SUNDAY, JULY 13
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- With the World Cup done, along with travelling within Brazil, the only thing left is the anticipated 24-hour flight, stopover and drive home.
No doubt the Galeão-Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport will look like a scene from Miss Saigon when they evacuated personnel from the embassy with helicopters.
My flight home is at 10 p.m. Recommended time of arrival at the airport? 2 p.m. Estimated first major meltdown? 2:01.
So we wrap up our Brazilian adventure with a few words of Portuguese never to be forgotten: “chop,” which means draft beer; “recibo,” which means receipt; “o que é bom hoje,” which means what’s good today; and “por que os oficiais têm esses grandes armas,” which means why do those officers have such big guns.
Sunday, the day of the tournament’s final match, with thousands of Argentine fans expected in Rio, the military was out. They were wearing cute little red berets and especially flattering dark green machine guns with matching bandolier and shoulder strap.
It would be unfair to leave this tropical paradise -- yes it’s tropical -- without talking about a few things left out of previous musings because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
First things first: It will be a relief to give Bilbo Baggins back his bed.
We never met the owners of the apartment we rented in Rio but, at first glance, they had to be hobbits. It was like the three bears going from room to room to see what fit.
The only bed that was strong enough to hold a strapping lad like myself happened to be short and narrow with an inch-thick plywood sheet under the six-inch mattress that is now three inches.
As for the chairs around the dining room table, let’s just say that it was surprising there wasn’t at least one incident of butt-meeting-chair-chair-meeting floor.
Then there’s Geraldo. He is the first person we met upon arriving at the apartment.
Geraldo doesn’t speak any English and his exact duties around the place remain somewhat a mystery. He’s part caretaker, security, gardener and refuse collector.
Geraldo is always around. For a fairly big guy, he moves with stealth and furtiveness. He sits at a desk tucked away in the alcove. Next to his desk is a little four-foot door that has little air holes in it. We’ve suspected that’s where he lives.
When he isn’t there, he’s sitting at the front gate looking out the slats of the gate. If you go through the gate and he isn’t there, he may be sitting on the bench in the garden across the street.
Just when you think he’s nowhere, he appears almost spectre-like from some remote corner of the building with a thumbs-up. One day, he was standing at ZonaSul, the local grocery store.
He is a creature of habit.
Wednesday seemed to be the day when he waters the plants around the building. Last Wednesday, there was a monsoon in Rio. There were boat races down Avenida Visconde du Albuquerque (that was the night my roommates told me there was a two-foot rat on the telephone wire).
But, it was plant-watering day and there was Geraldo doing his thing as Noah’s Ark floated past the apartment.
It is safe to say this now. My belief is Geraldo is really a member of Agência Brasileira de Inteligência (ABIN), which, translated, is the Brazilian Intelligence Agency.
Shh, don’t tell anyone.
Finally, there is regret leaving Rio without having one more breakfast at the lovely Café Hum, a small local breakfast place with wonderful service.
Just before heading to Maracana we stopped at the Café, but all the tables were occupied. Three of the tables had dogs sitting on the chairs.
A nice restaurant with dogs sitting at tables; there is no more valid memory of Rio.
THURSDAY, JULY 10
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- This is the third straight day of rain in Rio de Janeiro.
There’s a cleansing to this city when it rains. It’s almost as if all the problems, dirt and dog crap can be washed away.
It’s Day 31 of a 35-day assignment. There have been 15 soccer games in six different cities, with return trips to three of them.
It’s been a fascinating voyage through a nation where soccer is its heart and, for everything else, it has its head buried in the sand.
There are so many gorgeous new multi-million stadiums built in the shade of the desperation of hill-top favelas.
This assignment is about the World Cup and soccer, but it is impossible to spend so much time in a foreign place without absorbing a part of it and getting people to understand that while soccer was the carrot that brought us here, it plays only a bit part in a much bigger picture.
Tell people about the games but give them a picture of the real world beyond the stadiums.
When it rains in Rio -- and it doesn’t happen very often -- it rains hard. The green turns as green as anything you’ve seen. Part of it may be because there is so much concrete around it.
Rio is a city that has everything. Beaches, mountains, lakes, oceans and forests are next door to a giant concrete, industrial jungle. It’s not something you see in many cities on this planet.
For a city where madness swirls around you in the streets with racing vehicles, constant honking horns, and traffic wardens at intersections blowing their whistles, no one seems particularly rushed to get things done.
If you have a timeframe for eating or running errands, throw it out the window. Rushing is not in the Brazilian DNA.
It is a city of uniforms and flashing lights. Brazilians love their uniforms and they love to give orders.
You may find yourself at an intersection with four people all wearing different uniforms and all giving you different orders. With a variety of police, military, municipal and volunteer keepers of the peace, being a uniform distributor is a sure ticket to early retirement.
Drivers in Rio aren’t particularly impressed with uniforms. Wednesday night, our cab driver wasn’t impressed with how a traffic warden was going his job. You don’t have to speak Portuguese to know what he told him when he rolled down the window.
Every official vehicle has their lights flashing all the time. It may be by the side of the road parked 20 yards away from anywhere, but the lights are still flashing. The cop may be simply driving along the road, yet his lights continue to flash.
Officers could be eating a quick lunch of feijoada and beans but, like a disco night gone mad, the flashing continues. One a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. -- when you wake up, lights are always flashing.
Oh, and no one pays attention to the flashers.
Cars run red lights on a regular basis, especially if there are no cops around. Motorcycles actually run red lights no matter who is around.
The way people drive in Rio is one thing that will forever be ingrained in my memory.
There seems to be this insane need for most cab drivers to give you the most uncomfortable ride possible.
It’s 6 a.m. on Thursday and few people are on the roads. That doesn’t prevent our cab driver from switching lanes at 100 kilometres-an-hour. He cuts corners so tightly he slams us into the side panels.
Taxi concussion protocol should be a requirement in Rio.
Another memory that will come home with me will be transported on clothes and in my nostrils. It’s the smell of sewage.
It’s especially evident around big public buildings. It permeates everything. On warm days around the lagoon, it hits you like a punch in the stomach.
Then there’s the people -- the rich, the poor, the homeless, the beggars.
The poor will hang around the open-air cafes and, if they are lucky, a diner will give he/she one of their rolls. Usually, though, they are ignored.
A tourist may slip them a five-real note ($2.50) and then get the evil-eye from the locals. The poor person then hobbles off in the rain, oblivious to the downpour as while continuing a journey to somewhere.
It has been quite a journey that will end in four days … at least for me.
MONDAY, JULY 7
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Here are a few moments in time that highlight things about Rio de Janeiro and Brazil that both confuse and fascinate me.
Our apartment is in the Leblon district, one of the better parts in Rio.
Dogs must be a status symbol here because there are a lot of them. All sorts of dogs, big ones, little ones, especially those smush-faced pugs and yappy walking mops.
Owners like to bring their dogs to outside cafes. The rich elite like to dress their dogs up in shoes, hats and even full outfits.
Dog walkers are also popular. It isn’t unusual to see a dog walker with six dogs on leashes, walking along the sidewalk.
Yes, they do pick up after the dogs, but it still pays to watch your step.
Rio’s population, in general, has to be one of the most attractive anywhere on earth. The women are stunning and the men aren’t bad either.
But, it isn’t restricted to just Rio.
Late one night while I was waiting for my flight inside the Brasilia airport, one of the most stunning women I've ever seen was walking to a gate along with her companion. She was tall and willowy, had jet-black hair and was wearing at least five-inch stiletto heels. She looked as if she’d stepped out of Elle Magazine.
As the couple walked by, to my great shame, I looked yet again. Suddenly, something I read jumped into my head. Brazil, and Rio specifically, has the largest population of transvestites on the planet.
Soccer fans may remember that six-or-so years ago Ronaldo, the Brazilian star, had a run-in with a transvestite.
Brazilians normally give you plenty of everything, but in virtually every restaurant (aside from the cloth napkin kind) there seems to be an issue with napkins.
While North American restaurants give you napkins the size of towels, the size of napkins in restaurants in Rio are barely big enough for one lip, let alone a mustache-covered mouth. As for putting them on your lap, forget it. One shift of your leg and the napkin is gone.
Most cab drivers in Rio de Janeiro like two kinds of music. They appear obsessed with music from the 1980s. Or they love flipping on CDs with old guys like Frank Sinatra, Bobby Solo, Ray Charles and Dean Martin.
Nothing like singing along with 'New York, New York' while your Portuguese cab driver looks at you like you are nuts. The cab driver had a terrific compilation of five CDs, including songs for old farts and sad bastard music. He offered to sell them to me for 50 rials, which is about $25 back home.
Restaurant service in Brazil isn’t quite the same as it is in other places. For instance, usually in North America you have one service person serving your table.
After the game on Saturday in Brasilia, I stopped for dinner at a hotel restaurant. There were four other people in the restaurant, with four wait staff, none of whom spoke a word of English.
I started with a beer. Having finished it, one waiter came by and I ordered a second. Off he went. Five seconds later another waiter came by and asked if I wanted a beer. I let him know by pointing to the back that I had already ordered one.
No more than 10 seconds after that, the third waiter came back and asked. I let him know that the two previous guys had asked the same thing.
The first guy arrived with a beer and opened it. About 10 seconds after that, the second guy showed up with a beer. (Do I need to go any further?)
About 20 seconds after that, the last guy came by with two beers. Fortunately, he hadn’t opened them.
Even more fortunate, I wasn’t driving.
THURSDAY, JULY 3
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Success!
It took two tries but on the second one we finally made it up the mountain to see the iconic concrete Jesus, the massive Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado (Hunchback) mountain that overlooks Rio de Janeiro.
He's 40-metres high and has his arms outstretched.
The last time we attempted to see him turned out to be, quite frankly, a massive disaster. Not only did we underestimate how long it would take for us to get up and down the mountain by a mere three hours, we also somehow wound up on the wrong mountain.
Thursday we did it right. We booked tickets online for a specific time and got on the train that would take us up the mountain. Everything went wonderfully.
Christ the Redeemer is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Rio. But it is somewhat disconcerting to see just how commercial it has become.
It's also disconcerting to see that despite the religious strength of the statue, people still insist on being jerks.
Thousands of people visit the statue daily. There are orderly lines set up. Then when the train arrives it's a jailbreak with enough elbows being thrown to warrant a match suspension. Jesus did say that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. I'm quite sure that's not what he meant.
There is a souvenir shop on the street. On the walk to the train there is another souvenir shop with Brazil bikinis and souvenirs. Next to it is a Hard Rock Cafe that looks like it came off the set of Cast Away. When you get to the train building there's a little bar with more souvenirs and refreshments including beer.
You battle your way onto the train. After a seven-minute chug up the mountain, the train stops.
Suddenly, as if from the heavens, vendors appear with cold water, soft drinks ... and beer.
The stop takes five minutes. After another seven-minute-or-so chug, the train stops again and lets on a five-piece band with drums, guitar, tambourine and some sort of acoustic instrument. They sing and dance and get the people on the train to sing and dance.
Then they pass the tambourine around for money, the train stops and they get off.
Finally we get to the top of the mountain. There is a souvenir shop, restaurant and bar. You can walk up to the statue or ride an escalator.
When you first see it, the statue is stunning and breathtaking. The views of Rio are unparalleled. The area is so packed you can't move.
There are people laying on his or her back trying to get a good angle for a picture of Christ while risking a foot in the face.
There is jostling, pushing and short tempers. From the top you can see the souvenir shops and bar.
What I wouldn't pay to know what he's thinking.
TUESDAY, JULY 1
Somewhere in Brazil -- It's been four days, five cities, six airports.
It’s pretty much a fog.
You come to realize quickly that not all the drivers are like the taxi drivers in Rio. One even asked that I put on my seatbelt.
It leads you to believe that this is going to be crazy. Instead, it was a sedated, stop-on-red-lights kind of ride.
But, like every soccer game, when you are in that many airports and airplanes, something always happens -- at least to me.
First of all, never hesitate to fly TAM, one of the Brazilian airlines. They treat you well, the seats are big enough for big people.
What’s important is that the seat belts are long enough to fit just about anyone. There is nothing worse than working up a sweat trying to get that last inch of seatbelt around you.
Actually, there is.
It’s having to call the airline attendant over to ask her for a seatbelt extension. Even in Portuguese, everyone knows what you are looking for. You might as well put a sign on you that says “this man needs a salad.”
Thank you, TAM, for protecting my dignity and giving out that delightful pao de queijo (OK, it’s Brazilian cheese bread).
The first night on the road, on the first flight, a young lad vomited on me. Well, not really vomited -- but he was in the window seat and some unintentional splatter got on me.
But, when you live right . . .
“So sorry sir, can we move you to these seats?” asked the attendant.
Would those be the emergency row seats with an extra foot of legroom? Count me in.
The second night was a day of massive walking, more than five kilometers, because that’s the way FIFA likes to do things.
By the time I got to the airport I was hobbling with two bad knees.
Here comes TAM again. One of the staff saw me wobbling along heading to the check-in counter and immediately took my by the arm.
He took the chain off the line reserved for physically challenged individuals and directed me through it, still holding my arm.
“No, no, no,” I said. “I am not physically challenged,” but alas, nothing I could say would get him to change his mind.
“You are very brave to be this way,” he said. “But I can tell when someone has disabilities.”
The only thing that eased the embarrassment was the fact there were no individuals who were physically challenged and only six people in the other line.
SATURDAY, JUNE 28
Rio de Janeiro—It was an inauspicious start to what will be the most ambitious travel schedule of this World Cup.
It started in Rio on Saturday and from there will go to five cities, six airports, four games and a bus station all over five days. Please note in that time frame there is only one hotel on the schedule; one (1). That means two overnights in airports and one overnight bus ride.
But this morning in Rio it didn’t matter than Brazil was playing hundreds of miles away, no one had any interest in anything except getting to a television set.
Our regular eating place couldn’t believe it when we wandered in at 10:30 and asked for coffee. Imagine that, going to a restaurant in the morning to ask for eggs and coffee. The obviously didn’t expect anyone to come in because it took them 20 minutes to deliver the coffee and another 15 for the eggs.
Getting a cab on the day Brazil plays, even though there are thousands in the city, is as hard as finding a cab in New York on a rainy day. Half of the cabs are empty but they speed by you with nary a glance.
They are going home to watch the game.
After a half hour of waving, developing tendinitis of the shoulder and looking like an idiot, we finally flagged one down.
“Marriott Hotel,” we say so we can take the media shuttle to the stadium.
Like all Marriott’s it’s relatively big and well known.
He looked at me like I was Yoda and just come out of a mud hut in the Dagobah system.
The driver shook his head and said “novo,” which means new in Portuguese. Yup, we have a guy who’s never driven a cab before.
Okay, take us to Copacabana (the massive beach in Rio.)
Okay, Ipanema (the other big beach.)
Maybe I should have learned the word for ocean?
How can you not know where the biggest beach in Rio is?
Then it dawns on me. Maybe he’s from the Dagobah system.
Nothing works. We try everything. I even try my Michael Phelps imitation.
So we finally point and he starts driving . . . at 15 kilometres an hour!
We let him know that it’s a long, long, long way away and he speeds up to 40.
Every three blocks he looks back and we give him the thumbs up.
About 30 thumbs up later we get to the hotel. We pay him and ask for a receipt.
He looks very sad and embarrassed. “Novo,” he said. “No recibo.”
I can’t say the response came as a big surprise.
He looked over at me and gave me a puppy dog thumbs up.
At least he knows where the ocean is now.
TUESDAY, JUNE 24
RIO DE JANEIRO - Every city has focus points that one simply can’t miss when they are there.
The main one is Rio is the iconic concrete Jesus.
The statue is Christ the Redeemer and was the largest art deco statue in the world until 2010. It’s 30 metres tall, not including its eight-metre pedestal, and its arms stretch 28 metres.
The statue is located at the peak of the 700-metre Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city. It’s made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, and was constructed between 1922 and 1931.
Not having a lot of time to sightsee, you have to grab the opportunity when you can. Heading out with a couple of colleagues at 9 a.m., I figured three, four hours should be good enough to check it out before having to work.
We got in a cab and asked the driver if it would be busy.
“No, no. Tuesday,” he said in Portuguese.
Then again, he could have said “Are you crazy? There are 5,000 people there.”
He stopped in an area where there appeared to be, oh, 5,000 people.
“Where do we go?” I asked.
He pointed to the end of the line which started somewhere around Miami.
You can take a train up to the top. We didn’t reserve tickets, of course.
“Next train, two hours,” said a woman wearing a vest. She seemed to be in charge.
“Mini-buses to the top only 25 rials ($13),” screamed another person wearing a vest. “See Christo.”
That sounded good, better than waiting two hours.
The minibuses turned out to be vans that seat 15 people.
The doors opened and there was a mad rush to get in.
“Rapido, rapido, rapido,” yelled another guy in a vest. All that’s missing is a cattle prod.
We headed up the mountain and within half a kilometre fear overwhelmed me. Only the packed bodies prevented me from jumping out and running (rolling) down the hill screaming in abject terror.
The road is narrow, bumpy, steep with cars parked along the side. Jeeps stop in the middle of the road so tourists can take pictures.
As the driver went up the road he was also selling tickets, taking cash and making change, ripping off receipts while navigating the road.
But excitement overtook the fear as I sensed our approach to the Christ statue.
As an added bonus, the spot has one of the best scenic views of Rio.
I could hardly sit in my seat.
The van stopped and I was one of the first ones out.
There were another 5,000 people here ... in long lines.
I looked all over for the Christo. It seemed odd that somehow I misplaced a 38-metre tall statue.
“Where is it,” I asked someone wearing a vest.
He looked at me rather oddly and pointed to another peak at least a mile away where Christ the Redeemer spreads his arms encompassing the city.
“This line. Two hours. Buy ticket for another bus. It goes there,” he said pointing to my goal.
I tried not to read anything into the fact that the statue had its back turned to me.
MONDAY, JUNE 23
RIO DE JANEIRO - It’s 5:30 p.m. in Rio on a Monday, the height of rush hour.
Cars, buses and taxis are normally bumper to bumper with horns blasting, people yelling, sirens blaring and dogs barking.
But right now roads are virtually deserted. The neighbourhood is silent except for the occasional horn that honks
It isn’t quite a ghost town, but close enough to be scary.
It isn’t the zombie apocalypse.
Brazil is playing Cameroon and the city has shut down.
In fact, one doesn’t need to even watch television to know what’s going on. When Brazil scores the silence is shattered by wild cheers, sirens blowing and firecrackers exploding for minutes on end even the dogs begin to bark.
Then silence again.
Cameroon scores to tie the game.
Not a cheer or horn disturbs the air.
Minutes later, Brazil takes the lead. Cue the cheers, sirens, firecrackers and Fido. It happens twice more.
At 6:50 the final whistle ends the game. Brazil has won 4-1.
Afterward, it’s like a tap has opened, but instead of water out pours, cars, trucks, motorcycles and people. Rio returns to the Rio everyone knows.
Car horns blast in unison, firecrackers are set off and people are yelling in the streets.
A ghost town gives way to life.
For another night Brazil is able to overcome its nervousness and apprehension.
That is until June 28 when the country shuts down yet again to sweat out another 90 minutes, this time against Chile.
SUNDAY, JUNE 22
Rio de Janeiro—Travelling isn’t just about going from Point A to Point B, it’s about the people you meet.
Few people would ever get a chance to meet journalists from all around the world. The inside of a World Cup press centre is like a three-ring circus. It is not the standard, normal, professional atmosphere North American journalists are used to working in.
For many journalists from other nations, there is no such thing as being a neutral. Polite applause one can live with, even though in North America the person would be told to take a hike.
It is not unusual to be working and have a sudden roar go up when “their’ team scores. There are hugs and high fives. Often you see an accredited journalist show up wearing a jersey of the team he or she is covering.
There have even been occasions when a journalist hasn’t liked a call and yelled at the referee from the press box.
No one says a word because it is accepted practice.
Then we have the selfie takers. We are talking dozens and dozens of journalists posing in front of their desks, with their backs to the field and heaven forbid if a famous old-guy soccer player shows up in the press room, they run so they can get his autograph and a picture taken with him.
Then we have the guy we call ‘The Screamer’. This is a radio broadcaster who does a report every 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s just one guy. Many times it’s two or three from different nations.
It might be the weather, news of a starting lineup, the colour of the grass. Every report is done in barely controlled hysteria as if someone scored a goal to win the World Cup.
“ONE HOUR BEFORE THE GAME AND IT IS RAINING, A SOFT GENTLE RAIN WITH NO WIND. OH MY GOD!”
Often, this is the guy who didn’t get a ticket to get into the press box so as the game is being played, he’s watching it on television in the media centre. The minute something happens he does his live report and now he is using his outdoor voice.
“GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLLL. MESSI HAS JUST SCORED. HE’S JUST SCORED. THE CROWD IS GOING CRAZY AND IT IS STILL RAINING, A SOFT GENTLE RAIN WITH NO WIND. OH MY GOD!”
How he would know is anyone’s guess.
Finally we have ‘The Scrappers’. They fight to get in line at the cafeteria, fight to get in line to get their media tickets and the other day, fought to get into an elevator that already had 200 people in it.
Welcome to my world.
FRIDAY, JUNE 20
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- The World Cup is probably the longest assignment a newspaper person can go on without taking up permanent residence in a country.
When you are away from home that long, you seek basic comforts and there is nothing that brings more basic comfort than finding a place you can eat where everyone knows you name.
Ok, so it isn’t exactly Cheers in Rio because it’s hard for people that know your name when they don’t speak English and you don’t speak Portuguese.
But, you find your favourite local spot through trial and error, lots of trial and error.
Just down the street from our apartment is the rustic, working-persons restaurant bar.
The first time in, we sat at a table right next to entry. A woman in her 60s hobbled in and gave us a look that would frighten the curl out of a pig’s tail.
She called the owner over and began to harangue him while pointing at us. He kept trying to calm her down. Finally. she sat behind us, mumbling and giving us the hairy eyeball as he brought her a beer.
Five minutes later, we got up to leave. She moved with the swiftness of a cat and sat down in our (her) spot immediately, with her beer and a big smile.
This place specializes in common food, the kind of food that Brazilian slaves used to make. We’ve learned a few words, like meat and beer. We’ve now taken to going there and simply asking what’s good today.
Even though he tells us, we still have no idea what it is. He’s taken to bringing out a chunk of whatever it is on a plate to show us.
If it looks good, we order it. Today it was beef -- actually, beef spine -- marinated, cooked until it fell off the vertebrae.
It was a big portion, probably from the L1-to-L5 along with the sacral vertebrae (where the spine goes into your tailbone). It came with some unknown greens, rice and three pounds of potatoes.
THURSDAY, JUNE 19
RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO, Brazil - There are times when you can get too much local colour.
With three hours to kill after the Chile-Spain game before taking the six-hour midnight express bus from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, several of us followed a local’s recommendation for a restaurant with huge hunks of beef and was relatively affordable near Maracana Stadium.
We hopped into a cab and gave the driver the address. He nodded and gave us the most common form of communication in Brazil, a thumb’s up.
We drove off and quickly found ourselves in one of the places where no doubt the locals are used to slicing meat off the bone and probably not all for consumption.
I noticed the driver smiling at a text on his cell phone and tried to lighten the mood.
“Girlfriend?” I ask.
He looked at me like I’ve grown a second head. “Girlfriend?” I asked again with a different accent.
He must have understood, because his face lit up. “Yes, yes, yes,” he said with a big smile.
We drove another five minutes before he stopped and backed up on a one-way street.
“Aqui (here),” he said pointing to a doorway with thin, coloured neon lights along the doorframe.
It didn’t look like a restaurant.
“Aqui,” he repeated and then made the shape of a woman’s figure. “Girlfriend,” he said with a thumbs up.
Thumbs down! We got him away from the notion of bringing us to a strip club and back to the restaurant, which happened to be just two doors down. It was 8 p.m. and the restaurant was closed.
There was a massive metal garage-like door hiding any indication that it was a restaurant.
For once, missing a meal actually made me happy. The front of the restaurant reminded me a little too much of the setting for the St. Valentine’s Day massacre when seven of Bugs Moran’s thugs where lined up against a wall and shot by Al Capone’s thugs.
Dinner was just not worth it.
MONDAY, JUNE 17
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Never say never.
In Mexico at the 1986 World Cup, I made the mistake of believing nothing would ever match the experience of riding in one of the country’s taxi cabs. There were an estimated million cabs used during the tournament, most of them Volkswagen beetles. It was like a bug infestation.
That was before the Internet, cell phones and Rio de Janeiro.
Rio is a city of taxi cabs. It seems that every fifth car is a cab and while you make think it’s easy to get one, try doing so after a soccer game or during rush hour in the morning or afternoon.
When you do get into one, you realize quickly that these are special people driving them. They fight unimaginable traffic on most days and do so with nerves of steel. But there appears to be no law in Brazil about driving and talking on your cell phone while playing bumper cars with the rest of the traffic.
What puts them in a league above all taxi drivers is their ability to multi-task; talking or texting while driving and fighting traffic. Please note that most vehicles in Brazil operate on standard transmission. So while he’s texting, he’s also shifting.
Sunday night a few colleagues and I met Mr. Grump, the grumpiest person we’ve met in Rio. In truth, he could well be the grumpiest man alive.
It was after the Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina game and every cab was occupied.
Not Mr. Grump’s.
Mr. Grump was going home for the night. No doubt he broke into a smile sometime during the day and it exhausted him. He only allowed us into his cab because our destination must have been near his abode. He figured making a few more bucks to pay for charm school can’t hurt.
We showed him the exact address, which he had no interest in looking at.
He didn’t say a word to us. All he did was drive and watch a cooking show on his miniature television, set on the dash of the car. Someone was making a roast.
And for that Mr. Grump is a first ballot entry to the Taxi Driver Hall of Fame.
SATURDAY, JUNE 14
MANAUS, Brazil -- It began with a Top Gun-like taxi ride in Rio de Janeiro.
It ended somewhere in Dante’s Inferno in Manaus.
After Saturday’s trip of the Damned to this eco-friendly city, I faced my own Green Mile, only it turned into about 20 miles.
Travelling to the airport in Rio on a Saturday is pleasant for a change. No chaos. No Mad Max.
Unfortunately, it seemed to the pent up emotions of rage for our driver who for most of the week is used to crawling along at tortoise-like velocity.
The moment he hit the highway it was like a colt loosened from its restraints. He hit speeds of 100 kilometres an hour, weaving between cars moving from outside lane to inside lane with an almost euphoric grin on his face. That might not mean much in Canada, because the highways here aren’t like Canada at all.
In an effort to break him out of his trance, I joke “you must have been a race driver” and mimicked driving like a mad man. Something got lost in the translation because he grinned maniacally and put the hammer down. Just before covering my eyes with my hands, the speedometer read 130 and we were close enough that I could shake hands with the driver in the car next to us.
We made the airport in 15 minutes . . . unheard of unless you go by helicopter.
The more than four-hour flight to Manaus allowed me to recover.
I should have known better.
On arrival in Manaus we went to the FIFA shuttle area. Six people were manning the booth with no one to serve.
“Can we get a shuttle to the stadium?” I ask in my charming, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing sort of way.
“This is shuttle is for FIFA personnel, FIFA ticketholders, FIFA sponsors and other important people,” the young man said in his best you-are-none-of-these things-voice.
Being dismissed by prepubescent teen in a uniform was not pleasant.
So I took off on another taxi ride with George Johnson from Calgary Herald.
Things went well and were close, oh-so-close to getting to the stadium.
But this is a FIFA run tournament.
The cab was turned away from the easy entry to the stadium and no amount of credential waving was going to help.
We battle 500-yards of horn honking, people stopping in the middle of the street to take pictures of themselves with the guards and were stopped at another roadblock. We showed our credentials and the army guy pointed at George and me.
No doubt what he meant. “Get out of the cab now.”
Not good. Big gun, big guy, no smile and not even my disarming charm could sway him.
He stood us on the sidewalk. We stood there for two minutes waiting our fate and perhaps a last cigarette and blindfold.
Suddenly the army guy pulls a city bus over with shoppers and regular folks on it. He makes them open the door and puts us on it.
The bus travels 50 yards.
We have to get off.
Arena Amazonia might as well be in the Amazon.
We start walking. It’s slow because every 10 feet George has to drag Morris. But after 20 feet a woman jumps out with a clipboard and says “this is your bus. We take people with passes and it will get you right near the stadium.”
I could cry in gratitude but I have no moisture left in my body.
We get on the bus and realize it’s transportation for physically challenged individuals.
Off we go. We travel a kilometre and see the right hand turn to the stadium with Arena Amazonia 100 yards away.
The bus turns left.
“For the love of God, stop. Have mercy” I say from my seat. “We’re going the wrong way.”
Clipboard woman says “no worry. We just have to go around.”
And we go around . . . and around . . . 10 kilometres back the way we came. I am about to hang myself on a hand strap just to end it all.
We finally turn around and come back six kilometers and there, just in front of us is . . . the army guy with the gun at the roadblock.
I begin to weep.
“Why?” I say to clipboard woman,“why me?”
“This is determined by FIFA,” she says.
That explains everything.