or feeding thousands with a single fish. While being a dad is a great gig and I’m stupefied I waited so long now that I see how awesome it is, getting here has a simple scientific explanation: a baby is what happens when sexual organs convene without contraception. Hardly the stuff of supernatural thrillers. And yet since Zuli’s birth, I’ve already had to recount at least a portion of my non-miracle platform, for there is one aspect of babies that defies every tenet of modern science: in the name of Creation, how do they shit diapers so thoroughly and unapologetically?

I’d only pondered that as a theoretician until becoming a dad yesterday, when sodden diapers became an objective and routine condition of life. This child has proven herself a worthy heir to her daddy – who can’t keep his own ass clean half the time – with bowels possessed of a fluidity not unlike Travolta on a dance floor. I didn’t sleep ’til 6 AM yesterday since Zuli wouldn’t go lights out, and ’twas all indelibly connected to her Pampers running incessant and pungent green, and the certain discomfort this provoked for my poor daughter and her chaffed cheeks. So rapid was the outpouring that at one point I changed her and folded up the diaper mat, but Zuli erupted again before I got the mat into the diaper bag. I was damn near both insanity and repetitive motion sickness, like the guy working the cold-cut slicer all day at the Carnegie Deli.

When I finally got her intestines to grant Zuli’s old man a brief stay of execution, I had to get her to sleep. But how? The sole apparent solution lay in singing her the metal power ballads of yesteryear, of which I have some knowledge. My initial offering was Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home”, which to my astonishment (and, I must admit, disappointment in my child’s clearly poor taste) elicited an immediate pucker and crying. Thus I traded it up for Mr. Big’s “To Be With You”, Cinderella’s “Nobody’s Fool”, and a Poison medley blending “I Won’t Forget You”, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, and “Something to Believe In”. I proceeded through Steelheart’s “Never Let You Go” and Van Halen’s “Can’t Stop Loving You” before trotting cross home plate with Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There For You”.

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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An Inglorious Return to Living Brazilishly

…a chronicle in which we learn how Montezuma’s revenge compareth not in scope or wrath to its African counterpart; and how a self-imposed and acute disregard of dietary restraint, three long days without purged intestines, and a corporal coil weakened from a protracted trip led to what can euphemistically be described as “bowel mouth”.

By the time last Tuesday evening that I reached Dubai from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian airport’s non-functional bathrooms and haughty, disengaged staff were mere figments of a prior nightmare, and better days lay ahead. Nay, ’twas time to chillax, to count my Ugandan and Rwandan adventures a triumph and prepare for the task of returning to live Brazilishly. And yet even the stoutest of military commanders will tell you that the best laid plans oft dissolve when the hour is nigh. So transpired with me on the final leg of my return trip to Rio de Janeiro. That thee, dear reader, might reconcile thyself with the slings and arrows characterizing the gauntlet thru which your beloved adventurer this week passed, I shall scribble the remainder of this tale of globe-trotting jackassery in the second person. For doth ye not feel my words deeper in thy flesh with such prosaic tools employed?

You arrive in Dubai and, as related previously, find thyself enamored anew with Western creature comforts, here artificially grafted against the cutis of an airport on the margins of the Arabian Peninsula. It is 9 PM when you land, and after a tortuous transfer circuit which at long last deposits you soundly into the proper terminal for your 7 AM flight to Rio, you bee-line to Starbucks. There you drain a white chocolate mocha and speak via Skype to thy beloved, who beseechingly receives your e-besos in the faraway land of Mexico. Eventually you disconnect from her, and seek to calm the longing in your heart with comfort food. And you are fortunate, for comfort food is not hard to come by in the Dubai airport. You descend upon Burger King like a locust to a wheat crop. Once in the King’s realm, you order a mighty Big King value meal and upsize it. When the third country national working the register cleverly divines your heartache and suggestively sells you a side of chicken fries, you respond gleefully in the affirmative, reminding yourself that your betrothed, too, loveth herself some chicken fries. The meal soon completed, you are in the mood for yet another white chocolate mocha. Hence you return to Starbucks. Having routed these worthy junk food adversaries with efficiency, you retire to a general waiting area to rest. You know you will not sleep – you can never seem to catch a wink in airports or on planes – but at least you can recharge whilst staring down the clock.

When the hour is upon you to board the flight many sleepless hours later, you dunk another white chocolate mocha. The beginnings of your personal trademark self-flagellating guilt are now creeping under the door, and at the register you mentally review a litany of justifications for this third 470 calorie beverage in under 10 hours. You ask yourself if this is truly a worthwhile endeavor. As a sanity check you petition the third country national working the register to assist you in rationalizing this most self-loathing exhibition of gluttony. Properly executing her role as a Starbucks representative, she looks at you with the comprehending eyes your mother did when you were down with bronchitis as a lad and invites you to sip heartily of this modern day chicken soup. And you do.

But shortly after this, things go awry. You locate an airport shower facility, hoping to knock the stink from thy body for the first time in two days. But it is out of commission and you don’t have time to wait, as your overage of spare moments was blown on the last Starbucks run. You board the plane, filthy though you are, and buckle into your seat. Just before takeoff, a man in regular clothes passes swiftly by you in the aisle, charging with urgent purpose toward the pilot’s cabin, and he has concealed behind his back a screwdriver. Perhaps you are delirious now after two restless nights, your brain’s capacity for clear and reasoned thought further polluted by the preservatives and toxins inherent in the endless flow of junk food entering your digestive tract the last few days. But you do not realize this, since the last one cognizant of his insanity is the thus man crazed. And so only trying to be helpful, you stand up and cry out – your Bat Signal splayed upon the clouds that others might answer this call to civic responsibility for general welfare – “Someone stop that guy! He’s got a weapon!” Econo-class early morning silence is pierced by sudden gasps as the gravity of this moment hits home for one and all, and the accused wheels to stare you dead in the eye. You are ready to die, as he will probably perforate your jugular Goodfellas-style, spilling the white chocolate mocha coursing thru your veins all over the cabin before you formulate a response, which in your teenage fantasies would have consisted of a precise and lethal judo chop from your childhood study of ninja movies. You merely pray the newspaper headlines will say something to evoke your parents’ pride: “Bald Man Bravely Confronts Terrorist To Save Plane From Certain Doom, Dies in Ensuing Scuffle”. A stewardess politely informs you that the man is actually a mechanic who was fixing a food cart and debarking the plane. Now quite humbled, you beg her not to write this into her post-flight incident report. She smiles and reassures you she will not. You sit down, buckle in, and shut up, ready to withstand the next 14 hours with modesty and poise and, for God’s sake, without attempting to call out another alleged hijacker.

Because you feel somewhat stupid (though if he WAS a terrorist, you’d totally be a hero), you are in need now more than ever of comfort food to sooth your ailing dude-soul. Thus the dietary restraint that you should have exhibited in Dubai will not surface at any point during the 14-hour flight. You are tired and agitated and gobble everything offered as you transcend the African continent and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean en route to Brazil; this includes the in-flight meals, snacks, various rounds of coffee and soda, and even the Godiva chocolates you are repeatedly provided by an Australian flight attendant who, good Samaritan that she is, has taken pity on your plight and offers this olive branch of candy-laden assistance at every turn. Your tummy is free of tumult, yet your stomach’s stage is set for a fabulous disaster. Though as delayed reactions go, you are not yet conscious of the fate about to befall you.

You reach Rio in the late afternoon Wednesday, and lose a pen to a Chinese businessman who borrows it when filling out his customs forms, then vaporizes from the scene. You could not care less. You merely wish to claim your baggage and depart this circus. And yet at the baggage belt, you are the proverbial last man standing. Nothing of yours emerges from the belly of the airline beast. It brings to mind a Brazilian saying about ficando a ver navios, the full significance of which is now fit to provoke the final shattering of your fragile spirit. You present yourself at the Emirates Airlines lost luggage counter and when you tell them your name, they dutifully inform you that they are in possession of a special message for you: “Your luggage is missing.” This is hardly a revelation since your empty hands, moist eyes, and trembling lower lip suggest to any reasonable observer that, indeed, you are acutely aware of the problem already. You have not spoken Portuguese in a month and are too tired to try, so you make it through the futile bureaucratic exercise of completing lost luggage paperwork in an English-peppered pantomime, then catch a taxi home.

You hit rush hour traffic into Rio, investing the better portion of 1.5 hours becoming painfully well acquainted with it. You reach home near dinnertime, but sadly food is not on the agenda. For no sooner do you enter your apartment than you begin projectile vomiting. The sickness sprung from your body not unlike a drone attack over Waziristan: the element of surprise is key. You did not feel sick at all until now, unless counting the metaphorical illness draping your heart due to your wayward luggage. You barf so many times between now and the wee morning hours that you wonder if, indeed, you will die tonight. By round four of the insurgent spewing, you begin to note the aroma and taste of the viscous brown liquid flowing forth from your mouth is dramatically close to poo. You begin connecting the pieces of this scatological jigsaw: you have been constipated for three days and have been stuffing yourself with morsels of considerably low nutritional value the entire period. At some point, a release is imminent; 10 gallons cannot be crammed into a 5-gallon jug. But like the Ghostbusters spotting the Marshmallow Man stalking the streets of Manhattan, you wish that Gozer didn’t appear in this specific sinister form. Whilst hunched over the toilet bowl you partially laugh, but mostly cry, grasping now wholly the inglorious yet aptly descriptive cliché about “fates worse than death”.

The next morning, Thursday, you awake feeling somewhat relieved, though exceedingly weak. You are hungry, but your fridge sits empty. You have no maid and your colleague neighbor is at work, so no one is around to help. Hence you get dressed and steel thyself to set forth three blocks to the supermarket in search of vittles, that you might nourish both body and spirit after your tumultuous journey home. As an intellectual exercise to/from the store, you count the number of times you must stop to rest (for the curious among ye, ‘tis 17).  You note that an average of three people passes you on each of these occasions while you rest leaning against a pole with head in hands and, in a disappointing display of just how callous folks can be, not a single person bothers asking if you are okay. Not that you need it, but what if you were really dying? You recall that this is why you love thy betrothed, for ne’er has she abandoned ye during a moment of crisis. You begin to understand here the broader scope of “in sickness and health”. You return to your apartment, put the food into the fridge, then fall into a deep sleep, the first real one you’ve enjoyed since Rwanda.

When you awake later in the day, miraculously you feel fully recharged. Clearly suffering a bout of temporary amnesia, you discern this is a prime moment to get some exercise, for you have desired a good swell these many days. And so you execute your personal variant of the Insanity workout in your living room. You make it through with flying colors, amazed at your own fortitude so shortly after weathering a violent storm. You lean over to remove your sweat-drenched ankle socks and promptly pull a muscle in your lower back. It spasms so badly that you see stars, hyperventilate, and bellow a specific bilabial fricative forcefully enough to rustle pigeons from church steeples. You do not see a doctor, though. Pulling a page from your peewee baseball playbook, you decide to “walk it off”. You take Excedrin, self-massage, and go out in search of comfort food: two triple cheeseburgers, large fries, and a Coke. And thus the vicious circle commences again.

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Expectation vs. Reality in Ethiopian Public Restrooms, Among Other Tales from a Day Spent in the Airport in Addis Ababa

…in which we discover a grave inefficiency in the Ethiopian public restroom system that cost a good man a sock, and how this is a sign and symbol for why our author so desperately wishes to return to living Brazilishly.

The airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia offers the most comically bad example of customer service I’ve directly experienced. Stupefying in its contradiction, really, since every Ethiopian I met in the US is hardworking and friendly. But inside the airport, it’s another story entirely; maybe it’s something to do with the collectively depressive atmosphere in the building itself? Dunno. We’ll leave that analysis to historians and shrinks. Before I get my whine on, let me say that I’ve never had a maid, always done my own cleaning and cooking, never ask others to do anything for me if I can do it myself, and go far outta my own way to be humble and simple in my daily matters. I’m independent and self-reliant to a fault. So it’s not like I’m used to having my gluteal cleft smooched in customer service situations. Don’t need it, don’t want it, don’t care. But in the Addis airport, they’ve elevated Hatred of Your Personal Comfort to a plateau I previously assumed only the Greeks occupied. But now, NOW, I know.

So without further ado, Honorable and Esteemed Judge Wopner, if it pleases The People’s Court, allow me to advance the accumulated evidence:

Exhibit A: There is but a single bank in international Terminal 2, and like all airport banks, it boasts an LCD screen with gargantuan red letters showing exchange rates for local and foreign currencies. Yet they offer no such service and stare back at you blankly when you stupidly shove dollars through the window and ask for some Ethiopian money.

Exhibit B; Three mini-mart convenience stores, side-by-side across from my gate, which respectively charged $1, $2, and $5 for the exact same bottle of water. Further complicating the scenario, the lackluster sales reps – who admittedly probably earn’t earning enough to make it worth their time to be terribly invested in my satisfaction – were wholly inconsistent in even the selling part of it. The $1 store sold to me two times in the morning, then turned up their snooty noses in the afternoon, my petition for quenched thirst at basement bargain rates denied! The woman at the register seized the bottle from my hand, replaced it to the shelf, and with but a single dismissive wave of her petite manicured hand ordered me to purchase my water elsewhere.

Exhibit C: Bathrooms that were being cleaned and thus closed from – God as my witness, I fibbeth not! – 9 AM ’til 2:30 PM when it was time for me to board the connecting flight to Dubai. And I don’t mean one bathroom, I mean EVERY ONE in the terminal, and all simultaneously. I pinched it in for as long as a man’s decency will allow, but dammit, ultimately something had to give. So I launched my own version of the Italian colonization of Ethiopia, barreling into the crapper, slamming the door shut and planting a flag, then assuming my rightful position atop the, um, “throne”… Only to discover after the fact, to my unequivocal dismay, there was no toilet paper to be had. Just a castaway spool. Without going into details, let’s just that I’m down one sock.

Yet behold, amigos, how how the worm has turned here in Dubai! How can a four-hour flight separate such different worlds? Your intrepid traveler would surely like to know. They could not be more distinct: Dubai’s airport offers a 24/7 Starbucks… Slick linoleum floors… Bathrooms where ass wiping doesn’t require resorting to McGayver tactics… Shower facilities… And Burger King, amigos, BURGER KING! And all with posted prices that do not require haggle! I merely have to keep my sanity until 7 AM tomorrow morning when I board the next and final flight back to Rio, that I might bring this jaunt full-circle and by late Wednesday afternoon begin anew to live Brazilishly.

This month-long African aside has been a riot, and assuredly for all the right reasons. I’ve experienced a new part of the world, I’ve done good work, I’ve met good people, and my eyes have been opened. But the circus, eventually, must draw shut its colorful curtains and strike the tent. It’s time to go home. Back to Rio de Janeiro, to the beach and sungas galore, and a stable diet not involving room service rice and chicken every friggin’ eve. It will also be good to get away from Ugandan Mountain Dew, since besides rotting my gut with all that sugar, I’m confident the high levels of Yellow #5 have rendered me sterile.