Archive for June, 2012

I Wanted to Know What Would Happen if I Spent My Last Centavo…

HSBC, “the world’s bank”: EXCEPT WHEN THEY’RE CLOSED.

I wanted to know what would happen if I spent my last centavo. I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared. Having not even a cent to my name is anathema to me. I wanted to test my limits.
Uh-oh!!!
(In fact, I’d tried to get money out on the weekend but the HSBC machine at the Santos Dumont airport was not dispensing money.)
I’d been living on my last R$50 ($25US) since Saturday, and by Monday was down to R$4 ($2US).
That included R$1 that I pinched from my  friend Vinicius. Things were getting tight.
Still, I stayed at home, ate lunch there and went to the Canadian Consulate in the afternoon to return some poor sod’s driver’s licence and beat up wallet—the remains of a mugging in my neighborhood over the weekend.
I then spent R$2.75 getting the bus from Copacabana to Ipanema.
I was down to R$1 and 20 centavos. That’s sixty cents, folks.
Throwing the rest of my caution to the wind, I asked the pipoca man (popcorn guy) if he’d sell me a half portion, usually R$2, for my spare change. He did—in fact, he gave me a full portion.
I was looking forward to a more robust snack once I’d gone to the bank.
So there I was for about 4 blocks with not a scrap of money on me. Not even one centavo. Liberty? Wasn’t sure.
Then, as if fate decided to inject some incontrovertible certainty into the situation, my sandal snap broke with a sudden snap and crash, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.
I was now limping to the HSBC bank. How I was going to get my shoe fixed before leaving for the Amazon, two days away?? But first, to fix my shoe, I needed money.
A pack of young Australians at the bank were having bank-card issues.
Probably didn’t pre-authorize their cards before they left home, I thought smugly as I dipped my white card into the machine. I had.
Then the machine spat out a slip at me. Then another. No money, just a grubby little dirty yellow slip telling me to ‘call my institution.’
The guard behind the now-locked glass doors of the closed-to-the-public (but not actually closed) bank told me to wait a second and try again.
That sounded cockamamie: there was clearly a problem. That damned airport ATM: Not only had it not given me any cash, it has also locked up my card in some incomprehensible security maneuver.
Unlike the Australians, I didn’t have an international cell phone to call my US bank. But I did have some Portuguese. The guard got an official looking woman to come talk to me.
Me speaking in the Portuguese of a 7-year old: My card doesn’t work, I’m totally out of money, and the free phone here in the lobby won’t connect to international call centers.
Official-looking Bank Lady: Your card doesn’t work? We can’t do anything until tomorrow at 10 a.m. We are closed.
Me: I can’t wait til tomorrow. I have not even one penny on me.
Official-looking Bank Lady: We do not serve anyone after we are closed.
Me: All I need is to use the phone.
Now distinctly a Bureaucratic Bank Lady: You can use the phones on the street.
Me: I did.  They didn’t accept the collect call that the bank operator told me to make.
BBL, handing me a pamphlet through the glass door: Call this number.
Me: I can’t! I have no money!
BBL: I cannot help you. It’s after hours.
Me, getting irate: YOU are here!! Those people behind you are there! You are surrounded by phones!  You want me to sleep on the street waiting for you to come back tomorrow to make a one minute phone call???
BBL: You can still use your [blocked!!] card at shops.
Me: I don’t think so! That’s the nature of a *blocked* card!
BBL: Well I cannot open the door to the public now.
Me: But all I need is a phone. I don’t even know if I can get back to my house to make the call myself! You are supposed to be MY bank!
BBL: Wait a second here.
—-long minutes pass. Then another Official-looking Bank Lady comes out. We go through the same thing all over again. To no avail.
I leave with no money.
The next stop is a yoga class where the owner, Coaracy Nunes, cheerfully hears me out and says: Don’t worry, darling, it’s all happening for a reason, maybe not so obvious right now. You don’t have to pay for class. No worries! Just roll with things, it’s gonna be fine. Don’t take it personally. These things happen! This is Brazil!
Class helps me focus on something other than how I wanted to strangle BBL. But how am I going to get home?
After, I meet up with Marcus, a fellow Canadian I met at a dinner party last week. He was going to give me his apartment keys–and a free apartment in the Flamengo neighborhood for July.
Breathlessly (and some what ravenously) I told him what had happened at the bank.  I’m still hobbling along in my broken sandal.
I even tried, I told him, even after the bank incident to buy a snack at a lanchonette (open-air snack stand) but of course AS I ALREADY KNEW, my card wouldn’t work.
Marcus showed me his one room apartment, with one burner, one window and one saggy couch-bed. Then he took pity on me and we went out for a beer and some aipim fries (like yucca) and frango de passarinho, a plate of small pieces of fried chicken. We talked a lot. We’d overlapped at college. We had lots of stories about Brazil.
When the choppe (draft beer) was drunk, he paid the bill and put R$20 in my pocket. That meant I could take a taxi when I reached my subway stop and wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill to Santa Teresa late at night in my broken shoe.
I’d arrived at yoga with nothing except massive frustration and a dose of fear. I’d all but forgotten my challenge to the powers-that-be: let’s see what happens when me, little miss organized, walks into a no-security-net situation.
And in fact, I already had everything I needed: near-strangers willing to help out, fill my belly and my pockets, as needed. Even give their apartments.
Okay, universe, that was a good one. You got me.

10 Things You Can Do in Flip Flops (if you’re Brazilian)

It’s winter here in Rio de Janeiro and just shy of beach weather. Temperatures are in the 70s and quite a bit of rain, interrupted by the gloriously tropical sunny days that Brazil is known for.

The classic flip flop, no bells and whistles

But in Rio you don’t have to be heading to the beach to wear flip flops. In fact, flip flops might just be the national shoe.

I have been amazed at what Brazilians can do in these flimsy strips of rubber.

I’m living in an old part of the city that has colonial-era houses and cobblestone streets. Cobblestones could more accurately be named “hobblestones” : not easy to walk on, and even harder in the rain. But even so, Brazilians in flip flops regularly pass me on these streets.

And I’m wearing sturdy Dansko sandals.

Here are some other things they do in flip flops:

Run for the bus (ever tried this? Very difficult. Toe cramps!)

Do dances that require fast and nimble foot work—like samba and forro.

Climb ladders and scaffolding.

Lug heavy things up steep hills.

Chase thieves.

Go to work (as in, office work).

Walk with canes.

Hustle themselves and their small children (who are also wearing small flip flops) onto a careening form of public transit.

Ride motorbikes.

And, the wedge flip flop really ups the ante. (The white shoes above are modest compared with the enormous platforms I’ve seen on women in Rio–like these brown ones.)
Apparently, Brazilians are in good company: versions of the sandal with the toe-strap date back to Egyptians and Romans, some made from papyrus and palm leaves. According to the site PecheBlu:
Styles varied with the differing placement of the toe strap, as subsequent civilizations preferred using different toes. The Greeks for example made use of the big toe; the Romans, the second toe; and the Mesapotanians, the third toe. These distinctive, physical entities were recognised and captured in Egyptian statues, and this was thought to represent the celebration of other cultures.
Interesting factoid: Havaianas, the famous Brazilian brand, was established in 1962, inspired by Japanese sandals called the Zori, made of ‘rice straw’ soles and fabric bands. This explains the “textured rice pattern” on the soles of all Havaianas… Check your pair.
And guaranteed your legs will be completely sore after a week charging around in only flip flops!

Read more travel writing here!

Read more of my travel writing!  

How I moved to New York City after growing up on a rural island in Canada (posted on joellehann.com/journalism)

– All you need to know about Montreal´s underground art scene (published on Fodors.com)

–My family´s relationship to curry stems back to my mother´s childhood in India (published on The Paupered Chef.com)

 –São Paulo´s little film school that is changing how film is taught (published on Janera.com)

A chair made of “medicinal” vines. Pisaq, Peru.

–Brazil´s influential international literary festival, F.L.I.P. is worth knowing about (published in Poets & Writers magazine)

 

Enjoy, armchair travelers!