Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Encantadas, Ilha Do Mel, Brazil

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. The map of Ilha Do Mel, 2. Andre poses with the Capoeira students, 3. I show them video of themselves, 4. The easy part of the hike to Encantadas, 5. The harder part of the hike, 6. Our feet and a tiny sand dollar, 7. & 8. Local friends invite us to drink a mix of watermelon juice and vodka.

Encantadas -- named for the beautiful women who enchanted men. They say it's a legend, but I can tell it's still happening today in Brazil. It seems like I'm the only one around here without huge cleavage and wild curly hair. At least Andre's pretending not to be too enchanted by all the competition. The guidebook says that the local word for bikini is the same as dental floss. Gee, I can't wait to get to Copacabana!

We’ve been on the tiny island of Ilha do Mel for 5 days and I think we’ve seen all the major attractions. Yesterday we walked 2-1/2 hours to the village of Encantadas and 2-1/2 hours back. I read the total distance is only 4.4 kilometers, but with all the up and down, over boulders and mountains, it seemed much farther. We also walked along long stretches of deserted beaches. It blows me away. Where are all the tourists?

In Encantadas we ran into a French couple who we’d met on the train ride from Curitiba. It wasn't hard to find them because they were about the only tourists left after the weekend rush of Curitibians. Our friends had hiked to the Fortaleza from Encantadas the day before, a half hour beyond our village called Brasilia (not to be confused with the capitol of the country), and they were nursing their sunburns in the shade of a large palapa.

The French couple are traveling for 7 months for the 3rd year in a row. They live rent-free with his parents, sell popcorn and snacks on the beach for 5 months, then take off. So far they've been to Southeast Asia and India. They're thinking to leave Brazil earlier than they planned since they've heard that Uruguay and Argentina are cheaper. That will be a relief for us too. They introduced us to Marco from Buenos Aires who works at the hostel. He’s about the 100th person to tell us we have to visit Iguazu Falls. I liked him immediately because he hates cars and television. His best line was that Portuguese sounds like children speaking Spanish. The two languages are quite similar and it's getting easier to communicate.

Now we’re thinking about changing our route to go to the falls sooner. Maybe even splurge on a helicopter ride. We’ll go back to Curitiba tomorrow. I can get a few glitches on my Mac worked out at the Apple dealer there. Then we’ll take the night bus to Iguazu Falls. We’ve heard that the border crossing into Argentina is quite easy there because many tourists want to see the falls from both countries. From Brazil you get the overall panorama and from the Argentina side you get a close-up look and feel. We found out that we can pick up Andre's Uruguay visa in Buenos Aires, just as soon as we get a hotel reservation in Montevideo. Turns out that my friend Gabriel can't sponsor Andre because he's only a student, not a resident of Uruguay.

We’ve made a lot of friends in the short time we’ve on this island. Nelson and Lyz invited us to sample some watermelon vodka drink. Andre said it was good, but since I don’t drink alcohol, I only faked it. This morning we ran into some kids who asked if we knew capoeira. Andre isn’t familiar with it, so I asked for a demonstration. Afterwards, they had fun watching themselves on my video camera.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ilha do Mel -- Honey Island

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Andre at the Fortaleza, 2. Enjoying the island, 3. Beautiful empty beaches, 4. view from the lighthouse, 5. Andre played soccer with the locals, 6. Me in a Brazilian soccer jersey, 7. Andre in an Argentine soccer jersey, 8. Andre enjoying the train ride from Curitiba to the coast. 9. View along the way.

The train ride was fabulous. Two hours of jungle, vistas, rivers, bridges, tunnels. The route from Curitiba to the coast is very touristy so everyone was ooohing and aaahing at the windows, taking pictures and video. What a great introduction to trains for Andre.

Unfortunately, they’re renovating the last segment of train tracks, so we all switched to a city bus in Morrettes. Fifty minutes, half of it standing up, wasn’t much fun. Some German girls with huge backpacks commended us on traveling with just a small rolling suitcase and daypack each, but even that feels heavy sometimes. Especially the racquetball equipment we haven’t had a chance to use yet.

We had planned on spending time in Paranagua, but upon arrival we changed our mind and joined the other backpackers who were taking a boat to Ilha do Mel, Isla de Miel in Spanish, Isle of Honey. Andre thought 2 hours on a boat would be boring, but it was a beautiful ride too, with a refreshing breeze as we sped through the water.

This is our third of I-don’t-know-how-many days on the island. I like it here, especially knowing that the Uruguay visa could take up to two weeks, meaning if we go too fast we’ll get stuck waiting at the border. I’d rather be here where they are no cars or motorcycles, only tropical birds to wake us up in the morning.

Each evening we play soccer and volleyball with the locals, who seem to be outnumbered by tourists. Luckily, the pristine beaches are still relatively empty. Summer high season starts in December, crescendoing in February. That’s when 5,000 revelers pack the island for Carnival, according to my 1989 guidebook, a gift from a friend who said don’t bother to bring it back. I suspect that number has doubled or tripled, since my guidebook also claims there is no freshwater, electricity or telephones on the island. Today there are two internet cafes that charge per minute, satellite TV, pay phones where Andre spent a small fortune to say hi to his mother in Haiti, and Pousadas (rooms to rent) at every home, plus some real hotels and a conference center.

The best thing about the island, besides the beaches, is the hiking. So far we’ve walked to the Fortaleza, built in 1767 by the Portuguese to keep the French and Spanish out and climbed the stone steps up to Foral das Conchas (Lighthouse of the Shells). Today we’re going to Encantadas which was the first village on the island. We pass fishermen mending their nets, pushing their boats out to sea, and returning with the day’s catch. As expected, fish is delicious and cheap in the restaurants.

Andre noted that there are very few blacks on the island. Most of the tourists are lighter-skinned Brazilians from Curitiba and a smattering of Europeans. Good preparation for Uruguay, which is 88% white, 8% mestizo (Spanish/ Indian mix), and 4% black. Just when we’re getting the hang of Portuguese, we’ll be in Spanish-speaking countries. But we’ll be back in late December after the racquetball tournament in Bolivia until our return flight from Sao Paulo on Jan. 3.

SAN DIEGO FIRE UPDATE: My dad's wife Judith just informed me that the current total losses is 10 souls and 1700 houses. If each house has 4 residents on the average, that means 6800 people have lost their homes. I feel so fortunate that my folks didn't have to evacuate.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lots to see in Curitiba

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. & 2. The Botanical Gardens, 3. The Oscar Niemeyer Museum, 4. preschoolers in the Paseo Publico city park, 5. Andre becomes art in the Niemeyer Museum.

Here in Curitiba we’ve seen the Botanical Gardens, the Oscar Niemeyer Museum, the Historic District, Passeio Publico zoo and park, Santa Felicidade Italian district, the old train station which is now a shopping center, and many cathedrals, parks and plazas. Andre now owns 3 Brazilian flags and 4 Brazilian soccer jerseys, but his favorite team is Argentina, so I’m sure he’ll buy even more souvenirs there.

The new hard drive for my MacBook arrived in one day instead of the estimated one week, so we stayed an extra day in Curitiba so we won’t have to come back this way. We’ve enjoyed this city, despite the gray, drizzly weather. The people are so warm and friendly, and everything is clean and organized.

I’m sorry to see all the wildfires in my hometown of San Diego. My parents haven’t been evacuated even though there are fires about 3 miles from their house. Jessica Wawrzyniak, one of the photographers at Maya’s memorial party, was evacuated, but doesn’t think there was damage to her family’s house in Rancho Bernardo. There are floods in Rio de Janeiro, so I guess we’re lucky to be where we are.

Tomorrow morning we ride the Serra Verde train towards the coast to a town called Morretes. The train line from Morretes to Paranagua is being renovated, so we’ll have to do that part of the trip by bus. This will be Andre’s first time on a train. I read that it’s one of the most scenic routes in Brazil. I’m a total train nut, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Still in Curitiba, Brazil

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. political artwork by Oscar Niemeyer, 2. Mural near Civic Center, 3. Surprise filling, 4. Andre's still rubbernecking the skyscrapers.

Life hasn't been this good since my laptop died. We went to the authorized Apple Service Center (yes, there is a God) here in Curitiba, Brazil yesterday, and the very friendly, English-speaking technician explained that my hard drive was rusty. I promised him I hadn't taken it swimming with me. He cleaned it up so I could use it for a week while we wait for a new hard drive to arrive. He's also ordered a new top and bottom, all free under warranty, so soon I'll have a like-new MacBook, with all my files transferred over. Luckily I had backed up most of my files to a portable 160 GB drive anyway.

The Uruguay visa seems to be in the bag for Andre. My friend Gabriel wrote a very official letter of invitation, complete with his birthdate, passport number, name of university where he's studying in Montevideo, list of attractions, and mentioned that he's familiar with my rental properties and knows we can support ourselves during our travels. Go Gabriel! The visa should be ready within 2 weeks at the Brazil-Uruguay border town of Chuy. Chuy is a nickname for Jesus in Mexico, so thank you, Chuy, for all the good luck we've had lately.

I think my laptop saved my relationship with Andre too. He's more of a homebody than I am, so I was feeling trapped and restless in the hotel room whenever he wanted to rest or watch TV. Now I'm merrily working on photos, writing, and listening to music with headphones. If only we had wireless in our hotel room I'd never want to leave. Then again, that might not be such a good idea.

Yesterday we rode the tourist bus again that does a 2-hour loop around Curitiba along the most scenic route and stops at the major attractions. We visited the fabulous Oscar Niemeyer Museum, designed by famous Brazilian architect Neimeyer who introduced curves to public buildings. We had planned to visit the Botanic Garden also, but it started raining before we got there. Poor Andre, thinks we took a wrong turn and ended up at Antarctica. We had to buy him a jacket in Sao Paulo, probably the first of his life. This is good training for both Vancouver and Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the break from non-stop sweating. As Andre pointed out, you can wear your clothes longer without washing them so often. I was changing clothes 3 times a day in Santo Domingo, 4x when we played racquetball. Unfortunately, no one's heard of the sport in Curibita. There's racquetball in Sao Paulo, but it was too big and intimidating to find the courts.

I haven't been taking many photographs, but Andre's going crazy. Curitiba feels like home because the people look American, put garbage in trash containers, ride buses that arrive on time, and there's 24-hours a day electricity. To Andre, it's all so exotic. I don't think he's ever seen so many white people -- mostly German and Italian ancestry in this area -- and he's photographing every building over 10 stories high. I think the clean streets are shocking to him as well. Like in Sao Paulo, they have clean-up crews in orange jump suits that seem to work round-the-clock. I love the mosaic sidewalks which are currently being repaired. I wonder how often they have to do that.

I also appreciate the cheaper prices. Haiti and Dominican Republic are third world, but the cost of living matches California, even though the workers are paid peanuts. Here we have a nice hotel room for $35 a night and a restaurant meal (many of which are buffets that charge per kilo) is about $5. Bus fare is about $1, but mostly we're walking everywhere. They have a terrific historic district which has been beautifully renovated. Andre says he'd like to live in Curitiba. But then again, that's what he said in Sao Paulo.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Happy Days are Here Again!

Today was an amazing day. First, we found the Consulate of Uruguay. We were the only ones there with one woman on the 31st floor and an amazing view of the city of Curitiba. I don´t need a visa and Andre will be able to pick his up at the border as we´re crossing from Brazil. It costs about $45 and it´s possible because my friend Gabriel is sending us a letter of invitation with his address and phone number in Montevideo. Gabriel is from Mexico, but stays at my place each summer, working at Marini´s to earn money for his studies. He´s studying in Montevideo for a semester and loves it. He loves it so much, he says he´s falling behind in his studies, but plans to buckle down soon.

Then the best news -- we found an authorized Macintosh repair store. The technician who speaks perfect English diagnosed my dead hard drive. Because of my 3-year extended warranty, he´s replacing it for free. By luck he has one in stock so I can pick it up tomorrow. Wow! There really is a God.

And big news for Andre, he found a Brazilian soccer jersey with his favorite player Ronaldo´s name and number.

Curitiba, Brazil

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. The view at night from our hotel window, 2. triple-length buses that actually fill up, 3. bikes are used for deliveries, 4. even though it looks like a successful recycling program, I noticed garbage in all bins.

On Saturday, October 20, Andre and I traveled 6 hours west by bus from Sao Paulo to Curitiba. Rio is about 6 or 7 hours the opposite direction. I´d love to see Rio, Bahia, and Manaus, the capitol of the Amazon region, but not sure how we´re going to be able to swing it. Brazil is the third largest country in the world, so we might have to do some flying later on.

I chose Curitiba because a former Brazilian ESL student Maria Vaz made a documentary about it called "A Convenient Truth." It was featured in the Pacific Rim Film Festival in Santa Cruz after I´d already left the country, so I didn´t get to see it. Curitiba, population 1.5 million, is known for being a model environmental city. One thing they did was lower the busfare to encourage people not to drive so much. It seems to be working. Many of the city buses are 3 buses linked together and they travel around quite full. The city has these cool tubular bus stops to protect passengers from rain. That´s important because Curitiba has a cool climate and even though it´s late spring south of the equator, we´ve encountered quite a bit of rain already in the few days we´ve been here.

I´m not as impressed with the recycling program. There are lots of individual color-coded bins for paper, cans, glass, organic, but people seem to throw garbage in all of them. It´s one thing to provide the bins -- another to educate the people. Plus, the trash bins are nowhere near the recycling ones. That´s always problematic. People shouldn´t have to search for the one they need. It seems to work best if they have a mixed recycling bin next to a trash bin. That way people only have to decide between two things. Workers can separate the recyclables later.

Our plan for the day is to try to find computer repair for my dead MacBook. I can´t believe how dependent I´ve become on my laptop, especially considering I just got it last summer before Maya and I went to Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. At the moment I´m in a cyber cafe, using a PC with a foreign keyboard, instead of comfortably in our hotel using free wireless on my MacBook. I don´t have easy access to my photos, addresses, Skype, writings. I have a 3-year extended warranty on my MacBook, but there are no authorized Mac dealers in South America, so I´m not very optimistic about getting it reapired. If anyone knows anyone traveling here from the U.S. in the next month or two, please let me know. I might have to order a new laptop and send this one back for repair. Forget mail service, even though Brazil seems like a first-world country.

We also want to go to the consulates for Uruguay and Chile to see about getting visas for Andre. He has a Haitian friend in Buenos Aires who claims they don´t need a visa to enter Chile. That would be great. My cousin Zack lives there with his girlfriend Soraya in Puerto Montt. I also have an assignment to find the biological mother of a friend´s daughter. Detective Chelsea to the rescue! And a Mexican friend Gabriel is studying in Montevideo now. There´s the Juniors World Racquetball Championships in Cochabamba, Bolivia from Dec. 12-20 which we hope to attend. That won´t leave much time to head back to Brazil to catch our Jan. 3 flight to Santo Domingo. But at least we have a rough outline.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sao Paulo, Brazil

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Andre in front of the cathedral, 2. homeless at night near the cathedral, 3. View from the 31st floor, 4. Love those phone booths!

Andre and I finally arrived in Sao Paulo at 5 a.m. on October 18. Since it was so early, we took a bus and the metro to the Centro zone and found a slightly divey hotel for 25 reales (about $15). It had a private bath with hot water and the room was clean. You had to stand on a chair to turn on the TV or change the channels. Andre likes to watch TV. I don´t.

Our hotel was right near a big plaza in front of a huge cathedral. Lots of homeless people sleep in the plaza every night and no one seems to bother them. Right off the plaza were lots of narrow, cobble-stoned pedestrian streets with interesting shops, but best of all, lots of street entertainment, artists, vendors, craftspeople. I was surprised how much it felt like Europe, not Latino at all.

Brazilians come in all colors, which is very refreshing. They´re also extremely nice. Sao Paulo sometimes felt like New York City when you look around at all the different people, but surprisingly they´re not immigrants or tourist. They´re all Brazilians and they speak only Portuguese. Even in the tourism office, the banks, the travel agencies. We can easily read everything in Portuguese since we know Spanish, but understanding it is another thing. If I ask something in simple Spanish, they understand me, but I have to watch their gestures and pointing to know what the answer is.

I was also impressed with the cleanliness of the city. It´s not that Brazilians don´t drop garbage on the street, but every night they have a huge crew of people in orange jump suits who go around and sweep it, bag it, and cart it away. Everything seems so organized. The metro is a dream. I don´t know how a city of 17 million moves so efficiently. We nearly got pushed out of a metro car once when a swarm of people during rush hour shoved their way in. But over all, it was amazing to see what seemed like millions of people flowing smoothly through the underground. Many of them use those automatic cards that Maya and I saw in Hong Kong, refillable cards that you wave over the entrance and it deducts the fare from your credit. That really speeds things up.

We never found racquetball courts and my MacBook died. Hence, the lack of photos. I´m mourning the loss and cursing the dead weight. I was told before I left the U.S. that my 3-year extended warranty is good at any authorized Mac dealer anywhere in the world. Except guess what? There don´t seem to be any authorized Mac dealers in Latin America. And no one´s heard of racquetball, even though I know there are courts somewhere in Sao Paulo.

One of the nicest things we did was get a view from the 32nd floor of the Banco do Sao Paulo building. It wasn´t a particularly clear day. I would love to go back up on a clear day. But even still, it was pretty impressive. I hope I´ll be able to post photos sometime again.

The food is good and not too expensive. Lots of fresh juice. Never did find a supermarket or even a grocery. Lots of stores that sell packaged goods and drinks, but where do they buy meat, fruit, vegetables?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Another Bump in the Road

Andre and I must really want to go to Brazil, otherwise we would have given up by now. Yesterday, we got to the airport 2-1/2 hours early, thinking we had everything in order -- Andre's new Brazilian visa, our flight confirmed. At 7:00 a.m. they opened the check-in desk, but 45 minutes later it was clear the line wasn't moving. That's when I heard the bad news -- flight delayed due to weather conditions in Costa Rica. The next available flight would be at 5:00 p.m. Those who had connecting flights like ourselves were offered a free hotel in San Jose. I would have loved to do that, except for one more hitch: Andre needs a Costa Rican visa, so we would have had to sleep in the airport. Again, we had to leave the airport in defeat.

Neither one of us felt like facing his friend Junior and his family with yet another failed flight, so instead we went to the beach town of Boca Chica and took a room at Hotel Mango. It had a pool, so I suggested we go for a swim. Andre said no, claiming he didn't want to travel with a wet bathing suit the next day. I said I was going in anyway, otherwise I'd go crazy sitting around all day and then the next day on planes and in airports. As I expected, he followed me into the pool. I announced I was going to swim 100 laps, which I did. I'm not a strong swimmer, but like the tortoise, I'm slow and steady.

When I first met Andre he was terrified of water. He took a few swimming lessons in Santo Domingo before I arrived this time, but the chlorine bothered him a lot. He loved the pool at L'Oase because it had less chlorine and was shallow enough to walk across. At Hotel Mango, he actually swam across the deep end. Gaining confidence, he challenged me to some races across the pool, finishing a close second each time. I predict he will eventually fall in love with the water and be a strong swimmer.

Andre isn't the first islander I've known who couldn't swim. My first husband's family was from Guam and few of them could swim either. I guess if you live on an island, you learn to fear and respect the ocean. Andre told me that his mother forbid her kids to go near water because it's dangerous. I'm reading a very interesting book called "Madame Dread" by American journalist Kathie Klarreich. Her Haitian husband was afraid of water too. She first went to Haiti in 1989 for three months to buy handicrafts for her import shop in San Francisco. One day, she gets caught in the middle of a coup d'etat. A friend suggests she write about her experience, which is how her journalism career got started.

The author falls in love, with the country and a rasta drummer, hence the title of the book. The local children call her Madame Dread because of her boyfriend's dreadlocks. They eventually get married and have a son. Her family in the Bay Area never understands why she wants to live in a country that is politically unstable, violent and dangerous, where there's limited electricity and water. But I can understand the attraction just from my two short weeks in Haiti. Granted, there are UN soldiers everywhere now, so I didn't see anything remotely violent or dangerous, but the piles of garbage on the streets, an hour a day of electricity, and the crowded conditions on public transportation were all challenges. But the color, the vibrancy, the people, the natural beauty is captivating.

What I don't understand from her book is why she stays with Jean Raymond. Unlike Andre, her husband is only happy in Haiti. He shrivels up and gets depressed any time they go to visit her family in California, he refuses to learn English, he hates the food. He's also very macho, promises to help out with the kid, but doesn't. As a journalist, she's highly regarded because she lives in Haiti and speaks Creole fluently. She resents other journalists who fly in whenever there's a coupe or a military takeover, grab the story, and fly out. She interviews high-ranking political and military leaders, none of whom she likes, even though the Haitians at first had a high hopes for Aristide.

The book is helping me understand why Andre doesn't like to go out after dark, is distrustful of strangers, and eels he has to protect me all the time. I asked him if he ever saw dead bodies in the streets. He didn't because his family didn't go outside unless they had to. Schools closed. People lost their jobs. That might also explain why he's more a of homebody than I am. The outside world presents opportunities and adventures for me. To him, it was just danger and despair.

Well, as they say, the third time's the charm. We are finally en route to Brazil, on layover in San Jose, Costa Rica until early afternoon. We'll arrive in Sao Paulo, the 3rd largest city in the world, around 5:00 a.m. tomorrow. Luckily we didn't have a reservation because we would have had to change it twice. I figure it'll be early enough in the day that we can head to the colonial Centro area and have a look around before committing ourselves to a hotel. I don't like big cities, so we probably won't stay long, but we hope to find some racquetball.

This is my first time back to South America since 1983 when former pro Steve Keeley and I taught racquetball throughout Latin America for 5 months. It was one of the best experiences of my life and the beginning of my love affair with the Spanish language. We published monthly articles and photos about our adventures. I recently contacted the racquetball magazine and the editor gave me a go-ahead to do it again.

I hope this trip proves to be every bit as exciting as the first time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

L'Oase Racquetball & Hotel Resort

Tonight's our last of 5 nights at L'Oase Resort & Racquetball Club outside of Puerto Plata. The owner racquetball fanatic Joseph Kruchten is up in his hometown in Minnesota, so his Dominican girlfriend Vashti and her two sons have been our hosts. Every evening -- when there's electricity for the lights -- we play racquetball with Canadian Jamie and Spaniard Luis. We've taken walks along the beach, went all around the Colonial Zone of Puerto Plata, and rode to the top of a panoramic hilltop by cable car.

This place really is an oasis. I could stay here much longer. I wish Joseph had been here when we were here, even though I can only play racquetball with my left hand since I'm babying the tendinititis in my right elbow. It's really frustrating for me. Meanwhile, Andre's game is getting better. He can even beat my left hand sometimes.

This is the perfect place for sports fanatics like us: racquetball, ping pong, billiards, basketball, volleyball, gym equipment, mountain bikes, and swimming pool. They have wireless internet and Vashti is nice enough to let me make phone calls to the U.S. for free because they have Vonage.

When we went into Puerto Plata I asked Andre to take pictures of me and I took pictures of him in the same spots I took pictures of Maya last summer. It's still really sad for me because I miss her so much. It seems to me like there will never be another person like Maya ever again.

I'm still so grateful to have Andre in my life. We're dealing with a lot of challenges, particularly the new news that the average waiting time for fiance visas in the Dominican Republic is 19 months. That puts us in Dec. 2008 or Jan. 2009 before Andre can even set foot in the U.S. I hope Canada will take us. Then we could stay in Vancouver, he could improve his English, we have good friends John & I-Ju and Lisa Lackey, and I'd only be a train ride back to Santa Cruz when I need to take care of things there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Can Tell I've Been in the 3rd World Too Long Because:

1. I cheer like everyone else whenever the electricity comes on.

2. I only brace myself for the first 2 or 3 splashes of cold water when I bathe. After that it feels good.

3. I start thinking that Toyota Corollas were built for 7 passengers.

4. I forget that in other places in the world it's okay to put toilet paper in the toilet.

5. I get used to picking up words in a conversation, but never quite understanding.

6. whenever I see a white person I have to stare.

7. I start believing that men are the bosses and women should do as they are told.

8. in the morning I wake up hungry for rice and beans, instead of cereal.

9. before entering the bathroom I make sure there's a bucket of water for bathing and flushing the toilet.

10. I'm almost getting used to the blasting stereos & TVs, motorcycles without mufflers, neighbors shouting at each other, car horns blaring, dogs barking, roosters crowing, babies crying...all at once.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Trouble in Paradise

Even more bad news. I wonder how I'm able to write this without slitting my wrists. I broke down and paid 545 Dominican pesos for 15 minutes of phone time with a representative of the U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo. I never heard of paying to ask questions, but I wanted a more definitive idea of how long the wait list is for a fiance visa in the D.R.

Now I know: 19 months! That's right. NINETEEN MONTHS! I wrote my immigration lawyer the bad news and she wondered it that's from the time they received our application (May 20, 2007) or from the time our case arrives in Santo Domingo, which hasn't even happened yet. So the earliest it would be is December 2008. Looks like Andre and I won’t be coming to Santa Cruz together for a long, long time.

The information guy did say that on the average we should get the interview package about a month before the interview date, so that's good news. I'd hate to think they would send it just days before. Once we get a case number, which hasn't happened yet, we should be able to check our status online and see how close we're getting to our appointment. I don't have to go with Andre, but I know he'd appreciate it.

Another fiasco happened today at the airport when we should have been boarding for our 20-hour, trip to Sao Paulo via Costa Rica and Peru. The move from Andre's apartment went well yesterday. My friend Claudio was delayed due to truck troubles, which he was able to repair in time. I managed to get everything into one load as I'd promised Andre. We tied it up with wire since that's all Claudio had. And best of all, it didn't even rain, though it´s been raining off and on every day, sometimes very strong. When we got to Junior's house, the guys all came downstairs and unloaded the truck in minutes. So that was good.

We got to the airport at 6:30 a.m., 2-1/2 hours before our flight and they hadn't even opened the Taca Airline counter yet, although a line was forming already. For some reason, when it was our turn, I said to Andre, "I hope we're not in for any surprises." I had one myself on the way out of the U.S. when I was forced to purchase a return ticket. I´d been so happy to buy a cheap one-way ticket since I don´t know when I´m coming back to the U.S. I've already cancelled that random flight that I had to buy, and I banked the credit with Jet Blue minus a $35 service charge. So what did that prove except that they could get more money out of me. I'll use the credit for either my friend Debbie in December or Maya's dad in January.

Turns out, Andre misread the date July 4 for July 9 on his Brazilian visa. It had to be activated without 3 months of issuance. That meant his visa expired two days ago. I guess I should have double checked the date, but never guessed he would misread it. He still insists that the ¨4¨ loks like a ¨9,¨ but it doesn´t to anyone else. Oh well, things will work out.

I tried with all my chutzpah to convince Taca employees to let us fly to Peru only where Andre doesn't even need a visa. Our flight goes through Costa Rica and Peru on the way to Sao Paulo. But they couldn't do it; neither could Expedia online. The Expedia clerk asked to talk to the Taca clerk, who miraculously spoke English, but it was just too last-minute and too crazy to reissue the ticket.

The good news is I remained calm and didn´t make Andre feel any worse than he already does. We changed our reservations to October 16 and have our fingers crossed that the Brazilian consulate will take pity on us and issue him another visa. If not, I'll have to pay even more penalties by changing the itinerary and the dates. But the Brazilian consulate was nice to us last time. Let's hope they are again. Andre thinks it's because of the soccer connection. I think it's because he's traveling with an American.

So, we're trying to make the best of these bad situations. We're talking about moving to Vancouver for as long as we can while waiting for the interview date. And now we'll have time to go to Puerto Plata to check out the beach resort L´Oase and racquetball court, owned by an American named Joseph who we met at the Santo Domingo courts several months ago. Andre's embarrassed to run into friends here in Santo Domingo and have to explain what happened. So of course I'm publishing the whole scandal on this blog. But how else would I explain 10 lost days? Besides, sometimes the best adventures or opportunities come out of wrong turns.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Moving today, Flying tomorrow

Quick update because Andre's waiting for me to come back and help him finish packing up his apartment. He's stressed and nervous about moving. He asked me to call my friend Claudio to see if he could come over with his truck earlier in case we have to make to trips or we hit traffic. Compared to the moves I've made in my life, this will be a piece of cake. Looks like one truckload to me and Andre already packed most of it days ago. Wait till he sees all the stuff I have back in Santa Cruz, in my attic and Oma's attic, not to mention a houseful of furniture, dishes, clothes, stuff.

Tomorrow morning we fly at 9 a.m., so we're going to leave for the airport at 6 a.m. We'll stay the night at his best friend Junior's house in the neighborhood called Las Americas which is close to the airport. Junior's family just rented a two-bedroom apartment a few months ago. They don't have that much furniture yet, so they'll be happy to have Andre's mattress, mini-fridge and small washing machine. I find his washing machine to be more work than washing by hand, but he likes it. Just wait until he sees an American washing machine that does it all except hang the clothes.

I'm also going to call the U.S. consulate for 15 minutes and ask them a long list of questions. I had to pay 540 Dominican pesos (about $17 US) to get a PIN to make the call. They don't answer questions about visa applications for free. Andre and I don't even have a case number yet, just a receipt for our application which they got in May. My immigration lawyer still insists that she's never seen a fiance visa take longer than a year. I keep hearing here that D.R. has the longest waiting list and it can take up to 2 years. I wouldn't mind 2 years if we had an exact date. Andre and I can find another place in the world to live together, but I don't like the idea that at any minute they can notify us and we have to drop everything to run back to the D.R. If that's the case, we might have to stay in the Caribbean area. I had thought about Vancouver, then I remembered that Andre probably wouldn't be very happy there in the February cold. Maybe in April or May. But would we arrive just to find out we have to come back to Santo Domingo for the interview at the consulate?

I know I like adventures, but sometimes I like a little stability and security in my life. Either way, mi vida sigue.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bad News and Bad News

Today I had two big frustrations. The first one happened at the U.S. Consulate. I went there to ask how much advance notice we'll have before Andre's interview date. I heard from a friend of a friend who applied for her Brazilian boyfriend that the waiting period has changed from 9 months to 6 months. I applied for Andre in mid-May, so six months would be mid-November. We're scheduled to be in South America from Oct. 6 - Jan. 3, 2008. I imagined us in some tiny Chilean village and suddenly having to find our way to Sao Paulo for our return flight, probably at great expense. And of course changing our itinerary could be very expensive too.

So while Andre trekked to the phone company to pay his bill and cancel service, I walked a couple of miles to the U.S. Consulate. I noticed I was the only American there. I was directed to a man in an official yellow shirt who was working the appointment lines. He heard my story and said, "don't worry, have a great trip to Brazil. The waiting list for fiance visas is 2 years." That was not the answer I expected at all. I insisted that my immigration lawyer said the average wait is 9 months. He said, not in Dominican Republic. This is the most popular country for fiance visas to the U.S.

Unfortunately, that makes sense. The D.R. is close to the U.S. and the women are extremely sexy and poor. The internet is full of sites like which show photos and profiles of hundreds of pretty young Dominicanas who are looking for a man up to 50 years old or older, smokers okay, children okay. What matters most is a ticket out of poverty.

I'm kicking myself for not picking Haiti for the interview. I just figured it would be easier in the D.R. because it's less Third World and Andre has been living here for 4 years. But Port-au-Prince is only a 6-hour bus ride away and all his family lives there, if we needed a place to stay during the interview process. Plus I didn't see any tourists courting the locals when I was there a few months ago. Practically no tourists at all. Must be a short waiting list.

I started walking back to Andre's apartment, trying to process this new information. I wondered if we could change it to Haiti or what would happen if we married now? So I turned back to the U.S. Consulate. The first guy had been replaced by two others. One guy said 9 months to a year, which made me feel better. He said to forget about making any changes in the application because that would start the clock all over again. The woman said it depends on the waiting list. When I pressed her to be more specific, she said one year, maybe two.

So what does that mean for Andre and me? If we knew in advance that it was going to take until May 2009, at least we could make plans to live in another country like Argentina or Chile. I'd love to live in Germany with him and travel around Europe, but the visa requirements for Haitians to any European country seem impossible. I also thought about border towns like Vancouver or Tijuana, although the Mexican consulate was so rude to us. It'd be easiest for me to commute back and forth to Santa Cruz. But we have to come back to Santo Domingo for the interview. So we're going to be flying a lot no matter what, unless we just stay here. All I know is, this time I need an apartment with AC, DSL and a kitchen. I can live with cold water and daily power outages.

The other frustration is my tennis elbow. I haven't played racquetball with my right hand in a month and I've been icing my elbow every chance I get. I know I reinjured it a bit by schlepping heavy baggage from California, but it doesn't hurt when I practice my forehand and backhand strokes off the court. So I was hoping that I could begin playing with my right hand, little by little.

Andre has been dying to show me how much better he's gotten in the last two months. I promised him if he beat my left I'd try to play right handed. I beat him four games straight with my left hand, even though he has improved a lot. He's going to be a real power player once he gets more experience. He attacks the ball with "ganas," as they say in Spanish. It's amazing to see him hit a very professional shot, followed by a very novice mistake. He still needs more consistency, but for playing only a few months, he's very impressive and loves the game.

We got to the courts by 3:30. Only his coach Danelo was there yet, although by the time we left at 7:00 the courts were full.Danelo and I played a couple of games left-handed. I beat him 15-1, 15-5. Then I pulled something in my left hand when Andre and I played again. I decided to try out my right hand. Forget it! The very first shot hurt so bad. I felt like crying. Racquetball has been my game for over 30 years. In my prime I was a semi-professional player. Lately I've been getting back into it and having illusions of entering my age group in regional and national championships.

I feel so defeated right now. I'm going to have to live in a hot, sweaty, dirty country surrounded by beautiful, sexy women, and not even be able to play racquetball. It's amazing what we do for love.