Thursday, November 04, 2004

M14 Vista De Venezuela

This week I had my first trip to Venezuela. The most I got to see of the country was my hotel room, the mall and the bank where I worked 16-hour days. I feared wouldn't get to know the country at all while cocooned within the trappings of business travel-land.

The week started off with my worst fears coming to fruition. Everything that was supposed to happen didn’t happen. Everything that wasn’t supposed to happen happened. And while it was happening, I had no idea of how it would happen to end up.

Imagine installing, configuring, testing and building applications in complicated enterprise software. Your client is equally complicated and even more demanding. You’ve never looked at the software on a server - only on a laptop. Now imagine doing it in a language you're just learning on a keyboard that doesn't contain such computer necessities as semicolons, colons, pipes and "@'s". In fact, without a semi-colon, your company’s software won’t even run.

Your primary technical point of contact doesn't speak the same language as you do and he won't let you lay your fingers on the computer where you're supposed to install the software. You have the pleasure of "backseat-driving" the install in a language you've never formally studied. The software you use to access the server uses some ancient form of terminal emulation invented before you were born requiring you to do manual screen refreshes adding half a minute to every mouse click.

When you arrive at the client site, Venezuela's second largest bank, the software CD’s your own company's local subsidiary are supposed to have brought, are not what the client asked for. But even if they were, it wouldn't matter; your company’s local technical consultant forgot to bring the special code to unlock the software.

Bienvenido a mi mundo! (Welcome to my world). It’s 9:30 Monday morning.

I start to forget about making a good impression with my new management. Instead, I try to focus my energy on keeping my job.

I am relieved to find out the local consultant my company has sent along to help with the installation has 10 year’s experience and had lived in the States for three. Great. He can help out both technically and linguistically.

Too bad he speaks less English than I speak Spanish and I quickly conclude he would need detailed instructions, a training class and hand-holding for installing AOL Instant Messenger.

Is he here to help or narc?

Our Venezuela office hired a driver for me who will not only meet me at the airport, but also drive me around on demand. He’s supposed to meet me with an envelope containing 100,000bs, Bolivars, the local currency, and a cell phone. I am picturing myself lounging in the plush leather seat of my very own black Lincoln Towncar – like the ones that used to ferry me back and forth to Dulles Airport. And rolling with 100,000 of anything has to be pimped! I could feel the wad of cash in my hand! I was starting to feel more like a drug lord than a software consultant!

I giddily Google “bolivar-dollar exchange rate” to see just how much I will have!

It turns out my bank roll will consist of coins. It’s a whopping $7.14US per day. I am pretty sure that won’t pay for my daily coffee fix. At least I’ll have the black Towncar and, the cell phone.

I arrive at the Caracas International Airport and my driver, Eduardo, is there holding the placard “Brian Kemler” as planned. Right-on. We walk through the parking lot and I am scoping out the cars. I don’t see any black Lincolns, but Eduardo is homing in on a beautiful new Volvo. Nice! I see the parking lights flash and hear the doors unlock on a beat-up Nissan subcompact, a street taxi, as Eduardo’s thumb presses his key chain. I am crestfallen.

The next day he takes me to the bank in rush hour traffic. Caracas makes Mexico City look like Bel Air. At night it looked like it got hit with a neutron bomb; no sign of human life.

Where did they get these beaters, er, cars? A junkyard circa 1978? The streets of Caracas are a giant demolition derby and every single car a battle-worn contestant. The word hooptie may have originated in the States, but I am sure the Oxford English Dictionary would tell you it was inspired here.

There are jacked up ‘70’s muscle cars, the kinds motor heads in my high school used as spare parts donor, prowling the streets. A broken taillight is easily replaced with hand-painted red Saran Wrap. Have a flat? Why there’s no need to either change it or to stop driving. I saw “micros” (think public transit meets the short bus) making their regular rounds with flat tires.

Back at the bank, I’ve learned they don’t have the same computers they said they would have nullifying hours of my work the previous week and necessitating more work this week. This delays the project by hours even though the boss can’t understand this.

While I am in the midst of recreating the software “plan”, El Jefe or the boss, Ivan, comes down to pester me. “Is it ready yet? No, when?”. It’s 11am Monday.

I fix the plan then I am onto the next, in what was a week of problems. I brought my own disks to install the software and my own special key to unlock it foreseeing this issue. The disks malfunction and won’t install.

I am screwed.

I realize we can hook my computer up to the network and copy my employee software to the bank’s computers. I am not supposed to do this. But technically, it will work; it’s my only option. Done.

As soon as I fix one problem, the Bank creates another by tampering with the computer by using the ID they purloined from me. Then they come down and complain that the software “no esta trabajando” – is not working. No shit. Why are you using it behind my back? And oh, how did those files get in that directory if you’re not screwing with my computer? Last time I checked, computers didn’t develop the ability to think on their own. Oh, and thanks for changing the name of that one directory, now I get to redo everything I already did.

I am communication in Spanish to such a degree that I astonish myself. In doing so, I’ve developed a rapport with the protective systems administrator and by the third day he’s relinquished control of the server. Yo estoy manejando ahora. I am driving now. He doesn’t speak a lick of English and doesn’t try, but he’s as friendly as can be and is a remarkably good sport about letting me commandeer his workstation for an entire week.

One of the developers, Frewuill is an avid mountain biker and had learned English from films. We have an instant rapport. The other two guys, the admin Miguel and Alfredo treat me like old buddies.

Frank, our consultant is doing nothing, but literally getting in the way. I guess 5:45pm is too late to work. He shuts my laptop off with out asking. I have a better rapport with the customers and I barely speak Spanish! The phone they gave me runs out of minutes on the first day. The new phone they give me a day later is nice till I turn it off. When I turn it back on, it requires a password which they didn’t provide.

So much for calling tech support.

These guys are hilarious. They teach me more Spanish than I’ve learned to date. They clue me in on the colorful Venezuelan modismos or slang words. Some have near equivalents in English, but all are more colorful and interesting. Coming back from lunch on day one we cross under a run-down highway overpass which doubles as the “DVD Mall”.

Here the DVD’s are actually DVD’s e.g. they are not filmed with hand-helds like the DVD’s sold in certain North American nations... There’s a section of porn which they laugh and tell me is called “carne con pappas” or meat with potatoes. I buy four films (no, none porn!); Simpsons, Maria Full of Grace, Big Fish and Daredevil mainly because these are the only films that have Spanish sound with English subtitles and vice-versa.

They laugh, I laugh. When I wasn’t stressing out, the guys had me cracking up. I ask where to buy coffee and rather than tell me Alfredo brought me a half-kilo of local coffee the next day.

One of the other co-workers came into to our cube area. They started making fun of him because of his fatness - gordo. Everyone was laughing though I felt awkward.

Elsewhere, we’re supposed to deny reality and pretend like everyone is the same. We’re not. Here, there’s sense of honesty and I don’t think it was done in a mean way or that he was particularly hurt. He didn’t seem hurt when he joined us for the lunch they served us every day on the top floor of the building in a special room reserved for guests (me).

Frewuill jokingly referred to the boss as “Ivan, el terrible” behind his back. I can’t imagine even joking about that behind my bosses’ back to a client or a customer. But it was hilarious. Elsewhere, everyone thinks these things yet no one says it. Here everyone thinks it and says it. Refreshing.

The installation was like a feeding frenzy for free information. I’d be trying to resolve a complex problem to be interrupted with yet another.

I’d literally have to say: “I can do *this* or I can do *that*; you tell me what you want me to work on and I will work on it; but I can’t do *both*”. Then I’d go back to doing what I was doing.

Every night I’d come to the Embassy Suites Hotel, study up and find solutions to the next day’s foreseen problems. Thursday afternoon, El Jefe was visibly annoyed that things weren’t running on his time table and working the way he wanted them – even though he had absolutely zero experience with the new version our software and thus no basis for any expectations. I thought he was going to blow a gasket like one from one of the old muscle cars on the streets.

“Esta no trabajando, esos no estan trabajando”. “This isn’t working these aren’t working.”

Okay, El Jefe, if you’re so smart, let’s see you go to a country you’ve never been and install software on a computer that’s in a language you don’t know with a keyboard made by Satan on a system that’s as fast molasses rolling uphill with a client that is constantly breathing down your neck, while 5 people sit behind you as you work, interrupt you constantly and change the operating environment without informing you.

Esta es tu tarea, El Jefe. That is your homework, El Jefe. Come back and talk shit to me then.

What the hell is he doing on the server with my id anyway? I though I was going to lose my {%$} at one point. I am busting arse, working till twelve and getting no appreciation. My boss is leaning on me to stay the weekend and I need to get out to catch a flight back to the states Tuesday.

I decide to take a stroll upstairs to silence Ivan the Terrible for once and for all.

“This script worked perfectly before you were here.”

“Ivan, what port are you using?”


“Try 7551”. Boom. Works, first try.

I sit down, he shows me more things that “don’t work”.

I’ve learned that “doesn’t work” translates poorly. It actually means, “I don’t know what the hell I am doing”. I fixed a slew of his other problems in succession, each on my first attempt. Within in an hour, he is laughing and smiling. The funny thing about this dude is you can read it all in his body language.

By the last day, El Jefe was eating out of my hands but I still had to fix two small problems. People don’t realize software implementations are complex and debugging is a normal part of the process. I love it when people ask me “do you know what’s wrong with it”? That has to be the stupidest question on the planet. If I knew that it wouldn’t be broken in the first place! I don't know, but I do know how to go through a process to figure it out.

I decide to call in the cavalry.

Steve, my buddy and colleague from SAS in Rockville is one of the cleverest technical people I know (in addition to being an all around a good guy). Even though his help is always in high demand, he always avails himself when colleagues are in need – a rare attribute in people with his level of technical expertise. Knowing this, I try to limit my help calls to him. But I am desperate now and I know he’ll come through. We swap emails and get on the telephone and get everything working at precisely 4:10pm on Friday.

Ivan was so excited he was going to pee himself. Truth be told, I was too.

The other guys are still regaling me with technical questions, but I jokingly say in Spanish I need mental vacation. Sometimes I think I don’t get paid for what I know but rather for the fact that I can think on my feet. Believe me it’s not all up in my head and more often than not, I don’t know the answer. But I guaranty you, I can figure it out or get help.

I don’t know how I pulled it off, but somehow, I did. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

M13 Once Upon a Time in the Favellas, Yo

A Report From Rio

My first reaction to the idea of Favella (slum) tours in Rio was a mixture surprise, humor and offense. Imagine someone doing that in Detroit or Camden. (Hey – maybe that’s my million dollar idea?) It sort of smacked of the idea that people in ghettos are like zoo animals in cages to be gawked at.

The more I read, however, the more interested I was. The New York Times wrote the tour up favorably as highly educational and interesting. Part of the tour’s proceeds is the principal source of funds for an after school program that has sent 130 kids a year to college for the last decade.

So I decided to check it out.

Marina, my guide, picked me up at my hotel with a van full of Brits. Everyone wants to know what I think about Kerry vs. Bush. I tell them it’s going to be close and it’s going to be like the 2000 election only I think Kerry is going to win. (Yes, I was wrong).

Marcelo Amstrong’s guide company started the tours which are popular with all but two groups; Brazilians and their government. It seems they would rather deny the existence of the favellas. The media in Brazil has fanned the stereotypes of the favellas as crime-ridden slums.

In reality, most actually leave their houses unlocked. The favella dwellers welcome the tours because they allow people to see for themselves the reality. In the 12 years Marcelo has been operating, he has not had a single incident. It seems all the crime takes place in the nice part of town. But I wonder if I am going to run into my shirtless 20-year old assailant with my Canon G5 digital camera.

Marina explains that slums are a parallel universe where people empower themselves building homes on public land where the market and the government have failed them. Brazilian law allows anyone to gain title to land if they have been on it for five years or longer. Many people actually hold title to their properties.

We drive through Imanema, go through a tunnel and then into a posh neighborhood with million plus dollar homes. I thought this was a slum tour?

The filthy rich and filthy poor are literally next door to one another. We park the van and go into the alleyway that leads to the favella. There are no streets, but the alleys have names and to the people there they are considered streets. They are so narrow it is impossible to fully open an umbrella here.

House is built on house defying any logical scheme. Some of the dwellings are no larger than my childhood tree fort. Some doors are barely chest high. There is electricity, cable and running water. Some people even have appliances they buy on credit from local department stores. Even though the have no collateral, their names are so valuable to them, they are typically lower credit risks than the rich people living below them. We walk down stairs in what looks like painting by M.C. Escher with palsy.

Small brick houses stacked haphazardly on one on top of the other on top of the next. Rats nests of cable wiring. Stairs leading up, down and sideways to doors. Friendly people who say hi and who are as curious about us as we are of them. A guy holds a puppy through a window for me to pet.

Damn. I wish I had my camera. I’ve recruited a Brit to take pictures from me. She is actually from Zimbabwe and I ask her and her mother what it’s like living under such a ruthless dictatorship. Since they hold British citizenship, they feel they can always leave.

Marina was fascinating and the tour was enlightening. I ask a question; who consumes all the drugs, the rich of Rio? Apparently, not. According to Marina, the drugs are just “passing through” on their way to the states. This was the only thing she said I found hard to believe. While I don’t doubt some of the drugs do pass through on their way up north, I am sure there is a local market as well.

In the favela, an unwritten code of order is enforced by drug gangs just as in, “City of God”. In the film, a car runs into a crowded restaurant, the police come and ask what’s happened. No one admits to seeing a car even though it’s right there in the middle of the restaurant. Criminals want no trouble and when there is any, they brutally repress it.

We drive to Rio’s largest favela. It actually has a street with a bank that was robbed by the police. It seems this is a parallel universe where the criminals keep order and the police break it. For a moment, I fantasize about being an anthropologist, immersing myself in and integrating into the community. One day they will accept me as their own. Then I wonder what it would be like to once again leave. I know it’s some thing I could make the most of. Though the thought is entirely momentary and fleeting.

We walk by a chicken shack where you pick your own live chicken to be butchered on demand. On display are freshly killed chickens, eggs still in tact dangling from their halved bodies. How even the most hardcore meat eater could not be disgusted is beyond me. I wonder if this is lost on everyone on the tour but me. Probably.

Needless to say, it reaffirmed my vegetarianism but also made me wonder if more people would be vegetarian if their food came in the gory form of dismembered carcasses instead of in “nuggets”, “wings” and “breasts”.

“City of God” draws the parallel between violence against animals and violence toward humankind in its opening and closing scenes which are quite hard to watch. I definitely think there is a connection.

Nearby, a hearty street cat is patrolling for scraps. No doubt this guys eats better than most house cats. He is on a perfect Atkins diet in this part of town. The place is a bustle with people. This is the first time I feel like I really stand out in Brazil. Till now, as long as I keep my mouth closed, I fit in.

We finish the tour on the roof a house that has the best view of Rio. A panaroma spanning the Christ Statue, Sugarloaf and Impanema beach and beyond is visible. The other members of the tour look at paintings and handicrafts (it wouldn’t be a tour with out a stop at the “gift shop”) while I gaze out over the wonder that is Rio from above.

It’s a view that the poorest people of Rio get to enjoy every day.

Monday, November 01, 2004

M12 Sin Camara

Another Report From Rio

One of the goals I set for myself a few years ago was to do more writing and photography. I’ve been prodigious beyond what I set out to do. My Powerbook’s hard drive is stuffed and I now have to delete old photos just to make way for new ones.

On a typical extended weekend, I may take as many 300 photographs. Only a fraction make it to my website and fewer still get the attention they deserve in Photo Shop with my limited time (and more limited photo-doctoring skills).

I draw inspiration from contrasting settings, but the enthusiasm is the same regardless of the setting. The grittiness and urbanity of Mexico City inspire me as much as the sharp colors and archeological wonder of Tulum.

Photography is my way of connecting to place.

My third day in Rio, I took my camera, carefully hidden in my messenger bag out on my daily excursion. I shot the beach. I shot the hot honeys, the fat dudes, the foot-volley ball games and the Christ statue. I shot the unique and stylish pattern of the promenade that looks like a record cover put out by 18th Street Lounge Records.

I had just come from eating lunch in Impanema with a girl (not the girl) and was taking a stroll on a posh side street when inspiration hit. A wrought iron mailbox engraved with a humming bird. I checked the street, took out my camera and snapped two shots.

I enjoy finding beauty in small objects and was caught up in a moment with my back toward the street and my concentration stolen by my subject.

Suddenly, I am on ground, fingertips are pressing my eyeballs back into the recesses of my skull. I am being hit on the back and there is one human being on my back and another one in front of me. I didn’t know what was happening until I found myself in a tug-of-war with one of these guys with my camera as one end and the strap as the other end of the rope. I don’t know how I got up, but I did.

For a moment, I continue to hold on to the camera. My thoughts shift to my cash, ATM card (which I almost never carry) and more importantly, my safety.

I realized the camera is my sole bargaining chip. I set my mind, release it and bolt the other way. Then I turn, while running, to see if they are in pursuit. One of them was standing protecting the other two in a rear-guard action while the pair nonchalantly walked down the street in the opposite direction. I walk the other way with my head turned backwards. I think about going after them, but I am helpless.

My camera is gone.

The girl going into the house in front of me with her bike, watched the whole thing. She said and did nothing, even though she was safely behind her locked fence from where she could have yelled or called the police (or both).

I learn that the Rio of the film “City of God” and the Rio of today are quite similar. When crime occurs, bystanders are silent and after it happens, the police are useless.

“City of God”, set in the ‘60’s, is an incredible film based on the true story of a boy growing up in the Rio favellas (slums) who makes his escape from a world a violence and official corruption by becoming, of all things, a photographer. His friends grow up get into drugs and violence and mostly ended up getting killed. His ticket out is his camera and love of photography. Eventually he defies the odds to become a famous photographer.

Twenty minutes later the girl with the bike found me on the next street corner, one lined with cafes and restaurants where the “Girl From Impanema” was written. She helped me find the police and we communicated in a mixture of English and Spanish.

There were three, all plain clothes, but we end up driving around in regular, marked police car, sirens blaring, as if to tip off the perpetrators. The trigger-happy trio, drew their nickel-plated pistols with glee while toying with the safeties as we drive around Impanema looking for my assailants.

Any black person was instantly suspect even though I barely emphasized the fact the three guys were black. “Is that him?” “How about him?” No, no, no. I was shocked as they stopped the car and then suddenly made a black guy empty out his backpack on the sidewalk.

How many times did I have to describe these were shirtless 20-somethings without bags? This seemed to be a show for the tourist. But instead of impressing me, it offended me. I made them take me to the station to fill out a police report so I can eventually file an insurance claim. I knew it was an exercise in futility as they typed it up on an old typewriter using carbon duplicate paper. The only other crime victim at the station was another tourist who had also forgone his camera to this “tourist tax”.

I will get a new camera and at the rate at which digital photography is advancing, I will even get a better one for less than I paid for the original.

I would like to think the thieves are putting the camera to use as their ticket out of the slum like the protagonist in “City of God”. I would feel slightly better. Unfortunately, both for them and for me, my money is they’ve pawned it.

Good luck finding a power cord for it, boys.

I leave the police station and I walk around the beach with fondling the lens cap which was still in my pocket. I toss it in the trash. They took my camera and my pictures, but I still have the memories and I still had a good time.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

M11 Her Name Is Rio

A Report from Rio...

I arrived in Rio on a Friday night after a week trapped in meetings in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was thrilled to be going to Brazil for work but SP reminded me more of a Mexico City-sized Arlington, Virginia than the Brazil of my imagination.

The closest I ever got to Brazil before last night was the Grille From Impanema Restaurant on Columbia Road NW in Washington, DC. I was so excited on the 12-hour overnight flight from Mexico City down here I couldn’t sleep until I got to my meetings.

When I arrived, I decided to take a stroll along the beach in the Copacabana section of Rio. When I was a kid, I thought Copacabana was “Cocacabana” (for the coconuts) and that it was in Havana, not Rio. I expected Lola, beauty and glamour.

On the beach, the sounds of the waves are drowned out by sounds of automobile traffic. As I made my way down the boardwalk, I decided to stop at a club, “Help” which was listed in my Lonely Planet Guide as the largest discothèque in Latin America. Cool.

Any time I see or hear that word by itself, I automatically think of the following lines in the Beatles song “…I need somebody”.

Just outside it was teaming with beautiful women outnumbering men 7 to 1. The club appeared to be a factory for couples: only singles went in and only couples came out.

I decided to go in to help myself to the music. If you believe that you believe I read playboy for its literary value. I was curious in a prurient kind of way.

Inside, the women all seemed to be checking me out. Now, I’d like to say that I can’t blame them, but there was something strange about this particular sort of attention. Inside, most of the men were dead-ringers for my mind’s image of sex tourists; north of middle aged, fat, gray and balding. The kind of dudes that would be roaming about in trench coats and shorts if we weren’t in the tropics.

Then, I had a sudden realization; these were not ordinary everyday club going Brazilian women and men.

I was surrounded by a club-full of hookers and their prospective Johns. Blonde hookers. Brunette hookers. Redheaded hookers. Slutty looking hookers. Innocent looking hookers. Fat hookers. Thin hookers. Black hookers. White hookers. Beautiful hookers. Ugly hookers. Hooker-looking hookers. Non-hooker looking hookers.

Truth be told, they were probably not all hookers. Or maybe there were. It was hard to tell. The club artfully blurred that line. What a concept. Instead baring the stigma of going to a brothel or strip bar, a John simply goes to this “disco” where it just so happens that there are 7 women for every man. Then a he “meets” a woman and takes it from there. I decided to leave and steer clear of discothèques.

“Help” is a place where you need no help if you need somebody.

Friday, October 29, 2004

M10 Un dia en mi Vida

I love my daily life in Mexico City. In some respects it’s more convenient than my life was in Washington. DC.

Every morning I cook myself a meal with fresh veggies. I purchase all my produce at the local market. It is on the way to and from the subway. Within walking distance, there is a Gigante (pronounce Higante) supermarket and a health food store. Though the health food stores here tend to deal more in the latest magic sex portions than in say, soy. But at least I can buy tofu there.

After the culinary experience with the family I first stayed with, I thought I was going to be poisoned at worst and starved at best. As usual, my fears have come to naught.

I am eating better than ever even though Whole Foods has not (yet) opened here. Un/fortunately, US chains like Starbucks, Target, Costco and every fast food joint you could imagine are slowly and steadily chipping away at the uniqueness of Mexico promising a homogenized, sanitized future as generic as a strip mall in Anytown, USA. A lot of Mexicans, like the family I lived with, are eating it up like a super-sized package of “freedom” fries from McDonalds.

Walmart is opening it’s latest edifice to sprawl on the sacred grounds near Teotihuacán so you can enjoy the 2000 year old temple of the Sun and the Moon and jet in for some cheapie souvenirs, food and detergent in quantities that will let you wait out the apocalypse.

The store sits within the actual grounds of the United Nations World Heritage Site for Teotihuacán. Do you think even Walmart would attempt to put one of its stores in the Grand Canyon or on the National Mall? What must they think about Mexico and Mexicans to do the same here? Such arrogance is astounding.

Walmart construction workers have testified that the company ordered them to hide any archeological artifacts they may find. Isn’t that special?

Read more:

If you’re mad you can sign the online petition:
It only takes a second.

Fortunately, what I love the most about Mexico is it has not been overwhelmed by chains. Rather, the entire Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City) is one big market consisting of fresh produce markets, stands with bootleg/pirata CD’s and DVD stands, antiques beyond anything I’ve seen in the best flee market or thrift stores back home.

At the produce market, blocks from my house, I buy things in small quantities so my food is always fresh. I now make a mean guacamole! The first time I went, I thought I was getting a bargain when one of the produce sellers told me the price was 70 pesos ($7US). I misheard him, it was 7 pesos or roughly 7 cents for fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, mangos, bananas and oranges.

I revel in the irony that when I was staying with a Mexican family I ate the food they cooked me from Costco while now that I am on my own I eat my own homemade Guacamole and Salsas that are fresh and fabulous and locally grown!

I was down to my last cup of Peet’s Coffee and I thought I might have to resort to getting my fix at Starbucks in Polanco or Condesa. One night I was walking to the Zocalo and I smelled coffee.

There was a small corner shop on Calle Lopez with a giant ancient roasting machine. I stopped in. It was straight out of 1910. It even had a wooden and brass phone (still in use). I wish I had had my camera. Hell, I wish I had a camera! They were roasting coffee as I purchased a half-kilo (just over a pound) for about $5US.

That night I went to sleep dreaming about the coffee I would drink the next morning.

When I woke, I went straight to my grinder and coffee maker to made my coffee. It was as almost as good as Peet’s and definitely better than Starbucks.

My commute is 20 minutes round-trip door to door. That includes two stops on the efficient, but crowded Mexico City Subway. One day I had to wait for four cars before feeling comfortable enough to enter one. That being said, the subway feels safe. I get interesting looks when I wear a suit, though I don’t ever feel threatened. Mexico is homogenous enough that it’s impossible not to stand out if you are not from here. I have become accustomed to it and quite enjoy the fact that it seems to throw locals off that I live here.

My new house and landlord are fabulous. Thus far, she has bought me a new radiator, comforter, corkscrew, coffee table and has offered to get me a DVD player. And I never asked for anything. My house is equipped with every appliance, hi-speed internet, 1000-channel cable and twice weekly maid service which includes washing, drying and, best of all, folding of my laundry. It’s a huge improvement over my last situation and one that has allowed me to relax, enjoy and savor my time here in the world’s largest city.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

M9 Viva La Nacion

Have you ever wanted something to happen your entire life that you thought would never happen?

I have. My family has. My hometown has. So many lived there entire lives without seeing it happen. Like my grandfather who died three and a half years shy of it happening.

Once it finally happened it was a bit anti-climatic. Don’t get me wrong, I was psyched, but the most incredible moments actually took place just prior to it happening.

After 86 years (the last time they won the world series) of bad news, those of us in Red Sox Nation are used to disappointments. They have come so close, so many times only to let us let Boston and the entire Red Sox Diaspora down.

Like in ’67 against the Reds.

While I wasn’t alive yet, Massachusetts school children like myself begin the process of life-long Red Sox conditioning early by being shown films of past Sox debacles starting in kindergarten.

I can vividly remember the ’75 World Series as a 6-year old. I can still see in my mind’s eye the cafeteria in the elementary school with its white tiled ceiling, brown faux-wood tables and the green 16mm projector where we watched it. I can hear the clicking noise of the projector.

Then there was ’78 American League Championships (ALSC) against the Yankees. In ’86, I watched raptly sharing telephone commentary with my high school girlfriend, Karen as the Sox were one strike away from winning only to miss a ball on an easy play allowing the Mets to come back and win the series.

Then there was last year’s ALCS also against the Yankees. I traded text urgent messages with the girl I was interested in at the time, Sarah, a fellow New Englander, echoing my phone calls with Karen back in ’86.

It was obvious to any good Boston sports fan that coach Grady Little should have pulled pitcher Pedro Martinez out after the 7th inning. Instead, he left him in allowing the Yankees to score against a fatigued Pedro. Everyone knows Pedro goes downhill after the 100th pitch, right?

But just as the Sox lost then and things went sour with Karen thereafter, the Sox lost in last and things went sour with Sarah shortly thereafter.

Fate doesn’t change unless you believe.

All this year I followed intently as the Sox took an early season lead in their division only to let it whither then plunge to a 10 1/2 game deficit against the Yankees as recently as August 16th.

Miraculous, they staged stunning comeback to be within 2 1/2 games of the Yankees at the end of the post season. Kevin Brown, the Yankees star $40m pitcher threw a hissy fit after losing in a 3-game shut out to the Sox at Yankee Stadium, slamming his hand into the clubhouse wall and breaking it into pieces.

I guess at $40m a year you buy a pitcher smart enough to punch a wall with his non-pitching hand.

I watched the Sox crush the Anaheim Angels three games to none to clinch the post-season wildcard slot as I watched the Yankees flounder.

Just as it appeared the Yanks were done-for, I wondered, as many did, would it be the same matter if the Red Sox got to the World Series without vanquishing their long time foe on their way there?

I wouldn’t have to wonder at all. The Yankees pulled yet another come-from-behind victory for which they are famous.

But I still believed this was the year.

The only problem was, I wouldn’t get to watch much of the most important series of all, the ALCS. I was vacationing in a thatched roof hut with candles doubling for light bulbs on in Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Do I have to write that we didn’t have ESPN? The night we came back was the night of the 6th game.

As soon as we arrived at the airport in Mexico City, I scoured the newsstands looking for a New York Times like a junky looking for a fix.

I found mine, but it didn’t contain the news I wanted.

The Boston Red Sox appeared to be dead in their face-off against the Yanquis (what they’re called in Mexico). The pictures showed it all; the faces of Boston fans looking like the rain-drenched Fenway Park.

Katy asked “what happened” after seeing the look of distress on my face as I read the sports page. In a tone of utter resignation that I’ve had thirty-five years to practice, I said, “Don’t ask slaughter”.

I caught glimpses of results but couldn’t bring myself to read the entire story; lost game one10-7 with Schilling pitching. Lost game two 3-1 with Martinez pitching.

How could that happen?

The weather was appropriately rainy as I drove home in a cab having seen Katy off for her return flight to London.

The next day, assuming the Sox were dead, I read the Mexican daily La Reforma in disbelief. Perhaps the Mexican papers are a day behind. Better check the Miami Herald’s English language paper. The Sox are still alive? Huh?

Was this a dream?

One game had been postponed and the series had been moved out a day due to rain; the Sox were still clinging to life down 3 to 0 in a best of 7 series. No team in the history of baseball had ever come back from losing the first three in a series of seven to go on to win. Never. Ever.

Almost no one believed, except the Red Sox themselves. After game 3, Johnny Damon the Sox’ center fielder told New York Times sports writer George Vecsey without the slightest bit of bravado “that as far as I can recollect the Sox had won four straight games plenty of times”. They had done so 8 times this season alone.

They were staging a slow, but incredible resurrection that still to this moment is giving me goose bumps.

Game 5 was actually underway in Boston as I sat in the cab. The Yanks took an early lead but the Sox managed to hold on driving the game into the 14th inning (that’s 5 extra innings) forcing a Game 6 in New York.

The Sox had teammates such as Curt Shilling who pitched perfectly with a bleeding ankle even though he should have been in the hospital. The team doctor sutured his torn tendon after practicing the delicate procedure on a cadaver in a Boston morgue.

Meanwhile the Yanquis had A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez. He’s an overpaid shortstop and bully the Sox had tried to acquire only to be outdone by their archrivals (and their $200 million payroll - $60 million greater than the Sox’).

It’s helpful to think of the Yankees like spoiled rich kids. They have all the money, the clean-cut looks and they are as accustomed to winning as their fans (parents) are accustomed to having them win.

But when the grungy kids from the other side of the tracks start beating them on their own turf, they start playing like brats they are.

In Game 6 with the Sox ahead A-Rod got on first base driving a run home and tying the game as the Sox dropped the ball. Or so it looked.

It was a classic moment like so many others in the tragic history of the Sox and I thought it would end the same way it always does. But actually, A-Rod had slapped the ball out of Sox pitcher Bronso Arroyo’s hands as he had tried to tag him out – a definite foul.

What’s next, scratching and hair-pulling?

The umpires convened, sent Jeter back to second and called A-Rod out. YES! In an instant, the bad karma had been totally reversed and things were going the way of Red Sox nation again.

They went on to win game six and utterly silence Yankees Stadium as Schilling predicted. They vanquished their foe and advanced for the first time in 18 years to the World Series!

Something was changed. Shifted. Karmically altered.

I could feel it all the way down here in Mexico and now even in Brazil as I write. The karma of the universe is changed and the fate of the Sox had been reversed. And I am not even kidding.

I was so giddy the morning after the triumph; I caught myself pacing up and down the subway platform electrified with glee. The Sox moved on to play St. Louis in the World Series.

Imagine how the Cardinals felt waking up the morning of Game 4. “Okay, we’re down three to none in a best of 7 series. It’s win or be eliminated. Until last week no team in the history of baseball has come back from such a deficit. The team to do it is the team to play it’s the team we’re playing”.

The Sox swept the Cardinals who played honorably last night four games to none setting another post-season record; eight consecutive wins.

The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series. Repeat. The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series. As the Boston Globe put it on their cover: “Pigs Fly”, “Hell Freezes Over” and the Red Sox Win the World Series. I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

M8 Una Situacion Nueva

My new neighborhood and house are “padre”, Mexico slang for “cool”.

Firstly, there are actually people here. People. People walking. People walking dogs. People interesting enough that I might want to talk to them. They’re literally teaming about the streets especially when compared with the ghost town I formerly called home.

A Single Bed to Impress the Ladies in My First Pad

My first night here I saw four cute girls. Four more than I had seen in five weeks in the deserted mansion district known as Colonia Anzures. There are stores. Stores other than chains. Stores with Mexican, not US, prices. Stores where for 90 cents, I can purchase a fresh croissant the size of a football, a loaf of bread and a mole empanada at bakery that makes them fresh daily.

When I go down stairs in the morning, I can be eating instead of fleeing. As I open the refrigerator, I won’t have to hold my breath because the stench is so bad it’s like opening one of those cadaver refrigerators on TV. I won’t have to look at or smell the geriatric soup with the bone in the middle left out to soak over night on the counter.

And I won’t have to think thoughts like it might be better to get my meals at the local jail.

I won’t have to pay $15USD to get my laundry done because I now have a washer/dryer and better still a maid who comes twice weekly to do it for me… and by-the-way, it’s included in the rent.

Here I am right in the middle of three subway stops for separate but, equally convenient lines instead of being nowhere near a metro stop. I am one block from a big park and a couple more from the President’s mansion, Los Pinos. I am a ten minute walk from what I think is one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world; La Condesa. I can go there for dinner to one of scores of cool restaurants instead of not eating or eating what’s usually for dinner; pancakes a la cardboard or if I am lucky, something packaged like cereal.

When I come home at night the courtyard doesn’t smell like dog shit from the two dogs incarcerated in a cement cell the size of a walk-in closet. I won’t have to wait for the one day each week when it doesn’t smell. The day the guy comes to come to clean up the dog crap. I won’t have to feel badly that the dogs only get walked once a week by yet another hired hand. I won’t have to have debates with myself about clandestinely setting their caged bird free.

I won’t have to wonder whether I will be without threadbare towels in the bathroom because the cleaning man remembered to take the dirty ones out but forgot to replace them with clean ones.

I won’t have to lock my computer in my luggage because the lock to my room doesn’t work and isn’t going to get fixed any time soon.

I won’t have to sleep in the twin bed in the blanket woven with pubic hairs and tiny spiders. When I get up in the morning, I will actually feel clean showering in a modern bathroom that contains none of my former bathroom’s accoutrements; glaring yellow and white tiles a la 1971 pock mocked with mildew, a shower door that is strangely sticky to the touch and broken faucets that sometimes gurgle forth brown water.

When I walk up the stairs to my new room, I don’t have to worry about the creaking noise from the steps waking up the rest of the house and I won’t have to worry about stubbing my toe on the water pipe at the top of the stairs.

My new stairs are marble and there’s no one to wake up. I won’t have to worry about checking in or checking out with anyone or feeling badly because I am not feeling social. I won’t have to wake up at 7am every day when the car leaves the garage billowing exhaust and noise into my sole window.

I have a new place and I am psyched.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

M7 Mordidas - Bribes That Don’t Bite

I’ve been looking for apartments with Florian and Carolin the German couple I met in Cuernavaca.

One night after a fruitless seach, they were driving me back to my house in Anzures, my dull neighborhood consisting of run down mansions.

Like mine; which looks like an Italian funeral home that hasn’t been renovated since the 1970’s. We have four refrigerators, but no dishwasher.

But that’s another story.

Calle Bradley, my street, runs one way and I instructed Carolin to drop me off at the corner. She started down the street the wrong way. Who said Germans were law-abiding? Security trumps the rule of law; she was intent on seeing me to my door safety.

Blue lights.

You hear all sorts of things about the Mexican police. How they’ll pull you over for sh^ts and giggles. How they’re paid $200/month. How they supplement their meager income with “mordidas” literally “bites”, but translating to “bribes”.

Funny, just today, I had been thinking that I would never have a run in with the law here. I planned on limiting my driving time.

But what do you know? Is this karmic payback for my hubris?

We’re now surrounded by three Mexico City police cars, lights flashing and are undergoing a roadside interrogation.

In the states, a shot of adrenalin hits me if there police car in back of me and I am doing the speed limit. I should have been way more scared here – especially with all the tall tales and especially because we were breaking the law.

After the requisite small talk, one cop explains we can pay a “service fee” of $100 pesos (Yes, they use the same sign for the peso as we do for the dollar).

This is a little like a prostitute asking you for a “date”.

We’re eager to get out of this situation as fast as we possibly can. And for $10USD, our DF policeman morphs into a lenient judge granting us vehicular scofflaws road-side clemency.

It’s all good, till we realize we have only $50 pesos between us.

Everyone here goes out of his or her way to scare the hell out of you. It’s amazing there’s anyone on the street at all. Don’t take more than you want to spend. Never take your ATM card.

I don’t use a wallet or carry an ID and I only take a couple hundred pesos with me. After a couple of drinks, you end up broke, like we are now.

Then, I remember I have US dollars back in my room.

Carolin explains to the officer in Spanish that we’ll give him $10USD plus the $50 pesos or 50% more than what he asked for. He knew the exchange rate, but couldn’t do the math.

Unfortunately, all I had was a twenty so that wasn’t going to work anyway. We gave it to him and he graciously pardoned us without so much as a ticket or a trip to the local precinct.

Friday, September 10, 2004

M6 There's Something About (Bribing) Maria

Moving to another country is supposed to be all about experiencing new things. How fabulous! I am happy to report on the newest thing I’ve experienced this week; bribery.

Yes, that word is synonymous with graft, corruption and things that we think don’t generally happen in the USA. A couple weeks ago I would have told you that I would never even consider giving a bribe - let alone two – and certainly not within the span of one week.

Yes, I agree, they corrupt both the giver and the recipient. Bribes are bad, terrible even. Sometimes, their alternatives are worse.

While trying to learn another language ten hours a day, move to another country and close down my affairs in the USA, my tenant of a year and a half, Maria (name changed to shield the guilty), decided that collecting unemployment was more fun than working and that not paying rent was more fun than paying.

Maria had taken care of my house and my cats lovingly for a year and a half. She promised to do so when I was gone when I accepted my new job in June.

How wonderful, everything was in her hands!

Knowing how much responsibility this would entail, I decided to treat Maria to a week’s vacation. I purchased her a $600 airline ticket and when she came back, she said she was moving out at the end of August. I even let her have the month for free since she was in really dire straights.

But when August 30th was rolling around Maria was rolling anywhere but out.

She suddenly started lashing out at me leaving me vicious voicemails and accusing me of “only caring about money”. When confronting her, she said she was staying in the house, that I had no “right” to kick her out of my own house. She was going to stay as long as she liked. We traded voicemails as I consulted lawyers and real estate agents.

My real estate agent advised, “This is why I never recommend renting to my clients. I would get a lawyer - especially if she’s the kind of tenant who knows her rights. I’ve seen cases where squatters have had the right to stay in a house”.

Maria most definitely knew her rights.

Not only was her portion of the mortgage in jeopardy, but my ability to rent to any one else was also in jeopardy and I feared that my friend Vanessa who was also living there might move out if Maria began tormenting her as she was doing with me.

I could barely focus on work or Spanish. And the fabulous times and experiences were dulled with the anxiety of unresolved affairs.

I booked a ticket back to DC and then to North Carolina for business meetings. I had to leave because my tourist card was about to expire anyway and the meeting were necessary regardless or so I told my management.

The plan was to move Maria’s stuff out on the street when she wasn’t there. Legally, she had no lease, though at one point in time she had been paying rent. She still owed me $300, though she claimed it was $250 as though I was trying to bilk her out of 50 bucks.

Tuesday night I was entreated to a voice mail from Maria stating that it was illegal to kick her out and that she would call the police if necessary. I called the police myself and it turns out that they will kick out an “unwanted guest”, but not a tenant.

Those disputes go to a very special place called landlord-tenant court. That place requires landlords to hire lawyers to sue, take international flights just to go to court and costs us greedy slumlords thousands taking perhaps many months to resolve.

And, when all is said and done, there are no guarantees. Moreover, it would be doubtful that even if I had won if I ever would have recouped a dime from Maria let alone recouped the emotional energy she would exact from me in the process.

Was she a tenant or an unwanted guest? Was I willing to press that and risk letting DC’s finest decide my fate?

By Tuesday, I was in a bind and I was freaking out.

I couldn’t handle dealing with mi familia Mexicano and the pancakes or cereal they typically serve me for dinner so I went to a sushi place on La Reforma, Mexico’s equivalent to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Over sushi I relaxed a little and talked over my limited options with Katy. The phone clicked and I had a hunch it was Vanessa. I took the call.

Maria was tripping out on Vanessa and I could hear it all over the cell phone. Yelling. Screaming. Taunting. Tormenting. Swearing. Repeat. I knew what it was like to hear one of Maria’s voicemail messages. I could only imagine how bad this must have been in person.

Vanessa took it like a champ and she never let this situation jeopardize our friendship or our lease agreement which would have been well within reason.

She had been nothing but nice and helpful to Maria.

It was one thing when she was lashing out on me, but another when she was taking it out on Vanessa. I was circling the backstreets near the US Embassy, (later learned you’re not supposed to walk there) literally shaking with rage.

I needed to put an end to this. I told Vanessa I was going to call Maria.

I dialed, and to my surprise Maria answered. She unleashed her verbal vomit on me again. I am selfish, money-grubbing, etc. I couldn’t get a word in. Repeat.

I wasn’t angry at this point and I just listened.

Then I spoke.

“Maria, I just want you out of my house. What’s it going to take?” “You tell me, what do you want?”

Then, as I circled the rainy streets in the dark, I was entreated with yet another harangue detailing my many shortcomings as a human being.

“Real friendship can’t be bought”
“You don’t know the value of people, all you care about is money”

Actually, all cared about was getting her the F%^& out of my house and out of my life!

Brian: “Maria, $500 and a week at a hotel and we can be done with this”
Maria: “$500 won’t buy a week at a hotel, all you care about is money…”
Brian: “Maria, you’re not listening, I said, $500 AND a week at a hotel”
Brian: “Katy’s on the way to the ATM machine now. She’ll put the money in your hand as soon as you and your belongings are out of the house and my key’s in her posesion”
Maria: crying
Brian: “We can wash our hands clean of all this, be done, once and for all – forgive and get past this if you just agree…”
Maria: crying
Brian: “Or, I can have Vanessa call the police. Your call, but you need to decide.”
Maria: cries “You don’t know what Vanessa has been doing to me, I didn’t want to bother you while you were in Mexico {Is that why you left me so many nasty voicemails?} she has been horrible”

The funny thing was everything she said about Vanessa, she had said about me just a week before.

As psychologist friend said to me she was engaging in “projective identification” – essentially ascribing her view of herself to either Vanessa or me.
Maria: “That money would really help out”
Brian: “So we have a deal?”
Maria: “Yes, you’ve done so much for me, I don’t want to lose your friendship, you are like a brother to me.”

Who says money can’t buy happiness or in Maria’s words, “friendship”?

The money was conditioned upon three things; 1) she had to move the next day, 2) she had to sign documents stating she made no additional claims on the house and 3) that the deal would expire immediately if she did not agree or failed to abide by the terms and conditions.

I managed to negotiate this while Katy was serving as an intermediary handing her cell phone between Maria and Vanessa so I could make sure they both agreed to what I was negotiating.

Katy did an amazing job at calming Maria down. Without her, there would have been no deal. I felt like we were conducting peace talks between North and South Korea and Kim Il Jung had his finger on the nuclear trigger the whole time.

Hapless and helpless Maria was unable to even pack or move her own belongings herself the next day. I don’t know what I would have done without Katy or Vanessa. They moved Maria out while she was still erupting and spewing verbal bile on Vanessa. They did all the legwork, while I did the (tele) sales job. After that, I felt like I could coax a suicide jumper off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Even though it cost me, it surely cost me a lot less than it would have in money, time and emotional anguish had I pursued it through the courts.

I came back for the weekend and instead of evicting Maria, I chilled and spent time with friends.

Little did I know I would get another opportunity to use bribery effectively as soon as I got back to Mexico City.

Friday, August 27, 2004

M5 El Marcardo Negro: Why Rent when You Can Buy?

It’s our next to last night in town and Florian, my new German friend, and I have some shopping to do before we meet up with his wife at Las Mananitas (the little hands), one of Mexico’s finest restaurants located here in Cuernavaca.

It’s famous because the food is fabulous and it has lush gardens that are patrolled by colorful giant peacocks that will take a bite of your food if you give them the opportunity.

Sounds a little bit like the Mexican Police – but that’s another story.

I had learned about “el Marcado Negro” at dinnertime over hushed voices the first night I was in town. Bill, a fellow house guest made the Black Market seem like it was some forbidden place that was difficult to find unless you were in the know as he apparently was. Apparently, he couldn’t recall the intricate directions to the market.

I would just have to find it on my own.

The truth of the matter, I was to find out, is it’s hard not to find the black market. Markets are everywhere and they resemble “flea markets” in the USA except they sell new bootleg stuff known as “piratas”.

Stuff like CD’s for a dollar and DVD’s for half what you would pay to rent them at Blockbuster (which is here as well). Would you go to Blockbuster if you lived near the black market?

Why rent, when you can buy?

If you like Diesel jeans, like I do, they’re yours for $11. Next time I decide to blow upwards of $200 on jeans from Diesel’s unadvertised Denim Lab in SOHO, I’ll think twice, save my money for a plane ticket and then I’ll come back with a suit case of Diesel clothing.

Now, if you’ve just moved to Mexico and are worried that you are going be without “American” culture for a year, fret not, the black market is your kind of place. You won’t miss any movies – not even ones that are just hitting stateside cinemas right now.

Want to see Will Smith in “I, Robot” – it’s here but it’s called “Yo, Robot”. YO ROBOT!!! But don’t worry, it’s still in English because the film is so new, they haven’t even had time to dub it. Most of the films are in English with Spanish subtitles. We were hoping the DVD technology would allow us to listen in Spanish with English subtitles, but alas the DVD’s are not quite what they are back home.

What do you expect for the price of a grande frappucino?

In fact, most of the DVD’s are actually “VCD’s”. Other than knowing that stands for “Video CD”, I don’t know what the hell one of these things is. All I know is it doesn’t play on my computer, but I witnessed it being played on the vendadora’s (seller’s) DVD test station.

Yes, you may test drive before you buy here. If, for some absurd reason, you thought for a moment that you were about to purchase an inferior quality product, you may test the DVD/VCD of your choice in the vendor’s DVD player to prove such spurious assumptions false.

Florian had a whole list of films he wanted to buy. I had a general idea, knowing that I wanted mostly films with a Mexican or Spanish theme. We decided to go in together and purchase a whole slew and then share, but not first without making sure we were getting the best possible quality for our $4.00USD.

We ask for a screening of a Mexican film I haven’t heard of. She slides it into the DVD player which swallows the disk whole. She presses play and when we inquire in Spanish as to whether we can listen in Spanish and read subtitles in English. She absolves herself of all responsibility for such technical questions and in a symbolic gesture, she hands me the remote control.

I mess around with the menu settings and Florian and I have a conversation as I fumble with the controls that went something like this:

Florian “It looks kind of blurry, is this a ‘50’s porn flick?”
Brian “No dude, that’s a special effect, yes, it’s grainy and blue, that’s the idea”
Florian “Why is it flickering?”
Brian in a moment of realization “Oh, it’s been filmed on a camcorder inside a theatre”.
Florian “You’re right”
Brian and Florian - laughter

We toss that one back and she hands us “7 Mujeres (women), un Homosexual y (and) Carlos”. We decline to screen that one.

But we did manage to get good copies of “Farenheit 911”, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Frida”.

Interestingly, while most Mexican-themed films were featured prominently in the stalls, Frida was nowhere to be found. Well, she could be found everywhere on postcards, handbags, balloons and just about anything else, but not on DVD. Maybe they have a conscience and feel badly about bootlegging their national heroine.

Or maybe not. On our last and final attempt we finally found her.

The disks themselves are obviously unique, one of-a-kind creations. They’re hand-labeled with sharpies “Disk 1” and “Disk 2”.

During a screening of the new Tom Cruise flick, the bottom half of the screen was emblazoned with the text “If you are watching this film and have not received the DVD from an authorized source, please contact 1-800-555-1234. Your call will remain strictly anonymous”.

Do you think they’ll pick up the international cellular roaming fees? My guess is no. The warning disappears shortly thereafter.

DVD’s are not under any system of organization. I had to laugh when next to Disney’s “Mulan” I saw a film entitled “XXX: Tons of Tits”.

Some times I wonder; where is the sense of irony? But that what is nice about Mexico. Completely unselfconscious. Completely devoid of irony.

Completely fabulous.

Monday, August 23, 2004

M4 Butterflies In the Stomach

This morning while I was brushing my teeth there was a sudden and furious flapping in the bathroom startling me out of my standing slumber.

Duck, BAT!

When I looked, it was a friendly mariposa (butterfly), a cousin, no doubt, of the one I encountered last week. He was completely frightened and I thought he would die bouncing off the walls like a pinball in his panic to escape.

There was something to his panic that was a natural reaction.

There was also something more in deadly in his panic than in the actual danger.

In my own life, I can only liken it to one thing. Mountain biking. I have been in situations where, speed and technical conditions suddenly overtook my riding ability and I was caught riding way outside my comfort zone and my self-presumed ability.

In this situation, I have never panicked. I have also never crashed. (Knock wood!) I was comfortable with my extreme discomfort and that’s what saved me. Had I reacted, even slightly, I would have gone down and the results would have been terrible.

I also learned that I had more ability than I imagined. When the occasion arose, I was able to operate outside my self-imposed limitations.

Fear is as real as you want it to be.

Fear may be an alarm, but usually it’s a false one.

If you always react as if the alarm is real, the fear becomes reality. If you acknowledge fear as fear and not reality, fear does not have to become fate.

My immediate concern is quelling the fear of a terrified mariposa. He wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to catch him, but I was determined to save him.

Think. Quickly.

I turn off the lights. He stops fluttering, calms down and perches himself on the side of the mirror.

I capture him with a cup by covering the top with a towel. Then, I carefully transfer my live cargo to the balcony where I set him free!

It felt great that this one would be able to fly about the garden and spread the happiness that seems to go along with these most fabulous creatures.

This morning, fear did not become fate.

This mariposa was brown like wood and had wings about as big as my hand. He’s cleverly disguised, not that this guy stood still long enough for me to tell, but I have seen his type before. If you view him from the side, he looks like he has eyes on his wings to discourage would-be predators fearful of a large mammal. I guess in his own way he’s playing off the fear of potential predators to protect himself. I can’t say I blame him.

It’s hard to think of mariposas (I like the Spanish word better than the English) as insects. These creatures are among natures’ most colorful, free and symbolic. When I was in Costa Rica I went to a “Jardin Mariposa” (Butterfly Garden) and learned about their life cycle.

They start life as lowly caterpillars and seemingly dead, wind up as ugly, boring, cocoons. I wonder if cocoons know they will be transformed into some of natures’ most beautiful, inspiring and transformative creatures?

I wonder if they would feel better knowing their destiny as fabulous Mariposas?

I had always heard that the Monarch Butterflies flew to Mexico from the United States. It’s great to be here with them.

The animals are following me. After my first night here, I hoped to get a closer look at the cat on the archway.

My wish has come true.

The other night I returned home and sat outside writing as I am now. I had just left my wallet on the bed and I thought I saw it falling off the bed. Then I thought I saw something move.

Couldn’t be. Could it? El gato?

I was just in there – there could be nothing in that room. Then I saw it again and it looked strangely as though a cat were pawing the comforter from underneath the bed. Surely, this is some hallucination, a delusion or dream because I miss my cats.

Sure enough it was moving and I decided to go in and investigate. It could be an iguana or something terrible. I already found a big spider and the school warns us about scorpions. I stood atop the bed and gently lifted the comforter. I slowly peered from above under the bed and there was a small black and white cat.

She has a novio (boyfriend) who comes to the balcony to serenade her at times. He is shy like she is. Not quite feral, not quite your average house cats.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

M3 Espanol

Every night I look forward to coming home and spending an hour or two by myself on the balcony. I sit and enjoy the "eternal spring" weather for which Cuernavca is renown. I listen to and write on my computer. That's a sentence I would never have thought could be written when I was growing up. Now I make my living and am seeing the world thanks to computers.

Tonight, I went into town and had dinner with a colleague from SAS. Bill, a guest in mi casa, recommended Marco Polo to us because it's cheap. He's on a budget. I am on an expense account. I was therefore slightly skeptical, but the place proved to be good and cheap and sports one of the best views I've seen at a restaurant. We ate on a veranda overlooking the cathedral which looks more like a castle than a cathedral. It has a vast verdant garden and is straight out of the 17th century. As the waiter seated us I was awed.

I felt a shot of relaxation and tranquility hit me like I just popped a couple of valiums. I found out my first business trip is going to be to Brazil next month. I am so thrilled I might need to pinch myself.

My Spanish classes are intense. I meet with three teachers throughout the day in one-on-one sessions. I both know a lot more and a lot less Spanish than I thought. It's daunting, for a talker like me, to barely be able to express myself in simple situations. Classes go from 8am to 5:30pm with brief ten minute breaks and an hour for lunch which I must eat at mi casa con mi famlia. If you haven't gotten a long email reply from me you now know why.

My last teacher, Marilu, is my favorite. We actually had a two-hour conversation yesterday in Spanish which I didn't think I was capable of. She is patience, relaxed and en espanol "simpatico". It makes me realize the gifts that teachers, good ones that is, have. They literally have the ability to open or close the minds of students. I had to ask for another instructor to replace the one I have in the morning. My current teacher, Rocio, is slightly overbearing and impatient. She makes me nervous, talks down to me and makes me forget simple verbs like the one for "to speak", hablar. The school is really cool about stuff like this since my company is throwing down to have me in the executive program.

Tuesday night there was a social that I almost didn't attend. I am desperately in need of time to myself but Bill was going and I though I would go too. I was glad I did. I met a German couple who, like me, is moving to Mexico City (aka DF, Mexico) after our classes end. They were really cool to talk to and I am psyched to have potential friends in my new home.

I am glad it is the weekend. My brain can't handle any more information. I haven't decided what my plan is for the weekend. The pacific's only a short hop from here. Cuernavaca is surrounded by mountains and if I can find a mountain bike and someone to take me on a ride, I will be there. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 20, 2004

M2 Mariposa

I am sitting on my balcony with a view of the archway that the neighborhood cats like to crawl over. I've gotten a closer glimpse of the cats and so did a butterfly I found yesterday.

When I was trying to get near the small black and white cat, I came upon him. He didn't fly and I picked him up and placed him on my index finger. His wings were sliced though in such a manner that I though that was the way he was born.

I took some pictures him in my hand (that I will post to my website when I find a get to the nearby wireless internet connection). He was enormous by butterfly standards with wide black wings punctuated by long yellow stripes. Not your typical monarch. He didn't seem to want to get off my finger, but I gently placed him on a nearby flower far from the clutches of el gato.

When I went to class this morning, I looked to see if he was still there. I had hoped he would have flown off or perhaps reversed the course of butterfly life turning into a caterpillar.

When I looked, he was being consumed by hungry ants.

I was struck with more sadness than I thought I could feel for an insect and those feelings were with me most of the day.

I guess there was nothing I could do. But I wish it could have been otherwise,

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

M1 Musing Numero Uno

Musings on Mexico
Musing Numero Uno
Dia 2

I am sitting on the balcony outside my room in a casa grande in Cuernvaca Mexico. The neighborhood doesn't look like much, but behind the foreboding stonewalls and iron clad archway is a beautiful, albeit private, world that the best-to-do Mexicans enjoy. Homes here conceal wealth rather than advertise it. I am a guest here privy to this world as part of my two-week language immersion program sponsored by my company's year abroad program of which I am creator and sole enrollee.

I thought the difficult part of moving to another country was supposed to be acclimating to a new language, culture and home. Thus far the most trying part of my move has been extracting myself from the place I've called home since I was a teenager; Washington, DC.

Everything from my own doubts, to my girlfriend's, to last minute house renting snafus have made the process of leaving more stressful than I could possibly anticipate. Sometimes I was excited when I wasn't worried about renting my house, which is still half vacant, or rented depending upon my mood of optimism. When I was worried, sometimes it would be a low-level of anxiety whilst at other times it would come in a deeply manifested physical pang of fear and regret.

I worried that I would either be totally psyched and then come down from the initial high and be depressed or even worse, just be regretful as soon as I got to Mexico. Truth be told, it's still too early to tell, but at least I am not anticipating anything anymore.

I am here and it feels good.

Yesterday, my driver picked me up at the airport with a placard that said "Brian Kemler" making me feel more important than I actually consider myself to be. We lugged my year's worth of stuff to the garage and waded through rush hour Mexico City traffic for countless hours. Think L.A. with smaller roads and three times the cars. I long ago concluded that not bringing my car was the most fabulous decision I've ever made. The urban planners here are pushing for a "segundo piso" (double decker) highway while they still have yet to invent the concept of HOV lanes here.

We dropped the belongings I won't need for the next two weeks with the familia I will call my own for the next year and then headed toward Cuernavaca in what still seemed to be rush hour though it was approaching 9pm.

Edgar, the driver pulled the car over entirely unfazed as he indicated that there was something wrong with the tire. What could be wrong with a tire other than a flat and wouldn't that be cause for alarm?! Well, he took it in stride and I did too perhaps feeding off his calm, laid back Mexican demeanor.

Rather than change tire with the spare, we pulled into a roadside tire repair joint a quarter the size of the average DC efficiency apartment. How convenient. With haste, the Tire Doctor pulled the tire off the car, filled it with air anew (what's he doing?), and placed it in a giant sink filled with water to determine where the punctures were. With the skill of a surgeon, the Tire Whisperer marked the critical leaks with chalk - there were four. He muttered Spanish to Edgar and then proceeded to repair the tire as though it were a bicycle tire.

But it's a car tire.

He affixed massive tire levers between the tire and the rim just like I do on my bicycle and then pried it off the rim while applying force with his entire body. Once half of the tire was off the rim, he felt up the inside of the tire oh so gently. With his pliers he plucked the offending nails carefully like a dentist removing a rotted tooth and then added it to his collection jar as though the nail fairy was going to come and leave him a peso under his pillow tonight.

Then - most surprisingly of all - he pulled out a tube - yes - an inner tube - for a freaking car tire! He carefully laced it within the tire, put the tire back on the rim, filled it with air, refastened the rim on the car and we were ready to go again! All this, in less than15 minutes for less than $10USD.

Contrast this to my most recent tire repair experience at Costco with the new Michelin tires I bought for my car when I was taking care of all of the fun errands I had to run before I left the country. Of course I only had one flat, but I had to buy four tires due to the intricacies of tread wear on four-wheel drive vehicles. This cost me nearly $600.

After catching some delicious sleep in Edgar's car, I arrived at my home for the next two weeks. The house is massive, has a lush garden filled with songbirds and mariposas (butterflies). The balcony outside my room sports a view of trees and the thick wall that surrounds my house and the archway that is the entrance to this place. Before I went to sleep last night, the silhouette of a cat walked silently over the arch and into the trees…

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Coming and Going with the Cicadas

I knew this year I would be moving, however, I thought that move would be the one I’d been carefully orchestrating over the past year to San Francisco. When that fell through in January due to a variety of reasons beyond my control, I started following up on leads with my company's Latin America division. It was never my intent to move south, just travel there and live here.

In sales and marketing they’re constantly imploring us to “take it to the c-level” which translates in English to mean selling to the CEO, CIO and CFO’s of companies – the decision makers, not the peons. I decided that would be a good strategy for my own internal job hunt. At our annual meeting in January, I ran into the VP of our Americas group with whom I had already built something of a rapport.

I asked her pointedly if there were positions for which I would qualify in Latin America and she instructed me to email her the following week. I followed up and she put me in touch with a hiring manager. He and I had an informational interview and then I didn’t hear from him for a while until he called me asked me if I was interested in a particular position. I asked him where it would be based; he replied “any country you want in Latin America”.

After a slew of calls, a zillion questions and some initial skepticism, I decided I was leaning on taking the position and that I was interested in going to Mexico City to check it out.

Now you may ask why I would choose Mexico City when I could have chosen Buenos Aires, Santiago or even San Juan, PR. Well, I felt like the former were too far while the latter was too close and too American. I wanted an authentic in-country experience, but I still wanted to be close to the states to do some races and visit my girlfriend Katy.

Plus, half of my job responsibility is to support that office while the other half is to support the rest of Latin America. Since most of my work will be there, that means I will have to run around less and I will have more time on weekends to travel on my own. How would I enjoy Argentina or Chile if I were always traveling elsewhere?

I had never been to Mexico City, but I had heard all the news-fed, fear-based accounts; pollution, crime, traffic; repeat. Wait, were they describing Washington, DC? It’s the murder capital after. I wanted to check it out, so the other week I went under the guise of a business trip. I now happily report that I’ve located some nice, tree-filled neighborhoods close to the office so I will be able to walk or bike and I won’t have to get near a car unless I want to. The city is quite beautiful in places and I am going to be living next to its version of central park as well as a lengthy bike trail.

I accepted the position and am moving to Mexico for a year! My current job ends June 30th. This summer I will be traveling back and forth to Mexico before I actually start August 23rd. I am doing a language school immersion program the last week of July and first week of August in Cuernavaca, Mexico and plan to live with a family in Mexico City at least when I first arrive. I am completely psyched and excited but am also a little nervous too. I plan to rent one of the other rooms in my house to cover the mortgage and am planning a big yard sale to get rid of all the excess stuff I've accumulated over the years.

I will miss DC and all my friends and I hope everyone will come and visit. Please consider this your open invitation to visit the Mayan Temples at Tulum, to practice yoga on the "Mayan Rivera", to go mountain biking in San Miguel, to visit the national anthropology museum in Mexico City and well, much more...

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Musing Defined

Main Entry: muse
Pronunciation: 'myüz
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): mused; mus·ing
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French muser to gape, idle, muse, from muse mouth of an animal, from Medieval Latin musus intransitive senses
1 : to become absorbed in thought; especially : to turn something over in the mind meditatively and often inconclusively
2 archaic : WONDER, MARVEL
transitive senses : to think or say reflectively

Friday, May 28, 2004

My pictures