Tuesday, October 07, 2014

And so it begins...again.

What we are doing is something that we have made it a point to do every four years. We do it because The World Cup is an experience like no other, an event that you MUST be a part of to fully understand.

In 1994 Brett and I were sitting in his apartment in Edwards, CO watching the US vs Brazil play their 2nd round game in LA when we made the decision to go to France for the 1998 World Cup. We kept the promise that we made to one another, and ourselves, that day. But, what we didn't realize that afternoon was the affect such a promise would have. Here we are, in Brazil, celebrating our 5th consecutive WC on foriegn soil. 

I can't tell you how many times people have told us over the years, "I want to go with you guys for the next one", or something along those lines. I say the same thing to each of them, "Let's go. I'll be there, so if you want to go, let's go". It isn't that difficult to pull off. Save $25 per week, every week for 4 years. Nothing magical about it.




Thursday, July 10, 2014

A lesson in Surrealism Day 3

Today we face Germany to decide our fate in the group. When I awake it is to the sound of rain. Not just any rain though. It's the kind of rain that makes you wonder if a boat with giraffes is about to cruise past the window. This poses a problem because, true to FIFA form, the stadium is so far out in the middle of nowhere that just getting to the gates is a half-day ordeal, and we have the early game.

***

Last night the majority of our group had made their way to an area high up on the hill overlooking the old area of town in which we are living. With a couple of highly touted restaurant's, it was this area that we had been making our way to until the blackout happened. While the rest of the guys had agreed to take another van to the game with the same group that had taken us to the beach, Johnny and I decided that it would be much less expensive and perhaps more reliable if we took the train which had a direct run to the stadium. Our guide in the van the previous day had informed us that the train was a very dangerous and taking it anywhere was not advised. He had also told us that our driver was taking the van to the mechanic to avoid any potential "malfunctions". Allow me to clear my throat...bullshit. 0-1 record for those yahoos, we will take our chances on the train. Besides, Johnny speaks Portuguese, we will be dressed in our flags thereby sticking out like sore thumbs and as I had said before, security on game days is tight everywhere.

***
So at about 7am Johnny and I depart the house and make our way down the hill toward the hostel to pick up Bryce and Leo. The rain is coming down in buckets and the cobblestone streets are slick so we make our way as quickly as we can safely. The runoff from the top of the hill looks like a river coming down beside us. 
When we get to the hostel there is a lot of commotion. Numerous people are waiting in the lobby trying to decide what they should do. Take the "scary" train? Take cab's? Will the cab's even make it? I make my way to the back of the hostel and help myself to a cup of coffee. This is going to be a necessity today! On my way back to the front people are lining the hallway dressed in all variety of rain gear. Some have full-on parka's made for just this monsoon type downpour. Some are adorned with garbage bags with holes cut in them for the head and arms. I am wearing what I always wear to games, add one completely useless light nylon jacket. To the front, we are ready and our group is now 6 as Shelby and Polly, 2 girls that Bryce and Leo befriended, have chosen to join us. We make our way back out into the street looking for taxi that will take us to the train station. There are 2 cabs in front of the hostel but they refuse to take us to the train, it's either stadium or bust for those guys. Considering the fare that they would garner for that trip I don't exactly blame them, but this leaves us with few options. We decide we will wade up to the corner and grab taxis from there.

***
We know that we will need 2 cabs for 6 people so Johnny, Leo and I grab one and the other 3 take another. This would have been fine had Johnny taken his ticket from Bryce...but he had not.
The other 3 speed away in their cab and ours pulls in behind them when all of a sudden there is an oddly familiar vibration in this car. Our driver begins to make his way right towards another taxi stop about a mile from where we had started. He pulls in, exits the vehicle and sure enough, his right rear tire was as flat as could be. Our friends have no idea that we are not behind them and the rain is still coming down, but now we are again on foot. Recife has not been good to us in terms of transportation. We run to the far end of the taxi line and there is nothing. We make our way up to the corner of the street and look down...nothing. From our right, up the hill, a cop car chirps it's siren at us and makes it's way down the hill and pulls up to the sidewalk in front of us. They ask us what we are doing here in the rain and we tell them the story of the previous cab. We ask where the best place to catch another might be and they point to the other side of the completely empty taxi stop. We say thank you and begin sprinting in that direction, make our way to the end and look back up that road... nothing. Fuck! Behind us we hear the siren chirp again. They have followed us to the other side. The officer in the passenger seat slowly rolls his window down and motions for us to approach the vehicle. 
At this point we are at wits end. This part of the trip has been a complete disaster in terms getting around. Now we seem to be getting hassled by the cops for what, being American soccer fans, stuck in the rain? 
In the airport I remember seeing a promotion that read, "The only thing Brazilians love more than soccer? People!" The po-po tell us to get in the car, so we do. They then tell us that they are going to the stadium so sit back and relax, they will take us with them.

***

Now, I am not sure how to accurately describe how I felt at that moment. The rain and flooding was, at first, laughable. It then turned very quickly into an incredible annoyance which parlayed into an intense fear that we might get stranded right there on the corner of that taxi stop. Just moments later we are being given a ride to the stadium, which is at least 30-45mins away with no traffic or weather issues, in a police car equipped with lights and sirens and cotton candy and a Farris wheel, and guns. This is so unreal that I can't help but pinch myself. I mean I've been taking malaria pills and they are known to cause some really weird, lucid dreams (which they do by the way). So perhaps I am still sleeping on my pad, getting sucked dry by the mosquitoes and all other form of man-eating bugs I've been sharing space with the past 2 days. Nope, its real. Johnny doesn't have his ticket and Pele isn't driving the cop car. We are forced to kindly decline the 1st class ride to the stadium and opt for a ride to the train station.

***

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news boys, but the train station is not on the route. We are going to have to drop you off at that gas station back there where you can try to get another taxi.
I didn't want to be rude so I had to swallow the 5 min long expletive explosion that was teetering perilously off the end of my tongue.
Pulling into the gas station the cops get out and approach the 1st cab thats sitting at one of the pumps chatting up one of the lady gas pumpers. All the gas pumpers I've seen in Brazil have been ladies... both of them. The cop tells him we need to get to the train station and that he is going to take us. The cabbie agrees at first but then balks and says we are much too soaking wet and this will completely ruin his broken down jalopy. The officers counter.
They begin to remove their personal rain poncho's, cut them with their knives and lay them across the seats of El Hoopty. The senior of the 2 of them then looks at the cabbie and say's, "now you will take them". He had a dry smile that made me believe our newest charioteer, if he knew what was good for him, had likely attempt to avoid being seen by either of these officers again for worry of finding out they were also practicing proctologists. We depart post haste.

***

As we fly away from the gas station the icing on the cake is applied. Leo and I are in the back seat and Johnny rides shotgun. He takes from a plastic bag 3 tall boy beers, cracks them open and passes them out. I look at my breakfast with delight and begin to see daylight at the far end of the tunnel when Leo drops this little bomb-shell. "Dude, we were just at the gas station and look at his guage." Knowing what is coming next I raise my gaze over the drivers shoulder and see that, in fact, we are driving through the Recife river in a boat fresh out of petrol. Silently I look at both Johnny and Leo, they look back. No words are necessary. We shrug our shoulders, sit back and start drinking.

***

Upon our arrival at the train station we find the remaining 3 and tell them our rather unbelievable story as we clamor up to the ticket window and purchase our $1 ticket to certain death. Make our way to the crest of the escalator leading down. Our gaze is met with the sight of hundreds of others daring enough to take the train. Very few of them are looking shady and dangerous with their eyes hiding under the brims of baseball caps covered by hoodies.
I am thinking if anything this is going to be more like the time Brett and I bought tickets to see Germany play Sweden in the 2nd round of the '06 Cup in Munich. There were so many people trying to catch the trains to the stadium that day, we moved inches at a time as train after train entered and left the station.
Today was much more efficient, or the Brazilians are just that much better at cramming that many more people on a train. Either way we had made it. There was no stopping us now! The train ride was a good 45 minutes so we talked and joked. Looked out the windows as the rain-soaked hill sides and favelas cruised by. Shelby was offered a shot of what we could only assume was Cachaca by 2 already in the bag young men with bloodshot eyes and ratty clothes. She declined, but thanked them. It was tempting I'm sure. We don't know for sure if it was Cachaca as it was being pulled from a plastic bottle once filled with water. The liquid was now a yellowish substance, slightly cloudy and certainly potent as the swigs these guys took were usually pretty small. Very kind of them to offer though. If I had eaten breakfast prior to our swim to the train station I may have taken a walk on the wild side and tried the stuff. As they say, you only live once but you can have your stomach pumped several times.

***
We depart the train and board the bus. We drive another 5-10 minutes before being dropped off at a spot that is sure to allow us a solid 1/2 mile walk to the stadium. FIFA doesn't want people thinking that spectators don't deserve a little forced fitness on game days. The road we took wasn't paved with yellow bricks, but we just love the magical place we are headed!


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Surrealism- An expose

Day 2-
I am told that our first full day in Recife will be spent on the beach with some well deserved R&R. This sounds like a pretty good plan considering that by this point most of us are running on empty. The World Cup is a marathon of epic proportions. 
A van has been chartered to take us to the best beach in Recife, and one that doesn't have a record number of shark attacks. Sharks patrol these waters, sharks patrol these waters, don't let your fingers dangle in the water!
The ride is long but the bus is comfortable. We have met some others at a nearby hostel and they have chosen to join us. So our original group of 6 (Myself, Brett, German, Kieran, Clint, Ashley) has grown to include my friend from Chicago John Wanda, Matt, Andy, Evan, Bryce, and Leo. Our Oscar Meyer van rolls south to the beach. I am amazed at the skyline of Recife. It is nearly impossible to detail the length of her skyline, but it makes Chicago look like Grand Junction. It runs for miles and miles. Unfortunately for us this day, it is overcast and there is a cool mist of rain. It takes us about an hour of driving to reach our destination but it is as described, perfect for a tourist's day at the beach. There are shops filled with hand-made artisan gifts, t-shirts, hammocks and the sorts of knick-knacks that clutter homes around the world with unspoken messages of "someone I know was at this place, but I wasn't". The beach is famous for it's crystal clear waters and vibrant reef but today it is stormy, and the sea is churning. Not a good day for snorkeling. But alas, there are World Cup games on every TV and plenty to eat and drink. So that's what we do- we sit and eat and drink. Maybe that is why its called the Cup, we seem to fill ours everyday.

***
 

One of the difficulties of traveling for the World Cup is planning things to do around the games. They are right in the middle of the day so you need to be sure there is a television somewhere near wherever your plan has taken you. Today, like most, there is an abundance of TV's showing games. At half time and during the interval I walk around and window shop. This of course is something else that happens quite a bit, window shopping. It would be great to be able to purchase some little trinket in every place or a gift for friends or family. But the rule is simple- you buy it, you have to carry it. With limited funds and no desire to lug around an ever increasingly heavy bag, I walk through the misty veiled, blue streets of Porto Galinhas.
As the day's games come to an end in yet another beautiful place, we begin to make our way back to our chariot. We stuff the 12, now soggy, bodies back in and make our way towards home. But our driver appears to be lost. We navigate the winding, high-walled streets away from the beach slowly. We stop, awkwardly turn around and repeat. We drive in circles as the sun begins to set, with faith that our driver is better than he, at this moment, appears. 
My confidence in our driver had been waning since much earlier in the day. During our approach to the beach our bus was beginning to show signs of trouble. It seemed as though we would lose power, coast a bit, the driver would hit the ignition and we would roar forward once again. I had no idea how far we had traveled nor how much farther we had to go. The scene from the windows was typical of what we saw everywhere, favelas- the slums. We continued to lurch forward. Mile after mile passed as our guide talked about how we might better understand the mentality of the average Brazilian. They make most of their decisions on emotion rather than reason, he told us. Foresight is short, making plans past the coming weekend is seldom done and as a result saving money is not common. 
Johnny, having made Brazil his second home, tells us that homes in the favelas are passed on from parents to children. Large, multi-generational families live in small 4-wall houses that are built upwards as the years pass. When a family has the means to build they build what they can. Sometimes just one wall a year. Some are made of brick and mortar while others are obviously nothing more than clay or dirt patted firm and dried with scraps of anything they can find for roofing or siding. It is not uncommon to see blue tarps, sheet metal siding or what appears to be sheets of fiberglass. They are stacked one upon another, side by side up the hills for as far as the eye can see. I can only imagine that life in these favelas is nasty, brutish and short. Breaking down on the side of the road here would likely be a harrowing experience. 
We were told by our guide that the driver would take the bus to a mechanic while we toured the town to be sure that whatever was causing the van to malfunction would be addressed. When we returned to the van our driver was in his seat smoking a cigarette. 
When we find our way back to the highway the sun has set and traffic has begun to crawl. I figure this is an ideal time to lean back, close my eyes and take a nap. My previous evening with cachaca has left me a bit hung-over. Turns out cachaca is a bitter mistress. I awake to the sounds of my crew clamoring with the sliding side door. We have officially broken down, in the far left lane. Traffic is exceptionally heavy and were are being passed on both sides by cars, busses, trucks and motorcycles. Horns are honking at us as though WE have created the crawling traffic jam. As German begins to make his exit from the van he is nearly hit by a passing bus. There seems to be very little room for error here. Our driver has exited and he has the hood open. He is obviously confused and without an explanation as to the cause of our breakdown. We are able to get bodies behind the van and begin to push it across the lanes as the lines of traffic move to the shoulders to pass us. Courtesy is of no use here. We make it to the shoulder and our driver is on his phone. Our guide assures us that there is another, more reliable van en route as we speak, and not to worry, it is very close. I look to up the road in each direction. Nothing but headlights on the left and brake lights on the right. There is no way that van is getting to us any time soon. 

***
 

Bryce needs to be at a shopping mall near the city center by 8pm to pick up his tickets for tomorrows game, one of which has Johnny's name on it. Normally this would not have been a problem, but this situation is not normal. Johnny, Bryce and I begin walking towards the oncoming traffic with the hair brained idea that we may find an available taxi amidst the river of vehicles approaching us. We would probably have had a better chance finding a leprechaun sitting atop a pot of gold. 
Our diver, with a set of jumper cables in his hands above his head, has successfully hailed a good Samaritan. The vehicles are linked together and our van roars back to life. We all climb aboard and begin driving along the shoulder of the road at a pace obviously aimed at making up lost time. This whole situation is insane. Our guide assures us that we will make it to the airport in time to take a bus which should have us arrive at the mall in time to do what needs to be done. The mall that we need to find is actually on the way back to our house, but the driver needs to stop at the airport to pick up his cousin at 7 so we will go there first. I shake my head in disbelief.
When we arrive at the airport Bryce, Johnny, myself and Leo jump out. I grab a key to the house from Matt, quickly create a plan to meet up near our house at a later time and we bolt for the taxi stand. As we enter the terminal we are greeted once again with the prospect of having to wait in line for a taxi with this evenings lemmings. It just can't be easy can it? As we are waiting, we decide we will walk to the far end of the sidewalk and try that approach once again when we, as expected, are approached by someone looking to give us an alternate go at getting a taxi. Seems to be working! She takes us inside and just like the last time hands us off to a man that tells us to follow him. He leads us a little further down the terminal, through the doors outside, and like a strutting rooster, proudly walks us right to a line of people waiting for taxis. Thanks dude.
We decide our best bet is to make our way to the streets outside the airport when we run into our guide and the driver looking for his cousin near baggage claim. Seems the guys flight has been delayed and they are more than happy to take us to the mall, since it's on the way. Traffic is a nightmare, but we make it to the mall with minutes to spare. Tickets are now in all of the hands that they need to be in for tomorrows game. Luckily for us though, the van left without us.
This is of no consequence however because we have created a fool proof plan to meet the rest of the clan at a spot near both our house and Bryce and Leo's hostel. We catch a cab to the hostel which is the only place we have been able to find reliable Wi-Fi. As we are making our way to the rendezvous point there is an explosive sound somewhere out in the abyss and the lights go out, everywhere. Unlike in the US when there is a blackout, this is not momentarily. We walk out into the street and there is nothing in the way of electrical light as far as the eye can see. So we walk down the dark streets of Recife making our way to the predetermined meeting point. When we arrive, there is no one in our group to be found so we make our way back up into the old part of town. From a small doorway beyond the square in front of the church, I hear music. It is faint, but I know that sound and my heart skips a beat. We make our way to the source, stick our heads in and one of the most beautiful things I've seen in days appears in the darkness.
It is a small middle eastern restaurant lit only by candles. There is a small band of traveling musicians who have opted to fill the time in darkness with music. A classical guitar, a djembe drum, a tambourine and shakers. It is soft, it is slow and it is beautiful. We are greeted by a young woman who tells us we can sit, eat and drink. We grab a table beside the music and for the first time in hours we are comfortable, content and entertained. I spend the rest of the evening with an old friend, and a couple new ones. We sit in the candle lit room drinking beer, reliving the day and laughing because it's over.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Salvador Dali must be from Recife

I say this because Recife is responsible for some of the most surreal days of my life.
As I write this I am on a bus from Recife to Salvador. We will drive south for the next 12 hours, through the night and arrive at approximately 8am. Hopefully.
When Brett and I left Manaus we were the final 2 of our group to do so. German and Kieran left on a 2 am flight. Clint and Ashley on a 5am flight. Ours left Manaus at 3pm and landed in Recife at 10 via Brasilia. We met up with Andy and Evan who arrived at the same time after a 3 flight journey. We meet up at baggage claim, accepted our complimentary ciapirinha's (stay classy Recife) and walked directly past the 50 or so yard line of people waiting to order taxi's. We walk out to the taxi pick-up line and play stupid. We are immediately spotted by a woman who asks us if we have a ticket for a taxi, we respond with something along the lines of, "ticket? What ticket? You need a ticket for a taxi here?". She asks us to follow her back into the airport. Just as I am sure she is going to direct us towards the end of the lemming line she grabs a guy and tells us to follow him. He leads us back outside through a door further down the terminal, leads us to the far end of the sidewalk and tells us to wait just a moment. This end of the sidewalk is dark and deserted and as a result we aren't entirely sure what we have just gotten ourselves into when he comes back in his taxi. Looks like we aren't the only ones breaking the rules.
Day 1-
Upon arriving at our Recife accommodations we are greeted by a locked front gate. We make a bit of noise and a couple of the early crew come out and let us in. Now I am not sure what the AirBnB website gave as a description for this abode but I would have to think that the advertising was a bit exaggerated because I don't believe for a moment that Brett would have knowingly agreed to what we were about to walk into. To say that this place was "rustic" would be understating the condition of our new home. We walked through the gate which had been locked with an iron clasp and padlock. We walked down what looked like, at one time, was a beautifully ornate courtyard with a railing and dense vegetation along the stone walls. Through the large metal entry door and secondary wooden door which was also locked with a large chain and padlock. We entered into a large main room with high ceilings, a desk, large wooden tables with unmatched  chairs, an old wooden vanity turned entertainment center framing a small black and white television which aired a program that blurred in and out of reception and let out an almost inaudible buzz of excited Portuguese. To the right the doors to a master bedroom and the entry into a small hallway with a table topped with an old cloth and a large plate of fruit alive with fruit flies. The kitchen was functional as hostels go, with all the amenities one might expect. The end of the hallway opens up to an open air porch enclosed in metal bars reinforced with a chain link like screen.
To the left of the main room a long hallway with doors on the right. The 1st door was another single bedroom, the next 3 doors opening into a large single room with 5 more single beds, and finally a last doorway which led into a large, open room that served two purposes- first and foremost it appeared to be intended as a storage room, 2nd and not as immediately obvious, a portal to hell. This room was shared by Andy, Johnny and myself.
I make my way back to my new resting space to see 3 mat's resting atop small wooden pallet like frames. No pillows, and no sheets just 3 mats strewn across the floor haphazardly amid busted furniture and unused picture frames. There are no fans in the room and certainly no air conditioning on a hot, humid coastal night.
At least half of our crew has already taken it upon themselves to get out into the night and explore the local wildlife so I figure if I am going to get a minute's sleep I had better soften my senses with a touch of Cachaca. Cachaca is the national spirit here in Brazil and it can be found in abundance. Similar to rum, it is a spirit made from sugar cane and this evening I am about to learn a startling lesson- Cachaca does not soften the senses it more accurately runs them through a juicer and pours them into a cup. 3 shots of this stuff and I slept through the night oblivious to my discomfort. The next couple of nights however were a completely different story. Though I will say that through the kindness of our travel partners, sheets and pillows were found for the 3 poor souls sleeping in mosquito alley.




Thursday, June 26, 2014

A cab sent from heaven

Or hell, depends on who is telling the story.
We have just dismbarked our boat after an early morning trip into the amazon and we have decided that a definite must see during our time in Manaus is the Fan Fest during a Brazil game. I have been lucky enough to see the host nation play, in stadium, only twice. In Korea and Germany. Because of the atmosphere, there is absolutely nothing quite like seeing the host nation play. However, if you can not make it into a stadium during a host country game, the next best thing is to find a Fan Fest site and soak it all in.
Brett, German, Kieran and I have just walked out of an ATM kiosk, although because of the air-conditioning we seriously considered just staying in that little building the rest of the day. We have decided to grab a taxi and head in the direction of Punta Negra which is, under normal traffic conditions a 15-20 cab ride. We have approximately 3 hours until Brazil kicks of against Camaroon in their 3rd and final group match. Because of the # of points each team has in the group, this game means a trip to the round of 16. This being the case, we know that the Fan Fest is going to be a spectacle. We also know that if we don't get there early enough, we might not get in at all. So back into the streets of sweltering Manaus we go. I see a taxi, whistle, get his attention and yell "Punta Negra" as I point directly at him. Wait for a response...and yes...he waves us in. Kieran grabs shotgun, Brett behind him, myself behind the driver and German in the middle with his feet on the hump. 
What comes next was a small bit of foreshadowing not immediatly recognized. The driver hits the gas, releases the clutch and his little car shudders as though it has been rode hard and put away wet more times than Mazatlan ski-do.
All 4 windows are down in our wobbly little chariot and I make the comment, "should've looked for a taxi with the windows up", as this would have been a sure indication of air-conditioning. But we have just spent the past 8 hours on a boat traversing the back waterways of the Amazon and we need to get a move on, so we figure it's best to just deal with the minor inconcovenience of a ride across town in a microwave. 
Our cabby appears at first to be just the type of driver we need, fast! He moves through the crowded downtown streets of Manaus with purpose. I am immediately reminded of my 1st trip to Mexico City where driving is reminicient of a game of Grand Theft Auto. Turn signals are for the weak, and if you get your nose in, you had better get your tail in right behind you or you are going to lose it. I can't help but smile knowing that considering the amount of money we have spent thus far on taxi's, this guy isn't thinking about milking the meter. We agree, after he has cut off 4 of the first 5 cars we have encountered, that he must be determined to get this fare to it's destination so that he can park his hot-rod and get in front of a TV for the game. But traffic is heavy! Seems as though all of Manaus is closing up shop and trying to get to where they have planned to watch the game. Cars are moving slowly...well most cars at least.
Our driver is getting more aggitated as the minutes pass. The other motorists in Manaus must not have gotten the memo that this is HIS roadway today. How dare they be in front of him! We come to a stop. He revs the engine, slams the car into 1st gear, we lurch forward and cut between another car and a bus...hit the clutch...coast...pop the clutch and cut off a truck on our left...the bus is now behind us and we look around at one another is stunned disbelief. This guy is for real! 
Stopped at a light we can see that he wants to turn left at the next light. He puts his hand out of the window to indicate to the car next to us that it is his intention to...AHHH fuck it, he just drives between 2 cars and now we are another car length closer to the light and stopped again.
He has a hanky that he uses to wipe is brow, and his arms, and his neck. It's hotter than purgatory in this little buggy, the engine must be stressed too so he hits the fan to pull the heat from the engine, and pulls it right into the cab with us. German asks Kieran, "is the heater on?", to which Kieran reluctantly responds while aiming the vent out the window, "I believe that it is." 
I think that Kieran and I should have been in opposite seats because I am loving this. It would seem that I am alone in my appreciation of this man's skills because I am the only person encouraging this display of blatent disregard of the rules of the road. From behind the driver I am bobbing my head from one side of his seat, back to the other, saying just loud enough to be heard, "Oh yeah, ariba, haha". German looks as though he believes he's eaten his last ham and cheese sandwhich. 
We are not exactly sure just how far we have traveled, nor how much farther we have to go, but I have no fear because our driver is wearing red and it is indeed the only color he sees. We cautiously point this out that the meter has died and gone blank. His mood is momentarily made worse as it is aparent that he had absolutely no idea what it read prior to it's malfunction. We have grown accustomed to watching the meter like hawks so we tell him it read $20 Real. He jiggles it and it pops back on. We say $20 from here and he gives us a silent shrug of acknowledgment.
Traffic has opened up slightly and we weave through cars like a jet plane on maneuvers when the unbelievable  happens. Our driver comes to a rapid halt at a crosswalk, puts his arm and head out the window and stops traffic. He then waves a young woman through the crosswalk, admiring her slow-seductive saunter until she has completely stepped onto the sidewalk on the opposite side. Like a bullet we are off again and the car is caught up in a fit of laughter and appreciation of his consideration of the farer sex.
We have come to a long line of cars backed up in both lanes. The path we are on comes to a T in the distance. The light is red. There is nothing to do but wait. I look to German and say, "should we tell him that there are 2 open lanes to our left?". This of course is a joke because those lanes belong to oncoming traffic. He inches left. Did he understand my joke? As we cut off the car in our far left lane and come to a momentary stop I look to Brett and say, "this is going to happen". It does. Like a jalopy shot from a canon we shoot into the nearest lane of oncoming traffic. Stradling the dividing lane we race toward the red light be we have come to the end of the line. We need to get back into our own flow of trafic because the light at the T is still red, and there is a raised median. We stop just short of the point of no return. We wait for the green light. As the signal changes cars begin to move forward, but not nearly fast enough for this guy. He hits the gas and we travel through the intersection from the wrong side of the median.
We round another bend and the car seems to loose power, we coast. I look over his shoulder and see that the gas gauge is reading empty. Then I realize that the speedometer is reading zero as well, but the check engine light works like a charm! We stop at the next light, when it turns green he starts the car back up, bolts through the intersection and skids into a gas station.
Leaving the car on he passes $20 Real through the window as 2 young female attendants begin to fuel us up. As the seconds pass it is obvious that his impatience continues to grow. The meter now reads 20 and he rev's the engine and inches forward. The pump is still in the car. The young girl looks to her fellow attendant with a WTF look on her face and cautiously removes the nozzle. As the sound of the gas cap clicks we shoot back into the street nearly clipping a motorcycle. This man knows no limits. When we arrive at the front gates of the Fan Fest we screech to a stop, got out, paid the man his money, and as the doors were closing I gave him and extra $10 Real and thanked him for the best cab ride I've ever had!

Natal

One of the nice parts about the World Cup is that it brings together the finest people from around the world. Okay maybe thats a bit of a stretch. But it does bring a lot of people from all over, right smack dab into one anothers immediate proximity. That usually lends itself to some funny shit.
German and I decided we would test the nightlife of Natal our first full day in. After dinner, the rest of our group headed back to the apartment to shake off what remained of the jet lag that gripped most of them. 
German and I met for the 1st time in South Korea and have remained travel buddies since. We are both utterly fascinated by the webs the world can weave. We walk up and down the beachside bars and restaurants like a college pub crawl. We would stop, grab a beer, talk to whoever would listen and then depart for the next. The glowing lights, multiple languages spoken all at once like some sort of linguistic menagerie, the smell of foreign foods wafting out of the restaurants and streetside vendors, the uneven cobblestones trying at each step to trip you up and make their mark on you. It is this overload of the senses that continues to call to me like the sirens in Homer's Iliad. We continued. 
We decided that since our apartment was about a mile away from the beach and uphill the entire way, our best bet would be to traverse the side streets and explore. We found that there is an entire neighborhood just off the beach filled with hostels and nightime only bars and restuarants. This can only mean the juicy, tender underbelly of humanity. We were correct. 
As we made our way up and down the streets the sounds of live music, laughter and yelling poured out. People were in the streets, the very dark streets lit only with colored lamps, sitting and talking. Some whispering, some stopping their conversations altogether, as we passed. Some would raise their glasses to us and belt out an indistinguishable vocal acknowledgement, we would gesture the same in return. We stepped into a bar which was dark and dank, the music loud and fast. We made our way inside and were overcome by a crowd made up of shadowy, faceless figures. The atmosphere was very aggressive so we decided to grab our obligatory drink and depart. Back onto the street we approached the corner and headed left, up the hill. On our right we saw a place with an open air balconey/bar and laughter. Our kind of hangout, we entered. On the patio this evening are 2 young men wearing US national team jerseys sharing drinks with a couple of what seemed to be local girls. One is having a normal conversation without issue, rather reserved and without animation. The other however was a completely different story. 
This kid had to be barely 21, bright eyed and ready "to party". He is dancing with one of the girls but it's rather dark so we don't really get a good look at her upon first glance. The music is lively but local so it is nothing I recognize, but it lends itself to the type of up close and personal dancing they are doing so nothing seems out of the ordinary. German and I take a seat on the edge of "the dance floor" and begin to talk about our impressions of the dungeon we just walked out of. We are looking around our new hangout when the dance begins turning into a striptease. However it isn't the girl doing the stripping and it isnt the guy taking off his close. The girl is trying to remove the young mans shirt and he, being somewhat taken off guard, is fighting to keep it on. It's like a train wreck, I just can not look away. The struggle goes on for nearly 2 full minutes. She coo's something into his ear and lifts his shirt up one side. He struggles to keep his drink from spilling, staying in step and pushing his shirt back down. So she changes to a tactic that would make any handsy 16 year old boy proud, she tries pulling up his shirt on his drink hand side. He is obviously confused by what's happening because he doesn't want to stop dancing with this girl but he's not sure how to respond to being on this side of mating game. His laugh seems uneasy but he continues. She becomes slightly more aggessive now using both hands on his shirt and trying to pull it up over his head. He steps back and steadies his glass, takes another drink and moves back in to grind some more. She says something to him that is inaudible to us but he laughs and responds with something along the lines of, "what are you talking about? haha Oh man, haha that's some awesome!". The dance continues. 
As this curious little ritual continues I begin to notice that these young lady's aren't what they seem at first glance. I have had a few beers at this point myself but I am pretty sure my eyes are seeing through the facade. The song ends and the girls depart to the bathroom to maybe powder their noses. The brash young travelers rendezvous back at the bar near our newfound perch and the young dancer says, "Man! this chick is totally into me dude! She can't keep her hands off me man, Were you seeing this?!" At this point I feel it imperative to step in and inform them that, and I may be wrong, these two girls that are "all over you"...you will be paying for that score in more ways than one. "Wait! What! You mean...?" Silence...the realization begins to set in and there appears to be a frantic need to find escape before they return and the music is faced. 
"We are ready to keep moving, you boys are welcome to tag along". They join us, seeming rather releived- we talk about the world for a couple blocks and someone disappeared into the darkness. Who it was, depends on who you ask. 
 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

US vs Ghana and a lost ticket

Once we arrive at the stadium we see that the gates are running smoothly and that we have over an hour until kick-off so we make our way around the outside in order to find a place we can buy some beers and avoid paying the usual stadium mark-up. We find a nice little place with outside seating, felafels, pastry's and beer. As we sit and watch the area begin to fill the excitement is beginning to grow. People are talking quickly, making predictions and it is obvious that once inside we will definitely be heard. 
Now as I mentioned earlier Brett took a taxi to Natal from Recife. For those of you that are not current with your Brazilian geography, that works out to be about a 4 hr cab ride. Even in Brazilian Real's that is a pretty penny. His flight to Natal from Lisbon was cancelled and he was forced to wait until another was available, and much to his dismay the only flight that would get him to Brazil prior to the start of our game was not into Natal but rather, Recife. Now this put him in a very perilous position because ticket pick-up is unavailable at the stadium. Luckily for Brett when I arrived in São Paulo the day before I was greeted by an old friend Johnny Wanda and his lovely wife, Patty. I was equipped with Jimmy Powell and Corey Sanchez' ticket vouchers so when I picked up my tickets, Johnny played Jimmy and I was able to get theirs too. As a result, Brett now has a ticket to the game. 
So we are sitting around the table enjoying our beers and hoping to sell one of the extra tickets that we have and recoup the losses of our friends Jim and Corey when an American approaches the area with a stack of available tickets and is selling them for pennies. Game time is rapidly approaching so it seems as though our best bet is to make some kids day and give them a World Cup experience they will never forget, much the same way we were able to do for 2 young South African boys prior to the US v Slovania game in Johannesburg. I hand off the extra ticket and we make our way to the stadium gates.
As we walk Brett pulls his ticket from his pocket. I have just given the ticket that says Curtis White to some kid and I ask for the 2nd of Jim and Coreys tickets. Brett looks in his pocket and it's empty. I look in my pockets, and they too are empty. An icy hot chill runs up my spine as a fear like I have never known sweeps over me. Look again! Nothing...  I immediately race back to the area of the, until moments ago, good deed. I haven't moved this fast in years. The faces that I am flying past are a blur. Panic is creeping in and my mind is racing. How could this have happened?! WTF am I going to do?! I get closer. I arrive in at the window of the little store where I gave the ticket away and I say, "the ticket I just gave you, I need it back!". I am met with a group of confused faces. I repeat, "the ticket I just gave you, I need it back!", only this time louder and a bit more desperate. I am not sure what I am hoping for with the increased volume, maybe startled sympathy. A woman behind the counter asks me if I would like a coca-cola. You have got to be shitting me. I am in some horrible alternate reality. "No, the ticket...I just gave you a ticket...to the game (I point behind me to the stadium), the ticket, I need it back!" She shakes her head no and waves to the stadium to indicate the proud new owner of my ticket is somewhere amongst the 40,000 other people, making their way to my seat. By this time our group has made it back up to where I am now. I have my hands atop my head and I am standing there feeling more like a painted clown than rabid, travels to the corners of the earth, US soccer supporter that always has a place in the stadium and isn't a complete fucking moron that just lost his ticket. I take a deep breathe, attempt to calm myself, I must think clearly about what I am going to do. I begin to check every possible orifice of my clothing when what do my nimble little fingers run across? Check your back pocket next time, dipshit. 
Now that everything is well in the world again we make our way inside the stadium. One of the problems with the way FIFA allocates tickets is that it makes it difficult for lage groups of people to get seats adjacent to one another. As a result, our group of 6 is spread out all over the place. So we decide that the section we would really like to all stand together in isssssss.....that one! We make our way to the first level behind the 1st half US goal. None of us have seats in that section but we know that the group of US supports that will be there will be ready for our kind of party. We were right. The seats in this section, with this group of people, are used for the sole purpose of making us all taller. We greet old friends, most we haven't seen in 4 years. We make new friends, and we sing our national anthem. 
There are no words to adequately describe the feeling I get singing the National Anthem in the stands of a World Cup game. It feels so good.
The teams are on the field and the game is about to begin. We are preparing for the battle when the whistle blows. As we are getting situated there is a deafening roar. Clint Dempsy has put us up 1-0 and it's a good thing that I didn't yet have my camera out because there was a shower of beer raining down from the heavens. Less than 1 minute into the game and we are up 1-0! We dance and we sing and we take in the moment. There is a palpable joy in the group of people surrounding us. It would soon start to diminish. 
Now, watching a game on the television and watching a game in the stands are two very different experiences. We have but one vantage and normally it isn't one with a very clear view. For the next 80 or so minutes of that game we watched as our team seemed to get outplayed in every area of the field.  We had no tempo, no rhythm, no transition or offense. It looked as though Ghana would at any moment equalize. We've lost Jozy, Bradley is getting eaten up, Johanson isn't doing a damn thing, we look like shit, and there isn't a single guy on the bench with a minute of World Cup experience. How can it be that there isn't a single guy to call into a game, in the World Cup, when a win is on the line that doesn't have a minute of World Cup experience?! We yelled and screamed and spit and cursed and screamed ourselves hoarse some more. In the row in front of us stood a man that must have grown up in Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood because he let us know that we should yell positive things to encourage our guys. We were forced to tell him to shut the fuck up. There were no children present and if Klinsman was going to hear me from all the way over here I had to give it everything I had. I was caught up in the moment. So much planning, saving and hours traveling to reach this moment. I was leaving it all in that stadium! Ghana equalized. Despair was the feeling rushing over me. How could this happen again? They've dashed us the past 2 Cups and they have just broken through the gate we have been trying so desperately to keep closed. The remaining minutes passed like hours. I felt as though the momentum Ghana had been building toward all game had finally reached the point that would allow them to turn the tide and strike the dying blow. In an instant we were able to create a push toward goal and earn a corner. As my old coach George Gorecki used to say, "that's half a goal!". The cross came in and Brookes headed it into the back of the net. Pandemonium. The Ghanaian thorn has been removed from our side, and we have won. My voice was gone for days.

Friday, June 20, 2014

No hands! Be a man.

One of the things that I heard more than normal during the buildup to this Cup was how dangerous Brazil is, and how it was absolutely necessary that we be overly cautious. The dangers involved in events like this are always there and it is prudent to have a certain attention of your surroundings. But it is also a very good idea to try keep the boogyman in the closet. There is a very intense military presence on the streets. All the streets. What's somewhat amusing is that many of these Brazilian police look a lot like "The Rock", but with automatic weapons. I say amusing because to see these gigantic men dressed in black uniforms, armed to the teeth, standing in the sun acting like glorified crossing guards- when they should be in NFL pre-season training camps.
As we headed for the stadium to face Ghana, our 1st opponent of the group stage, we saw an ever increasing show of the Brazilian military presence. It had been announced that our Vice President would be attending the game so the path to, and perimeter around, the stadium was quite the spectacle.
The day before I had attempted to get a photo with a large truck full of very stern looking fellows and their "take no-shit" man in charge. It seemed as though a number of them were fully willing, and rather eager, to pose for a photo with someone brash enough to approach the 5th Battalion with a smile and a camera. The front line looked back at a man who was, I'm certain, quite steely-eyed if not for the jet black glasses he had attached to a face that looked as though it hadn't cracked a smile in days. He was tall and lean, though obviously hadn't been doing the same number of push-ups those looking for his approval have been doing. My request was met with an immediate and universally understood "NO!" which caused everyone within earshot to snap back to attention, including myself. I hopped back into formation with my own troops figuring I must have just caught them at a bad time, the World Cup.
So, back to the march to the stadium. As usual I am adorned with my face paint, flag, US flag shorts and a red US National team jersey that was purchased for me as a gift from my friend Shane Carver. Shane and I have seen a bit of the world together and for 2 short weeks in '98 Shane was with us in France. I have worn that jersey to every US match since then and will continue to wear it until it falls tattered from my back. A somewhat common occurrence during the World Cup is the trading of jerseys between people of differing countries, just as it is common for players to trade jerseys after the game. I have been offered a trade for that jersey numerous times, but the answer has always been, "no thank you, it is too valuable to me". 
As we have grown older the number of my clan that applies the war paint for these games has decreased to one, me, but I wear it proudly and it still gets plenty of attention. In France we applied our paint for the 1st time and I have always had some variation of that first application. A white star with a blue outline and red & white stripes going out. Unfortunately, on this occasion I have no cowboy hat. I've been looking here. 
As we get closer to the stadium the festival atmosphere begin to grow. We see that the number of US fans has increased and it is nice to see that there are so many people beginning to make it a point to come and support our team. As usual we are asked to stop for pictures and we trade stories with strangers on the path. Everyone seems very excited about our chances against Ghana and we sing our songs louder as we approach the stadium. As we round a corner I again see a large truck with police standing guard, so once again I ask for a photo. Perhaps it is the paint because this time I get an affirmative. I excitedly move into postion amidst the 3 of them and when I attempt to put my hand on the back of the man who is obviously in charge he calmly turns his head and says to me, "No hands! Be a man.". That my Brazilian friend is an absolute classic! No hands, just a big smile, no problem!