Sunday, December 14, 2014

Waiting... for What??

I may come across as a mellow, low-key kinda guy, but that's only if you don't know me very well.  Ask my wife, or any of my exes, or anyone in my family, and they will tell you that a nervous, uptight monster rages below the surface.

One of the things that I hate most in life, and that I have expended considerable effort to avoid as much as possible, is waiting.  Waiting in lines, waiting in traffic, waiting for people to show up - I hate it all.  With a passion.  That's part of why I live somewhere where I don't have to commute, why I've scheduled my bills to come due in the middle of the month (since you can't pay them by mail here in Brazil),  etcetera.

Most Brazilians, by necessity, have quite a different attitude to waiting.  Brazil is filled with lines, and they move slowly.  To make a purchase at a store you often have to wait three times: once to request, once to pay, and once to receive the item.  If I see fifteen people in line for an ATM I know I'll be waiting ten or fifteen minutes for my turn.  I can't imagine what it was like before the advent of the ATM.  I go nuts and often give up, preferring to come back later, but the majority seem to be much more content to wait quietly for their turn.  Well, maybe 'content' is not the right word, maybe I should say 'resigned.'

As a result, it has been my experience that people think little of asking you to wait for extended periods for whatever it is they have to offer you.  I have been offered a seat on numerous occasions when both I and the person offering know very well that I will be sitting there for an hour or two waiting for whatever it is that I want or need.  I almost invariably refuse.

But a lot of this is unavoidable - if there's thirty people in the bank waiting for a teller, then that's the reality of the thing and if you have to wait so be it.

What really burns me up is people who make you wait when it *is* avoidable - completely, utterly avoidable. If you ask me to wait for you, and you know that I am waiting for you, then get your fucking act together and come meet me so I don't have to waste my time waiting for you.  Or be prepared for Mr. Nice Guy Markuza to step out for a moment while his evil twin Raging Uptight Gringo makes an appearance and gives you a piece of his mind.

As you might have guessed, a specific incident sparked this particular rant, but only because it's been a repeating theme and I can't stand it anymore.  This is what happened yesterday as I was at the supermarket:

[Cell phone rings]

Markuza: Hello? (translated from the portuguese)

Client 1(a semi-regular customer, who shall remain anonymous): Kuza, I was just at your store, I need something urgently, can you open the store for me?

Markuza (annoyed because the store is open 60 hours a week): No, I'm not around and I won't be around this evening.

Client 1:  Can you open the store for me tomorrow morning?  It's really important, I have to do this painting tomorrow.

Markuza:  I can open the store but not early, Sunday is my only day off.  Let's say 10:00.

Client 1:  Okay, that's good - it has to be in the morning because I need to get this done but 10:00 shouldn't be too late.

Now I'm well aware that agreeing to open the store was a mistake.  I've been doing this for the last three years because I've needed the additional sales, but now the store is doing better and I don't really need to do it any longer.  Plus I've discovered that clients don't particularly care that they are putting me out, or that they are asking a favor when they want me to open the store on my day off.

Fast forward to this morning, 9 AM, I'm still in bed.  Asleep, in fact.

[Cell phone rings]

Markuza: Hello?  (translated from the portuguese)

Client 2 (who has never purchased anything at the store previously): Hello, Markuza?  Is the store open today?  [Client 3, a regular customer] asked me to get some paint and we took a bus all the way over here to do so.

Markuza:  The store is closed on Sunday.

Client 2:  Dude, is there any way you can help us out?  We took a bus all the way over here.

Markuza: (Annoyed, because it's his only day off)  Okay, I arranged to meet a client at the store at 10 so I can help you at the same time.

Client 2:  (having no problem waiting an hour) Oh, that's great, thanks a ton!  See you then.

Over the next hour I drag my sorry ass out of bed and drink a very large cup of coffee.  At 9:50 I call Client 1:

Client 1:  Hello?  (Translated from the portuguese)

Markuza:  Hey, are you still coming at 10?

Client 1:  Oh yeah, I think it's going to be more like 10:30...

Markuza:  No man, I'm opening the store for someone else at 10, Sunday is my only day off, so if you need something come now.

Client 1:  Okay, I'll be there at 10:10.

I open the store, Client 2 shows up and buys one can of paint.  It is probably difficult to you to understand how annoying this is for me, that someone would bug me on my day off for one can of paint.  Admittedly, I live only a five minute walk from the store, but what the hell?

Markuza:  Tell Client 3 that the store is not open on Sunday, and it's really annoying for me to open on Sunday for only one can of paint.

Client 1:  Oh okay, thanks a ton, sorry for the inconvenience.

Markuza (lying): No problem.

Markuza is now pissed off.  Markuza is now waiting for Client 1, who is late.  Markuza, as previously indicated, hates to wait.  He does not want to be at the store.  He wants to be home, in bed, recharging his batteries, because Markuza is one of those introspective types and 60 hours of customer service pretty much wipes him out.

At 10:40 there is a text message:

Client 1:  Sorry, I'm on my way.

Markuza: When are you getting here?  This is my only day off and I've been waiting 40 minutes.

Markuza:  At 11:00 I'm leaving

Client 1: I'll be there before then.

Client 1 rolls in at 5 of 11.  Markuza is pretty much enraged at this point, due to client 1 and the fact he's been waiting almost an hour.  The conversation that ensues is not pretty.  What follows are the salient bits:

Client 1: Sorry, sorry

Client 1:  What's the problem?

Client 1:  Don't involve me in your stress because it's not my problem.

Markuza: Tell me you're not here to buy just one can (of paint) because that's what the last guy did and I'm not happy about it.

Client 1:  I'm not going to buy two cans just because you're pressuring me to...

Client 1:  I had to take a shower and everything, that's why I'm late...

Client 1:  You're being so aggressive I'm about to change my mind...

Client 1:  Forget it.  I'm leaving.  I'm never coming back.

I never found out if he wanted just one can or not.  He walked out.  I know this guy, he will indeed never come back.  He's like me that way, I'd do the same thing.  His nickname translates roughly to 'Gets Annoyed' so I knew full well that if I got mad at him this was a likely outcome.  But Markuza also gets annoyed and he's tired of accommodating people who aren't as conscientious as he is when a favor is asked.

I know most of the dialogue above is Client 1's, I had a lot to say myself but it was essentially the same rant as already detailed in this post: only day off, etc.  I can be an asshole, I admit it, and this morning I definitely was.  I take customer service very seriously but I do have limits: "The customer is always right" is definitely not a mantra here in Brazil although I've tried to take it to heart as much as possible in my own business, mostly to separate myself from the competition.  But the client is not always right, sometimes the client is an asshole too.

I almost wrote a Facebook status to all the 'friends' of Mil Muros not to bother me on Sundays anymore, but I thought better of it and wrote this post instead.  I feel better now.  Thanks for reading.  I definitely have been working too much and hopefully after the holidays things will slow down a bit, I could use the break.  I may have lost a customer but I made a decision: the next time a customer asks me to open the store outside of normal business hours,

the

answer

will

be

NO.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Do You Speaka My Language?

Yesterday in response to an encounter with a customer in the store I posted this on Facebook:
I have lived in Brazil for over a dozen years and I am fluent in Portuguese. You have to be, you cannot survive here on English alone. Yet I still encounter fucking morons who think I don't understand what they are saying and start making hand gestures and coming up with twisted words in English to "help" me. Fuck you. If you prefer we speak in English we can do that and then we'll see who's mastered their second language.
I received a number of likes and comments, some related stories, some nonsense... typical Facebook. And then someone I know from down here posted this:
Once after about the same amount of years in Brazil, a salesperson was amazed that I "ainda não fala normal."
Yeah, and there's that.  "Ainda não fala normal" means "You still don't speak right." This comment made me think about the flip side of my belligerent comment, something that most second-language-speakers can probably relate to:  I may be "fluent" but I was wrong to say I have "mastered" my second language.  I started learning Portuguese when I was 30 years old, and even with 15 years under my belt  I still don't "speak right".  And I won't even with another 15 years - I'll always have an accent, I'll always mix up genders for words,  I'll always (unless I become an avid reader of Portuguese literature, unfortunately not likely to happen) grope for words I don't know.  And certain people will always assume I am stupid as a result.

What makes this particularly annoying for me is that I consider myself to be pretty articulate in English, with a fairly decent vocabulary at my beck and call.  I doubt that most people would consider me to be so in my second language.  That's one of the big reasons I write this blog actually - it lets me break out of my dumb mode.

All that being said, it doesn't make it any less annoying when someone assumes I don't understand basic vocabulary and conversation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Let the Punishment fit the Crime

A guy walks into a graffiti shop.  He's got a big old surgical type bandage in his armpit, and another one on his shoulder blade.

The owner of the shop says: "What happened to you??"

The guy says: "Dude, I got shot!"

The owner says: "So you're the guy."

This little vignette played out at my store yesterday, except for the last line.  I didn't say that out loud.  Plus all the dialogue was in Portuguese.

So what happened to the guy?  Well, he was all over the local news a couple days ago because he wrote on a wall at the university he attends, at about lunch time, and then a security officer shot him in the shoulder from behind.  Not even in the act - he was descending a staircase, calmly leaving the scene of "the crime."

I'm not making this up, and I think it bears repeating:  a college security officer (not a cop) shot a student in the back in the middle of the day for writing on a wall.

Did he ask permission to write on the wall?  No.  Was what he was doing illegal?  Probably.  What, you may ask, did he write?  He wrote: "Deus = Você + Universo," or "God = You + Universe"

Last question: did he deserve to get shot for that?

I don't need to answer that, do I?  That's what you call a rhetorical question, right?

I don't know where you fall in the gun ownership/control spectrum and we're talking Brazil, they don't have a second amendment here (pardon me, do you happen to have a well regulated militia?  whoops, wrong hemisphere) but I think anyone who is not a serious wing nut would agree that shooting a college student with a .38 is not the appropriate response to petty vandalism.

People with guns: please don't shoot people if they are not engaged in violent crime.  I know cops like to shoot people for running away, and maybe that's what happened here (but don't forget, dude wasn't a cop): apparently my client had his headphones in and wouldn't have heard they guy yelling "Stop or I'll shoot!!"

The security officer, for his part, claimed he fired in the air and then the gun "discharged" (hate it when that happens) as he was lowering it.  That's not what the victim said  - he said the first shot missed and struck the ground in front of him - it was the second bullet that hit him.  Anyways, the idiot with the gun turned in the weapon and promptly fled - maybe they should have shot him for leaving the scene of the crime as well.  Admittedly he was probably afraid he was going to be beaten to a pulp by an angry mob - that happens here sometimes as well.  Another interesting detail I learned from the victim: only five of these guys are authorized to carry guns on campus.  This would seem to imply some kind of a screening process, would it not?  Give the guns to the people who know how to handle them?

Dude did turn himself in to the federal police after a day or two.  Hope they throw the book at him.  The victim is planning to sue for attempted homicide.  Apparently there were all kinds of witnesses.

Wait a minute, you might be saying, you keep referring to the criminal as the victim.  The real victim is the wall that was violated by his vandalism, and all the passers-by who are violated by having to look at it.

I don't honestly think m/any of you are thinking that, but if you are...

Pixadores, or taggers, get beaten regularly by cops and security guards and killed, shot generally, from time to time here in Brazil.  But that usually happens at night, and they are usually trespassing, and they still don't deserve to be shot.  Another thing that surprised me: I think it's safe to say that young black men are more likely to be shot than young white men, but this guy- he was white.

Here's a link to one of the articles about the shooting, in case you can read Portuguese:

http://atarde.uol.com.br/bahia/salvador/noticias/estudante-e-baleado-na-escola-politecnica-da-ufba-1621997

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mil Muros




I’ve been trying to write a post about the store for some time now, but I haven’t been able to get much traction.  This is partly because the store is such a complicated subject that it doesn’t lend itself to easy summary, it is also because the store itself is so all-consuming that I don’t have many blocks of time that lend themselves to writing posts.  I have one now, sort of, so I’ll give it another whack.

So: the store.  Mil Muros.  Three years in, almost, and I haven’t gone out of business.  At least not yet.   For those of you who don’t know what my store is about, I have the only graffiti shop in Salvador, specializing in spray paint and the specialized caps you need to paint graffiti.  Every graffiti shop also sells markers, usually big ink and paint markers to write tags on the street, but also smaller markers and sketch books.  I have become The Source for such markers in the city.  I also have some clothes and stuff - most graffiti shops need to sell material that allows for a higher markup than spray paint, and many store sell clothing and/or sneakers and such, but I don’t know much about fashion so I’ve extended my offerings to more traditional art supplies, gradually trying to transform the place into the alt art store in Salvador.  This process is ongoing, but I've had an increasing number of clients with no interest in spray paint.  They are very welcome.

 I was thinking about it and if I had to sum up my relationship is to the store in one word, that word would be: hustling.

I am hustling, big time, to keep the store going.  It is more work than one person can do, but not enough for two - at least, it’s not taking in enough to maintain a second person full time - I tried that and it didn’t really work out.  But between the paying of bills and the stocking of shelves and the purchasing of merchandise and the waiting on the customers I have an eternal list of things-I-can’t-quite-get-to that, you know, just sits there and waits.  Because I can't get to it.  I figure we all have these lists, I have at least one more that has nothing to do with the store.  At least two.  Probably more.  Prefer not to think about it.

But as I analyze things three years in I must say that I am cautiously optimistic about how it’s going.  Like I said, I’m not bankrupt, and by one measure I am almost “breaking even.”  By that I mean that if I had just gone out and spent all the money I invested in the business it would be about the same amount that I have taken out in profit over the last three years.  If things keep going as they have, in a couple months I will reach this magical threshold in my mind, which means that everything I have in the store will be the return on my investment, at least what is paid for at that time.  Did that make sense?

By a separate measure I probably have another year to go to break even, but I’m not going to get into that measure.  I would prefer to keep focused on my current goal, thank you very much.  And it probably should be said that without other supplemental streams of income the store would have folded some time ago, but I hustle, so I have separate income streams (thank you Airbnb).

So I said I was hustling - part of what I mean by that is that I have a stack of bills that I am constantly maneuvering to pay, most of my purchases are broken into several payments over a month or two and I have all my bills ordered by date to see what I have to pay today, or tomorrow, or what’s coming up next week.  Cash comes in in waves, as anyone who works in retail will tell you, and a lot of my payments require a good deal of patience.  A lot of my credit card sales work just like the payments I have to make, because here in Brazil a client has the option to pay in parcelas, or installments, on their credit card.  This means, for example, that if they buy 600 reais worth of goods, and divvy it into three parcelas, that I will get 200 reais a month for the next three months.  But I have to wait a month to get the first 200 reais.  Patience!  Debit card payments are received the next day, which is why many store owners offer a discount for debit.  And/or cash.  If I sell something on the internet, my payment processor makes me wait three weeks to receive the payment for whatever I sold, to make sure it arrives at its destination without mishap.  So I spend a lot of time waiting for money to be released to me.  It’s part of the hustle, checking to see if I can get the cash in in time to make the next big payment.  This morning I received 900 reais for a big internet sale, but now I have to wait three business days for the money to be transferred to my bank account.  Patience!!

One of the nice things about the credit card sales is that, since I can't (don't)  keep track of when the payments are coming in, sometimes I check my balance and get a very pleasant surprise.  And the more credit card sales I make, the more money is in the system, and the more pleasant surprises I will receive.

One of the problems I face as a small business owner in Brazil is that I am mildly insane.  Everyone knows that you have to be nuts to open a small business in Brazil.  However, being mildly insane, I am well equipped for the challenge.  Actually, that wasn’t what I was going to say, although I did enjoy the diversion.  One of the problems I face is that borrowing here, for small businesses, is reserved for the stupid.  Or possibly the insane.  Thankfully my own personal insanity doesn’t run in the borrowing direction, or as I have mentioned before, the store would have closed some time ago.  For some reason interest rates here in Brazil are mind numbingly high, usuriously high, stupidly, insultingly, high, to the point where any money I could hope to earn by borrowing would be instantly consumed by the loan shark… I mean the bank… that so graciously made me the loan.

This leads to another aspect of the hustle.  Since I can’t really borrow money, and I have limited money to invest (but then again, who doesn’t?) in the business, I am constantly making tough decisions about what to buy, and how much to buy of it.  Mostly I buy black spray paint, and black markers.  Black outsells everything else.  By a wide margin.  I dream of the day when I can buy a surplus of the material I really need, but for now I have to pick and choose, decide what colors I will buy this month, and leave the other colors for the next purchase in two or three months.  I have a long list of material that I should have in the store, but I just can’t afford to buy it.  Yet.

But here’s the good news - I think I might finally be getting ahead of things.  Lately I’ve found that I already have enough cash in my account to pay relatively large bills without having to borrow from other sources.  Some art teachers at the local universities have been recommending my store to their students to buy their art supplies, and I finally have most of what they are asking for.  My location is lousy - in the basement of an undistinguished building that doesn’t even have a name (most places are known by names here), but it occurred to me that the store is something that I would have loved back when I was in college - literally an underground hidden treasure that few people know about.  Lots of my customers gaze around and sigh and tell me they wish they could buy everything in the place.  Others tell me they shouldn’t come in because they blow all their cash in there.  The graffiti crowd has provided a base, the other art supplies are beginning to provide some real income.  Underground is good, I like being hip and cool, but I also dream of a better, more visible location and more customers.

Another thing that works in my favor: the other art store in town, which happens to be right around the corner, is run by assholes.  They are extremely overpriced, and have a reputation for being rude to customers and completely inflexible.  I also discovered that if a customer walks in there and asks where Mil Muros is, they won’t tell them.  Having worked in customer service previously, and coming from a country that values quality service highly, it seems unconscionable that my competition could act the way they do and get away with it.  But lacking an alternative, not only have they been able to get away with it, they have flourished.  The artists in town are hungry for another option.  And I’m providing it to them.  Twice this week alone I had customers describe themselves as "hostages" to the other art store, and my hope is that they will no longer be so.

The other photos in this post I took this morning - the store in its most recent incarnation, including the ongoing collaboration I have with my clients on the walls.  Below is a photo I prepared two years ago, contrasting what the place looked like just after I opened it to its then-current incarnation.  As you can see, things have continued to evolve.



Sunday, June 1, 2014

This Box


Ahhh, this box.



This.  Box.



This @#$%, %^&*, ^%#@* box.



This not-terribly-impressive-looking and rather-out-of-focus box is pictured at the end of a journey that took it from Leverett, Massachusetts, USA, to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil and almost back again.  This journey lasted six months and one day.  At several points along the way I was sure I would never see this box.  Or rather: see it again, as it was I who so lovingly prepared it for its journey.

But it made it.

I have been waiting to write this post for a long time, and now that I finally am, I find myself so emotionally drained from recent events, including what happened to my car and trying to get our house painted in time for the World Cup, that I lack the incredulous indignation I expected to infuse this post with.

But so be it.  If I don't write this now it will never get written, like so many other would-be posts.

I'm not sure this is a really interesting story, and just in case, I'll spare you most of the details so you won't get bored and stop reading.

Brazil, which has a very protectionist economy and an immense bureaucracy... scratch that - I think it actually has many immense bureaucracies... makes it extremely difficult and expensive to import things.  This is unfortunate for me, as most of what I sell at my store is imported.  Generally I let other people do the importing and then buy the stuff from them, but they don't necessarily have everything I want and it would be great to import stuff on my own.  It would be even greater if it was easy to do.

Enter 'Importa Fácil,' or 'Easy Import,' a service of the Brazilian Post Office which in this context is one of the most absurd oxymorons ever devised.   It is not 'Easy' in any sense of the word, unless it is easy in the traditional Brazilian sense, which means you know someone who works at Easy Import and they grease the wheels for you.  For schmucks like me, who want to do the right thing and actually try to follow the rules, you get... bad results.

To use Importa Fácil, you generally spend several hours preparing documentation. I have only used it in an experimental capacity, testing to see how it works and what they will let me get away with.  You have to detail every item in a shipment: what it is, where it came from, what type of object it is, how much it costs, etc, and you also need to include a commercial invoice and bill of lading.  All of this information needs to be logged on the Importa Fácil website, which has a tendency to time out for no apparent reason, resulting in lost data entry and much invective directed at the computer.

Then you mail it.  Or in my case, you have your mother mail it, because you couldn't get all the documentation finished before you went back to Brazil.  I don't expect she will repeat the favor, but then again, I'm not sure I'll ever use this blasted service ever again.  My box was mailed Priority Mail if I remember correctly, which means you pay extra so it will arrive in a week or so (hahahahahahhahaaaaaaa).  The US Postal Service used to offer cheaper, slower, options but apparently they aren't available anymore.  Slow being a given, a cheaper, slower option would have been my preference.

Next, be prepared to wait.  In my case, the wait lasted several months as the box sat doing absolutely nothing in the Importa Fácil facility.

Then, providing they get around to your box (I have another one shipped in December that they haven't gotten around to, probably gone for good), be prepared to pay a lot of money.  They tax you 60% of everything in the box, as well as the shipping and the insurance.  Then they charge you a value added tax that for my state is 17%, making it clear that they don't shy away from double taxation - I paid 17% of the 60% that had already been levied.  Then they smack you with a fee that amounts to about 70 US dollars.  My final calculation was that, all told, with shipping and the rest, I paid an additional 168% of the value of every item in the box.

After I paid up the box was finally released and sent on its way to Salvador.  And that's when things really started to go wrong.

I was pretty excited at this point, back at the end of March - I had about 2000 reais (900 dollars) invested in this small box by now, and I was eager to get selling and recoup my investment.  The box got shipped to Salvador, and then it got stuck again.  According to the online tracking, one attempt at delivery was made, and nobody was home.  Then it languished for another two weeks, after which two more attempts at delivery were made, and it was then determined that the address was wrong, and the box was marked 'Return to Sender.'

I.E. back to the U.S.

After five months of waiting.

And they wasted no time hustling my box out of Salvador, in spite of all the work I'd invested in getting it here.  In less than two days it was on its way back to São Paulo.  I figure that after traveling thousands of miles, it probably got within a hundred yards of its destination.  I found out later that the guy who regularly delivers packages in my neighborhood, who knows my name and will deliver things at my store if no-one is at my house and vice-versa, was on vacation at this time, otherwise this most likely never would have happened.

I went pretty much ballistic at this point, although it's hard to recall the depth of my emotion in my current lethargic state.  I had made several complaints to the postal service already and I made one more, asking such pertinent questions as: What the hell is going on?  Why didn't anyone try to contact me before returning this box?  What was the address you tried to ship it to?  Do you have any idea how much time and energy I've invested in this box?  Do you realize how absurd it is to call your service 'Easy Import'?  The person who took my call was quite sympathetic and I think he may be the real reason the box is now in my possession.  I tracked the box online as it went to São Paulo, then to Rio, in preparation to return to the U.S.A.

And then,

miraculously,

unbelievably,

astonishingly,

breathtakingly,

it turned around

and came back

towards Salvador.

Then for no good reason it took a detour through Belo Horizonte, a city in the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, but no worries: still more or less in the right direction.

And then it was back in Salvador.

And then it got shipped to another location in Salvador.

And then another.

At about this time a 70 pound ball of concrete fell from the sky onto my car, and my world got turned around a bit.  Painters had been making what should have been a relatively straightforward job of painting my house into an immense time-consuming nightmare, one of our sources of income had seasonally dried up, and my kid brought home an abysmally lousy report card.  I needed some good news.  Badly.

So I checked the online tracking

and it told me the package had been delivered

but

it

hadn't

at least not to me.

I arrived at a state approaching despair at this point, which is pretty silly, all things considered.  I couldn't believe this was actually happening to me.  Who had signed for my box?  Where the hell was it?  Was I going to have any recourse in case the box was gone for good?  After all, the post office was telling me it had been delivered to the person it was addressed to.

The next day I bugged all my neighbors in the galeria where I have my store to see if they'd received my box.  I made another complaint to the postal service, and I questioned the local mailwoman.  I began casting a wider net, asking at neighboring buildings if they'd signed for my box.  "No," was the answer.  "No, we have not."

And then I saw the yellow mail van.  The same one I had already pestered regarding my Holy-Grail-box-from-the-United-States.  They listened to my oft-repeated inquiry.

And they ushered me around to the side of the van.

And they opened the door.

And there

on the floor

of the van

was the box.

I imagine I clutched it to my chest and scurried off, Gollum style, although I don't quite remember.  I do remember that when I got it back to the store and began unpacking it that I was amazed at how little was actually in there - in my mind it had blown up into a much larger, more substantial quantity of merchandise.  Attached to the outside was perhaps the most important item: the documentation stating that I'd dotted my I's and crossed my T's: 32 cents of this tax and 27 cents of this tax paid for this item, 84 cents tax and 1.23 paid for this item.  It amounted to a packet as thick as my finger: probably fifty pages.

And they insist on calling it Easy Import.

And now, I'm happy to say, I have already sold some of the contents - working towards the goal of paying off my investment.

Here's what I got:








And here is the tracking information for the infernal thing, note that right at the top it says it was delivered twice (entrega efetuada):


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Oops


I've always tried to "be a nice guy" and "do the right thing" whenever possible, because I like things 'to be fair' and "that's how I'd want other people to treat me too."  At one time I considered these to be positive character traits, although I've come to suspect that they are actually serious character flaws.

I had a fair amount of time to think about this after I dumped about half a gallon of paint on the car pictured above.  Well, I didn't actually dump it on there, but I did put the bucket on the ladder that got blown over by the wind while I was chasing a cat away from our front door.  One reaps what one sows, doesn't one?

My immediate inclination to take full responsibility for my actions as I was dashing for buckets of water and cleaning implements faded somewhat as I started to play out scenarios about the potential owner of the car and his or her possible tendencies to fits of ballistic rage.  My fears subsided somewhat as I was able to get pretty much all of the paint off, and I toyed with the idea of not saying anything at all.  If the car hadn't been parked right in front of my house I would have just driven away and forgotten about it.

Finally the owner did show up, and I of course "did the right thing" and told her what had happened (although I did play down the amount of paint spilled, and did NOT show her the above photo).  I told her I was concerned there was paint inside the doors and indeed there was a huge goober of paint inside the rear door.  She was quite mellow about it actually, but it was already dark and she was in a bit of a rush.  I gave her my number and told her if she wanted to get it professionally cleaned I would take care of it.  Why do I do these things?

If I'd just kept my mouth shut she would have driven off and never noticed.

Chicken Little

Well, something really crazy happened to me this week, worse than what happened last week.  A 70 pound cement ball fell out of the sky and smashed the roof of my car in.  Pretty ironic, considering I got the whole underbody restored last year - didn't expect I'd have to worry about the top getting mashed.

Almost my first thought, after I got over the shock of realizing that it was actually my car that had been victim to this short-range meteorite (I'm guessing it fell about 30-40 feet), was that this was it for my car, which means no more car for me.  I don't use it much, don't really need it, and definitely don't have the money to replace it, much to the chagrin of my wife.  She's been lobbying for a new car since about two years after I bought it.  Nobody on my street can believe the Gringo has been driving the same car for nine years, and some of them have even told me so.

So I decided to have a little fun with my misfortune, and posted the following on my Facebook page, referring to the paint incident from last week:


Here were some of the responses - there were over 60 comments, I have removed the names to protect the innocent:





I thought that once I fabricated the bucket loader everyone would realize I was full of shit, but apparently not.  I know I live in a crazy place, and violent too, but in defense of Salvador even this is over the top.

I had thought to write a longer post, filled with witticisms and pseudo-philosophical musings, but the truth is I'm not up to it at all.  The giddy euphoria of the practical joke has passed and the hard reality that my car is fucked and I have no insurance is sinking in.  The worst part is this: the woman who owns the house from which the meteor fell is trying to pass the blame on to one of her tenants, claiming that she is responsible because someone drove a nail into the base of the thing and broke it loose.  They brought me up there to have a look and it is clear to me that this theory is bullshit.  She's looking to pass the buck.  I fear legal action may be in my near future and I'm not looking forward to it, especially if it means a fight with my neighbors.  Part of me just wants to let it go, but I picked a fight with one of the phone companies over a fifty dollar phone bill that was issued erroneously, seems nuts to roll over for a car repair that could end up costing two thousand.

These last pictures are from the neighbor's roof, the meteor's not-so-evil twin (not-yet-evil twin?) is pictured.  They really need to pull it down.





Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mister Grafite

One might think with this sudden flurry of posts that this blog is suddenly experiencing a digital rebirth, a virtual reawakening, a deep, gasping breath of electrons to bring it back from its silicon coma.

One would probably be wrong.  But then one never knows, does one?

At any rate, there was more excitement to be had on Sunday in addition to the first swimming and the cave spelunking and the mountain scaling - I was in the paper!  Yes, in spite of my perennial lack of focus, my distractibility, my un-traction-getting-ness, I have garnered another tiny feather in my small Hat of Recognition for the things I have managed to get done in spite of... everything else.

Of course it helps that I know a very wonderful photographer who is also a client and just happens to write for the newspaper that has featured me twice now, along with others in the street art scene, dragging her reporter co-workers kicking and screaming (well, I hope not too much) to write features about us.

And here's how I appeared last sunday in the newspaper Correio:

photo by Angeluci Figueiredo

If it appears that I am less than animated there's a reason for that.  I made the poor photographer's work difficult.  I had been up late the night before working on a website and I am never at my best on less than 8 hours sleep, plus I had completely forgotten that we were doing the interview so I didn't bother to shave or put on a cool t-shirt.  And it had been really busy at the store that morning.

If you'd like to have a look at the whole article, here it is.  It's in Portuguese, so if you don't read Portuguese you're out of luck unless you can convince Google to translate it for you, which it increasingly gets better at doing.  I for one have no intention of translating it for you, but I'll give you a brief overview.

It starts by saying who I am and how I ended up in Brazil,  and that I have the only graffiti store in the city.  There's a section about my inspiration to make graffiti, and I talk about how I like to make silly drawings of animals, and how I created a monster called the Kamr Famr when I was five years old.  Well, he put 8 in the article, but it was really 5.  I was tired, I may have said 8.  Don't remember.  I haven't painted many of them in the city, but there are a few - here's one:

The reporter asked if I'd had any run ins with the police and I basically said no.  I mentioned my favorite graffiti artists, and wish I'd mentioned some of my other influences but you know?  I forgot to.

We talked a bit about how the store got started, and the crazy paintings on the walls (my ongoing collaborative work with my clients), and then I wind up talking a bit about the street art scene in Salvador.

It's a little weird getting written up like this in the paper - I walk down the street and I wonder if anyone is looking at me and saying "hey, there's Mister Grafite, he was in the paper yesterday!"  Then again, papers don't have the kind of readership they used to - I'd be much more likely to be recognized if I ended up on one of the mid-day journotainment shows that are so popular here.  Nah, don't want to do that.  I hate those shows.  Been meaning to write a post about that.  Of course being written up in the paper is not any weirder than writing a blog that is a hell of a lot more personal... the big difference being most of my digital fans, outside of the family (which would be most of them) are most likely in far-flung locations and the locals?  98% of them don't read English.

Big thanks to Victor Villarpando for the interview, Angeluci Figueiredo for the hard-earned photos, and the Jornal Correio for publishing it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Get Out Of Town



I don't commute, quite deliberately - I hate sitting in traffic.  And it's really bad for the planet.  I set up my whole life around this whole not-commuting thing, which is great on one hand, and not so great on the other.  I have pretty much everything I need within walking distance of my house: my store, my kid's school, food, movies, even museums and an UNESCO World Heritage Center.  Beaches!  Hell, I could walk out my door and get me some crack cocaine and a couple skinny prostitutes to help me smoke it if I was so inclined.

The down side is it means I spend most of my time moving in very small circles.  I figure if I had a tracking device strapped to my leg (I don't, in case you're wondering), the map of my movements would be extremely limited and repetitive, and restricted to a very small geographical area. Go to store, go home.  Take Lucas to school.  Go to the bakery.  Go back to store.  Go to house, get some paint, go back to store.

You get the idea.

Well, all that changed on Thursday night, when I boarded a night bus and went to a town called Lençois.  Lençois is a wonderful little tourist town on the edge of the Chapada Diamantina, which is a gorgeous national park full of waterfalls, caves, and great rock formations.  Think of the American Southwest but in a tropical climate.  They also have the best Mexican restaurant in all of Bahia in Lençois.  Although I've visited it several times, I hadn't been back there since before Lucas was born.

This is not a travel blog in case you haven't noticed- I think in some ways it's an anti-travel blog, which is a bit weird because I love to travel.  Maybe I'm just bitter because I can't get away as easily or as often as I used to, which is why I write this way.  At any rate, I'm not going to do the classic "we went here, which was great, and then we went there, which was great too," kind of thing.  I will say this: it was a fucking awesome time for both me and my travel companion, my now nine year old son.  That's right - the kid is nine.  In fact, he turned nine yesterday, on Sunday, and he did something else really great yesterday: he learned how to swim.  Here's proof:


The mask and snorkel (presents from his Grammy) were critical to his getting my various swimming lessons coordinated into an actual 'float and move' model which include the two most critical elements in swimming.  You gotta float, and you gotta move around.  Very impressed and immensely proud, I still urged him to try swimming without the mask, which proved to be more difficult.  All in good time.  I told him he really needs to learn to breathe without the aid of a snorkel, but he assured me that he will always have the mask and snorkel with him any time he is near water and might need or want to swim in it.

On my first trip to Brazil I visited this park and took a one day van tour around the park, which feels a little bit like cheating, but also allows you to see a huge amount in one day: several waterfalls, a couple caves, mountains, souvenir shops.  Since we only had a couple days I really wanted to repeat the experience with Lucas, which is what we ended up doing.  It was great, but a bit more painful: like pretty much everything in Brazil these days, it was freakin' expensive.  In fact, the whole trip was freakin' expensive, and as an inveterate penny-pincher hearing that cash register noise in my head every time I turned around caused my blood pressure to rise some.  But, as my wife likes to say, you can't take it with you and I have to say I'll have the memories with me long after my bank account stops aching.

It was fantastic to spend three days with my son, who is growing up all too fast.  The days are numbered that he will be willing to hold hands with me in public anymore.  But hey, there's more news - we are off to the States for two weeks in June, in the midst of the World Cup madness, which also just happens to be Lucas' winter break.

So now, dear readers, I would like to leave you with a few choice photos from the trip- I didn't spend five years in college taking photos for nothing.  Thank you for your time.












If you want to see more pictures, go here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Who Needs the Real Thing Anyways?

I've never written a post on my phone, but I'm waiting for my number to be called at the consumer protection bureau and have nothing better to do.  I don't commute (very much intentionally) and one thing about not commuting is that I don't have blocks of time to do things that otherwise would be low priority - not that I'd consider writing a blog post while driving, but I did learn a lot of Portuguese on the NYC Subway and I listened to a lot more podcasts when I drove to capoeira twice a week.  Now I'm out of practice and arrived here unprepared for a long wait, forgetting to bring my headphones.

But believe it or not I have lots of things I'd like to write about, I guess I just need to arrange to be stuck somewhere for a couple hours at a time so I can get them written down.  I actually wrote a post last week but decided it was too personal and dramatic for global dissemination, so I didn't publish it.

So let's get to it- today's topic: Strangers in The House and the State of Global Travel Today.

We've been renting rooms in our house for some time now, used to be just for Carnaval but now it's pretty much a constant thing, and we've gone from renting a single room to renting two.  It's been a good gig and has become a critical part of our income.  Pretty soon the income we have earned from the rentals will exceed what I paid for the house, not that the house was terribly expensive.  Speaking of buying the house, I just realized that 3 of the principals involved in the sale are dead now, nine years later, leaving me and the batshit elderly mother to walk the earth.  Apropos of nothing...

The downside to renting rooms is you always have these strangers staying at your house.  Usually it's not a big deal,especially when they do what tourists are supposed to do and get out to see the city, visit churches and go to the beach and stuff like that.  The problem arises when they don't do those things.  A considerable number of our guests, I'd say between 30 and 40 percent, spend great blocks of time at the house, and some of them barely leave the house at all.

The reason for this should be obvious, dear reader, and it is one of our primary draws for the rentals: Free Wifi.

When I did my world travels back in the 90's I made it part of my adventure to try to find public internet access in all the big cities I visited, and I was mostly successful.  It was my first real experience with the internet, and predated all those online email services like hotmail or gmail, it predated Google and of course The Facebook and Skype and pretty much everything we still have online with the exception of Yahoo, whose future is perennially in doubt.  I lugged a floppy disk around with me with an email program called Eudora on it and asked people to install it for me on their computers. Sometimes they did.

It was all kind of fun, and after I'd done my exotic internet adventure I could still disappear from the radar for weeks at a time without that seeming unusual.  I sent a lot more of these things called 'post cards' than I did actual emails.

It's hard to remember now just how astonishing the reality of being able to communicate with people, in real time, on the other side of the world, essentially for free, used to be.  Our kids will never experience that, and most of us take it for granted and have for a long time.   Many, if not most, of us spend hours and hours online each day, this humble author included.  The internet has transformed my life, making my livelihood possible all these years here in Brazil and several before the big move.  I use the Internet for work, but I also use it for entertainment, and I use it more than I should, and I've been trying, with mixed success, to use it less.

Now let's turn back to the house guests.  I would like to use this forum to speak to them directly, and say what I never could directly to their faces, although I've tried making oblique hints and suggestions on various occasions:
Dude, you're in Brazil.  You probably spent a lot of money to get here, and our rooms aren't fancy but they're not super cheap either.  You probably won't be here for long, and you probably will never come back here again.  Why would you want to spend your whole stay holed up in your room watching movies or posting status updates?  (In Salvador, just finished watching the whole 3rd season of House!)

And another thing: since when did the Internet become a utility?  We have running water, we have electricity, gas for cooking, but man if the Internet goes down some of our guests have been known to FREAK OUT.  And it does go down from time to time, more often than I'd like, since I'm generally the one who has to get it working again.
I don't know if they do this anymore, but the hostels in Europe used to lock the guests out during the day, and you couldn't come in until about 6 or so in the evening.  That was pre-internet, and I'm not entirely sure what the motivations were for doing so, although I'm sure part of the reason was to get malingerers and other assorted lazybones from spending the whole day stinking up the sheets.  For the record, I'm sure I have fallen into this unflattering category myself on more than one occasion.  I am by nature a homebody, as is my wife, which is why it drives us crazy when our guests don't leave the house.

So let me ask you this: would it be outrageous to tell our guests they need to leave the house for at least a couple hours a day?  Say between 8 AM and 10 PM?  Of course it is.  That was a rhetorical question.  We have done a couple things to nudge people out of the common areas - we created a limit of one hour for guests to use our computer, and we recently imposed a guest-kitchen-ban between 9 AM and 1 PM.

I'd like to end with the obligatory "Don't Get Me Wrong" paragraph, but let me say it's from the heart.  Most of our guests are great, and it's very rare that we get a real toady that we can't wait to see the back of.  It's been a great experience for Lucas, although I'm not sure he really gets that yet, as he's met people from all over the world and it forces him to speak some English from time to time.  And I have had some awesome conversations with random people from all over, and occasionally I get to tell a travel story of my own.

Okay, I'm not going to end with that paragraph.  I'm going to end with this:  currently we have an Italian couple in their 60's staying in one room.  We barely see them, as they are always out experiencing Salvador.  And in the other room?  Well, that one prefers the Internet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Zero Degrees of Separation

A very quick post here as I am hellishly busy and am suffering from the Mid Afternoon Doldrums which invariably reduces my brain function by about 50%, but this is too good to pass up!

Everyone loves a coincidence and a chance re-encounter - seven degrees of separation and all that.  If I may brag just a tiny bit I am only one or two degrees separated from some of the most famous people of our time due to a couple minor celebrities who married relatives of mine... but enough about that.

Back in 2002 I was training with João Grande as I often did at that time, living in New York City, and I met a Brazilian woman in class because she asked me some questions about how to sing the songs in the roda.  I remember this encounter because she told me she had a scholarship to dance in the Alvin Ailey dance company, which took me a while to figure out because she didn't know how to pronounce 'Alvin Ailey' properly- it's a tough one for Brazilians.

You know what's coming - turns out she is now a visual artist here in Salvador and has been a customer of mine for some time!  I only discovered today while she was in the store that she had lived in New York for a couple years, and when I found out she'd danced with Alvin Ailey I made the connection.  She doesn't remember meeting me, apparently I wasn't the only one who helped her pronounce his name.  I have a weird memory for stuff like that.

Pretty cool, eh?  I love that shit.  It's probably not as weird as the other coincidental connection I have here, via my Slovakian friend who heads up one of the biggest groups of Capoeira in Central Europe.  The guy who introduced him to Capoeira ended up doing something very similar to me, moving to Brazil because of a Bahiana that he met, who I just happened to know because we trained together with Grupo Nzinga back in the day.

The World is Small and all that, but it gets a lot smaller when everyone involved has a Capoeira connection, and even smaller when it's Capoeira Angola.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed that.  Now I have to decide if I'm going to get back to work at 50% capacity or try to take a nap at my desk.

Thanks for reading and please pardon my lengthy absence from this blog.