Friday, October 24, 2014

Sao Paulo

On Tuesday I arrive at Sao Paulo’s largest bus station, Tiete. It is also the largest bus station in the known universe. After having spent a weekend at Mestre Ra’s quiet horse ranch in Jundiai arriving here is like a slap in the face. I feel like I am in Total Recall, and I am the one with the guttural accent. Large, concrete - in spirit and form - 80’s architecture dominates.People scurrying around at, for Latin America, high speeds and twerking at antique yet oddly honorable tasks in modern times like being a porter.

One of many Tiete bus terminals,

While it took only 50 minutes to cover the 50km from Jundiai to the northern part of Sao Paulo, it takes me two hours to reach my couch surfing host’s house in the southern part of the Megalopolis. This is not because of traffic, bad public transport or slow driving. On that Wednesday there are not as many cars on the street as I expected, buses go to every corner of the city and the bus drivers are all nephews of Ayrton Senna. No, Sao Paulo is just that big. Twenty million people perched precariously on a steep plateau 50 kilomerts from the Atlantic coast. The place just completely blew my my little Austrian mind - the whole of Austria has roughly nine million inhabitants compared to Sao Paulo's twenty.

I mostly trained capoeira in this city. Every day I would go to another amazing Mestre's academia to learn from the source. My idea that these various capoeira schools mix and meet much more often than the schools in the USA because they are in close proximity to each other is complete bogus. They might as well be on different planets for all the time it would take to get from one to the other. 

What a treat to train with Mestre Catitu in his home town.

OMG I am actually training at Mestre Suassuna's academia!

I kid you not, it took at least 2 hours to get anywhere. During traffic even longer. While it was an easy burden because I was fulfilling many a capoeiristas dream I spent at least 5 hours a day riding an efficient, quick and well organized public transport system. Sao Paulo sits on top of these endless formerly green rolling hills. Now they are endless rolling waves of highrisers.

Sao Paulo

Everytime you catch a glimpse of the horizon you see highrisers stretching into the distance. The concrete jungle simply never ends. I am sure Paulistas would become agoraphobic if you dropped them into the Baja California desert.

Avenida Paulista

Horizons have been defeated

Historically speaking, a city needs certain geographical characteristics, like being next to a large river or easy access to the sea to grow to a world metropolis, especially if you focus on industry and export of raw materials. Sao Paulo doesn’t have any of that. The road to the coast is like a slightly wider than normal, paved Inca Trail. I have no idea why the monster grew from its humble origins in the 1530s to be the largest city in Latin America.

One day I drove to the beach and immediately wished I hadn’t donated my bike to Projeto Kirimuré because riding down this downhihll racetrack of a road that was hewn into jungly cliffs would have been heartattack-inducing, car-overtaking, momma-scaring stuff, Q.E.D. - perfect. Aside from providing a joy ride for this Austrian (downhill + speed = happiness) cycling Capoeira vagabundo this road must have been a complete bitch to transport stuff up and down on in 1920, because, guess what, it still is for the 18 wheelers of modern day. There were at least ten of them pulled over cooling their breaks on the way down.

Want. This. Racetrack.

And don’t for one second think that Sao Paulo’s 18 wheelers are antiquated third world diesel monsters. This is the souther, modern part of Brazil, the developed part, where 80 % of the population gets around town without a car, where there is hardly any trash, no man-sized holes in the road and sewers that work. So when people, even rightfully, say that the world cup was a red card in the face of the poor of Brazil, it may do better to concentrate on the constant southward concentration of wealth instead. It is shocking to walk around towns that make you feel like you are anywhere in Europe or the US while the north and northeast of Brazil resemble Honduras or El Salvador. The disparity in infrastrucutre, cleanliness, maintenance and availability of services, doctors, shops and plain old vegetables is huge. I can not tell you how many times I tried to buy vegetables in a Mercadino after a day of riding in the north to only find onions, tomatoes and carrots. Without my sack of sub-continental Indian spices I would have hated my own cooking after a week.

A sadly depleted sack of spices

I wanted to hate Sao Paulo. I wanted to hate it for its anonymity, for its uniformity, for its formidability. Yet I don’t seem to possess that sort of passion any longer. The last time I had intense third world to Megalopolis culture shock was in 2008 when I went to Hong Kong after a month in Burma. Instead today, I attempt to do that human thing and grow, and desist comparing and judging those who make the free choice to live on an exciting, human anthill vs. those who live in an idyllic, boring small town. 

And there is always wall tattooing going on.

As bikers we develop an affinity for the safety and tranquility of small country town with nice, shadowy squares and gentle Boa Tardes. But riding bike for that long also means that we have seen as many life style choices as people. And that is beautiful. You think out there in the countryside its too boring, with not enough action and you love the speed and frantic nature of the anthill? Or you think in there its too claustrophobic, somehow un-human and you love the slow evenings and the sounds of nature? It's all fair, as long as we accept other people's choices. Making a judgment about either the backwardness or franticness of others lets us believe that we are different faces of the same coin. And yet it should be obvious that there is no coin, no face and definitely no spoon. Only all of us with the same fears and desires living in different environments. Environments, to which we adapt as best we can. 

So  let us all stop and consider, instead of judging and comparing. Let us admire our common persistence, our hope for a better future. Whether it is the future of an ant or that of a snail. In teh grand sceme of things most of us are not more than that. Let’s drop our need to feel special and think that our way is the best one. 

I personally have no idea how I will reconcile my new found desire to play flute in churches and hang out in small friendly towns with my previous preference for large, exciting cities with lots of action and cultural melting happening. Another ambivalence I am hopefully becoming better at tolerating - Axé Capoeira.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


So I decided to go on this crazy year long bicycle journey to Brazil with Mestre Acordeon 2 weeks before the thing started. Yes, I know it may have been better to plan this a little longer. Or not. If you are new to this blog you can check the ridicolous chain of events here and here. The first inkling of what I was getting myself into was an excel sheet that I received from Bebum - "why do today if you can do it tomorrow". It was a monster of an equipment list that the B2B crew had put together to ride to Brazil. I also needed to get a bike.

Clearly a bike that only a guy standing on his head would think is fit to ride to Brasil.

It was, in one word, intimidating. I stopped counting at 200, and started thinking of what I could do tomorrow. But it had to be done so I'd go to four different shops and buy… exactly none of the items. Insect repellent, biodegradable soap, water purification methods. Stove, pot, which fuel to use? 500 and one things for a medical emergency (!) kit, clothes, sleeping bag, tools, patch kit, replacement parts. Bear spray, dog whistles, bike bell, reflectors, pepto bismol. It had no end. Though at least it did not recommend diapers for Montezuma's revenge.

I don’t know how (thank you, helpful friends), but two weeks later as I lined up on the first day of my new lives with all the other crazy riders I managed to have everything packed in my panniers and strapped to my ridicolous Recumbent Bike. I was prepared! Nothing could harm me or my trusted steelhorse from here on out.

Sorry, not authorized to go to Brasil!

Of course on that same first day Bebum and I camp out on the beach in San Francisco and the rest, especially Bebum’s bike, and gear and half of my stuff were, as they say, history. I still wonder what the bum did with my greencard. I mean, if he is one thing, he is legal to be a bum in the USA.

So after being robbed of all our stuff Bebum had nothing but his tent, sleeping bag, Chapul's Cricket Bars and some cash left while I had been liberated of my wallet including some cash and all my cards, my clothes, sleeping bag and bike stuff. Fate is an ironic bitch. On the day we left Bebum probably had as much stuff as fellow B2B rider Tora. A day later, not so much. You can read how we stayed positive throughout that crazy second day here. We did not have access to any real resources until my replacement cards came, which was four weeks later in Los Angeles. We could not buy clothes, gear, or tons of food. The little money that Bebum had was spent on a bike for him and fixing it. So we made do. And making do we learned that we didn’t need most of the stuff that was on that monster list. For a month a used Trader Joe's re-usable plastic shopping bag was my second panier. It was a pain in the ass. It worked. I also went shopping with my big ol' five Dollars at Goodwill.

Didn't buy this ridicolous hat.

This one seemed much more stylish at the time.
M. Mago clearly approves.

Before I left my swankily located yet sparsely inventoried apartment to sit my butt on a bike for a year I did not own a lot of stuff either. I had been moving around the world since high school, twenty years by now. Naturally, if you are moving from Austria to Australia as I did, you don’t bring more than what Quantas allows. When I moved to LA a six years later I had two medium sized bags to my name. Another twelve years, five cities, endless road and world trips later I packed up all the belongings that I wanted to keep after the year I was planning to be riding bike. Everything else I gave away.

I remained with two bags of clothes, a bunch of books and a blender. I seem to have an essentially functional relationship with stuff. I need to wear stuff, I like to read stuff and I blend stuff since I recently found out that I can’t eat most things normal in a western diet.

How much stuff someone needs to be happy varies widely from person to person. Some of us need more stuff to be comfortable, some of us need less stuff. Since it was me, not a horse, not a dog, not a woman or a slave carrying my stuff, I was rather sensitive about how much stuff I had. And yet, over the course of a year of riding bike stuff accumulated, again. It's as if stuff, like mana, magically appeares out of thin air. Periodically, I would have to go through my stuff and, you guess right, give stuff away. If you are tired of reading the word "stuff" a lot, you can stuff it.

That fourth t-shirt that a really nice capoeirista gave you in San Salvador? Sorry, donate it, you only end up wearing one to three shirts. Remember him in your heart instead. The biodegradable soap? Donate it, its lighter to use normal soap. Stop washing your hair. The third pair of sports undies? Donate them to Sondermüll. The headlamp? Donate it, you have a bike lamp that miraculously gives light too. Toss the cutting board, are you kidding me? Toss the tent, get a hammock. Keep the knife, stove, pot and your girlfriend’s spices. Keep the sleeping bag. Keep two of every clothing item. Keep your bike tools, a sowing kit and electric device chargers/adapters. Go ride. Still getting to many flats because your bike is too heavy? Throw some stuff out.

The lighter I got the easier I felt.  Bike riding is not only a gloriously meditative and healthy see and smell the world activity. It’s also a direct feedback loop on why possessions are bullshit. Because, like you, I ask myself: Other than clothes, food and a place to sleep what do I really need on a bike? And to take this to a logical conclusion, is my normal life any different?

So, get rid of stuff. Move into a smaller house. Be Dutch. Channel your inner Japanese. Live small. Do what you love, instead of wasting time on work so that you can buy stuff you think will make you happy but that you never use because you have to work so much to pay for it. Work 30 hours instead of 50 and hang out with your kids more.

For those of you who already do this >> great stuff. For those of you, who want to tell me fuck it, I like stuff, that's cool too. Everyone is different. Tora had every item under they sun, just in case. He spent two hours every day organizing his stuff - and it made him happy. I on the other hand did not have so much, went for many swims, did unnecessary bouldering, played flute, wrote some crap that nobody wants to read and watched that grass grow or that small mexican city plaza flow - and it made me happy. Bebum had a didge. And two bikes more than all of us.

I am not the keeper of your spare time and Tora is not the judge of your effectiveness. I can not tell if that 20th pair of jeans really made you happy and Tora doesn't know if that snake venom remover kit should have been in my bags after all. We all are the makers of our own happiness.

That being said. Get rid of some stuff. One day you might have to carry it.