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.