Saturday, October 29, 2005

My First Mugging

October 30 – Salvador, Brazil
It was a pleasant mugging. After 293 days traveling, and 10 in Brazil, it was due to happen anyway, so it’s nice that it was pleasant.

John and I were walking up the hill from our hostel into the Pelourinho for a Friday night drink when a young boy started walking along side me. I glanced down at the 8 year old and then someone grabbed my wrists and shouted some Portuguese at me. “Okay, okay,” I said to the dark skinned teen of about my height who bound my wrists as two or three youngens riffled through my pockets. He was lean but muscular and wore a red tank top with white stripes.

John told me later that he was shouting “Emergency, emergency” in Portuguese while this was happening but no one heard him, not even me. It was all less eventful and worrisome than it sounds and it was only later in the evening as it all sunk in that a small catalogue of images took root and replayed themselves in my mind as they would in a movie:

The little boy on my right as we walked up the hill, then the same boy pulling my pocket out of my shorts, spilling 11 Reais, some change, and my keys onto the ground; the guy in the red shirt appearing from nowhere, the kids briskly walking away after finding my passport and 50 Reais stashed in a lower cargo pocket; the little kid straggling for a couple seconds to rip the watch off my wrist but failing. Then me walking after them, shouting “passaporte, passaporte,” and then the one kid pulling the money out of the pages of the passport and flinging it against a cobblestone wall.

I retrieved the passport and John said, “So, should we go back to the hostel now?” And then we walked back down the hill and I felt a little embarrassed to be looked at by the locals the way I’d feel embarrassed if I had tripped and fallen. Then I remembered my keys falling to the ground and went back to find them. The keys unlock the wire-mesh bag that the computer and camera live in. I have backup keys hidden somewhere but my main set is attached to a keychain I bought in Paris and would prefer to lose later.

Always looking for the silver lining, I thought we could make a scene for the documentary out of all this so John and I went back to the hostel and I got the camera out. I figured we’d go back to where the robbery took place and I’d explain what just happened. The woman at the hostel didn’t think this was a good idea.

“I know a guy who has 12 people down there tonight, just waiting to rob people,” she said. “If you go, they’ll stab you for your camera. You’re crazy. It’s better in the morning.”

So we went in the morning and quickly whipped out the camera and shot a little explanation. Then we got out of Dodge all together, and found a quiet street three miles south in Barra, a suburb of Salvador. I couldn’t help but think of the jeweler in Copenhagen who rummaged through a box of spare parts in mid-July and found the piece I needed to repair the strap on my watch. It was hard to know if the improvised repair would hold up and each time I accidentally pulled on the watch I worried it would break. But the crafty little eight-year old who earned his cut of the $25 heist couldn’t wrangle the watch free. So now I know the watchband is secure, and that’s another silver lining. So I thank the jeweler for his professional work, and the band of banditos for returning my passport, and the laws of probability for suggesting the remaining seven weeks will be uneventful.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A Rio Letter

October 26
No one told Lonnie and Tania that the plan for South America was to stop writing about girls. So they got on the bus at the airport and followed me to Ipanema and set out to intrude on the story of Rio. I’ll do my best not to let them.

First Acai. Theres is a little dangly thing below the “c” in acai so you pronounce it like an “s.” I’ve never seen this native fruit but I taste it almost every day in the form of a thick fruit shake. It’s the color of a brightly lit red wine and manages to taste like a mix of blackberries and chocolate without really tasting much like either.

There was little physical need for refreshing drinks this first week in Brazil because it was so often cloudy. In the sunny stretches we went to the beach and otherwise Tania and I would play 500-rummy using her crazy Danish rules or Lonnie and I would trade massages in our poorly ventilated dorm room and all the while I would remind myself that the plan for South America was to stop writing about girls.

So on Saturday we decided to Samba in the favela. Samba schools spend their year building up to one event: Carnaval. That’s when the kids from the favela become the object of all the tourists’ attention as they dance down the street in their Technicolor outfits. On the third Saturday night in October the schools choose their Carnaval song. That was this Saturday.

Nicholas is Brazilian and sleeps in the bunk above me. He’s been in Rio for three months while the bank he works for back in Brasilia is on strike. Picturing long-haired, groovy, perpetually undressed Nicholas working in a bank is like imagining Bill Gates in a Speedo on the beach. (And in conjuring that image, I wonder whether Gates would keep his oval glasses on or spring for contacts or even lasik. But I digress.)

The nice thing about having a crazy Brazilian in your room is he speaks Portuguese. So the Danish girls, Nicholas and I decided to walk up towards the favela around 1am Saturday night to watch some Samba.

The next morning we told the guy at reception what we’d done.

“Who did you go with?”

“Well it was the four of us.”

“You didn’t go with someone from the favela?!”

“No, just Nicholas, he speaks Portuguese.”

“Well that was really stupid,” he said, walking away. “That was really, really stupid.”

Nicholas wasn’t sure just how to get to the favela and Lonnie had told me earlier that Tania was worried about the whole thing. I was too, quite honestly. As we walked up the long, steep hill that leads to the slum we passed only two other walkers—young, dark skinned men—and a handful of speeding cabs. The streets were bare.

“This is a good workout,” Tania said, but it was unclear if it was the incline or the destination that had raised our pulses.

We reached a fork in the road and Nicholas asked the man at the little outdoor bar there, ‘Which way to the samba?’ As they spoke a couple women looked over at the girls and shook their heads.

“I think those ladies are telling us not to go up there,” Tania said to Nicholas.

“No, I was asking if they were charging an entrance fee,” Nicholas said. “They were saying, ‘No,’ there’s not charge.”

“Oh. Good.”

At the top of the final hill the street exploded with life and music. People were out on their front steps, rushing across the street, talking excitedly and generally having a good lively Saturday night.

We walked up a flight of stairs to the open-air dance hall and the music came blaring at us. At first there was no stage, just a clot of men banging drums in the center of the room and well-toned women dancing near them. There were young men in drum-major uniforms dancing with them too. They were informally surrounded by a crowd of spectators.

It was too loud to talk but we worked our way through the crowd and then we could see the stage where a couple men shouted out the lyrics through the powerful, crappy sound system.

“This is their only entertainment,” Nicholas said. “They don’t have money to go out anywhere, so this is it for them in their community.”

What strikes me in the favelas is how well dressed everyone is. This could be a reflection of my diminished expectations for a wardrobe (most of my clothes have gaping holes in them) or my experience with the poor in Asia who seemed more obviously desperate. Whatever the case, I happened to wear my best outfit (jeans and a polo) and was not over-dressed. Only my fancy digital watch was out of place.

If you were to travel around the world and could pick only one country to physically blend in with the population, Brazil might be the best choice. Heredity made that choice for me—my ancestry is largely Brazilian-Portuguese—and though I can’t speak ten words of the language I’ve had a strange sense of fitting in here. But the camouflage faded away in the favela where skin tones turn several shades darker.

Lonnie wore a hat to cover her long, light-blonde hair. But she couldn’t cover her fair skin or Tania’s crystal eyes and we were obvious outsiders. There was one other foreign woman in the crowd, a middle-aged blonde from California.

We don’t know which song was chosen for Carnaval because after two of the five nominations had been performed it was nearing 3am and we were tired. We walked back down the hill towards affluence and made it to the hostel unharmed.

Let me tell you a few more things about Rio. When we got to the hostel the night guard was sleeping. He sits on the porch outside our building from 10pm til morning because Rio is a dangerous city. It’s also a city with strict noise regulations and so his other job is to keep the backpackers quiet after 10pm. Even talking in a whisper outside our building is forbidden.

It’s a strange contrast to Lapa, where the noise is considerable until the sun comes back up. That’s where we spent our Friday night. Me and the Danish girls—still angling to earn further mention with each warm smile and short skirt—took a taxi to Lapa just after midnight. The cab dropped us in the middle of a throbbing outdoor blockparty. A couple thousand revelers were drinking or smoking or talking in the streets and the neighboring park and outside the loud clubs. Alcohol consumption is the mother of entrepreneurialism and along the street people had set up tiny, flimsy outdoor bars. They peddled cans of beer and even caipirinhas, the powerful Brazilian sugar-cane cocktail. One caipirinha is less than a dollar, two caipirinhas are all you’ll need.

“I’m really glad you’re here with us,” Lonnie said. It wasn’t a sentiment of affection as much as protection and I felt a strange chivalrous impulse to shield the Danes from abduction or assault.

There was no such danger until five that morning. We were waiting for the bus at that point, which indicates we had enough caipirinhas to think it was a good idea to take the bus. But we weren’t too drunk to notice the guy with the tall ‘fro reaching into Tania’s pocket. We made a little noise and stepped a few feet away and then got on the bus towards Ipanema.

It all turned out okay in week one. Even when the drug-crazed guy approached us on the empty, drizzling beach it turned out okay. “I…need…money,” he said a few times.

We apologized that we didn’t speak Portuguese and asked him if he spoke Spanish. “Not Espanol, English!” he insisted, wild-eyed. “I…NEED…MONEY.”

We convinced ourselves we weren’t being mugged, exactly. He seemed convinced too because he let us get up and walk away and find another wet spot to enjoy the sun going down. It seemed Rio got the memo. If there could be no mention of girls in South America, there would have to be something else. It’s not the bikinis that move the pulse in Rio, but a more dangerous kind of tease. And it’s a great parlor trick to make someone happy by doing nothing to them at all.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Danger City

October 21 – Rio de Janeiro
They could save electricity and just turn them off. The streetlights in Rio don’t serve much purpose at night because everyone just drives through them anyway. Its not safe to stop.

It’s not safe to go downtown after 7pm on weekdays. You shouldn’t take your wallet out on the bus, you should have small change ready when you get on. Don’t walk around with a camera in plain view. Never carry any more money than you need for a specific outing but always have enough cash on hand to appease a mugger.

“Accept the fact that you might be mugged, pickpocketed or have your bag snatched while you’re in the country,” the Lonely Planet guidebook advises.

Then this tip: “Don’t wander into the favelas.”

means slum and in a city where counting the poor is like numbering the grains of sand on Ipanema beach, there are plenty of fevelas.

City of God
, the excellent movie set in a Rio slum brought attention to the situation a couple years back, and now favela tours are on the Rio checklist right next to Copacabana and the Christo Redentor statue.

Some have earned the unfortunate name “safari” and are apparently conducted in long, rugged jeeps that roll through the favelas at the direction of a guide wearing a safari hat.

I was sipping a papaya juice at the neighborhood Suco stand with my two new Danish friends when a man drinking a thick black shake started talking to us. He was mid-40’s with a graying beard and an American accent.

“I came here for a week,” John told us. “And now I’ve been here 20 years.”

John works at an NGO in a nearby favela—they’re everywhere in Rio and always one wrong turn and a five-minute walk away. “I’m bringing my friend up to the favela this afternoon if you’d like to come along,” he said.

We said sure.

Brazil has a huge poverty problem and the slums are the clearest sign of it. The tiny, squatted houses are built with flimsy-looking red bricks. The communities cling to the side of the mountain, running down its slope until a piece of infrastructure halts them like a dam: the back of a giant apartment building, a highway.

We met John at his house at 3pm. There were a dozen other backpackers there too and it was clear then that this was more organized than just tagging along with John’s friend. But it seemed safe and interesting and we followed John towards the cluster of little red brick boxes.

We reached a very long staircase and though it took five minutes, you could tell with each step you were crossing over to the other side of the tracks.

“You can’t take pictures of the slums,” John said. “You just look up at a cluster of houses and you don’t know but that could be a drug look-out and they won’t let you take a picture. The other day a guy took a picture—and he had been told not to take pictures—and a few minutes later someone came down and said ‘You have to give me your camera or your memory card.’ So he gave him the memory card. He wasn’t being robbed, its just that they can’t allow that.”

John’s free, non-tour tour had a catch of course, but it was an acceptable catch. He wasn’t really showing us the favela but the school at the edge of the slum where he volunteers. He’d show us the kids that were being helped, tell us how desperate their situation is, and then hint that it would be nice if we helped out.

The program plucks children out of the local slum who are considered especially high risk—mainly those with one parent—and guides them from the nursery all the way to university. Ideally.

The kids were friendly and fairly engaging considering they were in school. They wore uniforms with the logo of the school on it and gave little indication of being dealt one of the worst hands the 21st century has to deal.

One fourteen year old girl with the eyes and countenance of someone ten years shy of quietly concurring the world, gave dance lessons to one of the Danish girls. Then the Brazilian girls invited us to a samba party this weekend.

“Its much more fun than this,” the girl with the good English said. “Meet us at the steps at 12 on Saturday.”

“Twelve at night?”

“Yes. Midnight.”

Midnight at the steps at the base of the favela seemed like something so obviously dumb that they wouldn’t bother listing it in the Lonely Planet next to “don’t bring your wallet to the beach.” But after 30 crime-free hours in Danger City we were starting to feel a little better about it all and the Danish girl took the Brazilian girl’s number and said we’d like to samba.

Italy in Pictures

Akshay and I in Florence.

Yep, it does appear to be leaning.

If it had stopped raining for more than an hour our pictures of Venice would have been better. Wonderful city though.

Cinque Terra is a group of five small villages on the northwest coast. They're pretty:

While casually posing here I set off an alarm and had to explain in Italian to the emergency operator that it was a mistake.

Akshay on the bridge in Florence.

When Akshay left, Canadian Kate stepped in and we headed south to the island of Ischia

First time anyone bothered to draw me and I think its pretty cool.

Roma in Pictures too

Rome has so much to see it gets its own picture page. It must be so flattered...

You've probably seen this one before.

And this one.

Hey look, the Pantheon

Yeah, I think that's famous too.

This has something to do with the Da Vinci Code but we couldn't afford a proper tour so I don't know anything else about the Vatican.

The Vatican Museum is impressive:

Can you condem someone and then sell their memorabilia a few centuries later? Yes, apparently you can.

The Fifth Bite of Dessert

October 17 & 18
Kate’s here on my left on the train from Sorrento to Naples. In Napoli we’ll find passage to Roma and tomorrow I’ll fly to Brazil. What meaningless names these places can become!

They mean more to Kate—it all means more to Kate—because she’s been backpacking for a month instead of nine. Back in Madrid when we met I insisted she’d get worn down by it all too and she thought I was wrong and even if she believes me now—the way you might believe me just because you think I know better than you—she won’t really understand it until February when all her clothes are getting tattered and her pulse is unmoved by each new country. Maybe then she’ll find someone to mend her shorts the way I found someone—her—to mend mine.

The hair and the eyes and the accent are different but Kate is Sabrina. Sabrina was the German girl in Australia whose green eyes owned the first month of my trip. I was the American in Australia in the first month of her trip who helped her forget her boyfriend.

It was new and scary then, it was lonely and dazzling. It was like the first bite of a great dessert, and now its like the fifth bite. Sabrina and I thought it all meant more than it did because we were too green to know better. We were tricked by how we felt because every time we’d felt that way before it meant something important. And that’s how Kate must feel now. She’s feels that and she feels angry; she must be angry that I don’t feel it quite the same way.

In February when her clothes are tattered and she meets another guy and falls for him it will still feel really nice. She’ll still wonder if it means something and imagine being with him for more than a week. But she’ll know not to trust her feelings too much because she’ll know this isn’t like all the times she fell before…

Or maybe she already knows it because when it happened—when I got on the train in Rome—she took it pretty good. The eyes brimmed but didn’t spill, and she seemed reluctant to let go of me the way she might be reluctant to have the last bite of gelati. She was in Italy and there would always be more gelati.

The other thing you learn in Italy though is that some gelati is better than others. You can’t tell how good your first cup in Sorrento is because you’ve never tasted any others. But then you get some across from the Coliseum and it makes you appreciate the first cup more. And then you get a cone near the Pantheon and you have a new favorite. Its always possible that the next one will be better or that you’ll always love the first one best because it was new and exciting and you had never tasted anything like it before.

June 9 to October 18

October 18
This is Europe. It’s a miserable connection from Bangkok to Athens. It’s a breeze through Eastern Europe with mom. It’s two weeks in Greece with the family where it seems I never left or even got out of junior high.

My summer in Europe is a flight to Stockholm for the best weather Sweden has seen in years. It’s a giant basement hostel with 40 beds, three Dutch girls, a Canadian and an Aussie. It’s a drive down to Copenhagen with the Dutch girls.

In Copenhagen its stolen money and a Danish girl with an apartment with a double bed. There’s beer in Belgium and a 73-year old backpacker whose trip puts mine to shame.

Then there’s a home in Rotterdam with the Dutch girls and a New York reunion in London. There’s vibrant green and chocolatey Guinness in Ireland. For about three hours there’s a French girl too.

Then the French girl is in France, but first there are Swedes and Brits falling in love with Paris. The time with the French girl may last a weekend or a year, its impossible to say.

This is Europe and there is Spain. Spain almost feels like Australia and I think as long as I travel there will never be a better compliment.

Oktoberfest sneaks up like the last chapter of a good book. You don’t want Europe to end but since you can’t make it last longer you can only enjoy what you have left.

Italy means rain. It also means good food, cheap wine, famous art and beautiful sights. In Rome, Akshay and the rain leave. Canadian Kate comes and we eat mozzarella.

Europe is nights sitting on the pier with beers from 7-11 because the cafes by the water charge $8. Europe is playing basketball on the court in the gym connected to the hostel. Its all the things you imagine it to be but somehow it all feels different than you thought. Europe is driving through the south of France and riding trains through the north of Spain.

This is Europe so it always ends up on a train. It’s accelerating out of Roma Central as the sun sits on the rooftops and a Canadian gets teary and I go to Brazil.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

On Surfing

The official word on Italy must wait, but I offer instead this previously un-published dispatch from Australia.

Noosa, Australia February 15

If you spend any real amount of time in Australia without surfing a wave and drinking a beer it’s debatable if you’ve actually visited Australia at all. Having sampled many Toohey’s, Melbourne Bitters, and Carlton Draughts (as well as the occasional Victoria Bitter, XXXX, and Boag’s) it was time to learn to surf.

When you’re on Australia’s eastern coast and you want to surf you don’t have to wait long. The urge took hold in Noosa, a trendy foodie Mecca just north of Brisbane. There are 34,000 residents and three surf schools.

Sabrina and I paid $35 for a two-hour class and just after 9am the “Noosa Surf School ” herded twenty-five of us to the west side of the main beach and equipped us with red, long-sleeved tops and big buoyant foam boards. We had been instructed to bring swimmers (that’s a bathing suit), a towel, and a bottle of water but as we headed down to the shore from the parking lot we were told to just bring the swimmers; all other possessions and any sense of personal competence would be locked in the vans.

Freddy drew a circle in the sand and instructed the “first day, group lesson surfers” to huddle around it, positioning the tips of our boards on the edge of the circle.

In a paragraph or so I could outline the four or five tips that allow you, with practice, to surf a wave. But if you saw the way Freddy strolled out of the water board-under-arm after two hours work with his wet blonde hair waving in the wind you would imagine for a moment the life of a surf instructor and you would like that idea too much to endanger the livelihood of all the Freddys out there by revealing their simple secrets.

Let me not suggest, however, that surfing is easy. Step one for us was riding the waves boogie-board style on our bellies. When the waves grabbed us we were told to push ourselves up with our arms so our chests arched up from the boards. We were taking baby steps.

I grew up a block from the ocean and have been body surfing and boogie-boarding forever. I’m sure in some ways this helped but in one big way it hurt. With a boogie board, or when body surfing, you can choose your wave up until the point it reaches you. On a surfboard you need to commit to the wave well ahead of time, giving yourself a chance to balance on the board, make sure its pointed towards shore, and gain some momentum by paddling six or so times. It’s like trying to catch a fly ball but not being able to move once the ball is on the way down. I watched many perfect waves crash by because they didn’t look so good from a distance.

Any learning curve has a few mileposts that give you a sense of accomplishment but with surfing they’re so visceral, such a rush, that they feel like more than they are. The first, simple rush is when you’re still on your stomach and a wave grabs you and sends you to shore. You get a sense right away that this is a different ride than a boogie-board gives; if that feels like riding a moped, this is a Harley.

The next step is the much-fetishized “standing.” All the surf schools guarantee you’ll stand during your first lesson and you will. Once you’ve mastered lifting your chest off the board while it drives towards the shore it’s pretty natural to slide your feet up onto the board and stand. You don’t remember what it felt like to take your first steps but it probably felt something like this.

I was coasting to the shore on my belly a little while before Freddy showed us how to stand up but tried getting up anyway. Next thing I knew I was surfing. I feel comfortable using the word “surf” because the surf photographer left early and so there’s no visual evidence of the height of this “wave.” You will notice that in most first-day surf photos the wave looks like something formed by throwing a big rock into a still pond.

The next big thrill comes from catching an “unbroken” wave. Yes, lets dispense with the illusions, we were generally riding waves that had already broken 50 feet earlier. My bodysurfing instincts brought me out to the unbroken waves but those same instincts put in the wrong position for surfing them and they regularly broke right on top of me.

The learning curve then progresses to riding those unbroken waves in the fashion seen in surf videos, but I saved those thrills for some future session.

Since I can go no further with tales of glory lets discuss fashion. Do you know why we were wearing those long sleeved red shirts? We found out when we got back to shore. The parts of our arms that weren’t quite covered were scraped to bits as if we’d fallen off a bike. The shirt keeps the board from cutting you up. It doesn’t stop the board from instigating an adversarial relationship between you and the ocean though. The water grabs ahold of the board much tighter than you can and pulls you wherever it chooses. By Sabrina’s estimate she swallowed 10 liters of water due to this problem.

By now your arms are sore from the paddling, your sinuses are infiltrated with salt and your uncovered skin has developed a red splotchy texture that matches your shirt. You’ve been in the water for 90 minutes when they call you out. You want to catch one more wave but its okay when you don’t.

There’s something about the skintight surf shirt drying in the baking sun as you lug your board up to the shore. “All surf instructors are like our surf instructor,” Sabrina says at lunch in her halting English, and you ask, unnecessarily, what she means. “Long blonde hair, tan skin, blue eyes, smiling.”

There’s a silence as you eat your meat pie and she picks at her fish and chips. “‘Handsome’ means the same as ‘pretty,’” she confirms. “But just for a man, right?”

And later, waiting at the bus stop for a Greyhound to split you up and end your three weeks of living as a couple, Sabrina asks if you remember the surf instructor’s name.

Yes, no matter how simple it all is, you can’t imagine ruining it for Freddy.

Friday, October 07, 2005


They call it Oktoberfest but it fills the second half of September. It’s probably a trick to get people to show up late but its doesn’t work. They come just after breakfast and start downing liters of local beer. The “tents” house as many drinkers as a large theater or small arena.

If Oktoberfest was held in England or America or just about anywhere, it would be a total mess. But hammered Germans keep relative order and the ‘Fest is more than unchecked drunkenness (though it certainly is unchecked drunkenness). It’s also a carnival of rides and games and food. But mainly its about the beer. I’m too hungover to write anymore so the pictures will have to do…

Me and Akshay, who came all the way from New York to get drunk.

Germans are friendly

Which do you see first?: A) the amazing blond, B) The fella in shorts, or C) the guy sleeping on the ground.

Then it rained...

We still have our mugs.