Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Brazil, Part 1: Rua de Lazer

You hear about Brazilian soccer players from an early age—they are the inventors, the magicians. While Americans learn prescribed moves—the scissors, the stepover, the fake kick—Brazilians make them up, coming up with it as they go along. And while you know all this beforehand, nothing prepares you for seas of eight-year-olds who can do loop-de-loos over your head.

Arnaldo greets us at the airport and drives us to his father’s home Nova Iguaca, a ghetto suburb of Rio. It’s probably not where most tourists end up. The Brazilians look right in your face as they speak—like they are extremely considerate, wanting you to be aware that they are speaking to you, for you…even though you can’t understand anything they are saying. We nod and wait for Luke to translate. Arnaldo drives to the grassroots newspaper that tries to bring news to the million residents of Nova Iguacu. From there, a journalist and a musician take us to the small favela they both grew up in. We walk over an open sewer and into narrow corridors covered in bright graffiti. A mix of kids, teenagers and forty year olds play in the widest street—occasionally pausing for cars, old women carrying bags of groceries, and bicycles with soft horns. Construction cones serve as temporary goals—their real goals got run over by a drunken truck driver the previous week. The favela graffiti artist leans against one of his drawings—a woman with large red lips—sketching in his notebook as he watches the game. He gives Gwendolyn a drawing of a woman in very short soccer shorts. After the game, we duck into a neighborhood bar and drink Guaraná juice as a television plays highlights from the Brazil/Australia women’s game.

The following morning we play in Mesquita with old men. They are forty, fifty, sixty-year-olds who play on the dirt quadras every Saturday morning. After the game, we walk over to the outdoor bar and sit in plastic chairs, sipping on Antarctica beers as the men tell us about Brazil. We follow one player to his church kitchen where he chops meat for a barbeque. As he pulls massive shanks of beef out of a tub, he tells us about his life: his parents’ death, meeting his now-pregnant-wife when he was eleven, the hernia at age seventeen ruining his early professional career.

On Sunday evening we head back to Mesquita, where they block off certain streets for peladas (Brazil’s word for pick-up.) A sign hangs on a rope saying Rua de Lazer: street of leisure. Ryan has a posse of kids following him, regularly yelling into the microphone to watch him flinch. Another pack of kids is chanting Rebekah’s name: Hebekah, Hebekah, Hebekah. Gwendolyn is pulled through a doorway and fed chopped up hot dog (she thinks) and grape soda. Women—mothers, grandmothers—watch the games from patio chairs on sidewalks as they sip on beers and smoke cigarettes. They are the organizers of the closed-off streets; “We are old school,” they tell Luke in Portuguese.

By Monday night we have moved into the city of Rio. We go to the field beneath the apartment Luke lived in while he studied abroad. It’s raining and it’s been three years since he’s played here, but when we show up at 7, nothing has changed: it’s the same group of faces, the same tri-weekly pelada, the same slow walk out to the field. “Lukie!” they yell, smiling. “Onde que tá o cabelo?” one guy says, rubbing Lukes buzzed head. (If you google Boughen and Notre Dame you’ll see a roster pic that explains why opposing fans called him Brillo pad.)

We walk up to the group of guys sitting beneath the shelter and Luke taps his belly and says, “Cadê o gordão?” Everyone laughs and Gwendolyn waits for Luke to explain that this guy, who gives no signs of being anything but stereotypical Brazilian beautiful, used to be fat.

Monday was also the first day we ventured inside Rocinha: the government-shunned slum built onto a hillside and somewhere in the narrow range of 40,000 to 400,000 people. The only time you’ll see police there is during a raid. We have to get ok-ed by the drug lords first; they are the ones who run the favela, providing medicine, paving roads, and keeping the crime rate low. One professor emails us that he could not get us permission to enter. We finally meet two guys, Rogerio and Washington, who grew up there and agree to take us in. We plan to meet them at 3:00 at the bottom of the footbridge right outside the favela, and we get there early to ensure we don’t miss them. Our promptness backfires: they aren’t there yet, and we are now four tourists hanging out at the entrance to a slum. Ryan and Gwendolyn—with their darker features—try to create some distance between themselves and the blonde hair\fair skin of the other two. Ryan is comforted by each elderly person that passes by—the rationale goes, “if she has lived this long, surely we won’t get murdered in the span of a few minutes.” At 3:15 Rogerio shows up and escorts us in. Rebekah walks beside him, wearing her I-have-some-place-to-go face. Gwendolyn walks behind them, wearing her I’ve-been-more-afraid-before face. Ryan and Luke chat in the back as they take in the place that feels like a movie-set, with exposed wires hanging over our heads. There are men on both sides of the road with guns so big they look like toys. They send Rogerio an inquisitive look—he returns a thumbs-up and a nod, and we file into the narrow alleyways.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

T&T, Part 2: Trinbagodians

While out on the Queens Park pick-up fields, we are introduced to Carlan, a steel pan player for the government. On slow days--days when there are no diplomats to play music for--he rides his bike out to the field, orders a snow cone with condensed milk and watches practices and pick-up games. On Friday night, his friend Andre picks us up in Chaguanas and we drive to meet the other drummers in Barataria. As we drive by roti huts, Stag beer stands, and swarms of people waiting to catch the next Maxi Taxi, we see people playing through a high chain link fence. Andre pulls over for us and we play with local street guys on one-half of a basketball court. The game is good, the guys hanging out in the run-down bleachers are loud, the lighting is right--it's the kind of pick-up game we think will make the final cut. On Monday, we head for the island of Tobago where we hear life is slowly paced. We rent a car for two days and Ryan is elected as our left-side driver, navigating the aggressive T&T drivers, winding roads, and absence of cliffside guard-rails. We only almost die twice - once when we barely squeeze between a semi-truck and a ravine, and once when our car, for reasons unknown, decides to completely shut off while driving at full-speed. We turn the car immediately back on, and head for Store Bay where we play with guys from Trinidad, Guyana, and South Africa. It begins with a juggling circle, but as the sun starts to go down, the Trini with Rastafarian dreads points to the sky and says, "The candle's going out." So we move quickly to playing, sticking driftwood into the sand for goals. Ryan and Ferg rotate between shooting the game and killing mosquitoes on their faces as the sun dips below the ocean's horizon. On the ferry back to Trinidad the next night, we run into some of the same guys and play Gin Rummy as the boat pulls into the Port of Spain. Port of Spain is a busy city and we feel proud of ourselves as we stride towards the City Gates terminal to meet the bus (as though we know what we are doing.) We buy tickets for the busride home to ChaGUANas, try to board the bus to ChaGARAMas, therefore missing the correct bus and having to take an alternate bus route home. Around 10 pm, we are dropped by the side of the highway. A black, tinted-window SUV pulls up behind us and we meekly turn around, wondering if we are about to regret doing exactly what our hosts have told us not to do: walking with all of our expensive equipment...by the side of the highway...at night. The window rolls down and we have an anticlimatic end to the story: it is Ian, our host, who'd somehow known to come retrieve the Americans who'd become a little too flush with self-sufficiency. The unknown SUV is apparently what he drives during his night shifts as a bank courier. He drops us off at the house, lifts the lids on the pots and heads back to work as we pile goat, coconut milk, and cornmeal onto our plates. With Ian's daughters we watch Digicel Rising Star, Trinidad's slightly lower-budget version of American Idol, with a little bit of gospel, break-dancing, and a new musical twist on Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings."

We pack up and get ready to head to Rio...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Trinidad, Part 1: Garlic Pineapple

At 3:30 AM, we finish packing, Gwendolyn loses her passport, and Ryan thinks he's gone blind. By 4:15 AM, Gwendolyn found her passport, Ryan discovered he stuck two sets of contacts in his eyes, and Ferg is waiting by the car, worried about time.

By 4PM, we are eating okra and pig's tail in Trinidad, with the family of Gwendolyn's club coach. Louis, a cousin, takes us walking around the Burroughs of Chaguanas. He wears a beanie with a brim, a red wife-beater, and Lugz boots. We walk by fruit stands, bunches of bananas hanging from string, men with machetes cutting open coconuts. There's a troop of stray dogs following us. We buy salty, spicy, garlic pineapple, though we did not know it would be salty, spicy, or full of garlic. Luke, who doesn't like to waste food, keeps offering the plastic baggie to people who walk by. Everyone rejects him, like he is the creepy guy at Halloween who offers poisonous candy to children. Trinidadians drive fast and without fear--aggressively nudging their way into intersections. Louis has the same approach to crossing traffic when on foot--he slings his arm out to the side and the four of us follow like little ducklings into the middle of crossing traffic. Once it turns dark, Louis says, "Without me, someone will put you in a car and steal you. I'll protect your life." We smile and nod.
At home that night, Gwendolyn talks to a friend of her coach, and he tells us to meet him at the Royal Bank at 10am. We have no idea what for. He takes us to a training session of a team trying to qualify for the semi-pros. Training sessions are exactly what we're not looking for, but we don't have the heart tell our boisterous, gold-toothed host. The team has lost two games in a row, so they run sprints all practice--Gwendolyn and Luke don't want to be the Americans who are too cool to run fitness, so Gwendolyn is sprinting her face off to keep up with long-legged Trini men. After practice, we again explain what we're looking for.
At 4pm, we arrive at the Queen's Park Savannah, the giant park filling up the largest roundabout in the world, where we hear people play pick-up in throes. At 4pm, we see zero pick-up games...it's only teams in uniform. It's also raining, so Ferg and Ryan are hiding with the cameras beneath a large tree. At 5pm, right as we are starting to feel defeated, hundreds of people--old and young--show up to play. There are different pockets of games going on and every one of them plays until it is too dark to see your hand in front of your face.
In the middle of the roundabout, there are large trenches that used to be a horse track. Ryan falls knee-deep in the water-filled ravine. Ferg makes fun of him. Approximately thirty seconds later, Ferg tries to kick a ball back into play, slips in mud, and bites it hardcore. Ryan asks, "Is the camera ok?"