Tag Archives: Brazil

Faux Mexi-Morsels: Living Pancho Villa-ishly with a Brazilian Twist

…in which we learn of the gut-rumbling effect of Taco Bell caliber “Mexican food” in Rota 66, one of Rio de Janeiro’s f-i-n-e-s-t Latin-esque eateries.

December 26, 2014 – 8 PM

I’m forcing Maria to eat – what else? – Mexican food tonight at the Rota 66, just around the corner from our crib. I’ve been threatening the staff for nearly a year that my Ciudad Juarez-dwelling wife would descend upon their humble establishment, like a locust to a summer crop, to take their Pepsi Challenge. Now verily mayeth we discern if a Juarense finds their wares worthy of carrying Pancho Villa’s lineage… And the hour is upon us. We’re taking a small vial of Tabasco sauce, since it’s highly doubtful they’ll have anything spicy enough for my beloved hot tamale’s palate.

December 27, 2014 – 9:30 AM

The reviews are in about last night’s Rota 66 experience. In Maria’s words, when asked a moment ago with the benefit of 12 hours of hindsight and a steaming Saturday morning coffee molding her assessment, “Um, me gusta y tiene buen sabor.” This she spoke decidedly and dead-pan, after precisely two seconds of pondrance, with the hint of a smirk and in the same manner a Foreign Service Officer prompted to comment on the competency of a colleague might reply, “Well, he’s just a really nice person…” In other words, mighty diplomatic of my wife. When I tried to put it another light and asked that she rank it on the 1-10 scale, she chuckled me out of the room, roundly refusing to acquiesce to my silly whims. This is why I married her: seldom does one encounter such benevolence in a partner. (She also tells me I’m guapo and that she can’t even see my head spots.)

Now, before you go thinking Maria’s vagueness is an implicit denunciation of the eatery, let me “esclarecer as duvidas” as they’d say in Brazil. Caveat the first: Maria and I ain’t foodies. I eat for function, fuel. Occasionally I gorge if it’s my momma’s cookin’, probably the one time I do eat for the sheer oomph of it. Maria, for her part, eats for at least some degree of pleasure, but bear in mind that Ciudad Juarez, for all which it is known contemporarily, isn’t recognized as a gastronomic capital of any ranking. Caveat the second: I’m also the cheapest SOB you’ll ever meet, not apt to go out for dinner given the cost of most places in Rio. To quote former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, when asked why he didn’t order room service much, “I got plans for those millions, and it ain’t for sandwiches.” Hell, I could take you back to my first real job, from 1992-1995 doing 2.5 years’ hard time at the McDonalds in Quantico, Virginia. I distinctly recall preparing Frankenstein-ish sandwiches combining breaded fish and chicken patties plus Big Mac meat and literally stacks of pickles, my adolescent notion of gourmet. The goal post hasn’t moved far since.

So at the Rota 66, then, I had the chimichanga, and Maria had the 3 taco combo. We both drank Swiss lemonades, which tasted neither like Lemonade nor anything Swiss, at least not per my recollection of my trip to Basel in 2007, though keep in mind that all I know are three Swiss products: cheese, chocolate, and Swiss enchiladas (this last item may be an invention of rich Mexicans trying to seem worldly, admittedly). Were I to offer a highlight of our meal, it’d be the the Nacho Imperial, of the Taco Bell variety, which we ordered at the outset. These served as the opening salvo launched ‘cross the bow of my sinking gut. The nachos were delivered unto us as a confection of plain Doritos, refried beans, melted cheese doubtless squeezed from a Brazilian moo cow’s teat that very afternoon, diced green chiles, and something special. I know not what ’twas, this mystery ingredient. I asked the waiter and yet he, too, found himself confounded in its identification. Thus only can I imagine that in the kitchen, when someone orders the Nacho Imperial, they call over Cleberson the Chef, who likely hails from the interior of Minas Gerais state: “Oi, Cleberson, it’s TIME!!!!” And voila: Cleberson makes the magic happen.

Personally, I loved the whole ensemble. But then you must remember my standard for gourmet. I could see her countenance of doubt across the table, and part of me was prompted to proclaim defiantly, “Woman, you NEVER had it so GOOD!” But the prudent part of me – admittedly still in its early stages of development – filtered all this down and opted for keeping the proverbial trap shut. Dutifully, Maria partook of these Mexi-morsels and cleaned her plate to all but one taco, which she kindly offered to her husband, knowing full well that I’m a Dirt Devil in human form. As for Zuli, slumbered did she the entire eve, waking only hours later to kick her old man in the ribs whilst I tried to slough off the coma induced by the redonkulous amount of faux-Mexi ingested at the Rota 66.

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“If you’re not first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby’s dad.

My mother – Angel of Grace and Tolerator of Her Eldest Son’s Irrepressible Verbosity – always told me I’m a winner. And when pressed, my wife – whose womb bore me a tiny sliver of Heaven and who, indeed, is also a Suave Putter-Upper of Her Marido’s Loquacity – will likewise admit her station in life improved at least somewhat after having hitched her wagon to my locomotive. Though I didn’t get promoted at work on the first go ’round, I did pick up tenure as soon as I was eligible for it. So this tells me I’m slugging at least .500, well above the baseline Hall of Fame batting average. The significance of this sports metaphor: the cosmos lines up occasionally in my favor, and I reap a concurrent bounty.

And yet this morning when I embarked on what was supposed to be a bland weekly grocery run, little did I anticipate hitting the Brazilian jackpot. What transpired at the cash register, as I pulled forth my debit card to pay for the goods, was the supermarket equivalent of a game-winning, goal-scoring reverse-bicycle kick with three milliseconds seconds left on the clock.

There was something in the air this morn, and my mood was uncommonly uppity for a domingo. Perhaps ’twas due to spending last night jamming metal songs on dual guitars with a buddy at his apartment in Copacabana; and my levity of being ’twas aided in no small measure by the weather being 10 degree cooler today in Rio. Thus I set foot inside the Horti Fruti humming random tracks from Exodus’ “Bonded by Blood” and Death’s “The Sound of Perseverance”, even playing air guitar in the cart-infested aisles. I grabbed Tabasco sauce and a box of Choco-Krispies for my soon-to-arrive wife, a bag of frozen French fries, and enough fruits to eliminate a small nation’s worth of scurvy. Then I approached the cash register and placed my intended purchases onto the conveyer belt, striking up convo with Patricia, in whose line I always seem to end up.

About to pay, a woman with a microphone materialized before me. Her nametag bore the moniker “Sandra”. And indeed, Sandra represented the Horti Fruti Prize Patrol. Flanked she was on the right by a man toting a plastic Christmas tree adorned with folded pieces of paper on all sides. Another man to her left held aloft a box with a hand-sized hole in the top, and colored pieces of paper contained within its depths.

Sandra announced to the now-gawking assemblage of customers that I was selected at random to participate in their holiday contest. I was asked, first, to pull a piece of paper from the box and present it to her. Sandra would then open it and read the number written on it. That number would correspond to the number of one of the cash registers. She would then approach the customer in line at that specific register, and that person would snatch a paper from the plastic Christmas tree, open it, and read aloud his/her prize contained with it to the whole store.

This is where the Brazilian “jeitinho” enters the picture. I’m not a naturally competitive man, but do we not all enjoy winning something once in awhile? Even Ralphie’s toiling blue-collar dad netted the leg lamp in A Christmas Story. My winnings are of the Haley’s Comet variety: exceptionally infrequent, but slammin’ when they do roll down range. And so when I selected a paper from the box and opened it, it appeared to contain a 6. Or maybe ’twas a 9, depending on which end you thought was up.

It was not lost on me that I happened to be standing at register 6.

And so felt I a victory close at hand!

A look of understanding was then exchanged bewteen Sandra and I. My eyes spake unto her, “Sandra, oh with Rio’s inflation forever on the rise, my creeks are rising, for now I buy for three mouths!” And Sandra’s eyes responded to me, “Gringo, I live in Rocinha, and well I know the difficulties of purchasing for an entire litter of mouths.” This shared moment lasted no longer than two fleeting nano-seconds, but ’twas sufficient to turn the tide in my favor. And so Sandra announced that ’twas register 6.

Proclaiming me the winner, Sandra let me pick a piece of paper from the plastic Christmas tree. Upon opening it, elated was I to discover that I’d just won half off my next grocery purchase at Horti Fruti. I turned around to face the crowd – a covetous bunch of shoppers applauding in a muted fashion, a rotund player hate springing from their eyes – and pumped my metal-horned hands skyward, declaring myself “ganhador”. Sandra passed me the mic, that I might comment on the senstation invading my entire soul as the realization dawned upon me that I’d just beaten the odds. Clutching the mic in a triumphant right fist, I raised it to my mouth, took a deep breath, and loudly extolled the virtues of Horiti Fruti’s quality produce, reasonable prices, and above all else, righteous business model.

I cannot fault the lookers-on for believing that, somehow, the fix was in. They will doubtless contemplate this next week, when all of them are paying full price for their groceries. Let them eat cake, though sadly not a discounted one.

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Sungas Gone Wild

…in which we learn of the life cycle of conflict in Brazil, a lesson wrought by observing muffin-topped men in itty-bitty beachwear puffing their chests this gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Leblon.

An hour ago I was on the beach exercising. Sunny, lower 90s, a touch of humidity sufficient to provoke a healthy sweat but not enough to suffocate a man, surrounded by the archetypical Beautiful Ones of the cidade maravilhosa. Not one to tug at Mother Nature’s whiskers, as the summer sets in I’m playing it smart: toting a water bottle swishing with chill fluids to help me avoid stroking out, my endurance stretched into obliveon and, indeed, I felt not a muscled or tatted man in Leblon this day could hold a candle to what I envisioned were my striated forearms, over-developed pecs and jutting jawline. In other words, between benevolent climatic conditions and my fantastically overactive imagination, ’twas a textbook-perfect afternoon for catching a swell on the pull-up bars so kindly implaced by Rio’s municipal authorities.

The only thing making the scene viably better was the brawl that broke out 30 paces before me. And so like the rest of of the crowd gathering with the speed of thunderstorm clouds yet the glee of a child on Christman morn, so too did I sprint over to see what, by God, was all the ruckus. I call it here a brawl, but as it goes in conflict-averse Brazil, ’twas really more a spirited shouting match replete with all the posturing and verbally sparring men and women in opposing camps you might expect, balking juuuuuust short of actual fisticuffs. And between the disputing parties intervened the beach police, truncheons at the ready, attempting to negotiate a settlement. Each side shouted its point of view on the issue at hand, gesturing broadly as if to beseech the audience of the rightness and validity of their respective argument. They poked fingers damn close to each others’ faces, gesticulated defiantly, and bellowed promises of violence even they realized they likely would not keep. I looked closely for cauliflower ears: for if at least one of them was an MMA fighter, than this was about to get AWESOME. Alas, nothing of the sort occurred.

But back on point: what WAS the issue at hand? ‘Twas hard to discern, actually. Like Dante’s rings of hell, so too was this broo-ha-ha apportioned into concentric circles. While I’m sure those at the epicenter grasped the true nature of the joust, we on the outside were “viajando na mayonesa”, as the saying goes. And as with all fragmentary gaps in human understanding, so began those constituting the outermost circle airing rife speculation on what may have been the precipitating event. A pilfered patch of coveted beach space? Made the more urgent by a spilt Bohemia in the sand? A cross eye directed at another man’s wife, a radish thus wrongly rubbed? Or an unapologetic sandal kicking sand in the face of a child? Knoweth not do I, for as we say in The Fed, ’twas ruefully above my paygrade.

What I do know, however, is what my own eyes observed, greedily soaking up this high drama played out against the background of a stunning Brazilian Saturday at the beach. The muffin-topped (and likely inebriated) men both sported sungas, that littlest of Brazilian men’s beachwear. Semi-guts billowing over their apparel’s waistline, they boldly attempted to cut through the glut of the now 10 beach cops keeping them apart. (It is a fact that we men are bolder when separated with no real chance of contact, for The Show is always worth acting out well.) The women were craftier, “aproveitando” slap-shots at one another behind the cops’ backs and thus below the authorities’ level of conscious realization. I had to admire these be-thonged ladies’ acumen for mutual covert action: aside from the pleasure of not being caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar, the legal ramifications are fewer when the cops don’t actually SEE you strike an opponent.

The would-be fighters passed through variants on their way to closure. First it was man on man; then woman on woman; then one of the men went after one of the women; then one of the women after a man; and so forth the action progressed until every configuration of angry gender-distinct interaction was exhausted, every plot line pursued, every revenge motive dispensed. I’d venture this went on a good 15 minutes. And then as quickly as it began, so ’twas over. The crowd dissipated, a cool breeze plundered the last vestiges of anger, and sun worshippers focused their attention heavenward anew. The warring factions now sat next to one another, if not in peace then uneasy coexistence, and went about their days as though the venting of threats merely moments before was but a distant dream.

And so we see the life cycle of conflict in Brazil: first something happens… Then we hear what people say has happened… And then nothing ever actually happened.

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On Brazil’s Humiliation and its Relation to an Impulse Purchase

In 1999, I began Peace Corps service in El Salvador. After three months of in-country training in the central city of San Vicente, I received a one-time deposit into my Peace Corps bank account of about $400 USD (for initial purchases as a full-time volunteer) and was ordered to go forth and conquer the peril and poverty doubtless awaiting at my site, which was located deep in the mountains of Morazan department in the country’s extreme northeast. Before leaving capital city San Salvador – where my Peace Corps group spent a few days taking care of administrative hullabaloo and eleventh-hour benders before dispersing to the four corners – I made a final trip to the mall and made one of the stupidest impulse buys of my life: a Brazilian soccer jersey. And not some knock-off cheap shit, either. I snatched the real McCoy, an official issue thing from FIFA and Adidas that shot a third of my site allowance squarely in the ass. Wearing that yellow polyester nightmare, which boiled my jizzos in El Sal’s tropical lowland tropical climate, I set forth to my site chuffed, righteous, and justified in my purchase.

Nay, caveat emptor: the problems that soccer jersey would bring never occurred to me beforehand. Besides the obvious – I had to shirk on furniture and grocery purchases because I’d blown my wad on a non-crucial clothing item – my Brazilian soccer jersey contained a handful of frailties hazardous to both fashion sense and the shirt’s very survivability in an environment as extreme as the Central American mountains. Like the Brazilian selection in yesterday’s game against Germany, a few things simply weren’t right about it. First, the collar tips curled up in the humidity, which was relentless and unabating year-round in El Salvador. So every 10 minutes, I found myself pressing them down against my clavicle. And second, I learned firsthand how weak even official apparel is when succumbing to the sharpened fangs of the neighbor’s dog, Muneca, whose general docility was counterbalanced by a penchant for gnawing to shreds, in short order, anything that fell from the clothesline. And fall my Brazilian soccer jersey did, after its very first wash, when a light wind blew it clean off the neighbor’s clothesline and onto the dirt below. The neighbors tried sewing it back together for me, but the Frankensteined jersey was never the same again.

All of these suppressed memories were recalled painfully yesterday, when Germany so brutally humiliated Brazil in the World Cup semi-finals. A stricken Neymar wasn’t playing and the team didn’t seem to be communicating well whilst on the pitch: like the up-curling points of my shitty shirt collar, something just wasn’t right. And Germany gnawed a fallen and dusty Brazil to tatters: not dissimilar from Muneca’s prying incisors on my shirt. Worse yet is the decimated pride Brazilians will feel for years in the aftermath of that train wreck of a match: uncannily similar to the sting my ego felt every time I appeared in public with my sewn-together soccer jersey, which had to look downright pathetic to even the most casual observer who rightly expected more from someone sporting the Brazilian colors.

7-to-1, with 5 goals in 9 minutes, and 3 of them in just 179 seconds? And by the fourth goal, it seemed Muller, Klose, and the rest of the Deutschlanders weren’t even TRYING. Indeed – or was it just me? – the Germans were repeatedly dribbling the ball down to the Brazilian goal, toying around with Hulk and crew via a lil’ magic passing, then patty-caking the ball into the net, dazed Brazilians scattering in every direction EXCEPT the one the ball was actually traveling. Seriously?

My soccer jersey… A glory short-lived, a graceless abdication of a once-mighty throne, just like the Brazilian team itself, defeated “em casa” and in its sulking and silent locker room wake countless dozens of gargantuan stadiums erected at the cost of gazillions of dollars that Brazilians themselves, at least in the finals of the 2014 World Cup, won’t get the luxury of enjoying.

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Milk Man: The Human Moo Cow

Since Zuli’s birth, my life has become one of many things: the sterilizing of bottles, the installation of Chicco Key Fit car seats, the covering of bills. And yet the most pressing issue is one that doesn’t really involve me directly at all: lactation, with Maria on the delivering end and Zuli on the receiving one. Indeed, though I play no direct role in that equation, I do find myself acutely attentive to all matters of the boob, and not in the same way I was during my teenage years. This recent re-focus on, um, mammalian life (get it?) has been a virtual flux capacitor – a time machine, if you will – transporting me way back to a story of the lactating variety, but not like you’d expect.

While residing in Kaneohe, Hawaii from 1989-1992 as a secondary school student, I had the explicit displeasure of knowing a kid my same age named Hank (real name changed to protect the innocent). Of the angular and chatty variety, this Napoleonic cuss was a trash talker of the highest caliber even at 13 years of age. Verily did Hank possess a talent for invective-spewing loquacity that even Dave Mustaine might envy. So tall his tales, so weighty the Marlin he’d snared! And though none of us swallowed it, he insisted that his personal Rolodex contained oodles of famous rappers with whom he was intimately associated.

Though I’m not sure Hank realized it himself, his false claims of association with temporary pop icons typically foresaged their downfall. No sooner would he whisper a rapper’s name, and the weather vane would point toward that rapper’s impending departure from the Billboard Top 200. Fortunately for us all, Hank was a youth possessed of despicably poor taste, only claiming association with stars upon whom the rest of us wished rueful deaths in the first place. He never lied about knowing NWA, MC Hammer, De La Soul, or Biz Markee. But boy, did Hank love him some Vanilla Ice. He told us one day, his tongue polishing the lie as it rolled crisp as a fallen autumn leaf from his lips, “Yeah, me and Dave Van Winkle – that’s Vanilla’s REAL name – used to go on drive-by shootings to kill the Bloods in Dallas, since we were both Crips…” While it’s true that we all stopped believing in the Easter Bunny only a brief handful of years earlier, and the fairy dust of Dumbo-styled suspended disbelief hadn’t fully cleared from our pre-pubescent minds, Hank’s b.s. was a bridge too far. Unbelievable by any standard. He even pumped up the street creds of innocuous non-gangsta wanna-be boy bands like Color Me Badd, and guess what? When he mentioned having done drive-bys with them, CMB’s irridescent stage lights fell similarly dim.

When we left Hawaii in mid-1992 and returned to Virginia for my dad’s next military assignment, it was therefore a time of rejoice. I’d finally been rid of Hank. But like Brokeback Mountain, we simply couldn’t quit him, though we’d have loved nothing more than to relegate him in the dust bin of history. Thus one can appreciate the trauma I was caused a month later, at the tail end of the summer and just before the first day of 10th grade, my brother Ben came home with Hank on his tail. And my bro was not pleased to shuffle in the door with this specific straggler. Turns out Hank’s dad had also been reassigned to our same Marine base. Hank showed himself into our kitchen, popped a Coke, and told us he’d just saved all our lives when squashing a black widow spider near our front door. A smart-ass by nature, I asked him if he’d been on any drive-bys with third-rate rappers lately. Hank stared back at me blankly, then pulled the ultimate trump card and did something I’ll never forget: he pulled up his tee-shirt, locked index finger and thumb around his right nipple, and began to squeeze. We waited uncomfortably, not entirely sure where lay the punchline in Hank’s bizarre non-sequitor. But he hit payday a few pregnant seconds later when a single drop of milk trickled down his scrawny chest. Hank had milked himself, contradicting everything we’d learned in bio class ’til that point.

We stood aghast. And then we recovered and attempted to replicate the feat, which to a bunch of teenage boys was admittedly the most singularly astounding act we’d witnessed. And I’d seen MOTLEY CRUE on the Dr. Feelgood tour, mind you. Not that any of us really wanted to milk ourselves, but how could we let Hank have a monopoly on something this cool? None of us were able to do it, though. Our manly mammilla were barren and destitute landscapes, arid as the Sahara. And so we had to give some respect to the little joker, for he achieved the un-achievable as a manly human moo cow.

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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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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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