Discoveries

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In the filtered sunlight of the bus window, the little boy’s straight, yellow hair streamed from the top of his head like a sparkler. He peeked over at me, again, and this time, I gave him the most sour grimace I could muster. “What are you looking at?” I thought, again, but didn’t say because he was, after all, a child. But so was I, really: a 16-year-old spending the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in the northernmost province of Sweden, a hair south of the Arctic Circle.

I must have been the last foreign exchange student placed with a host family because, of all the American students placed in Sweden that summer, I was the farthest north and the furthest away from the capital city of Stockholm, where I had requested to be placed. The hamlet of Råneå was an hour outside of Luleå, itself not even topping 50,000 people and whose most famous export was ‘70s model and Bond girl Maud Adams. A bus that ran three or four times a day connected the town to the city, and neither town nor city was very racially diverse in 1994.

In fact, aside from a brown-skinned Sri Lankan girl adopted by Swedish parents in Råneå, it seemed I was the only other person of color in that section of the province, a flat, swampy expanse with Mesozoic-sized mosquitos and a sun that never set in summer. Not so very different from Florida, after all. The adults and other teenagers I was around—mostly, my host sisters’ friends—didn’t seem too scandalized by the skin tone difference: The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on Swedish television and two of the star players on Sweden’s World Cup soccer team were half-black.

But the little boy on the bus couldn’t stop looking. And finally, I stopped grimacing and smiled. He smiled, too, then I got off the bus.

 

Image by Daniel Glifberg via Flickr.

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Read Cash Money in Havana  — Part One.

The Malecón lines the northern shore of Havana, holding back the waters of the Florida Straits about as effectively as it holds back dreamers from taking to those waters in rickety vessels bound for the Sunshine State. Before night falls, families with children, elderly couples, and tourists stroll the promenade under the tropical sun. After dark, lovers—clandestine or otherwise—promise each other eternity or just one night in the shadows between each wave.

I wandered down into the sticky, salty air of the Malecón needing $60 to change my plane ticket and, as a writer, open to considering any and all possibilities. Amid the scores of lusty young men looking for release, I met a slim, sinewy, dark-skinned brother just a bit taller than me and wearing a black tank top and khaki shorts. We exchanged smiles and lingering eye contact, inching closer to one another with pleasantries in Spanish. But as the space between us narrowed, we both noticed a tall, pinkish older man with receding blond hair and swollen muscles squeezed into a tight German soccer jersey. He was looking at both of us with pointed interest, his nod conveying an unequivocal proposal of transactional sex. This was the standard arrangement between most foreigners and Cubans on the Malecón at night. I say most, because that was not the implied arrangement between the slim, sinewy, dark-skinned brother and me.

He looked at me with questioning eyebrows and a forward posture indicating that I should accompany him over to the pinkish German. I thought about the $60, the brother’s smile (and privates), the epic story that the scenario would make, and potentially great sex; the German wasn’t exactly bad-looking, just sunburned. In the end, though, my ingrained American prudery won out, and I slowly shook my head no. “Vayas, tú.”

“Okey,” he said, “gracias.” He put his hand around my waist and pulled me closer, his lips brushing against my neck just below the ear. He slowly, slowly dragged his hand across my lower back as we unfurled, then winked and smiled before walking over to the German. I turned back towards town and my casa particular, knowing that I needed to wake up early if I hoped to sell anything for cash down at the souvenir market.

 

Image by truebacarlos via Flickr.

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Once, I ran out of money in Cuba. It was 2009, and I had returned to Havana after two previous trips with the purpose of experiencing the place before Fidel Castro officially kicked the bucket and KFC brought in theirs. Alas, I had miscalculated my finances, as friends and family can attest that I am wont to do, but decided to go on the trip anyway, as I am also wont to do.

Five days into my eleven-day sojourn in Cuba’s crumbling, captivating capital city, I found myself with less than $10 and no way to borrow money from the U.S., with the embargo and all. I had paid up for the next few nights at my casa particular, so I at least had lodging for a couple of days, and my Cuban friends would make sure I was properly fed and had some floor space somewhere, should it come down to that. I knew that, in Cuba of all places, I’d be all right. But I would still need cash.

I went to the Cubana office to talk with a ticket agent about taking an earlier flight back to Bogotá, where I was living at the time. The agent said it would cost me $60: a $50 change fee and a $10 typing fee. I was not mad at her hustle in the least; in fact, I appreciated her directness.

The task, then, was to figure out how I could earn the money. Previously, I’d brought basic goods—tube socks, deodorant, toothpaste, cans of chunk light tuna, packets of hair weave—to barter in exchange for Cuban souvenirs. This time, I only had the clothes I brought with me to wear, a clunky digital camera, my early-model laptop, and zero interest in or need for specially carved maracas or a linen guayabera.

I only had two places to find cash money in Havana: the souvenir market near the cruise ship terminal during the day, and the seafront promenade called the Malecón at night.

To be continued…

 

Read about my previous experiences in Cuba here.
Image by helenedancer via Flickr.

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Bryan Sereny/Flickr

Did you know that only 28% of Greater Miami’s residents speak English at home? Miami being a Spanish-speaking city isn’t just a myth. Everyone jokes about needing a passport to visit Miami and that the city’s first language is Spanish. But it’s not just a joke; in Miami, more people speak Spanish than English. According to data compiled in 2010 by the Modern Language Association, of Miami-Dade County, Florida’s 2.3 million residents over the age of five, only 28% – around 644,000 – speak English as a first language at home. Spanish ranks Number One, at 1.5 million speakers, or roughly 64% of the overall population of the county (over five years of age, that is). Haitian Creole, Haiti’s official language along with French, comes in third at almost 97,000 speakers, or a scant 4.2% of the over-five population, while French and Portuguese round out the top five, with less than 1% each.

Reflecting the demographic make-up of the region, Miami-Dade County has three official languages – English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole – in which all county documentation, from voting registration forms to court summons to school board notices, must be printed. While more obvious reasons for the shifting of Miami’s primary language from English to Spanish over the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st include economic and political instability throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, many of the people who lamenting the decline of English forget that the name Florida itself is a Spanish word meaning “florid” or “flowery.” That’s not all; the name Miami is derived from that of the Mayaimi Indians who lived around nearby Lake Okeechobee when the Europeans first arrived. The Mayaimi’s linguistic cousins, the Tequestas, lived in what is now Miami and they didn’t speak English at home either.

That said, add a little bit of instrumentation to all these languages and you’ve got the incredible mash-up of the Miami music scene. Salsa, samba, soca, and every riddim in between thumps out of open car windows and on nightclub dance floors. So while you may have to speak Spanish to that gas station attendant (diez en la doce means “$10 on pump 12”), you’ll also get to work on your reggaeton moves as you pump.

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Me and my former partner in Montreal, months before the sun set on hour relationship, one of the not-so-great happenings in 2014.

In this video, I discuss what went well and not-so-well in 2014, including the Big Break-up, and talk about my goals and aspirations for the coming year.

Sorry about the length and the phone call. 😛

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Read Part One here.

The crack of dawn occurred after Rogue Priest, Pixi, and I had woken up and took to the road in search of breakfast. The Hotel La Turbina advertised a restaurant that didn’t actually exist, and, Sabinas Hidalgo being a relatively small town, most eating places didn’t open on Sundays until seven (in principle), but not really until about 7:15 or 7:30 (in practice). For the second time on the trip, we ended up at a restaurant with a severe dearth of cars in the parking lot. This time, though, we were on the town’s main drag and didn’t expect to have our pictures on milk cartons this time.

The Restaurant Acira (all restaurants in northern Mexico seemed to use the English version of the word, though they still seemed to pronounce it restaurante. I guess dropping the final “e” lent a place a certain je ne sais quois) served up traditional Mexican breakfasts in what was, if you bothered to look past its crusted-over, forlorn ambience, a surprisingly attractive, mid-century Modern roadside diner. The parking lot’s rusty awning probably shielded snazzy drive-in customers from the fierce Mexican sun when served in their 1955 Chevy Bel Airs. Along the northern wall glittered a giant, intricate tile mosaic depicting cows and cowboys locked in their historic and essential wrangle. The restaurant’s Jetsons-style sign, in desert pastels, perched almost demurely at the edge of the parking lot and, like most of the other impressive design elements of the place, outshined by gaudy, artless kitsch, required keen eyes to appreciate. Even the waiter had a classic air about him, with his elegant mustache and diction, that seemed to belong to an era of service long dead and buried. And the breakfast was pretty good, too.

After filling our bellies, Rogue, Pixi, and I stocked up on provisions and hit the road, saying our private goodbyes to lovely Sabinas Hidalgo as we passed tree-shaded yards and whitewashed houses en route to the verdant hills ahead of us.

As the arid carpet of northern Mexico unrolled ahead of us, we continued adelante, emboldened by the previous day’s triumph of reaching our first stopping point without incident. Rogue and Pixi biked briskly, maintaining a steady pace as the sun, and the land itself it seemed, rose steadily higher.

It was here, in the midst of the fluttering Monarch butterflies, bright yellow wildflowers, and sturdy cacti that lined our route, that I soon began to ponder my own path. Where, indeed, was I going to?

The previous few months had meant leaving my teaching job and apartment in Miami to focus on my PhD, my writing, and my relationship in Germany. The relationship—five years and almost married—ended suddenly, but not without good reason, just as I’d visited South Africa for the first time on a press trip that I’d put off for two years. And now, here I was: traipsing through Mexico with only a few freelancing gigs and my part-time airline job for money, my doctoral studies on indefinite pause, the solid relationship I had counted on no longer in existence, and an intense and unexpected romance in South Africa suddenly interrupted by fear and uncertainty.

To be honest, for the past several weeks, I’d been struggling greatly with all the great existential issues that plague the aimlessly intellectual and creative: why am I here? For what purpose? What is happening to me? Why didn’t my relationship work out? Why isn’t this new one working out? Why isn’t the love of my family and friends enough? Why is my bank account perpetually empty? What happens now? Where am I going to? Where am I going to?

And as I tossed these things about in my head, silently rejoicing about the awesomeness of the trip but a bit more loudly despairing of my life situation at that moment, I heard Janelle Monae sing: “To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.”

And this refrain, undergirded by the gentle yet unrelenting reminders of numerous friends, family members, the universe really, of how wonderful and one-of-a-kind every single moment of my life was, took on a greater significance.

How many other people had the time and ability to fly down to Mexico and help a good friend realize his life goal? Or help a new friend realize how far beyond her limits she could push herself? How many other people were freezing up in colder climes while I was able to drive through some of God’s most thrilling countryside ‘neath nuclear skies, where most people don’t even fly over, let alone experience by land? And despite my physical remoteness, I was still in contact with my familiars around the world—in Brazil and Sweden and the US and South Africa—checking in on me, thinking about me, praying for me, loving me. All these little things.

“To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.”

There is more to the story. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.

Snaps from the road:

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Select sounds from Day Two:

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At the spur of the moment, and in what I would consider to be a bit of cosmic planning, I found myself with some unexpected free time with which to head down Mexico way and drive the support car for my buddy Rogue Priest and friend as they cycled through the dry and dangerous northern borderlands between the Rio Grande and Monterrey.

Rogue’s epic journey—to bicycle the length of the Americas—combines adventure, danger, courage, spirituality, and heroism. His embodiment of these virtues (well, danger isn’t a virtue, but…) and his neverending quest for knowledge of all kinds are the reasons why I admire him, and why I agreed, offered, really, to be his support driver. Rogue opened up the Mexican portion of his quest―called The Fellowship of the Wheel―to the public and had a few interested parties sign on. Some backed out because of safety concerns; others agreed to join at points further down the road. But this first three-day stretch, with its forbidding terrain and criminal notoriety, required someone who understood the importance of the quest and who wouldn’t allow fear to interfere.

And so it was that I followed Rogue and Pixi south from Texas, crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico by foot from Laredo, a 10-minute jaunt for which the US Government charged 75 cents. Rogue met me in Nuevo Laredo with a smile and a hug, unable to look anything other than hopelessly American with his bicycle, and dashing my hopes of neutralizing our obvious foreignness with a little faux Dominican-ness of my own. The soggy, gray clouds lay thick and humid over the city as we trudged through the mildewed and crestfallen blocks of the old central business district looking for a rental car agency that was not where Google Maps said it would be, and I began my role as official translator when Rogue handed me the iPhone he waved about so liberally to confirm the exact address of the place (“What good is having a phone if not to donate it to those less virtuous than us?”).

Because of the complex nature of US-Mexico border relations, rental cars fall under a strange set of rules: only a select few rented in Texas can cross into Mexico, and even then, must stay within a certain distance from the border. Since we were taking the car just south of Monterrey, and therefore past the border threshold, we had to rent the car in Mexico, opting for returning the car to Nuevo Laredo rather than the more expensive one-way rental which would have allowed me to fly out of Monterrey three days later. But we were adventure seekers, and what kind of adventure would this have been without some sort of return dash north to La Frontera?

Car rented, I got directions to our CouchSurfing host’s house from Rogue and drove on ahead, getting accustomed to our silver Chevrolet Aveo and covering the distance in about 8 minutes that it took Rogue to cover in 15. In no time, he appeared and we stepped through a pair of wrought iron gates and past three cats and a dog into the house of sushi restauranteur and gentle giant, Scotch (who, at that very moment, was away managing one of his restaurants). There, among the visual noise of a modest Mexican homestead, I met quiet, reserved Pixi, who, like Rogue, hailed from the stoic wilds of the Upper Midwest (Minneapolis, to be exact…Rogue’s from ‘scahnsin). We then piled into the Aveo for trip provisions and a late lunch, as Scotch had promised a hearty dinner that evening.

The thing many people who don’t travel abroad fail to realize is just how Americanized life has become in many places around the world. Mexicans and Brazilians and South Africans and Malaysians and Germans all pull into the parking lots of big-box retailers in their SUVs to purchase American-inspired, Chinese-made groceries and household items. Disaffected teenagers swipe through Instagram on their smart phones while parents mull over which revamped Ninja Turtle toy to buy the kids. Sure, there are and will always be significant cultural differences, but in early November, in Mexico, leftover Halloween candy was still in the clearance bin and the Christmas decorations―replete with a rosy-cheeked Santa and fake snow―were being set up at the front of the H.E.B. supermarket in a strip mall in Nuevo Laredo. We stocked up on water, bananas, bran crackers, and tuna (with veggies!) for the road, then went to the Chinese take-out joint next door and ate greasy, plastic chicken and lo mein that sunk like the Hesperus in my stomach.

We capped off the night in Scotch’s dining room with scrumdiddlyumptious bowls of beef and rice stew, along with heaps of laughs and mostly-English conversation with his family about travel, music, and the general safety and sanity issues raised by a bicycle trip through northern Mexico: an arid and inhospitable hinterland pockmarked by gangs of drug- and human-traffickers, some even masquerading as “legitimate” law enforcement and setting up roadblocks to rob motorists, a most useful factoid on the eve of our excursion into said hinterland.

What seemed like a mere five hours later, just before 6am, we were up and out of the house, Rogue and Pixi on their bikes, peddling through the Saturday morning twilight at ten-to-fifteen miles per hour, me following behind in the Aveo, hugging the side of the road behind them with emergency flashers blinking and Janelle Monae hyping me up for the journey ahead. Initial fatigue aside, the excitement of supporting a good friend of mine on his life-quest, with the heightened sense of adventure associated with traveling through Narcolandia, kept me alert at the wheel. As the sun rose higher into the cloudless sky, I could sense the cosmic approval of this endeavor; we were going to be okay.

Not that our―or their, rather―safety was always readily apparent. On the multilane highway heading southwest from Nuevo Laredo, 18-wheelers flew by at astronomical speeds, often belching black clouds of exhaust and kicking up dust into Rogue’s and Pixi’s faces. Sometimes, the two had to ride single-file on the jagged edge of the road, dodging debris and potholes; I even had to keep a sharp eye out for abrupt slow-downs so as not to accidentally run over my own daring charges with the Aveo. Still, with me behind them, vehicles tended to give Rogue and Pixi a wider berth, often changing lanes completely and respectfully, with nary a beep or a toot. Typically, all heads in a passing vehicle or standing along the road turned in our direction, some spectators even waving, but all with a look on their faces that seemed to say “¿que carajo are these fools doing?”

The objective of the day was to get as far away from the border, and out of perceived danger, as quickly as possible, reaching the town of Sabinas Hidalgo―85 miles away―by afternoon’s end. The chosen route, the toll-free and therefore curvier and more-heavily-traveled version of Highway 85, spanned the fertile flatlands of the Rio Grande before the leafier, more vivid foliage gave way to paler greens and the spiky flora of the scrublands. By mid-morning, the sun burned hot overhead, a heat lamp quietly and deceitfully roasting the immediate environment while the actual air temperature remained mild, and every bird seemed, for a split second, to resemble a vulture. Yellow wildflowers clung boldly to the sides of the road and golden butterflies fluttered like confetti over the roadway, especially once the number of lanes dwindled to two.

Rogue and Pixi pedaled and pushed themselves along the route, their long-sleeved shirts shielding them from the sun and remaining virtually dry in the near-desert air, me rolling behind in relative luxury, South African house DJ Black Coffee’s rhythmic wizardry as much in place on the golden plains of Nuevo León as in the orange hills of KwaZulu-Natal. We stopped every hour along the route, chatting for a few minutes about their impressive progress while bladders were emptied and water bottles refilled. I respected them incredibly for their bravery and drive in this undertaking, and not for a single moment did I wish to be changing places with either of them at any time during the trip.

It was just before noon when we stopped at the first respectable-looking, and open, restaurant we came to along the route. While the front door gaped wide and the “Open” (yes, in English) sign was illuminated, not a solitary car occupied the muddy parking lot, but we decided to take a chance anyway. We’d settled around the table for totopos when the clock struck 12 and darnit if the place didn’t fill up with hungry truck drivers, relieving us of our apprehension about eating in a tiny diner in god-knows-where without any customers. But then, I guess it would have already been too late for us had there been any truly sinister shenanigans at that place.

Three full stomachs later, we hopped back onto the road, our sights set on Sabinas Hidalgo and an early arrival into town. About two hours later, though, as the afternoon sun beat down on the adventurers and the terrain started inching upwards, Pixi decided that she would join me in the cool, conditioned air of the Aveo, leaving Rogue to continue ahead of us on his own. Personally, I couldn’t blame Pixi―as I said, I had zero inclination to peddle even a tenth as far as she did…and this is due to falling off my bike in front of a bus at age 16…I’m scarred―and Rogue didn’t either; she had come over 60 miles of tough terrain and should be proud of the effort.

And so we pushed on, away from the US and ever deeper into Mexico. Shortly thereafter, weathered road signs welcomed us at last to Sabinas. At the leading edge of town, just as rain-heavy clouds closed in and the incline became ever steeper, we stopped for gas and snacks. I couldn’t resist a sliver of cheesecake in the freezer case labeled “Pay de Queso” (the “pay” pronounced “pie”), but I hadn’t been resisting much during the entire trip. I’m a grazer and had torn through half the box of bran crackers and at least five pouches of tuna during that day’s drive, and I hadn’t peddled an inch. But it seemed like every ten minutes, I was reaching to put something in my mouth. I vowed to stop the insanity after just that one slice of “pay.”

Pixi and I hopped back into the car and followed Rogue into town. The road became a city street, cross-streets and driveways depositing slow-moving small-town traffic onto the thoroughfare. We passed through the main commercial strip, banks and drugstores and gas stations and cocinas mexicanas on both sides. The local Church’s Chicken-cum-Subway stood proudly and colorfully as one of, if not the, newest buildings in town, a sign that modern globalization had not forgotten about little Sabinas Hidalgo.

Rogue peddled and I drove, exchanging glances with Pixi when Rogue seemed to be unsure of which route to take to our hotel, and unsure ourselves of the name and address of the place, necessary facts for any GPS search. Yet our trust in Fearless Leader unwavering, we ended up at the decrepit, yet still somehow cozy Hotel Las Turbinas, a small motor lodge located on the far end of town that glowed Dr. Seuss pink in the waning afternoon sunlight.

After a quick bed bug spot-check and verification of internet access at least somewhere on the premises, Day One was done.

To be continued…

Snaps from the road:
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15588723408_0c1a517835_z15772267581_6323ab8078_z15588676218_c496aae562_z15588982117_8e5f63140c_zSelect sounds from Day One:


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At my favorite place at my favorite time of day with one of my favorite people in the world. Home.

One of the barriers that keeps people from traveling more often, if at all, is the fear of homesickness. People fear not being in close contact with loved ones and familiar environments, with those things, those people, with which they belong.

But in my travels, I’ve been blessed, lucky, fortunate enough to construct familiarity and develop connections with things and places and, above all, people that I’ve encountered. I’ve learned how to connect, how to interact, how to make familiar. How to make a home and a community. I didn’t set out to learn these things, but by being as open and authentic as I could be, which sometimes wasn’t very open or authentic at all, I came to realize that it was my willingness to interact, to engage, to be open, to be permeable, even when not all that successful, that allowed me to develop my community and my familiars, my family. It allowed me to belong.

By no means does this suggest that I never feel lonely or even homesick. I tend to experience things deeply and often struggle with feelings of isolation and alienation, especially on long plane journeys. For while I may selfishly bask in the love and attention shown by my familiars while we’re together, I’m the one who quickly uproots and takes off, while their lives continue, day after day, with or without me.

The lesson for me in all this is to never, ever take my family, my familiars, for granted, because they can and sometimes do disappear, quite suddenly and without warning. And this does mean focusing on the present moment, every moment, a herculean task to be sure.

The lesson I’m able to impart to others, though, is that homesickness, loneliness, unfamiliarity are not truly valid excuses for failing to travel. You travel and you become familiar. You engage and interact. You create community and you create home. It may not be where you expect or even hope, but with openness, with permeability, it will happen before you even realize it: you’ll belong.

And when you need to talk to your mama ‘nem…well, that’s what Skype and round-trip tickets are for.

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Olga Berrios/Flickr

Suddenly, sadly, my time in Berlin has come to a close. My relationship of five years has ended, and, most disappointingly, not without the misunderstanding and pain that I’d hoped to avoid. Truthfully, no one is to blame; it was the little earthquakes that brought down the building in the end. I have absolutely no regrets about those five years. I learned how love looks and feels (…like compromise, really). I learned how to listen and observe and accept and understand. I learned how to love myself. And I learned to recognize my own demons, which is the first step in vanquishing them. Words are a weak substitute for the love and gratitude I have for my former partner, an incredible, incredible human being. For now, there is no more to say.

But I can’t talk about leaving Berlin without mentioning a serious and growing problem that I’ve not discussed much here on the blog: racism and xenophobia. Aside from being arguably the most interesting city in Europe at the moment, Berlin is held as a paragon of multiculturalism and acceptance, especially in the mainstream media. As a person of color, I feel that this is simply not true. I’ve been subjected to taunts and stare-downs by six drunken 20-something Germans in Hitler Youth haircuts on the u-bahn. I’ve been approached aggressively and passive-aggressively pushed by young Turkish-Germans on u-bahn platforms. I’ve heard educated women at cocktail parties complain about all the foreigners coming into Berlin and not speaking German (which is rich, considering all major cities have foreigners these days and Berliners tend to not let you get two German words out before switching to English on you). I’ve had friends of color—black American and Afro-German alike—complain of micro- and macro-aggressions as well. In the end, I felt that no matter how good my German, or how many years I lived in the place, I’d never be accepted as part of it. Berlin would never be my home. Honestly, I didn’t feel safe.

Conversely, I have to recognize that many, many, many Berliners (especially young ones) will indeed intervene if they see some kind of xenophobic or racist attack. I don’t mean to make this about the people of Berlin in general, as the city has its share of caring, compassionate people, despite its (well-deserved) reputation for rudeness and snark. I always felt welcome among my former partner’s cadre of friends. But it really only takes one asshole to do some damage, especially at 3am, when there’s no one else on the train.

I had hoped it would all work out. But the universe has spoken quite clearly that this episode is “done and dusted.” There is sadness and disappointment, but also undying affection and thankfulness.

Berlin, meine Berliner, you are missed.

 

Image by Olga Berrios via Flickr

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Disappointment, Brazilian-style. Eduardo Otubo/Flickr

Le very big sigh. Recently, the vice-president of the International Olympic Committee called Rio de Janeiro’s preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games as the “worst ever,” fueling rumors that the Games could even be held in London or Moscow. For anyone intimately familiar with Brazil – and I’m not talking about spending a week on Ipanema – this comes as no big surprise. In fact, when Rio was awarded the Games back in 2009, I wrote about my own trepidation at Rio’s readiness. Back then, the signs were clear: institutional corruption, lack of organization, and inadequate long-term planning threatened to dog the project from its inception, just as these things tarnished the legacy of the 2007 Pan-American Games, also held in Rio. In 2010, when I taught high school in Brasília, the students answered my concerns about Brazil’s ability to host big events with a cocky “South Africa did it, so we don’t have anything to worry about.” Oh, dear.

I’m sure the organizers of the World Cup are feeling like they dodged a bullet, but for the past several years, FIFA – the governing body of the international soccer tournament – has been warning Brazil about its cost-overruns, construction delays, and safety issues. In fact, I was in São Paulo at the end of April and saw very little preparation at Brazil’s largest, most congested, technologically impaired airport. English is still rarely spoken by taxi drivers and prices for food and services are still astronomical, with little improvement in quality. The Cup will happen, but this mega-event will be the world’s funnest fiasco; only the extreme affability of Brazilians – and their unparalleled fanaticism for futebol – will salvage it.

In the meantime, protests against corruption and the lack of basic citizen services, as well as the ongoing low-scale street war happening in Rio – and it is a war – call attention to the fact that, unfortunately, Brazil is just not ready. It could have been, in another decade or so and with a cadre of politicians and business leaders serious about Brazil’s socio-economic advancement. But public money continues to get funneled into offshore bank accounts, private companies continue to gouge consumers with shitty products at high prices, and the government and ruling classes continue to be content with a large, permanent underclass without access to decent health care and education.

I have a deep and abiding love for Brazil. Never in any other place have I felt as welcome and as embraced – claimed. But it’s from this love that I find myself disappointed and angry. My biggest fear – that Brazil will be monumentally embarrassed by the failure to successfully execute these endeavors – is coming true. And as with most injustices, the people who have the very least to do with this whole mess will suffer the most for it.

God, I just wish I wasn’t right about Rio.

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For captivating, on-the-ground dispatches from Brazil, check out the English-language blogs From Brazil, published by São Paulo’s largest daily and edited/written by several crack journalist friends of mine in SP and RJ, and Andrew Downie’s Brazil Blog, written by a foul-mouthed Scot.