Monday, November 07, 2005

M28 Closing

Last Friday I thought I had returned to Washington, DC to close on the sale of my house, but my life seemed to bring some strange, interesting and yet welcome twists of fate even if I didn't perceive them as such at the time.

Psychologically I was a little down. First, I hadn't much sleep having just arrived on a 10-hour overnight flight from Brazil. Second, I had purchased a plane ticket for my friend Peter to come up and help with the "move" much as I had done with Solange and the cats.

Peter is hard working and more importantly would serve to help focus me in the two tight days I had in which to pack, give away, trash or sell all of my material possesions.

I called Peter as I knew he'd be at the airport while I was on my way to the airport in Sao Paulo. Apparenyly, American Airlines denied him boarding for his flight to the USA due to the fact that his passport didn't have the required barcode for entry into the USA.

But, funny, they don't tell you this when they sell the ticket. And who would think there would be a problem with a Danish passport, Denmark being a visa waiver nation that supported us in our "fight against terror in Iraq". But that's life in the days of George W. Bush and the United States of Syria.

I called American and pleaded with them from the back seat of my cab, but it was all to no avail. Add them to my airline shitlist right behind Aeromexico.

I would have to pull it togther without Peter's emotional and physical support. Saturday I arrived just in advance of my army of army of helpers. I thought "F8&^"! How the hell was I going to get rid of all this stuff, put it into storage or give it away? Fortunately, each member of my movers' army manned a particular battlestation; John the less than well attended yard sale, Steve, trips to the thrift store, Julia, whose birthday it was, packed odds and end. Dara and Robb pyschological support, Cyn and Doug packing and trips to the thrift store.

Fortunately, when you live in the 'hood, the thrift stores are nearby.

Much of what I had amassed in terms of stuff over the years, had been garned from yard sales and thrift stores. Our society produces a glut of stuff and if there was ever a glutton, it was me all in spite of having a yard sale every year for the last six. The rest of the stuff, I left in the alley. Yeah, it was sort of a ghetto move, but I figured I had enough neighborhood karma banked after cleaning that street and alley for 6 years, that I could make a karmic withdrawal and still maintain a good conscience.

Friday, October 21, 2005

M27 No Sleep For the Weary

Just because I am not writing, doesn't mean nothing is going on. In fact, quite the contrary. In the last month and a half, I've been to three continents and six countries - some several times.

North and South America plus Europe. The USA, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Spain and France. I've met so many new people yet I haven't even had time to send them all messages. Let alone keep in touch with my regular correspondents.

After trips to Brazil and Argentina see post below, my friend Dave and I threw a surprise bachelor party in New York City our soon to be married best friend, John. We saw the Red Sox play the Yankees (and get their arses handed to them no less) at Yankees Stadium. Let's hope that holds a similar portent as rain does on a wedding day!

The Needham Crew; Brian, Justin, Dave and John
The next night the surprise was kept up and we held a party for all of John's friends his friend Jessica's ridiculously amazing flat at Central Park West. My friend Cindy, a neighbor dropped by and it was great to catch up with her. She's a doctor in New York City and a super-fabulous chica. We've never lived in the same city, but I still count her as a solid friend.

Brian and John

Felines Fly the (un!) Friendly Skies

After fun in NYC, it was strictly business for three days in North Carolina then it was tending to the house that was a headache in Washington, DC.

At the beginning of September, I flew my friend Solange up to DC from Mexico to help me bring my cats, Domino and Yuki, to Mexico. A single passenger can only bring a single animal abroad at a time so I figured the price of her ticket and the value of her company and the fact that one of the cats wouldn't have to fly in the cargo hold were well worth it. Little did I know. I don't trust airlines with pets. And my instinct was right.

Despite calling and asking multiple times and paying $100 per cat, we were nearly denied boarding on our connecting flight in Atlanta on Aeromexico. We were abruptly removed from the aircraft as they were about to close its doors for take off by an unsympathetic flight crew. (NOTE: This has to be the shitiest, rudest airline I've ever encountered. I pray every night that when they're privatized early next year, they are quickly run into the ground by the competition and that that particular flight crew is the first to be laid off. All that being said both Delta and, surprisingly, the Transportation Security Administration were unusually obliging and friendly.)

I don't know who was more freaked out, the cats, or me. What they hell I was I going to do without a hotel - let a lone a litter box in Atlanta with two freaked out felines that have never traveled more than two miles in a car to the vet? After dealing the most curt flight crew on the planet they asked the captain, who agreed to let us reboard. Our plane took off late with everyone including the cats. Thank god Solange was there to keep me from not completely loosing my shit.

That same morning, I signed the contract to list my house with Kelly Williams, one of the planet's most fabulous and effective real estate agents. Kelly was my agent when I bought the house. A week later, I landed in Barcelona and the house hit the market. I tried not to think about it as the house was empty and I was paying the mortgage yet not getting rent. Somehow, even $1,100 down the drain a month seemed like a bargain compared with dealing with my former renters. Within four days we actually had two offers. I ended up getting more than the asking price and the house has appreciated greatly over the last six years. I am convinced I have the market timed.

All this while, I am still trying to collect September's rent from yet another less-than-reliable tenant. (Oh, I promise this one has the makings of good post, so stay tuned). I guess that's why I sold it to begin with. It is a big pain in the ass and as an absentee landlord in another country I have had to fly back all the time to deal with the constant drama. I am glad it's nearly done and I will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Spain and France were fabulous, though somewhat of a blur now. I rode my bike and took some Spanish courses. I couldn't rent a car because I left my license in Mexico so I couldn't go to the city I intended going to in the first place. I met up with my friend Severine in Montpellier and she gave me an insider's view of French society and culture. I spent time with her fabulous family and the were most welcoming of me and even let me read in Hewbrew whilst I celebrated at their Jewish New Year's dinner.

I must say my love of France is nearly on par with that of Brazil. I don't know what to say. Americans and French aren't supposed to get along, but I loved everyone I met and they seem to love me back. I have never had a rude experience in France and I admire their food, culture, music, lifestyle and society. I have come to think that the reason Americans criticize the French is because we are actually insecure and jealous. Inside, we know that they're on to something that we're not. That we might have bigger houses, refridgerators and cars, but they have five weeks' vacation, free health care, education and they're not trapped in their automobiles 24-7.

On the bus on the way back to Barcelona, I met two lovely women from Singapore. Unfortunately, the photographic evidence has been left in Massachusetts. Over the course of the next few days we became friends and went out at night. They were smart, interesting, friendly and beautiful. I really like the people I meet traveling, especially when I say in hostels or travel by bus. It seems to me that non-Americans are more interested in travel than we are as a nation. Also, it seems that women tend to be more adventurous and prone to travel on average than men.

From Spain, I flew to Boston. I saw my friends Florian and Carolin off at their farewell party in August. They were my first and closest friends in Mexico. I am happy to report they have relocated to none other than my home state of Massachusetts, where I saw them! The other consolation is at their going away party, I met a super lovely Mexican woman named Claudia and we have become good friends.

In my hometown of Needham, I was honored to be best man in John Wyeth and Vanessa Hawkins' wedding.
I really wish I had written down my toast to John and Vanessa because I don't fully remember it now. I know that before I spoke in front of 150 people, I sucked down two beers. But John has been my closest friend even though we have not lived in the same city for 18 years. It's funny, but the speech I gave wasn't so much trip down memory lane as a tribute to someone with whom I am still just as close as ever. I wish him and his fabulous wife Vanessa the best of luck!

My writing can't keep up with my life and I am not sure I like that. In fact, I haven't been feeling so creative or inspired. What I have been feeling is tired and forgetful. It's a little weird, in the last month, I've lost keys, left my driver's license in Mexico when I needed it to rent a car in Spain. Only Solange's presence at the DF airport saved me from leaving behind a coffin-sized piece of luggage before we go into our taxi with the cats. I thought I lost my memory card with 500 photos of Spain and France, but Dave's father found it in their house. Gracias a deus!

It felt good to be back in Mexico other than to be working under pressure on client sites for 14 hours a day immediately upon my return. I've also been asked at the drop of a hat to go to Venezuela and Brazil this past week. But my work is super cool and fun and my management is super relaxed with my schedule and my travel so it's the least I can do in return.

I missed the friendliness of the people in Mexico and was psyched to be back and greated by my close friends, Karin, Alex (her husband) and Peter. Domino and Yuki no longer look like DF street cats as they did when I picked them up in DC. They are happy, relaxed and they sleep with me every night. My landlord, whom I was worried would not permit the cats, actually loves them and cares for them when I am away.

Friday, I head up to DC to close on the house, get rid of most of my material possesions and start the next chapter of my life. Hopefully, one that is simpler and more relaxed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

M26 "Keats and Yeats Are on Your Side, While Wilde Is on Mine"

Sunday I went off to explore Buenos Aires' most exclusive neighborhood, a gated community, so to speak. I wanted to see its fabulous architecture and art. There, I met a girl so beautiful she brought tears to my eyes.

The streets are too narrow for cars, cats run at the feet of the pedestrians. It's the most elite neighborhood in town and to get in, you have to have money and know someone in the highest echelons of Argentine society. The eclectic styles of architecture run the gamut from classic Greek and Roman styles, to Italianate, Art Nouveau and Deco and mid-century modern.

I didn't go to any art museums in BA, but Recoleta was a better substitute than I could possibly imagine, especially when it came to sculpture. Every building was a work of art onto its own. Two or three levels in some cases all seeming to stretch themselves all too thin in their reach toward heaven. As beautiful as Recoleta is, it's absolutely the last neighborhood in the city I'd want to get stuck alone in a night.

And it's not because of the crime.

Recoleta is a cemetery. It's BA's most exclusive and famous cemetery and one of the city's prime attractions. The likes of Eva Peron, "Evita" and the elite of Argentina are buried here in mausoleums bigger and more ornate than most homes. Notably, her husband, Juan was not interred here. Some of them have open windows displaying racks of family coffins.
Most have glass doors and waiting rooms with chairs so you can go into the family mausoleum should you like to literally be right next to your deceased relatives' coffins. I am pretty sure that when there is a shortage of cherubs and angels in heaven, God imports them from Recoleta.

Much of it, however beautiful, seemed more a monument to vanity than memory. The rich and famous and powerful and their preoccupation with death and eternity. It seems no matter what worldly can power can buy them, they end of up dead just like the rest of us. What was equally as striking was the conspicuous absence of flowers or other evidence that the graves had been recently attended to by relatives. All that effort and no one even shows up or even bothers to remember.

There was one notable exception.

It was the most moving monument in the entire "marble orchard" as my grandmother likes to say in her thick Pawtucket, Rhode Island accent. Mahbull orchid.

I stumbled upon a beautiful, life-size bronze statue of a young woman who had died of cancer. There was a plaque with a poem in Italian dedicated to her. She seemed decidedly human and yes, sad, but not in the utter throngs of grief like so many of the grief-stricken cherubs imploring the heavens.

Now that I recall, it was the only statue of an actual deceased person in the enitre cemetery. She stands with her beloved dog. His nose shinning, as though polished, from where people pet him. Interestingly, the same could not be said for her as if she were beyond reach.

Her hand held freshly cut flowers as if in an offering to the living. As if the only antidote to grief were carried by her, by the power of her life, her beauty, her energy, her love for her family and even her dog. As if we could only be consoled by and through her and her alone. Not through god or even a combined army of bereaved cherubs and stricken angels.

As I pondered her life, tears welled up in my eyes. There was something powerful, tragic and moving in her and missing from the rest of the cemetery. Something that was able to move me, a stranger, thirty years after the death of someone I had never met.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

M25 Closing One Chapter and Opening Another

I feel relieved. I finished my (paper) journal today. It's 120 pages long and it took me a year and a half to write. It's only the second journal I've ever completed in my life. The other one took four years to complete.

On the first page of my newly completed journal, I wrote:

"My last journal was something of a watershed for me. What I'd like to do with this journal is, firstly to continue the habit of writing more regurlarly and secondly, build upon it by pushing the limits of recording events and devling into the creative realm of fiction."

I didn't write any fiction, but that doesn't mean my journal wasn't filled with its critical elements; drama, action, conflict, love, hate, passion, change and all too occasionally, glimmers of happiness. I often feel I am flying standby on an emotional roller coaster.

Today, in a fabulous and newly discovered cafe in Colonia Roma, Azul y Blanco (Blue and White, Orizaba 161 y Queretaro), I reflected on the last page of my journal.

"I am feeling more relaxed. I rode around the city taking pictures. It's nice to reconnect and continually rediscover a city with a seemlingly infinite supply of new and interesting places such as this fabulous cafe from which I write. The cafe has an antique espresso machine and art by a Mexican artist named Carlos Marquez. I stumbled apon the cafe just riding around and I decided to stop and check it out. Even the music agreed with me. They were playing some wonderful Brazilian Bossa Nova.

One of many incredible blue and white paintings by Carlos Marquez at Cafe Azul y Blanco, stumbled upon while riding the photogenic streets of Distrito Federal.

Maybe I've been pushing things too much as my friend Peter suggested yesterday."

Peter, a Dane and founder of DF's only bike messenger company, CiclosMensajeros, is acquiring a taste for baseball in general and not surprisingly, the Boston Red Sox in particular. Peter didn't know much about baseball, and unprompted, he watched a Sox game the other day. This is what I like about Peter, he is completely and totally open to new things and needs no prompting. I find this is a very rare trait in people and this is perhaps why I consider him to be one of my better friends these days.

He was impressed by the relaxed batting stance of David Ortiz Boston's super-slugger. He said this guy was just so chilled, it was like he was just waiting for the perfect pitch to come so he could knock it out of the stadium. And he was. Peter picked this up on first glance, perhaps because he is a similarly relaxed and unphased person. Minutes later, he hit a grand slam and the Red Sox won, continuing a great follow-on season to last year's World Series win.

It's not like getting stressed really ever gets you anywhere. The best athletes and most efffective people in the world, are also the most relaxed.

I am "putting that one on a shelf in my brain".

I wrote further, "It's all about embracing what is right now, because it's not always going to be and I am going to miss it when it's gone. As much as I want to be the author of my own endings, that is simply impossible in life. For endings are only beginnings. And neither are necessarily good or bad because because they are in or out of concert with the outcome we set out to write".

The fact is when I am here, I often bemoan the fact that I am single, the fact that I can't exacly ride my bike in Rock Creek Park or out the Potomac, the fact that I am sometimes feeling trapped and claustraphobic and the fact that for the time being I am powerless to change that and there is no exit strategy in what was supposed to be a one year move. But today I felt like I could be here for another year.

I just enjoyed DF for what it is, a fabulously diverse, interesting, colorful and world-class city filled with amazing cafes, art, restaurants and yes traffic and pollution. It's an up and coming city. The kind of city that is not yet acclaimed and concomitantly, not overwhelmed by acclaim. It's like a city of cool neighborhoods before the suburbanites discover they're cool.

I am in on the ground floor.

The other day at a work lunch some co-workers asked me jokingly if I had been to Giribaldi. When I replied "yes", they laughed in disbelief that a gringo would have gone there. But I had gone, and in fact, it's home to one of my favorite antique markets. I buy little paintings of miracles on tin there. I learned at the Frida Kahlo museum that Frida loved these little tin paintings too and there's, in fact, a whole room in her house devoted to them. They have a Spanish name that I am forgetting right now.

Perhaps they laughed because they themselves hadn't been and could not imagine a foreigner going where they themselves don't go. But sometimes it takes being a foreigner to appreciate what's right in front of your own eyes. But I take pride in the fact that I do not hold myself up in my house or in my car (that I don't have any more). That I get out on my bike to see things that others don't or have long since forgotten.

I wonder how much people see of this city cruising around everywhere in their cars? Always going somewhere yet never being anywhere.

As crazy as riding bikes around DF sounds, it's the best way to see this city to connect to it and to discover its fabulousity. And in that way, to me, cars, buses and taxis all seem like ways not to see this city. Weekends provide a rare, relatively traffic-free window for exploration and recreation. On the bike I've seen more things than would be humanly possible by foot, taxi, car, micro or subway.

Perhaps that is how I've seen as much in so little time. Almost everything cool I've discovered has been on bike. Whether archictecture like the fabulous old theaters and buildings of Roma, cafes, monuments, the art garden, San Angel, the antique markets, street art, parks or old hulks of buses, I've found it all riding. I am pretty sure that aside from some of my fellow cyclists, I've seen more than most people who've lived behind the winshield of a car. I wonder if they know what an incredible city is in their midst?

But I know what it's like not to see. I am not talking about just because you're behind the wheel of a car. Much of my life is spent behind the windscreen of my own brain. Perpetually wrapped up in thought. Fears of the future, regrets from the past, neglect of the present. Not living in emotional time instead of living in real time. In that way, I am just like the drivers missing out on the city.

When I got home from the cafe, I somehow felt a chapter of my life was closed. I was both glad and releived. I can only hope that I will be happier or at least more accepting than I have been since I started my last journal.

Finishing a journal should seem like a rather arbitrary event with no greater significance than say a birthday or New Year's. There's no real reason I should feel differently, yet I do.

Maybe it because the pages of my new journal are still blank.

More pictures from today here: Photography by Brian Kemler

A note on Carta Products

The most fabulous of fabulous of paper journals are to be found here for your writing enjoyment. They're handmade from recycled leather in Italy and designed in California. They will inspire you to write as they have me:
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Monday, August 01, 2005

M24 Get Out of the City

"Summer days are long and lonely.
Cars are moving slowly.
The streets are filled with air so still.

I'm trying to get out of the city.
Trying to get out of the city.

Everybody's angry.
It's hard not to be lazy.
It's a bad time to have work to do.

I'm trying to get out of the city.
Trying to get out of the city."
Ivy - Get Out of the City

I've been feeling an inexplicably urgent need to get out of the city for the past two weekends.

It just didn't jump off. I suppose I am like the jets here; in need of extra fuel just to get off the ground at 7,300 feet above sea level.

I got the extra boost I needed this weekend. Friday night late, my friend Peter, the Danish founder of Mexico City's only bicycle messenger firm, Ciclos Mensajeros, his girlfriend Arlette, her daughter Gala and I made the five hour trip to the Pie de la Cuesta, a small, rustic and waiting-to-be-developed Pacific beach just north of Acapulco. We didn't arrive until 3am.

The next day when I wasn't sleeping in, I was lounging in the hammocks at Casa Blanca, a sleepy hotel abutting the beach. It's the kind of place that's so chilled out it takes just a day to get used to. Here in the shade you can relax as a parade of beach vendors proffers fruit cups, mango cocktails complete with spicy jalapeno pepper and salt (!?), shrimp, clothing, pot and even - this is my favorite - taxidermied squirrels. I hope I didn't give away anyone's Christmas gift.

The hotel has an unpretentious vibe and is owned by a friendly and unsurprisingly flamboyant Frenchman. During the day mellow dub vibes flow from the outdoor speakers segueing to a more up-tempo house vibe at night. It's the perfect aural back drop for a perfect place.

The place attracts mainly in-the-know European tourists and Mexican middle class beachgoers. There is nothing chi-chi about it yet, that's precisely its charm. There is not much to do save lounge, relax, swim, eat and fish. Did I mention watch the sun rise and set? It's not overrun by any stretch and you won't find ridiculously luxuriant accommodations, internet cafes, tourists shops or fancy restaurants. If you want that, you can have it in spades up the road in Acapulco. The entire weekend, I left my cell phone off. When I came back, there were no extreme emergencies that I missed out on.

Surprise, surprise.

What did surprise me was the conservative beach attire of the typical Mexican beach goer and their generally shy attitudes toward their bodies. My perspective may be a little skewed since the last time I was on a beach I was in Rio de Janeiro where thongs are de rigeur. Here, however, I was shocked to see people swimming in the ocean fully clothed. I also saw full peice bathing suits on young women. And alas, there was not a single thong to be spied. Truth be told the excess clothing shielded us from the dark, unspoken underbelly of libertine Rio; the specter of grandma in a thong.

It was still an interesting visual commentary on the contrasts of the two societies that seem much one the same in the eyes of most Americans.

We often confuse Mexico with Brazil and vice versa. But the two countries aren't a whole lot more similar to each other than they are to, say, Canada.

Firstly, the girls in Mexico are not all hot goddess-predators throwing themselves at the feet of men. Quite the opposite is true. Most live at home and display a shyness and innocence I witnessed the beach when I saw two Mexicanas reluctantly disrobe then run to the ocean in their full piece swim-wear only to return again an instantly cover themselves again. And one of them was actually kind of hot.

Thongs can be witnessed on the city streets of Rio. Do I need to say more? Yes, and it gets even better than that but I will save the good stuff for another post.

Further, Mexico is a country which is more conservative, inwardly focused, Catholic and "family value" oriented. (Hey they have a presidential election coming up next year, maybe they could take our family value president off our hands?) Brazil on the other hand tends to be more focused and open to the outside world due to its the links to the rest of the world stemming from its relatively open immigration policies. Everyone knows it's more liberal in its sexual mores but this also holds true with its progressive politics.

For the record, in Brazil Portuguese, not Spanish, is spoken. And speaking of Latin America, both Mexico and Brazil are in Latin America, yet only Brazil is in South America. So if I am asked "how do you like living in South America?" I have to say, "I don't know because I still live in North America". A lot of people think it's hot in Mexico. But much of the country is mountainous, D.F. included, so the thermometer never goes north of 80F degrees and there's no humidity. It's the land of perpetual spring. Most of the population of Mexico is urban and interior. A more rushed urban culture like New York City is prevalent. Contrast to Brazil; while most of the population of Brazil is also urban, it is situated near the near the hot, humid, equatorial coast and thus a more laid back beach culture akin to say, California, is predominant.

So that's the cultural and geographic lesson for today. I know a lot of it seems obvious, but based on the queries I get, apparently it's anything but.

Over the weekend I couldn't get enough of the water and the waves. The sound of the sea. Sand. Sun. Pelicans skimming the cresting waves with the guided precision of one of Donald Rumfeld's "humane bombs". Saturday night the entire beach was gathered to watch the sunset. It was one of the most spectacular I have ever witnessed. The sun, a giant burning sphere descending into the sea. I half expected the sea to start boiling. When the sun was below the sea, the beach goers spontaneously applauded. I will post pictures when I resuscitate my .mac site which is still down, by the way!

Monday we headed back to D.F., a theoretical four-hour drive. We were making good time going 100mph down the toll road, the most expensive mile for mile in the world, with repeated tolls exacting the kingly sum of 100 pesos or nearly $10usd a pop. The road does a good job at masquerading as a first world autobahn. That's until you bottom your ride out and scrape pavement on one of the many hidden drop-offs. We saw a fallen motorcyclist due to the selfsame drop that woke up our entire car. Ouch.

As we neared the edge of D.F. it was my turn to drive, in a Brian Kemler first and likely last, manning the helm of a motor vehicle on the mean streets of D.F. I actually thought I would get to work by noon. That was until I helped get us lost, and practically had a panic attack. People drive in this madness on a daily basis. Now I know that the reaction of just laying on the horn is a reflection of how these people feel on the inside. I know, I felt it too. But I didn't lay on the horn.

It took another three hours to get home and I didn't get into the office till a shameful 3pm, as noted repeatedly by my co-workers who seem to be quite good at making mental time stamps of the office comings and goings.

Let the record reflect, I stayed till 8pm the last two nights out of guilt and shame in violation of my own policy to leave by 6pm!

D.F. seems to have a gravity all of its own, but outside its borders lie vast, varied, interesting and relaxing places. I wish it were easier to come and go, but the difficulty makes the trip all the more worthwhile.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Mexico City Bike Laws

Mexico City Laws

"Boneshakers, safety bicycles, and any other similar machines are banned from the center of town."

"Bicycle riders may not lift either foot from the peddles, as it might result in a loss of control. Also, anyone who whistled at or annoyed a bicycle rider could be arrested."

I like the second!!!


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Street Scenes: D.F. by Bike

All Shots Taken this morning on my commute.

Bike Wheel Swallowing Sewer Grate Designed By World's Foremost Bicycle-Hating Sadists. My purple Masi is newly outfitted with fenders for the evening showers, 28c tires to suck up the bumps and lights for riding around town at night.

Fellow cyclist! I want to capture the guy that carries four massive banana crates on the back of his bike. Stay tuned for that.

I wonder what the chilangos thought of a camera-wielding gringo riding no-hands? This is a lovey side street in Colonia Condesa.

Say "ah"! Trademark D.F. Micro bus (say "Meecro") with green and white taxi astride a bike-sized hole.

Across from the Torre Mayor Looking east on Reforma. Look carefully (or click to enlarge) to see the Diana sculpture in the shadow of El Angel.

Believing in the Midst of Doubt

"You know it's there so take it, even fake it till it comes true"

--Astrud Gilberto "Stay" from Beach Samba, 1967

Feeling normal. Relaxed even. Seeing things as they are rather than how I want them to be. On a positive vibe, but not overly so. It's just like when I let go of expectations everyone can sense there is no agenda.

I myself feel a sense of freedom. How easily I am caught up in a story. A story of romance. A story of moving to a place. A story of something of which I have already determined and am tied into its planned outcome. Attached and not free. Trapped and blocked. Coming down off a high. Withdrawal.

As I reflect near the end of my (paper) journal, I am shocked at the number of pages devoted to the perennial negativity. Sometimes years of my life submerged in conflict, misery and complication. Like I was at the same time feeling pain but somehow numb to it. As I reflect back there were times too when I was numb to the joy as well. That my mistakes, if I can call them such, have served a purpose and have informed me. Even though I may not yet know to what end.

The day I fall in love it will all either make sense or cease to matter.

Because after all, I believe that love is real, tangible and accessible to all, including myself. That one day I will find someone and it will just click. And then, I will look back, smile and say to myself "I wouldn't change a thing - though it all would have been a whole hell of a lot easier had I just known what I now know".

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Blog That Finally Was

After a few years of surprising technophobia for someone who is usually an early technology adopter, I've finally started my own blog called "Musings from Mexico". I thought "from" makes more sense than "on" since I am not writing exclusively about Mexico but rather from my perspective now that I am here. In the past I had used both "on" and "from".

I had avoided blogs because I thought they were too trendy, clique-y and insider-ish. The term "blogsphere" still makes me wince. I'd rather drink the tap water here than read all those sycophantic blogs waxing poetic for Dubya/ or even the Dems for that matter. Prodded by my friend Joel Gwadz my mom (!) and being somewhat inspired by a fabulous blog called The Brazilian Muse, I decided I wanted in on the action.

Last night I posted all my old "musings", some new ones and some photographs to Musings from Mexico My fear was no one would read my blog but that was rapidly assuaged when I woke up to an email from "Kay" complimenting my new blog. That felt fabulous! I take back everything bad I said! I am hooked!

I've decided to stick mainly with the (relatively) single-theme of adapting to life in Mexico, my perspective now that I am here and travel stories. The alternative would be to have an all inclusive "today I bought cat litter" and "parked next to a grey BMW" type of blog, which would just be boring. If my theme diverts too much, I will just start another blog. I've found it's difficult to follow blogs that are all over the map and I sense that was what was behind some of my initial hesitance in posting my own.

I use my real name on the site though in some instances I omit or change names to shield the guilty (and innocent). I am not voyeuristically opening up my personal (paper) journal to the world's prying eyes, but you will find some kiss-n-tell information if you dig deeply enough. I will continue emailing my larger "feature length" stories for your reading enjoyment, but you will also find posts on the blog that I don't email so as to entice you into checking out the site regularly.

I am not totally sure what my "editorial policy" is. But I think it's going to be about finding balance. For it to be interesting, it needs to be real. But sometimes real crosses the line and might hurt certain parties or be of the TMI (too much information) variety. Please be patient with me as I find that balance.


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

M23 Back in the Saddle

I am ashamed to admit that I am only bike commuting after nearly a year of living in Mexico City. Today was my second day. I’ve already had my first run-in with rent-a-cops and an accident.

Fortunately, the former didn’t involve bribes or handcuffs and the latter only involved flesh and liquid as opposed to say, metal, pavement and/or glass.

It all started by selling my car and then getting my act together to build up the dream bike that I’ve been talking smack about for so long. For only slightly less than the price for which I sold my SUV, I’ve got one of the world’s nicest road bikes, a Seven Axiom, custom made in my home state of Massachusetts and pictured here for your viewing enjoyment:

Now I am car free and carefree. Well, car free at least. We can talk about the cares later.

You might think that commuting in Washington, DC on a brakeless fixed gear and competing in live-traffic alley cat races up and down the east coast for the better part of the last decade would prepare me to ride in the world’s second most populous city.

It didn’t.

This is one of the most, if not the most, crowded, car-centric and bike-unfriendly cities on the planet. There is no regard for bikes or pedestrians. None. If you get hit, they will run you down again just to make sure the job is done and you don’t live to tell. I am not kidding.

I am always amazed at just how often locals warn me about the ever present threat of crime. Yet, it just doesn’t seem that sketchy here. And I say that as someone who has been held up. In fact, crime seems to be a rather abstract threat compared with the clear and present one manifested in the culture of the motor vehicle. How about the threat of walking off a curb? I am still frightened. And, as an aside, shocked at how many times cars would actually stop in the middle of traffic to let me cross the in Massachusetts! That’s happened to me here a grand total of one time.

Bike dangers here include but are not limited to the following: sewer holes without covers, foot-high curbs, glass, storm drains designed by bike hating sadists with slits that are created specifically to trap bicycle wheels, pollution, blatant disregard for traffic rules, wild bike attacking dog packs and policemen that will arrest you if you pee in a deserted area unless you bribe them - not that I would know any of that from personal experience.

Should I be surprised then by any of this in a city that is building triple-decker highways to solve its traffic woes? If your sink wasn’t draining would you add a second faucet? Well, I guess they’d rather send their money down the drain of automobile transport instead of mass transit or god-forbid encouraging the use of a mode of transit that is actually within the financial means of masses, the bicycle.

The sad thing is this city is potentially perfect for bikes. It’s mostly flat and has perfect whether. Then why should it be that there is better and more bike culture in frozen Toronto than perpetually 75-degree DF?

But I still prefer riding to walking, the subway with sweaty people pressing against me and taxis – even here.

So I am converting my trusted road bike into my commuter and starting to ride to work every day. Day One I forced myself to ride even though I knew I would think of all sorts of excuse not to. “It’s only a 30 minute walk or for that matter taxi ride, there’s no where to lock the bike, what will my coworkers think when I walk in sweaty in my Sidi’s”?

Blah blah blah. My new motto is “who cares”?

Monday when I got back from Boston, I hopped on my purple Masi with my new Baileyworks messenger bag containing my dress shoes, my laptop, power supply and work papers. It felt like I was carrying bowling balls.

When I arrived I was entreated to Spanish lesson on not locking my bike to an out of the way railing by the building’s rent-a-cop. It seems Latin America’s tallest, most modern and expensive building doesn’t have a single bike rack. Not one. It barely has anything that will even substitute as one as I found out in today’s fruitless search.

El renta-policia instructed me to go to puerta tres or door three where I was told to lock my bike. So I went there today but there was nothing to which to affix ride.

As I pulled out of “door three”, making my way down the back street in search of a proper mooring, a woman was standing on the curb with arm extended like a slot machine’s in the down position.

She was holding a big gulp-sized cup of coffee.

I was already late for work because I had been on my long Tuesday morning ride with my riding friends. I kept my focus ahead on the look out for traffic in the upcoming intersection when I felt an abrupt smack on my right shoulder and then a warm rush of liquid. Jackpot! Was I bleeding? It wasn’t so mellow dramatic.

The mujer con café walked into my path without looking. Strike! My white dress shirt was now cafe brown. At first I was kind of irritated, but then I thought it was pretty funny.

And because of my bike, it only took me 14 minutes to ride home, change and get to work, albeit an hour and a half late. I locked a half block away to the railing of an unused building.

Maybe my new found daily 46 minutes coupled with my new policy of not leaving the office after six or checking email from home will allow me time finish all the stories in my backlog.

As always, stay tuned.

Monday, July 04, 2005

M22 Planes, Trains and Meeting New Chicas

Musings From Massachusetts

I just don’t feel like writing.

I mean I feel like getting my thoughts down, however I am not feeling moved or inspired right now.

I am home and I miss home. I am not unhappy when I am in Mexico but I am unhappy about Mexico when I am in the USA or in Brazil.

Euphemistically, I put it as “I am over my enchantment phase”.

I just want to come back to New York, buy a little brown stone, ride my bike everywhere and have a nice life with friends even if that means that I have to give up having the fabulous career and the international jet set lifestyle. Sometimes I feel am done with not having a normal life.

While meeting women has not been a problem, meeting ones that engage me has not happened until this week.

On the plane up from Mexico, I met a lovely flight attendant on Delta 278. I was waiting in line for the rest room protected from from meeting anyone with my noise cancelling headphones. She asked me for a piece of gum anyway. I took the headphones off and insisted she take a peice even though she said she was just joking. Even before, I had sensed something really amazing in her just as she walked down the aisle. It was my first impression and it was strong, though we hadn’t even spoken. It was a vibe though I did not intend to pursue it.

We continued to talk during the flight and her co-flight attendant egged me on. As we talked and flirted I debated giving her my card. Something in all my travels I have never done with a flight attendant (hard to believe, but true).

Well, I just felt moved to give her my card as I left the flight. I worried what people would think, including her. But I figured what the hell. T heir problem – not mine. I handed her the card and she smiled. I left the jet, then proceeded to baggage claim.

Soon, I ran into her at customs while I was having my bags searched by an agent who asked me about the police in Mexico and then said I should never trust police anywhere. She handed her number on a peice of paper. I called her the next day.

We met Saturday to have coffee on Smith Street in Brooklyn. I felt a vibe and an electricity that confirmed my first impression. It was connection I haven’t felt in a long time. We only hung out for an hour or two, but it was nice and I most definitely wanted to see her again.

We made tentative plans to get together the following Thursday.

The week I spent in Boston was stressful. I worried too much about work and I was stressed getting into and out of Boston by motor vehicle. I couldn’t pay attention in my class and had email ADHD all day.

By the time I boarded Amtrak Thursday to go back to New York, I was starting to relax. I finally felt chilled listening to a remix of Este Vez by Belanova when a nice looking woman reading a yoga book sat down across the aisle from me and I just couldn’t resist making conversation.

It turned out she was totally cool and into pilates and yoga. I was also attracted to her vibe and presence.

A lifelong Brooklyn resident was interesting and interested in listening to me. She was strong opinioned, though tolerant, smart and had expansive quality of acceptance. She teaches pilates and had opened a yoga studio. I remember her saying “I put that idea on a shelf in my brain”. I liked that a lot and am now using it with credit to her. She also mentioned feeling connectedness in a place like Brooklyn that I could really understand when I was there.

When we arrived at Penn Station, we hugged and went our separate ways. I hope we will cross paths again.

Hours later the flight attendant and I met in the lower east side at a little sushi place. She was looking gorgeous with a sexy summer black dress. She was hot and stylish – just right and not overdone. A tiny line of black make up that made her eyes look so nice. I was impressed that she made reservations at three places for us to decide together.

I practically just stared at her in awe all evening.

We talked about everything. I probably said too much but at least I wasn’t pretending to be someone I am not. We discussed siblings, ex’s, travel, jobs, etc. It was pretty deep for a second date.

We went to a Le Souk's, Moroccan restaurant, on Avenue B, that had an ill house dj accompanied by bongo drums! It couldn’t have been more perfect. She must have really caught my interest as I was more interested in leaving to a quieter locale than I was in listening to house music.

She has a nice bike and is into yoga. Damn. Count of biking/yoga practicing women I've met in Mexico: 0.

It's just nice to know, whatever happens, that there are nice women out. It lead me to the conclusion that I may need to be in a place like NYC to meet the kind of women who have the same sort of multifaceted personalities that I am into.

It also caused me to realize most of my life has been spent working and devoting time to travel for work and that this has not helped cultivate calm and centeredness in my life. Nor has it helped the relationship department.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

M21 Non Stop To Brazil

The long awaited and much anticipated Trip Report: Brazil 05/05

"Silver jet take me I’m all set
Take me though the skies
Fly me to her side fly me
Where the air of Rio sings
All my hopes are ride on your wings
Don’t ask why
Love waits at the end of the sky
So fly me to Brazil"

Astrud Gilberto “Non Stop to Brazil”

Take One: Everything Fabulous You Need to Know About Brazil is Encoded in the Language

I’m officially declaring Brazil my favorite country.

Everything I love about Brazil and Brazilians is encapsulated in their spoken music otherwise known as Brazilian Portuguese.

It makes French sound guttural.

It is gentle, flowing and flirtatious. It’s the closest thing to spoken music that you can hear. I am pretty sure it was invented for the sole purpose of flirting. When Brasilieras speak, they may be discussing their latest colonoscopy, and yet, it sounds sexy just the same.

The last time I came here on the 10-hour overnight flight from Mexico City, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. That’s right, 10 hours.. It’s actually the identical flight time to SP, Brazil from Mexico, DF or Washington, DC, 9 hours and 40 minutes. This time, I only managed to fall asleep on the flight because I didn’t drink coffee the entire day, knowing the world’s best coffee would be awaiting me upon touchdown. Still, I greeted this, my third trip, with the same giddy enthusiasm a school boy might greet a first date.

Take Two “No Stress”

“No Stress” is a popular saying (they say it in English) in Brazil. You can buy it on T-shirts. It seems rather simple, but it actually took me a couple trips here to get in to the vibe. My plane ride set the tone for the trip. No body sweated anything. Not a thing. On the plane, it’s just as acceptable to have white ear buds dangling from my ears as it is to have my seat back in the reclined position during take off and landing.

Brazilians are friendly and warm and not in a politely superficial way. It’s an authentic friendliness that lacks the edge and the tendency toward political and social conservatism else where in the world, like say in my own country the United States of America.

Everywhere I went, I was treated like I was some sort of rock star –uh international DJ. Brazilians express a keen interest in foreigners. They’re honored that you would travel so far, honored that you attempt to learn some Portuguese and even more honored still you’re into Brazilian culture. They openly welcome outside cultures and influences, perhaps because they are secure in their own culture. They have a remarkable ability to assimilate other cultures into their own and come out with an end product that’s unique and entirely original as you will read soon.

They are patient, relaxed, understanding and completely refreshingly without edge. I have yet to witness an argument or the futile, yet incessant, horn-honking of Mexico City or New York – even though the traffic, at least in Sao Paulo, equals that of Mexico City or LA.

In a week’s time, I had already been invited into two co-worker’s homes and to another’s birthday party, a Balada. It’s much more common here and bonds are more rapidly created. I didn’t stick around long enough to see if they are dissolved as easily, but I somehow doubt it.

While Brazil may be fraught with many of the same problems present in other Latin America countries, one gets the sense that they are at least making a go at building a functional society. You see recycling bins everywhere and even in my office they made a point to use the reverse sides of the flip charts. Que legal (How cool!)!

There seems to be a lot less pressure to finish dinner and give you a check. And uniformly the service is polite, if not prompt. But then again, dining here is not about stuffing your face and running off to your next meeting. It’s about relaxing and socializing. It’s much the same in Mexico, for that matter, but not so in the USA.

Take Three: The Loveliest of the Lovely Ladies

Belo Horizonte, where I was working for a large energy concern, is Brazil’s third largest city after Sao Paulo and Rio. It was rated by the UN as one of the top 50 cities in the world to live and now I think I know why.

Not because of its mid-century modern architecture and successful urban plan that served as the basis for the futuristic Brasilia. Rather, it’s because of its most interesting statistic; the male to female ratio.

It varies between 1:9 and 1:11 depending on with whom you speak. Even taking into account the national penchant for exaggeration, I was skeptical. I had always heard about a mythical Brazilian city where women out number men as a thirteen year-old reading Penthouse Forum I had purloined from somewhere. As much as I wanted to, I never believed anything I read in it.

Till now. It’s true. Why? I’d be a fool to question a good thing.

Did I mention the women in Belo Horizonte are supposed to be the prettiest in Brazil? They are tall, sexy, natural, wear no make up and have long flowing hair. They dress sexily and there’s always the ever present gift of mid-drift.

In Mexico, you have to go to the beach to see anything more than ankles on a good day. And even there you may be disappointed as I learned on a recent excursion. In the states, I am not sure I’d want to see thongs on the ever-fattening asses of most Americans.

The ratio keeps the worst excesses of both genders in check. It tempers the jealousy and possessiveness of men while at the same time relegating female snobbishness an anti-evolutionary attribute.

For example, I went into a surf shop the other night and struck up a conversation in English, halting Spanish and Portuguese with Anna Paula (If only you could hear her say it!), a tall and lovely surfer chica. At first I was self conscious that the guys in the shop would be protective or summoning of her back to work.

But, the opposite was the case. They were warm and friendly and it seemed the store was not going to go bankrupt any time soon because Anna Paula was talking to me instead of folding board shorts for the fifteenth time that day.

She offered me a cigarette which I promptly accepted even though I don’t smoke. This girl was so hot, she could have offered me crack and I would have had a toke just to have the chance to spend another minute with her.

We hung out and talked and as far as I could tell, it was entirely innocent. I made plans to come back to see some music at the adjoining restaurant in a week.

It wasn’t a date, but then again it wasn’t not a date.

During this interaction, I learned as much about my own culturally cultivated reactions as I did about Brazilian culture. Mainly, they don’t function here.

Obrigado deus (thank god).

That is the gift of travel. It allows you to step out of yourself.

I can’t recall being this chilled out or unselfconscious in ages. I am not sure that it is possible in the US or in Mexico.

The attitude toward relationships is interesting and at least in the case of a newly found Brasiliero friend, seems to be considerably more lax than in northern countries.

Cheating on your wife with prostitutes seems to be a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation among new acquaintances or even co-workers. I had to repeatedly turn down attempts to send me $50 “room service”.

My friend seemed disappointed and so I sort of felt bad. I was thus obliged to pay a visit to a “Boite” or night club. They resemble American-style strip clubs with one marked difference; let’s just say what’s on the menu is either eat-in or carry out.

Find a garota (girl) you like, pay a small fee to the club to leave with her and she’s yours for the evening. You can take her to your hotel, or better still a motel.

Motels in Brazil are strictly of the “no tell” variety. They have names like; “Alibi”, “Amour Inn” and “Love Shack” and they let rooms only in hourly increments and signage is strictly regulation flashing neon.

Prostitution is legal in Brazil as most people know. It’s less stigmatized and more safe because it is legal and regulated. As a result, prostitutes received government sponsored pensions plans as other workers would and pimping is illegal.

One thing I am lost on is why prostitutes are so prevalent with the aforementioned ratio and the sheer deliciousness (as would be said in Portuguese) of the women. I found the average bus stop a better show than the Miss America pageant.

Take Four: A Gift From The Heavens

One day in the office, I decided to show off my Photo Ipod. Surprisingly, no one in the office had ever heard of, let a lone seen one. They’re as popular in Mexico as they are in the states.

It was as though I had brought an alien object with magical properties from outer space. This futuristic technology had yet to be invented on earth or at least in Belo Horizonte. Brazil’s sheer distance from the States serves as kind of a nice cultural buffer. It’s harder for goods to get lobbed over the fence.

Here in Mexico, the rich just hop a flight to Miami or Houston to go shopping if they don’t want to pay double or trip for any Mac – or consumer electronic product.

They were astonished to learn that in addition to having more drive space than any of the office computers, it could display color photographs. Everyone quickly requested that I bring them each Ipods back with my on the next flying saucer until they looked up the price on

I’ve already alluded to the musicality of the language here so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Brazilians are on average almost as crazy about music as I am. It’s in their dna. Sergio, a coworker I became friends with, even challenged me to find a Brazilian that didn’t like music concluding emphatically, “you can’t”

It’s no wonder the office loved the Ipod and was totally open to hearing not only my Bossa Nova, Brazilian Drum –n- Bass and my favorite, Ive Mendes, but also some of my faves from Mexico like Sussie 4 and Belanova.

I played DJ, while I hacked Brazil’s largest energy concern’s production UNIX server.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I don’t pay my company instead of the other way around.

Because of this love of music, the overall quality of music here is better. Even pop music, or MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) is much better than pop music from the States.

When thinking of Brazil and music, it’s best to think of it as an entirely separate, yet parallel universe equal in size to that of English language music. There are genres and instruments that I had never heard of such as the fabulous Berimbau, a one string guitar-like gord out of which its players finesse amazing sounds.

There are many home-grown genres; Samba, Axe, Chorro, Forro, Favel Funk, Pagode, Tropicalismo and of course, my personal favorite, Bossa Nova.

Many of these genres take root in foreign forms of music. Samba in European march music and Bossa Nova in American Jazz. There are the underlying African rythms that make all of the genres fabulously percussive in nature.

There’s also Acustico, which I will hasten to say is a unique genre, but it does have a charm all of its own. Think MTV Unplugged meets cover music. My favorite acustico tunes are only guitar and vocals and are sung in Portuguese. They manage to successfully resuscitate the played-out and long-since left for dead songs of American and Brittish culture.

And they do so in a way that makes even a cynical music snob like myself tap his feet to Cidade Negra’s ska rendition of “Johnny B Good” or Fernanda Abreu’s downtempo cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You”.

Best of all, there’s Ive Mendes’ cover of Chicago’s “If you leave Me Now”. I didn’t meet a single Brazilian that had heard of her (which kind made me feel cool), but her record, although not solely acustico, is fabulous and it’s out on Mr. Bongo records from the UK.

Yet again, the Brazilians have taken sometime foreign, made it their own, and in doing so, made it better.

Take Five: Saudade

In the last year of my life, I’ve had some of the most romantic moments of my life.

By myself.

There is a lonely side to the jet-set lifestyle, the onset of which came to me in spades just a week into my trip.

I unusually missed my most recent ex-girlfriend, something that hasn’t really happened since we split some 3 months ago. Stranger still, I missed an ex ex ex girlfriend.

I even went as far as mailing the later an “out of the blue” email which was anything but. I received her terse response from New York City; “Brian, I am in a serious relationship now and I don’t feel comfortable writing you. Don’t take it personally”.


The response begged the question, “If it’s so serious, then why would you be so uncomfortable?”. And for that matter, how could I take it anything but personally?

I held my tongue and wrote back that if that changed and she wanted to be in touch in the future then the door would be open.

Though now I am starting to think that it’s closed and closed for good. I guess I just had to go through that little exercise to figure that one out. I started to feel better remembering why I had broken up with her in the first place.

Portuguese has a word that there is no equivalent to in either English or Spanish; Saudade. Roughly, it’s a melancholic longing for a past state that can no longer be. There is a sad aspect to it but it’s not entirely sad because there is a longing characteristic.

I was looking for a word to describe how I felt about my ex ex ex and I found it in another language, culture and country.

Take Six: Rio

Being single may be lonely, but it isn’t so bad in the land of lovely ladies.

I spent each of my weekends in the lovely-lady and thong capital of the world; Rio De Janiero. The first time I went in November it was sort of tainted by the experience of getting beaten by three thugs.

But I decided to give it a second go and a third and a forth. I know it sounds crazy, but I was on a such a positive vibe, I don’t think anything could have happened to me.

On my way from Belo Horizonte, they lost my plane and hotel reservations and I was pretty pissed that I had to pay for them myself. I only recently got reimbursed. But how much can you complain about multiple business junkets to Rio?

I fully admit to often having spoiled tendencies. It’s part of my beauty and charm.

I wound up a dirty a hotel that was trying to be boutique-y. It would have pulled it off if it weren’t the black couch with white stains. But I didn’t spend much time there and the girl at the front desk was so nice I just couldn’t complain. (No, she wasn’t hot).

The first night was very romantic. I went to a lovely restaurant, Za-Za Bistro Tropical all by myself. in Ipanema. Ipanema is a Tupi Guarani word meaning "bad waters" it is notorious for dangerous currents and few fish. Kind of appropriate given the last time I was here I got attacked. But really, it’s quite lovely and quite the antithesis of neighboring Copacabana with its sex tourist seediness.

Zaza is candle lit and has the best, most delicious fusion cuisine to be found in Rio. Drinking two of anything usually isn’t a problem for me, but I was nearly under the table after two of the most potent Caipirinhas I’ve ingested to date.

Alone and drinking by myself! I promise not to make a habit of it.

Take Seven: Record Shopping in the Rain

Saturday, I had big plans for renting a bike and seeing Rio on two wheels, but it rained most of the day. It was the universe’s intent that I go record shopping.

Just a block away from where Tom Jobim authored the Girl From Ipanema lies a fabulous record story called “Toca de Vinicius” for Vinicius de Moraes the famed Brazilian writer and poet. The rain poured down as I unfurled my umbrella and sought refuse within the store.

It was like I was Catholic visiting the Sistine chapel. Half the store was Bossa Nova CD’s, there was a Bossa Nova Museum upstairs and the sole employee, Leila was the sweetest, most helpful guide I could possibly have. I didn’t pay her a “real” (Brazilian currency), unless you count the thirty or so CD’s I bought.

She played CD after CD and introduced me to some of the best music I have ever hear; Tom, Elis, Joao, Astrud, Nara, Walter and even more recent accolades to the genre such as Lisa Ono.

At several points I was moved nearly to tears on the first listen. I listened and bought all after noon. Leila was also instrumental in hooking me up with what to do in out on the town. One night I saw a live Bossa Nova act.

She gave me several venues to hit and together with a fabulous article from the NYT by Seth Kugel, I triangulated my plans for the evening.

First stop, was Pao de Azucar, or Sugar Loaf. On the cable car up I stood next to a gorgeous Braziliera that occasionally glanced my way (See photo on left). Yeah, I should have talked to her, but I ended up talking to another women who turned out to be French and who spoke perfect English. Not only did I guess that she learned English in England, but I guessed correctly, that she learned it in the north in Manchester. I was pretty proud of myself.

We watched the sunset of the city. Copacabana looked like the buildings were poured into the sides of the mountain and kept at bay only by the sand and the sea.

Francina had just arrived that day and was taking one of those fabulous 5-week vacations, a luxury us Americans must only envy when we put down “old Europe” or refer to their “welfare states”. If this is welfare, I want in on the action! I wonder how our foreign policy would change if Americans had the time to take vacations abroad or took the time to learn other languages. Maybe people would hate us less. I made plans to meet her at her Hostel, Rio Backpackers, at 8. We went to dinner at the Vegetarian social club in Leblon and then hopped in a cab to Lapa.

Take Eight: Laps Around Lapa

I had stumbled upon Lapa the day before and I was scared for my life.

There is an old trolley in a quaint, hillside neighborhood called Santa Teresa that no one seems to know about. It wends its way down the mountain to Lapa. The trolleys are almost identical to those in San Francisco but they are about half-scale and un-restored and have been left to all but rot for the better part of the last century. They’re quite charming nonetheless. Picture, if you will, an SF cable car left out in the elements for say, 80 years in a tropical environment.

The favellas have metastasized up the hillsides since the time this formerly wealthy mansion district was home to the elite of Rio. Back in the day they’d just cruise downtown to the center on the cable car from their perch above the masses and now the masses come to them. As a result, each cable car comes with it’s own machine-gun wielding cop.

There is something about machine guns that just doesn’t reassure me.

I decided to walk down the hill following the tracks and my curiosity to Lapa. Down the mountain, the tracks led me to the famous white aqueduct which looks just great in the tourist photos, but is actually pretty sketchy up close and personal.

There are tons of people hanging out beneath its arches and I just felt a very uncomfortable vibe akin to my days as urban pioneer. Sort of like being the only white dude on Georgia Ave. NW back in the pre-gentrification days of my adopted hometown, Washington, DC. Only here not only was I a white dude, but also a foreigner (and hence rich), a tourist and a non-Portuguese speaker.

A day later, two women I met at “New Natural”, a fabulous vegetarian buffet in Ipanema, told me how they had been robbed at knife point by a suit wearing thug on the stairs I had walked near the aqueduct.

Back to the cab ride.

For the record, cabbies are among the most maligned workers in Latin America. In Mexico, taking a green street taxi is verboten.

I took my first green, street cab in DF by mistake and I now continue to take them if convenience dictates. I have never been ripped off, felt threaten or unsafe. It’s a different story with hotel taxis here, that are impolite and over priced. I do try to keep my “exposures” limited, but I take them when I need to. Luckily, these days my primary mechanism of transit has two wheels and is free. Well, back to Rio.

I already knew the layout of Rio fairly well and knew it was common practice for the taxis to take tourists along the longer beach route which is more scenic and more expensive. This didn’t bother me.

I knew the fastest way to Lapa was past the Lagoa (lagoon) yet we went through Copacabana, then to the airport, past it, and then back, toward the center and we did a lap around Lapa until we finally landed at Democraticos, the fabulous club recommended by Leila.

The price of the taxi was three times what it should have been and not surprisingly three times as expensive. Francina had no clue and even though part of my inner gringo was about to stick up for our rights, I really didn’t sweat this $8 and just decided to let it go.

We were in Rio but it looked like we were in Bosnia or say Camden. Lapa is full of some of the most gorgeous, but totally run down and decrepit turn of the century architecture. I thought Francina was crazy when she said it reminded her of parts of Paris.

We walked in the door and were transported back in time. Democraticos was a perfectly preserved and unchanged dance hall dating back a hundred or more years.

Take Eight: Last Night in Brazil

I dropped by the hostel to see if Francina was there, but she wasn’t. I met a wonderful girl, Maggie, who ran the hostel, but seemed more like the ringleader of fun. A group of the people at the hostel were going to attend a favela funk dance party in the very same favela City of God was filmed. It started at midnight, did I want to go?

I thought the better of it because I had to fly out at 6am. But without much persuasion, I decided, what the hell, how many times am I in Rio?

A group of us boarded a bus and amongst other things we were warned not to leave the dance hall under any circumstances. We arrived at Castelo Das Pedras and were absconded to a VIP area above the team and sweaty dance floor. What struck me most was that much of what I admired about Brazilians applied equally to Rio’s poorest and least fortunate denizens. Other than the fact they seem significantly shorter than the other Brazilians I had seen, they were equally as polite and non-judgmental. I immediately left the VIP area to dance among the people in the hot sweaty dance floor.

I felt no discomfort talking to girls or jealousy emanating from men. I met a cute girl named Diana and professed my love to her after the umpteenth capirinha. I even violated the rule of leaving the dance hall and went across the street to a bar with her. We must have talked for hours even though neither of us share a common language. I am pretty sure I entertained the hell out of her and a couple of guys in the bar. One of them stuffed a dollar bill in my pocket as good luck that I found the next day not quite remembering how it got there. One of the best things about being a foreigner is how curious people are about you and your culture and what you think of theirs. I felt like I was holding court in the favela bar.

I had no idea what time it was until a frantic Maggie found me and ushered me on to the bus. Apparently I had held the whole bus up and caused a minor panic. By the time I got back to my hotel in Copacabana, my alarm had been going off for an hour and it was daylight.

I missed my plane, but caught another to Sao Paulo and barely made my connection to Mexico. I had the pleasure of going through the full stages of drunkenness, hangover and recover, all in the span of one 10 hour flight.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

M19 Readers Respond

More than any post, “Yet Again” has engendered some interesting responses. Names have been redacted to protect the innocent.

"I had a very similar experience last weekend at Wal-Mart. I was cornered by 3 determined girlscouts with Mom's standing ready demanding a large purchase of girlscout cookies. I was frightened, much like you, but I held my own, and escaped without harm by distracting them with a fictitious statement that Britney Spears was around the corner signing her new CD, at which point they darted away in search of their false God. I'll never forget the encounter, but life goes on, and just like you (you "will walk the streets again"), I "will shop Wal-Mart again" - girl scouts or no girl scouts. And, yes, I did enjoy a beer (several) after my traumatic experience (and the stolen girl scout cookie weren't bad either). Seriously, though, glad you made it out of your situation unharmed, and with the iPOD."
--Washington, DC

"Compelling. Man, I'm glad you're capturing all this." --Washington, DC

"Can you please be more careful!!!" --Cary, NC
Si, yo puedo.

"What happens if next time, at a whim, the assailant decides to cut off part of a finger or something? --Washington, DC
I am reminded of a certain scene in “Man On Fire” where Denzel Washington cuts the fingers off a bad guy. It was set here in Mexico City.

"Are they giving you hazardous job pay?"
--Washington, DC

"I think I need to teach you some judo/boxing for self defense. NOT that you want to fight back in a case like this, but just in case in some situation where you have NO choice. I would recommend looking into some classes down there. Namely, judo (throws & ground fighting), boxing, muay thai boxing (strong kicks, knees, elbows along with punches) or Brazilian jujitsu (submissions, ground fighting i.e., chokes & arm bars)." --Washington, DC

"How awful, I am so sorry to hear that. You shouldn't be quite so matter of fact about it. They held a knife to you, it doesn't matter if the knife was not good enough to cut 'your tofu'. Next time it could be a gun. All I am saying is be careful. You stick out like a sore thumb in Mexico and cannot act like locals. Next time you leave the office late, just take a cab. This time you were lucky, someone up there was looking out for you. Next time may be a different scenario (God forbid)" --Washington, DC

"Good thing you weren't listening to the pod..." --Washington, DC

"What a great story! All these crazy things happen to you. I am very grateful that nothing of the sort ever happened to me when I was there” –Minnesota

“(Next time) I suggest you use military drill sergeant tactics through overwhelming fire power. In case you are having difficulties harnessing your anger, think of you ex roommate in DC. Next, you need not stand tall cause they are at nipple level, think in Spanish and you spit out in a deep, forceful tone all the bad words you can think of and act crazy your fire power is your words. ‘LOS VOY A MATAAARRR HIJOS DE PUTAS!!! RECONCHA SU MADRE!!! COME MIERDA!!! PENDEJOS, CABRONES, CULEROS!!!! LESBIANA CON PELOTAS!!! ELEFANTE MARICON!!! Pene de chino!!!! GANDUL MALCAGADO!!! CHAPARITO SIN DIENTES!’” – San Jose, California

Thursday, March 10, 2005

M18 Yet Again

Yet again.

Tonight, I left the office slightly later than I usually do at 8pm. I’ve become very comfortable in Mexico and it feels very safe.

Reminder; feel and real are not the same.

I walk through a “peatones” (this word reminds me so much of the word “peon” and is apropos given the relationship of pedestrians to cars here) or pedestrian tunnel underneath Reforma, Mexico’s version of 5th Avenue. This leads to the subway entrance of Chapultepec station that allows me to make an exit at the far side of the station thus avoiding crossing a highway.

The whole trip, office to home, is no more than a 25 minute stroll.

I usually don’t like walking around when I am dressed in my Burberry’s or Hugo Boss suits but tonight, I make an exception. And I am learning that in Latin America when you make an exception to safety that it’s the rule that you will get in trouble.

Tonight - like all nights - it's well lit and crowded, but not overly so.

But that doesn't stop three guys from cornering me.

I drop my Northface backpack as one knife-wielding wannabee thug advances, yielding a crude yet sharp blade about 6 inches long and an inch and a half wide. He holds it to my belly as his buddies rummage through my pockets. I feel violated, as I am being felt up by three short, poor Mexican men while I have a knife I wouldn’t cut tofu with being held to my belly.

They get my cash, keys, id and cell phone.

Too bad for them my boss and I went to the most expensive restaurant in Mexico today and I paid my share in cash, leaving me with a whopping 20 pesos in my pants pocket.

My assailants have gotten away with the equivalent $1.80USD for their efforts. I wonder how they'll spend it?

Perhaps they can all buy themselves round trip subway fares (and still have three trips left over) so they can make the trip back here tomorrow to rob someone else. Perhaps even me. Because I am not going to stop walking. (But yes, I will be more careful!)

Too bad I never carry my ATM card or any credit cards for that matter. Too bad they forgot to take my backpack with my $500 60 gig Photo Ipod. They might have enjoyed the pictures of the Butterfly Reserve or perhaps those of my trip to Rio – the last time I came face to face with trouble.

They might really get into 30 gigs of house music. Now that I think about it, they would have been better off stealing my Hugo Boss shoes or even the $80 tie. (Yes, I will dress down!)

As all of this is happening, I am impressed that the people in the subway are actually catcalling and cursing my assailants aloud and hailing the police. “Pendejos!”

Scene of the Crime - Underneath that Big Circle

The robbers make off up the stairs with a $1.80, my ID card to the Torre Mayor and my beloved Sony Ericsson T616. I try to lead the police in a futile attempt at pursuit but I am the only one with any heart in it. They are content that, “they’ve gotten away”. Oh well, we won’t have to chase them or confront them. The relief was patently visible in their bodies.

I turn around, shrug it all off and start walking. An older working class man tries to help me. He opens his wallet, proffers a subway card. First, I thank him, “Gracias, muy amable” and then I tell him, “Pero, voy a caminar a mi casa“ or “But I am going to walk home”.

I get home but have no keys. My landlord’s not home (I live in a small house at the back of her big house). I can wait outside for who knows how long and I have no one to call because I don’t have my phone and I don’t have any phone numbers.

I decide to climb our 15 foot wall in my pointy tipped shoes and navy Burberry’s suit. I hop to the inside court yard and climb through a window in my house. I am home. I am safe. I am fine. And I still have my Ipod.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

M17 Reserva de las Mariposas Monarcas

I am heading out on my latest adventure but I can’t find a published bus schedule, so I just go to the bus station and try my luck. Terminal Poiniente services the western part of Mexico. It’s main hall is bigger than Grand Central’s. It’s surrounded by slums on a hill packed with tiny houses built one on top of the other on top of the next. It’s just three subway stops away from my house, but I never knew it existed.

I arrive at the station and quickly do a walk-through finding the one bus line servicing my destination in Michocan State.

Who needs “Google” when you can just show up?

I am on my way to Angangueo, a remote, former mining town crammed into a box canyon in the mountains of Michocan State. Its current claim to fame is its proximity to the Reserva de las Mariposas Monarchas, or Monarch Butterfly reserve.

When I arrive at the town, there are only a couple of hotels, hostels and restaurants. It barely caters to tourists but in doing so (or rather in not doing so), it maintains its unique character to a greater extent than most towns in the guide book.

It has a tiny town square where couples kiss, kids play and folks gather. There is no café (argh!), but there are two huge churches. I would have thought everyone would be here Sunday morning but alas, it’s a market day and they are to be found in the one giant market in town. There I spy the mango-sized avocados, skinned chickens hanging upside down, legs of beef being stored without refrigeration, vegetables and spices galore. Everything in town is within walking distance and life here seems no different than what it must have been like 100 years ago.

They’ve preserved it perfectly and they weren’t even trying.

I wish the same could be said for the Monarch Butterflies. In fact, it seems like the opposite is happening. They are trying to preserve them, but this year marked the appearance of the fewest butterflies on record since they’ve been keeping records.

See “Chain Saw Thins Flocks of Migrants on Gold Wings”, New York Times (March 14, 2005): (registration required)

At the hostel, I meet two nice German women, Anne and Anna. We speak in Spanish, though I suspect they speak English. Along with some Brit expats, we hire a 70’s vintage Suburban to takes us up an additional thousand meters to the El Rosario Reserve.

Michoacan is the monarch butterfly mother ship. Monarchs hailing from the US and Canada, concentrate in the Oyamel fir forests here to ride out the winter mating. Their offspring will travel north the US and Canada, mate, die and the subsequent offspring will somehow find their way back here a generation or two since their fore-butterflies left. This migration is unique in the world is consider “an endangered phenomenon”.

And endangered it is. Monarchs are being pinned down in a two front war and are dying in droves both due to climatic conditions and due to the interference of man.

Here in Mexico, they are threatened by deforestation due to illegal logging. I actually shuttered to think when I saw trucks hauling fallen tree trunks leaving Angangueo. Despite the efforts of conservationists, economic pressures on the local population are such that it is almost impossible to enforce laws against logging or provide an economically viable alternative such as tourism. In deed, none of my Mexican colleagues had even been to the reserve and fewer still Americans and other tourists make the trip here.

Satellite imagery shows the shrinking Monarch habitat over the past 30 years:

The picture is tragic.

States-side and in Canada, butterflies are threatened by greater use of herbicides due to the increased usage of genetically modified corn. This allows farmers to kill bad weeds, but in turn kills good weeds like milkweed that the butterflies feed on.

Progress yet again solves one problem and creates another.

What you can do?

Actually, a lot. First, consider that in a market economy a dollar is the equivalent to a vote in a democracy. Be aware of what types of wood you purchase when you buy furniture. Don’t buy anything if you don’t know where it came from. Where possible, choose organic foods over those grown chemically or through genetically modified processes. I firmly believe a dollar is an economic vote signaling support for sustainable alternatives.

You can also donate to the World Wildlife Fund:

But better still, you could consider planting flowers and milkweed to attract and provide a much needed monarch habitat. And when you garden, chose native plant species over those that simply look pretty.

If you’re interested in reading more, there’s a lot out there including much reprinted online from the New York Times:

Other links:

Our Suburban deposits us near the top of a 3,000 meter mountain and we hike 20 minutes to the top to view the butterflies. It’s a cold morning, and they’re clustered on the trunks of the massive and beautiful Oyamel trees. They look like something akin to giant heaps of moss, not insects. We try to wait them out hoping they’ll take flight and blanket the skies as we’ve been told. But alas, it stays cloudy and only a few brave butterflies take flight. The English bloke lets me look through his telephoto lens and it’s amazing to see the butterflies up close.

They never come out in full effect, but it’s nice just to see them on this leg of their journey.

More pictures here:

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

M16 Bahia Brazil

I thought culture shock was what I was supposed to experience as soon as I got to a strange land. More often it’s what I experience when I come back home to the US. Most recently, I experienced it twice, within the same trip to Bahia State Brazil.

I am heading to a 2-year-old complex of resorts clustered around a faux colonial village called Costa Do Suipe just north of Salvador, Brazil. The main entrance looks like a toll booth and no one but the paying guests and the hired help are getting through.

At dinner I found out that Brazilian food is fabulous for vegetarians. There is plenty of variety and lots of healthy veggies. The food is served buffet style which might explain why I saw so many fat people by the pool stuffing themselves with food and drowning themselves with alcohol. The next day, I read in the New York Times that Brazilians are starting to face the same mass (no pun intended) epidemic rates of obesity that we are in the United States.

I ate well, I drank well too. I may have been jet-lagged due to the 3-hour time difference and the overnight flight on which I did not sleep but that was nothing a dose of the ubiquitous Brazilian coffee couldn’t cure. Even the coffee in the hotel conference rooms was delicious and strong.

When I wasn’t downing coffee, I absorbed more culture by discovering a new alcoholic beverage, the capriniha. Made from a local alcohol, cacacha, it’s mixed with lime and sugar. The first day I was there one nearly made me fall off the back of my seat. By my final day I was proud - or should I be ashamed? - to report I was able siphon down 5 and still stand on two feet.

I didn’t see much during the week except the hotel conference rooms and the faux village. I did manage to sneak off twice. Once on a bike ride through the resort’s white sand dunes that could be mistaken for snow. The other time, I took a cab the real town on which the faux one was modeled; Praiya do Forte home of the TOMAR Project, an environmental organization dedicated to preserving local ocean turtles.

It was getting dark, but I managed to check out some Volkswagen-sized leather back turtles at the preserve and their nests on the beach. The town was a mixture of tourist shops and old decaying stores and houses.

Back a the resort, there is a disco filled with co-workers where I discovered MPB, Brazilian Pop Music and Brazilian drum ‘n’ bass. I was surprised to learn of the latter’s popularity here. But I guess given the percussive nature of the indigenous music (samba, bossa nova, axe, African rhythms), it should be no surprise at all. Later I would pick up some inspiring CD’s in Salvador. I am exclusively listening to Brazilian music these days and am totally inspired but what I’ve found: DJ Patif, Jota Quest, Fernanda Porto and the new love of my life Ive Mendes who is visually more gorgeous than her voice.

The second night I was there they imported some Capoiera dancers. Capoiera was developed as a martial art by slaves to fight their masters (right-on!). Maybe we could come up with something like this for the office?! It was banned but the slaves disguised it as a form of dance which still is practiced today. It is performed by two dancers and if one makes a wrong move, then let’s just say it becomes a fight.

By Friday the country club was starting to feel like a country club prison. I was itching to get out.

Salvador, the original capital of Brazil, was in its heyday the second city of the Portuguese Empire after Lisbon. It seems changing capitals for the Brazilians is something of a national pastime. Salvador was the first capital, then Rio and then in the 1950’s the capital was moved to its present day location, Brasilia. The former is most modern city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its stunning (and somewhat frightening) modern architecture and urban planning.

The people of Salvador are almost entirely of African descent. Their forefathers, brought as slaves from Africa, were allowed to retain their tribal customs to a degree greater than any where else in the new world. Thus visible today is the evolution of the culture the African slaves brought with them to the new world. Salvador is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its stunning architecture, most of which is completely dilapidated but is in the process of being preserved.

Saturday, I took the bus to the airport, dropped off my extra baggage in a locker and took a local bus into downtown Salvador. I decided to get off one stop early and walk to the center city. It looked pretty close on the map.

Unfortunately, I walked and walked and walked. It was getting dark, I hadn’t found the old city and I didn’t have a hotel or hostel. I almost gave up, but I kept going and I finally found the antique city.

It was filled with throngs of most Brazilian tourists and I made my way to my hotel, a pousada. That’s a European style hotel with a communal area. A notch above a hostel but it’s roughly the same idea.

I was totally stunned by the architecture. The only thing I could think of is: this is Rome by the sea but it’s in this hemisphere. I’ve never seen anything like it and I will let my pictures speak to the grandeur of the city. It’s hard to believe I had barely heard of this place.

The scene was a little sketchy at times. It was hard to just try to absorb it all by just taking it and without getting hassled by people trying to sell me things. Of course I was excited when people spoke to me in Spanish, but by the second day there, I learned to ignore anyone approaching me in an unsolicited fashion.

At night, I found a delicious middle eastern restaurant where I met two gorgeous, cool and intelligent Canadian women and a British couple. I went dancing with the former at one of the many impromptu samba concerts. The guys were all over the girls and even triple-teamed us. Even though I wasn’t technically “with” either of these girls, it was assumed such and a guy came over to “teach” my white ass to dance while his two buddies danced with the girls.

It was all innocent enough until they wouldn’t leave the girls alone. Until the waitress whom I had tipped (but didn’t have to) whispered in my ear “no es seguro” or it’s not safe to hang with these dudes. Then while I walked the women back to their hotel one of the guys wouldn’t stop following us back. On my return to my hotel just a few minutes later, he spotted me and was visibly upset that I had foiled his designs for the evening whilst not even having designs of my own.

That’s a buzz kill if there ever was one.

The architecture and views were fabulous, but it did seem like trouble was just around the corner. I would have like to have spent more than two days there. Music was literally everywhere; in the streets in the buildings in concert halls. It was like being in Carnival but it wasn’t carnival yet.

Next stops: tbd. I am chilling in Mexico for a few weeks and hopefully will just get to enjoy things here for a spell.