On going back to places, and Seattle

A week or so ago, me and the girl were sitting on the slopes of Mount Rainier, eating cheese and drinking a beer. Looking up at the forbidding, snowy slopes, i was reminded of the last time i’d been there.
IMG_8384 Where nothing ever grows

Last time i was there, i was 21 years old, and it was the literal apogee of a lengthy road trip that started in Troy, New York a week and countless sleepless nights and gas station meals earlier. Not content with the visitor center, not content with the paved (steep!) walking paths in the immediate vicinity, we reached the end of same and kept going. At the end of a trail, we reached a mysterious outhouse, peed in it, and kept going further still. Into snowfields in the height of summer, traipsing across a glorious expanse of white at the top of the world. Later, we were called idiots who could just as easily have perished at the bottom of a crevasse without anyone knowing.
On the slopes of Mt. Rainier

i had my trusty Crayola 110 camera with me, so this part of the adventure was even documented.

So after getting back from this most recent trip, it dawned on me that visiting Rainier with my family in 1995 made it seem like a great day trip with my friends two years later. And that golden day at the end of that most epic summer in college made me want to show the wife that kind of grandeur. Going back to places is yet another limitless gift of traveling, but going back to places that are the same, when you’re so different, warps my fragile little mind.

It’s easy for us to find reasons to go to places, though, or back to places, or some of both. A whole year earlier, i’d been out in Seattle for a World Cup qualifier. In this case, the girl and i went out there to go run The Oatmeal‘s road race. It was full of cake and Sasquatches and other good cheer. When you pick such a flimsy excuse to go visit a place, though, you’ve got other things in mind. Like a sweet airbnb above an unfamiliar town. Warm basking rocks in the middle of a gurgling river. A sunlit bar window to eat pizza and drink beer. And a nice place to eat cheese instead of an ill-advised wander into danger.

Plenty of new places to come back to some other time.

Evening at the Dairy Freeze Plenty of parking A torrential mist Out on the river Seaplane over Seattle Night and the emerald city Serious Annette is Serious.

Notes from Brazil

Please forgive any lapses in tense; some of this was written varying amounts of time after the fact. Look on the bright side, it’s not handwritten this time.

GIG

• Rio’s airport (GIG) is like a sleepy, more run-down version of Terminal 1 at CDG. It is not air-conditioned, and the shopping and food is roughly on a par with what you’d find on a T platform, although they at least serve overpriced (actually, overtaxed) beer ($6.50 for a Brahma, $2 of which is tax, we think). There are about 12 wifi networks, with varying levels of sketchiness. The one I connected to wanted my name, email, and passport number, but made no effort to verify these, because obviously i did not use real ones. We’ll see how secure my iPhone really is, considering the lack of hygiene, so to speak.

• It’s amazing how easy and great it is to get back in the flow of things for the World Cup. Everybody wants to talk soccer with you, as soon as you’re identified as a fellow pursuer (usually because we are all wearing our country’s jerseys in the airport). You compare notes about games, cities, figure out if you’ll maybe cross paths again, take pictures, trade stickers.

• The big hurdle, is of course, next, as we hope to meet up with Herbert’s friend Rafael and secure our place to stay for the next three weeks. This better work.

Salvador

• No spoiler for those of you who read me on Twitter: it didn’t work. That’s right, 5,000 miles from home, we got stood up by our Airbnb host for a planned 3-week stay. Sure, we were highly under-charged for it, but it still kinda fucked us a bit. Here‘s the story:

We waited a while at the airport in case his unclear text meant we were to meet there, but then we got our rental car and set off for Itapua, which we pictured as a nice beach community. The satellite views made it look harmless and suburban, and the house looked good. We’d spent over 6 months talking to our host, Herbert, so while there was some apprehension, problems seemed unlikely.

We navigated ourselves well using printouts and a phone with a spotty data connection, and got through one gate in a neighborhood that looked close to Soweto (livestock and trash in the street), but without the friendly faces. The moment of truth, I show the address and the name of our host to the man at the next gate. It’s the right place, but Herbert’s not there. We know this, but we’re being met, aren’t we? No, no one’s there. No one answers the phone when the man at the gate calls the house. I call him on his mobile, no answer.

Sometime after that, a man in a VW shows up, starts talking with the guy at the gate about us. Turns out he speaks English and is Herbert’s neighbor, and he starts to intercede on our behalf. He’s got completely different phone numbers for our host, and gets him on the phone promptly. But he doesn’t want to speak to us. Because he’s had a heart attack. And a divorce. Not at the same time, i imagine. But recently, and the latter means his ex-wife, very angry at him, won’t let anyone into the house. Including us. Who have traveled thousands of miles. As the sun goes down, this ugly part of Salvador swarms with bugs in vast numbers, and we start to really question what the hell to do next. His neighbor, Carlos, a kind, hippy musician type who’s done all the talking for us, insists we come up to his house, and regroup from there.

Which we do. It’s modest, cluttered, but with a friendly golden retriever around; how bad can anything be with a nice doggie? It’s hot as balls. He bids us sit down, and we are just trying to get a hold of Herbert’s other contacts, desperate to get let in. Later, Herbert says (to Carlos, never to me, to whom he’s been emailing for months) his brother could bring us to another place, but we wanted no part of that; it could be dangerous, faraway, or both. Eventually, we thank Carlos profusely and get out of his hair. It’s amazing how you can watch a trip you planned for four years get nuked in moments, and yet still have a stranger warm the cockles of your heart. Traveling is just the best.

• Back to the car; the car is at least our sovereign territory, even though it’s fighting through crowded streets and bottoming out on speed bumps and stalling on hills. Now we’re hunting a hotel, all but blindly. Almost no internet. no sign of where to go, and about five hours to really do it. The winter sun has already set, so now it’s dark. Not that there are many street signs to work with anyway. With myriad turnarounds, we get a couple hotels attempted, and each tells us a couple others to try. There’s never quite enough wi-fi to get Expedia loaded in the lobby. The first one was dire, but eventually we found some that are typical European standard. Finally, we find a cluster of them and Steve and i get out and hustle around a long block to get in through some crazy security. At this point we have no idea what to make of Salvador, and are getting distinctly pessimistic, but at last we manage to get two rooms in a nice place for $120 a night. Better than we deserved. A safe bed, parking, and the Internet (which we would begin to learn is nearly universally flaky in Brazil).

• And a patio bar across the street, full of locals mostly. Here we learned about Brazilian beer customs; this is to say that you don’t necessarily order four beers for four people, you order beer for four people. It comes with four glasses and maybe two big bomber bottles in giant plastic branded cozies. Periodically, waitstaff will refill your glass for you. Also, we found a local dish that’s just steak cooked underneath a humongous layer of multiple cheeses. It’s delicious and deadly.

• Later that night, four of us decamp to the lobby holding our assorted internet apparatus out like a Geiger counter, looking for a steady connection. Ultimately, not liking any of the options in town (expensive, shitty, badly located), we found a good deal at something kinda resorty out of the city. Quite a change from our planned, in-neighborhood dwelling. But not in the middle of disastrous, paralyzing traffic, and with less livestock and trash.

Salvador Norte

• The mall, a.k.a. the hub for our transit in and out of the city, as it turned out. We stopped in on the way up the coast to our new digs, mostly in hopes of getting a SIM card for a couple of our phones. It turned out, though, that, there was a FIFA info desk there, including a sales point for buses to the stadium.

Now, after South Africa’s plan for parking (visit an old-school ‘ticketmaster’-type counter in a grocery store), we knew we had to scout it. Earlier in the day we were lucky to escape from a driveby of the stadium, and it was all but clear that there was no parking at all. But there are buses! And now we knew about them. With everything that had gone wrong, it looked like we were finally making progress, and were likely to be able to do what we came to do. And in the process, we met a helper that works for the mall named Felipe. Originally from Easton, Mass. Not, we think, one of my favorite sister’s former pupils, but still. Hell of a world. Also, nice guy; he spent an hour trying to help some other nice Americans from DC get their phones working on local SIM cards (you can’t even get a SIM for an iPhone 5s here, turns out). Eventually we decided it was futile, and thanked him profusely.

• It was time to bug out and head north to try and find where we’re staying in the daylight.

Itacimirim

• It looks like paradise, but there’s a big asterisk: they charge you up the nose for bringing in your own food and beverages. We are smuggling ours in at night, out during the day. Pity, there’s a gorgeous pool that really deserves a beer waiting on the edge of it. They want you to buy their food at the restaurant and pool bar, but outside of their pasteis, the food is not terribly good. And they run out of beer, which should not be possible.

Rainstorm in Itacimirim

• It was here we discovered that the fireworks stands are doing business in service of people buying fireworks (fogos) to shoot off during Brazil’s matches. The start, the end, goals. Since they’re nothing if not confident, i’ll assume that they’ve bought a lot of them, but there’s a perfunctoriness in the guy at the bar here’s lighting them off. No joy in it. Then again, Brazil was lucky to beat Croatia.

• i have just now realized that the stains on our walls here are all slain, fully fed mosquitos.

Salvador

• Today, we finally got into Salvador, and finally got to feeling like maybe our trip won’t be a total disaster. A place to stay, a plan to get into town, and we went to a game. Walked a few streets, met other soccer fans, drank some beers, and watched the Dutch completely annihilate Spain.

• It’s a long way into Salvador from where we’re at, but honestly, they really do have a good system for moving people into the stadium. There’s zero parking around it, and the neighborhoods are old and cramped on one side, and crappy on the other side. Instead, the local shopping malls are running buses into the stadium, with dedicated travel lanes in some cases. It’s a long ride, but it goes very smoothly. The area around Fonte Nova is closed off, too, with no one on the streets but beer vendors and fans, for the most part.

• Crowding around a TV with a bunch of other soccer fans on a hot day trying to get a glimpse of a game, drinking a cheap beer and watching a parade go by outside is not a bad way to go.

A singular focus

• Oops, the parade is cool-looking, with some capoeira performers (dancers? fighters?), but composed entirely of jesus freaks and a lot of anti-abortion crap.

Itacimirim

• Since we’re inadvertently staying on the beach, today we went for a walk on the beach. In the morning, at least. Games to watch in the evening, you know. While the weather’s not bad, not unbearably hot, we learned that if you are out from maybe 12-2, you will surely cook in the midday equatorial sun.

Typical Brazilian Beach Day

• Rain here shows up with all sorts of wind, dark clouds, whipping waves, and feels like the foreshadowing of a hurricane. Then it rains a little and then it’s gone. Never seems to be lightning or thunder, but it sure looks impressive anyway.

Not so azul right now

• Practically right next door to us is a nice town that has a small, but walkable main street, multiple bars and restaurants, we discovered. So, the important thing is, having had 6+ months to plan, we came up with a singularly bad one, and have accidentally stumbled into a better one.

Salvador

• Today we drove into Salvador without much of an agenda, without a game to go to. It turns out that our intel about Brazilian cities being deserted on Sundays is good, because the traffic was a total breeze. It resembled a normal city, with normal, calm driving, no gridlock, no insane wedging of cars and buses, and no danger of Guy wrecking his knee working the clutch on the Fiesta.

• Unfortunately, there’s not so much to do where we went. Miles and miles of ridiculous coastline on the peninsula that Salvador lies on, and it’s got the occasional restaurant or two, and it’s all fine in the daylight, but it’s deserted, practically. All the while we’re searching for the FIFA Fan Fest, the big screens and beer gardens set up in all World Cup host cities. It sounds cheesy, and it is, corporate-sponsored, carefully-branded fun, but it’s still a damn good time.

• Turns out that in Salvador, it’s set up at the Barra, at their iconic lighthouse. Or rather, it’s not. We find out that the city’s found a way to cheat their obligation to FIFA and its sponsors, and while ordinarily we’d approve of anyone throwing mud in the eye of Sepp Blatter and friends, it’s sort of a pity to miss out on watching games outside with lots of other enthusiastic fans from wherever.

Sunday morning pickup and more

• The Barra turns out to be another isolated thing to see surrounded by not a whole lot; a couple places to eat, a beach with some locals playing soccer, the few pretty crummy-looking restaurants are filled with Swiss fans waiting for their game, probably also disappointed by the lack of outdoor screen. Again, it’s such a pity because it’s absurdly picturesque.

• With a couple of shopping trips under our belt, we are pretty confident that grocery cashiers in Brazil are the surliest, most unwilling-to-do-their-job people on the planet. You can see the evident effort they put in to working so slowly.

Mundo das delicias

• Before GERvsPOR, we actually wandered further afield in Salvador. It turned out that the nice part of town is really close to the stadium. So now we have a nice place to drink some beers before the game. And if all goes well, a nice town square to drink beers with our fellow Americans with if our guys get to the round-of-16 match.

• Salvador is such such a weird city, though. It’s got suburban shopping malls in the middle of not-quite-favelas, dirt roads next to nice apartment towers, abandoned circuses next to permanently-unfinished skyscrapers, sheds that pass for bars with identical yellow plastic chairs, pedestrian overpasses turned into teeming bazaars, horses grazing in grass lots, and pedestrians running across highways.

Praia do Forte

• After we showed up and drank a lot and started making a huge damn racket during USAvsGHA, about five times as many people joined us. Pretty sure the bar owes us one.

• We’re working on making this our next home base, of course, and hoping that airbnb works better this time.

rural futebol field

Lençois

• This town reminds me of Mykonos, sort of. Lots of tiny shops and restaurants, mostly catered to tourists (in this case, backpackers, nature tourists), and tons of B&Bs (they call them pousadas). It’s impossibly quaint, extremely hilly. Very harmless, still sorta run-down (stray cats everywhere, occasional dogs, wrecked buildings, but very picturesque. Gaily painted, cobblestone streets, but way the hell away from everything; it was a 7-hour drive.

• There’s an ever increasing tally of bug bites, as we go on. It’s so much less bad than i expected, but they are still proliferating. If you look hard enough at many surfaces in your room , you’ll eventually see tiny ants running around.

• A fireworks stand by the bridge is doing fantastic business; every 10 minutes there’s a big boom, earlier during the match it was staccato explosions, loud because they echo in the tight streets and the valley. It’d have been a bit dangerous had brazil managed to pull out a win.

• Steve learned this morning that the giant party in town last night (which ran until 2am, near as we could tell) was in fact the start of the festival of São João. Meaning that there should be more, and that i don’t have to feel bad about being too sick and exhausted to go find the party.

Someone's got to do it

• Happily, whatever stomach bug i had seems to have gone away after a bit over a day.

• A word about food. The last two places we’ve stayed have been bed-and-breakfasty places, with enough similarities in their breakfast spread to tempt me to draw conclusions about what you might expect: hot dogs in what’s like a spaghetti-o’s style sauce, cold cuts, mini cheese bread balls (these are oddly disappointing), and obviously, chocolate cake. which is obviously my go-to. Ground up manioc is intended as a condiment for something we never quite figured out. Boiled cassava or yam, which was unappealing. And obviously, the universally de rigeur scrambled eggs.

• Also napkins are typically paper, and in a variety of odd little holders, always folded in a triangle. Nearly ubiquitous.

• Today we went on a hike. I was so pleasantly surprised that no plants and animals of the Brazilian forest had any interest in killing me. Honestly, it felt a little bit like California, insofar as there were insects, but they mostly kept the hell off of me and did not consume my blood. Lençois is a very crunchy town, catering chiefly to the ecotourism crowd, with lots of guides and crafty stores and stuff. At the same time, it’s mainstream enough that they did actually build a bar a couple kilometers down the hiking trail. Not fully stocked, and it’s clear that they portage their wares in and out, but seriously a bar in the middle of the woods in a national park. Further down the trail was a river in a rockfall that formed a huge natural pool of cool, cool water, brown as coffee, but still clear in the shallows. i sort of regret not being prepared to fully dive in, or to climb up the mossy angled rocks that people were ‘surfing’, down. But then again, the few hospitals we’ve seen in this country have done nothing to make us feel good about risking injury.

The ol' swimmin' hole

Almost touching

• So far, the best food we’ve had in Brazil was made by an Italian. Who owns a nice pousada here in Lençois. Also, he and his (Brazilian) wife were easily some of the most welcoming people we’ve met.

Praia do Forte

• Croatia’s team is staying here, and now so are we. Even if it is am Epcot Center style town, it’s comfy, still cheap ($4 caipirinhas, $3 beers), and there’s lots of people around to watch games with.

Farol

• Finally we succeeded in getting into a place where we can set up shop and do what we want. Our airbnb came through just fine, and we’ve got a fridge full of beer, and our American flag hung over the couch. Incidentally, at least two Bostonians have visited here and left gifts. Typical of everywhere in Brazil, this place can only approach ‘nice’ so closely; it’s a luxury-condo building with immaculate grass, but the fountains are off and the furniture’s put away (oh right, the ‘off-season‘). And the apartment is beautiful, but has lots of expensive broken appliances, and i think other guests have partied hard here. fewer ants, though.

The festive season

• Steve and i weren’t the only ones out for a run this morning. There was even a local doing it. It’s really pretty comfortable walking, but when you are exerting yourself, you get sweaty and dehydrated pretty damn fast.

• The beach has vendors walking up and down all over the place; in Praia do Forte, they’re regulated, elsewhere they’re pretty much whatever. Here, there’s one that carries around a bucket of hot coals, and roasts a stick of cheese covered in oregano on it. Marshmallows can go straight to hell from now on, as far as i’m concerned.

Cachaça is dangerously cheap. Do people here have drinking problems, because if so, the ready availability of high-powered liquor for the equivalent of about $3 surely can’t be good for society, right? And it’s great, it mixes well in lots of things, you can shoot it, even.

• Some of the locals in the bar last night were pretty pleased when our guys got scored upon late, and were sure to use our chants against us. We more than deserved it, considering how loud we and the other Americans were. Both of us have to deal, obviously.

• That was tough, though. We were hoping to drive up to Recife and go support our team without so much on the line, but now it is serious business time. There will be large numbers of both teams’ fans there so let’s hope we’re all happy.

• Tipping is almost never done here, as there is a mandatory 10% ‘serviso’ on your bill. Not coincidentally, for every restaurant that’s great, you find two where service is less than motivated. Waitstaff will frequently hide from you outright.

• In planning our drive to Recife, we lament other countries’ lack of roadside motels. Our suspicion is that for the probably comparatively few who make drives like that, that’s why pousadas on top of gas stations exist. Of course, as the ads on tv would tell you, a gas station is a place where you get a fine meal with jovial company. Some of the ones we’ve been to, i might even believe that. Most, though, not so much.

• We’re practically in full rainy-vacation-day mode today. When the skies open up here it is a sight to behold. Even the gentle misting rains are splendid, so light as to do nothing but refresh.

A patch of smooth road

Maceio

• Steve was excited to get points at his beloved Holiday Inn Express here in Brazil, and was glad to find that they existed. We showed up so very late, and naturally, guards manned the locked door. We said we were there to check in; the skinny, shifty-looking guard asks, “Do you need beaches?” “No, we need to get into the hotel, to check in.” “Bitches. Quinze, desesseis.” Gutturally: “Hookers.”

“No. Let us in.” Figures that the trustworthy American franchise is the one that best manages to skeeve us out.

Recife

• So, we didn’t get to the game on time, but we did make it. Even though a lot of people might have called it a day, and called it a bad one, we turned it into a good one, one we’ll always remember. One that involved us running in sewer water, and us nearly bottoming out the car on a dirt road through a slum. An adventure among adventures, and something no sane person would call ‘vacation’.

Porto de Galinhas
• ’Galinha’ means ‘chicken’. Which is why everything here is unabashedly chicken-themed, from cheekily painted chicken sculptures (like other cities’ cows), to souvenir trinkets, to sandals, to phone booths. It’s kinda hilarious.
• The pousada we’re staying at is perfectly all right, although there are no panes of glass, much less screens in the windows. It’s bright and airy during the day, but necessarily closed up and darkened against the hordes of mosquitos at night. It’s a weird reminder of just where peoples’ priorities are, cost-wise. Air conditioner, sure, glass for windows, not so much.

Afternoon storm

• On the bright side, i taught myself how to make caipirinhas. Importantly, i learned that you can’t short-change any element of it, you have to beat up the limes some, you need a lot of sugar, and it needs ice and a straw. But it can be done, by the likes of me, even. i just hope that cachaça and limes aren’t too much more expensive at home.

Maceio

• It turns out the coast roads between Porto de Galinhas and Maceio are mostly far superior to the supposed intercity highway, BR-101, which was sporadically so potholed as to be nearly undriveable, never mind narrow, curvy, clogged with trucks that struggle up even the smallest hill, and under permanent construction.

Brazilian farm country

Hang on tight

• While we were distinctly discomfited by our first visit and stay here, Maceio has treated us a lot better the second time through. We arrived along the beachfront strip of hotels about 15 minutes before the start of the Brazil-Chile match, parked, and found a nearby umbrella bar with decent tvs, and a good empty table. It was getting busy, and initially our waiter seemed overwhelmed, but at some point he brought us a couple free caipirinhas (we were drinking beer). And then a couple more. And a couple more. At some point Guy had to slyly pass his on to me, since he had perhaps a mile further to drive. Tipping here is not customary, not expected at all, but we tipped the hell out of him.

• We were, of course, kinda hoping for Chile to pull off an upset. It’s somewhat rude to root against your hosts, but their general attitude of inevitability and their team’s underwhelmingness made them a tempting target. The crowd at this bar was also insufficiently involved, seemingly not taking the threat seriously until it went to penalties. At that point, a couple crazy old ladies appeared, and one of them was passing around her lucky teddy bear, so in the end i’m okay with them moving on. For now.

• The Radisson was Ghana’s headquarters hotel, during their regrettably brief stay here (they played well, although i feel less bad knowing their players apparently behaved somewhat badly). There were a few people who were obviously players in the lobby when we arrived, although we couldn’t piece together who they were.

• i am getting eaten alive by mosquitos in the lobby as i wait for a facetime call with the girl. In Brazil, as we’ve so often noted, even nice places can find ways to be shitty.

Morning at the fruit stand

Aracaju

• Aracaju is unlike other cities we’ve been to, in that it’s full of new infrastructure, shiny new cultural buildings and facilities, and the large apartment buildings are actually well-kept and clean, not dingy and destroyed up close. Wikitravel knows precious little about it. Upon reaching the shoreline, and seeing it dotted with oil platforms, we suspect we have the explanation.

• Bugs here are simply harder to kill than their counterparts at home. They’re both more evasive and then once you get one, you might not even succeed at squashing it the first time.

Salvador

• And so after our northern odyssey, we returned at last to our ‘home’ city of Salvador, which we’d honestly sort of kept at arms length thus far. And as a reminder of why, we were still half an hour away on a familiar stretch of highway when a column of thick black smoke rose ahead, and traffic came to a halt. Now, after seeing that every rural police station has to own supply of burned out husks of cars, we quickly assumed that that’s all it was, a beat-up car’s fiery death (goodness knows we had ample reason to fret that our own car was not going to make it). After a while, i got antsy and jumped out of the car, as has become my custom. I jogged down the empty oncoming lane and just kept running until I got closer to it, after all, why turn back until I had an answer? The answer was, it was no car, and no accident. A line of what looked like oil, or pitch, or something was strewn across both sides of the highway, lit, and fed with large tree branches. Beyond that, a throng of protesters, chanting loudly at a comically small number of police. Finally, one of the riots we were promised. After ascertaining that the party was unlikely to break up too soon, i jogged back to our car, again communicating as best i could to other stopped cars my information about what was ahead. Mostly arm-waving, really. One lady rolled down her window and replied ‘parler Français?’ to my ‘nao falo Português’. She went on to tell me that riots like this are obnoxious and very common, although increased police presence during the World Cup meant a break from them, since ironically that’s part of what they were protesting.

Now that we've got your attention

• Thus began a fun 24 hours in Salvador, wherein we were delayed by a riot and fire, ripped off three times by three different bartenders, interviewed by multiple TV networks, and finally, taken for a R$60 cab ride to a bad neighborhood by a cab driver who was at best an idiot, but most likely an asshole or even someone who meant us harm.

• It is normal for Salvador cab drivers to flagrantly run open red lights late in the night. This guy started off in the wrong direction, which we chalked up to trying to get on bigger roads back to the hotel, but kept going. Fortunately for us, we know this city pretty well by now, and smelled a rat pretty quickly. Eventually he turned back into town, ending any fears of getting stranded in some rural shithole, and prompting the question of whether he’s taking us somewhere totally wrong, or to some buddies of his in a dark alley. We try to point out to him where we actually want to go, and our knowledge of the town is sufficient that he’s not misunderstanding us. So he blows through red light after red light, and we’re officially concerned. In the end, he’s got to stop at one, since a cop was sitting there. I figure that’s the safest harbor. Steve, on the other side of the car was noting that it was across the street from the Sheraton (there’s a Sheraton, apparently). “We’re getting out.” We do, and hustle onto the sidewalk, and i cuss the guy out as i walk away. He throws it into reverse, and I keep yelling at him. “Wrong! Bad!” with thumbs-downs and worse. He gestures for money, then points at the cop. So now I’m the criminal. I throw a $R50 note at him, flip him off and bid him get the fuck out of there. The friendly doorman at the hotel meanwhile finds us a cab that he’ll vouch for, further proving that doormen are the best people. The next cab driver was fine, although riding through Salvador at night with him listening to Phil Collins’ treacly worst was a bit surreal. From then on, we had someone in the back seat double checking our route with the magic blue dot.

• I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention the hotel that was so much work for us to get back to. A formerly no doubt opulent 70’s-modern palace in mustard-and-red with a concrete/stucco angled facade overlooking the beautiful eastern beaches of Salvador, it should by all rights have been perfect. Or, instead, musty, smelling of urine in places, and with pry-marks by the handle of every single door. This is what we got for not having good enough internet and having to wait one more night to book rooms in Salvador after all our American brethren had taken all the good ones. And it was not cheap either.

And it could so easily be amazing. This is about the most descriptive statement you can make about Salvador. It could so easily be amazing. But just like the rest of the city, they just find a way to screw up a can’t-miss place.

It's for sale...

• Take for instance our last day in Salvador, before the USA-Belgium match, a beautiful (hot) day to walk through the beautiful old town and see just why it’s worthy of being a UNESCO site. It’s like a hilly, older Vieux Carré, but without any drunk yahoos, and it’s totally amazing. People would get on planes to see this, to walk the streets, to eat at an outside table, to gawp at the old churches. But it’s an island, connected to the airport by untrustworthy cabs, with few hotels in a walkable radius, and surrounded by places you’re better off not lingering in. Who knows how it came to be so; our suspicion was that a lot of the bigger companies, best employers seem to be in office parks around the city, that it’s some form of Brazilian ‘white flight’. And Salvador is maybe their Detroit. It’s the sort of thing where you wonder what they were protesting. And whether or not their government spent too much on bringing you here, and not making here better.

Lazy day in the Pelourinho.

• It was disappointing to find that there really wasn’t an organized cheering section for the USA at the match. Apparently it really was quite something when the “U-S-A” chant got rolling, but to us it just felt like the only thing that worked, and we felt like we missed the chance to really belt some things out like we did in South Africa. It would have been good to be able to get back at the Belgian contingent, who were nice in person, but as a group felt like they needed to taunt us when they took a lead. That noted Belgium-USA rivalry apparently boiling over.

The home of the brave

• The real sign that we were tired and ready to come home, though, was the reaction of the locals, many of whom delighted in making throat-cutting signs and shouting “bye-bye, USA” at us. That’s nice. We just traveled thousands of miles and spent a buttload of money in your hole of a city and this is how you treat visitors? Way to undo the work of all the nice people we met, assholes. But there’s the problem, and maybe the news articles at the outset were true; people here just aren’t that excited to welcome visitors, for the most part. It’s a job, it’s a thing that’s happening, but there’s no joy in it. Just business. On the bright side, the people that we met that were the exception to this rule are that much more special to us.

Rio de Janeiro

• It’s like night and day here. A couple nights ago, Steve coined the term, to ‘Brazil’ it, which is to say they take something that’s intrinsically nice, or pleasant, and make it slipshod, or downright shitty. There’s almost none of that here in Rio. Proper highways that do not at any point pass through a major bus terminal, bridges that exist, no speed bumps or crosswalks in the middle of 100kph traffic. A clean, efficient subway that’s safe at all times of day. Streets full of people going to work, not livestock.

• Never mind how beautiful it is; forget the beaches, which are not so big a draw for me, i’m talking about the absurd drama of these enormous 2000-foot-tall rocks, like cartoon lumps after a mallet to the head, jutting out of the coastline, stretching the city’s fabric. It’s breathtaking, even from the street.

The picture postcard

• Not a connoisseur of beaches, i, but i suspect, given mere walk-by experience that these probably are justly famous. They’re wide, soft, and at least on this day, caressed by waves that are enough to remind you you’re in the ocean, but not the sort to rough you up. And naturally, there’s private enterprise from makeshift pay showers, to wi-fi-tents, the obvious beverages, and more fixed bars and restaurants. It’s a hell of a thing to sit and drink a (still inexpensive) caipirinha, while watching the sun leave the beach in late afternoon (short days + hot weather still registers as some sort of an error for me).

• Notable here is the familiar configuration of the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana beach, multiple giant screens, pristine sand, thousands of other futebol fans. We’d have partaken the hell out of that, as we had in Johannesburg, Durban, Frankfurt, and Berlin, and shame on Salvador for cheating its visitors of such a great way to have a good time and good cheer with locals.

Summer-winter sunset

• The trip up Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf) was amazing, sort of a great unofficial end to the trip; a madly steep cable car ride, watching the hazy sun finish its day, and the lights of the city come on. Watching the insane approach of flights landing at SDU from uncomfortably close. Sitting and having a beer and reflecting on how many unvacation days went into this vacation and how truly earned a beer on top of a mountain can be.

A morning swim

• By contrast, getting up to Corcovado is a shit show, and we failed at it. They Brazil’d it. There is this and plenty of other reasons to come back someday with the girl.

• There’s even a small craft-beer scene around Rio, mostly beers that are dark as hell, presumably as a reaction to the weightless, clammy riceyness of the likes of Skol. It’s about damn time.

In Summary

• Met and chatted with (22): Ghana, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Uruguay, France, Chile, England, Venezuela, Australia, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Germany, Nigeria, Netherlands, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Belgium, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina
• Photos with (9): Ghana, Uruguay, France, Chile, Venezuela, USA, Germany, Brazil, Canada
• Media from (3): Brazil, England, USA
• Distance covered: 3,450km
• Speed bumps (they call these lombadas): too many
• Bottomed the car out on speed bumps: approximately 35 times
• Days without being dry: 3
• Ate at McDonald’s: 1 time
• Bug bites: 33 (approximately)
• Caipirinhas: lost count

Work: Single-Cup Coffee Brewers

Between 2011 and 2014, I worked on numerous single-cup coffee brewer designs for the leading manufacturer of them.  Some of these are ubiquitous, others were obscure or for overseas markets.  Others not shown were never produced, for reasons.

Work on these products included part breakup and ID implementation, design-for-assembly strategy, cup mechanism designs, fluid path design, drip trays and water tanks, carafes, and concept development.

Amazon listings:

Small home brewer

Deluxe home brewer

Thermal carafe

Office brewing system

Large thermal carafe

At the end of a continent

So i’ve been joking amongst friends at how hilarious it is that the girlfriend and i took two teenage girls that we’re not related to to California a month ago. Considering my guilt of being a thirtysomething single white male, you’d think i’d be on CNN by now, assumptions being what they are. Oh fine, it’s easy to pick on CNN. Moving on.

It had been forever since i’d spent any quality time in and around Los Angeles. Spent a night and left a beloved t-shirt in Long Beach in 2005. One of the big road trips blew through in the middle of the night in 1998. The only time i’d ever been to nice parts of the area was in late 1993. i was anorexic as hell, and under the delusion that i would get in to Caltech. My dad also believed the latter, and that a weekend in California could fix the former. It was pretty nice, though; i was cold on a fairly warm day in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Got to take a tour of JPL. Felt so guilty about eating normal meals that i ran three miles in my Chuck Taylors. All things considered, i don’t think the trip was successful.

Anyway, it’s convenient to joke about how much of a hellhole LA is, and make no mistake, i could not handle living there; the traffic lights, the driving, driving, driving, the brown cloud, the sprawl. But there’s no way a city that size couldn’t have so many fun, glorious, weird things to do, and it’s a pity that it took me so long to get to them.

no lifeguard on duty
For instance, our splendid Airbnb’d abode in weird, weird Venice Beach. Tiny little streets bordering the beach, leading to tinier alleys and then a wide (paved) boardwalk, a thoroughfare for all manner of wheeled conveyances. Lazily swerving bicycles, fit, weaving rollerbladers (apparently this is not out of style there), skateboarders, trikes, mutant hybrids of any of the above. And those were the people that were moving, upright, to say nothing of the hordes of shambling homeless, the stoned, the strung out, the merely lazy, greeting and conversing with each other in varying levels of sanity.

a lot to observe
i was glad that we were able to convince the teenagers to drive up the hill to the Griffith Observatory, too. They’d seen it in movies, and so had i. It looked cool, even without Optimus Prime standing next to it, and there’s a view that made me wish i’d brought my SLR after all. And it’s a damn science museum that’s open late at night and free. Late-night science is good!

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Amusingly, the girl and i were able to run the teenagers into the ground repeatedly. One night, they probably thought we were driving home, but in reality i pulled up next to Pink’s Hot Dogs. What i was struck by, there, and at Randy’s Donuts, too, was how humble, how friendly these tourist landmarks are; no resentment of tourists, no impatience, just a hot dog like all the others. Only better.

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And then there was Disneyland. Where i haven’t been since i was 1. Or so i’m told. My guess is that it wouldn’t have seemed so small to me then. The gap between the state-of-the-art California Adventure and the original was immense. Not that i didn’t have fun at the latter, too, but it was just packed, crammed, overrun. As opposed to the engineering that you come to expect of the Mouse, evolved over decades, across the street. It almost makes you appreciate their work more, but at the same time, you wish there was a way that the original could be more enjoyable on its own terms.

Accustomed to catastrophe

Beacon Street, abandoned

The other night, a couple of (brave, he adds redundantly) firefighters died three blocks away from me.

i weaved an unorthodox route home, conscious of traffic backed up from unexpected detours at rush hour.  i parked recklessly, knowing that i maybe wouldn’t get a chance to circle through the area where fire still burned, as i typically do.  i walked calmly across deserted, blocked, streets, unsurprised to see emergency vehicles form a galaxy of flashing lights.

After all, this happened a block away, albeit without the tragic results, a couple months ago.  Or the annual big snowstorm that feels as if the apocalypse bears down on us.  Or the Marathon bombings, when i biked down streets that were empty except for ambulances blasting the other way.  Or the sleepless night a few days later where the madmen toured everyone’s neighborhood before taking up residence in Watertown.

Point is, all this feels normal now.  It’s not surprising.  It’s not any less horrible, nor any less personal when it is your city, your neighborhood, your fellow citizens, but why do we feel so used to it?

Too much news?  A generation grown up watching Armageddon and Independence Day?

It’s not as if a fire, even a big one, compares with a bombing, or with, say, the landslide in Seattle, right now.  All the same, i can’t help but wonder why this all feels so routine and worry about what that means.

Everything is Awesome

As someone who grew up on Legos, or arguably didn’t, since i still have all of them, The Lego Movie could not fail to make an impression on me. Short story: go see it, it’s hilarious, and your kids might like it, too. But if you grew up not just with Legos (n.b.: i grew up calling them Legos, and no amount of corporate brand usage guidelines are sufficient to break me of the habit), but immersed in them, this movie will make you laugh until it hurts. And then, if you’re like me, you’ll start wondering how these plastic bricks helped make you who you are.

To me, you could sum up the movie as the story of the conflict between the front of the box and the back of the box. At least in the olden days, the back of a Lego set had all sorts of off-the-wall things you could build when you got bored of the fire engine. We cut them out and saved them, but few of these spoke to me in the same way as the front of the box did.

That’s right, kids, i identify with the forces of order, with Lord Business himself. i had no interest in a walking robot with ladders for legs, my town needed a damn fire truck. i had a vision, and that vision had precious little room for whimsy. Ask my favorite sister about the rigid zoning requirements enforced upon her more multicolored contributions to my fair city. In the corner, a dead-end street.

It’s not, i hope, an indication that i lacked imagination, far from it, i should think. But my imagination was grounded in things that were real; cities, subways, harbors, world’s fairs (hey, i lived in New Orleans in 1984), amusement parks, Olympics, skyscrapers, spaceships (spaceships are real, dammit). Maybe not so much real as realistic; things that fascinated me. And realism was an attention to detail; toilets, clock towers, bustling squares, street lights, airlocks (it always bugged me that Lego spacemen never seemed to have anywhere to take off their helmet).

Don’t mistake me for the man with the krazy glue, though. This was to be played with; crashed, razed, remodeled, perfected, then apocalyptically destroyed in the name of having that clean-slate day with its rush of new creation until my dad bade me go outside.

It’s that same impulse that stokes a burning fury at a design that just isn’t right, where the parts fit okay, but not the way they should, where the seams line up okay, but must be better. Sure, I can pretend it’s good enough, and if it’s 4am and they asked for it tomorrow, damn right it is. But with the time to do it, it gets ripped apart, turned over, blasted into pieces and put back together armed with the knowledge of how it should fit, how it should work.

That’s why i’ve kept all my Legos, even if real life keeps them stowed under the bed far too long; that quick hit of frustration-to-satisfaction is an outlet i do not wish to ever part with. Although i’ll gladly share some with my favorite nephew and niece someday soon. But there’s a reason i use a red spaceman as my avatar these days, sparing me the need to take the dreaded selfies in assorted places around the world. He’s kinda been me all along, and he wants to see cool things, too.

Everybody have pity on my girlfriend, because I’m dumping out the buckets real soon now.

Doing the Minimum

This month, the girl and i are embarking on what we’ve termed the “Month of Power”.  Similar to the increasingly popular ‘Sober January’, but without the sobriety, necessarily.  It’s focused on penance for a truly excessive month of December, but if i’m honest with myself, i’ve eaten even more badly than my already reprehensible standard for a solid two years now.  Therefore, a month of corrective measures.  Plenty of exercise (this isn’t the least bit unusual for me, of course) including the dreaded Kelsey and her brutal boot camps on Thursdays.  And also a 2,000 calorie a day (or fewer) diet.  For a guy my size, this results in losing weight.

What’s interesting about this, is that every time i undertake to lose weight, i flirt with tendencies that remain from when i was 17 and dangerously anorexic (trust me on this one, if you’re not related to me or one of the few close friends who’s seen pictures).  Sticking to things that have printed numbers of calories on the side.  Adding them up obsessively.  When i’m forced to eat something that someone, say, cooks, leaving 1,000 worth of room for something that winds up being half that.  And suddenly the 2,000 is 1,500.  And all this is fueled by feeling better, looking better, nothing but positive reinforcement for a while.

But eventually it’s unhealthy.  Not just ’cause it’s all Hot Pockets and ramen and diet Mountain Dew (and beer, beer i’ve left room for).  Mostly because it’s an insufficient amount of nutrition.  Instead of flying down the soccer field and finding push-ups easier, i’m winded after five minutes and weak as a kitten.

So it’s best to have an end in sight.  And damn am i ever looking forward to that end.  And pizza.  And cheezburgers.  And burritos.  And that’s how i know i’m okay.