Tag Archives: Rio

“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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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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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.

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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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An Aside from Living Brazilishly: Uganda Adventure Installment #1

…in which we learn of Brian’s bogus journey, resulting in an insufferable evening of involuntary refuge on the hot plastic chairs of the international airport in Nairobi, Kenya. This, whilst being pricked and bled dry by malaria-ridden mosquitos, and falling into the temporary good graces of the VIP lounge caretakers, utilizing his last shred of charm, to allow use of their WIFI, thus constituting our intrepid traveler’s only bridge to the outside world during this time of egregious despair.

Everything about this virgin trek to the motherland kicked off well, not unlike a first-round of a classic-era Anderson Silva octagon scrap. In fact, ’twas almost too easy. Getting out of Rio was cinch; Air France exhibited tender loving care to all us passengers, introducing me to cheeses and breads I didn’t know even existed, chasing it with cheap box wine upgraded to a biodegradable plastic bottle, but wine none the less. Upon arrival in Paris, I found a Starbucks at Charles de Gaulle and sipped haughtily at my vice-inducing beverage, my piddly will wont to do in the French capital and feel, if only fleetingly, if not high-brow, then at least solid middle-brow culture.

But then the unraveling began. I boarded the great sleek steel bird that would yank me from Paris and launch me into the skies over Sicily, then Benghazi and the Sarhara (which I could see cloudlessly from the window), onward over the Sudan following a course down the Nile, eventually to Nairobi, Kenya. From which point I would disembark and hop the final flight to Kampala, Uganda. It is true that the signs and symbols of tragedy are oft inscribed with nuance upon the stars, in a manner no soothsayer would interpret as a negative tea leaf. For on the plane to Nairobi, I sat next to a morbidly obese French child, who grunted lustingly for ever-more food and guffawed at every stupid joke made in Pixar animated film Planes, which they showed 4 straight times in the sardine-like economy coach. And my ass began to hurt in no small measure, as by the time this flight was accomplished, I’d spent the better part of 21 full hours in the air in the preceding 24. And the kid took up a great deal of physical space, so large his fleshy bandwidth, so unappetizing the hot dog-like fat rolls on his neck. Though no theologian, this denial of my space for the flight’s duration put me in mind of Peter’s first denial of Christ, albeit I am reluctant to cast my struggle for armspace with tubby in epic religious terms.

We arrived in Nairobi with an overage of time to kill, but infelizmente the lackluster and uninspired agents of Kenyan Airways experienced a dickens of a time herding all of us off the plane, into the gate-hopping paddy wagon, and over to the proper terminal, at which point we were all forced to herd ourselves. It did not seem, on the surface, a task so difficult; but not having taken their Lean Six Sigma courses, the Kenyan airport authorities are none to skilled in the specializations required to run an efficient operation, or so became ruefully clear to me within seconds of hitting the tarmac. And this got ugly at the transfers desk, where I was trying to get my final boarding pass printed, gasping for the sole customer service agent assigned there to assist.

Now, let’s rewind slightly: why wasn’t the final boarding pass already printed in Rio? Very worthwhile query; let me assure you I also pondered thusly the same item. But in Rio they told me I could get it printed in Paris; in Paris they promised me it’d be taken care of in Nairobi upon arrival; and now at the Nairobi transfers desk, it became a real-time adaptation of kick-the-can but with considerably greater implications for yours truly. Namely, missing the flight and thereby spending the night in the airport. And the transfer desk agent’s response was literally: “You don’t exist in our system, so we’re not printing you a boarding pass.” This second denial inched me ever-closer to matrydom, and it started becoming hard not to pitch my battle to get to Uganda in epic religious terms.

Surely thou art merely cruelly joshing your Brianzinho, Kenyan amigos! My retort to the transfer desk official, a late-term pregnancy woman of no more than 22 whose name was ironically Charity, fell on deaf ears. I mention her name since, were I to be frank at this juncture in the retelling, I’d say Charity’s actions were falling well shallow of upholding her namesake, given the arc of her constantly rolling eyes, the dismissiveness of her voice, and her constant suggestion that I call my travel agency to “fix the problem”.

So I lose all sense of time, place, and context. I go straight to the bribe: what doth thou desire? What could put me in a plane tonight? I have now traveled three continents in 26 hours, 20 of those being physically on a plane, and not dissimilar to the protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe’s “El Dorado”, my mental and physical strength now failed me at length. Surely a woman in her stage of pregnancy might dine readily on chocolates tongith, hmmm? Might a 9-dollar bag of Hershey’s put my bald ass in a plane bound for Uganda this very eve, Charity? For I am American Diplomat in a state of Great Desperation, and I will do quite literally anything to ensure I am on the plane in 15 minutes when it leaves Kenyan air space. Kampala has now transformed to an oasis in my fatigue-besieged mind. And isn’t my President Obama a man with Kenyan roots, deep as the nutrient-rich Kenyan subsoil, after all one of you? And would not helping his lowly emissary, here to be found in such narrow straits, be to deny a long lost brother-done-good? None too givingly, Charity finally heard my petition and offered me the transfer desk’s cell phone to make some calls, since my own Blackberry was not functioning whatsoever.

I will add that as I provided these long-winded explanations, the other passengers, finding themselves in equally perplexing pickles, chuckled heartily and in unison. They, clearly far more experienced in the ways of the institutional culture of the Nairobi Transfer Desk, intuitively and experientially understood that I’d make no headway with any of this. And they found the fact that I would try naive, hilarious, and pathetic all swirled into the glaze of a single crap cake.

So I got the travel agency on the line. In Brazil. On a borrowed Kenyan cell phone in bad condition, with background ambient noise compliments of a) people laughing at me, and b) people verbally assaulting the transfer desk in hopeful remedy of their own situations, some of which sounded even worse than mine.

One would think that with the travel agency on the line, calm would quickly be restored, tempers sated, murders avoided. But that would be based on one’s unreasonable assumption that all emergency line travel agents are rational beings who, in fact, both desire to assist the wayward federal traveler stranded in his first hour on the African continent AND are technically savvy enough to do so. But no. It went something like this:

Me: “Hi, my name is Brian and I’m a government worker stationed in Rio de Janeiro. Your travel agency booked my ticket yesterday for a flight to Kampala, Uganda and I’m having some trouble, which is why I’m calling this emergency line after-hours. I am in Kenya right now (brief description of issue follows) and really need your help. What can we do?”

Her: “Ok, spell your last name for me.

Me: (Spelling my last name, each letter very deliberately)

Her: “Ok, let me repeat that to you… H… G… T… U… U… I… Z… R…”

Me: “No, NO! That’s NOT it. Ok, look, let me do this one more time, I’m going to yell it. I’m not yelling at you, so forgive me, This is just a very loud airport and a very useless phone.” (Commence repeat of last name spelling)

(Two more rounds of this and, miraculously, I believe she gets it right. Then…)

Her: “Sir, I don’t have your file here. Are you sure we booked your ticket? You don’t seem to exist.”

ME: “YES I’M F**KIN’ SURE!!! I GOT ALL THE WAY HERE FROM RIO DE JANEIRO ON THE TICKET YOU GUYS ISSUED TO ME, I’M LOOKING AT IT RIGHT NOW AND CALLED THE EMERGENCY NUMBER FOR HELP. I’M IN KENYA, AND I KNOW I DIDN’T TRAVEL OUT HERE ON AN IMAGINARY TICKET NOR DID I PAY THE $6,800 OUT-OF-POCKET JUST TO COME HERE AND PRANK CALL YOU ABOUT A PHANTOM FLIGHT AND WHY MY NAME OUGHT TO BE ON IT. So I need you to re-enter the spelling of my last name once more since I’m pretty sure you got it wrong and that’s why it’s not showing up. And by the way, can we do this quickly?The plane is leaving in 10 minutes.”

(We go through two more rounds of this. Finally, FINALLY, it’s ok and she locates my ticket.)

Her: “Oops, seems like we made a mistake. The very final portion of your flight, from Nairobi to Kampala, wasn’t officially released to the airline. Since it wasn’t released, it wasn’t issued. And since it wasn’t issued, you were not able to get a boarding pass, which is why you can’t travel right now. That’s all that happened.”

Me: “That’s ALL? Ok, look miss, I’ve already missed the flight. I don’t wanna spend the night in the airport sleeping on the chairs at the gate. There’s no a/c in here and the mosquitos are eating my bald ass alive. My mosquito repellant’s actually in my checked baggage, and I don’t know where that is at this point, either. When is the next flight to Uganda?”

Her: “Well which flight would you like to take? Any ideas?”

Me: “Sadly, no, I am bereft of ideas. Because, you see, YOU ARE THE FREAKIN’ TRAVEL AGENCY AND HAVE COMPUTERS WHICH, AS IF BY DIVINE PROVIDENCE, ARE SUPPOSED TO DISPLAY ALL THOSE THINGS, IMPORTANT STUFF LIKE FLIGHTS AND, YES, EVEN SCHEDULES. SO JUST TELL ME WHEN THE NEXT FLIGHT IS SO WE CAN GET ME ON IT AND FORGET THIS WHOLE THING EVER HAPPENED, can we please just do that, hmmmm can we?!”

It took an hour on the horn, plus the call dropping twice, to sort this out. But I am pleased to announce that now, at 3:15 AM on Saturday January 4, 2014, I have a boarding pass in hand and will proceed to Kampala, Uganda in a few hours. I can only hope, indeed pray, that I am not denied yet a third time. For how shall I rise after the metaphorical death a third denial would deal unto me?

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A Short Pause in Living Brazilishly: Now I’m Going to Africa

Other than in Hollywood blockbusters, you seldom witness a real-life situation in which a man wakes to find existence as he knew it irretrievably altered, the hot porridge of destiny bubbling thickly in his bowl. At this precise moment he is compelled to choose: sup heartily at his bowl, or gawk blankly as it cools and, eventually, is rendered inedible? If the Taco Bell eating contests in which I engaged until quite recently attest to anything, ’tis that THIS GRINGO CAN EAT. I don’t mean to brag, but my figurative mitt trembleth not when, poised with tarnished spoon, it digs profoundly into the metaphorical porridge.

So in the spirit of my Quixotic quests, when offered a month-long assignment to Uganda last week, I accepted. And for solid measure on the back end of the jaunt, I’ve tacked on four days in Kigali, Rwanda, that I might visit the genocide museum and go gorilla-trekking on the city’s highland outskirts. As if my virgin African foray could grow no more exciting, this morning I found out the return flight will stop for nearly a day in the Ethiopian capital, hitting the tarmac at Bole International Airport at 6 AM; a 3-mile taxi ride gets you to city center, and the flight to Dubai doesn’t depart until late in the day, so I’ll be checking out Addis Ababa for a few hours in the interim. I will add that I received formal confirmation of this entire trip just yesterday, when I awoke to find the day like most others preceding it. In the last 24 hours, I’ve been scrambling to get airline tickets, travel orders, and essential administrative minutiae under wraps to depart Rio this coming Thursday evening.

I never thought I’d visit Africa, much less work in it for any period of time. I suppose that in my line of work, anything is possible. Like everyone else doing this job, so too did I sign a worldwide availability clause as condition of employment. Yet I assumed I’d spend the bulk of my career in Latin America, with Africa remaining what it has been to me heretofore: an unquantifiable and intangible entity, a vast expanse of loosely-configured states with a jungle bigger than the continental U.S., Muslims in the north, and somewhere in the realm of 3,000 languages spoken in bursts, the colonial-era ones boasting the greatest dispersion. Up until this trip became a concrete reality, I felt no more connected to the African continent than anyone else from my Ohio-born, white-bred, corn-fed family.

But when I stop and think of it, hints of Africa have abounded throughout my life. It is sadly not until now, however, that I have taken a moment to ponder what they foreshadowed of my own future. My father deployed to Somalia in 1992-93. I was almost sent to Africa for my Peace Corps assignment (though El Salvador won out, and the jury’s still in deliberation on how good a thing this was for the Pulgarcito de las Americas). I’ve had both African-American and continental African friends over the years, one of which was a Sudanese man who painted in vibrant hues for me the history of his nation and the suffering it has endured in its own long march to independence. Occasionally, I’d read books about the continent, chiefly the late Nelson Mandela’s Long March to Freedom and the history of Stephen Biko and the Black Consciousness movement he represented before his beating death by South African constables. Major motion pictures like Hotel Rwanda were impossible to miss, and there’s the laundry list of random documentaries, like Vice Magazine’s recent one on the naked warlord generals of Liberia.

So it’s safe to say, without fear of sounding cliche or dramatic, the signs and symbols of Africa have never been far from my head and heart. In two days when I disembark the plane in Kampala, Uganda, they’ll round the long corner from a fantasy I dared not even imagine when conjuring myself from bed yesterday… To an objective reality that will invariably shift the sands under my feet and, I think, alter the very course of my life.

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Summer in Rio: Fleshy Gods of Humidity Sit Mockingly on My Face

Christmas has passed, the New Year is almost upon us. This ought be a time of reflection, celebration, rejoice. Yet this gringo is hardly in a festive mood, for the Brazilian summer and its intensity now blankets Rio.

For public record and the satisfaction of my own ego, please allow me assert the following: I have suffered the extremities of heat in many past lives and have lived to tell about them. Name your place and I’ll spin you a yarn of a climate defied: gnawed by gnats on boating docks of the South Carolinian coast; floored by the stroke-inducing temps in the Salvadoran lowlands and the Colombian Amazon on the Rio Putumayo; driven to near insanity by the northern Iraqi summer waiting for a plane that never comes on an asphalt flight line; baked alive in the Chinese urban summertime blast furnace that is Wuhan, when eggs still fry on the pavement at midnight. And yet though I intuit those were qualitatively worse, there is something inherently brutal-er to the ceaseless, oppressive humidity in Rio. It is simultaneously depleting my strength while goading me agrily to fisticuffs with every slow walker who stands betwixt me and the next air conditioned store into which I can duck for respite. It is a contradictory sensation which I attribute to the effects of prolonged hot weather on the cerebrum. And this is only the first real week of it.

Concurrent to gringo biology, I suffer. Toting a towel to which I am tethered when outdoors for any reason, I am also avoiding hot beverages to the extent possible (though as a general personal policy, no Starbucks shall go un-entered). I am taking cold showers. I have even slowed my afternoon beach workouts. (Though further to this final point, I admit my ego’s mighty thirst is sated when fellas with far more pronounced striation and bulk tap out and head for the refuge of a beach umbrella, whilst I hit 10, 20, 30 pull-ups before jogging to the next exercise station and commencing anew this perverse form of personal flagellation. In the bizarro mental world I inhabit, this somehow equates to enamoring their girlfriends with my gringo fortitude.)

Concurrent to gringo psychology, I complain. I once read that the idiot resists, but the wise man accepts. Then consider me an idiot, for my spirit continues to resist this heat. I also once heard that brevity is the soul of wit. Thus you may also consider me witless, for I experiencing no shortage of epithets, complaints, and manifestos sure to be spit in defiance of this protracted summer season. For a man who is already known as loquacious, I am presently spurred to my most verbose capacities yet, and all for the spiritual uprising my sweaty soul began demanding about a week ago when the summer “officially” began.

And corollary to gringo psychology, I question. Never one to leave well enough alone, my intellect is forever insurgent against scenarios that ought to possess a logical explanation yet, somehow, categorically defy reason. How is it that Rio’s inhabitants don’t perspire? They are dry – DRY, I TELL YOU! – their skin faultless cafe-com-leite brown bereft of the first hint of glisten! How can they mill about in their groups, conversing under direct sunlight at high noon with no hats, no sunglasses, sometimes in jeans, utterly at ease? I see the incessant consumption of beer and soda in the street – not a bottle of water sipped amongst them! – yet no one is dehydrated. Are the Brazilians evincing a new stage of evolution? Are they possessed of an adaptive advantage that is not apparent to the gringo eye? I understand they are accustomed to their natural environs, but just as I wonder how Europeans puff Marlboros like chimneys yet don’t suffer the same incidence rates of lung cancer as Americans, I query if Brazilians are equipped with the same eyes and flesh as me? If so, why do they not suffer greatly as I? How can they look so damned good after years of being cooked like Chicken McNuggets in the veggie oil vat?

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