Uruguay and the U.S.

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You may have never considered the connection between Uruguay and the U.S. before or maybe I’m wrong and it’s all you think about.  The smartypants would say, “I know, both countries start with a U.” True, and a good connection, I’ll give you that.  Anything else?  Another wiseguy might say, “they speak Spanish and so do people in the U.S.”  And that would be true, although the brand of Spanish you hear in the States is nothing at all like what you hear on the streets of Montevideo.  As to other connections, if you’ve been following the news a little bit, you’d know that President Obama negotiated a deal with President Mujica of Uruguay to resettle 6 prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay.  And do you know why the Uruguayans agreed to resettle them?  One of the reasons is that President Mujica was once a political prisoner and felt an obligation to provide humanitarian assistance to the men.  Granting the prisoners refugee status, they are free in Uruguay to do what they please, even leave the country if they so wish. And though they seem grateful to be there, there are very few immigrants from Arabic speaking countries living in Uruguay – one estimate put the number at 300 –  and the country has no mosques.  The cultural transition may be difficult for the men, but the people of Uruguay on the balance seem to welcome their presence.

Now we don’t know the terms of the deal.  It is not known if the Uruguayans received anything in return for accepting the detainees or whether they would agree to resettle some of the other prisoners still left at Guantanamo Bay in the future. But if I were on the negotiating team for Uruguay, I would ask for two things, no three in exchange for cooperation.  1) Clean buses.  Buses spewing dirty diesel are everywhere.  The boulevards of the downtown area are caked in soot and the air is anything but bueno despite the fact that Buenos Aires is a short distance from Montevideo.  2) Better Internet for the people.  Did you know that Uruguayans have free Internet?  Sounds good, right? But there’s a catch.  It’s just 2GB of data a month.  That’s like a few google searches, browsing a couple of websites, 2 YouTube videos, 1 minute on Facebook, 10 photos uploaded and 5 minutes of a Netflix movie.  I know, I’ve been there.  3) Most Favored Wine Nation status.  Did you know that Uruguay produces some of the most interesting wines in the world grown from the tannant grape, indigenous to the country? The stuff is absolutely sublimely delicious and not easily found in the States.  Do try a bottle if you have the chance.

DSC_0369One last connection.  I didn’t know this until recently, but one of America’s greatest composers, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who I would venture that most Americans have never heard of, grew up in New Orleans, moved to Paris, came back to the U.S., traveled extensively abroad, relocated to South America under very strange circumstances, and died in Rio. His Symphony #2 is dedicated to the great city of Montevideo.

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Air Bags on Board your Flight?

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Who knew airlines had air bags?  I didn’t.  I guess it makes sense.  A bag for the air, to accompany your travel bag and the omnipresent barf bag.  Did you know that on Frontier flights long ago, a barf bag had the word Occupied printed on it so that when you left to go to the restroom, you would put it in on your seat so nobody would take it? This was back in the day of festival seating.  But where was I?  Oh, air bags.  I was actually surprised to know that planes had them.  And maybe they don’t all yet, but Boeing has been working on them and not without complications. At a Boeing plant, there has been at least one fatality and several accidents to technicians working with the air bag systems.  In the Reuters article published just a few hours ago, the bags are called seat-belt bags and it referenced a seat air bag inflator.  Work was being done on a 777, a plane widely flown the world over.

I’m all for increased air safety, but I don’t see what purpose an in-flight air bag would serve.  Imagine the things activating when a plane hits a pocket of turbulence. What if a kid full of sugar kicks the seat back too hard and one goes off? There’d be screaming and widespread panic.  Or what if the things are actually in the seats and one goes off and sends an unsuspecting, unseat-belted passenger through the cabin roof. On the other hand, I suppose an air bag would protect passengers from rough landings, but would do very little to cushion the blow of a crash.  Not to make light of the practical aspects of an air bag, whatever they may be, but I do seem to remember back from my days as a high school debater that the airbag propellent, sodium azide, is a known carcinogen.  If you add this potentially toxic gas to the mix of cabin air which is not exactly rocky mountain fresh, you may find the need to reach for the barf bag, and then the oxygen bag and finally a gas mask.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like my car air bag, I think, unless it’s one of those suspect ones that Takata made that spews shards of metal once deployed, and it may very well be one as I own a Honda.  Wouldn’t it be awful to be saved by an airbag from the impact of a crash only to be killed by the bag’s shrapnel or toxic gas?

Air travel is pretty safe so I say we leave things the way they are.  Let’s stick with seat belts and barf bags.

Who is Alexander Scriabin?

DSC_0421 I enjoy writing about things I know nothing about.  Take wine and classical music for example.  They couple nicely.  And if you read wine tasting notes or reviews of classical music, it all sounds like bullshit meant to be exclusive and alienating.  It’s the language of snobbery, not unlike the language of academia.  It’s not meant to be read by anyone without club membership and in case you happen to slip in without your membership card, you will be outed the moment you open your mouth.  Best to stay quiet and simply look the part. To be fair, I have come to love both wine and classical music.  And if I wanted, I could become a first class snob of a journalist writing erudite wine notes and haughty classical music reviews worthy of an entry in the Wine Spectator or the Penguin Guide to Classical Music. I have even posted several tongue in cheek concert and wine reviews on this blog in years past exposing myself as the real plebe that I am.  Which brings me to my point.

Scriabin.  No, it’s not a new cholesterol drug.  Hint: Russia.  If you guessed person, you’d be right.  If you guessed Vladimir Putin’s Chief of Staff, you would be wrong, very wrong.  I don’t know what music Putin listens to, but likely not the works of Alexander Scriabin, the most famous Russian composer you have probably never heard of or if you have, only because you graduated from a music conservatory or are a classical music nut.  Scriabin died in 1915 and was free to compose as he pleased unlike Shostakovitch who came later who along with Prokofiev was subject to Soviet censors. Scriabin was in the same class as Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Conservatory and was said to be a prodigy both as a composer and pianist.  Initially, his work was influenced by the Romantics, most notably Chopin, but as he matured, his compositions became less conventional and more esoteric, even delusional.  According to his own writings documented in Schonberg’s terrific book, Lives of the Great Composers, Scriabin identified as God and tried to unify all art and philosophy into a symphonic masterpiece to be performed over the course of several days at the foot of the Himalayas with incense burning and a contraption that would covert musical notes into colors. Scriabin, it was thought, was a synesthete – he literally saw music in technicolor.  He never finished this masterpiece, but someone did for him and it can be sampled here:

. Long live Scriabin!

Wake Me Up in 20 Years

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I forgot I had a weblog.  Do they still even call it that anymore? I feel like I have just awakened from a coma, not that I would know how that feels, and everything is somehow different.  How, I’m not sure. I haven’t changed that much, but the country seems to have grown just a little more fearful and distrustful, which has lead to big Repub gains and control of both houses – wait is the senate a house or just a chamber?  Can a house be a chamber?  Have you seen the latest red state map showing all the victories?  What a bloodbath!  Must give the Dems the blues.  But as red as the map is, I saw another map that looks as green as the lushest rainforest (which unfortunately no longer exists) showing states that have legalized or are considering the legalization of pot.  It may actually be true that the country has gone to pot or hell in a hand basket, whatever that means.

Meanwhile, I’ve been living slightly off the grid and quite out of touch, somewhat unplugged so to speak. I’ve been reading more and watching less TV now that we’ve stripped down to basic cable, which ironically means that we don’t get any cable channels.  Used to be if you had cable you got everything there was, which wasn’t much, but you got it with one push of the button on that brown cable box. Now basic cable, at least in our monopolistic market, gives you the nothing but the big networks, PBS and some local stuff that airs city council meetings and reruns of Lassie. We pay for ABC, CBS and NBC that I believe would have been free before the time of cable and should be today with all the ads they run.  TV really used to be plug and play back in the day.

But I digress.  Actually, I don’t digress because I don’t really have a point to make in any of this.  I’m just trying to shake out, or is it shake off, the coma cobwebs.  It’s a new morning and I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. The Repubs will try their hand at governing which could be disastrous if they continue to deny science and with a wink, frack us all to kingdom come. Maybe I’ll just go back into my toasty coma. Wake me up in 20 years.

The House of Pablo Neruda at Isla Negra

Isla Negra

Isla Negra

It’s not an island exactly, but rather a seaside town, and a rather small and famous one at that, for it was where the poet and ambassador Pablo Neruda lived. The Nobel Prize winning poet’s home is now a museum and attracts visitors from all over the world. So popular are the tours of the inside of the house and the grounds that we had to wait an hour and a half. Rather than wait, we ate at a nearby cafe. I had a Churrasco Italiano with cafe con leche. It was essentially a roast beef sandwich dressed with avocado, mayonnaise and tomato and quite good though the meat had chewy veins of gristle. Coffee in Chile is generally not brewed and served instant. At this cafe, the waitress, who may also have made the food, brought out a glass jar of Nescafe, a coffee mug and a small spoon. About ten minutes later, she brought out a pewter pitcher of boiling milk that she poured into the mug over the spoonful and a half of instant coffee that I had put into my coffee mug. For instant coffee, it was surprisingly good, though I still prefer a Dunkin Donut medium with milk. My wife ordered the same sandwich and a bottle of Pap which is a very sweet “pineapple” flavored soda that has a golden peach chemical glow like Pine Sol.

Pablo Neruda's House

Pablo Neruda’s House

The toured commenced at 4:30. The tour guide gave us all telephone devices that had the tour recorded in at least three languages, Spanish, Portuguese and English. Each exhibit or room in the house corresponded to a number that we pressed on the recorder that gave all the details.  Below are my observations and the bits of information I remembered from the automated tour:

Neruda bought the house in the 30’s from a friend and over the years had additions built.  From the outside, it is a long and modest stone structure that looks a bit like a castle.  On the inside, most of the rooms are made of beautifully finished wood, logs and stones with rustic furniture that give one a feeling of being in a cabin. And most of the rooms have windows with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean.

Inside the rooms, Neruda had countless objects carefully displayed, some he acquired as a collector, but many, perhaps even most, were gifts from friends over the years including figurines, masks, wooden carvings, colored glass bottles, jugs, ships in a bottle, and seashells among other things.

He entertained quite frequently and was said to give press interviews inside the house in a room with a glass table built from a wagon wheel and giant stone mural that an artist friend built for him.  It was in this room that he received former President Salvador Allende and other friends and dignitaries. He was fond of and influenced by other writers and had framed photographs of some of them including Whitman, Doestoevsky, and Poe.

Neruda was said to have been attracted to Isla Negra because aspects of it reminded him of his childhood in the south of Chile and of his visits to the sea which play a prominent role in his poetry. Other inspirations for his poems include food and his wives (three in all) to whom he was quite devoted, particularly Matilde, his last wife with whom he is buried on the grounds.

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The Earth Ends Here

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If you really want to go down south for a beach vacation, try the seacoast towns of Chile between Mirasol and El Quisco including Isla Negra, where Pablo Neruda once lived, that form a stretch of the Pacific Coast about as far south as it gets. Far out kind of far south too. So far out that I am convinced the earth ends here. I don’t mean the end of the earth in a derogatory way necessarily, although there are aspects of the landscape and climate that are harsh such that the locals indubitably lead a hardscrabble life. And I don’t mean end of the earth literally as if our fair planet were flat and something like only 200 years old. I am not a science denier but of course don’t deny that there are many who do. And as proper as these beaches are in their own right, they are somewhat otherworldly. One beach at Punta Altraca has capital ocean waves with sharp rocks and a beach, but one without sand, or so it seemed – rocky, but finely ground rocks, not quite sand, granulated – the texture of instant Nescafe.
DSC_0920We saw the sunset on Canelillo Beach which sits below a steep hill near Algarobbo where we are staying. The roaring ocean waves slap razor sharp black rocks.  The impressive breakers create violent splashes.  Hardscrabble cactus patches grow on the side of the hill going down to the beach. Groves of barbed wire protected cactus flourish and rot in the same lot. Precious pine trees and other species stripped of bark stand tall. This is where the earth ends.

The End of the Earth

The End of the Earth

Dank Montevideo and Pink Freud

Back in Montevideo

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Cool Bleak Dank Dark.

Smoking smokers and the strangely pleasant smell of diesel fumes.

Snarling dogs growling the night away.

Sassy birds and prancing donkies;

No need for alarm or alarms except whatever you doo watch out for dog poo.

Cars.

Small ones. Mostly

Of European persuasion – Peugeot, Renault, Citroen, VW and Fiat -

All shapes and sizes from micro cars and tiny toy pickups to vans and trucks.

An occasional Chevy Spark and some strange unknown models to the U.S. and perhaps unwanted too. And over there – on the other side of 1961 Fiat 500 sits the confident and nimble Nissan March.

Manual transmission and automatic internet for the people.

Fiat 500

Fiat 500

 
Onward to Barra 7 for some veggies as Jimi plays Monterey on the big screen. Pink Freud on the wall staring us down, frowning upon the Patricia beer never to be ordered to sound like Pilsen. For Particia is not Pilsen nor is it soap in a bottle of Coke. A cistern and a stern warning. Student patrons with a gift of art hanging freely as the fruit juices blend and the pizzas mend the soul.

The Walls of Barra 7

The Walls of Barra 7

Last and Final stop:  La Inglessa.

Mobile Vendors on Rio Beaches

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

The beaches of Rio are some of the nicest you’ll see anywhere. The hills that surround the beaches give the place an exotic look and when there’s nobody around, I felt like I was on another planet, Mars maybe or Pluto perhaps. As beautiful as the beaches are and some of the people who frequent them, there is something about the experience that is not so pleasant.  And it wasn’t the usual suspects – powerful and ferocious waves that attack and swallow innocent waders or the cigarettes butts littered about the sand that many use like an ashtray.  And for the record, Brazilians don’t smoke nearly as much as the tourists do. No. What annoyed me were the vendors. Yes, mobile vendors on the beach selling everything imaginable: single cigarettes, beer, caipirinhas, water, soda, juice, sandwiches, pao de queijo, shrimp, kibe, ice-cream, candy, coconut, watermelon, caps, soccer jerseys, flags, jewelry, dresses, bikinis, beach towels (cangas), beach chairs (for rent), purses, whistles, trinkets, toys, flags, kites, sunscreen, tanning oil, sunglasses, license plates, and arts and crafts. Every two minutes or so, a vendor would approach and not leave until I said no or shook my head firmly. The first few days, I would politely say “no, abrigado”, or smile and shake my head respectfully. But on the third day, all the activity started to bother me as if the vendors express purpose was to disturb my peace. One of the problems I suspect was that I looked foreign enough to have excess money to spend and thus became a favorite target. What they didn’t know is that I had no intention of buying anything. I brought my own beer, towel, sunscreen, sunglasses, and food. I didn’t need or want a mini-statue of Christ Redentor. I don’t like shrimp and am not fond of gritty watermelon. Now for my last few days on the beach, I did rent a chair and it was a pretty good deal – about $2.50 for the whole day. And I did buy a caipirinha too (a limeade-like drink made with a Brazilian sugarcane based liquor) which cost about the same, and that’s it. But a thought occurred to me and I think it would have made for a good documentary: what if I bought one of everything that came my way? I think it would be fun haggling a little with the vendors and having a conversation. They certainly appear friendly enough and obviously hard-working, hauling their wares on their backs and shoulders plowing through the sand with bare feet going up and down the beach all day. It was clearly not easy labor and I suspect that most work for some sort of syndicate and have a quota to meet each day. I would like to hear their stories to understand the Brazilian economy and culture a little better. I had heard that many of the vendors are among the poorest of the population and live up on the hills behind the beaches in the favelas. It would be an interesting project for a sociologist, or a linguist, but given that I was on vacation and not doing research, such an endeavor was not for me. I just wanted to be left alone to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of one of the world’s most beloved and magnificent beach areas.

If you don’t want to be bothered by the vendors, it’s best to stretch out on your towel, canga or chair and close your eyes as if asleep.  Or you could simply ignore them by looking down when they approach, but they will stop if they think you can see them.  The other strategy is to go down to the water and swim, wade or walk the beach.  Vendors don’t vend near the wet sand.

The vendors are a part of the Rio fabric and can’t be avoided as most of the famous beach areas – Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon – are public.  If you want a vacation with a beach all to yourself, Rio is not your place.  And anyway, if all you want is a beach vacation, you’d be better off in Florida.

 

The High Down on Rio

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Ipanema Beach

When one thinks of Rio, the first thing that might come to mind is the iconic and welcoming art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer a top Corcovado mountain. Or maybe you think of beautiful stretches of exotic beaches on the open Atlantic.  If you had asked me what I knew of Rio before I came, I would have said beaches, the Christ statue and music.  Now that I am here I realize that Rio has much more to offer and in my view, and view is key here, it can’t be fully appreciated until you visit.  But….

 

Samba Night at Club Bip Bip

Samba night at Club Bip Bip

Brazilian music is not just any music.  It is THE music in my book.  Bossa nova, samba, chorinho and all those great musicians from Luiz Gonzaga, Chico Buarque and Jobim to Elise Regina,Gail Costa, and Gilberto Gil and the list could go on.  Even turning on the radio and listening to Brazilian pop music is a pleasure.  It sounds uniquely Brasilian and catchy and NOTHING like that  sanitized auto-tuned corporate crap you hear on most commercial stations in the States. And then there is live music.  If I did nothing here but go to the beach in the day and catch live music at night, I’d be happy. We have already checked out Samba night at a tiny storefront club called Bip Bip that opens up to a sidewalk on a obscure street in Copacabana where the locals sit around a table (Roda de Samba) and jam as patrons take beers from the refrigerator inside the club, pay the owner who is seated at a small table outside the club, and then gather peacefully on the sidewalk, to watch/listen, dance (a little) in place and sing along if the words are known, as they are to all the Brazilians in the crowd.  The scene is all protocol driven. The owner does not like the musicians to be disrespected in any way.  At the gathering on the night I attended in which German tourists and younger hip-type Brazilians represented the majority, the owner (Fernandinho) stopped the music and lectured us in a hoarse, barely audible voice in Portuguese explaining that the club existed solely to preserve and maintain Brasil’s rich musical culture and that it was not a place to socialize or party- which meant no talking, laughing or clapping after the music either, but we were allowed to snap our fingers to show appreciation.  It wasn’t clear whether we were allowed to take photos, but I did and even took a little video too as did my daughter.

Fernandinho gave us a suspicious look and I was afraid he was going to stop the musicians and call us out and say “no music for you” and banish us from the club, so we bought some beers to appease him.  Wednesday is bossa nova night and we plan to go back.

But the point I am trying to make is that Rio is MORE than music, beaches and a stylish Christ.  Rio is a place of hills, rocks and mountains that give it that characteristic exotic and ancient look as if it were located on Pluto or someplace. Now the terms hills (morros), mountains and rocks are used interchangeably in descriptions of Rio de Janeiro. Around the beach areas, the smaller ones are called morros in Portuguese, as far as I can tell.  The larger, more touristy rocks would qualify as mountains in my book,  although geologist may beg to differ.  Sometimes the rocks, hills, mounds, morros or whatever they are are just referred to by their names, for example – Corcovado (where Christ welcomes), and Sugarloaf (Pao de Azucar) the one that has a face and a bunch of cable cars running to the top.

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Sugarloaf

You see, to REALLY see Rio, you have to get high (and quite a number of people are already that judging by the pungent odor on nearly ever street corner) and most of the larger “mountains” offer a supreme view.  Unfortunately, my acrophobia prevents me from summiting them all, but I did climb to the top of Morro de Leme (a smaller but formidable hill) and managed to make it up the third highest rock (from the sun) called Pedra Bonita inside Tijuca National Park.  I hiked the trail to the summit with my oldest daughter.  The hike is just that – a hike –  and unlike what the tourist guides say, it is not an easy, leisurely stroll.

The Trail

The Trail (not as easy as it looks, trust me)

If you look it up on Trip Adviser, folks say the thing is an easy trail for the family.  But don’t believe what you read.  The reviewers must be fitness freaks and triathletes, who think all people run 5ks before breakfast everyday.  I do not.  I don’t run at all and on most days of my somewhat sedentary life, I’ll manage 5,000 steps if I’m lucky.  I am by no means a slouch and am reasonably fit and can on a good day walk 10 miles, as I have done repeatedly on this trip.  Believe me, this trail is not for beginners.  It was rocky, steep, and slippery, with nothing to hold onto except some sketch vines, bamboo poles and a few thick low hanging tree branches that lovers had initialized.  The red clay surface was wet and muddy in spots and treacherous roots presented extreme obstacles to footing, something I lost several times.  And if the grueling trail alone wasn’t troublesome enough, and it was, there were mosquitoes darting about that bit with bloody abandon and perhaps injected us with a little dengue fever.  I may be exaggerating with the dengue fever, but who knows and it does sound dramatic.  Fortunately, I was not eaten alive thanks to my B vitamin regimen – mosquitoes don’t much like B6 and find B12 repulsive, I’m told anyway.  I suffered only 4 minor bites, but my wife, daughter and our Brasilian friend and host were mercilessly attacked by the parasitic marauders.  I did miraculously make it to the top but not without a great deal of effort.  To keep me going, I fantasized that I was about to be one of the few to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. When we did finally summit, I got so dizzy and paralyzed by fear that I had to crawl around as dozens of people around us were already taking in the view, frolicking about, taking selfies left and right, some even getting right to the edge and pretending to jump or fall off the mountain. My daughter recorded my pitiful crawling performance but I won’t be sharing that, or any of the pictures of me precariously standing with a look of absolute dread on my face.  I did manage to snap some nice shots of the mountains and Rio far below.

From the summit of Pedra Bonita

From the summit of Pedra Bonita

Rio is a city of remarkable beauty but to really see it, you’ve got to get high.

 

Forte Do Leme – What a View!

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If you ever find yourself in Rio (actually it’s a big enough place where you could lose yourself quite easily) not that I expect anyone to randomly go, but anyone who might be thinking about going to the 2016 Summer Olympics, plan to do this:

Walk to the end of Copacabana Beech toward Leme.  Veer off to the left.  Go to the kiosk.  Buy a ticket to Sitio Historico do Forte Duque de Caxias for R$4 or about $1.80 U.S. and head up the hill. You have to enter a military base to access it, so don’t be alarmed to see an armed guard staring at you as you pass through. Just smile.

Rio is known for its hills called morros.  Leme is one of the larger beach side hills and is the site of an 18th century Fort built to protect the city.  It is the third largest hill in Rio next to Sugarloaf and Corcovado where Christ the Redeemer welcomes with outstretched arms.  Morro do Leme has a nice stone paved twisting trail that you can take to the top to visit the Fort and get a magnificent view of Rio.  As you enter the trail, look straight up at the rock face and you’ll find cactus growing. It reminded me of a Dali painting.  Wear your walking shoes because it’s a bit of hike, but a pleasant one, as if going through a rain forest, with an abundance of fauna and flora, colorful birds and tiny squirrel-like monkeys called micos. And what a glorious view!

The walk from the middle of Copacabana Beach to the top of the Hill and back is about 9 miles, 17,000 steps according to my pedometer, and is well worth your time and effort; highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

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