Tag Archives: Rio de Janeiro

“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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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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Inside Kampala’s Owino Market: Another Aside from Living Brazilishly

…in which we become cognizant that our muzungu adventurer’s only regret from the Owino market was the theft of oral hygiene products from his backpack; and of the indulgent fraternity celebrated over a Mountain Dew.

SAM_2881The Owino market in downtown Kampala is insanity commodified, or commodity insanified, or something sea-sawing fluidly between the two. Nubian bodies push, press, and swell toward buses, shops, and food stalls; boda-boda (moto-taxi) drivers bellow at potential clients; traffic jams ring the entire scene, Muslim women toting fruit-bearing baskets atop their colorfully-hijabbed heads; and all of this whilst the familiar odor of open sewage fouls the nostrils and is yet counter-balanced by the aroma of roasting chicken. This medley – the hallmark of markets the world over, but somehow special in Kampala – tantalizes your sense of life. Here you’re in a constant state of endorphin overload, the realness engaging your every sense.

In the Owino there are no name brands: no Starbucks, no Armani. They probably wouldn’t know what to make of the golden arches if they woke up to find them sticking out of their asses. No one is wearing skinny jeans or trucker hats or bug-eyed sunglasses. I strongly suspect the latest Britney Spears scandal would draw scant attention. No, in the Owino it’s just Ugandans, Rwandans, and Sudanese, Africans from the very heart of this still little-known continent, doing what they have done since that first market stall went up along some incipient trade route in the Sahara millennia ago: hawking and shilling every manner of random ware, jostling and haggling and hustling to carve out a livelihood and passing the time in incessant conversation with jovial passersby, compatriot marketers, and the occasional chatty foreigner.  In the midst of the Owino, amongst the Africans who populate it, you sense their economic survival instinct, one acutely honed by centuries of neglect (moderated by bursts of hyper-attentiveness in the form of abuse) from whatever national authorities happen to be running the show. These folks are natural salespeople and to watch them work in their element is akin to a form of high poetry, the calligraphy of this anthill of human interaction played against the background of tradition, intense color, and a ceaseless stream of broad, toothy smiles as only the Africans can do them.

SAM_2821

Before I went to the Owino, the hotel reception desk implored me reassess the plan. Minimally, I was informed, I’d lose my wallet, sucked into nothingness like the South Sudanese government under the duress of the current conflict. And anyhow, who ever heard of a white foreigner voluntarily going to the Owino solo, sans assistance? They informed me that were I to brave the market’s frothy human rapids, I’d be best served enlisting accompaniment in the form of a trustworthy local who knew the area. I would acquiesce to neither, though I understand such advice is just how things go in Kampala. A standing assumption exists that once you venture outside the hotel compound, thar be dragons. You are assumed to be hoofing giddy a bee-line to either Bubbles O’Leary (a local expat watering hole that I have yet to visit, and probably won’t); to one of the game reserves hours away in your tourist desire to get photos of yourself feeding chimps in the supposed wild; or to a nearby (and secure) craft market to purchase mementos for parents or significant others, like the uber-cheesey masks that everyone I ever met who visited Africa displays proudly on their wall.

The Owino isn’t a theme park, and for this I am glad. I didn’t come to Uganda to spend my time in air conditioned mall stores making purchases of Chinese products masquerading as authentic African memorabilia.  And the Owino likewise isn’t Somalia; people have what seems to be an unreasonable fear about what terrible fate might befall them in the market, but let’s be honest, you’re not fleeing the ready rifles of Al-Shabaab. Counting myself a man of fortune superior to most, I assessed I’d be equally safe, and set forth.

Getting there proved a task, beset from the start by human speed bumps, an exercise in how speaking the same language as another person does not equate to communication. The hotel taxi driver passively balked at taking me, coolly insisting that I visit another market where he was certain I’d find quality African crafts. I explained to him thrice that in fact ’twas not my intention to engage in any level of consumer culture that day, and in fact was more disposed to dealing in essences, which is why I sought the Owino for its very Ugandaness. And yet he persisted. I surmised his desperation was founded less on the fact that my safety was important to him, and more related to the fact that he receives a kick-back for any purchases foreigners make in the markets to which he corrals us. The vendors are likely his uncles. I got tired of explaining, still jet lagged as I was, and let him drop me off where he wanted. Once he departed and was out of eyesight, I inquired of the first the first traffic cop I spotted how to get to the Owino.

SAM_2870I finally made it. Beating feet through the market, I developed a gradual but solid grasp of the entry and exit ways of the Owino’s labyrinthine streets. Walking with purpose – it pays dividends to seem like you know what you’re doing – I spent the first hour just getting the market’s pulse, the ebb and flow of shoppers and vendors alike as they ricocheted off one another like human pinballs, only whipping out my camera to get snaps once I’d made one full walk around and had come out the opposite end near the Gaddafi Mosque. The photos (below) speak for themselves, and nothing I write here will do justice to what I saw. My sole complaint: I got robbed. As the soothsayers of the hotel reception desk foresaw, indeed, I was pick-pocketed. Yet the casualty being a small blue purse containing a toothbrush and paste, taken from the small pocket in my backpack, I was both relieved that I hadn’t lost more and that the culprit might be treated a fortnight of decent oral hygiene.

Despite the heist, my faith in Africa’s goodness remained intact, for an event transpired betwixt me and a Ugandan Every Man that made my heart swell with fraternal love for my African brothers. If you know me, then you know I love Mountain Dew. My fondest memories are all attached to this verdant life-giving nectar; with pleasure paths firmly rooted, sippeth I continuously of the beverage at every reasonable opportunity, for it enhances as it entrances. And yet there is no Mountain Dew in Brazil, where I’ve labored these three long Dew-less months before descending upon Uganda. So in the Owino, I came upon an ambulatory cold drink salesman, his Styrofoam cooler upon his shoulder and his brow moist with the sweat of midday sun. And he had in his possession an errant Dew, upon which I acted with silent industry after delivering the purchase price of 2,000 Ugandan shillings.

SAM_2847A random mall cop-ish security guard saw me enjoying my Dew and asked if I’d buy him one, too. I was reluctant to do this for someone I didn’t know, and in the Owino market of all hellholes getting out money for strangers is even less advisable. Perhaps it was a ploy, a clever chicanery that would result in more than toothpaste being stolen this time? But I must admit, I was intrigued, for he eyed my Dew with a benign spirit and parched lips. So I asked him why he wanted one. His response, and I’m quoting: “I find it refreshing.” And so 2,000 Ugandan shillings left my pocket with a velocity typically reserved for werewolf-bound silver bullets. Indeed, ne’er had a stranger in a foreign land spoken so poetically and truthfully to me about the need to slake the aridness of his throat. And we shared our Dews, this man and I, bonded in bubbly green fraternity.

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Uganda Adventure Installment #2: Of Bribes and Men

…in which we learn how stupid a gringo withdrawn from his accustomed element can actually be; how his folly resulted in a public exhibition of lack of street smarts and, to a lesser extent, low-grade financial catastrophe; and how for the first time in his life he really, really wants foreign women to leave him alone.

My bags arrived at the airport in Entebbe on Friday evening, though ye who hath faithfully eyed my recent scribblings already know that ’twas Saturday morning before I made it to Idi Amin’s old stomping grounds myself. Upon setting my fatigued dogs to the linoleum floor in the Entebbe airport terminal, my overriding concern was locating said luggage. This was accomplished with ease, to my relief. Two very pleasant young Ugandan women at the lost luggage desk had prepped it for my arrival, promptly retrieving it for me to inspect when I presented the claim.

Then they requested I tip them for keeping the contents safe. Easy enough. As it was clear following inspection that all personal effects were present and accounted for, so overjoyed was I that, indeed, the thought crossed my mind to place gratitude’s silver in their palms before they’d spoken even the first word about it. And yes, I KNOW it’s their JOB to protect my bags, and they shouldn’t get paid extra for doing so. But this isn’t the US, where people accept dictums about good work being its own reward. I have zero problems demonstrating my comprehension of that fact, as long as I don’t look like a tourist fool in the process.

Yet it is precisely at this point where the negocio grew tricky. I went into it with a pronounced disadvantage. Having never paid a protection fee to anyone for any reason, how much is enough? What quantity exhibits goodwill yet avoids the setting up the next muzunga for financial ruin when he crosses paths with this dynamic duo of Samsonite-pilfering black widows?

Thus, dumb-assedly KNOWING the only result would be getting fleeced, I sent my first fumbling cannon ball across the bribe bow: “Just tell me how much people normally give you in a situation like this.” And they did: smirking disbelievingly and exchanged an anticipatory glance betwixt themselves, they named the price at 50,000 Ugandan shillings, just short of $25. When I produced the exact quantity of cash from my pocket and laid it with a smile on their desk, their disbelief augmented by orders of magnitude, eyes bulging at my wholesale willingness to accept what locals know is 10 times the normal “tip” in such a situation, if one is paid at all. I didn’t even haggle. But to be honest, I didn’t care. That’s what two days of flying, nutritionally-impoverished airport food, and no sleep will do to you, my body and spirit weakened to the point of outright submission. As the saying goes, I was just happy to be there.

They asked me to write and sign my name into a ledger confirming my receipt of the bags. I did so. They asked for my passport to confirm my name, jotting something in their notes. By the time I got to the hotel and fired up the free WIFI an hour later, I’d already received a Facebook message from one of the ladies, who had searched me out, offering to be my tour guide in Uganda. Call me paranoid, but I sense a marriage proposal shant be long in arriving at this point.

I reasoned that perhaps she was merely overly-aggressive, not representative of local norms. But then at the nearby Garden City Mall yesterday afternoon, I spent two hours repelling the invasive glances of local women who sized up this pale-faced foreigner like a rack of prize beef. I began to surmise ’tis not necessarily my effervescent personality alone attracting this attention.

My grasp of how pushy they can be crystallized while departing the mall and walking back to the hotel. A woman I’m assuming was a prostitute appeared out of the proverbial nowhere, grabbed my arm and demanded I follow her. No thanks, I don’t want AIDS today. To the acute entertainment of passersby, who chucklingly gawked at my misfortune, this lady of the Kampala eve subjected me to mobile harassment for a full city block, snatching at my shirt and laying hands upon me in a manner not dissimilar to the Bon Jovi song, before ultimately letting me go and cursing my roundly as she slinked back to the place from whence she appeared.

This may be the first time I’ll utter such words, but I promise you I do not utter them carelessly: ladies, please leave me alone.

Below: images of the trip.

 

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