Writing From the Olympics: In Rio, Part II of II

            After a busy first day of reporting in Rio on Saturday, Sunday turned into a more of a behind-the-scenes and laid-back day. The first order of business was pure leisure: I walked down to Botafogo to watch the women’s Olympic marathon: blue skies, fierce sun, full-bore spectacle and atmosphere. I milled around near the U-turn that the runners passed at the 10k, 20k and 30k marks. For a time, I took up position near a very proud and patriotic Estonian contingent, before moving behind some proud and patriotic left-wing Brazilians using the opportunity to agitate against President Temer. Next I hung around some proud and patriotic Japanese folks a little further down (I’d given my wife and son, watching at home, a detailed description of my position along the rail, but it sounds like the camera cut away miliseconds before it got to me). The marathon is like the pinnacle of Olympic sport; this will be a memory to treasure.

Some mid-packers at 10k; shot taken just up from the Japanese zone. Leftists just off-camera to the left, across the way; Estonians (not visible) at the fence corner at right, above clock.

Some mid-packers at 10k; shot taken just up from the Japanese zone. Leftists just off-camera to the left, across the way; Estonians (not visible) at the fence corner at right, above clock.

            Right before I headed back to work, a proud and patriotic right-wing Brazilian tried to straighten out the leftists by shouting slogans at them. This provoked considerable reaction, with the leftists trying to change this guy’s bourgeois mind by screaming “racist” and “fascist.” Neither side seemed to win any hearts or minds, but at very least, the scene enthralled some proud and patriotic Dutch tourists who got caught in the rhetorical crossfire and were thus treated to an authentic taste of Brazilian street politics.

            After the race, I caught a cab down to Copacabana to scout out the beach where I’d be returning on Monday to report a story on beach food while watching the women’s marathon swim in the bay. Then it was back to the Airbnb, where I spent a few hours drafting my story about the previous day’s visit to the restaurant for the homeless. The other major bit of progress that afternoon was nailing down the details of a visit for Monday afternoon to an organic farm that was going to be the subject of story #4. The farmer, whose number I’d gotten from one of the chefs at the restaurant for the homeless, and I communicated by Whatsapp, the indispensable messaging app in Brazil. True to form, we both used some emoji in this first professional exchange.

            Late that afternoon, I squeezed in a birding trip to Parque Lage, a little patch of rainforest on the lowest slopes of the Corcovado, the famous Jesus mountain. Dense forest is an extremely frustrating place to bird. I could hear millions of birds but basically saw none, and I’m not the kind of extreme geek birder that knows them all by their songs.

            Later, back at the Airbnb (I had a miniscule little room – my twin bed literally occupied half the room’s square footage, and my suitcase on the floor pretty much accounted for the rest – in an apartment inhabited by two very friendly, laid-back people; it was perfect) I more or less finished my homeless restaurant story and then watched Olympics with Gustavo, one of my hosts.

            Monday a.m. I was out the door early to get in place for the beach reporting story. The reporting process didn’t just result in my story, it basically was my story: I sat on the beach and consumed lots of beach food and drink while the women’s 10k open water swim was going on and wrote about it. Only thing that got left on the cutting room floor possibly worth mentioning here is the guy I rented my chair from told me wild stories about how, during his 20-year career renting chairs on Copacabana, he’s seen deaths on the beach, births on the beach, fights, weddings, and once, a plane fall from the sky into the ocean. He told no one what he’d seen, because he thought he may have been hallucinating, except then rescue boats showed up and confirmed that he really actually had witnessed an aircraft plunging into the drink.

            After chatting about crashing airplanes, I hurried back to the Airbnb to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the afternoon visit I’d scheduled to the urban farm.

            Having to work right after a few hours on the beach was a literal buzzkill. It was welcome, though, since I’d caught a steady buzz from the morning’s beach drinking and had many hours of work that day ahead of me. My Portuguese always seems vastly improved when I’ve been drinking, a fact manifest in this instance in lively debate with my Uber driver about the relative greatness of Messi vs. Maradona, and the lucky circumstances of history that padded Pelé’s resume, and the lost promise of Garrincha as we returned from Copacabana to my home base in Humaitá. I mostly used Ubers in Rio because they’re just simply better in almost every way than taxis. The only time taxis are handy is if you need to go somewhere and there’s a taxi right there and flagging it down is easier than fussing with the Uber app. The only downer about Uber in my experience is that it’s so damn cheap in Brazil that I feel like I’m exploiting people.

            The urban farm that was on my agenda for Monday afternoon was way out in Itanhangá, well over an hour away on two different buses. Finding stuff obscure stuff, like little farms, in Brazil can be sort of tricky, but this was not my first go-through, and with some persistence and question-asking, I found my way to a beautiful and remarkable urban farm in what was once an abandoned rock quarry.

Half cool, half creepy: encountering a bizarre marble head in a decaying industrial ruin when you're looking for a hard-to-find urban farm.

Half cool, half creepy: encountering a bizarre marble head in a decaying industrial ruin when you're looking for a hard-to-find urban farm.

            I took the bus back home afterwards, having to switch in Barra de Tijuca, which is Rio’s gaudy imitation of a ritzy US-style concrete jungle and therefore a depressing stretch of real estate. It was in Barra de Tijuca, though, beside a frantic and impossible-to-cross freeway that I was trying to figure out how to cross, that I saw a wild herd of capybaras for the first time in my life. They were grazing beside a lagoon, in the tiny strip of grass between water and freeway, and the surprise of stumbling across them mitigated somewhat the trial that is changing buses in Barra de Tijuca.

Some Ewok-sized capybaras, grazing quietly in Barra de Tijuca.

Some Ewok-sized capybaras, grazing quietly in Barra de Tijuca.

            That night, I was up late writing my story about the beach food experience.

            Tuesday: a.m. reporting trip to a farmer’s market in Laranjeiras, for some additional material for the urban farm story. In the late morning, I decided to take extra initiative and go searching for the office of an organic farming association that I’d been trying unsuccessfully to contact via email. I had an address that looked to be about a 30-minute walk away, so I struck off boldly in search of more material. The trek involved a gigantic, 281-step staircase built into one of Rio’s many steep hillsides. Up top, I took a wrong turn and lost much of the altitude I’d gained by the time I realized my error. Then I stepped in a huge pile of dog shit. Then I finally made it to the address I had for the organic farming association, which was a building that did not seem at all like the offices of any sort of professional organization. No one answered my persistent knocking, and the whole endeavor wound up being wild journalistic goose chase. Rio, though, is simply a stunning city; the views alone make a wild goose chase up and down through Laranjeiras and Santa Teresa and dog shit something not to regret.

Encountered while descending back down the the 281-stair staircase: turret renovations.

Encountered while descending back down the the 281-stair staircase: turret renovations.

            The goose chase more or less concluded my reporting for Modern Farmer in Rio. That morning, my Q&A with Rafa the chef – an interview done back on Saturday– had been published. I’d already turned in a first draft of the beach food story, and, later that afternoon, turned around some edits that I’d gotten back from my editor. I began blocking out my final story, the organic farm deal, Tuesday afternoon and evening, then met a friend for dinner, then went back to write a bit more.

            I flew home Wednesday evening, after a day that was half spent purely messing around, half finishing up my last bits of writing. That was pretty much it. That’s pretty much what my freelancing is like. A million emails are sent. Many things don’t come through. Then some do, usually the fruit of labors past. There are a hundred logistical hurdles to clear before the first scratches are made in the notebook: ideas to develop, sources to find, interviews to arrange, fixers to hire, plane tickets to buy, on and on. It can be tiresome, but as long as progress is being made and emails are being answered and arrangements falling into place, it’s invigorating. There is the reporting itself, sometimes short and to the point, sometimes involving lots of waiting around, sometimes productive, sometimes not. There are hours and hours and hours of writing. I am a slow writer. During the days in Rio, I spent far more time at my computer than I did doing glamorous reporter stuff.

           That’s how it is all the time, really: entertaining and pursuing (and sometimes, only sometimes, realizing) wild, swashbuckling reportorial fantasies, actually living day-to-day chained to my laptop, making progress in fits and starts, occasionally enjoying the spectacular freedoms of self-employment that allow me to sneak off to watch the Olympic marathon, often wishing for the familiarity of an office and colleagues and assurance of steady work, always fantasizing about shinier bylines, stopping much less often than I should to appreciate just how special a thing freelancing can be. So let me end it there: this is a fantastic way to scrape by.

The Same and Not

On an afternoon bird walk in São Miguel das Missões, near the western edge of Rio Grande do Sul, the sky is low and gray. The wind is cool, brooding. It will get dark early today. Everything feels late, somehow – late in the day, late in the season, late in the year, late, later and later, approaching some end. I follow a farm lane along a large, open field. The soybeans have already come off. Here by the lane stand a few dry, brittle plants that dodged the combine.

This could almost be late fall in the Shenandoah Valley, when dull afternoons suddenly turn dark, when the wind promises winter ahead, when the soybeans are off and another year is nearly in the books and the whole world seems to have entered decline.

This could almost be, but it is not. The dirt beneath my feet is Martian, a bright, rusty color that has seeped its way up my shoes and faintly stained the entire landscape. It is the fall season now, indeed, though the calendar reads April. This thought doesn’t present as a nifty quirk of life in the Southern Hemisphere. It seems backwards on a deeper-down level, a disruption to the usual rise and fall of time and perception and emotion.

The houses in the village behind me are boxy and concrete, painted in tropical pastels and covered with corrugated metal or orange ceramic tiles. These are far cries from a Virginia farmhouse. Atop a rise in an adjacent pasture, a statuesque palm tree is black against the sky.

            There is something dreamlike about all of this – this immediate now, this afternoon ramble, and this general now, this indefinite expedition south – so familiar and so foreign at once. As it does from time to time, the thought strikes me: I’m a long way away.

The 100th Bird

Standing on my balcony a few days before Christmas, I noticed a bright blue and yellow something dart into the bottlebrush tree out front. I ran back to the living room, where I keep my binoculars and bird book handy precisely for moments like these. The bird posed just long enough for me to make positive identification: the golden-rumped euphonia (Euphonia cyanocephala).

Rick & Elis Simpson / Wikimedia Commons

Rick & Elis Simpson / Wikimedia Commons

It’s in the running for the single most beautiful bird I’ve seen in the past nine months in Brazil. I’ve never seen it since, and believe me, I spend a lot of time on my balcony looking for birds.

Once, and only once, some maroon-bellied parakeets landed in the trees out front. (I have seen them in big flocks elsewhere.)

Another time, a blue-fronted parrot posed long enough on the neighbor’s TV antennae for me to identify it. Months later, I saw it (or, at least, a parrot of some sort) perched again on the same antennae. It flew away before I could get the binocs on it. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; the light was wrong. The parrot was in silhouette.

And then again, within the past week, I heard a sort of braying honk outside, something like the sound a wounded or enraged goose would make. On investigation, I saw two parrots on the same rooftop. But once more the light was poor; I can only assume it was the blue-fronteds again.

These have been the balcony highlights of the past nine months, and the capture perfectly the allure of birdwatching: sometimes, only sometimes, something magical appears. The house sparrows and the rufous-bellied thrushes and the eared doves will be with you always. But stick with it long enough, and a euphonia may flit by.

My life list in Brazil has grown in fits and starts. My first week in the city, everything was new and exciting. On a single Saturday in November, spent at a deserted lagoon a few hours south, I added more than 20 species. February very nearly became the first calendar month without a single lifer, until, just before the end, I glanced up and noticed what seemed, at first glance, very much like a frigatebird that had wandered many miles from the sea. Back home, I realized it had been a swallow-tailed kite – my one and only February entry.

By late March, my list had grown well into the 90s, and I figured I had a good shot at cracking 100 during a weekend in the Serra Gaúcha mountains with the family. An afternoon expedition to a town park in Canela brought me to the verge: Whistling heron, Buff-necked ibis, Cliff flycatcher; 97, 98, 99.

Buff-necked ibis, Canela, Rio Grande do Sul, March 2016; iPhone & binocular photo technique copied from my friend Mike, master of bino-vision.

Buff-necked ibis, Canela, Rio Grande do Sul, March 2016; iPhone & binocular photo technique copied from my friend Mike, master of bino-vision.

Number 100 came on Easter morning, as I stood there washing dishes in the Airbnb shack we were staying in. The kitchen window looked out across an empty lot, choked with weeds and unruly saplings, perfect for songbirds. The place had been crawling all weekend with rufous-collared sparrows, which is the sort of pretty little bird whose reputation suffers on account of abundance. You see them so much in the Serra Gaúcha that it’s easy to stop appreciating their spiffy, zebra-striped heads.

Flocks of rufous-collards had come and gone the whole time I was washing dishes. So when I stepped away for a moment, and my wife announced, “Hey, there’s a bird out there,” I made an informed assumption: rufous-collared sparrow.

I was happily wrong. (Nor was this the first time, I should add, that Rachel gets credit for spotting a lifer.) The gray Easter morning delivered another one of those birding sometimes when something new bursts onto the ordinary, dishwashing scene: a small songbird in muted pastel green, blue and brown – a female Chestnut-backed tanager, species #100, very shortly thereafter gone again.

Araucaria pine, Serra Gaúcha

Araucaria pine, Serra Gaúcha

Child’s Play

I took my 2-year-old to play in the ball pit at the mall the other weekend. It was one of the items on his special “weekend with daddy” agenda while my wife was gone at a conference. After we took off our shoes and fought our way up the ramp, through a crowd of amped up ball-pit kids, we jumped in. A kid’s happiness is a parent’s drug; the ball pit was a hit for us both.

After a few minutes of writhing around, Alex wanted me to lie down in the ball pit with him. My first thought – unfortunately, it's my first thought way too often – was: what will other people think? A grown man lying down in a ball pit? Never mind the fact that other dads in the ball pit were doing exactly the same thing. Never mind the fact that I’m new to this part of the world, know practically no one in this whole city and would, but for the ball pit and my 2-year-old, hardly ever come to this mall again. But that’s me. I worry about impressions. I compromised by squatting down to Alex’s level, so he could throw balls at my face from point-blank.

I get all that rosy self-help stuff about being young at heart. I get it that we’d all do well to rediscover the shrieking joy of being a two-year-old in a ball pit. I get it that imagining what other people might think is a lousy, shriveled basis for decision-making. I just don’t feel it deep down, usually.

When our half hour in the ball pit ended, I promised Alex ice cream to cajole him into leaving without complaint and putting his shoes back on. I handed a teenage attendant my debit card and we started that mindless transactional ritual: insert card, enter pin, stare at nothing for a few awkward seconds, exchange empty thank-yous. This time, though, the ball pit attendant broke protocol by asking me something about my card that I didn’t follow. Come again? She repeated herself. Again, I didn't copy. I was forced to admit: Sorry, I don’t understand.

I usually don’t stand out by appearance alone here. I quickly and often do, though, by my apparent dumbness and my accent. The attendant smiled apologetically and waved her comment off. Whatever it was (perhaps a remark on the appearance of my debit card, although it appears unremarkable to me), it was not crucial to my tendering payment for ball-pit services rendered.

All this was, I suppose, poetic justice. No sooner had I refused to flop like a child into the ball pit than was I feeling like a child again in that particular, and now, familiar foreigner sort of way. Things whiz over my head. When I read the newspaper, I usually understand the words but they come at me with little context, written by and for people who know much more about this world. Sometimes, after I finish a track workout, I hang around with other members of my team. When they clown and joke about things I don’t understand, I try to laugh at the right moments. I’ve been noticing Alex doing this more and more lately, too – laughing when he realizes that others around him find something funny.

After the debit went through, Alex and I wandered off, me the father, him the son, both of us children in need of ice cream.