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!


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" 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, falafels, 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 Corey's 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 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!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The year of the Cat.

So our 1st full day here in Natal, as we waited for Brett to arrive in his taxi from Recife, (that story a bit later) we decided to hit the streets and find the FIFA ticketing center. The walk from our apartment to the Ciudad Jardim, a little strip mall with shops selling the usual mall fare in 3 colors; yellow, blue and green is probably about 4 miles. Along this path we found the roads were decorated, as would be expected, with the flags of the nations represented here this month. There were also vendors everywhere selling coconuts, crepes, plates of lobster and shrimp, knock off jerseys and, unfortunately, a Brazilian version of the vuvuzela. It's a pretty simple little annoyance- blow air into a little hole on the side and the sound of a waterboarded duck comes out of a larger hole on the end. This is a toy normally found in the hands of either young children or drunk adults. Neither of these parties are seemingly aware of just how grating the sound is on the ears of those in their proximity but I am convinced that there must be some addictive substance somehwere between those 2 holes because once they start blowing, they just can't seem to stop.
So as we are walking we talk about all the events of our lives the past 4 years when I notice along the fenceline a pair of stray cats. The fenceline runs a couple of miles uninterrupted and seperates the street from an open space overgrown with native trees and bushes. From the fence to the shore of the ocean I guesstimate to be another mile. Then I see another cat. And another, and another. If what I saw along that fenceline was indicative of what was behind that fencline, Natal is a ferel cat lovers Utopia! 
This is completely different from what has been the case in my other travels. Normally when you travel to an area that is rather "economically depressed" it is over run with stray dogs. I've never seen anything quite like this, cats are everywhere. 
So yesterday Brett and I decided we would take another walk down to the shopping center so he could retrieve his other game tickets. The rest of group had made their way down to the beach for some fun in the sun and we agreed to meet up for the games that afternoon. Now allow me to paint a little picture. Here in Natal we have come to understand that there are two forecasts for the weatherman to choose from. Sunny and boiling, or torrential rains. Chicago and thereabouts I call home have seen very little of the sun since some point in early 2013. Brett's natural snowflake complexion has been hiding under the perpetual cloudcover of the British Isles for years. Of course we feel that it shouldn't be all that big a deal to bare our chests and backs to absorb some of the warm Equatorial rays of sun while we walk. We were both wearing sunglasses so the reflection of the sun and the magical orb of light that must have been radiating around our stretch of sidewalk was of no consequence to either of us. Then at about the 2 mile mark it became painfully obvious that we had made a dire mistake that will haunt us for days. We must have looked like a couple of freshly boiled Gulf Shrimp because the moment we stopped to look for a cab, we had one available. Now the use of Spangortugueslish will not only get us where we are going, for the most part, but it also provides ample opportunity for tales of intrigue. After a little small talk I ask our local Magelin whats up with all the cats in Natal. "Hay muchos gatos aqui...porque?" He looks at me quizically so I say,"cats...gatos...mucho gatos aqui." He is obviously deep in thought we he replies, "meow-meows?" Yes, that just happened. I confim that it is indeed the meow-meow's of which I speak. He nearly hits the car in front of us as he looks at me like I am a mad-man. 
At this point we are at a stoplight across from our destination so I say "this is good" and attempt to exit the vehicle. In reaction to my move our fearless driver very, very quickly says no! This is obviously a bad idea but I don't yet understand why. He proceeds to produce a whistle with so shrill a sound that it must be used to call in whales from the deep blue sea and blows it right there in the car with Brett and I looking straight at him. This is what the police will do to HIM if WE try to leave the car anywhere but along the sidewalk. Fair enough, keep the change. Every cat in a 2 mile radius must have been startled by that whistle though I am sure they immediately went back about their business.