False Shutter

(An excerpt from some journal entries in Spain. 4/5/2006)

They asked me to take their photo.

I don’t know why.
They are complete strangers on the street.

The first words they said to me:
<<¡Un Foto!>>
They would never see it.

Why do they want me to have a record

of them

of their stupidity

of their drunkenness

of their narcissism?

Why waste my film, my time, my money for them?

But I pointed the camera, adjusted the lens, pressed my finger on the shutter release.

<<OK>> I tell them, and smile.

Except it’s a lie, I never released the shutter

released the mirror
revealed the film

They were doubtful.

<<No hay flash>> I explain to them. That was true.

And they went off satisfied with my lie.

And I am OK with that.

Except that now I don’t remember how they look.

Sabbatical 2012 [Days 17-18] Cataratas de Iguaçu

Travel

Traveling to Iguaçu was simple, but a bit of an experience. It was our first domestic flight in Brazil. We booked all of our travel on Gol airlines – a decent looking discount airline with a pretty new fleet and an orange color scheme. They seem to be relatively successful (unlike Pluna) and are definitely inexpensive. When we got in line for checking into the flight, the girl directing people to the appropriate line seemed kind of confused about our destination. Then she took our passports and disappeared for a bit behind the counter. Then she came out again with our passports (luckily) and told us we actually booked a Webjet flight.

Webjet was another discount airline that was recently acquired by Gol. Webjet has an awful lime green color scheme on everything, and their logo is the ‘@’ symbol. Get it? They’re technical. They understand the interwebs. Well, hopefully their brand disappears as fast as the .com failures.

The webjet plane was a relatively new 737 with an interior that looked like it was designed in the late 60’s. More puke green. The landing was a bit rough. Alex said people in the back of the plane clapped, happy to be alive. Still better than our Vivaaerobus landing.

We flew in to Foz de Iguaçu, on the Brazilian side. Rented a car from Avis – a small Chevy (Opel, really) with a stick shift, no airbags, no power steering, and no cupholders. Most Americans would die. How can you possibly drive if you have to exert force on the steering wheel and shift while holding a 64oz high fructosified Big Gulp at the same time? It drove like a go-cart.

Our hotel, Boutique Hotel de la Fonte, was actually located on the Argentine side of the falls, so we drove over to Argentina, blew through (the complete lack of) Brazilian customs, and quickly entered Argentina for the 3rd time, got our passports stamped again, and went through the small town of Iguazu to get to the hotel.

Accommodations

As soon as we entered the hotel, we were happily greeted by the owner, a very friendly older Italian lady who was very happy to receive us. I later found out that she spoke like 7 languages and has lived in several countries. Her assistant was also quite helpful. At the moment we got to the check-in counter, we were given two glasses of Champaign. Now that is how to treat a guest!

The hotel was really, really nice. Not terribly expensive for what we got. Basically, it was a small pousada with a swimming pool, a hot (well, warm, but better than anything previously) tub, a few log-cabin like buildings with high lofted ceilings and (in theory) one-way mirrored glass windows for privacy.

We made a dinner reservation, I booked a massage, and we were told that we should go see the Brazilian side of the falls first – which was contrary to our original plan. After thinking it over, we agreed that it made the most sense, though.

More travel. And Falls

So, off we went back to Brazil. The Argentine side of customs seemed pretty uninterested in anything other than stamping our passports again, but there was no line so we made it through quite quickly. Then on the Brazilian side… again, no customs, no immigration, no stamps. Is there even a border here? It must be nice to have Argentina as your southern neighbor – no arms or drug trafficking, no immigration problems. Just let ’em in. Nobody even checked our visas.

We drove on down to the falls park. From there you have to pay for your parking spot, get some entrance tickets, and then take a double-decker bus to slowly go on to the actual park where you can walk around.

After getting off the bus, we immediately saw some funny animals that kind of looked like a cross between an ant-eater and a racoon. They were really fast, though, and they were quite camera-shy. I must have taken 20 photos of them, and nearly all of them ended up being of their rear ends because by the time I hit the shutter, they were off in the other direction. Despite people being told numerous times against doing so, they fed them for attention and got close, even at risk of rabies. Oh well.

There were a decent amount of people, but it wasn’t overly crowded. We descended the pathway and started to hear the roaring of the falls. The mist became visible, and the temperature dropped from the evaporation. Then, they came into view for the first time and were spectacular. But that was only the beginning, the tail end of the falls. We kept walking, and walking, and there were more and more and more falls. It really put Niagara to shame in its vastness.

Brazil and Argentina both did a fantastic job at preserving the natural beauty and sanctity of the falls as well. There was not an ounce of commercialization on either side of the falls – apart from a few cafes (which were welcomed) and licensed people selling ponchos (also welcomed). Just two expansive parks with well-hidden walkways. You had to strain your eyes to see tourists or walkways on the other side of the border. Kudos to both countries for such preservation.

The falls were beautiful. The last part is where you get to walk out right in front, get your clothes soaked, and test your camera for its water resistance capabilities. Ours passed the stress test, luckily. Then you go up an elevator to get a nice big view of the falls as if you were in a helicopter.

A little wet, a little cold, and definitely tired after a full day of travel and walking, we headed back onto the bus to the car, crossed into Argentina for the 4th time where they actually asked for my car papers this time and seemed a little disappointed that everything was in order.

My massage was delayed due to a miss-communication. But it was quite relaxing. Dinner was pretty great – I tried a local river fish that was seared quite nicely. I had some nice dessert too, but can’t remember what it was.

Argentine Side

The next morning we woke up decently early, got ready, had some breakfast at the hotel, hung out with their pet bird, and headed over to the Argentine side of the falls. The experience was quite different in many ways. First of all, you pretty much drive right up to the park. No bus involved. Second of all….

Money Problems

Argentina makes it nearly as difficult as they possibly can to give them your money. This has been the case throughout the country. I have no idea why they make life so hard on tourists with foreign bank accounts, but they do.

Unlike the Brazilian side of the falls, the Argentine park doesn’t take any form of credit or debit card payment for the roughly $26 entrance fee. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people come to this park every day, and you don’t take credit cards? Are you kidding me? This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if we had enough Argentine Pesos left over, but considering that we were hours from leaving the country for the last time, we had avoided pulling out more cash from the ATM.

No problem – we’ll just get more money from an ATM. Except for one thing – there is just a single ATM. It is located within the park, past the entrance. So, if you need money to get in, you have to somehow magically get into the park without a ticket first. Does nobody see a problem with this?

I explain to the ticket collector guys, and they let just me in, while Alex has to sit and wait. The ATM is in one of about 20 unmarked buildings. It is about 300m from the entrance. So I have to walk roughly ½ a mile round trip just to get money, wait behind some old guy who has never experienced technology before to trade stocks or save the world economy on the ATM for 5 minutes until I can finally pull out money, hike back, and buy my stupid ticket. Of course they don’t give you any coins for change, either, because I guess they just don’t make those in Argentina anymore. Good luck taking the bus!

The Falls. Finally

After the whole money/ticket fiasco which set us back some time, we had to kind of book it through the park at a rapid pace. When you are walking behind hoards of field-tripping school children, that pace gets slowed down substantially. In Brazil, the trails were mostly paved. In Argentina, they were nearly all elevated metal grating walkways – which at times could become quite slick when wet.

There was one particular moment where we were leaving a viewing deck, and Alex stopped to tie his shoe. As he started to do so, this huge group of excited, slow-moving school children began advancing our way, blocking any hope of passage should we fall behind them. Panic ensued, and I was encouraging Alex to tie faster. His eyes widened, his hands in a panic frenzy. It was like a scene from Indiana Jones, worried that you’re going to get hit by the giant rolling boulder or locked in a tomb forever. We ran away just in the nick of time, and continued our high-speed photo-shutter run through the park.

At some point I made a little friend on our hike. A butterfly (or moth?) landed on my finger and just felt like it was the perfect place to hang out for a good 15 or 20 minutes. I walked around with my new pet, and lots of people noticed it, pointing it out to their children. It made for some interesting photos, too. Thanks, lil guy.

The view from Argentina was quite nice, as we were pretty much walking over the falls themselves. It had good close-up views as well. Unlike the Brazilian side, when you got up to a point where you’re about to get soaked, there was no convenient poncho-seller trying to get your money for something you actually want. Because Argentina makes it difficult to give them your money. Instead, we had to suffice for a poncho that Alex somehow ended up with from China. It worked… kinda.

Despedida

With the clock ticking towards our flight – which left from the other side of the border – we decided it was time to head back to the car. In the parking lot, I just had to…

 

The deep red soil which covered all the roads and sidewalks in Iguazu made it too easy.

We left the park with enough time to get our bags from the hotel, cross the border into Brazil (another Argentine stamp, another passage into Brazil without the slightest of glances), grab some food at a little stand along the road, refill the rental with gasoline and use up the remnants of my Argentine Pesos (of which I could do without ever seeing again), and head on our way to São Paulo.

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 13-16] Rio de Janeiro

Travel

Travel to Rio de Janeiro was done with pretty much no problems. LAN was a pretty decent no-frills airline. They had the same Boeing model that we flew on AA, but it was much nicer inside. The flight in was interesting – we had to circle around the city a few times before landing. I was amazed at how tall the mountains surrounding Rio were. I knew that there were the big hills right in the city, but not quite what was surrounding it. The views were already spectacular from the plane.

No machine guns. Again. Maybe machine guns aren’t the norm? Come to think of it, greeting people who have already passed through security lines and been allowed to board a plane with machine guns may be a bit excessive. Maybe they are afraid that somebody slipped in with a pair of nailclippers on their carry-on and need to be well equipped to handle it.

Immigration was the simplest yet. We already had our visa, so we didn’t have to pay the reciprocity fee as in Chile and Argentina. Stamp the passport. Our bags were being loaded onto the carousel when we arrived. Nice! Then we just walked through the “nothing to declare” line and that was it – nobody looked at our declaration forms.

Now to get some money. Just have to find the giant selection of ATMs and money exchange places like the last two airports. They’re always located right when you leave the baggage area, all hoping to steal your rt money with horrible exchange rates and fees, or hiked up ATM fees.

Well, not at Galeao. I asked in the worst made-up Portuguesified Spanish where an ATM was, and they pointed up the steps. We had to go 2 levels up escalators and walk way down to the end of the terminal, where we found ALL of the airports ATMs. What. The. Hell.

It seems like whoever laid out Brasilia laid out this airport, too. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just had one single “convenient” location for getting money? Nice and compartmentalized. Nevermind where you are coming from, going to, or that it is the absolutely worst location for anybody entering the country who needs Brazilian Reais. To top it off, most of the regional banks don’t seem to work with foreign ATMs at all, so it starts feeling like you’re playing slot machines on whether or not money is actually going to come out of this device. This should be an amazing mess when Rio hosts the World Cup in 2 years, and again with the Olympics in 4.

Language

Shit. Shit. Shit. The last time I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language was China, and somehow I survived. I had a lot of help, though. Company-arranged cars, English-speaking hotel staff and car drivers, and we were nearly always chaperoned by co-workers.

I had convinced myself that I’d be able to get by with my limited knowledge of Portuguese, understanding of some basic verb conjugations and how to pronounce the letters. Just take my Spanish and process it through a Portuguesifimifacion 2000 filter and I should be good, right?

No. No not at all. It turns out that pronunciation is far more important than I had expected, as it can sound like very similar words. Cab drivers were confused by simple things that I didn’t pronounce correctly, like “hows it going?” or “cinco nove cero (5-9-0)”.

To top it off, my brain was still in Spanish mode, so all that my tongue wanted to say was Spanish sounds. It wasn’t working well.

It took a good day or so for me to get accustomed to the new sounds, and for my brain to shift to actually even attempt to speak the proper language. I’m slowly re-learning a lot of what I knew at some point from my informal Portuguese class at UT. Unfortunately, it’s probably not quite enough. By the end of our time in Rio, though, I was forming complete sentences and a few people even told me that I spoke Portuguese very well. I think this really means “wow, you speak Portuguese at all”. Hey, I’ll take the encouragement.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep having fun saying words like ‘restaurante’ (pronounced hes-tau-ranch-ee), Botafogo (hehe), Ipanema (contrary to common englishifications, ehp-ah-nehm-a), ‘obrigado’ (oh-brie-gah-doh). It’s really quite beautiful, although sometimes still a bit silly sounding as people seem to always draw out their vowels as if trying to teach somebody the correct pronunciation of something.

Accommodations

This was our first experience with staying at a vacation rental rather than a hotel or hostel on the trip. We found a nice but humble penthouse apartment in Copacabana on AirBNB that was owned by a French couple who seemed to do a lot of traveling. The place was clean and felt like a real home. It had a large rooftop terrace which we enjoyed the city and sky views from. We even got to have our own bedroom which was very welcomed as we were both tired of waking up from each other’s snoring.

The house rules were basically to not eat any of the delicious french cheeses that were sitting in the freezer, or French wines that were in the wine fridge. Drats! Guess we’ll have to make caipirinhas.

Oddly, the kitchen was a bit lacking in cookware. Some of the pots and frying pans were simply designed to not have a handle. I have no idea why this would ever be beneficial or desired. There was also a pretty meager selection of knives – no chef’s knife to be found. Either this French couple doesn’t cook much, or maybe they take their good cookware back with them to France when they are not in Brazil.

Copacabana, despite the imagery brought by the famous tacky song, reached its peak in the 50’s and kind of went on a seedy decline since, but seems to be back on its way up and is now safe again to wander around. The whole 5km or so beach strip extends about about 5 blocks wide with nonstop highrise condos and apartments, and stores and restaurants at the street level.

Food

Food was a mixed bag in Rio de Janeiro. We had some great Brazilian food (although far too large of portions) in an old, hilly part of town called Santa Teresa. We probably finished about 1/3rd of it.

Then we decided to make some food, which was nice for a change. At the grocery store, we bumped into an older American expat guy who struck up a conversation with us about the neighborhood. He recommended a bar called “Acadamia de Cachaça” – precisely what we (thought) we were looking for. Cachaça, for those of you who don’t know, is a spirit distilled from cane sugar. What makes it different from rum? Well… nobody seems to know.

Oddly, the food at that bar was pretty decent (though Alex’s was mediocre), and the Cachaça was pretty awful. The Caipirinhas that we were served were bitter, weren’t filtered from seeds or pulp at all, and had a nasty alcohol finish. Not quality by any means. Academy of how to not make drinks, I guess.

Natural Beauty

There is no mistaking it, Rio de Janeiro is absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Despite a large city being nestled on the few flat areas between the mountains and the beaches, that is exactly what makes it so amazing. The mountains all look structurally unsound – as if they were hand-crafted of clay and were ready to collapse at any point. Cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) seemed to think the same, because several mountains feature giant artificial support structures to keep them from collapsing.

The beaches are bountiful, and several of them are quite long. Each has its own character, vista, and appeal. They all have beautiful Brazilians.

The sky is clear at night, and blue in the daytime. The temperature is perfect. The mountains, where not too steep, are lush with tropical foliage and wildlife, including monkeys!

There is a good reason that this is the most visited city in the world.

Jesus Christ – The Big Guy

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Rio is to go up a mountain to see the gargantuan statue of Buddy Jesus. It is visible from nearly any spot in the city where your view isn’t blocked by one of thousands of midrise buildings.

Going on a weekend was not the best idea, because hoards of locals go up to visit the statue and take pictures on their day off. We had to wait about 3 hours or so to take the next available swiss-style train up the mountain. It was worth it.

Some other important guy. No Horse.

Incredibly vistas of the city, sea-formed clouds pouring over the mountain, winds, and tons of people mesmerized by their favorite character in history – Christ, The Redeemer.

Pão de Açúcar – Sugar Loaf Mountain

Waking up early on a Sunday was a great way to go to Pão de Açúcar – one of the more notably vertical mountains on the coastline. It has a very long cable ride up to the top from one of the neighborhoods, and after the 3hour wait to see Jesus by train, we thought it would be best to try to beat the masses.

It worked – mostly. One nice thing about Catholic nations is that on Sunday mornings, everybody is stuck in church and it leaves the city wide open to roam around without the locals and tourists getting in the way. Dining on a Sunday can be a bit of a challenge, though, as most decent restaurants seem to close.

We bought our tickets for the cable car, immediately got on the next one, and began our ascent. Nothing too notable to mention in words other than we noticed how terrifying it looked to be on the flights landing at the airport near to the mountain. They came very close to the mountain after pulling a giant U turn, and immediately had to land on a pretty short runway along the ocean. Yikes. As long as they don’t clip the cable on the way down…

The rest of this magnificent place is best told with photos.

Fitness & Fashion (or lack thereof) on the Costa Sul

After lots of sight-seeing, it was time to finally hit the beach. After all, its Rio de Janeiro! The beach was PACKED. Not too many people were in the water, although it was a fairly comfortable temperature and seemed visibly clean. Mostly kids and elderly men pretending to be kids were the only ones playing in the crashing waves.

It is probably already known, but there are lots of gorgeous people in Rio de Janeiro. Race is widely varied – from caucasian Portuguese descent, latino mix, or African descent, or any combination thereof. A substantial number of people could pass for underwear models. Certainly not everybody is completely fit, and I’d say not even half. But the point is that it may be something close to half. Nowhere in my life have I ever seen such a fit, sexy group of people who take such great care of their bodies.

Women, no matter what their shape, age, or skin condition all wore bikinis. Sometimes you hoped they revealed a little less – or bought a size that actually fit their rolls. Sometimes, you wished they showed a little more. But bikinis it was.

Guys wore either tight-fitting speedos – brief or square-cut trunks. Or they wore board shorts. It was probably about half and half, but it was nearly guaranteed that if the guy was in terrible shape or was over 60 that he was rockin’ the smallest, tightest speedo possible. Funny how that works out, isn’t it? I admire their lack of shame.

So, that’s all fine and dandy. Wear as little as you want on the beach, as far as I’m concerned. Especially if you have the body to do so. The thing that stood out the most was that this beachwear was also acceptable clothing to be wearing pretty much anywhere in the Costa Sul. Going shopping in a classy mall in Ipanema? Speedo! Hanging out at a local bar? Speedo! Movie with the girlfriend? Board shorts and soccer jersey!

Button-down shirts, jeans, or any form of casual dress-shoe were almost nowhere to be found. It was quite the opposite of Venezuela, where wearing shorts and flip flops indicated that you were probably poor and of a lower social status. Brazilians didn’t give a shit. Its hot, they’re near the beach, and they don’t want to be bothered with changing clothes or putting on some pants over that sexy speedo for anything.

So it seemed.

Money

Rio is an interesting lot. On the drive from the airport, we passed some pretty poor neighborhoods that looked like they’d be lucky to have any form of running water, electricity, or sanitation. Then, once you’re in the Costa Sul, you feel like you’re in the wealthiest place on the planet – rivaling Champs Elysees. The further west along the coast you went, the more money there seemed to be. There is certainly lots of disparity between people’s wealth.

Rio and Sao Paulo have rocketed up to be in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world. This is partly due to the strength of the Real, but also gets boosted by the tourism and inflation within the country. Think New York, Boston, or San Francisco pricing relative to the rest of the USA..

Bonus Day!

Monday, we wake up around 7:15am or so, ready to head out of Rio to Iguazu. Everything is pretty much packed and ready to go. Its kind of sad, really. I groggily check our flight information. Everything is in order – flight leaves about 10:30am. Gol Airlines doesn’t show any sign of going bankrupt. I check the hotel information in Iguazu. Uh… crap! We made the hotel reservation for the wrong day! Oh no!

I go back to the trip itinerary. Wait, maybe… oh, looks like we leave Rio TOMORROW. I quickly inform Alex of our extra day in Rio. We were both kind of surprised that somehow we both managed to completely get the day of our flight wrong. Both of us are fairly seasoned travelers.

We had no complaints, though. There was so much more to do and see. Time to get the day started – no rush or pressure this time.

Alex Gets Sick

The only downside to the day was that Alex began to get sick with a sort of headcold. He went back to bed since we didn’t have an itinerary set for the day. Being sick in Rio is no fun, but at least we had a nice base camp to hang out in.

Jardím Botanico – Botannical Gardens

Once Alex got a nap in, and I finished my workout routine, we grabbed some lunch and headed to the Jardím Botanico – bottanical gardens. They were stunning. Lots of plants, some monkeys, 200 year-old palm trees, walking trails, zen gardens. Photos.

Centro

Alex was tired and headed back, but I wanted to see the city center where there were some museums and old buildings from when the city was founded and was the capital of Brazil before it was moved to Brasilia in the ’50’s.

Emerging from the metro in the Centro is like getting off a plane in another city. No longer along the coast, people were now dressed for success in full business attire, hurriedly walking from their workplace to their chosen mode of transportation to get home. Business suits, button-ups, blouses, dresses. Aha! I guess Rio does have some fashion sense after all. You just have to leave the beach and not be out on a Sunday.

The Centro has some old buildings which are cool to look at, and I stopped at the building where Congress used to meet. A nice guy there gave me a lot of explanations of how the government worked, and how the building had transitioned from being a national building to now just be used by the state government.

He also was inquisitive about our own politics, and what I thought was going to happen in the elections. Naturally, I have no idea, but I shared my thoughts about the candidates and why each one may win over the other.

I was surprised to learn that voting in Brazil is not just a right – its mandatory. Failing to vote in an election is punishable by a hefty fine, and also could prevent you from getting a job, a passport, or visa. Mandatory democracy sounds like an interesting concept. I have to wonder how that would change the political landscape in the US.

Oh, and of course – what centro wouldn’t be complete without a guy on a horse? This guy has a Catholic grenade. watch out!

A Gente – The People

We had some mixed experiences with people in Rio. I thought that being a laid-back beach place in paradise that everybody would be bubbly and happy. It was actually rarely the case in our experience, though. People in the service industry seemed kind of aloof. We were lucky to get eye contact, let alone a smile. Nobody joked around. Cab drivers didn’t even attempt to make conversation or inquire where we were from. Sadly, we didn’t feel much love from the people. I guess, like any heavily touristed city, the locals get a bit jaded and just want all of these invaders to GTFO. I understand. So we did.

Actual Departure

Well, once we figured out the day of our flight, it was time to rest and get ready to head to Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil to go see some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls.

I know you’re sick of us foreigners, but I’ll be back, Rio. Definitely. Até logo.

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 9] Colonia de Sacramento de Fotografía

After several days in large cities, it was time to do something a bit slower paced. Why not head to another small UNESCO town in Uruguay?

Travel

Colonia de Sacramento is located along the southern Uruguayan shore, about 2 hours across the bay from Buenos Aires. There is a high-speed ferry that gets you there in about an hour. The ferry station in Buenos Aires was immaculate and modern – and featured all of the luxuries of an airport, including baggage checking and duty-free shops. Unlike an airport, there is one major difference – customs and immaculate are taken care of before you even board the boat. I actually much prefer this method because usually the last thing you want to do when you first arrive in a new country is deal with their bureaucracy and paperwork.

The ferry was fast, comfortable, clean, and featured its own large and quite popular duty free shop. The ferry thus smelled like a perfume store. We got some hot beverages and Dulce De Leche chocolate snacks.

We arrive. We get a cab to take us the whopping 4-5 blocks down the street which had recently been renamed from “Florida” to 15-something-syllables-too-many of a person’s name. It was definitely a change for the worse. We got to our Bed & Breakfast, El Viajero. The staff was very friendly, the location was super quaint and inviting. This is exactly where to go to catch a break if you’ve been staying in cities where you can’t see the horizon.

Photogenics

I’ve come to realize that “UNESCO Heritage Location” really just translates to “photographer’s dream-town”. It is virtually impossible to take a bad photo in one of these cities. Even the cliché photographs such as staring down at your feet are totally acceptible, because you know what? Underneath those feet are 600 year-old cobblestone roads. Look at the texture!

How many photos can we take of windows offset to the side with a nice dooorway in a semi-colorful stucco-walled home? The answer is lots. How about some photos of the lighthouse? From the lighthouse? Oh look, some dogs sleeping and rolling around in the sun! An old fisherman on the pier with the sun setting behind him over the bay. A cat hiding in the breakwall. An old trailer. A trailer being loaded with chopped wood to fuel a parilla grill in a restaurant. Finally, its dark, and now foggy. Look how the light streaks across the plaza? A loose horse that is roaming around the park next to the shore.

Every 30 seconds brings a moment begging you to click the shutter. And you do. Colonia is like a drug that takes over your body and controls your eyes. Combined with a camera, it is a dangerous place. It almost felt scripted, as if a photographer or director had set everything up just right for the ultimate visuals and timing.

Editing photos and selecting the best ones becomes the biggest challenge.

We wandered around at night to find a place to eat, and it was much like wandering around Burton at midnight, except that people were actually out – sort of. Restaurants were packed and lively, but the streets were desolate and silent. The air smelled like burning wood, and reminded me of Christmas time in Burton. It was eerie after coming from Buenos Aires – where people were constantly walking the streets. It was a welcome change, though, and we were greatful to be able to take a breather and catch up on sleep before heading off to the largest city in Uruguay the following day – Montevideo.

Sabbatical [Day 5] Skiing with Brazillians

Last night, wandering around for probably about an hour trying to find a place to eat (Santiago is in dire need of Yelp), Alex and I stumbled across a Ski trip place. We had planned on going on a ski trip – which, it turns out, would be my first time ever really skiing. On a whim, we wandered in to check the pricing. It turned out to be cheaper than the one we had originally planned to go to, and more importantly they noted that we would have to have already picked out our rental gear before the vans took off in the morning, which basically gave us time to make an immediate decision on the matter.

Done.

Ski trip it is. Picked our boots, picked our coats, snowpants, goggles. Then we went in the back room and were assisted by a guy who looked oddly like Jack Black in selecting some skis and poles. He slowly worked at adjusting the skis for our boots, and haphazardly converted pounds to kilograms (which I think he did incorrectly, with some decent falls my skis never detached). Our names were written on the skis in permanent markers, and we were told to be there in the morning.

We were. Along with an entire van full of Brazilians. I’m convinced that this particular outfit must have been featured in the Lonely Planet – Portuguese Edition or something. Their logo even had the Brazilian flag, and the guy helping us was from Rio. Alex and I immediately take notice of our immersion language experience, and are only more excited for the Brazil portion of the trip.

Off we went, late as scheduled. Within 30 seconds of the bus/van taking off, we were already in trouble. One of the store employees was pounding on the windows of the bus, telling the driver to stop. The Brazilians made a big fuss about it and laughed. It turned out that we were running into a road sign. And perhaps even the bus behind us.

A crunch and a smash later, we were un-parallel-parked later, and on our way. Thirty minutes into the trip, we began ascending the Andes. Forty minutes into the trip, we began our winding roads and hair-pin turns up to the summit of El Colorado Ski Resort.

Nearly every hairpin turn was taken at roughly 30mph. There was minimal braking. There was suggestive yielding to oncoming traffic. There were very small rail guards. It seemed that every 45 seconds we were either facing running directly into a cliff, or directly off of a cliff.

Each turn, the Brazilians showed us how to express fear in Brazilian Portuguese. I believe it went something like “OOOeeeeEUeoEeee!!!!” Hopefully, this knowledge will not come in handy in Brazil.

We made it.

I was amazed at the frenzy at the base of the slopes. Nearly all of the skiers seemed to be Brazilian. What? Why? Where are the Chileans? No Americans? Any English Speakers? Nope. Then, 75% of the skiers seemed to be about 75% of my age – and height, for that matter. This should prove to be humiliating.

It was – for a bit.

Alex tried showing me some basic moves. He kept talking about Pizzas and making a pizza and doing pizza turns and though I knew where he was going with it, I think it turned my mind to food and I was falling more than I was moving along any particular vector in euclidean geometry. Then he went up to actually ski, and I got my professional instructor for an hour to teach me how things are done. It turns out that he was from Japan. Masuke… Maruke…  Marusake… I can’t remember his name right now. But, his English was slightly better than his Spanish, so that is how he told me basic directions. Laughing at my errors, however, was shared in a universal language.

Within the hour, I learned how to sort of slow down (as much as my lanky hip flexors would allow), turn a bit, and look slightly pro while doing it. He assured me that with a few more days training, I would be ready for Olympic tryouts. Encouragement goes a long way when skiing is one of your biggest fears.

So the lessons ended, I made it down the big bunny slope hill without dying or piercing my instructor, who encouraged me to press my ski poles into his chest while he skiid backwards and slowed me from flying down the Andes at 800kph.

Then, Alex had the fortune of skiing with me. More like spectating, I guess. And he photographed me – while skiing backwards. Then videotaped me, while skiing backwards. At some point, he caught me skiing ever-so-overly-fast, directly into a “slow down” sign, thus knocking it over. Oh, the irony.

So we had some breaks. Alex went off to do real skiing while I did my best to not die. I succeeded, and I even started to get the hang of it by the end. My hip flexors and back said “thats enough”, as did my watch.

Brazilian’s watches run precisely 10 minutes slow. We sat on that bus, waiting for everybody to get back on at the designated 5pm. Nobody… nobody, nobody….. then, 5:10pm and suddenly 20 Brazilians pile onto the bus at once. It turns out, I don’t even think they were a big group of people who knew each other – its just how it is.

We went down the scary hills and switchbacks, which at this point was actually quite slow from all of the ski-evacuation traffic. Again, we did not fly down or into a cliff, despite the driver’s numerous attempts.

The day was a success, ended by a rather disgusting Chilean sandwich. I wonder if this is how many Chilean’s days go. They have fairly terrible food here in Santiago. Lots of  hotdogs, hamburgers, and other nasty things. Figuring it seemed to be the national cuisine of Chile, we went for one of these things after the trip. I got a vegetarian equivalent of “El Completo” which normally carries a hot dog – but in my case they just removed that integral ingredient. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, about 2 cups of guacamole, 1 cup of mayo, all slathered into a hot dog bun. It was the messiest, most mediocre and fulfilling thing I could have eaten at that moment. I was hungry. Tomorrow, I expect to have cholera.

Chilean Merlot, some craft beers, some chores of doing laundry, and a long skype chat with Alex’s girlfriend, Lindsey, ended our last night here in Chile. Tomorrow, we are off to Montevideo.

So long, oeste de America del Sur!

How Chase “Credit Access Line” Hurts Your Credit Score

Recently I was checking out my free credit score on CreditKarma.com. It has been a bit lower than I had expected lately and I wasn’t quite sure why – until I noticed that my reported available revolving credit total was much lower than it should have been.

I currently have two active credit cards – a Discover card with a credit limit of $3000 and a Chase Freedom Visa Signature card with a limit of $7500. Both of these limits are well beyond what I really would ever need – but that extra spending room is nice in case of emergency.

CreditKarma as well as Experian report my available credit limit as $3000, not the total of $10500. Because of this, my debt-to-available credit ratio is much higher than it should be, thus causing my credit score to go down significantly. Credit scoring algorithms place a very, very large weighting on this ratio.

Little did I know that this credit access line “feature” was doing more harm than good. I have a suspicious feeling that Chase and Visa are doing this purposefully. It is in their interest for consumers to have a worse credit score. A worse score means they can charge higher interest rates and be less likely to be accepted for other lines of credit.

Honestly, this calls for a class action lawsuit. I can only imagine how much money this has cost the consumer by anybody who was switched to a Visa Signature card with a credit access line and subsequently applied for another line of credit. I certainly hope it did not affect my home refinance rates. Hopefully this sort of thing will be better regulated in any upcoming bank regulation laws.

If you have a similar issue – call your credit card company and ask that you get your credit limit back so that it is reported properly to the credit bureaus. Hopefully after a few months you will see your credit score shoot back up to where it was meant to be.

Getting rid of Snail Spam

Enough is enough. I get too many pounds of junk mail every week in my mailbox. Such a small thing can become infuriating over time. More importantly – it fills up my recycling box even quicker and creates more paper clutter on tables – resulting in more chores. Chores are not good. Chores make me unhappy.

Paper junk mail:

  • Wastes paper
  • Wastes ink
  • Wastes fuel in transportation and printing
  • Wastes corporate advertising dollars. If I didn’t sign up for your credit card the first 75 mailings, why would I on the 76th?
  • Wastes time.
  • Wastes space

The main offenders:

  • RedPlum. These guys send out ridiculously large coupon papers once or twice a week. I never look at the coupons or discounts. I’m not fooled by loss-leaders. I don’t care. Go directly to recycling bin. Do not pass eyes. Do not waste time.
    • To cancel, fill out the form here.
  • AAdvantage Citi Card offers. Seriously once a week! You’d think it would be a single piece of paper, too, but these envelopes are packed to the max.
    • To cancel, call AAdvantage customer service and request to be taken off of the mailing list. It takes about 2 minutes.
  • Mortgage Insurance offers. The fun never stops. After closing on a home, I’ve gotten one to two of these daily, slowly tapering down until I refinanced. Now its back up to several a day. I have yet to figure out how to stop this bombardment from numerous companies – none of which even care to share their actual name. These are horrible life insurance policies from most likely illegitimate companies. I will not fill out and return your form full of my personal information. Direct to recycling bin.
  • 401k/Investment statements and fund prospectus. Does anybody actually sit down and read these 100-page dry documents on every single detail of the fund? If you do – get a life or a better fund. Or better still – read it on your computer. I guess this material is good if you have problems falling asleep. It is also very thin, dry paper which I imagine would be excellent at starting campfires.
    • I signed up for the electronic version

Thats it for now. If you have any advice on how to get rid of more junk mailings – feel free to comment. My goal is to end up with just mail which is extremely important, mail from friends and family, and the occasional check from… who knows where. Also – if you want to send me money in the mail – feel free.

H&R Block Online Fail #2

I decided it was time to switch to TurboTax – which I was much happier with. Just to verify the numbers, I wanted to check against H&R block and found a rather significant discrepency. When researching the Sales Tax deduction allowed by the IRS – it seemed that H&R block’s amount was significantly higher than the IRS & TurboTax calculations. Congratulations, H&R Block users – you just earned yourself an audit! Hopefully they have fixed this issue. I certainly notified them as soon as I found it.

As I expected – if their software isn’t written well enough to give me a proper error message – it probably isn’t written well enough to accurately calculate my tax return either.

Never again.

BRIAN SAGHY: Hello
Lucas S.: Hello BRIAN, welcome to H&R Block’s At Home Live Chat Support! How can we assist you today?
BRIAN SAGHY: I’d like to report a potentially serious bug
Lucas S.: I see, what is the precise error?
BRIAN SAGHY: Under the State & Local tax payments section in particular. When I choose to use the “IRS standard” amount from the IRS sales tax table, the value returned is MUCH higher than that returned by the IRS website.
BRIAN SAGHY: The IRS provides a calculator here: http://apps.irs.gov/app/stdc/
Lucas S.: I see, that does sound serious. Would you like me to put in a word to my superiors?
BRIAN SAGHY: In my particular case, H&R block says that my standard sales tax deduction is $1,619, the IRS website says $921.36
BRIAN SAGHY: Yes, I highly recommend it or you guys are going to have a lot of audits on your hands
BRIAN SAGHY: Also – I didn’t even know that I qualified for such a deduction. Once this error is resolved – you may want to suggest looking into making this more prominent. TurboTax showed it to me right away and ended up with a much better tax return by default.
Lucas S.: I see, I’ll be sure to let them know that as well
BRIAN SAGHY: Thanks
Lucas S.: Is there anything else that you would like for me to do for you this evening?
BRIAN SAGHY: Thats all.
Lucas S.: I thank you kindly for this feedback and I will be sure to send this up to the proper authorities.

Things that BUZZ [and i know why]

Dear GSM mobile phone carrier,

Fix your network. Fix your communication protocol. I am sick and tired of hearing interference from every cell phone which is on your network on my speakers, on my headphones on my landline on the conference room phone, and seeing my monitor shake and shimmy every time my LG decides to talk phone home like ET to the mothership.

This is entirely unacceptable. How much money did you have to shove in the FCC’s pockets to get this horribly engineered, chattery wireless protocol approved? I was hoping that maybe with the update of the W-CDMA/3G protocol that you’d have this fixed. I guess that wasn’t an option? Or are you just lazy and ignorant?

How did Apple overlook this gigantic flaw when choosing AT&T as their sole provider of the iPhone? For being so concerned about aesthetics and pleasure of use, forcing your customer’s speakers blast digital chit-chat interference at them every 5 minutes is not going to boost your sales or reputability. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, because if I have to listen to this garbage noise then your music-playing phone is worthless to me.

Stop blaming the “poor” shielding on my [everything]. I’m sorry that not all of my electronics are wrapped in lead so that you don’t have to think for yourselves and come up with a protocol that doesn’t suck. Even Evil Verizon decided to go with a protocol that doesn’t suck.

I guess that means I’ll be switching back to crappy, Evil Verizon or maybe try Sprint. Thanks a lot.

Sincerely,

-Brian Saghy

Things That BEEP [and i don’t know why]

The piezo-electric buzzer salesman is one of the most successful businessman of his time. Perhaps not economically, but he certainly got his product into more devices around the world than I personally would ever have wished for.

The buzzer is a simple device – a piece of flexible crystal which flexes itself when an electrical current is applied. Turn the current on and off in rapid succession, and you get a frequency. You attach that frequency to a spasming piece of metal or plastic, and you get movement of air. You move air, and you get a blaring obnoxious noise entering your ear, waking you up at 6:30 in the morning as a construction worker decided to put his vehicle in reverse not too far from your bedroom window. Continue reading