Sunday, September 8, 2013

Finding a Parallel Universe in Rio

Finding a Parallel Universe in Rio

I don’t think I’ll be able to write my meaningful stories about altruism and kids in Brazil until I deal with what is clearly my unresolved issue with driving and, most specifically, parking in Rio.

A few clarifications and one confession are necessary before I begin my writing therapy session. Jean and I are the best of friends, but we disagree like siblings or opposing zodiac signs or something. Not Lou Pinella and Mark Wegner level, think more like Howard and Howie on America’s Got Talent. It’s very important to learn to talk to people who disagree with you; but the primer doesn’t cover “Learning to disagree nicely when you don’t speak the same language.”  
Jean and I on Pedra Bonita above Rio de Janeiro
And my confession? I confess to swearing in front of my son on more than one occasion during the experiences I am about to describe. (Good thing we had that, “What Mom says in Brazil stays in Brazil talk before we left”)

  “Yeah, whatever you say Mom.”
OK, I have another confession. I don’t like to parallel park. I’m going to call it p-parking.  I don’t like to p-park because I’m really, really bad at it. Let’s see, I’ve been driving for say 25 years and I’ve actually p-parked maybe 12 times. And to be fair it takes me about 15 minutes to do it.  So I have spent maybe 180 minutes of my driving life p-parking. Truthfully, I have been known to circle Seattle blocks for up 45 minutes waiting for a space I could just pull in to. I have abandoned outings to avoid p-parking downtown. And one time I dropped Chuck and the kids off at Key Arena for a Storm game so I could run an errand.  In my haste I forgot that I was driving the behemoth Expedition which quadrupled my p-parking anxiety.  I made a lousy attempt to p-park near the Key; one that left the car crooked and two feet from the curb. I ran into the Key, found Chuck in the stands, handed him the keys and said, “You’re going to have to go re-park the car before we get a ticket.”
So now I’m in Rio de Janeiro, in a stick shift Fiat, where lanes, red lights and even head lights are optional. There are curb to curb cars in the streets all day and night and I never saw a parking garage. I had to wonder where the valet parking attendants at the big restaurants took the cars. Were they doing their share to reduce unemployment by hiring one driver per car to just circle and circle until the owner was ready to leave?
Copacabana. We are going to Jean’s Grand’s apartment. It’s a lovely place at the bottom of a hill on the crossroad of very busy street. The spaces available for a few lucky residents are all taken so we begin our ascent of the hill. The road is bumpy, cobblestone, and curves like a spiral staircase behind the building at a calf-burning-Buns-of-Steel incline. There is only parking on the right side because the road is two cars wide.  Our eyes are straining in the night light, “Dare ees one,” Jean points to an area I consider more appropriate for a Smart car. “No way,” I reply, wiping the sweat from my palms and continuing upward. Nada, nada, nada.  We reach the dead end at the top. “We haff to go back to dee nuther space,” Jean insists. I wanted to park illegally, but all those spots are taken too. My head is hanging because I know what I have to do. I get the car turned around and we head back. Remember traffic rules are optional in Rio so it doesn’t matter that I’m facing “the wrong” way.
Jean gets out so that he can give me instructions. “I can help joo to do. Believe it to me.”
Well, I have to believe in something, so I pull alongside the forward car and curse because I have to employ the emergency brake so I can shift into reverse. “Ok, Ok, come back now,” he instructs. “Easy.” I’m trying to time releasing the emergency brake with engaging the clutch, it’s humid, I’m sweaty, I don’t have AC,  I’m praying another car won’t come up the hill and I apply a really heavy foot and overshoot my back up distance. No amount of cranking the steering wheel will save this attempt, but the lack of power steering is giving me a good shoulder workout.
I hear the heavy sigh, “No, joo haff to go forward ahh-gen.”  I see hand gestures that beg me to turn my wheels the other way. I comply and roll forward, emergency brake, reverse gear, anxiety… check.  This time I crank the wheel right after I release the brake and back up onto the curb. Jean’s lips are pursed and while I’m certain he was cursing under his breath in Portuguese, in English he says calmly, “Ok good, good. Now turn dee wheel dis way.” Hands are circling. I feel like a dog being taught to roll over. “Ok good, now forward, slow…just a leetle.” “Now baaaack, back.”  I’m getting that second set of shoulder exercises in and I’m struggling with, “You can do this”, “you will not cry,” and “please, can I just roll down the hill and look for another space? Please?  I’ll sleep in the car.” The pressure!
I finally decide that I am just going to have to use the car in front of me as a bookend despite Jean’s protestations.  I’ve got maybe six inches of space between their bumper and mine to not roll into before I back up. I had to tap. Yeah, I tapped out to thinking I could do it, so I literally tapped their bumper.
Jean’s reaction might lead you to believe I should have gotten collision coverage on the rental, but it was just a Seattle parking love tap in my book.
We were in. I grabbed my bag and appreciated the mild pat on the back, but due to my trauma-induced speechlessness I could not rebut our disagreement about why such event should not have made me stressed and unfocused. Because you know, if I would just “relaxe!” and “ouça!”  (relax and listen) and not be so teimoso (stubborn) the car would practically park itself. Who knew?  At dinner my hands were shaking and my feijoada kept falling off my fork.
My second parking experience was actually invigorating because it did not exist in a parallel universe. Instead it allowed me to let loose with my inner Road Warrior.  We are now in Taquara on our way to the family apartment. The traffic is not as crazy as in Copacabana, but Taquara is out where construction for the impending Olympic Games is taking place, so there are detours and dump trucks and cones and trabalhadores no rodovia (road workers) everywhere.  The residential roads are also spotted with “sleeping policemen” (speed bumps) that haven’t been painted in who knows how long, and are strategically hidden in shady spots on the road where they “wake up” by scratching the undercarriage or by causing you to get air before you see them.
There is no parking lot for the apartment. Instead people just jump the curb and park on the dirt between the security wall, the sidewalk and the road. In order to do this I have to drive past the apartment to an intersection where I make a wide loop to turn around so I am on the same side as the apartment. This loop also allows me to gather up speed to jump the curb. This is very exciting for someone who feels rogue when she cuts through empty parking lot spaces without going all the way around.  And just so you know, sometimes I had to jump the curb and squeeze in between other cars and avoid a tree.  I’m practically a stunt woman!
Too bad I don’t have pictures or video of this endeavor. I do have this photo however. I saw this creepy symbol in several places about the town. It was on the side of the building that marked the intersection where I would make my wide loop back to park. “Oooh, is that a gang symbol?” I ask. “I see it all over the town marking territory.”  I’m thinking I’m all street smart and cool.
                                         "No, that is so the garbage men know where to stop.” 
Back to the parallel universe.
My other significant parking story took place on the last day before I was to leave Brazil. We are back in Copacabana. ALL the spaces on the hill behind the apartment building are taken. I will have to park on the street. But hey, it’s daylight and it’s flat… no problem, right?  Wrong. The statement I heard over and over as I got introduced to Brazil through Jean reverberates in my head, “Things are difficult in Brazil.”
See, it says that right here on their flag.
Yes, they are, and Jean seems to think I possess a strong propensity for making them more difficult.
Again, the space I am provided leaves no room for error.
Now, when you park on the main streets, there is another player.  As you hover near a space deciding if you have the culhoes to park there, someone working covert ops will spy you and appear unknowingly at your window to charge you a few reias. Great, another witness to my incompetence. Jean and Carson exit the vehicle. Jean again assumes the role of chief parking instructor. “Go forward, then back.” I comply, but wait too long to turn the wheels and the car won’t fit. I get ready to pull forward, but we are on a busy street and now I have to wait and time the traffic and try to ignore the impatient taxi drivers and people who would have gotten into the spot on their first try. I go forward and back and miss again, and Jean, in between fervent gesticulations directed at me, is talking to the parking guerilla who is laughing. All I caught was the phrase “…Americana…”
“Go ahh-gen forward, not so far.”  I interpret this as not so far away from the forward car, so I pull up and am now barely a side-mirror’s distance from the car beside me. This was apparently not where I was supposed to be because I have guerrilla in front of me and Jean at my window saying, “What joo do-een? Joo too close! Joo try-een to crash dee car?”  I am straddling that fence between getting really pissed off (Think: “This is your stinking country, why the F aren’t you driving?”) and having a breakdown.  I back up, slowly, turn the wheels one way, then the other, go forward, then back, over and over. Somewhere in the middle of all this guerilla offered to park the car for me, but I was not let in on that deal, or I just didn’t catch the Portuguese. I would have handed over the keys and twenty bucks in a heartbeat.
Finally it’s adequate. I think guerilla had other people to intimidate and wanted to move on.  I’m getting the silent treatment from Jean.  “Ok,” I say. “Let’s just not have this. It’s my last day here. I’m a grown-up. I have accepted my deficiencies.”  [In addition to being unable to parallel park, I am directionally impaired, cannot work our TV remote(s) and I treat my car like a mini-storage (Chuck would say a landfill, but just because I once pulled 45 water bottles from behind the seat – don’t judge).]
Jean is giving me the stink eye. He takes a deep breath which I have learned is his way of bracing his patience against the error of my ways. “Why joo trying to crash dee car? Joo want to use your money for dat?  Look...”  The rear corner is sticking out a little.
“Jeez,” I start to disagree with him. “I was not trying to …”. “I’m just not good…”  
Another deep breath from Jean, “I am go-een to haff to say dis to joo een Portuguese.”  Now I know I am really in for it. During my travels I have learned that there are some things that only have real meaning if they are said in Portuguese. They just don’t translate well. I commence to get a Portuguese tongue lashing right there on the sidewalk. He knows I understand way more Portuguese than I can speak. [This is the abridged version minus the slang that is not suitable for this dialogue],  Digo simples , ‘frente, em seguida, de volta. Frente e volta. Gire a roda. Direita, depois à esquerda. Facil! Frente e volta. Gire a roda. Mas você não escuta.’ Entendeu?”
Sim, entendi.”  Yes, I understand.  I still don’t think I was trying to park badly … but I’m going to let it go. We must not personalize disagreement. I am reminded of Chapter 23 of my book Flowing with the Go, “Believe in the Goodwill of Your Instructor”.  In Brazil, Jean is my instructor. I know he has my best interests in mind. He always put the safety of Carson and myself above all else and worked very hard to make sure our trip went as according to plan as is possible in Brazil. I’m sure I cannot possibly live a full and complete life if I remain unable to parallel park. It’s all about goodwill.
The day I got back home I went to the store and fought my instinct to find a pull-in parking space. I intentionally found a place to parallel park.  Sure, the space was twice the length of my car, my car is an automatic with power steering, it was flat, daylight, and no one was watching.  It only took me two tries! I celebrated this small victory by immediately messaging Jean. I felt like I got my homework paper put on the refrigerator door. Maybe that ditty about being life-long-learners has some merit. We shall see.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Road to Canta Galo

I was talking about my days in Rio with my host. Our outlooks differed on what constituted a “good” day or a “bad” day.  We could not agree to disagree (I don’t think they do that in Brazil) so I ended our discussion by telling him that in their own way each day was a gift, but that some would take longer to unwrap than others.

One such gift was my work with the team at Canta Galo. The team at Canta Galo is associated with Checkmat and Equipe VB (Vieiro Brothers). Since this is the team I trained with last year, they were the first kids we coordinated assistance for. I was told that there were six boys in need of our help. The boys filled out some paperwork I had sent so I had their pictures and gi sizes before I left for Rio. Kerstin Pakter of Hyperfly agreed to donate new gis for these boys. I agreed to pay their registration fee to compete in the Rio Festival Kids BJJ tournament. In what would become a familiar ending to many acts Brazilian – our efforts did not finish the way we anticipated they would,  but changed several times along the way, and I seemed to be the only one who did not expect this to happen and find it a bit disturbing. On this trip I was told on two separate occasions that Americans have a hard time in Brazil because we are too scheduled and believe that we have to follow the rules. Oh! Is that what it is?

To keep myself calm through all the changes in protocol, I would tell myself that I was there to help kids, that was all that mattered, and whatever route to doing that was necessary, that was the acceptable route.  Somehow my sponsorship was stretched to register ten kids and buy them lunch. This was a good deal for me and a vivid example of the Brazilian art of negotiation. This art would come into play on several occasions and I was glad to reap its benefits.  

Two days before the tournament we met the youth assistant coach, Kaynan, in the Copacabana Checkmat gym to hand over the gis for the kids. He had walked for over an hour to get there and meet us.  After talking and watching some training that was going on, we were ready to get on our way. Kaynan, however, now had a very large and heavy package to carry home. It seemed unreasonable to me that he had to carry it all the way home. The public bus did not travel to his home so I offered to get him a taxi. What happened next was my son’s first exposure to quasi-discrimination. The taxi driver did not want to drive into the Canta Galo favela. A few days later I would understand the driver’s hesitation because I would drive into Canta Galo.

The Rio Festival Kids tournament was great fun and very well organized.  Parents and kids are similar no matter where you go. Parents had their cameras and cell phones out to capture the special day. Kids showed up with bed head, some forgot their belts or couldn’t tie their belt, snacks were eaten, high fives given, the winners puffed out their hairless chests, the youngest winners collected hardware and quickly left their gi in a pile to takeoff chasing their friends and siblings through the stands. I especially liked the introduction and warm up for the littlest competitors.  The tournament coordinator gave a rousing and interactive opening speech to the children. It was funny when I asked my friend what the guy was saying and my friend responded to me in Portuguese.  I looked at him with quizzical eyes, “That was no help you ding-dong. I heard it that way the first time.”   

The little kids were going to fight first, ages  five and six. They sat in a long row the width of the mats. I thought it was clever of the coordinator to call them out by gi color to make three groups of kids. They would hop to the center of the mats and back, bear crawl, forward roll and alligator crawl – adorable little gi covered bottoms high in the air. The athletic ones showing off, the not-so-athletic ones coming in last or not knowing what to do; a few needed help, some cried.  Kids are kids in any country.  The fighters we sponsored, 6 with their new gis and the four others that were add-ons, all fought well. All but one took gold. I loved getting hugs and taking pictures with them, some on the medal stand and some in the bleachers. It felt wonderful to know that I played a small part in their success that day.
Two days after the tournament our plan was to travel to Canta Galo to see all the boys together, competitors and their teammates,  in the gym and take some pictures.  Let me begin this tale by saying that I had decided to rent a car while we were in Rio so that Carson would not have to travel on the public bus for several hours a day. (So instead he was in a car for a smidgen less than several hours a day. At least he did not have to stand). I thought nothing of it until I got in the car and saw that it was a stick shift and realized we had miscommunicated about my want of air conditioning.

In Rio there are way too many cars on the road, crappy roads with lane lines that mean nothing, too much construction, optional traffic rules, motorcyclists passing between cars on the left and right, buses that think they own the road, pedestrians that cross when and where they want and horns that never stop honking.  Driving in Rio made the stress of a little US road rage seem juvenile.  

So, off we go to Canta Galo. I will try to describe this as best I can.  I am providing an amateurish drawing to help. The drawing is not to scale nor proper in perspective. All scribbles that look like people, dogs, garbage or motorcycles should be multiplied by at least five. You also need to provide your own street lamp illumination, loud music, horns, people yelling and steep incline. Embrace your new visual with a sense of chaos and you might be there in the car with me.

“Turn here.”  Where? Up onto that narrow cobblestone road that is barely the width of my rented Fiat? The road is narrow because there are parked cars, garbage, walls, people, dogs, bikes and motorcycles on both sides of the street. I down shift into first and start to turn toward the road just as another car cuts me off to start up the hill in front of me. “Shit!” The road is very steep and now I have to worry about the car in front of me stopping. Flashbacks of having to use my emergency brake and ride the clutch are haunting me – it has been 15 years since I’ve driven a stick. During a sparse moment of lucidity I did thank my father (who taught Driver’s Ed on the side when I was growing up) for making my brothers and I take our driving test on a stick because we lived in the SF Bay Area. 

We bump along at a crawl to the crest of the hill. I stop holding the breath I didn’t realize I was holding and stare forward at a modest widening of the road and 6 policemen with rifles and guns. They weren’t pointed at us, but I still found it unnerving. The police presence is to reduce the danger from the drug trafficking. Apparently we could not park there, but I could do what amounted to a 17 point turn to wedge our car off of the road so some Brazilian negotiation could take place. After the police were told about our reason for venturing to the top of the hill, they relented by saying that we could leave the car but someone had to stay in it. Ummm, let’s go over that again. I don’t know where the gym is and need to go and be in at least one picture. I don’t want to stay in the car alone, but I don’t want to walk alone with Carson to the gym either. If Jean takes me to the gym, then Carson will be left in the car alone. We sent Jean to the gym to get a coach who we thought would stay in the car. Well, the coach didn’t want to stay with the car either, so more negotiations took place. I don’t know if money changed hands or not, but the police finally moved an orange cone and I was allowed to move our car to a semi-respectable parking space and leave it there unattended.

Whew. There is something about a gym, no matter how decrepit, small or smelly that is comforting to an athlete. I was relieved to walk into that shabby gym. There were mismatched puzzle mats on the floor, padding falling off of the stained walls, water all over the floor by the fountain, numerous flip flops to navigate between and a subtle odor of urine creeping out from the direction of the bathroom. It was humid and crowded but full of smiling, happy, sweaty training kids.  The first few mats we crossed were for the littlest fighters, up to six years old. The coach had that exasperated tone one gets when herding cats, but all the little monsters got to task. In the larger area were the other boys, the boys we sponsored and the rest of the team. The coach was teaching an open guard pass and the boys trained hard. During their break we got them together for some pictures. It was hard to say good-bye.

The drive down the hill was a lot less stressful than my drive to the top. Later I found myself wanting to go up there again. When you make a connection with people, you want the connection to last. I knew I had other gyms to visit on my trip and that I would be leaving Rio in ten more days. I wanted those boys to know that I wouldn’t forget them and that their jiu-jitsu joy and warrior spirits made a lasting impression on me.