Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Argentine

So there is this Argentine girl that trains at my Jiu-Jitsu spot. She kind of has a stumpy body type and big frizzy hair. Not ugly, not exactly pretty either, but I can see why guys like her. At first I think she’s American or British or Australian because I hear her speak English quite fluently, and actually speaks Portuguese with a slight gringo accent, so you can imagine my surprise when she said she was from Argentina. Buenos Aires. 

We swap background info. I tell her I’m from the U.S., but she wants to know where my parents are from.

“Taiwan,” I tell her.

“Oh really?” she says. “I have a friend that’s going there in a few months. I’m thinking about living there for a bit.”

She tells me about her plans to teach English. I tell her that they pay for that service pretty well in East Asia. She asks me how the city is. I stare up at the ceiling and think about it for a moment.

“Well, it’s kind of like a big city. Lots of tall buildings, lots of traffic, lots of pollution,” I start.

“Yeah, not like here, huh?” she replies.

I think about the comparison for a moment. I mean I guess if I’m strictly thinking about the architectural landscape, then sure it’s not quite the same. But at the same time, Rio being such a universe in itself, it could be. 

“But you know, I don’t really care about the beach anyway,” she adds. 

I tell her that there’s a bullet train that can take you to the south of Taiwan in about 2hrs and it’s full of beaches in the south. Her eyes light up with a feigned excitement and she expresses a verbal glee that I find forced. My suspicion heightens due to the fact she just finished talking about how she doesn’t care about beaches. A couple of guys in the middle of a roll tumble into our space and we go sit against the another wall to continue our conversation.

“I’d really like to go to London though, but I don’t know…” she says.

“It’s expensive,” I chime in, just about the only thing I know about the city.

“Yeah and it’s hard to get in there,” she says. “And the US, forget about it.”

“We got a pretty strict visa policy,” I say as a guess to her rationale.

“Yeah and you know whose fault that is?” she adds, “Mexicans. God, I’m Argentinian, and we’re nothing like those Mexicans.” 

Alright. I can feel where this is going. The way she said “Mexicans” and the slight twist in her lower lip gives me a clue. I give her a chance hoping she didn’t mean it that way, so instead I try to blame it on good ol’ American ignorance. After all, I’m American so I can blame my country, right? 

“Yeah, people in my country think everything south of Texas is Mexico,” I say. “And they think everyone in Mexico is the same. They don’t even know that they are so many different races in that country.” I suddenly realize that I took a huge risk mentioning “race.”

“It’s like that in Argentina too,” she starts. “We have all types of people. We even have negroes.”

Ok. I try to give her a pass. After all, the word for “black” in Spanish is “negro”.

“I don’t mean like black people. Like he’s a black person,” she continues, pointing at one of the Jiu-Jitsu black belts. “I mean like ‘negroes’. You know, like the ones that live in poor places and are just like…ugh.”

Good god don’t put me in this conversation. Not now. Please no. 

I pause for a moment, not really knowing what to say, so I fill the space with the only thing I know about the topic. 

“Oh well when I was there, I didn’t see any black people,” I say. I don’t know why I chose that as a reply. I guess I was at a loss for words so I filled them with the most idiotic thing I could think of. I mean it was true, I didn’t see any black folk when I stayed in BA for three weeks, but I also know that there are Afro-Argentinians and their lack of visibility is actually a huge social issue in the country. I guess I just wanted this conversation to end.

“Yeah we try to hide them,” she laughs. I kinda pause with this “Really?” sort of look. 

“Just joking, just joking,” she jests, patting my arm. 

I just stare at her, not like menacingly, but more like curious as to why she thought this would be an appropriate conversation to have on a Monday afternoon. I guess to her my curiosity translated into not understanding the point she was trying to make, so she kept going. 

“I’m sure you have that in the US. You know, what is it? Ghetto? Like you have black people who act like negroes. They talk different, they don’t like to work, they’re violent.” She’s slightly nodding her head, nudging me to agree. I’m sitting there torn between my racial politics and my love for fighters in fighting sports, wondering how the fuck I got into this conversation in the first place.

“Well I mean we do have poorer areas,” I finally say. “And I guess you could say that there’s a subculture and the people have a certain dialect…”

Before I can finish she says “Yeah!” and claps her hands. Ugh. I can’t believe she just subbed me into that conclusion, but at least it’s over. I move onto something else I'm interested in, since she is kind of an anomaly in this sport.

“What is it like for you as a woman training Jiu-Jitsu?” I ask her. She shifts her head back and forth, thinking of her response.

“It’s good,” she starts, “I mean there’s not a lot of women here. I get tired of sparring with men.” 

“Do you feel that the men treat you differently because you’re a woman? Like do they treat you lesser or anything?” I ask.

“Oh no, not at all,” she says. “Everyone here treats me with respect, like an equal.” 

I sit back and wonder how much of that is true. I mean for the most part I’ve found fighting sports to be an equalizer for social signifiers, but there’s still been plenty of “Japa” comments thrown around at me, jokes in the locker room about me being an undercover Yakuza because of my tattoos. It’s all in jest, but it’s not like race completely disappears on the mat. Maybe in the heat of a sparring session it does, but not when we return to the normality of everyday life.

I think about how that would affect a woman. You have to first understand that many Jiu-Jitsu positions can be misunderstood for sexual, at least I know I’ve had my face buried in between a guy’s legs more than once. It’s not sexual by any means, but there is a hell of a lot of close bodily contact in this sport. I wonder what that looks like for a woman, in a place that often draws men with too much testosterone. I wonder if there is this culture of silence in fighting sports since women are a clear minority. I wonder how women guard against that, if there is even a way.  

Earlier the Argentine was my partner in practicing a cross-collar choke from guard. The move involved taking out the bottom ends of the opponent’s kimono from out beneath their belt to ease the passing of the collar to the other hand. You’re definitely altering their uniform, but you’re by no means undressing them. Most practitioners have a shirt or rash guard underneath anyway, so the action is much like undoing a bath robe of someone already fully dressed. 

When it came turn for me do the move, she said, “Ok now you have to strip me.” I dismissed the comment and focused the task at hand. You have to understand in Jiu-Jitsu, you really only think about Jiu-Jitsu, so you tend to let awkward comments pass. She might have noticed so brought the comment more attention.

“I’m just joking, you know. I have a boyfriend,” she laughed. I laughed in return out of politeness, but kinda crook my eyebrow at the whole thing. Then somewhere later in our conversation, somewhere between Taiwan and Mexico, she said it must be hard for me to find a girlfriend in Rio. When I ask her why she thought that, she went into some weird explanation that didn’t have any relevancy to my question, and before I could clarify anything, she began talking about race, and yeah. You could say the whole thing was too much for me to handle. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Things I've learned while riding a bicycle in Rio

For the last three weeks I’ve been riding a bicycle through Rio, mostly to and from my Jiu-Jitsu class that sits in that awkward distance where it’s too far to walk and too short to justify taking publication transportation. I don’t know if I’d say Rio has lawless traffic rules, but I would say that they are pretty improvised. Recently, I’ve found the courage and confidence to ride alongside the traffic and at times even against it. For the most part, if you have all your wits about you, there’s no real danger, though perhaps a few close calls every so often. Either way, these are some of the things I’ve learned in doing this 5 days a week.


Riding a bike is all about timing, hell, life is all about timing, but I’m not going to get all metaphorical here. Judging time and distance, whether that’s between cars, motorcycles or people, is crucial. And if there’s even a slight doubt about making a squeeze in between a couple of cars, I don’t take it. Another opening will come along soon. 


If you see a clear straight-away and you want to take it, you take it, all the way. No hesitation. Going half-way will get you killed.


Since my bike has no real reflectors or any sort of visibility at night, sound is my only ally, and since there’s no horn, my bell is my best friend. It’s important to be heard, to be recognized. Sometimes I feel bad for people because I feel that I might be tricking them into thinking that I’m selling ice cream, but then again, I haven’t really seen any ice cream vendors using bicycle bells so maybe that assumption is due to my own assumptive cultural upbringing as a child. Cultural insensitivity runs deep.


Thirty-seconds is probably a generous estimate, it’s more like every 15 seconds, because even if an empty street appeared the last time you looked behind you, a motorcycle can pull up on your ass faster than you think. It’s always nice to check up on what’s coming up from behind.


I’ve been told the ideal height for the bike seat is so your toes can lightly touch the ground. Mine might be positioned a bit lower, but I’ve found that to be quite helpful in maneuvering the city. Whether it’s a road barrier, a garbage can, or just a huge rock, I use everything to maintain balance and push off. And if it really gets tight, jumping off the bike and running onto the sidewalk is always a nice option. 


I’ve gotten pretty aware of my space and surroundings, and can predict where a person will end up as long as they stay on their projected trajectory, and at their current speed, so I make moves to steer around them as to not interrupt their day. Basically, I try to be as unnoticeable as possible. The problem is sometimes people see you coming and they’ll just stand there, half-stepping with one foot and stopping with the other. This creates an incredibly frustrating scenario where I wish people would just fucking walk, and for a slight second, I think if I run into them, it’s kinda their fault. But it’s not about fault, it’s about someone being hurt, and in the few times I’ve had to come to an absolute stop to avoid the collision, we both kinda stare at each other, nod our heads, and move on. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

More on São Gonçalo

I meet Roberto at a nearby church that is having a community event. It is held by a drug rehab program called “Saving Lives in Action". These words are printed on the back of the shirts of many there. Roberto tells me that the government doesn’t provide any of these services so it is left to the church to takes these people in. Mauro, a gentlemen next to Roberto, nods in concordance in hearing these words. There’s something about Mauro, his eyes. They’re very piercing and very strong. I don’t know what he does for the community, but I’m sure it’s something that provides a lot of stability. Actually, when I think about it, this entire community is very strong. Here’s the thing. They’re not lazy people. They are willing to work, but there is no work. They want to rally around a cause, but there is no cause. It's like there is all this strength here, but no where to direct it. It is a damn shame. 

Today, it appears as if they are offering beauty services as I’m arriving at the tail end where dozens of women are sitting around giving and receiving manicures. The first thing Roberto does is ready a plate of food for me to eat: a simple meal of beans, vegetables and a big piece of chicken. We sit down and catch up.

He asks me if I remember a certain girl from last week, one he pointed out and told me that was dating a drug trafficker. I think she might have been the daughter of someone I met. I tell him that I vaguely remember her. 

“She was killed yesterday,” he tells me. The news hits the pit of my stomach and I momentarily stop eating. “She was four months pregnant. She told me on Thursday that she found out it was a boy. She was trying to decide on a name.” 

I have no words for the news, I just shake my head in disapproval and disappointment. It’s not like I really knew her or anything, but someone whose existence I was aware of two weeks ago was no longer there. It’s a simple logic when you say it out loud, but to feel it, that is very different. I ask if she was involved in the drug trade beyond dating someone who was in it.

“No, she wasn’t involved,” he tells me. This upsets me even more. I guess you could make the argument that her association alone made her bed, but to me she was an innocent, at least in some part of it all. 

Roberto begins talking with a girl sitting near us. She has a short cut, hair above her chin, and is a bit overweight. Roberto tells me that she a fighter that trains in community project nearby and she smiles at the reference. Her name is Ana. We immediately start a banter about fighting sports and begin making the cross-cultural comparisons between our respective practices: hers - Shodan Karate, mine - American boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. After a while I’m beginning to realize this is a great time to start taking photos. The moment I mention this one of Ana’s eyebrows raises.

“You’re taking pictures?” she asks me. I nod in response.

“I want a picture with you,” she tells me. “You’re exotic looking.” 

At this point of my life, I’m not longer really offended by being called “exotic”, it just depends on the place it’s coming from, but I’m also well aware of where this comment is coming from and take note.

You can tell the spirit of someone in how they react when you ask them to take their photo. The entire room full of women feign in protest that they don’t look pretty enough to be photographed. Part of it is just a show, but I also wonder if part of it is related to the self-esteem that people in these communities are often subjected to, what people from the outside think about those that live in a place like this. Either way, it’s not enough to hold them back from posing, laughing, and joking in front of the camera. Some of them are wearing novelty glasses where the frames are in the shape of giant guitars, others are cheesing widely, throwing up peace signs with their fingers. This one woman comes from behind me and everyone yelps in excitement. She's sporting oversized heart-shaped sunglasses and donning a giant pair of plastic overalls, one that a clown would wear. She starts dancing around and everyone is cheering her on. Roberto points me in the direction of some small children and urges me go take photos.

I walk over the a bit nervously, but the boys are receptive. This one little boy is stone-faced the entire time I’m snapping photos, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a matter of self-esteem as there is this overwhelming look of sadness draped on his face. I overhear him saying something about not liking pictures and I ask him if this is true. He starts saying how he won’t dress up in a bikini and look pretty for photos. He clasps his hands together and leans them to one side of his face while making kissy lips. The boys around him are roaring with laughter and so am I. My previous assumption is totally off. This kid is animated and has plenty of attitude. 

I decide that I’ve taken enough and ask Roberto to take me back inside the community. All the women yelp in disappointment and Ana says to Roberto, “Why are you taking him away?” I blush and raise my bag to hide my face, which brings plenty of laughter in itself. Roberto leans over to ask Mauro if the police have left. Earlier that day the BOPE had entered the community and chaos quickly ensued. Mauro casually says that he thinks they’re gone and decides to join us on our trip.

The first stop is the woman’s house that Roberto tried to show me last time, the one that was sleeping on the ratty couch in what I thought looked like a poorly constructed horse stable. This time she is awake and answers the door. Her name is Christina.

The first thing I notice about Christina is her figure. She is skinny, but not like skinny because that is her natural figure, more like skinny due to malnutrition. I can see it in her arms. Her handshake is a bit flimsy and unsure. She has a beautiful smile, even though she is missing most of her front teeth. When I pull out the camera, her biggest concern is also that she doesn’t look pretty enough, but like the others, this doesn’t stop her from posing for some shots. 

Roberto and Mauro begin asking her some general questions regarding her health. She tells them the tuberculosis has gone away, but that she is still sick with many other things. When Mauro asks for confirmation about the tuberculosis, she says, “Gracias ao Deus” with such a relief, it is as if a desperate prayer had been answered. She says it like she really needed that to go away in order to continue, that this is all controlled by a higher power. The look in her eyes tells me that.

Her and Roberto begin talking about something I can’t quite understand. He later tells me that the one doctor in the community is now refusing to see her because she is too sick, told her that she would infect the rest of the patients. There is a slight look of disgust on Roberto’s face as he’s telling me the story. He also tells me she is losing her sight because of another sickness. I find out later it might be due to the large tumor growing on her head. She can’t even take the bus to the free clinic because she can no longer read the schedule. 

I ask Roberto to ask her if she’d like any other photos taken, not like anything for this project, but family portraits or something to hang on the wall. I’m still a bit hesitant to speak to her directly and I’m not so sure why, maybe because she’s still unsure of my presence just as much as I am. After Roberto relays the message, she kind of shrugs her shoulders but says that maybe her husband would like something. He’s still sleeping on the bed in the one room next to us. I look inside and the bed is a large piece of spongy yellow foam. The pillow is a cut up rectangular piece of the same material. He gets up slowly. When I offer to take a portrait for them, he is also a little coy but eventually agrees. They step out and flash some wildly powerful smiles.

Mauro chimes in and asks her how her family is doing. She says something about her one last remaining son berating her because she continues to smoke. I see an empty packet of loose-leaf tobacco on the ground. A graphic picture of a corroded heart on the General Surgeon’s Warning is staring me in the face. Mauro tells her that she needs to stop smoking, not only for her health, but not to lose another son. I find out later that she has five children in total, but four of them have been adopted by State intervention due to their determination of her inability to care for them. Christina solemnly nods her head, agreeing with the advice, but unsure if she can follow it. 

However, there is still hope in all of this, by the tone of her voice I can sense it. When Roberto tells her that we are doing a project that might result in bringing medical services, she nods her head with such conviction, and the firmness that is in her voice - one that is between desperation and determination - rings through when she says, “I support that.”

Later, we go to this food stand that’s in the middle of the community. There are people standing all around. Of course everyone knows who Roberto is. They throw me curious looks. There is a woman with a tumor on the top of her right eye. When I ask if I can take pictures, she shyly says, “Nooo…I look like a monster.” But it’s in jest so she lets me take them anyway. It’s much like everyone else I met up until this point.

The camera starts things up. People start posing with kissy lips and throwing bunny ears all over the place. I show the back of my camera to reveal the results and that results in people making fun of each other. Mauro leans over, chuckling while he speaks.

“There is a lot of poverty here in the community,” he says. “We are missing a lot of things, but there is plenty of humanity.” I smile at the catch. 

There is this little boy. Later I find out his name is Daniel. He comes up and grabs my hand and start leading me through an open field. Everyone around us is smiling at the interaction. The first thing I notice is that the field is full of horse shit. I mean I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a “bad” condition, because there are horses everywhere and horses don’t necessarily mean a place is in a bad spot, but there is shit everywhere nonetheless. He doesn’t say anything to me, just walks with me, holding my hand. There is a moment where everything becomes silent, and all that I've seen thus far falls into a vacuum as we walk together through this open field.

I am walking with God when I am being led by this child. That is the only way I can describe what I am feeling. We go to this corner where there is a fallen barb-wired fence. He motions me past it. I don’t know what he wants me to see, but I step over. There are four other kids there gathered around that quickly scatter as I set foot near them. One of them remains, a little girl with a small Barbie bicycle. She asks me to help her fix the chain, so I let go of Daniel’s hand and tell him to wait. The chain is unhinged at one point and she tells me that it’s in a really tight spot. I move the pedals around and put the chain in the right place. I pick up the bicycle and realize that half the seat is missing and nearly all the plastic cover has been peeled off, revealing only tattered black foam. She thanks me and dashes off. 

Daniel wanders off near the edge of a large body of water. I don’t know if that water is hazardous but it doesn’t look clean. The adults back at the food stand are yelling his name so I look at him and hold out my hand. He comes and immediately grasps it. We walk back and the residents are gossiping about me. The woman with the tumor says I look like a Jiu-Jitsu master and starts making Kung-Fu shadow moves and noises. Everyone starts laughing and I follow suit. She doesn’t mean anything by it, it just means she’s more comfortable with my presence. We stand around a bit more and then Roberto starts walking back to his car. Daniel looks at me and outstretches both arms. He wants me to pick him up. I do so then hand him off to his mother after giving him a tight hug. 

Me and Roberto decide to head back to plan our next meeting. On the way a beige SUV screeches past us, driving in an erratic pattern. The back window is completely blown out and there are two rifles sticking out the back. It is a car full of drug traffickers, coming from who knows where. It shakes me a bit, but everyone around me just stands there unmoved. A look of understanding is probably the best way I could describe their faces.

We end up back at the church, in the alter of all places. Roberto says that we should make a visit to the health post and see the doctor that comes once a week to see the residents. Him and I both mention a potential issue that we saw when he was telling people who I was. Basically, he summed me up as a foreigner who was working on a project that could potentially lead to improving the health services in this community. The light in their eyes when they heard that was so bright. I still remember the look of giddiness in Christina's face in waving us off when we drove by her home. There is hope there. Roberto knows it too.

“This woman, who has HIV, a tumor on her head, had all her children taken from her, where does that hope come from?” he asks to no one in particular. “The little boy who held your hand, he can’t speak because he’s ‘special’. He has a disability. He wanted you to hold him because he lacks male affection. His father left him. What hope does he have for the future?” 

It then dawns on us that we need to be careful with this hope. Hope is a tricky thing to manage. Sometimes it is the only thing that keeps a person alive, but when you are responsible for giving that hope to someone, then letting them down, the weight of that hope can crush a person as much as it can lift them. That is why you must be careful with the words you speak, be careful in the promises you make. 

People think their personal struggles are mundane in comparison to what I am seeing, but that is not true, in fact, that is the problem. The reason this happened in São Gonçalo is not because someone decided to make a shit town and put people there (at least I hope not). This happened because we are afraid to face our shame, because we have lost touch with how to treat others. This is a product of a system we live in, a system that needs disposable people to thrive, and what is happening here is merely a consequence of its deeds. That doesn’t mean people who are part of this system are bad people; it is that walls have been built up high enough to where we can comfortably ignore these things, and our tendency to hate, to anger, to close ourselves off, that is what those walls are made out of.  

Sometimes I honestly believe that if we were just kinder to the person next to us, if we just treated people fairly in our everyday interactions, things like this would not happen, because the root of all problems is a lack of compassion and understanding for another person’s experience. So however “mundane” the struggle may be, whether a heartbreak or a minor dispute with a friend, it all matters. Pain is pain, no matter what world or income bracket you come from. And in resolving that pain, compassion and understanding are always a choice. Creating more of that in the world speaks volumes. It makes ripples, maybe even as far as this side of the bay.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Notes from my 29th trip

People who consciously take other people's ideas and try to pass them off as their own are fucking despicable.

My Dad may be a jerk at times but he is honest. I can't deny him that.

The person that will rob you w/ a smile and a handshake is worth much less than the one that does it violently.

When you have finally accepted your task from God, you must be ever vigilant against the forces that have come to harm that which you are meant to protect.

That feeling. That feeling when a soldier has returned onto allied ground after venturing in enemy territory for so long.

I guess one advantage to having such a low opinion of yourself is that it pretty much disables anymore who try and attack your "character". It is like there is nothing to hit.

I have a pretty keen bullshit detector, so please don't come around here w/ that mess.

You all are familiar enough w/ my likes and dislikes that I guess I'd sum it up like this: I like the ones that are always working on themselves.

Sometimes I feel bad for the ones that cross their paths w/ mine in the moment they are growing through enormous and arrogant ego.

Violent video games can teach a lot to children. But they flirt w/ a very thin line.

Liberation comes at a higher price than we think.

Now I understand why I write about fighters. It is my role in protecting the tribe

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A return to São Gonçalo

One of the first things I’ve done since returning to Brazil was visiting the community in São Gonçalo, a community in which I wrote about last year during my first stay. To quickly recap, the Fazendo dos Mineiros is a former trash dump, and the town formed around the city's necessity to manage the waste. Ironically, the trash site has since left and there is now an employment vacuum. Now the residents are left with even less than the garbage that was dumped upon them. 

Roberto is the first friend I met in Rio. He's worked and lived in this community for 15 years, motivated solely on the intention to ease the suffering of others. The image that drove him to this work was seeing parents and children eating discarded and rotten food from the trash piles. And this is when there was some form of employment still left in the community.

I had wanted to start some sort of project that worked towards somehow bettering the living conditions there, but with all that had been going on in my life, I just never got around to it. I meet with Roberto two weeks ago to discuss the prospects of starting a project in his community this time, for real. He is, of course, ecstatic anytime anyone shows a remote interest in the place in which he cares so deeply about. We planned on meeting in the community a week later.

He picks me up in a new Hyundai SUV, very different from his old four door Volkswagon sedan he drove before I left Brazil last year. He tells me the reason is because he needed a vehicle elevated higher off the ground in order to maneuver the terrain in the neighborhood. I see an example of this when we are going to his house - a giant, sludgy mud hole that sits in the middle of a principle road showing clear evidence of struggle in the erratic tire patterns. We struggle even in the SUV so I doubt any other vehicle would have made it through. I begin to wonder how anyone leaves by car when it rains.

We go back to his house and it more or less looks the same. I think he may have painted an outside wall a different color, but aside from that, nothing much has changed. We do a 45 minute audio interview that I one day plan to turn into a narrative photo essay, so to satisfy the other half of that project, I ask if we can take a walk around the neighborhood.    

We begin our trek and I ask if I can snap photos along the way. He tells me it’s fine. The landscape is the same as I remember it. Dry, barren, with sparse patches of vegetation littered with plastic bags and bottle lids. Roberto tells me that in about 15 meters I’m going to need to stop taking pictures as we are about to pass a major drug point. We see a sole kid, about the age of fifteen, with a walkie-talkie in his hand sitting on a rock as we pass by. Roberto gives him a wave and asks something about his family. He responds in kind and sorta gives me a nod.

This community is controlled by the "Comando Vermelho" drug faction and since the pacification project in Rio has started, the fleeing traffickers from this faction have been coming here, thus increasing the amount of crime and violence in the community. São Gonçalo is a common place for drug traffickers to flee since it is off the international radar in the beautification process of Rio, so ever since changes have been made for the World Cup, things have been changing here as well.

Soon after we pass by what first looks to be a horse stable constructed out of rotting plywood, but there is in fact someone living there. Roberto peeks into the place to see if its resident is awake. I can see through the cracks a frail woman laying on a worn couch. He makes small noises to see if maybe they will stir her from her slumber. After a few moments he gives up and tells me she’s asleep.

“This woman is very sick,” he tells me. “She has HIV and some other diseases. I don’t know how much longer she’ll be around.” 

There are 600 families here in Fazenda dos Mineiros, each one averaging about 5 members. For that quantity of residents there is one health post that is serviced once a week by one doctor for about 5 hours. Roberto tells me it is common for people to sleep in line the night before, and even then, the majority of the people get turned away. He wanted me to meet this woman so I could understand the gravity of sickness in the community and how it's affected by the current rate of medical visits. 

We continue walking and end up at a residence I visited once before. It is the home of an elderly woman that had (and still has) a still-stream of raw sewage outside of her home. The house is like the other we passed, forged flimsily of discarded wood with a leaky roof to top it off. The woman sits in her bed, just awoke from a nap. On the small television next to her streams a scattered broadcast of one of those mega-church services, most likely Evangelical. Her face lights up when she sees Roberto. It is weathered and tired, but it does show a tinge of rosy revival the moment he steps through the door. He asks how she’s doing and she says something about her bones aching. He asks if she remembers me, to which she confirms and I give a slight nod in reply. There are flies crawling over nearly everything in this room, on the pots and the plastic dishes, on the stove and the creaky refrigerator in the corner. There is also a smell that is wafting throughout the room, one in which I recognize. It is the smell of burning garbage. I remember I smelled that smell everyday when I was living out in the campo back in Nicaragua. I walk out to the field and sure enough, there is what seems to be the tail-end of the burning of a plastic bag. 

We step outside and there is this thin woman who has an old face, but is dressed rather young in a cross-strapped turquoise tank-top and short shorts. Even though her skin shows her age, her body still fits clothes that could be worn by a teenager. She's out there sweeping the dirt, trying her best to shake loose the unending presence of plastic bottle caps littered throughout the ground. I'm not exactly sure of the purpose to this exercise, as her entire, I guess you would call "yard", is more or less composed of various forms of trash. I guess you have to keep yourself busy with something during the day, and everyone has a right to keep their space neat and organized, even if that space is composed mostly of garbage. 

A large woman pulls up behind a wheelbarrow carrying three large blue jugs of water. It looks like she just got finished running a half-marathon. She greets Roberto and gives him a big sweaty hug. After Roberto introduces me, I give her a friendly handshake and a smile. There is something very strong in her face, something that looks like it has endured a lot. Her name is Marça Ribeiro, and she's lived in the community her entire life. I find out later that the woman sweeping earlier is her mother and the woman in the house is her aunt. 

Marça had just returned from retrieving water from the community's only point of fresh water. Most of the households do not have potable water (or even any sort of running water system for that matter) as sewer lines have not been installed in the majority of the landscape, so residents are forced to walk to a point to retrieve water. I ask her how long the trip took.

“Three minutes,” she tells me. Roberto laughs and immediately contests that estimate.

"Three minutes?" he says, "No way it's three minutes. We were talking to your aunt for more than three minutes."

I find out later that it is definitely not three minutes. Ten would be the lower estimate, but I'd say fifteen would be the fairer one. The terrain also isn’t exactly the smoothest one either, one full bumps and holes, jagged rocks and fallen trees littered throughout the way. I imagine trying to navigate that with a giant wheelbarrow full of water gallons in the hot sun, and Marça looking like she ran a half-marathon begins to make more sense. 

"Someone who is already suffering in these conditions, and says the trip is only three minutes..." Roberto comments shaking his head, "...that is what the people here are like."

There is some kind of drama going on with Roberto and one of the people in the community. One woman is accusing him for being responsible for the loss of her children. What happened was that the woman left her children (2 out of a lot of 9) with her uncle, who according to Roberto, was of unfit health to even care of himself, let alone a pair of children. He'd often see them playing in hazardous waste or just see them doing things that they probably shouldn't have been doing. What worried him the most was what would happen to these children when they grew up. With virtually nothing to capture the attention of children in the community and the strong presence of the drug trade, there was a high likelihood of them joining the traffickers when they became older. So Roberto reported them to the government officials and the kids were eventually adopted. The woman later found out and was angry, accusing Roberto of sticking his nose into business that wasn't his. 

I have to admit, in some ways I see her point, but at the same time Robertowas looking out for the well-being of the community and of these children, so I don't necessarily blame him for the actions he took. Either way, news spread throughout the community and the opinions are mixed. The topic is brought up and Marça interjects her own. 

"I don't care what anyone says about Roberto, he did the right thing,” she says. “He saved my first son so I know his heart." 

I ask later what she meant by that statement and Roberto told me that when she was pregnant, the child’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck while still in the fetus, and in hearing about the news, Roberto, being one of the few in the community to own a car, drove her to the hospital in the middle of the night and the child survived. There was no sense of arrogance or altruism when Roberto retold the story, just a cold hard statement of facts, as if recounting an incident in the evening news. I guess the best way I'd describe his attitude is that it came from a sense of duty, like it was the only thing one could do when faced with such a situation. By the way Roberto speaks and the look in his eyes when he recounted the story, sometimes I really believe he would die for his convictions, die for these people he cares so deeply about.   

Soon the focus shifts to me, and Marça says something about Japan, indicating it as a guess to my cultural heritage. I explain to her that my parents are from Taiwan, which in Portuguese and my continued struggle to grasp it, often gets confused with Thailand. I later tell her that I speak a little of Mandarin Chinese to help clarify things. She tells me that her uncle is Chinese and points to the woman that was sweeping the ground. The woman smiles and tells me her brother-in-law is Chinese. 

"My mother," Marça says to me, pointing back and forth between the two of them.

We end up talking at short length but with full intensity about languages and how crazy it is to witness people communicating in a tongue that is not yours. We discuss how when an exchange becomes incomprehensible with words, we turn to hand signals and other non-verbal indicators, and the hilarity that can often result. There are a few instances of great laughter from this discussion and for a moment, you forget that you're standing in the middle of a wasteland with people trying to survive in it. 

What is happening in this community is a crime. There is really no other way to put it. I don’t say that without knowing the severity of that claim either, but people being forced to live this way is a crime, plain and simple. I understand and at times agree with the arguments that are found in the responsibility we all hold as individuals for our livelihood, but you need to give people something to work with. It is the job, no, the duty of a government to take care of its people, or at the very least, provide the means in which they can take care of themselves. 

But this has been neglected in Fazenda dos Mineiros. They have been left nothing, and while the beneficiaries shower in their riches from the investment of the World Cup, these people have been left behind, to die. This is a very real cost of this event. I don't say this with exaggeration to be dramatic. I say this as a fact. People are dying because of this. 

So yeah. I guess maybe that’s why I’m still fucking pissed off about the World Cup.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Notes from my 28th trip

The thing that I like about Brazilian Portuguese, it's that they take an indescribable feeling and kinda shove it into a word box, i.e. vontade, saudade, etc. That's kind of the whole joke about this country. It's like God gave them half-working tools and said, "Let's see what you can do w/ this shit." 

Living in Brazil is like one long MacGvyer Episode.

What Jiu-Jitsu has given me is all these physical tools to be at rest.

You are given constant, subtle, reminders of your shame and our necessity for humility.

Those moments where you trust in which your path is leading you, that all that has happened thus far makes sense and you accept all its harsh lessons. Those moments, as few and fleeting as they may be, believe in them with everything you have. 

Sometimes I think if we became more conscious of the inevitable aging of our bodies, much of the care that is missing from the world would be restored.

You have to remove a lot of ego before you can truly connect w/ God.

Liars and thieves. Now I understand why they are the world's deepest offenders. 

I am aware of the fact that I am aging, and the few traces of youth that still linger behind.

Sometimes I think being Asian (especially living in Latin America) is just a helpful reminder to help people remember who I am.

There is something noble about someone who understands their fate 
no matter how short it will be.

Afrose, you are an illuminator. Use that light.

I think I am finally showing Flora the price of her deeds.

For those of you that have kept up w/ the narrative up to this point. Goddamn. I give y'all credit. 

True love requires sacrifice. And that sacrifice is harder to ask for than I once believed. 

I get it Seattle. You all have been shit upon by the Gods. The weather, the attitude, the goddamn fucking try-hard, corny, constantly searching for originality attitude that creates the shit-atmosphere that is Seattle. I get it. But there is also something about the rain and the cold wind that seasons our armor. We are better than that.

We should never get so lost in money that we forget what a dollar can really mean for a person's day.

I strongly believe w/ enough to bet my life that God only gives you so much because you can handle it. 

The reason people commit crimes is because they reached a point where they are tired, just fucking tired, of how things have been going in their lives, and it was time for a change. 

There is something endearing about the very corny person that also has a sense of duty. It is like you are just constantly laughing w/ them in their pursuit of trying to fly straight.

Training requires practice. That is logical, but often forgotten. 

Adrien Broner is such a necessary evil in the boxing world. He is this reminder that sometimes we say fuck all that is just and right, just as long we get rid of this guy.

Sometimes I think all a writer is about is uncovering the moments where humanity shows up. 

Mothers protect their children.

Do you think all these PC progressive beliefs because you truly believe them or because that is where they safety of the crowd was headed?

It is an honor, truly an honor, when I can assist a friend seeking repair.

I think I'm ready to write about what happened w/ Flora and me. Mostly because I found the final sentence of the piece by what I said aloud to her last night. 

                Alcohol is a poor substitute for Daime.

Sometimes I wish Flora would tell me more about what's on her mind. At the same time, she lets me ramble on endlessly about nothing so there's that.

A missed encounter. That is how our final farewell was meant to be, Desirée.

Me and Flora are the same in that we are both trying to find our own masters. 

George Bush being able to parade around as an "artist" is a giant slap in the face. 

It's funny, as anti-herd as I am, sometimes you have to have faith in the crowd.

At times, words are all that we have. 
That is why it is important to never break them.

Me and Michael. What happened was that we lived in the raging moment that was our prime. Now I'm on my own, left w/ the memories and the lessons.

You can often tell how good of a writer a person is by how many times you daydream in reading what they wrote. It is an interesting craft between creativity + mission.

When you see someone calling the troops to battle, you can't help but be inspired. 

If you are a liar and come after what I love, I will strip you naked for the whole world to see.

Sometimes lying is a means of protection. What a moral uproar that causes inside of me.

I came back to Brazil better equipped. I have to give credit to Seattle for that.

I have been blessed w/ a good memory, meant to safekeep all the stories that have passed through me.

They're talking about moving the 2016 Olympics from Rio. That's ridiculous. They should have known what they were signing up for the moment they chose Brazil.

Shifting a relationship from casual to serious is a bigger deal than we make it. It is when we assume a responsibility, a test, if you will, of how well you're prepared to be in the care of another's feelings.

We really have no control over the one we love. We can only make ourselves an option, and hope that they choose us.

You end up hating the work you wrote two years ago, the same work in which you adored from the moment of its inception. Funny how time affects perspective.

I've really softened since I met Flora. Mostly because all the things I thought as soft, she wears it cool.

I'm always amazed at how some people can look exactly the same in every single picture they take.

To all the readers that have invested in me, I promise, your time will not go to waste.

A child learning to recognize their father is a beautiful thing.

It's an interesting crossroad to reach when you realize that sometimes breaking a promise is the only way to save yourself.

A roof to protect us from the rain. That is something we too often take for granted.

I am very proud to have been born in Alaska. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Brazil and the World Cup

When people ask me if I’m excited about being in Brazil for the World Cup, my initial response is to give a big, fat, fucking “FUCK NO”. The only two prospects I can foresee coming out of the World Cup are people and noise, two things that I’ve grown to despise with age. And let’s not even get into the underlying social and political implications of these kind of events. Ok. Maybe a little.

For anyone who thinks that Rio is the paradise that they’ve been propagating in the media in the past and of current day, let me tell you right now: That shit is not true. I guess if you choose to only look at one side of the city and can afford to live in the world they’re advertising, then sure, I guess it could be true, but the reality of the city? Far from it. I still see plenty of people on the streets digging through dumpsters, entire families sprawled out on ratty mattresses at odd hours of the night, and just plain ol' fucking poverty. Immense amounts of poverty. For the everyday people, the Cup isn’t going to do much. I think my landlord’s housekeeper summed it up pretty well:

“The Cup isn’t going to change anything for me,” she says. “Hospitals, universities, public transportation, it’s going to be the same. The only difference is that there will be more traffic and it will be harder for me to travel to work and home.” 

So the first thing I noticed in coming back to Brazil were the traffic changes. Changes like roadblocks directing cars towards the opposite direction it once faced, destroying a major bridge so that buses can no longer stop at the dock, and just general oddities all around. I went back to the international airport with my landlord on motorcycle through horrendous traffic (even more so than it already was) and there was a random BOPE officers just standing in the middle of the freeway, like in the middle of the fucking freeway, directing cars as if that shit was common place. I don’t know why they were doing it (on a freeway of all places), but they were doing it. 

Speaking of police officers, it’s definitely felt like Rio has beefed up its security measures in certain places, mostly the rich ones. Street crime has noticeably risen as I’m often advised to take caution in certain areas at night that I could once walk through freely. One theory is that the pacification project pushing drug traffickers out of the favelas holds the responsibility. It’s not to say that petty thieves and drug traffickers are to be classified as one in the same, but when you take away the primary source of income for individual, especially one that was already involved in illicit activities to begin with, you make certain choices. 

There are millions, if not billions, of dollars being invested into the city for these events. Surely some of that money has to improve the city, right? Well it comes back to the classic syndrome that infects all cities responsible for hosting World Cups and Olympic Games (re: South Africa and China). Most, if not all, of the money is invested into stadiums and infrastructures that will be seldom used after the event, and public sectors like healthcare and education (especially dire in the case of Brazil) is left continuing to decay further into shambles. Then of course the element of government corruption. There is this ongoing joke in Brazil that whenever the cost of a construction plan is publicly announced, people in the city half that amount to know the actual cost because the rest of it goes inside the politician’s pocket.

For me, these things are basically a continued assault on the poor and dispossessed (in this case, maybe even the everyday person). Come at me with the whole argument about how beautiful it is to see nations coming together in a world sporting event and how it is a symbolic notion of the togetherness of the globe (believe me, I get it. I’m obsessed with boxing), or even just tell me lighten up and enjoy a party. But at the end of the day, is it worth the price of what is happening and will happen to city and its people? 

Most people’s social position here in Rio will not change with the coming of the World Cup and the Olympic games, if anything, their lives will only be made more difficult since the influx of foreigners will only further congest an already overly-congested public transportation system. And I am looking forward to having idiotic fat-faced fucking tourists clamoring around the city? Well, I’d give you the same answer I gave when you first asked me about the Cup.

At the end of the day, I know what side I fall on when discussing these upcoming events in Rio, but my perspective on the whole situation is also mixed. People whom I greatly respect are coming to and have a lot of love for the World Cup. And more than likely, the people being most affected by the city changes will be watching and cheering for Brazil as they play. Don't get me wrong, I think sports are a good thing, and if you asked me how I felt at the prospect of a mega-fight coming to the city with the same social consequences at its inception, I honestly don't know what I would tell you.

I guess the important takeaway is to be aware of the social costs of entertainment and that it is a fact, not an opinion, that people's lives are being drastically changed for this sporting event. These feelings that we feel in the midst of spirited competition and the celebration afterwards are far from free. They almost never are and I guess the least we can do is show our gratitude to which they came from. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Notes from my 27th trip

If you were to ask me why I went through all those boxing gyms back then, I don't know what I would tell you. There was just always something there, a guidance to refuge, might be the way I'd put it. 

Writing isn't just about communicating ideas. 
You are trying to explain to someone else your reality. 

All of the things you do now are pretty much what determines whether your future self will be grateful or spiteful when thinking of the past.

Sometimes I feel like I'm just waiting for Flora to get older. God. I can't believe I've reached a point where I understand why people say that.

All the things we feel, all the things we go through, are just so you can help someone relate, somewhere down the road.

Writing, real writing, I mean after you get past all that egotistical bullshit, is all about sharing the messages you have unearthed.

I can feel myself getting older in the diminishing tolerance I have for people.

I just found out Flora studied theatre acting for like 5 or 6 years (fuck, I don't even know how her age makes any sense). Hmmm....that's something to think about. 

I think what I like about his relationship is that she has thrown me so many fucking boulders and snares, but gives me just enough loving compassion for me to believe that I can make it.

Those people who have never spent an entire day curled in fetal position under the covers grasping their chest screaming the unanswerable plea of "why?" because they just did something that they knew contributed to that ever-snaking chain of self-destruction but did it anyway b/c it was the only place to turn. People who don't know that place, fuck them.