Tag Archives: World Cup

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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The Brazilian Favela: Doth Fools Step in Where Angels Fear Tread?

A typical Sunday morning, yet depressingly overcast in a city not meant for anything less than sun beaming down from the turquoise heavens, lamentably poo-pooing my initial plan to hit the beach. Not wanting to sit stewing inside my ever-stuffier apartment, my beach deployment scuttled and the shutters on Starbucks Leblon still sitting conspicuously closed, I opted for the only viable alternative: simply walking and seeing where it took me. So 30 minutes in, I made it to the Vidigal favela, lying up a hillside but a short distance from my place.

As I’m certain has occurred with many gringos whose fascination with Latin America entailed reading endless books on the region, so too was my perception of the Brazilian favelas negatively swayed by a volume I read years ago called Child of the Dark. The autobiography of onetime favela dweller Maria Carolina de Jesus, this sketch of daily life in Rio’s poorest communities rose to global prominence as the first-of-its-kind in the now-estimable canon of Brazilian testimonial literature. The picture she painted was bleak by any standard, and formed the bedrock of my understanding of Rio’s slums. This perception was buttressed by subsequent years of grisly fofocas regarding the misery of Rio’s urban poor, the inherent criminal demeanor and intent of those who inhabit the favelas, and the risk I’d run as a foreigner walking into a place like Vidigal without a guide shepherding my stupid and naive flock of one. It does not help that the media – both locally and globally – focuses on the crises faced by someone every day in such places. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. Thus you could forgive one for assuming every favela ought be a total shit-show, all the better avoided, the people of such locales pitiable for the mournful and intrinsically unrewarding existences they barely eek out of the pathetic hand life has dealt them.

And yet since my October arrival in Rio, a curious thing has happened: I have come upon information contradicting, at least in part, this standard narrative. If even part of the info is accurate, it would seem the conventional wisdom is none too conventional, after all. In the last decade, the so-called Brazilian “economic miracle” (not really a miracle, but I’ll tackle that in a future post) yanked nearly 40 million people out of poverty, injecting them into the incipient Brazilian middle class with credit lines and disposable incomes. Subsequent to this economic blossoming, the favelas began to improve – if only slightly and at a snail’s pace – as money began trickling into them both from insiders-done-good and outside investors who saw opportunity. As Brazilians living in the favelas gradually enhanced their individual and aggregate purchasing power, they gained marginally more political power, organizing and demanding better municipal services and utilities like potable water that won’t give you amoebas, stable electrical grids that don’t crap the bed every 12 minutes, internet connectivity letting them interact with one another and the distant outside world, and other material and technological pleasures of the modern world.

Things kicked into even higher developmental gear after Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The government realized if it plans to successfully host these high-profile mega-events, establish its global image as that of a “serious country” (a goal of near-fanatical regard to Brazilians at all stripes), and provide a safe environment for the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who will descend upon the country like locusts to a crop in coming years, it had to sort out the security situation in its key cities, which necessarily meant making the favelas safer. So the authorities organized and deployed Unidades de Policia Pacificadora (UPP, or Pacification Police Units in English) into slums like Vidigal. The idea was simple: halt the most egregious crimes committed, restore a sense of marginal order, and instill even the semblance of calm on the streets, perhaps along the way imbuing residents with a kernel of belief that the elected officials are, in fact, doing something remotely approximating their job description, i.e. serving the citizenry. Very novel, crazy talk in Brazil, really. This became even more important when a crucial statistic came to light in recent years: nearly 65 percent of Rio’s middle class lives in favelas. And when that many middle class people are calling for safer streets, politicians begin to listen.

Of over 600 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, roughly 34 are considered “pacified” now, with Vidigal being at the top of the list. There’s a great deal of labor and growing pains still lying on the horizon – after all, recent estimates claim that Rio has 665 soccer stadiums’ worth of favelas within its municipal limits, housing in the ballpark of 2.5 million people, and they are still amongst the most violent places in the world if the statistics are true – but Brazil ought be recognized for what it’s already accomplished in the favelas, many of which didn’t have state presence of any sort as recently as 20 short years ago.

While the absence of open conflict does not automatically equate peace in the favelas, and while there is still plenty of poverty in Vidigal, just walking through it I clearly perceived that the problem now is not the abject misery of days’ past, when favela residents lived in wood slatted shanties, crapped in buckets on the porch, and lived in mortal fear of being roughed by neighborhood toughs (and, sadly, the police themselves) asserting their will by might. True, there are still economic issues, serious crime problems, and locals will tell you the cops don’t always seem to be on the right side of history. But the fact that a gringo like me could go walking into Vidigal – and more importantly, out of Vidigal – without incident is testament that the sands are shifting, hinting the favelas’ better days may lie on the not-too-distant horizon. All of this implies that a discussion of the favelas is more nuanced than the erred traditionalist everything-about-this-place-sucks construct I toted to Rio in my know-it-all gringo ditty bag, and Vidigal was a good entry point to learning more about these communities.

SAM_2654

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