Monday, October 29, 2007

The Day We Found Paradise

All of a sudden, we found ourselves standing on top of a sand dune. There were mountains, a winding shoreline, and a harbor with fishing boats lilting to the right. The water was teal and there were islands in the distance. It was as picturesque as the Virgin Islands or any other top tourist destination, only it was empty--except for the horse cart in the distance and the dog at our side.

We'd taken an all night bus ride to Curitiba, a four hour bus ride to Floripa, and another two hour bus ride on a local bus down dirt roads, stopping every so often to pick up school kids. We knew we were headed for a pousada in a fishing village where they have pick up games on a sand bank formed where the diverging river meets the ocean. We did not know it would feel like paradise or that a small tan-colored dog would follow us everywhere: when we went to the grocery store, she patiently waited outside the door; when we played and filmed within the yellow goalposts further down the beach, she sat beside our camera bags; when we returned from a day out, she ran down the beach to greet us.

Our second day, Anderson--the musician and pousada manager who took us in--drove us the five minutes to Guarda do Embau, the beach that was even more scenic than the one we were on. As we pull up, there is a man sweeping in the road. Ryan turns back in his seat to watch him and says, "I'm pretty sure we know him."

While in Santos, a man who looked like Jesus with a short hair-cut approached us on the beach and handed us fruit that looked like kumquats. (Though we aren't quite sure what kumquats look like.) Luke engaged in pleasant, friendly conversation, we said good bye, and never expected to see the man again, certainly not sweeping on cobblestone streets in a 500 person village a good ten hours away from Santos.

His name is Ilson and he tells us he's a shaman. He strolls over to us, as though seeing us is an ordinary thing. He offers to take us out on his fishing boat. We walk around fifteen steps to the beach, climb into a yellow wide canoe and Ilson uses a bamboo stick to guide us across the river to a beach. He and Anderson then lead us as we climb over rocks, up a hill, and pause at the top of a cliff. From our viewpoint, we can see three or four different landscapes--there's the green grass/boulders of New Zealand, the teal water/islands-in-the-distance of the Caribbean, and the sweeping-sand-dunes of the Middle East. Ilson randomly starts doing capoeira moves and trying to engage Luke in battle. Luke, who took a few classes in Rio, shocks everyone and actually looks like he knows what he's doing. Gwendolyn compliments Ilson's leather necklace, forgetting that if you compliment someone in Brazil, they automatically give it to you. She now owns a necklace that once belonged to a shaman.

We then continue our hike, following Ilson as we repel along the side of a cliff in our flip-flops. He tells Gwendolyn to climb onto the King's throne: a rock suspended in the air, waves crashing against boulders twenty or so feet down. (The King also has a boat that only Ilson is allowed to go on.) We return back to New Zealand-scape, hike through a herd of cows grazing above the beach, head up the sand dunes, climb through some jungle, dislodge thorns from our heels, all while listening to Ilson talk about his parents abandoning him on the beach as a baby. Luke scratches his head and tells us, "Uh, he's feral. The wolves raised him on the beach until he was four." Ilson also tells Luke that Jean Claude Van Damme is his brother's father.

In the next couple days, we boat across the river to play in games on the island with the fishermen. Two look like Fabio and wear teeny-weeny bikinis. At one point, we look up and discover that the sky that was brilliant blue had suddenly turned black. As other beach goers flee, we continue to film, not wanting to abandon our most scenic game yet. Ferg keeps panning the camera, trying to capture the lightening bolts, until Ilson says, "We must leave." We listen to our shaman, board the boat, and fly across the water as we begin to be pummeled by bullet-like rain drops. Like everyone else, we take cover in the hut-bar-restaurant. It begins to madly hail. The bar owner uses the ice from the sky to make caipirinhas in a pail. As the fishermen play, "No Woman, No Cry" in Portuguese, the pail gets passed around the bar. It is the best caipirinha we've had. When there is a lull in the storm, we walk back to Pinheira, Ilson acting as our protector. Halfway there, thunder begins to boom loudly. We are racing the storm, lightening all around a purple sky. Gwendolyn, who used to run fitness on the beach for Santos during storms, wonders why she's always on a beach when there's lightening in Brazil. As the wind makes howling noises, we make it back to our pousada and our dog.

Our four-days in an ethereal utopia comes to an end and we head for another all-night bus ride...this time to Uruguay, home of the first country to win the World Cup.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sâo Paulo: Nenê's Court and Pelé's Supermarket

In São Paulo, we search for Nenê, who played with Gwendolyn for Santos Futebol Club. We take a ten-minute taxi to the metro station, ride for fifteen-minutes, change lines, take another thirty-minute ride, exit at Jabaquara, have an hour-long bus ride to Ferrazópolis, meet Nenê at the station, and catch a bus to her house. "If this were Europe, you'd have gone through three different countries," Nenê's mom says. "Here, you are still in São Paulo."

Her family--mother, father, eight brothers and sisters, and a dozen or so nieces and nephews--live in the two houses next door to each other. When they ask about our families and we convey that they are spread out, they ask us, puzzled, "Why?" We all feel kind of stumped.

From the roof of her house, you can see down on a small enclave of São Bernardo and the concrete futebol court. Growing up, she'd come up here to see if there was a game going on. Now, 25 years-old and having quit professional soccer two years ago for a steadier job to support the family, she comes up to the roof to scout a game less often. As we watch people play, she tells us a violent personal history that makes us feel like boring, sheltered Americans.

In the morning, we follow her to work at a toy factory. Wearing hair nets and ear plugs, we film...the visuals are so interesting it's hard to pull Ryan and Ferg away. When her shift ends, she goes out to the concrete court and checks to see who is playing before giving us the okay to pull out the cameras. The translation of the graffiti on the side of the wall: "Who is alive always shows up." At times she still has it, flipping rainbows over the younger guys' heads. At other times, she hangs around in the back, watching the game from a distance and looking like her mind is somewhere else. As we congregate in the kitchen after the game, her mother tells us, "I was always against it. She should live for God, not futebol. But I was at work, what could I do?"

On Sunday, we leave for Bauru, the small city Pelé grew up in. (Wikipedia will tell you otherwise...born in Minas Gerais and groomed since he was sixteen in Santos, Bauru's often forgotten, but not to those who live in Bauru.) We meet an old man who was close with Pelé's father. "He never did the same move twice. Even back in the days of peladas they'd carry him off the field."

"I'll drive you by the spot the legend used to play," Antonio tells us. He brakes in front of a construction site for a large super market. He turns around in his seat and gestures angrily. "No respect for history." Soon, you'll be able to buy dishwashing detergent and cheese in Pelé's old stomping ground. (The supermarket swears they'll have a commemorative corner.)

That night, we drive out to a game on the outskirts of town. "The best peladas are where the poor people play," our friend tells us. It's one of those schizophrenic, Florida-esque kind of skies: lightning and thunderheads to the right and sunshine to the left of the field that would look forgotten if it weren't for the thirty-odd people playing on it. There are sporadic clumps of grass and trash dotting the orange clay. Some men wear shoes, some wear socks, some wear one sock, some wear one shoe, most play barefoot. It's fifteen against fifteen, the type of game where you play against the other team as well as your own--everyone fighting for the ball. This game, like every game so far in Brazil, they call Luke "Alemão," which means "German." "Vai Alemão! Boa Alemão!" The goal is a foot-by-foot metal box and there are three guys standing in front of it. There is pretty much no chance to score. We play for two hours, nobody scores, and nobody seems too upset.

Our Brazil time is dwindling...Luke's consoling himself with rumors that Portuguese to Spanish is an easy transition, Ferg's studying her 501 Spanish verbs, Ryan's saying meekly, "I got an A in Spanish seven years ago..." and Gwendolyn has just resigned herself to being the language dummy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Santos: Long Walks and Old Men

In Santos, we worry our movie will be about us getting fat around the world: here we are in Trinidad, all fairly lean, here we are in Brazil, showing signs of being fed extravagantly by unbelievable hosts. To combat the massive intakes of food, we nix taxis and buses and go on 6 or 7 km walks between destinations. Santos is divided into regions by seven canals and we count each of them as we walk along the beach garden, ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest of its kind. Gwendolyn steps in wet concrete, literally leaving her footprint on Brazil. Ryan's stepping-in-something story is worse: as Rebekah starts shooting a game, Ryan walks off to scout out a wide-angle shot. He stands there for some time, pondering different angles of the quadra, questioning the inclusion of a tree, studying the light. He turns to walk back, feels his foot slip, and realizes that for the past ten minutes, he'd been standing in a pile of dog poop, the only pile of dog poop anywhere around.

On Monday, we're given press passes to watch the Santos men: we note that there are way fewer tricks in a professional pactice than a pelada. When a coach who decides your fate is watching, people are less keen to try and rainbow their way out of the back.

The following day, we play with the Santos women on the beach. While Gwendolyn is usually the only girl playing with guys, this time Luke is the only guy playing with meninas. None of them played on organized girls' youth teams. All of them learned their tricks na rua, on the street. You can see other games up and down the beach--goals made out of anything from upside-down bicycles to flip-flops, sidelines drawn into the sand.

On the field beneath our window, the old men play on Sunday mornings. At 6am, they begin to show up, sitting on the ledge of the canal. At 6:30, they walk through a fruit and vegetable market to a corner cafe, stirring sugar into their coffee and arguing over the Corinthians game. At 7, they walk through the gate to the field and sit at plastic tables at the not-yet-open bar. At 7:30, they head for the locker room. We wonder how many locations they can squeeze into pre-game. At 8am, the game finally begins.

They play well, they play hard, and they fall frequently, making wild hand-gestures and fighting over whether the tackle was clean. When Gwendolyn comes on, they laugh and smack their thighs, as though she is the unusual sight, when they are the seventy-year-olds shimmying down the field, their knees only occasionally buckling. They shout in each others' faces: "You just passed it to my knees," "He's a trashcan, he's a trashcan, pass the ball to me," "This game will be shown all over the world and that's the ball you play?" They're highly opinionated, as they all have over half-a-century of playing experience.

In the locker room after the game, there are many wrinkled butts and they are not at all camera shy. Ryan does his best to avoid full frontals. We don't want a senior-citizen schlong to leave us with an NC-17 rating. They talk trash and tell Luke that it's time for the third half--cervejas and a barbecue. We share toasts with the veterans and leave for São Paulo...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Brazil, Part 2: Nicknames & The Never-Ending Cab Ride

For the next three days, we go in and out of Rocinha. A gunman greets us at the entrance one day in English. “Hello my friends. Welcome to Rocinha, the most beautiful place in the world.”

Around 9pm on Friday night, Ferg and Ryan take establishing shots of Rocinha while Gwendolyn and Luke wander over to the field. Luke scratches the back of his neck and asks the group of guys sitting by the fence if they are about to play. One burly guy in a green and blue striped t-shirt seems to be the center of the show. He wears a long gold chain and a bright pink stopwatch around his neck and everyone calls him The Boss. This guy, Anderson, is the leader of Família Valão. Valão, which means both “big sewer” and “common grave” in Portuguese, is the name of the street in Rocinha they all live on. Anderson divides the guys into three teams by tossing out red pennies, blue pennies and jerseys that say Família Valão in a font made to look like dripping blood. We play until midnight. The lights are dim and it is too dark to film.

The following night we pursue the story of the waiters. We film and eat at Pizza & Grill Gambino, which offers 180 different pizzas with toppings ranging from sushi to stroganoff. At 1am, when the garcons have put the chairs up on the tables, washed the floors, and taken out the trash, they change from yellow vests and bow ties into floral board shorts. As we pass other restaurants at closing time, they call out to waiters through the open windows and signal toward the field. On the benches beside the concrete court, they uncap jugs of homemade caipirinhas and pass out small plastic cups. We down the lime, sugar, and cachaça, Ryan and Ferg head to different camera angles, and Gwendolyn and Luke join the Pizza & Grill team. We can hear the waves.

At 4am, the game winds down and we sit. Gwendolyn asks the head-phoned waiter who watched from the sideline what he was listening to…he gives her his ear buds and takes her through the Rocky theme song and Kelly Clarkson. By 4:30am, we walk down empty streets and the waiters stay with us until they can put us in a cab.

By 7:55am, we are back in Rocinha, wanting the story of the street. We meet Anderson in a narrow corridor of Valão. His family—uncles, aunts, parents, cousins, and grandparents—live in a three or four story building, a different generation on each level. We duck into his room, the first level. He shows us a row of large futebol trophies and a corner full of kites. Our guide, Emerson, says, “The big man is a little boy. Always flying his kites.”

Anderson slings his knapsack across his chest and we leave, winding through the maze of narrow passageways. The morning papers are hung out on a laundry line. He shuffles behind a group of men until he can see the headlines: Marta, Marta, Marta / Brazil 4, Estados Unidos 0. Motorcycles honk as they weave through the crowd of people striding toward their mornings. Anderson stops into his grandfather’s bar. His grandmother is behind the counter, shaking coffee through a water filter. He eats a baguette, chugs down his cup of coffee, and we leave. As we turn our back on Valão, he points out words that have been painted over but which you can still see: Família Valão, good at futebol, funk, jiu jitsu, and women.

We part ways at the foot bridge—Anderson heads towards his job delivering hospital supplies and we head toward a beach game in Ipanema. As we leave, we know Família Valão won’t make it into the film. In the end, we weren’t allowed to pull out our cameras enough in Rocinha to tell the full story. We think about the Flannery O’Connor quote about having to kill your darlings. Rocinha is our first killed baby. In the next few days, we’ll also catch our first virus and have our first travel glitch…

The virus
While walking through the fields of Flamengo, we stop and watch a thirteen-year-old girl nicknamed Ronaldinha. The nickname fits: she’s got his charisma and flair both on and off the field. We drive an hour and a half to meet her in her favela in Nitteroí, where she’s played in peladas with boys since she was four. We play and film at the dirt field twenty or so yards beneath her house. Luke realizes he’s going to be that guy who got beat by a very small girl. She is very, very good.

Ronaldinha and her friends nickname Ryan “Michael Jordan.” As he is neither a basketball player nor black, we assume it’s because he is (kind of) tall. Ryan eats up the only time he’ll be called something that cool. Disappointingly, Luke garners the nickname of neither an athlete nor a handsome black man. They call him Macauley Culkin. (In Trinidad, they thought he looked like Bill Clinton—we’re not sure how these two mesh…)

We sleep on the floor of Ronaldinha’s house. At one point Ryan is told to go sleep at another house, wakes up there to a drunk man kicking him out in Portuguese, and promptly returns to Ronaldinha’s house. At some point in the night, in one of the two houses (which one we’ll never know), he acquires pink eye. Ferg, who shares the camera’s eye piece, has begun using the LCD screen more frequently.

The glitch
We calculate the price of four bus tickets from Rio to Santos and then try to find a taxi-driver who will drive us down the coastal route at the same price. Neco, who got out of our cab ride at one point to show us how tall his seventeen-year-old goalkeeping son is, decides he’s ready to see the coast for the first time. We see a whole lot of the coast…and realize that taking a cab driver out of his familiar terrain is not necessarily the best idea.

At 1pm, he glanced at the map, did a mini-samba, and told Luke that we were doing well and should be there within two hours. At 11pm, we pull into Santos. After four or five times asking for directions, we count: we asked twenty-one different Brazilians for directions. Neco wipes his head with a handkerchief about once a minute and tells us that we have taken him very far away. At times—on very dark roads—he turns his lights off. While we’d worried about the safety of our cameras on public buses, we now realizing driving a cab from Rio de Janeiro at night time could be a much worse idea. Finally, we arrive at our destination. Ryan’s sister has recently married a Brazilian and we are staying with her in-laws. Understandably, Neco wants a rest. Ryan wonders if asking his new family if the taxi driver can sleep over will affect his first impression. Luckily, Neco decides he’s had plenty of time with us already and gets on the road…leaving a contagious eye disease as the only thing that will mar Ryan’s first impression.

(Also, you never know how many barking dogs there are until you are trying to film.)