• Odds and Ends

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/26/2014 7:00:00 AM

    Friday, June 25, 2014

     

    Odds and Ends

     

    Today we depart for the airport for a flight to Brasilia, deep in the Amazon. Why the Brazilians chose this location for their capital is beyond my comprehension. But I’m sure they had a good reason. After a couple of hours of layover, we take the overnight flight back to Atlanta, Georgia and spend a final night with my sister and her family.

     The games are far from finished. We unwisely chose the day that the Americans face the European monsters, the Germans. But I believe we will be huddled in front of a wall-mounted flat screen television for a couple of hours in the Brasilia airport. Once I get back to Dallas, the do-or-die second round begins, which means that, once a country loses a match, it’s time to be sent home.

     Oh, the joys of language barriers. It is common knowledge that both Spanish and Portuguese come from the same Romance language family (NOT because they are ‘romantic’, but because they came from Latin, the language of the Romans). But because I speak Spanish, does this make Brazilian Portuguese mutually intelligible? Of course not. I did bring an English/Portuguese dictionary and even some Portuguese language learning CDs, but with the South Atlantic Ocean looming on the horizon and stretching north and south as far as the eye can see, the equatorial sunshine, and the eight hours of non-stop Cup games broadcasted from every single television in this country, who has the time?

     It’s the little things that often make an adventure most memorable. Yes, we did attend four, first-round games of the 2014 World Cup, but bringing my Martin Backpacker guitar on my vacations always adds that extra touch that I find so nostalgic when going through old photos.

     martin guard guitar

    And getting back to that language barrier thingy. The woman from whom we rented our apartment lives in Florida. We had paid for the majority of our rent through bank transfers. There was a small remainder of a fee to be paid when we arrived. The gentleman, ‘Jackson’ who takes care of monetary transactions for the building never asked for the deposit (I was walking around with $1500 cash for the occasion), nor did he ask for the remainder of our rent. We being the nice, contract holder-uppers, contacted the owner in Florida, as Jackson doesn’t speak English. I had called him once or twice to find out how some of the appliances work in the apartment, but there was that language thingy that kept getting in the way. Once we informed the owner that we had not paid the remainder of the fee, Jackson immediately came to our apartment to collect (I am sure that the owner frantically called Jackson to take care of the transaction before we left). He brought his teenage daughter with him who at least spoke a minimal amount of English. Now here’s where it got interesting. We were struggling with our instructions about what to do with our keys on the day we depart, which was in two days. The daughter just happened to mention that she spoke German. Bingo. It turned out that she had spent a year abroad in Germany. So, communication occurred first in English, with rapid-fire questions from my sister, translated by me in German to the young lady, who in turn passed on the inquiry in Portuguese to her father. And then the reverse happened. Jackson used hand gestures and he happily spoke in his mother tongue to his daughter, who gave me the information in German, and then finally, I relayed the answers to our party. It’s these kinds of events that create fond memories.

     And let’s not forget the Hammerhead ant. We were waiting for a taxi at the front gate of the high-rise apartment, to go to the Japan/Greece game. Suddenly, I felt something that could have very easily have been someone extinguishing a cigarette out on my back (don’t ask me why I know how that feels). My brother saw a small bump where I was complaining about where the pain was coming from and once I lifted up my t-shirt, a menacing looking ant fell to the ground. I’ll swear it looked like a Hammerhead shark.

     The owner of the apartment was kind enough to leave the names and numbers of establishments that deliver anything and everything. Even if we DID call them, we wouldn’t have been able to communicate with them about what we wanted. The ad for our apartment boasted of a 'bidet' in each of the three bathrooms. They looked suspiciously like my mother's dish rinser that protrudes from the top of her kitchen sink.

     business magnets bidet

     

    You wouldn’t think washing clothes would be so difficult. Hmmm…this button?

     clothes washer

    Finally! An appliance that was an American product! Too bad it didn’t work…

     dishwasher

    The Uruguayans sent the Italians home in the first round. This was so humiliating, that the Italian coach resigned after the game. I happened to be roaming the streets of Natal when the Uruguayan team rolled through, complete with a military escort, leaving the city to their next battle.

    Uruguayans  

     

    One of my bandanas that has traveled with me for three decades. Should I leave it here?

     bandana

     

    One of the side streets that leads from the beach to my high-rise hotel. And then an adjacent side street.

     side street adjacent street

     

    I’m not sure why the SIDE of our high-rise apartment building needed cleaning…

     building cleaning

     

    If you are one of my foreign language students, you most likely rely on online sources for translations. However, when on the move in a foreign country, with spotty Wi-Fi at best, the dictionary can be your best friend. Unfortunately for me, as I was preparing the evening’s meal with an Italian slant to it, I wanted to find the word for ‘oregano’. Nope, not there. But I did find the infinitive for ‘to mummify’ and the Portuguese word for ‘bayonet’.

    So now, we have four years to do our planning and homework for the next World Cup. Definitely bring something to eat that easily prepared. After traveling across multiple time zones and arriving at your accommodations in a tired heap, it is difficult to find the inspiration to fight the battle for public transportation and the transaction of currency in a foreign language. There are a number of items that I have recorded in my journal that will definitely figure prominently in my pack list in four years.

     There will be much to be done, but I already know what I will place most of my effort in...Российский.

     

    Russian.

    russia 2018  
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  • Uruguay vs Italy

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/24/2014 8:00:00 AM

    Tuesday, June 24, 2014

     Uruguay versus Italy

     A 1:00 kickoff inspired us to call for a taxi at 8:30 in the morning. It has taken us almost two weeks to figure this taxi stuff out. When you tell the nice security guards at the front gate that you want a taxi at 9:00, it means that they call for a taxi at 9:00. Now, it might take between fifteen minutes and an hour for the taxi to arrive at the apartment, but the initial call takes place at the time you request the taxi. That being said, we knew today’s game would be a monster. Both Uruguay and Italy are playing their third and final game of the group. Both countries went into the game with three points (one win and one loss). First place of the group went to Costa Rica, with six points (two wins). Remember, only the first and second place teams advance to the second round. So, whoever won today’s game, sends the opponent shamefully and embarrassingly home.

     Oddly enough, our apartment phone rang not five minutes after we requested a taxi (I was brave enough this time to call the front gate and use my limited Portuguese to request the transportation). The cab was waiting downstairs and quite unexpectedly it was a driver that we had used before. ‘Francisco’ was elated to see us again, or at least for the fare he was going to charge us. We zipped off towards the stadium and instantly bumped into military controlled traffic. Francisco babbled incessantly in Portuguese, obviously explaining why he was zigging and zagging through neighborhoods, trying to find a closer drop off spot to the stadium. He finally became exasperated and giggled as he profusely apologized about not being able to get closer. We didn’t mind. We still had almost four hours before kickoff.

    das dunas  uruguay italy 2

     We started off down the shutdown highway towards the stadium, which was over a mile away. In our down time (not watching the games on television) we were trying to monitor the weather on the Brazilian news channel. Thank goodness meteorologists around the world are fond of using icons and symbols. They were predicting a 60% chance of rain and we were all relatively prepared. It began to mist but it was obviously was going to be short lived. I was totally expecting a torrential downpour again for the duration of the game. In retrospect, that would have been welcomed. The sun came out and the humidity level soared for the remainder of the day.

     But nothing could do anything to control the exuberance of the crowd. And we were stunned to find that our tickets were actually on the front row in the north corner. We had decided to support Uruguay for a number of reasons, mainly because the Italians have had their share of World Cup victories and also, they appear to dive and roll much more than their European peers. Or at least I thought so, until the monumental game started and I saw Luis Suarez in action, who hugged the pitch whenever any Italian even looked at him. And then there was his biting. Sheesh.

    uruguay and italy  suarez

     Later, when we returned back to the apartment, (after a death-defying taxi ride at a breakneck speed from the stadium), the media was all over Suarez’ antics. On the Brazilian news, the newscasters were referring to Suarez as the “vampire” and were making comparisons to him and Mike Tyson.

     But now, history is history, and Italy is probably at this moment, packing their suitcases for their long flight back to Europe. It was rumored that in the 2010 World Cup, when Italy was sent home in the first round, FIFA flew the team and crew back home…in coach. 

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  • Life Before the Daily Eight Hours of Cup Games

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/22/2014 8:00:00 AM

    Sunday, June 22, 2014

     I still have a hard time referring to football as ‘soccer’. The rest of the world calls it football (except for the Japanese) and even one of my illustrious leaders (Here’s your plug, Larry!) of my co-ed soccer team politely refers to American football as ‘throw ball’. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Cup, the world convenes with the final thirty-two teams from across the planet. They are randomly divided (sort of) into eight, groups of four. All teams play each other once in their group. The top two teams advance to the second round and the third and fourth place teams are sent shamefully home, without an opportunity to stick around to sightsee or watch the games live. Then these losers have to wait another four years, just to have an opportunity to qualify for the next World Cup competition. 

     All of this was meant to convey the notion that there are three games a day during the first round, beginning and 1:00 in the afternoon, with the third game finishing roughly around 9:00 at night (here in Brazil). And I have no problem whatsoever sitting on my butt, watching eight hours of live ball, and subsequent highlights of the local news. I even enjoyed watching the German coach eat his booger. The Brazilian media relished in replaying the snotty scene, repeatedly, even in slow motion.

    portuguese fort  

     So, what is happening from early morning to kickoff, you may ask? That’s a good question. The sightseeing options in Natal are not as numerous as one might think. The transportation system in this city runs fine…if by taking a taxi driven by reckless Brazilians across spine crunching, cobblestone roads is acceptable. There are buses here, but since we are limited with the Portuguese language, I am reluctant to board one of these things (I’d probably be dropped off somewhere in Chile). There is an ancient Portuguese fort, a relic of their colonization era, but, meh, it was a $25 cab ride to get there, and when you get there, what do you do? Walk around and try to convince yourself that walking around in a circle is fun.

    fan fest 1  

     Every city has a ‘fan zone’ or a ‘fan fest’, sponsored by FIFA. Typically, these zones or fests consist of a giant screen that airs every single game, situated behind a stage, on which a local, or popular band plays in between games. In 2010, in Cape Town, South Africa, the fan zone was a daily visit for us. There seemed to be more new World Cup souvenirs for sale each day. It was in walking distance of not only our apartment that we rented, it was within walking distance of the SEVEN games to which we were awarded tickets (through the lottery of FIFA).

     Nope. Not here. Fan zone is a $25 cab ride from our apartment. The stadium isn’t even close to the fan zone. When we arrived at the fan fest after a suspiciously lengthy cab ride, the place wasn’t even open. We walked along the road overlooking the spectacular South Atlantic Ocean until 11:30, the scheduled opening time (which quickly became 11:45). There were maybe a couple of hundred people waiting and we all politely poured in. I was expecting stalls and stalls of FIFA sanctioned souvenirs (I want some 2014 World Cup underwear!), but there was but a single booth, and they didn’t even have my size of the shirt that I wanted. The band began to play at a monstrous, auditory level, and we weren’t even near the stage. I couldn’t even hear the souvenir attendant say the prices. We had originally planned to swim in the ocean before or after our souvenir hunt but we quickly blew that off after the eardrum assault of a band that was playing to a couple of dozen people, swaying in the sand in front of a stage that had to have been three stories above the ground.

     The coast of Brazil is known for its seafood. We have yet to try one of the finer restaurants that serve the famous shrimp from Natal, but we did take advantage of one of the nicer ‘churrascarias’. These eateries are more or less what one can find in Dallas at ‘Fogo do Chão’, and we pretty much waddled out of the place, once we had consumed several pounds of roasted muscle tissue of unknown varieties. However, we have spent the majority of the time saving money by shopping for groceries at a local market. This has proven to be a different adventure, almost on a day-to-day basis.

    meat eating  

     The first couple of times, it was straightforward. The neighborhood market was small, lined with extremely narrow aisles, packed with incomprehensible Portuguese labels. Fortunately, the cans and packages also sport images of the product hiding inside. There was a small selection of flyblown produce in the corner, which had to be weighed and tagged by a man in a window in the opposite corner. We were successful enough to find enough groceries to eat three decent meals a day. However, on one particularly one warm afternoon, there was a wrought iron gate guarding the entrance. A large Brazilian seemed to be allowing locals in and out of the store, one at a time. I tried to ask in Portuguese if the store was open, and all he did was ask me what I wanted. I had a list of items but I could only produce the words for Coke Zero and he trotted off into the store, only to return a few seconds later with a liter of the stuff and take my money over the gate.

     On another occasion, again armed with a small grocery list, the gate was again up, but this time, we were allowed to slide in behind the barrier…into a completely dark store. No power, no fans, nothing. We could make out the items on our list, but the register wasn’t working and the exchange of currency was done with the aid of a battery-powered calculator.

    local market  

    So, that is the extent of the sightseeing sojourns and daily adventures that we have experienced so far. But there is so much to be said for living on the twenty-second floor of a high-rise apartment.

     I find myself staying up stupid late, and people watching, for a lack of a better term. I brought some small, Bushnell binoculars, and after the last game of the day, the residential streets of Natal are plunged into darkness, except for the patches of yellow lights illuminating the streets under our apartment.

    apartment buildings  

    It’s strange. Our apartment building is modern and relatively huge. There are other massive high-rise apartments surrounding ours. They all have gated entrances, all manned by scowling, uniformed security guards. However, in between the blocks of monstrous monoliths of apartment buildings, are blocks of residential housing, interspersed with empty lots for sale. Empty is a relative term because every empty lot seems to be a license for a dumping ground. From our window, I have dubbed one of these lots ‘dead toilet bowl hill’. It stands between two private residences. Dead Toilet Bowl Hill appears to be the resting place of anything that once belonged in a bathroom, mainy toilet tanks and bowls. It also just happens to be located under a streetlight. During one of my nighttime searches with my binoculars, I noticed something dark and lanky lurking among the porcelain fixtures. Our neighborhood also appears to be the home of a large population of feral cats.

     feral cats

    Another oddity that I have noticed is the manner in which new high-rise apartments are constructed here. We are surrounded by what I am assuming are new, high-rise apartments in the making. However, the pace at which these buildings are going up is mind-boggling slow. I have yet to see more than a handful of construction workers, usually at the very top, doing very little else than what appears to be moving bricks around. The building frame seems to be complete, some even with the outer layer of bricks, but I can’t even see a functioning elevator. How long must it take to erect one of these things? Today, I don't even see a single worker on the building just across the street.

     

    The nightlife, as viewed through my binoculars is equally curious, or at least it is to this fifty-year old. There is not a single moment during the night in which the raucous, celebrating young people take a break from their thumping, deafening dance music, which is emanating from one of the many clubs and bars just a couple of blocks away. I can see the flashing lights and the line of cabs streaming to and from the establishments. Even at 5:00 in the morning, the cabs are still taking the stumbling young people home, wherever that could possibly be. Are they all tourists? All of the music in in Portuguese, or at least that is my perception. Just a couple of nights ago, I was awakened by what sounded like people banging on aluminum trashcans. I grabbed my binoculars and spied what was indeed,  a couple of young people, wearing what appeared to be trashcans strapped to their bodies, pounding them with drumsticks in rhythm. This was at 4:00 in the morning.

    5:00 in the morning  

     If there is a fireworks code in effect in this city, it is not enforced. The locals have no problem firing off very powerful rockets that are sent skyward with a shrieking, spark-spewing tail, that easily reach the 22nd floor of a high-rise apartment building, and then explode with a deafening boom. This happens all night long.

     Now the only reason we notice most of these things is because, wait for it, there is no air conditioner in our apartment. The woman from whom we rented the apartment insisted that the breeze from the ocean was more than enough to battle the warm, humid coastal weather. This is a matter of contention among our group. I am pretty much bald, so I am relatively comfortable. The women in our group are not so pleased with the temperature. Nonetheless, the windows MUST remain open, around the clock. Which means, that any and every sound that occurs outside the building, ultimately wafts up to the 22nd floor. This includes the amorous antics of the roving bands of nocturnal, feral felines. 

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  • Japan vs. Greece

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/19/2014 8:00:00 AM

    Thursday, June 19, 2014

    Japan versus Greece. Out of all of the games that we had tickets for, this was the one that frankly, didn’t have excitement written all over it. I love the beautiful game, but the Japanese and the Greeks didn’t look overly impressive during the international friendlies that led up to the Cup. But, there was always some fun to be had, now that we knew better to leave for the stadium at least four hours in advance of kickoff.

     It was another 7:00 game in the evening. The taxi that was called for by the attendants at the front gate of the high-rise apartment actually showed up on time and deposited us near the pedestrian bridge on the south entrance of the stadium. The Japanese were already in force, standing in long lines, waiting for the stadium to open. Some were sporting outrageous costumes. The samurai with the top hair knot costumes were popular, as well as the geisha girls, but others were just downright bizarre. One person was barely able to ambulate because he or she was inside of a giant bubble with the words “TACKLE ME EMPURRA” taped across the front of the sphere. Another fan was wearing a costume that resembled a bowling pin, with a hole cut out for his face. As we lined up for entrance into the stadium, a Japanese fan was handing out headbands with Japanese kanji (characters) written across the front, on either side of the red, Japanese rising sun. Fortunately for me, I speak enough Japanese to get into trouble, or at least have friendly conversations with the far traveled fans.

    bubble dude

    “この漢字の発音は 何ですか?”, I asked politely, pointing to the characters on the headband (How do you pronounce these characters?) The Japanese fans were instantly beside themselves hearing a Westerner speak Japanese. The two fanatical Japanese explain the pronunciation and meaning, and then made me put on a Mount Fuji costume, that resembled a cone shaped dress, that someone had obviously invested some time in. there were two arm holes and my face appeared out of a third hole near the snow-capped ‘summit’. The crowd around us applauded and roared as I paraded the volcanic vest up and down the switchback barricades to enter the stadium. Photos were snapped and I finally took off the warm costume, as my new best friends and I parted ways to our designated seats in the 40,000 + seats stadium.
    mount fuji  

    Once again, it’s not necessary to chronicle the actual games of the 2014 World Cup. Modern technology has taken care of that. I have even resigned myself of taking very few pictures and/or videos of the actual game because I rarely find anything impressive about a shaky, hand-held video of a sporting event that is taking place a couple of hundred meters away (A RUSH concert is a totally different matter). The media is unparalleled for viewing a match. That being said, in response to the performance, those of you that actually watched the game, probably found time to get a snack, check all of your social media, and maybe slip in a nap.

     Next game, Uruguay and Italy. Now THIS should be good.

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  • The Americans get Revenge Against Ghana

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/16/2014 8:00:00 AM

    Monday, June 16, 2014

    Many spectators of the World Cup typically follow their team around the host country, travellling from one city to the next, in order to see every game in which their national team plays. We do things a little different. Mrs. Fennig, my brother Brian, and my sister prefer to do some homework, study up on the different hosting cities and what they have to offer, and then bid (through FIFA) for all of the games in that city. We chose Natal, Brazil, primarily because it was considered to be the safest of all of the dozen venues in Brazil. And, in my favor, it is on the coast with lots of beaches. I like the ocean.

    SV soccer jersey  

    So, to clarify, we were successful in getting tickets to all of the games in Natal, even before the ‘final draw’ took place. This means that, we had no idea who we would see play until the final draw that took place in December 2013. Another advantage of our modus operandi is that, it is actually exciting to see so many different national teams play against one another. I am not being disrespectful of those nationalistic fans that follow their team around the country; I just prefer to be surprised at the random selection of games that we receive. And guess what? The United States drew their first match against Ghana…in Natal.

    This time, I was more prepared. Well, a little more. The Brazilian cab driver that drove us back from the stadium from the Mexico/Cameroon game had given me his business card. I still haven’t figured out how to call someone in this country but his card had an email address. I wrote to him the next day and he verified that he would take us to the game. We inhaled a large lunch before heading out the door for a taxi. This time, we were heading to the stadium a good four hours before kickoff. I had priced rain suits in the stores along the beachfront but the locals were price gouging the gringos with just about anything. The weather was warm and muggy so I opted to simply put my possessions in zip lock bags to keep them dry. I don’t mind getting wet; I just didn’t want to destroy another camera or phone.

    We went down to the gated entry to wait for Genilson, the taxi driver. And waited. Then we asked the guards to call the number on the card that he had given me. And then waited. Finally, after become irritated at being unable to get a taxi to anywhere in this city, we thought we should ask the guard to call another taxi. It was then that one of the residents of our apartment, John (why do Brazilians take on North American names?), happened to be at the gate, yakking it up with the employees. He had been observing our predicament and offered to take us to the stadium in his own car…for a discounted price, of course. We jumped on the opportunity.

    This time, arriving at the stadium hours before the game, we could enjoy the food (they had not sold out yet), walk around and observe the friendly atmosphere of the Ghana and American fans, and actually do some shopping at one of the FIFA fan stores.

    me and Ghana fans  

     
    I really don’t need to chronicle the games of the Cup. The media does an excellent job of this, but the game was truly a nail-biter. Five minutes of extra time?! Where the heck did THAT come from?! It was intense. The final whistle came none too soon and the majority of the spectators in the stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief, and then instantly celebrated with the energy of a riot. It was sweet revenge too, because Ghana had successfully eliminated the US from the previous two Cups. I believe the Klingons have nailed the outcome; “bortaS bIr jablu'DI' reH QaQqu' nay'”

    Revenge is a dish best served cold.

     

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  • The first of our four games in Natal

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/13/2014 8:00:00 AM

    Friday, June 13, 2014

    Showtime. Mexico versus Cameroon in Natal, Brazil, for game number two of the 2014 World Cup. The battle started at 1:00 so the plan was to call for a cab at 10:30 and goof off around at the stadium, eat some burgers, hot dogs, and enjoy whatever local cuisine was offered, all the while spending our money on FIFA sanctioned products for souvenirs…none of which happened.

    The day before was a stunningly spectacular day, with the dermis destroying radiation of the sun punishing us crackers. It all changed overnight. We awoke to a grey sky, which deteriorated rapidly into a driving rain. All. Day. Long. We walked to the front gate of the apartment, assuming that our taxi that we had called for would be patiently waiting for us. Nothing. The guard told us in Portuguese that it was difficult to get a taxi on this day, due to the demand of World Cup spectators. Could you call again? I pleaded. He picked up his cell phone and jabbered away in Portuguese, but appeared rather hapless. No taxis today was his attempt at English. Now we were starting to worry. Another group of spectators showed up at the front gate, assuming to catch a taxi as we were. They had NOT called a taxi. We informed the Americans that we had been waiting for a taxi for over half an hour and they quickly made the decision to start walking to the stadium, which was ten kilometers away. As my heart sank, we were given a reprieve when an unmarked vehicle showed up and assured us that he was our ride.

     Phew! Our spirits soared again, even as we were packed in the tiny car like sardines. We were on our way to a World Cup game! For this first round match between Mexico and Cameroon, we opted to cheer for Mexico. I consider el tri to be our national neighbors, and besides, my mother is half Mexican (which means I am somehow related to most of the inhabitants of Mexico City).

    The rain pelted the windshield as the driver droned on in Portuguese. I sputtered out the few Portuguese phrases that I knew, asked a couple of questions with obvious answers, and he nodded in acknowledgment. We turned a corner and stopped at the back of a very long line of cars. The driver decided to make a detour through a shopping store parking lot, which appeared to have worked at first, but then we were once again in a line of autos going nowhere. Then we could see why the line wasn’t moving. One of the two national teams’ entourage was being escorted by the Brazilian military. Soldiers were blocking intersections for the players. The entourage rolled by and the soldiers disappeared. We were moving again. Our driver took an alternate route, which was rather alarming at first, or at least to me. We seemed to be moving in a direction away from the stadium, but in retrospect, how could I have known? Because of the horrendous rain, we couldn’t even see down the street. We lurched forward through completely flooded streets, creating wakes that could have been surfed on. Then through the pouring rain, we saw it…o Estádio das Dunas. The venue for 2014 World Cup game number two. The driver dropped us off on a flooded corner of what looked like a filthy residential area. There were small cafes choked with spectators wearing either Mexican or Cameroon flags, surely depleting the supply of beer these establishments had. The driver handed us a business card to call him after the game, but I asked him to simply meet us at a certain time. He shrugged his shoulders and said it would be difficult and to just call the numbers on the card. We made our way up and over the highway via a pedestrian bridge. The rain intensified but seemed to have no effect on the masses of ecstatic fans.

     We arrived at the security checkpoint where guards dispossessed fans of their drums, bottles of alcohol, musical instruments, and umbrellas. For some reason, my small binoculars seemed to upset the official and a phone call was made to a superior. He nodded and we were off to our seats, with just minutes to spare. Because I had avoided lunch in order to enjoy inhaling some stadium grub and a beverage, I jumped in line with about twenty thousand other fans to buy something tasty and fattening.

    “Dois hot dogs, por favor.”

    “No food.”

    No hot dogs. No burgers, no cheeseburgers, no cold sandwiches, although all of the items were on the menu marquee. This was a World Cup game! Really?! I slowly made my way back to our seats, dejected, with only two beverages as a souvenir. But, I was still attending a first round game of the 2014 World Cup. It couldn’t be any worse, right? Wrong.

     I pride myself on being prepared. I have literally backpacked a thousand kilometers through the Canadian Rockies. I have attended games of five different World Cups and have learned something from each experience. But I let myself down this time. I made some erroneous assumptions. First of all, I assumed that our seats in the stadium would be under a roof of sorts. Because of this, I only wore a rain jacket. However, only one half of the stadium was covered, so we sat in pouring rain for over two hours. Mistake number two: even my rain jacket was old and leaky. Everything in my possession was wet. My Brazilian Reais were soaked; my digital camera was floating in the pools of water in the pockets of my jacket. It no longer functioned when I was able to examine it with my pruned fingers. The rain ran down my jacket, funneled down my legs and into my socks and shoes. Another mistake was assuming that three hours before game time would be sufficient. And finally, I vowed to eat a massive meal before leaving for the stadium for the next three games. To be positive, I once again, have learned something.

    The game was exciting. The Mexicans are notorious fans who chant, sing, scream, and dance, all while wearing outrageous costumes representing their country. It was hard to judge a true victor of the match because of the amount of rain that affected the quality of play, the players, and the pitch itself. But Mexico finally put the ball in the back of the net before it was over and the rest is now history. 

    Mexico Cameroon
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  • Dune buggy ride and opening day of the 2014 World Cup

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/12/2014 8:00:00 AM

    AThursday, June 12, 2014

    Opening day of the World Cup. The opening ceremony of the games didn’t start until three o’clock in the afternoon so Mrs. Fennig and I had proposed to do some sight-seeing in the earlier part of the day, in particular the dune buggy rides along the beaches north of the city. The two other members of our party opted out, due to previous commitments or plans.

    The security called our apartment at 8:00 sharp to inform us that the ‘boogy’ was here to pick us up. ‘Johnny’ spoke only Portuguese but it really didn’t matter since we were going to be sitting in the back seat of an uncovered, loud dune buggy. We headed north and I could instantly feel the intensity of the equatorial sun. At least we were intelligent enough to bring a liter of sunscreen.

    Johnny made sure that the fee of four hundred and fifty Brazilian Reais remained the same, whether or not the other two had decided to opt out. Not tragic. Can’t really zip up and down sand dunes in a buggy in Dallas, so why not?

     Suddenly, Johnny whipped into a gas station and pops the hood. “Cinquenta Reais.” What is it with hidden fees and tricks of the locals to squeeze more cash out of you? I wasn’t going to argue, being as we were already on the road. Besides, I don’t speak Portuguese. I reluctantly handed over fifty Reais. I paid attention to the amount of gasoline that the attendant put into the vehicle. Twenty-five Reais worth. I rolled my eyes and chalked it up to being a gringo from a first world country.

     We buzzed along the highway, over a large suspension bridge, and cut through small towns to get to the beach. Johnny instantly pulled into an ‘aquarium’ the size of a gas station. “How much?” I asked in my poor Portuguese. “Seventeen Reais.” Now I was kind of irritated. I expressed to Johnny that I only had the four fifty that I owed him for the ride and he instantly went into a dialogue that sounded suspiciously like a lecture. Finally, he ended with, Let’s go.

    dune buggy Natal  

     We hit the dunes and climbed a hill. This was actually becoming entertaining. But not two minutes into the ride, we came to another stop on top of the hill, next to barefooted Brazilians tending to some donkeys and hawking cold drinks. Picture? Photo? Cold water? Cold Drink? I saw how this was going to be. We politely declined and the locals left us alone. We hopped back into the buggy and took off yet again. We made several stops where we were offered fruit, drinks, food, a zip line ride, and donkey rides, but the only option we took was the stop to jump into the South Atlantic Ocean, where I splashed around the waves like a small child. 

    I communicated to Johnny that we wanted to return around 1:00, in preparation of the opening ceremony for the World Cup, which began at 3:00. He got us back before 12:00. The whole ride was supposed to be all day long, but we weren’t complaining. Besides, I was getting tired of being solicited every time the buggy stopped.

     At 3:00, we all gathered around the flat screen television mounted on the wall to watch the stunning and dazzling opening ceremony. Our wall chart that we had brought with us to tally scores and make predictions looked strangely sad without any hand-scrawled numbers on it. But that would soon change.

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  • Travel to the equator

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/11/2014 8:00:00 AM

    Wednesday, June 11, 2014

    Even the most meticulously thought out plans can go awry. Even plans that have been in the making for four years.

     The plan was, after the nine-hour flight from Atlanta, Georgia to São Paulo, Brazil, to utilize our three and a half hour layover to exchange dollars for Brazilian Reais and collect our remaining World Cup tickets at the FIFA ticket distribution center in the airport, all before boarding the final leg of the flight to our final destination, Natal. None of which happened.

    The line through customs after entering Brazil through São Paulo was long and slow…but not as slow as the line for the connecting flights check-in. Among the many reasons the line was slow was the number of airport employees checking in the connecting passengers, all two of them. On top of that, they spent much of the time flirting with one another, laughing, joking, and chatting. At one point, one of the agents hopped over the luggage scale and disappeared into the colorful, World Cup supporting mob of the São Paulo airport, depleting the efficiency of the check-in by fifty percent. She returned with three beverages for her co-workers, and then proceeded to play volleyball with a paper wad with her colleagues. When we finally we able to check-in (one hour and ten minutes later), I asked about the gate number, as there was nothing on the boarding pass. “Twenty five”, was his response.

    “Twenty five?” I asked for verification.

     “Twenty five.”

     Once we cleared inspection, we marched hurriedly to gate twenty-five…only to find a handful of people gazing at us curiously, waiting for a flight to a city of an unpronounceable Portuguese name. We quickly checked the table of departures and had to go back to gate seventeen B. This was a domestic flight, which meant that, passengers had to board a bus that ferried the people to an awaiting aircraft some distance away. At least we made the flight, was what I was thinking as I was climbing up the mobile stairs that leaned against the aircraft door from the ground. But then the line stopped. And out of the corner of my eye I saw an ambulance.

     Poor sucker. I thought. How would you like to become ill or injured just before a flight, inconveniencing not only yourself but a hundred others? But then the ambulance turned straight for my plane and came to a stop next to the stairs.

     This isn’t happening. Sure enough, three medics with life-saving equipment in their backpacks stormed up the stairs. Passengers waiting on the stairs leaned against the opposite side.

    It turned out that one of the first passengers on the plane had had an asthma attack. Once treated with an ample supply of bottled oxygen, the departed from the back of the aircraft and the line of passengers once again moved.

     Four hours later, we landed in Natal, Brazil, home to four, first round games of the 2014 World Cup. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. The opening game of the Cup between Brazil and Croatia was less than twenty-four hours away. And our work wasn’t done yet.

    After cab ride of an hour and a half (the driver couldn’t figure out how to approach the massive high-rise that was surrounded by neighborhoods of brick and dirt roads), we dumped off our luggage and Mrs. Fennig and I had to head out again to collect the remaining World Cup tickets that we had sold to another party, on line. These tickets could only be procured from an official FIFA ticket distribution center. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped by a grocery store and bought the fixings for ham and cheese sandwiches. Finally, once back in the apartment on the twenty-third floor overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean, we collapsed and inhaled the ham and cheese sandwiches. It was the best ham and cheese sandwich that I have ever eaten.

     

     

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  • The Clandestine Deal

    Posted by Michael Fennig at 6/2/2014

    Friday, May 23, 2014

     16 tickets, $5600

    The man gestured across the parking lot from the driver’s side of his SUV.  I was standing in front of the grocery store, squinting in the afternoon sun and talking to him on my cell, trying to find him. I originally wanted to meet him at a busy restaurant located on the most traffic-choked highway in the city, but he had changed the location at the last minute...to a remote parking lot of a supermarket, surrounded by low-income apartments. I made nervous glances to my left and right as I made my way to the vehicle, clutching my messenger bag tightly against my ribs. I couldn’t wait to unload the precious merchandise inside. I approached the truck and switched to Spanish.

     


     
    “¿Jorge?”

    “¡Sí, ¿Miguel?”

     “¡Sí! ¡Sí!” 

    Entra a la camioneta para poder hacer negocios.” (Get inside so that we can do business.)

    I then noticed that a second man got out of the front passenger side, held the door open for me, and then got in the back seat behind me. Suddenly, this wasn’t looking good. This was supposed to be a transaction of immense proportions. There was too much at stake for any errors or worse, ‘ill-will’.

    I had spoken to ‘Jorge’ prior to our deal but only on the telephone. His apparel caught me off guard. It was that of a laborer, perhaps construction. Eight-foot sticks of 2 x 4 lumber extended from the back of the vehicle into the front seats, separating myself from Jorge. The entire transaction occurred in Spanish.

    I pulled out sixteen thick, meticulously stuffed packages. They were bundled in groups of four.

    “Please, check to make sure it’s all there.” I requested. “Negocios son negocios.” (Business is business)

    Jorge opened a single package, glanced inside, and said, “I can go through the rest of this later. Let’s count the money.”

    Why isn’t he examining the product? Now I was really starting to worry.

    Jorge then produced a fat, white envelope. The wad of cash inside consisted only of denominations of $100 dollar bills.

    Jorge began to count, peeling each bill from the wad and laying it down on the console, under a canopy of 2x4s.

    “Uno, dos, tres…”

    When he reached ten, he began another pile, perpendicular to the one beneath it.

    “Uno, dos, tres…”

    I tried to see what the gentleman behind me was doing from the corner of my eye.

    Oh crap! I wasn’t paying attention to the count!

    “…siete, ocho, nueve…” 

    Motion outside the vehicle snapped my vision to the opposite direction. A shopper was returning to her vehicle several parking spots away.

    Oh crap! I lost count again with Jorge!

    Now there were four different piles of (hopefully) ten-$100 bills, stacked perpendicular on top of each other. I quickly feigned fastidious attention.

    I couldn’t help but glance at Jorge’s eyes. His eyes were on mine and he quickly averted his vision back to the growing pile of cash.

    “…ocho, nueve, diez, cinco mil…” (…eight, nine, ten, five thousand…)

    The individual in the back seat shuffled.

    Am I going to live through this? Are these the last moments of my life? What possessed me to make such a clandestine deal?

    Jorge finally counted the last of our agreed upon amount, $5,600. He then surprised me by handing me the envelope, in which to put the cash. We shook hands, and I think I mumbled something in Spanish, then got out of the car. I felt weak.

    I’m still alive, I thought, as I practically ran to my parked car. I could have sworn everyone was staring at me, knowing that I had almost $6,000 in cash on my person. During the drive home, I constantly checked my mirrors, looking to see if I was being followed. I even drove around the block a couple of times before pulling into my driveway.

    And what exactly was it that I risked my life for? Why, 2014 World Cup tickets, of course.

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