Those stupid picture frames.

Shouting, “Hey driver, let me out here!” I walked confidently down the aisle, corralling my comrades along the way. The picture frames for the Dominican communities who host us that I had carry-on imported from Athens, Georgia held their ground in the bus’s narrow overhead storage.

It took two days for my error to announce itself. When I realized what I had done I sought out some internet to find the small bus company’s phone number. Let us never forget the wonder of Google. Number in hand I called Aetra Bus of Santo Domingo. They gave me a number to call in Santiago. Against a pessimist’s odds, the cordial folks in Santiago had our frames. No, they couldn’t send them to me in Bonao but they could send them to Piedra Blanca, which was just about 30 miles down the highway.

On a Thursday afternoon, I headed down to the highway to wait for a passing van, the whirlwind of our program fading away behind me.  Facing north, I waited for a gua-gua to pull over and take me south. Within ten minutes, one such civilian soldier of the country’s informal public transport army screeched to a halt ten paces to my right. The grandiose arm gestures of the animated cobrador encouraged my paced toward the open door. A cobrador collects passenger payment, helps them squeeze into unlikely spaces and hangs out the open door announcing the final destination to largely disinterested bystanders along the highway. As I approached him, I realized that it was Domingo, who often beckons us from across the street to show us the wood stove candy factory behind his house and stuff our pockets with sweets as we leave.

Domingo’s son, Edydeyson, emerged smiling at me from under his baseball cap, hopping down into the dust. He had just finished practice, explained his Dad, and was pitching a 75 but needed to pitch an 82.  Drawn up and in to the gua-gua’s sticky embrace, I greeted the aged couple in the back and slid into one of the many open seats as we, this new momentary family of circumstance, barreled down the highway toward Piedra Blanca.

As we pulled into the Piedra Blanca stop, a faded bright yellow concrete structure with an open front, a spotty Caribbean rain found its rhythm above us. Domingo’s many warnings about the suddenly risen torrent of water along the curb found it’s way to the athlete in me. An easeful hop saw me across the water and propelled me towards shelter. Once inside, the frames were quickly located, thanks were given and a plastic bag happily embarking on it’s ninth life as an umbrella found it’s way over the top of the frames. My frames and I headed toward the street, pausing when confronted with the downpour.

“You better just wait ’til this water slows,” said a gentle, indifferent voice from behind. I turned and almost automatically desisted, in part because I didn’t want to ride back wet, and in part because I had learned that stubborness in a place that doesn’t readily respond to personal will is a futile waste of effort. But soon my inbred restlessness won out and I headed out into the rain to flag down a van headed back in the other direction. 

I found ready refuge with a small group of wet, chatty street vendors under a tarp strung between two structures. On the left, a shack or shed of some sort, silent under the steady rain. On the right, a wooden stand no bigger than a carnival booth, with a one-sided glass cover containing mounting piles of fried plantains, chicken, salami. From the corner, the accidental master of all things fried, relying heavily on the stool beneath him and the wall behind him, gazed through the street vendors’ conversation while tending to his sizzling pots by ear, sight being now unnecessary. 

United by the wait, I, the vendors who hawk their wares to passing vans and buses, and the gentleman manning the fritura, began our gentle social sway. Two of the vendors, swimming the familiar detached strokes of debate, highlighted best selling techniques for their dulce de leche and candied peanut and sesame bars. My focus, easily detaching from this language on loan to me, slipped out into the street, lazing between the constant rain, and finally latching onto the light swooning heart of a distant bachata.

“Here comes one, you’re going to get your ride right now,” said a delighted voice. “Put those over your head,” said another man, pointing at the frames. “No,” said an older gentleman who had shown up while my mind was out under the rain. “Take my cap, you can send it back from the van,” he said pushing it firmly onto my head. I hunched down a bit under my friend’s cap, nestled the frames under my arm and headed toward the van’s open door.

Miles passed and soon enough the bakery with the fancy bathrooms appeared outside the window letting me know that it was almost time to get off.  “Driver, let me off at the Los Mangos stop pleeease!”

Following a confident swerve and firm braking, the door slid open and my feet hit the ground.  Resituating my bag of frames for the short walk home I heard something fall to the ground. Looking down, a smile spread through my heart and took hold of my mouth. Down at my feet, a peanut candy bar—the type commonly sold by the country’s many street vendors.

Under the tarp, between a shed and a stand, bound together by an assertive rain, on of my comrades-in-waiting had silently sent me off into my new present with anonymous gift.

peanut candy bar

Coffee, Rocks, and Bloody Toes in Brazi-U

At the park in Sao Paulo

So here I am in Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is an enormous international city that I surely first heard mention of in some spy movie–the animated letters appearing across the bottom of the screen announcing the protagonists newest setting. It’s gorgeous, and temperate! Winter here is perfect–sweater needed but really no coats for most.

I totally love it here even taking into account that it’s a complete farce, a complete rídiculo considering the hunger and aestheticallyunpleasant conditions that most of this country’s population experiences–to put it mildly–of which I have only seen hints and heard allusions.

Hektor after 8 hours of Portañol

Learning a bit of Portuguese has been loads of fun especially because beautiful beautiful Byron takes every opportunity to publicly compliment the speed with which I’m learning the strange and beautiful nasally grunts and flourishes. At first I was convinced that the whole country was trying to speak Spanish and just doing a pretty poor job of it. Anything I have learned is due to Byron’s awesome friend Hektor who took me in during my first few days here and guided me through the language infancy stage which involves a lot of pointing, jarringly awful pronunciation and lots of repetition. He also bought me my first pão de queijo (a savory biscuity thing made from fermented manioc starch and shredded cheese) before I even knew how to say it.

Before landing in Sao Paulo, I traveled to various coffee farms with Byron–an invaluable opportunity to say the least. The way coffee farming is done here is very different from the bits I’ve seen in the rest of Latin America. Coffee is most often planted in rows and sometimes on flat land allowing for much more mechanization. Another bonus for me was experiencing the different dialects of people throughout the interior and then in Rio.

Rio de Janeiro. One day in Rio. Everything about Rio was overwhelming–the size, the smells, the architecture, the decay, the tragedy, the unlikelihood. The five hour bus ride took ten hours. We arrived late to our tiny hostel room to be greeted by a big bowel movement (as the docs politely say) in the toilet. In the morning the two lovers set out to be tourists. We took a ride to a point called pão de açucar which overlooks all of Rio. We followed a cab driver’s recommendation and ended up eating lunch in an employee cafeteria which couldn’t have pleased me more. We spent the afternoon up in the windy crests of Santa Teresa where our poor waitress shattered our coffee cups and I bloodied both my toes. I wouldn’t trade any of it.

Byron & Hektor conquer rock

Other trip highlights include staying in a BEAUTIFUL restored home in an abandoned (or bought out) old train station town; hiking up a beautiful rock with great company while Byron went straight up the side climber style; fire roasted steak, sweet yuca and chunks of tomato served on a cutting board and shared between everyone at the table; and experiencing the delicate yearning of parting ways as a certain  lover climbed into a taxi yesterday and headed for Brooklyn.

I’m headed for Buenos Aires for a surprise Lauren Stephenson with a guerrilla visit wearing a gorilla mask, update my Argentine Spanish, and look at interpretation programs.

A borrowed wish from my friend Kate: may you find ease and fulfilment in your work today.