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My time in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil

February 2, 2009 6 comments

This post documents my time in Foz de Iguacu, home of the famous Iguacu Falls near the southernmost tip of Brazil, right next to the border with Argentina and Paraguay. If you aren’t familiar with this series of posts about Brazil (Yes, I dare call a set of 2 posts a series; call my lawyer if you have a problem w/ that), skip this post and get caught up.

So, here you go:

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As I try to fall asleep in my inebriated haze at The Maksoud Plaza Hotel at 4ish in the morning, I hear Kevin Rudolf’s “I See Your Dirty Face” accompanied by the sounds of a man dancing frantically to the terrible tune. This is no boozy drug-addled hallucination; yes, I’m in Sao Paulo, Brazil and my friend Praz is effervescent. I’m laughing helplessly at his antics while secretly considering strangling him to obtain some much-needed sleep.

You see, we’re all kind of wasted but mildly cognizant of the fact that a flight awaits us in a couple of hours. Since our planning skills are worse than pre-Katrina FEMA, we’ve decided on the spur of the moment to fly to Foz de Iguacu, a few hundred miles south of Sao Paulo. We’ve grudgingly handed over 500 dollars (yes, that’s greenbacks) to a fucking travel agency creatively named C-V-C. In return, we’ve received a ticket and a hotel room

that puts us in Foz for a mere 30 hours before we hopscotch over to Brazil’s crown jewel, Rio de Janeiro. Oh yeah, and we’ve also managed to score a free “gift” in the form of a travel bag that can fit a large rodent and not much else. The hideous gift will be a symbol of the gringos paying through the nose for the rest of the trip.

As we hurtle along the main highway to the airport, I’m riding shotgun and marveling at the fact that Brazil’s infrastructure is a valiant attempt at masking the poverty and squalor that lurks everywhere, just beyond our peripheral vision. The sky is a somber palette of pinks and grays, and in the quiet of the morning we stay away from the pre-pubescent humor that we love so dearly.

Then we arrive at Sao Paulo domestic airport – the wonderful-sounding “Congonhas!” – and the cycle begins all over again. As is the case everywhere in Brazil, the lines are long, snaking and a picture of chaos. You’d think a country with a population of 200 million would be able to better manage a line; hell, at least us Indians have the whole reproductive fecundity thing as an excuse.

Praz, of course, walks up to one of the few bored-looking airline clerks milling about and asks for an “upgrade”. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I imagine that he declares – “El Upgrade-o” as a sign of his seriousness of purpose. As expected, he get turned away because in order to be “preferencial”, one must be old, pregnant or at least attempt to not butcher Portuguese with happy disdain. We fail on all counts but rejoice in the knowledge of this beautiful new word that becomes yet another running joke. Try saying it – and make sure to roll your Rs. Then agree with me that the word makes you smile. Is it just me?

See a beautiful Brazilian girl? “That’s so preferencial“. Angry at the cabdriver for making you supremely uncomfortable? “That’s so not preferencial.”

We make our way down to the boarding gate and scope out a snack bar. This is as good a time as any to discuss the Brazilian obsession with cheese balls. Or cheese bread. Or bread with melted cheese inside. You see, they’re all the same product but faithful gastronomic chronicling is not my strong suit. In Portuguese, these little objects are called “Pao de Queijo” and the Brazilian people have taken their obsession to a whole new level. I mean, there’s a whole chain of stores named “Pao de Queijo”, complete with an airport wireless networked named “Pao de Queijo”. I make a mental note to make less fun of

Pão de queijo with coffee and a small cachaça ...
Image via Wikipedia

Starbucks upon my return to the US; at least they know better than to name themselves “Cheese Balls”. And before I let this rant go too far, let me outline the kicker: pao de queijo tastes like, well, nothing. Not spicy, not tart, not flavorful in any real sense of the term.

The flight itself is uneventful and everyone collapses in a nap, dreaming of all the voluptuous Brazilian women that are undoubtedly going to greet us by, around and under the giant waterfalls at Iguacu. Or maybe it was just me. In either case, the plane comes to a screeching halt and there we are.

Iguacu isn’t inside a tropical rainforest (in fact, we’re farther from the Amazon rainforest than ever before) but the environs feel like it just the same. There’s no concrete jungle or bustle of cars here. The roads are single lane and the trees stand sentry right at the very edge of the street. We’re about to walk out of the tiny airport as we see a strange, creepy family reunion scene. We’d like to walk right past but just like a car crash, we’re powerless in our ability to restrict rubbernecking.

Two Brazilian girls are holding a “Welcome Home, Mom” banner for a heavyset woman with a round face a few paces right behind us. In and of itself, this scene would inspire no attention. So to take it a step further, the women are dressed in clown costumes. Mind you, these are not the kind of half-assed clown costumes you’d see at a Halloween party. These are…PERFECT. Down to the disproportionately giant clown shoes, the clown hair (easy, sure), the makeup on the faces, you name it. If in good conscience I could have taken a photo, I would have.

Now, as stupid Americans we’re standing expecting mirth and merriment, maybe a little bit of Bozo the clown. Not so much. The older woman, carrying two suitcases both considerably larger than herself bursts into tears that could rival the falls in drop size and force. I get it. She’s happy to see the girls but it strikes me as a bit odd that they continue to wave the banner in their giant clown costumes as the woman wails tears of joy. P and V tear me away as I continue to gawk.

Our cab brings us to The Nadai Confort Hotel at the edge of the downtown “district” (if one is permitted to play fast and loose with the word). If we’re expecting a welcome relief from the Brazilian preference for colors that clash worse than Britney and K-Fed, well, we’re mistaken. The Nadai Confort – I think that means “Comfort” in English but I can’t say for sure – is Exhibit B in color palettes gone bad. Purple, white, green and a few other colors that I don’t have the ability to name all adorn the exterior of the building in overly bold wide stripes.

We drop our stuff and jump back into the cab to head to the falls.

Our cabdriver, Celio, is an older gentleman with a battered face, thick glasses and a genuine, beatific smile. Like a lot of Brazilians, he looks poor, relaxed and content. While Foz is a tourist center, it is nowhere as popular as Rio or Sao Paulo with tourists of businesspeople. I register major surprise, then, when I realize that he speaks some of the best English we’ve heard in days. I pause for a moment when he tells me that he’s been driving dumb tourists around for 40 years. When I ask him about Rio de Janeiro, he plainly states that he’s never been to either Rio or Sao Paulo. Both cities are too far and he’s never had the money to visit. As with all such moments, I say a silent prayer of thanks for my comparatively easy trajectory into adulthood.

Deprived of my morning coffee, I walk around the ticket window looking for the required jolt to my pathetic bloodstream. P and V throw their customary tantrum given that I’m holding them up like a damn old grandma. I flip them off and repair to a coffee station; I can already feel their snide remarks coming on. When I ask the local southern Brazilian woman for coffee to go, she stares at me like I’ve just asked her to take her clothes off. While she’s got a great smile on her face as she rattles off some incomprehensible Portugues, I suspect she’s telling the gringo to beat it. We eventually come to an agreement and she pours the strong liquid into a flimsy little corrugated plastic cup. I wistfully long for the American ingenuity that contrived the mundane plastic lid with a hole of just the right size. I shake myself out of my reverie before the Starbucks dream recurs and pound the coffee like a shot of Jack Daniels.

The next few hours are touristy, beautiful and uneventful. They are spent in the company of tourists from other parts of Brazil and Uruguay, with an old

Foz!

American couple from Arizona thrown in as the token white people. We take a speedboat right into the heart of falls and get sprayed as the boat driver gets us as close as humanly possible to a small section of the falls. P makes an R. Kelly peeing joke as the water is drenching us on all sides (“What if a guy were at the top of the falls taking a leak?”). V and I deride his perverse imagination. We dry off and proceed to view the panorama around the falls from viewing

decks. We then proceed to a highly questionable fast food meal – Brazilians really don’t know the first thing about making hamburgers and fries.

We trudge back to the hotel at 5pm; P and V collapse in heaps in the hotel room while I switch clothing and saunter out into the main strip in Foz and spend a few hours darting in and out of stores where the sales girls speak no English.

Dinner is awful. We muddle through a chicken lasagna that’s frozen in certain parts of the casserole while other parts are piping hot. I make a mental note to Google whether Brazilians are into frozen foods (Indos are most definitely not; I’m not sorry to say that I escaped soul-crushing TV dinners in my childhood). The only redeeming factor is the exhilarating variety of fruit juices on the buffet. Say what you will about Brazilian food, but these fools know how to juice the hell out of fruits. More on that as we make our way to Rio.

All in all, Foz de Iguacu reminds me of Wichita, Kansas + gorgeous falls. Nothing – and I mean nothing – ever happens here. The 2 Sleeping Beasts in our little entourage are zonked out and snoring by 11pm. My poor lonesome self spends the next hour plowing through Bill Bryson’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”. Pure coincidence, of course.

I can’t wait to get the hell out of Foz and over to Rio de Janeiro – home of Copacabana, Ipanema, the giant Christ statue that presents so many douchebag tourist opportunities and a giant hilltop poorly named “SugarLoaf” that showcases Rio as one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.

Over to the next chapter.

Don’t let the (Wal-Mart) barbarians through the gate

December 4, 2008 Leave a comment

I’m going to pull an anti-Palin and play my elitist card. Where does Apple get off selling a device that I dropped 400 bucks on (and others spent more) at WAL-MART??

And to add insult to injury, Apple wants to price it at 99 dollars. Good Lord. Nothing says snobbery and Apple cultishness like a device you can buy after saving extra-extra-always-low-prices on Crocs. 

I might give my membership card back.

Categories: life, snarky, tech

On Techmeme’s “death”. Please. Get over it.

December 4, 2008 Leave a comment

I love TechMeme as much as the next Silicon Valley jerk, but seriously. There’s a reason people refer to us as the echo chamber. I’m amazed that people are getting twisted up over the guy hiring one editor to remove spurious stories or help manually improve relevance signals. 

BIG DEAL. So what?

Umm, there’s a lot of folks who think that Wikipedia is being boosted by hand by Google. I don’t know if its true but Wiki’s increasing coverage via Google makes sense when viewed that way. Google also crawls a whitelist of sites much faster than the average Joe-Blow site (WordPress.com gets crawled very very frequently, for example). 

ISN’T THAT A GLARING EXAMPLE OF BIAS??

Get over it. There’s no automated brain behind this thing.

Categories: silicon valley, snarky, tech

Saumil’s Guide to Riding Caltrain Like a Champ

November 20, 2008 3 comments

I suffer the ignominy of riding Caltrain four, sometimes five days a week. I live in SoMa and work on Castro in Mountain View. Sure, both locations are supposedly “convenient” to the train but then why is it that I feel like my life is being spent in the company of granola-ass crazy pocket protector could-use-a-shower-badly Caltrain freaks? Because, well, I guess it is when you spend 10 hours a week riding the rails. 

So – here’s the deal with Caltrain, put together in a bullet list of rants, hacks, tricks and tips. Enjoy and profit!!

  • Follow http://twitter.com/caltrain if you use Twitter or refer to the webpage before you get on. 
  • The morning bullet trains are great if you don’t work on your laptop. If you do, having 40 minutes is simply not enough to get a lot done. This is especially true when you’ve got jerkoffs hassling you about the tickets and the damn conductor braying over the PA system about every damn stop every 3.5 minutes. 
  • If you are on your laptop, take the slower trains and get more shit done. Plus, the slower trains are emptier and you have to deal with a smaller quantity of MORONS. 
  • If you’re bringing a bike, try to steer clear of the morning bullet trains. The bike car gets packed FAST. Plus, the imbeciles that run Caltrain frequently put in just ONE bike car with 16 bikes on it. Translation: they’ll tell you to, ahem, leave your bike somewhere or take the next train. Nice work, tools. Real well-managed. 
  • Why the hell doesn’t Caltrain have a coffee bar on the train? Staff it during the morning hours and it still turns a profit. 
  • If you’re riding one of the older model trains from San Francisco, make sure to walk at least 3 cars back before boarding. Why?? Because the first one is the bike car, the second one usually smells and the third one is a first one that’s tolerable and therefore packed. 
  • In each car, there are 4-6 seats (2-3 rows) that have extra leg room. They have enough leg room that you can pop open a laptop comfortably. Look for them in the back of the car.
  • Caltrain is obviously very granola. If you like wearing fluorescent straps on your pants so you dont “ruin them with your bike” (mmm news flash, those pants aren’t that nice to begin with), you’ll fit RIGHT IN. If you’re like me, however, you’ll cringe silently in despair.

More things that piss me off about Google Knol

August 1, 2008 Leave a comment

Okay, I’m pissed because I care. Or something like that.

You see, as a purveyor of fine health information, it is my job, nay, my calling, to wade through the trenches of health websites. There’s good ones (WebMD, Mayo, NIH sites, etc.) and then there’s the really bad content (don’t even get me started).

That’s why I was giddy like a 13 year old going to see Hannah Montana when I first previewed Google Knol. Seeded with a few hundred health topics written by physicians, the content quality and depth is unbelievable. It puts Wikipedia to shame. It puts everything else out there to shame.

Only problem? Doctors write when actively courted by Google (who doesn’t love a little love from our overlords?); they probably stop writing when they find that the AdSense ads surrounding their content monetize at 10 dollars a year.

Yeah. Doctors are people too, and sometimes wretchedly money-grubbing people. Fair enough.

So to really measure Google Knol’s quality since takeoff last week, we need a better way to navigate and access the site.

  • What were the last five (or five hundred) Knols created? If they were about how to sell snake oil as opposed to medical topics, uh, I’d kinda like to know so I don’t syndicate that.
  • How many Knols exist overall? Note that Wikipedia provides a pretty easy way to get to that number. Its called a full database dump and my company Kosmix uses it. Knol? Umm no. Evil much??
  • Nav for the site is pretty retarded. I mean, look at this: http://knol.google.com/k/knol/directory-000#. Where is the categorization?
  • Good Lord, there isn’t even a way to SORT the goddamn link above!!!
  • Final offense: the title says “Collection of Featured Knols”. That means that the tip of the iceberg could be shiny and pretty while the rest of the iceberg is trying to sell me Viagra on the cheap. Come on, Knol, stand behind your product!
Categories: silicon valley, snarky, tech Tags: , ,

Things that tick me off: Google KNOL doesn’t syndicate

Google Knol made a ridiculously loud fat-man-diving-into-kiddie-pool splash last week. Why? Three reasons:

a) Google is involved, and anything with our Interwebs overlords in charge should be greeted with deference.

b) Wikipedia might get crushed in the process. Nerdy Wikipedia editors are just so annoying, after all.

c) The content, at least for the seed list of topics, is FANTASTIC.

Most of the articles have been licensed under Creative Commons. So why the hell is it so hard to get to the content via XML? Let’s say I want to syndicate Knol Content on my site? Why can’t I do that? There isn’t even an RSS feed that will let me get to the first 1000 characters of the Knol.

That blows. And Google should really fix it.

Categories: reviews, snarky, tech Tags: , ,

Things that tick me off: gratuitous office whiteboard usage

July 20, 2008 4 comments

The whiteboard is a sacred Silicon Valley office artifact. No matter how scrappy your startup, if you ain’t got 2 whiteboards for every warm body in the office/garage/homeless-box, you ain’t a real company.

The whiteboard is a company’s mission statement, its values, its creed and its soul rolled into a smooth white surface. Whenever I walk into a startup’s office, I look at their whiteboards like women look at their date’s shoes. Are they squeaky clean because the admin has a mild case of OCD (no joking matter, btw)? Are they littered with pseudocode scribbles because some engineer drank down a 40 and decided to show off? Did someone draw a naughty version of Dijkstra’s shortest path (don’t ask)?

As with shoes and men, you can tell a lot about a company from their whiteboards.

That’s why I’m pissed off when people use whiteboards for stupid, obvious shit that discredits the written form. I’m in a meeting and we’re brainstorming ideas, discussing tasks for a project, figuring out timelines. Someone will invariably stand up suddenly and motion excitably with a hand wave; they’re looking for a marker.

At this point, I get myself primed! I clear my brain; something interesting is about to happen. Maybe he’ll write down an algorithm that will solve my problem. Maybe he’ll just scrawl a mathematical formula John Nash-like and demonstrate to me superior intellect while I nod along like a chump. Sometimes, I just blank my brain and get ready to be schooled like I’m back in junior high.

But then they pick up the stupid marker and start making a dumb list. Or put down a stupid non sequitur like “Its about persistence”. Or start drawing a crude Gantt chart, which just makes my head explode.

People: whiteboards are for math, code and software architecture diagrams that are simply too beautiful to be put down on Visio. Do NOT draw dumb “strategy boxes” on them.

This shit has to stop (random aside, I’m thinking about copyrighting that line. Idea of the year?).