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First Chapters

Ed’s Latin America Journey – November 17-December 31, 2002
Episode 1 -
Grasshoppers -
Appetizers or Pest Control Insects?
You Decide...

'The secret is not to look before you swallow...'

November 17
Greetings from deep in Mexico...
I am five days into my journey and discovering new things which will be meaningful for the rest of my how grasshoppers taste better with a squeeze of lime and that worms taste better in handfuls rather than individually (though what doesn´t, really?). No, I am not committing a slow suicide but rather finding new protein sources, especially with the hazard of carbs all around in the tortillas and flautas. The secret is not to look before you swallow (but that´s true about so many things in life, don´t you think?).

I had my cooking lesson this morning with Iliana de la Vega, who runs the excellent El Naranjo Restaurant here in Oaxaca - no 23-ingredient moles, but I did make killer chile rellenos with three different chile peppers (I didn´t know you could use the dry ones) and enough salsa to choke an abrasive French tourist. It was serious fun to cook in her restaurant kitchen. She told me I have a flair for chopping, so ´sous chef´may be a career option after the trip - though I didn´t tell her my salary requirements. Coincidentally, I just saw her on the Food Network before I left and didn´t know that was who was going to teach me. She didn´t seem particularly impressed that Alex Garcia showed me how to make Venezualan arepas in his restaurant in NY, but she was much nicer than Miss Vy, whom you may recall yelled at me last year in Hoi An for painting too much egg white on her banana leaves.

Love Oaxaca, but Mexico City was merely adequate, which honestly exceeded my expectations - crowded but having experienced the streets of Calcutta and the subways of Tokyo, nothing phases me. I did make it outside the city to Teotihuachan (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), though got winded going up the steps, so I gave up on the bigger one. A far cry from my first visit 32 years earlier when I chided my mother for not climbing. You know that everything comes back to bite you. The honest high point in Mexico City was tasting the local moonshine which tasted like a tequila mixed with Maker’s Mark bourbon. In Oaxaca, I did try the mole negro but you might as well slather the calories on my belly instead...same difference. I also went to Monte Alban outside of Oaxaca, which is what Machu Picchu would have looked like had it been built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Low architectural lines that align with the flatness of the hilltop upon which it resides. Pretty but more steps to climb. Going to Merida tomorrow to start climbing the Mayan ruins. Should not have let my Pinnacle Fitness membership lapse.

Episode 2 - "We Serve Only Fat Cokes"
November 30
Greetings from Santiago de Cuba,
I have sneaked successfully into Cuba, and I have to admit there is something exhilarating about a country so untouched by our signs of McDonald's or American Express, no credit cards, no traveler's checks (yet they only accept US paper currency - not even their own) and no Diet Cokes (apparently Communists do not need to lose weight - and thus the quote above is the response I got when I asked for one). You get the sense that this was once a rich country that has gone to seed with plenty of propaganda posters to read on the way from the airport. The upside is that mojitos are only a dollar apiece here, and I have been taking advantage.
Havana is really quite a city, reminds me a bit of New Orleans. You hear live music, mostly salsa, constantly from every bar and restaurant you pass by. Cars are either Russian compacts or American autos from the 40's and 50's, some look like they came right from the showroom. People are very friendly to Americans, though they yell either "Ja-pon" or "Sayonara" at me all the time. Gets tired. Mexicans seem sophisticated by contrast, but I find it much easier to talk to locals here. In fact, I've gotten chummy with a conga player here in Santiago who has invited me to the various music clubs here to listen to the locals play (a la Buena Vista Social Club). His name is Leo and his girlfriend Nancy (can you believe that name?) is a salsa teacher. These venues are nothing more than living rooms in houses with little tables that circle around a three or four-piece band playing music. It is so Cuba. Unfortunately despite Nancy's efforts, my salsa dancing is not improving.

The relative high or low point, depending on your perspective, was going to the Tropicana extravaganza, which is a remnant of the pre-Revolutionary glamour they had. It's equal parts Folies Bergere, Cirque de Soleil, and the "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy is wearing the huge headdress as she is walking down the stairs, but I have to admit I didn't care because I had my dollar mojito. I also went to the Patargas cigar factory to see how they are made, and that was fascinating watching a huge room of people rolling cigars as a woman reads the daily newspaper from the loudspeaker (apparently they have karaoke on Thursdays - sorry I missed that). I was expecting Sally Field to stand on a table with her union sign. Too bad I can't buy any of the Cohibas, as I am paranoid I will get caught by customs. The question I always ask locals is what do they think will happen when Castro dies. Everyone has a different opinion, though they would all love to see more Americans come directly to Cuba.

Anyhow I have one more night here in Santiago and then a very indirect route to Rio (via Cancun and Miami - damn United). By the way, I loved the Yucatan, and Merida is a great town - get there on Saturday, and all the streets downtown are closed for a music fiesta with salsa bands on different stages. My trip so far appears to be one big salsa contest, and I think half my pictures will reflect that.

Episode 3 - Tall & Tan & Young & Lovely, the Girl from Ipanema Goes Walking...
December 5
Greetings from Rio...
OK, I just had three caipirinhas - my new favorite drink (now that I can’t get those dollar mojitos in Brazil) at a samba club listening to yet more Latin music and stumbled into this Internet cafe. Just as I was mastering my six-word vocabulary in Spanish with what someone in Oaxaca told me was a flawless accent (of course, he was awaiting a tip as well), I come to Brazil and have to master the same six words in Portugese. I was hoping the two languages would have more in common (it’s all Latin to me!). But alas, they don’t, and the Cariocas (people from Rio) look at you strangely if you are an Asian speaking pidgin´ Spanish to them. Now I know how Charo felt on the Merv Griffin Show. Intriguing that their word for thanks (`obrigado´) sounds very similar to the Japanese word (`arigato´). Doesn’t give me an advantage though...I’m still on automatic pilot with ´gracias´.

Rio is humid and overcast right now, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful setting for a city. Must be amazing when the weather is perfect. Between Sugarloaf and all the beaches, it’s still hard to resist. It’s one beach after another with these singular mountains that jut out between them. And I sense a definite caste system with the beaches - for instance, my hotel is near Copacabana Beach, which is full of beer-bellied Europeans sausage-wrapped in Speedos. But you go further up to Ipanema Beach, and the height-weight proportion seems to correct itself, and you go even further up at Leblon Beach, and all you see are ridiculously attractive Brazilians, caramel-coated and chiseled to perfection. It was enough to make me drop my donut in the sand. Needless to say, I stayed at Copacabana for the duration since life hands you such rare opportunites to know your place in the world.

You know it’s mandatory to take the aerial tram up Sugarloaf - pretty once you get up there, but that tram was somewhat rickety and jumpy, reminded me of that really bad Sylvester Stallone movie (is there any other kind?) where people were dangling from the Roosevelt Island tram in NY. The thing was swinging in the wind, and a woman was going nuts next to me. She had to be from central casting - would have slapped her, but I was too busy reliving my sense of physical inferiority on Leblon Beach. The other must-do is taking the funicular train up Corcovado to see the outstretched Christ beckoning the city. Had to do it twice since the fog screwed up my first attempt at photographing the statue (it was pea soup-thick, I tell you). Got ugly up there with tourists jostling for prime position in front of the statue. This time, I did almost hit a nun who kept trying to copy the statue by stretching her arms out and inadvertently punching out everyone around her. At least I´ll assume it was inadvertent. Oh, and I did visit the Carmen Miranda museum, definitely the third must-see in Rio....not! It´s one of those things I had to do because you wonder why they would have a building dedicated to her (I mean, can the Jennifer Lopez Museum of Natural Butt Movement be that far behind? ) I felt so sorry for the receptionist-curator-trivia expert there. I think I was the only one who visited that day, so he made me watch his tribute video of Portugese. He gave me a beer, so all was not lost. He seemed bummed that I didn´t know the words to `Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay, I Like You Veddy Much´. And if you don´t know who Carmen Miranda is well words fail me..

There’s also definitely something edgy about Rio, like people are smiling and eyeing your wallet at the same time. Not that they´re not friendly. They definitely are. I guess the difference between a Carioca and a Habanero (from Havana) is that Brazil has had more practice in capitalism and the art of getting your money. But I like it here, and this is the place to let your hair down...though not cut. Got my hair cut today and I have one word for the result, just one word...Auschwiscz! But still definitely coming back. Off to Sao Paulo tomorrow and then the Patanal in the western part of Brazil to see the other kind of wildlife. Internet access in an eco-lodge? Doubt it.

Episode 4 - Fruit Loops Are Not an Option in the Pantanal

December 11
Greetings from the sweltering heat of Salvador, Brazil...
Brazil is huge. I knew Rio would be hard to top. The mammary-shaped mountains - which explains why Brazil consumes more milk than any other country...ok, I’m lying, but they do have that undeniable shape about them. The terror-stricken woman on Sugarloaf as I stared coldly at her fear. The aggressive nun hogging the camera view at Corcovado, who was about to trip over my well-positioned hiking boot onto the flight of stairs below her. Such warm memories. Alas, Sao Paulo is no competitor to Rio. As it turned out, a half-day trip there was overkill since it is an unimaginative case of urban sprawl along the lines of San Jose. At least, San Jose has the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Valley Fair Shopping Mall. The highpoint was seeing all the Japanese-Brazilians nimbly speaking Portugese. Yet another brethren group from which I can feel isolated. Other than that, nothing of interest to make me leave the airport.

But this was mere preparation for the Pantanal, a wetland in the western-central part of Brazil, it´s about half the size of France (that´s big...even for the French). It took years for me to get there - once you get off the plane in Campo Grande (never heard of it, and it has nearly a million people...what do they all do?), you are driven five hours in a minivan to get to the eco-lodge, which is actually a big cattle ranch. It would be like landing at SFO after a three-hour flight with no free macadamia nuts, and then someone telling you that someone is driving you to Bakersfield for the next five hours. We did make a pitstop at a restaurant that served the world’s greasiest pork and sold rubber piranhas that make lovely Christmas stocking stuffers.This was to be my attempt at recreating my safari adventures of years past in East Africa, the Galapagos and the Amazon Basin. Perhaps I am getting a bit geriatric and critical, but when I want to see animals, I want to see mammals versus birds and reptiles. Somehow if I can’t relate to their reproductive systems, the connection is simply not there. Ironic since I’m sure I sterilized myself with all the Deet I sprayed on myself. Other than the occasional monkey and the biggest rats in the world (called capybaras...not cute, more like guinea pigs on creatine), it was a lot of mosquitoes, a few exotic birds and caimans who looked none too happy to see me. I paddled a canoe and kept bonking caimans on the head, which must have accounted for my lack of popularity. Given the somewhat pastoral setting, I kept imagining Martin Short doing his impeccable Katharine Hepburn impersonation and yelling for me to look at the loons. The staff would signal each activity every day with the ringing of a sad little cowbell. This included waking up at 5:30 to get ready for the morning hike into the rainforest or a slow horseback ride into the glue factory, I mean the grasslands. Anyhow, the food was surprisingly sensational at this lodge, better than any wildlife adventure I ever had...God knows how since I didn’t see a Trader Joe’s anywhere. The only omission was Fruit Loops as one of the breakfast cereal selections since you see so many toucans flying about (their beaks are more scary than comical and sadly not rainbow-hued). I suggested the Fruit Loops in the Comments section of their feedback card. Sadly the humor of the remark was lost on the French couple who sat next to me at meals.

I actually enjoyed the company of the French couple - surprised, aren’t you? After some hesitation given what I perceived to be his pomposity (after all, he was an executive for Alcatel in Brazil to do a divestiture), I told him I was laid off from my job at Schwab. He told me it was critical that I not take it personally since he was about to do a hatchet job himself. he even said it was obvious to him that I have strengths that could be easily transplanted in an environment that would be more conducive to my creativity. Sometimes it´s good to hear such things from complete strangers. Now I proudly write `Burden on Society´ when they ask for my occupation on information cards at hotels.

Well now I am in Salvador, which is a gem, at least the old town is (right, Marco?). Very tropical feel here, much like Santiago de Cuba. Time for another caipirinha.

Episode 5 - Tango Schmango...Where´s the Beef?
December 15
Greetings from Buenos Aires...
Salvador (in northeast central Brazil) was certainly a nice change-of-pace from the wilds of the Pantanal. The city is famous for the capoeia, a dance that lies somewhere between "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Battle of the Network Stars". It´s performed by sweaty, young guys who look to be auditioning for "Baywatch". One, however, was a bit chunky and landed his foot squarely on the forehead of his partner. They had to call an ambulance (true!). If you recall Chris Farley in the Saturday Night Live¨ skit where he is auditioning for Chippendales, you get the picture. Sad. Perhaps he should seek vocational guidance. There may be an opening at the Carmen Miranda Museum in Rio.

Alas, the joys of Brazil came to a thundering end in Iguassu Falls (on the border with Argentina) with what is apparently the world’s biggest waterfall. But does bigger necessarily mean better? Harry Reems would say yes, but I guess I don’t understand the appeal beyond the first thirty seconds or in my case, the first ten snapshots. I have a theory about the rush of the water and the pounding of the falls into the river, but it’s not appropriate for me to elaborate ijust yet. I was booked into the hotel next to the falls, nice enough though it appeared to cater to descendants of the Third Reich. I could easily envision someone leading the Brazilian music trio to play "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" with the guests singing along and hoisting their steins (my favorite scene in "Cabaret" - check it out). The trio - with native wind and string instruments - did play "New York, New York", never a good sign in a foreign country.

Well, I’m here in Buenos Aires, a city that would like to be Paris and at times, comes close with its broad boulevards and upscale shopping centers. What breaks the spell somewhat are the smashed windows and nasty graffiti on many of the bank buildings, a sign of the current economic malaise which leads you to think you’ve landed in Beirut. There are almost as many panhandlers as there are in my neighborhood. But Buenos Aires is a pretty, cosmopolitan place, albeit one of a rather faded quality. Blanche Dubois would feel at home here, and she would have to depend on the kindness of tango dancers since there are an abundance of tango houses here. I did see a tango show last night, and while impressive, there is too much stylized choreography to me. It’s like synchronized swimming without the water, and with some high kicks that make a severe concussion inevitable. Too bad the capoeia and tango dancers couldn’t get together and take Red Cross classes. The world would be a lot safer. Still looking for a good parilla for the world famous beef here. Well, no one is crying for me in Argentina, so I’ll be going down to Punta Arenas on the Chile side of Tierra del Fuego tomorrow. End of the world. Can’t wait.

Episode 6 - Richard Gere, Robert Redford and the Citizens of Mayberry
December 22
Greetings from Chile...
Patagonia is as unique as I would have expected it to be after reading Bruce Chatwin’s travel essay, "In Patagonia" (good book, check it out whether you go or not). This is where my winter-wear finally comes out of the bowels of my suitcase. It took quite a while to get there, and as most tourists do, I flew down to Punta Arenas, a smallish town situated across from Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of the continent. It feels like you have landed on the edge of the world, but it is not the cold that gets to you (FYI, it’s actually the shoulder between spring and summer now)´s the damn howling wind that hammers you as you walk down the street. While I am willing to be swept off my feet, I wasn’t thinking about a literal translation of that phrase. My only previous familiarity with Punta Arenas is the gaping hole in the ozone layer directly overhead, so I’ve been using a butter knife to apply all the sunscreen I need to avoid the overzealous sunshine (it is indeed blinding here). And I was at the super-mercado getting munchies when I saw rows of aerosol spray cans...Pam....Breck....what are they thinking? Are non-stick pans and bouffant hairdos worth the price of their skins?

Funny thing is that this place is apparently "in" among the aging, glamour crowd...Richard Gere and Robert Redford were both just there according to some of the locals...separately but you know those Hollywood types. Richard was on his way to Antarctica and without his new wife (!), though I think he brought his collection of gerbils with him (don’t ask!) Redford was here to do some fishing apparently. Don’t they have lakes in Utah? Other than that, Patagonia strikes me as quite similar to the southern part of New Zealand with dramatic fjords and glaciers, Alpine mountains, even penguin colonies. It´s odd to be sitting for dinner at 10:30 PM and still seeing daylight out the window, but alas, this is the land of the midnight sun since the summer solstice just happened. If Punta Arenas is like Mt. Pilot, then Puerto Natales is definitely Mayberry, as I have seen several denizens who could pass for Aunt Bee, Floyd the Barber and especially Goober. Opie has a nose ring though. It took three hours on a bus to get to Puerto Natales, but it’s necessary to hang out there in order to get into Torres del Paine National Park. That is a particularly breathtaking setting with granite peaks that jut out like the cathedral spires of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familias in Barcelona. I know that’s a high-faluting analogy, but at least it’s better than saying "phallic-shaped". Quite spectacular and the buffet at the lodge is not bad either. You’ll be happy to know that despite my complaints of pyramid-climbing earlier in this series that I did complete a nine-hour trek to the base of the torres (towers).

Right now, I’m in Santiago smack in the middle of this very narrow country. I just flew up yesterday and already had dinner at a nice restaurant modeled after the movie/book "Like Water for Chocolate". They definitely know how to make ceviche here. I was also able to settle one of life’s greater it Chi-LEE-uhn or Chi-LAY-uhn? If like me, you have been worried about committing a verbal faux pas when ordering sea bass at the finer eateries in San Francisco, then you will be happy to know the answer is...well, neither. They say Chi-YAY-no (Chileno). So just order the bass and hope for the best. Otherwise, Santiago has a certain passive charm. It doesn´t bother to compete with the glitz of Buenos Aires or Rio. I’m sticking around for a couple of days before taking a four-leg flight to Costa Rica. I even have a layover in Dulles in D.C. United is totally hurting, and they’ve already cut several routes, so I’m lucky to get there any way I can. Anyhow, I will be spending Christmas day in Miami International and Dulles International. Perhaps I could make a holiday meal out of the soda crackers at the Host bar. Violins please.
Feliz Navidad!

Episode 7 and Epilogue - Do You Know the Way to San José?
January 1
Well...apparently United doesn't because it took them over a day to get me from Santiago de Chile to San José, Costa Rica. I left Santiago late on Christmas Eve after struggling with the hordes of Chileno shoppers on the streets. However, I did discover a taste for Chilean wine ( very good and up and coming) and oh yes, you can get great seafood real cheap at the Mercado Central (central market). Go to the Donde Augusto Restaurant - they have an amazing mixed seafood platter for $5. Christmas morning was spent at the United Red Carpet Club at Miami International where I received a cold bagel and pity-laden stares from the cleaning woman as I was the only one in the room for most of the day. Then it was off to Washington DC in the afternoon (I was the only one at Dulles in shorts!) and then México City. I was a zombie ready for a Day of the Dead ceremony.

But I finally arrived in Costa Rica in the wee hours the morning just after Christmas expired. San José was nothing to write about, but the rest of Costa Rica is definitely a jewel as many of you already know. I ventured forth into the Monteverde Cloud Forest which required a 4-hour bus ride over very bumpy terrain. It compares equitably to a horrendous ride that I took to get to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Coincidentally, the name of the driver in both cases was Emmanuel. So let this be a lesson...if you do have children, unless you want your child to be an expert 4W driver pacifying grumbling tourists, then I would avoid naming him Emmanuel. I took the minivans to get around the country and since I was alone, I got to sit in the front seat where I tried to bond with the drivers. It was actually a lot of fun, and on my last night, my driver Guillermo invited me to have papusas and empanadas with his friends at his watering hole in an edgy part of San José. Not a bad way to end my lengthy trip - toasting my sojourn with cervezas and salsa-laden calories.

I also tried seeing the lava on top of Arenal Volcano, but it was covered in clouds at night when you are supposed to see the red-hot flows. The wildlife was a bit sparse throughout - again I am spoiled by memories of Africa - unless you count the mouthy tourists at the Tabacon Hot Springs. It's a resort consisting of a series of pools, waterfalls and wet bars (literally) filled to the rim with tourists. While the water was invigorating, the population density was somewhat overwhelming. Costa Rica was definitely the most Americanized of my destinations, as American tourists and American prices were most prevalent. Nonetheless, the country has its share of pleasures, and a return visit is in order if only to see the lava on Arenal and the elusive quetzals in the cloud forest - a beautiful bird that avoids the paparazzi like the plague.

Well, that's it. I just got home late last night just in time to fall asleep before the new year turned. A nice trip. A lot of time to think but frankly spent more time making new amigos, tasting the local liquor and eating a lot...though luckily didn't gain or lose anything. México had the best food, for sure. Cuba has music that gets you on your feet and a charm uncontaminated by our culture. Brazil is big, diverse and too overwhelming to absorb on a single trip, but returning to Rio at Carnaval would be a fun respite. My brief stop in Buenos Aires made me want to see what the rest of Argentina was like - though in a better economic climate. Chile has a lot of treats - and Patagonia is as striking a natural setting as you can hope for on this globe. Took my standard quota of photos, though my film passed through an unprecedented number of x-ray machines - we'll see how they turn out.

As I was on the plane home yesterday, I was reading a book - "Me Talk Pretty" by David Sedaris. A funny series of stories but a shared remembrance is what actually hit me in the book - one I thought no one else remembered. He mentioned watching a Japanese movie on TV that CBS showed several times on Saturday afternoons in the late sixties. It was called "Fatty and Skinny". It was about the friendship between two schoolboys - a fat boy dedicated to a skinny boy. Sedaris recalls vividly - as I do - the scene where the fat one is trying desperately to climb a pole but can't despite the urging of the skinny one and the taunting of the other schoolchildren. Well, the skinny one rejects the fat one for that, and then the fat one wails sadly for the skinny one - "Komatsu... Komatsuuuu!!!" I believe it ends when the skinny one moves away, and the fat one is chasing the car and falls to the ground crying. Funny how you can forget details, but the specific emotional response remains vivid. And I think the emotional response was valid...just broke my heart. And I don't think it's a Japanese-roots thing (though I remember thinking I was looking at the mirror when I saw the actor playing the fat boy). I was just thinking how I felt when I got laid off…rejected for not climbing the pole - even though I think people were certainly busy greasing it….chasing a car that wouldn't stop. But the actor who played the fat one grew up to head up the Sony Corporation and made a mint buying Columbia Studios. OK, I made that up...but hey, it could have happened.
Happy new year,

© Ed Uyeshima 2003

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