August 2nd, 2009

I’ve been back in the US for almost two weeks now, and it still feels pretty strange to me. I’m not used to seeing people I know, to easily overhearing conversations going on around me, to being able to read menus effortlessly, to not standing out as a gringo or a foreigner.

Getting back from Brazil involved a one-hour flight from Rio to Sao Paulo, an hour+ bus ride (in Sao Paulo traffic) from the Congonhas domestic airport to the Guarulhos international airport, four hours waiting, a six-hour overnight flight to Mexico city, and finally five more hours to Chicago.

The transition from “near-absolute freedom in Rio de Janeiro” to “my parents’ house outside Chicago” was rather jarring. Luckily for me, the airport in Mexico City is basically like a American colony created to ease the transition. There is a Starbucks, a Carl’s Junior, a 7-11, an Angus Steakhouse, and no actual Mexican businesses that I identified.

I had the following conversation with one of the very helpful information desk attendants. It began in Spanish, but he shifted to nearly-flawless English as soon as he figured out I was American.
“Good morning, how can I help you?”
“I was wondering if there is a place I could get Mexican food.”
“There is a Chili’s on the upper level.”
“I’m sorry, my Spanish is very bad. I don’t mean food in Mexico, I mean food of the type that is typical from Mexico.”
“You can get fajitas at Chili’s.”
“See, I’ve just been in South America, and I really missed good Mexican food. There isn’t any real Mexican food at the airport?”
“Only Chili’s. Sorry.”

I took a pass on the airport Chili’s, but there are plenty of other things that are amazing about America: bendy straws, free refills, ice cubes in drinks, the Eisenhower Interstate System, In-N-Out, Chicago-style pizza, actual Mexican food, and 24-hour diners.

Being at home after traveling for so long felt kind of strange, so after about a week I beat it out west for Defcon in Las Vegas, which is where I am at the moment. The convention has been pretty cool, and I’ll try to write about that later. Sunday night, I’m hitting the road again, this time headed for the Seattle area for the returning Watson Fellows conference.

One small punch for man…

July 20th, 2009

…one giant hit for awesome.

I don’t usually just post links or youtube videos, but this one is almost too amazing to pass up. Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and somebody pointed me to the above video. How I managed to go this long without seeing this or hearing about the incident is beyond me.

In the 2002 clip, a 72-year old Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, punches a guy named Bart Sibrel in the face. Sibrel is apparently a filmmaker who claims that the moon landing was a hoax. He invited Buzz Aldrin to do an interview for what Aldrin thought was a Japanese TV show, and then started harassing him.

The lesson: Buzz Aldrin is a total badass. He may be old, but he doesn’t put up with crap. Also, he has just rocketed to the top of my Favorite Astronauts List.

Dedicated to Bernoulli and Newton

July 15th, 2009

A great man once wrote,

“There is an art, it says, or rather a knack to flying.

The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Pick a nice day, it suggests, and try it.

The first part is easy.”


On Monday, I decided to take that advice to heart. I’d been looking for something big I could do to cap off my travels, and jumping out of an airplane seemed to qualify. What follows is a collection of photographs and observations from that experience.

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The Audacity of Grope

July 11th, 2009

I’m getting towards the end of my travels now, and I’m starting to feel a time conflict between actually going out and doing or seeing things and blogging about them. Apologies if my posts are shorter, less frequent, and generally crappier. I have a lot of stuff that probably should be written about and I’ll get to it eventually, even if it’s in a disordered backlog after I return to the States.

Anyway, last night, I flew to Rio de Janiero. There’s a weekly street party Friday nights underneath the Carioca Aquaduct, so I went out to that. It was a really cool, lively scene, with samba, live music, colorful clothes and dirt cheap food and drinks.

I wish I had photos, but I try not to take a camera out at night in Brazil. So far on this trip, I feel like I’ve done reasonably well at avoiding theft. I was short-changed by a cabbie in Buenos Aires, and I lost my previous camera on the overnight bus, but I haven’t been mugged or lost anything really important.

In Brazil, I’m orders of magnitude more paranoid about theft than I have been in any other country. I’m used to being told, “oh, tourists shouldn’t go to that part of town,” but here in Brazil, even the locals seem really cautious. In Sao Paulo, when driving at night, everyone rolls through red lights because if you’re sitting stopped at a light, somebody might run up and rob you or take your car (I hadn’t realized the tactic I use in Grand Theft Auto was effective in real life as well).

When I go out at night here, I take only my old Pomona student ID (I actually have a Watson Fellowship ID too, but it’s closer to passport-sized and therefore really inconvenient to carry) and as much cash as I think I’ll need; I leave my bankcard, driver’s license, and camera. Last night at the street party, I was dancing when I felt a hand slip into my left front pocket. Since it wasn’t that kind of dancing, I was pretty surprised. I looked, and there was a guy next to me blatantly grabbing for my wallet. I shoved him, and said something appropriately meaningless but internationally interpretable like, “Hey! What the fuck, man!”

I’m not exactly sure what reaction I was expecting. Quickly slinking away? Feigned confusion and denial (“Oh, see, I thought I was reaching into my pocket! My mistake.”)? Trying to pass it off as a gay pass? In any case, his actual reaction was probably funnier. He just kind of stared at me with this shocked, indignant look, like he couldn’t believe that I might actually be offended by his comically-obvious attempt to pickpocket me. We stared at each other for 5 or 10 seconds, and then he moved off, presumably to try again on somebody drunker.

In truth, this is only the second goofiest reaction I’ve gotten from somebody trying to rip me off on this trip. In Florence, I went out for drinks with my friend Rachel, and we paid the bartender with a €20 note; he brought back change for a €10. When we called him on it, he just laughed and gave us the correct change, while saying, “Ha! You caught me! (Do we win a prize?) I have to try, you know, I always have to try…”

I’m glad I held onto my wallet, but I also feel like maybe I should have done something more to raise the marginal cost of pickpocket attempts. There were plenty of cops around, but by the time I approached one and explained myself there’s no way they would have caught the guy. Maybe I should have hit him, but the chance of inciting a street brawl made that option less appealing.

I understand that petty theft is going to be an issue any time you have rich westerners and crippling poverty in close proximity. I am not an absolutist when it comes to property rights, and the gross disparity in relative need complicates the moral calculus. In Buenos Aires, one night I was walking home eating a takeout pizza when a bunch of street children begged away all my slices. I don’t care what you think of Lew Rockwell, you’d have to be a monster to look a hungry child in the face and go right back to eating your cheese and pepperoni.

That said, I am not such a bleeding heart that I’m just going to let you take my wallet.

“Like NYC threw up on LA”

July 3rd, 2009

The above phrase is how one Brazilian described Sao Paulo to me. I’d say it’s a fair characterization. You have insane traffic, valet parking and beautiful people similar to Los Angeles, but also towering skyscrapers, business/financial heft and arrogance reminiscent of New York.

Sao Paulo from above

This photo gives some sense of how large and built-up Sao Paulo is. There are skyscrapers and high-rises almost all the way out to the horizon, and then mountains way in the distance. Oh, and from the center, the view looks like this in all directions. Sadly, this photo was not taken from a helicopter, but rather from the observation deck of the Banespa Building, which was inspired by the Empire State Building and remained the tallest building in Sao Paulo for many years.
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