was supposed to have been a triumph

A little less than two years ago, a coworker in the job that I had just started introduced himself by saying that he had “run 73% of the streets in Seattle”. When I asked him how he knew that so precisely, he showed me CityStrides, a service that imports GPS data from such systems as Garmin and Strava, matches that data with public street maps, and gives all sorts of gamified results.

Here is my CityStrides map of Seattle as of yesterday, the day when I “finished” Seattle:

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I expected to be more pleased with this accomplishment, but it fell flat.

When I started, I would follow every street to its officially mapped end, regardless of whether someone had posted signs indicating that they were claiming the street as private property. Sometimes, this would cause rich people to yell at me and question me as I walked along a public street near their house, but I would just keep going. I did sometimes have people in poorer areas ask me if I was lost, but this typically seemed sincere, rather than a veiled GTFO. But now–with everyone feeling threatened because of a deadly pandemic, economic collapse, and protests about police brutality and systemic racism–even I didn’t want to invite conflict. So, I ended up marking far too many streets as “manually complete” because I couldn’t get to the last little bit without potentially causing trouble.

When I told one of my friends about CityStrides, he pointed out that–as a Black man–he could never play this game at all, since every time he went out, white folks would be wondering aloud to the 911 dispatcher what this person was up to as he carefully covered every bit of their neighborhood while making notes on a piece of paper.

So, on one level, I’m feeling disappointed that I didn’t quite get to finish this silly obsessive project on the terms that I wanted, but on a much deeper level, I’m feeling sad and angry that there are a lot of folks who have never been able to do silly things like this, because the threat and tension that I am just now getting a tiny glimpse of has been a reality for them for much longer and to a vastly greater degree.

 

notes from an event that seems impossible now

[The following is a collection of notes from my day competing in the 2016 North American Grappling Association (NAGA) tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah. During the current time of pandemic-induced distance from everyone, I especially miss the camaraderie of contact that used to be part of my daily life.]

1 October 2016, 5:30 AM

I’m writing this as I’m waiting for the commuter train that will take me to the event center in the suburbs where the tournament is happening.

I’m less nervous than I expected to be.

Thanks to Matt, Kat, Joe, John, Jake, and everyone else who helped to give me the confidence to try this.

I’m competing as a super-heavyweight in the 40-49 age division, both in gi and no-gi events (i.e., I’ll be wearing a judo jacket for one event but not for the other).

I’m just doing this to feel what (nearly) all-out grappling fighting feels like. In our school, we train hard sometimes, but you always know that even during a competitive sparring scenario you are just one friendly word or gesture away from breaking off and stopping and resetting. Not so in competition. Yeah, you are still able to stop the pain whenever you want–because this is still a friendly sport–but the stakes are much higher than during a class. When you signal for a stop, you lose; so you probably have a greater incentive to find a way out other than telling your opponent to stop. These strangers are going to show me where the holes in my training are in a different and very direct way.

The last time I was in an official martial arts tournament, it was a striking tournament in the 1990s, and I was disqualified for excessive face contact for my very first strike of the day. His guard was down, and he was coming in fast. It was difficult to not hit him hard in the face. I still shouldn’t have done it.

I’d like to clear that bad day from my record and be able to point to something more positive as my most recent sport combat competition.

6:30AM

You know that dream in which you have a test that you completely forgot to study for? Well, I’m experiencing a real-world grappling equivalent: As I approach the event center, thinking about tactics I’ll try today, I realize just how little I’ve worked on performing takedowns. (My focus has always been on self-defense, in which one prevents and counters takedowns.)

Let’s hope my reversals are strong.

7:00

This is one of the few contexts in which repeated spitting is not (much) frowned upon. The guy behind me in the line for weigh-in is a few ounces over his preferred weight division’s cutoff. I don’t think that spitting is going to do it. I recommended cutting off his man-bun.

8:00

Official weight: 236.0lbs.

Now to eat a huge breakfast. I don’t compete for another 6 hours or so, so there’s plenty of time to process a huge breakfast into energy stores.

8:15

Staff shirts here have the text ‘How may I choke you?’, with the ‘choke’ scratched out and ‘help’ scrawled below.

9:00

I like fitting in. I just don’t fit in in most contexts.

Here, however, no one looks at me funny for laying on the ground with my legs in a straddle split against the wall. In fact, this area of wall is now becoming crowded with folks doing the same or similar.

Also, my haircut and fashion sense are completely standard here.

11:00

Unexpected things to hear in a men’s restroom:

“Dad! I just dropped my kimono in the toilet!”

“Use your brother’s.”

11:30

One great thing about open tournaments: relatively loose clothing requirements. I am currently dressed as Commander Spock for my first match. I wanted to dress as an original-series red-shirt, but I couldn’t find the right shirt.

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The kid winning the expert kids no-gi competition is dressed as Captain America.

13:30

Oooh. There were no super-heavyweight men at my age, so I was bracketed with guys 12-15 years younger than me. The guy that crushed me (literally) was much bigger than me and at least as skilled. The guy that he lost to was exactly my weight but waaaaay more skilled than us.

I got one solid reversal and a capable armbar attempt in. I lost in about three minutes to the same armbar; he did it better.

I like bronze, anyway.

14:00

So, now onto the gi portion of the day… the area in which I have even less skill and experience. After already having been smashed into the ground repeatedly.

Maybe I need to psych myself up like these people I see with their headphones in while warming up. Let’s see… I’ll just spin up some Ira Glass here…

BTW, the other guys in my division are very nice. There’s much smiling and high-fiving going around.

14:30

I just found out that the guy who crushed me studies under one of my favorite fighters: Jeremy Horn, nicknamed “Gumby” because he is superhumanly good at bending and slipping out of submission holds. I am honored that one of his students slipped out of my armbar.

The guy I competed against wasn’t Gumby-like. More Ben Grimm.

14:45

This dude’s shirt says what I’m feeling right now.

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The big thing that I learned is that I need better conditioning. I got the first good position and the first good submission attempt of the match, but I tired out too fast and let my opponent dominate me after that.

Crap. More gym time for me. 😉

16:00

Second place in my division in gi grappling. But my loss in this division was much worse than that in the no-gi contest.

I submitted in 1:05 from a keylock. I was susceptible to that because of a leg sweep that took me down with my super-heavyweight opponent’s shoulder expertly placed in my solar plexus upon landing.

I did some feeble struggling, but it was over when we hit the ground.

He (Mike) was very nice before, during, and after. Hugs aplenty.

18:00

There certainly are more people limping out of here tonight than limped in this morning.

I have a Mr.-Burns-level case of old man hip right now.

Now that the endorphins are wearing off, I think I need to congratulate Mike more strongly on that takedown. Egads. Class Monday is going to be fun. :-/

a letter home from Russia, 1992

29September1992, 17:11 KDT
Sea of Okhotsk, Russia, CIS

Mom and Dad,

So far, I’m still alive. I think that it’s safe to say that I will never again be doing this kind of work. I’m nowhere near as miserable as I was on the Diomedes, but that isn’t saying much. I’m paid more, I’m in pain less, and I have more authority to resist abuse. I just keep thinking of how happy I’ll be when this is all a memory. At least I won’t owe you any more money, and we can have an entirely different kind of conversation about my higher-education choices.

Today is the first day of daylight saving time here in Kamchatka, so the whole bureaucratic community is in an uproar. People who were supposed to make radio calls and reports at 15:00 were doing them at 16:00 and mucking all sorts of things up. Here is a brief overview of the problems that I have encountered lately: a $5 million (around a billion rubles) disagreement between the Russian fish cops and TINRO (ТИНРО); dealing with accusations that an old man is sexually harassing the crew on one of my boats; a new American technician on another boat whom I had to train; daily shouting matches with Kamchatski-Rybvod representatives; continued confusion regarding the allocation of 500 metric tons of blue king crab quota; fish-cops complaining to me about their pay; seasick scientists; Americans wanting to go home (which is damned difficult to arrange); arranging Japanese freighters and getting them permission to enter the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone; monitoring the quality of finished product for multiple vessels; and keeping the buyers in America, Korea, and Japan informed of what’s going on. That is a short summary of this week’s work. Don’t let anyone ever say that I don’t know what it means to earn a living. At least this week, no one pointed a gun at my head or left me overboard to drown.

This new guy has done some contract translation work back in the States, and he says that you can earn $20-$100 per page. I can translate two or three pages per hour now. I am seriously going to look into this sort of work as something that I can do to work my way through school. I’m not good enough for that sort of work yet, but I could be, given a year of study. Just something to think about.

At present, the best guess at my date of arrival back home is 10December. The quota mess is so confused that I could be back on 1November or 1January, but my best estimate is still in the first two weeks of December. I plan on spending no more than five days in Seattle, probably more like three, so don’t worry about me getting back early and staying out west. I have a few good reasons for staying on the west coast for a while, but I have more and better reasons for returning ASAP.

You should be getting this letter in the latter half of October. This letter is getting to you via an American who is riding a Japanese freighter back to Japan and will then fly to Seattle, where she will mail this. (I hope.) The last letter went to Korea first and should have been mailed from the US by an inspector returning home at the end of his two-month contract.

I really need to get off this boat so that I can eat some food that is good for me and exercise outdoors and in a fashion that is much more pleasant: running, cycling, fighting, et cetera. Here, it is nothing but calisthenics, some weights, stretching, and a lot of hyong. I have had to eat a lot of meat and go without milk, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables. I want a salad, some strawberries, a banana, and some milk right now. (Of course, I want a lot of other things, too, but that is another subject entirely…)

When I first came up here, the sun was up for more than 20 hours per day. By the time we leave, it will be light for less than 6 hours per day. Welcome to the near-Arctic. The Arctic Circle is a few hundred miles north of here. I am more than a thousand miles north of you right now, and many thousands of miles west. The last time I was in the wheelhouse, our position was 58°19′N 154°15′E. That’s in the general area of Magadan, a Russian city on the northern edge of the Sea of Okhotsk. If an American boat had been this close to a Russian submarine base a year ago, we’d have been sunk immediately. Of course, I’m still a little nervous about the destroyer only a few miles away right now.

Spread the word of my continued survival to Tanya and anyone else you can think of. That’s all for now. I will see you within three months.

P.S.: That’s a one-ruble note. At current rates, it’s about 8 cents. [I was wrong about this. A ruble was worth about half a cent then.]

The rest of your life begins with a million steps.

I have not done a good job of making physical exercise part of my daily routine for the past year, since returning to the regular working world.

I’m fixing that.

I find that competition motivates me, and I also find that I have an easier time changing my habits when I am already in transition in other ways. Conveniently, my company has a month-long competition (Walktober) starting tomorrow, and I am also changing roles and physical work locations within the company. This is a good time to reset habits.

I am going to walk to and from work (>20km round trip) every weekday during this month. On weekends, I’ll focus on strength training. Stretching every morning and while working. After the month is up, I’ll evaluate how to modify this routine as a longer-term habit.

I’m hoping to beat the one-month step count that I got last summer.

Optimize Yourself: Zack Arnold and I talk about my recent challenges for myself

Zack Arnold just released an hour-long interview with me on his Optimize Yourself podcast in which we talk about my past few years and how I’ve worked to re-establish good habits for mental and physical health.

We spend a lot of the interview talking about how I used a recent five-week trip to Brazil to test my fitness and my Portuguese language skills, as well as forcing myself to use and develop my social skills. In a way, recording this podcast was the last phase of my test, since I needed to break out of my introverted shell to talk openly to some large number of strangers about my personal struggles. I think that it came out well, though.

If you want to read more about my trip to Brazil, why I did it, and what I learned, you can start here.

I posted a lot of pictures from my trip on this blog, and there are even more on Instagram.

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finishing up on the Caminho da Fé: I give myself a B-.

Acabou! (It’s over! It’s done!)

Yesterday, I arrived in Aparecida, at the national basilica honoring A Nossa Senhora Aparecida.


When I arrived, I presented my credential document, which had been stamped at various inns, ice cream shops, and other support points along the way.


Upon examining this document, an official gave me a certificate attesting to my completion of the pilgrimage.


You can see that I’m number 25,070. It seems like both a large number and a small number: A lot of people have done this, but not as many as I would have guessed.

My last day was special and easy because I was very far from alone for the last 20km or so. Somewhere in Pindamonhangaba (a fun name to say) I came across two dozen members of the São Paulo SWAT team who were doing the pilgrimage on foot. They had a support vehicle carrying water, food, and most people’s gear—though a few stubborn, hardcore people were carrying their own packs.

I talked with several of these folks about why they were doing the pilgrimage, and most said that it was to give thanks for health and good fortune. Marcos, the support vehicle driver, said that his reason was to go to ask A Nossa Senhora Aparecida for fewer people to die violently in São Paulo this year.

Here’s Marcos showing off his SWAT tattoo just after we arrived in Aparecida:

Not that I was very concerned before, but it did make me feel safe to arrive in this city surrounded by SWAT.

The previous couple of days had been rather lousy… and only mostly figuratively. I had slept in a stable my last night on the trail because the only pousada within 18km was closed. But, on the bright side, I had a stable to sleep in and a delicious tilapia dinner because a very kind man (Neto) welcomed in the strange North American. And the previous day had sucked because about 10km of the trail requires walking on slippery railroad ties descending a steep mountain. I’ll be feeling that day in my ankles for the next week.


But, really, it seems petty to complain about one cold, buggy night and one precarious and physically challenging day. I had spent the day before in Campos do Jordão, Brazil’s equivalent to Whistler, BC: posh restaurants, beautiful homes, all of the amenities that one could want. It was amusing to note that I hadn’t seen a single police officer for almost two weeks… and then eight within an hour, as soon as I entered this playground for relatively rich people.

You can see that some of the more modest vacation homes in Campos do Jordão have the ticky-tacky vibe going on:

I stayed in a sort of hostel for bicyclists and such, Bikeville, which was comfortable and cheap and weird. I think that I can sum the place up with this lock mechanism:


The high point, literally, on the trail is around Campista, at ~1,860m (~6,200ft). I thought that the muscular toll of the ascent would be the bad part. It wasn’t. It was the cold. Yeah, it’s the tropics, but a cloudy winter day at 1,800m is still chilly, and the night is downright cold. I slept in a very drafty log barracks in Campista under all of the blankets for all of the dozen or so beds. It’s a good thing I was the only guest that night.

I was surprised at how easy the ascent was, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been: I had been acclimating myself to this kind of activity for quite a while by this time. I had really been fretting back in Luminosa, though, seeing that mountain range approaching.


The end of the Brazil 135+ ultramarathon changes from year to year, but in 2015 and 2016—the years when I was involved—it ended around Campista. So, my sub-goal of doing the course was completed in about 13 days, almost an order of magnitude greater than the winning times for the real competitors.

OK, so it’s over. I said in my first post that I was treating this as a final exam in two parts for my year of language study and physical training after quitting my job. How did I do?

The bar for passing the physical portion was to get from Sertãozinho to Aparecida on foot along the Caminho da Fé by the end of August 9th. Done, with more than a day to spare. Plus, I made lots of little side trips, walked around each town/village/city I stayed in, and otherwise did a lot more than just the official route. For example, I never missed a chance to wander around an abandoned train station:

I could have trained more with a pack, since my torso turned out to be the weak component, but I managed. I am disappointed that I didn’t move faster, since I had wanted to do a quick trip to Americana and Santa Bárbara D’oeste at the end. I give myself a C+ for this part.

Here are my FitBit statistics for the month:

The bar for passing the language portion was to not use English for a month, not counting communicating with people back home (like I’m doing right now). I succeeded. Sometimes I needed to ask someone to speak more slowly or to repeat themselves, but I never failed to communicate about any practical matter. I even was able to discuss complex, sometimes subtle matters with people who were willing to be patient with me. I got quite good at explaining to the umpteenth incredulous Brazilian what was happening with Donald Trump. My ability to parse spoken Portuguese is way behind my ability to speak, read, and write, so some conversations could get tedious for the person needing to repeat herself. I was especially pleased at the many people who told me that they were convinced by my pronunciation that I was Brazilian. I give myself a B for this part.

So, a B- overall. 

This trip wasn’t just about testing myself, of course. It was also about reassuring myself that there are a lot of good people in the world. Spending a month on a rural trail where people go far out of their ways to help a strange foreigner is a good way to get that reassurance.


Tomorrow, I fly home. I miss my wife, my dogs, my bed, my kung fu school, my friends… I’m ready to go home. I’m so glad that I did this.

my third week on the Caminho da Fé: crying in front of cowboys

Tomorrow morning marks the end of my third week on the Caminho da Fé. I started at kilometer marker 571 in Sertãozinho, and I’m now at kilometer marker 133 in Paraisopolis.

The Brazil 135 (without the plus sign) ultramarathon ends right about here. The Brazil 135+ ultramarathon goes quite a bit farther… and much of that farther is up. The 22km tomorrow are hilly, but the ~20km after that are straight up a rather imposing mountain range.

The trail has been getting quite a bit tougher here toward the end, with each day including the crossing of at least one small mountain.


I briefly met another pilgrim on foot back between Inconfidentes and Borda da Mata. He is a beer salesman from Curitiba who had just decided on a whim to spend his two-week vacation hiking the Caminho da Fé from Aguas da Prata to Aparecida, about 320km. He’s quite athletic, but he wasn’t accustomed to repeated days of hiking on steep, often rough trails. Already, he was limping from blisters that were greatly slowing him down on descents. I stayed with him to Borda da Mata and stretched my Portuguese to its limit to advise him on blister treatment and prevention. When we stopped for the night, I gave him nearly all of my bandages and other blister kit, since by this point I am pretty well armored up with calluses.

We stayed at different hotels, and he had indicated that he intended to start earlier than I did in the morning, so I thought that I might catch him on the trail. But in the morning I couldn’t find his tracks in the dirt on the trail, so I presumed that he did the wise thing and stayed put in Borda da Mata for an extra day to let his blisters heal.

I’m seeing a lot more pilgrims on bicycles, though, like these two puffing up a hill before Estiva:

I suppose I’m a bit smug and inappropriately judgy, but doing this trail on a bicycle seems less contemplative than doing it on foot. Then again, I need to recognize how stupendously fortunate I am to have the time to do it on foot. 

Doing the trail on horseback somehow seems to fit the spirit more, but I haven’t seen any pilgrims on horseback. All of the people on horses have been using them for work or routine transportation.

From Sertãozinho to Estiva, anywhere from 1% to 5% of the traffic that I saw was on horseback or in horse-drawn carts. From Estiva to Paraisopolis, it was more like 25%. This is cowboy country. Horses are everywhere.

Horses can be scary. Imagine being on foot on a one-lane icy road with barbed wire fences on either side, and you see an out-of-control car spinning at high speed toward you. Now replace the ice with powdery dirt and replace the car with a horse ridden by an inexperienced teenager.

I am surprisingly fast at getting over a barbed wire fence.

Bulls can be scary, too. I’m going through a lot of open range land, meaning that cows and bulls can be—and often are—on the trail. More than once, a bull has made it clear that he didn’t like me and wanted me to leave, immediately. Usually, though, they are pretty chill about the tiny biped wandering through.

I think that my worst experience in cowboy country is that I keep crying in front of the cowboys.

I’m not quite as quick to cry as some people who live in my house, but I would say that I cry somewhat readily at emotionally moving material. Especially when exhausted. Especially at altitude (Yeah, weird, right? Except it’s not). Well, I’ve been listening to some emotionally moving material on the trail, including Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect. As luck would have it, each time I would start to cry at some emotionally powerful part of this terrific story, a cowboy would appear—either charging across the trail in front of me after a rogue calf or just standing at his fence as I rounded a corner. I’m sure that they had more important things on their minds than whether my face was really sweaty or something else, but still… something juvenile in me was especially embarrassed at crying in front of real cowboys.

I would have been more comfortable being weepy a town or so back, in Inconfidentes, where the local industry is proudly all about crocheting and knitting:

Yes, that is a tree wrapped in doilies. Other people have done a better job than me at capturing this lovely silliness.

I mentioned in my previous post that I am pleased and not really surprised at how much support there is out here for pilgrims. It’s 20km or more between villages, and that’s often up and over a mountain. This is the tropics, so trudging up a mountain is hot, dehydrating effort. This makes it awfully nice when someone has left an entire building with potable water, chairs, shade, fishing poles, a toilet, toilet paper (!), and a working laundry machine (!!!) at the top of a mountain with a sign that says that it’s for pilgrims to rest:

Giant thanks to the Xavier family!

This specific example is grand, but there are countless smaller examples, often in the form of potable water under a little shrine to A Nossa Senhora Aparecida:

This past year or so has been tough. A lot of us are disillusioned and pessimistic about how many of our fellow humans truly care about helping one another, versus only caring about helping oneself or one’s very small circle. I decided to take this trip to break out of that pessimism, to put myself in a situation where I would need to rely on the kindness of others toward strangers. And I’m finding that the kindness is coming in not only personal interactions—which I had expected—but in great quantities in these odd bits of… infrastructure… these fountains and buildings and things that people built and maintain explicitly for traveling strangers.

That’s not to say that everyone is nice. A bartender a few days ago was intent on picking a fight with the gringo, but even that ended well when the guy next to me bought me a beer for holding my own in the argument and actually knowing some Brazilian history. Truth be told: I was elated that my language and history knowledge had stood up to an aggressive test.

I’m off to get some real food, after a day of Gatorade and peanut butter. Then to bed, to rest up for the push over the big mountain in a couple of days. Almost done.

my second week on the Caminho da Fé: Gatorade for pilgrims

Yesterday marked the end of my second week on the Caminho da Fé, a trek for which I gave an overview in an earlier post. In just over half of the time allotted, I’ve gone just over half of the distance along the trail. As I write this from Ouro Fino, Minas Gerais,  I have 246 more kilometers to go in 12 days. No problem!

Last night, I stayed at a coffee farm in Barra:

I don’t like talking with people, as I have previously described. But I don’t really have much choice when it’s near sundown and I’m in a tiny village far from any hotel. So, I ask around about where I can sleep, and the locals direct me to a coffee farm that is set up to feed, lodge, and provision travelers, especially people performing this pilgrimage along the Caminho da Fé. I overcome my dislike of talking with people enough to arrange for a room, have dinner with the family, and learn some new vocabulary, such as ‘pinguinha’ for a shot of sugar cane liquor. The next day, I eat breakfast and watch chickens pick through the drying coffee spread out in front of the house. 

Before I left, I stuffed cold bottles of Gatorade into my pack and profusely thanked the proprietors, João and Joelma, for doing such a great job of providing for pilgrims on this trail.

It’s no accident that I need to interact with people more on this trip than I’m comfortable with. I chose this challenge and planned my schedule so that on most days I would be forced to talk with strangers in a foreign language if I didn’t want to starve or sleep outside. I look forward to the days when I’m in a city with a hotel where I can just say a few words up front and then be quiet and alone, but my route doesn’t only give me such days.

I started seeing other pilgrims about 100km back, between Casa Branca and Itobi, but only on bicycles. I’ve asked at a few places how many pilgrims come through, and the consensus is that there are essentially zero people this far out from Aparecida doing the pilgrimage on foot, but there are anywhere from a few people to a few dozen people per day coming through by bicycle. The last city at which one can officially begin the pilgrimage is Paraisópolis, 135km from Aparecida; I expect more pedestrians to start there.

No wonder people have been treating me even more strangely than expected.

When I got to São João da Boa Vista, I was entering an important phase of the trek: This is the city from which the Brazil 135+ ultramarathon begins each January. On Tuesday morning, I started from the UNIFAE gate in São João da Boa Vista in my own solitary time trial for this race course. 


The 281km race course ends about 60km short of Aparecida. I’m expecting to take almost an order of magnitude more time to finish this course than the ~1.5days that the winners of the race take. 


That elevation chart scares me every time I look at it. 12,000m (40,000 feet) of elevation gain over 281km (175 miles), with the hardest part at the end.

Ascending into the mountains from São João da Boa Vista means leaving sugar cane fields behind and entering tropical forest, complete with monkeys and fauna warranting warning signs:


I didn’t meet any jaguars on that stretch of trail, but I did meet more mundane but still challenging threats hiking up a tropical mountain trail: heat, fatigue, thirst. And just when I needed it, there was a bench in the shade with a potable water fountain:


It’s easy to have faith that one will encounter the means with which to overcome challenges when those means keep appearing. I’m so grateful for the people who establish little points of support like this.

Much of the trail from Aguas da Prata to Ouro Fino (and beyond) is bordered by coffee and banana farms, so I have lots of time to—for example—notice that bananas have big purple flowers hanging from them…


… and when the natural wonders get dull, there’s the occasional artificial wonder to marvel at, like the giant golden “boy of the gate” at the entrance to Ouro Fino:

The name of the state that Ouro Fino (“Fine Gold”) is in is ‘Minas Gerais’ (“General Mines”). I’ll give you one guess why the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers fought over this place.

Well, tomorrow I’m off through Inconfidentes, a city whose name means “conspirators”, in reference to a failed revolution, the scapegoat for which, Tiradentes, is memorialized in street names throughout the country. This country’s history is not boring.

listening like a hillbilly in the interior of São Paulo and Minas Gerais

Just as I was starting to get complacent about my Portuguese, I’m entering an area where I’m confronted with a very different accent, which is essentially the hillbilly (caipira) accent

I’m familiar with this accent from my studies, but mostly in the abstract and from one person on Orlando Kelm’s amazing podcast for Portuguese for Spanish speakers, Tá Falado.

There are a lot of differences between this accent and the received pronunciation of the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo city accents, but I’m registering a few in particular: 

One difference is that the sound of a syllable-final ‘r’ here is much more like that of the American English ‘r’. Yay! Well, not “Yay!”, actually, since that’s not how I’ve been practicing. But at least when I make a “mistake” here and slip into an American English ‘r’, I slip into being “correct” for this area.

I’m also noticing a lack (or at least a lessening) of vowel lift—the tendency for unstressed /e/ to drift higher in the front of the mouth toward /i/. This is important for consonants in a lot of words because of a tendency for ‘d’ to be pronounced like the American English ‘j’ when it comes before an /i/ sound. So, whereas city folk say the word ‘onde’ like an American English speaker would pronounce ‘ownjee’, caipiras would say it like we would say ‘owndeh’. This is a big difference when it is affecting several of the most common words at natural speed. 

Even more problematic is something that I recognize from Carribean (e.g., Puerto Rican) Spanish: diminishing or even losing entirely word-final /s/ and certain stops (e.g., /d/, /b/) between vowels. For a foreigner who is grasping for all possible information to understand each utterance, this dropping of consonants is an infuriating loss of data. Of course, to a native, this is just part of the natural stripping down of a language so that it can go as fast as possible.

I was very rude yesterday because of these pronunciation differences. I was talking with a family, and I was struggling to understand the man, while I was easily understanding the woman. After a while, I was looking at her each time he spoke, basically imploring her for translation help. It was only after the conversation, when I could replay it in my head, that I realized that I was failing to do the accent/dialect conversion. 

Today, just as I thought I was getting a handle on this regional accent, I heard an entire conversation that I understood zero of. I politely interrupted to tell these people that I was a foreigner who was trying to learn Portuguese, but their Portuguese made no sense to me. It was Guarani.

Tomorrow, I leave Itobi after completing one-third of this hike through rural Brazil. By the time I’m done, I hope to be embarrassing myself less in Portuguese. I also hope to meet more trail friends like this little girl:

my first week on the Caminho da Fé

As I recounted in my previous post, I started on my hike from Sertãozinho to Aparecida along the Caminho da Fé one week ago. In that time, I’ve covered slightly more than one quarter of the 571 kilometers of the trail (plus many detours) in slightly more than one quarter of my allotted time. So, I should be on track for success unless the unintended detours become more severe.


My first major detour was to Ribeirão Preto, which science fiction nerds will recognize as the capital of the Hegemony in the Ender saga. The very helpful hotel manager in Sertãozinho had gone to great effort to make it clear to me that I should not enter Cravinhos—two towns down the trail—after dark. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really avoid doing this unless I left the trail before Cravinhos, walked an extra 10km to Ribeirão Preto, waited there overnight, and then returned to the trail so that I could enter Cravinhos by day.

I’m a foolhardy person. Some people mistake this for bravery. But I’m not stupid. I took the inconvenient detour… and I’m glad that I did; not just because it gave me the chance to see the quite pleasant city of Ribeirão Preto, but also because it turned out that northwest Cravinhos by day was at the limit of my tolerance for feeling afraid and threatened. I’d compare it to the Downey / East Los Angeles area that I used to walk through from Pasadena in the early ’90s to go to my great aunt’s house: hard-looking, unsmiling, shirtless, tattoed young men eyeing me as I passed. I just kept walking.

Central Cravinhos was nice, though.

When I stopped to get lunch, one of the restaurant patrons came over to my table and put a Coke in front of me. He said that he had heard me tell the waiter that I’m from the USA, and he wanted to ask me about Donald Trump. In time, I had a small group around me as I tried with my limited Portuguese to explain such things as the Electoral College. This Coke in implicit exchange for conversation was neither the first nor the last instance of such an exchange; my waiter the night before had apologized for bothering me with so many questions (also about Trump) and had given me free beer and sushi. The immense amount of free food—guava, orange, banana, apple, sugar-encrusted(!) popcorn—from a pousada near Dumont was not in exchange for conversation; it was just some old ladies being nice to a pilgrim.

Oh, that’s a weird thing. I never would have guessed that I would be a “pilgrim”, but that is the word that people use for me here. “Você é peregrino, está fazendo o Caminho da Fé?” (“Are you a pilgrim, doing the Path of Faith”) is the question that I get from many people every day as we pass one another on farm roads, city streets, et cetera.

This is not a tourist area, so I’m certainly a novelty.

One thing that surprised me is that virtually everyone thinks that I’m Argentinian when I first speak, and they are incredulous when I say that I’m from the USA. After three people yesterday guessed that I was Argentinian, I asked the clerk at my hotel why he guessed that. His answer was that my Portuguese was not good enough to be native Brazilian, but it’s good enough that I must be local. Given my skin color and our location in southern Brazil, Argentinian is the most likely guess. He has never encountered someone from the USA who speaks Portuguese. If anything, the folks from the USA who come through here (Tambaú) try using Spanish, which kinda sorta works. So, if my goal is to fit in as a native, I have failed, but I think that seeming like someone from the correct quadrant of the continent is a good first step.

One part of not quite fitting in is having a difficult first name. First, they see the ‘o’ and want to pronounce it like the English word ‘awe’. Second, Brazilians have a very hard time ending a syllable with a stop consonant, as at the end of ‘Todd’. They will insert a vowel after the consonant to “fix” the word. Since the inserted (epenthetic) vowel is virtually always an /i/ or /e/, and since most Brazilians pronounce ‘di’ as if it were ‘dji’, this means that most Brazilians will say my name as an English-speaker would pronounce ‘Tawjee’. I’m sure that my attempts to correct people are undermined by everyone’s common experience with this brand:


I’m writing this blog post from the lovely Hotel Tarzan in Tambaú. Yesterday was a hard day, and I got in very late, so I decided that today would be a recovery and laundry day. Washing clothes in the sink and the hanging them off one’s backpack to dry during the next day’s hike can work adequately to remove stink, but really doing laundry once a week is nice.

The main thing that made yesterday hard was the ~20km of trail that was made of such fine sand that I’d call it powder. Walking through deep, powdery sand is… well… a slog. Yesterday was supposed to be a 39km day, so even the planned distance was going to be hard in these conditions. On top of that, though…

The place where I had counted on refilling water halfway through was a bust. No one was home but the dogs, and they wanted to kill me. I eventually convinced the dogs to let me live, but that caused its own problem: we had gone from being mortal enemies to best friends, so they followed me for the next few kilometers to protect me from pigs and other dogs.


Much though I liked having a posse, I didn’t want to be responsible for someone losing their pets. I failed at making them leave me on the trail, so I had to backtrack all the way back to their place. When we got there I felt like a tremendous asshole when I had to act aggressively toward them to convince them that I was foe, not friend, and should not be followed.

The next place where there was potable water, the spout was protected by wasps. Lots of angry wasps. If you know me at all, you know that I have a phobia of flying stinging insects. But I was also nearly out of water, a 20km hike from the next town, in 80-something-degree-Fahrenheit weather. So I attempted to get water. One sting was enough for me to say “Fuck that!” and continue back on the trail. I had set out in the morning with enough water to survive and be functional—just not enough to be comfortable and happy.

Eventually, hours after sunset, I reached the outer neighborhoods of Tambaú. I have never been so happy to buy a Coca-Cola and hamburger. By the time I remembered that some people had asked for a picture of a sandwich with crispy fried shoestring potatoes on it, this is all that remained of my hamburguer saladão:


Tomorrow morning, I continue on to Casa Branca, through more farmland and rangeland, as I climb from the sugarcane behind me into citrus and livestock and coffee in front of me.

why I haven’t yet gone to Santa Bárbara d’Oeste

If there’s one town in Brazil that sparks my fascination with this country, it’s Santa Bárbara d’Oeste

As I’ve said in a previous post, one of the main reasons that Brazil interests me is that it is deeply so very similar to the USA while at first glance appearing so different. I think that I can understand my own country better by learning about its close cousin. 

Santa Bárbara d’Oeste and surrounding towns such as Americana in central São Paulo state provide not just an insight into these similarities but also a chance to see what happens when a large number of a specific subset of North Americans settle in Brazil, bringing all of their symbols and culture with them.

I’m talking about the Confederates who fled to Brazil after losing the Civil War.

From the first moment that I saw pictures of Brazilians dancing amid numerous Confederate battle flags, I knew that I had to visit this place. As someone born and raised on the border between North and South and as someone who worked for years for a white supremacist, I have a lot of interest in issues of race, slavery, and the terrible conflicts around them. The images from Santa Bárbara d’Oeste promised that this region could provide novel insight into these areas.

OK, so why didn’t I go there as my first stop on this trip?

Because I wanted to do it right.

If I would have visited this area during the first few days of this trip, I would have been in a hurry to continue on to the head of the trail that is the focus of this trip. Also, I would not have had as much language skill or cultural context with which to understand what I was experiencing, compared to what I hope to have four weeks later, at the end of the trip.

In the meantime, I’m practicing. Thursday night over dinner, I talked about the history of slavery in Brazil and North America with the owners of the inn in which I spent the night. Much to my surprise—and thanks largely to my interlocutors’ patience with my stumbling Portuguese—I was able to understand and be understood on such a delicate topic. 

I’m on the trail now and making adequate progress, given a few unexpected detours already and my occasional need to pause to photograph an abandoned house…

… or shrine…

I think that I’m still on track to reach the trail end at Aparecida in time to be able to fit in a few days in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste before I fly home.

exactly what kind of coward I am: first steps on the Path of Faith

I’m on the first day of my walk along the Caminho da Fé, and already I’m off the plan. No problem, if that means getting swept into a government tour of a city, meeting the mayor, getting free candy, and sleeping in luxury. But I’ll get to that. First a quick recap of the past few days:

I arrived in Guarulhos—the suburb of São Paulo with the airport—on Monday, walked to a hotel near the airport, made a fool out of myself ordering dinner in Portuguese (yes, of course, I meant to order two whole loaves of cornbread for dinner), slept late on Tuesday, and then started the real journey.

The walk from Guarulhos to the Rodoviária Tietê bus station is about 20km. It’s not on the Caminho da Fé (Path of Faith), but it’s a walk through Brazil, so it still fits the theme and purpose of this trip.

One of the reasons that I travel is to encounter new things. Take, for example, the cashew apple:


The cashew apple is the reddish fruit in the above picture; the cashew nut is the greenish lump on top. The fruit is chewy and doesn’t taste like much other than sweet and bitter. Supposedly, the fruit isn’t exported because it’s so perishable, but I think that it might be largely because no one wants it. The juice is good though, especially as a mixer.

Even though I didn’t like the cashew apple, I very much liked the experience of finding it and trying it… and telling y’all about it.

Even better was the hot dog with mashed potatoes, crispy fried shoestring potatoes, bacon, and cheeze-whiz as condiments. This country does bizarrely good things with/to hot dogs.

Sometimes my joy is more juvenile, such as when I find that someone in brand marketing is terrible at their job:


Elite Lips? Snob? If you’re going to use English words in your brand names, you can at least ask a competent understander of that language to check your work.

That said, novel food and branding failures aren’t the main reasons for this trip.

I took a 5-hour bus ride north and inland from the city of São Paulo to the city of Sertãozinho, where the Caminho da Fé begins.

Wednesday morning, I went to the hotel at the beginning of the Caminho to get my “credential” booklet:


This booklet gets stamped at various checkpoints along the Caminho da Fé. I present this in Aparecida at the end to receive a certificate.

Getting this booklet required answering a set of questions, involving a couple that were a little bit intrusive, such as my reason for walking the trail. From this form, I learned the Portuguese word for “getting to know oneself”: ‘autoconhecimento’.

The hotel manager who helped me with my credential booklet was very insistent that I not walk near Cravinhos—my intended next stop—after dark. I learned some new vocabulary about crime danger from this conversation.

Huh. Well, that threw a spanner into the works. Cravinhos was far enough away that I’d certainly be arriving late at night… unless I stopped sooner, in Dumont.

Explaining why Dumont presented a problem requires me telling you exactly what kind of coward I am.

I don’t like talking with people. I’d go so far as to say that it scares me. I can do it for brief periods, but I quickly get to a point where I desperately need to get away.

I knew from my research that the only lodging in Dumont was a family home that was open to pilgrims on the Caminho da Fé. A family home meant lots of conversation with strangers in confined quarters. I would do almost anything to avoid that, even if it meant walking an extra 40km in one day and risking armed attack at night.

OK. Keep that in mind for a bit later.

I started out this morning with my first official steps on the Caminho da Fé, in front of the hotel with the helpful and informative manager.


The ‘571’ indicates the number of kilometers to the end of the trail at the basilica in Aparecida. Yellow arrows like those painted on the post below are my best friends for this trek.

The next kilometer marker was especially Brazilian-looking: electric fence protecting nice house near rough neighborhood, Cristo Salvador, blue sky and green hills…


The next 20 kilometers were mostly sugarcane fields. It looked and felt very much like Kansas, with hills rolling just enough to be pretty but not so much as to impede agriculture.

When I got to Dumont, I really wanted to avoid going to a pousada (inn) that I knew to be a family home. So, in blind hope, I asked the cashier at the market where I bought lunch if she knew of a hotel in town. Well, as luck(?) would have it, her sister owned the most beautiful inn… I interrupted the discourse on how lovely this inn is to stress that I just wanted a bed and quiet. But, she had already called her sister on her mobile phone and was telling her to come pick up the tired pilgrim.

From what I could gather from this phone conversation, the innkeeper sister was busy and reluctant, but the cashier sister was wearing her down. I had given up trying to convey what I wanted; I just decided to have faith that whatever this woman was arranging for me would get me a bed and probably food later.

Eventually, a small convoy pulled up, led by a sedan with government plates and some serious-looking people inside. Out of the second vehicle, a van, Patricia the innkeeper came to greet me and tell me to join them.

OK.

So, I climbed into the van and—through a bit of effort with some unfamiliar Portuguese vocabulary—I learned that this was a group of government officials and industrial business people on a tour to determine whether Dumont was the right place for a new candy factory. The innkeeper was also working with the local government on this project as a sort of tour guide. And her sister had just called her in the middle of this to say “Come pick up this stranger and take him with you.”

This is how I spent my afternoon going on a tour of a small city with the mayor, deputy mayor, and other government officials, plus some candy bigwigs. Everyone wanted to talk with the weird guy from the USA who was walking across so much of their country alone. It wasn’t quite as bad as long conversations with strangers often are, I think largely because I could blame the language barrier for all of my awkwardness.

I got some free candy out of it. It’s pretty good.

Now, hours later, I’m alone in a luxury room in a beautiful inn in rural Brazil. There’s promise of dinner soon. Then I’m going straight to bed so that I can get up early tomorrow and keep going.

Why walk more than 1,000km through Brazil’s southern interior?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I leave tomorrow on a one-month trip to Brazil, with the intent of walking more than 1,000km along the Caminho da Fé (Path of Faith).

OK. So, why? Why Brazil? Why walk more than 1,000km? Why this path?

rolling hills and barbed wire in Brazil
the Caminho da Fé, somewhere near Luminosa

In late 2014, I had a very brief email exchange with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. In her second message in this exchange, she asked me if I wanted to come to Brazil to be part of her support crew for the 2015 Brazil 135+ ultramarathon, which she had won in early 2014. Of course I said yes.

You can know a lot about me from the fact that I began that previous sentence with ‘Of course’.

The Brazil 135+ ultramarathon is a race—actually a set of simultaneously run races—that occurs in Brazil every January. The exact lengths vary each year, but each year’s races include at least one that is longer than 135 miles. To get a good sense of how difficult and rewarding this race can be, check out Kelly Agnew’s blog from his 2015 attempt and 2017 success.

My jobs on the support crew included navigation and translation. So, in the few months between our email exchange and the race, I needed to learn as much as possible about getting around in the rural interior of southern Brazil and—a larger task—I needed to learn to speak Portuguese. The only languages other than English with which I had any real facility were Russian and Japanese; I had never learned much of any Romance language other than some tourist Romanian. But I dove in…

… and when I dove in I felt like someone going diving in a tropical coral reef for the first time. Here was a vast, colorful world that had always been within reach but that I had never before considered with more than a distant academic glance.

As an involved citizen of the USA, I can learn a lot from another democracy of hundreds of millions of people struggling with issues of government corruption, income inequality, violent crime, pollution, resource conservation, federal versus state rights, the overhang of building the early economy on African slavery, treatment of indigenous people from whom the land was taken during colonization… Brazil is a lot like the United States of America. In some ways, they have done better with the same initial conditions; in some ways, we have done better. Learning more about the former can help me to effect positive change here; learning more about the latter can be a source of pride. Heck, if you need any convincing that Brazil and the USA are connected at the cultural roots, just see this data point.

Saci Perere in São Paulo
graffiti on northwest edge of Liberdade in São Paulo

In January of 2015, we succeeded in traveling to the race, competing, and getting home without anyone dying or getting lost. So, done, right?

No, I was hooked. I wasn’t done learning about this country whose history read like a good run of Game of Thrones and whose current culture seemed both inviting and challenging. Also, I had determined that I would soon be leaving my job, with the goal of studying to become a translator. Portuguese translation pays better than most, so it seemed that pursuing a course that would get my Portuguese to a higher level would be a good use of time.

So, I contacted the race director for the Brazil 135+ ultramarathon and volunteered to help with the 2016 race.

me, Eliana, and Queiroz on Caminho da Fé
marking trail before 2016 Brazil 135+ ultramarathon: me, Eliana, Queiroz (Mario behind camera)

The race uses the middle portion of the Caminho da Fé, a religious pilgrimage trail, as the course. This trail is a modestly maintained dirt trail for most of its span, except for a few paved or cobblestone patches where it passes through towns and villages.

Every year before the race, a crew needs to creep along the course to mark the way with reflective yellow arrows, clear rockslides and fallen trees, and see if any bridges are washed out (and, if so, either fix them or create detours). This takes longer than the race itself, so there’s plenty of time to get to know the area and practice one’s Portuguese with the rest of the crew.

Mario waves
Mario Lacerda, good mood undamped by the trail-clearing and bridge-building work ahead of us

After three weeks in Brazil, with a large chunk of that time spent on this trail, now I was done, right?

No, I still wasn’t done. This trip confirmed that learning Portuguese to a level at which I could use it professionally was an attainable and enjoyable goal. I had also seen enough of the Caminho da Fé that I wanted to experience it the way that it was intended to be experienced: the whole thing, on foot, as a pilgrimage.

I’m not a religious person, but I respect rituals of reverence, contemplation, meditation, sacrifice, seeking… all of which are at the core of making a pilgrimage on foot through a sparsely populated and physically demanding environment. As I end this year of study and training before I go back to a regular job, now is a good time to take a good, long, slow walk alone, so that I can be sure of what I want from the next phase of my life.

If nothing else, taking a month to walk through a region where almost no one speaks English will be a test of my fitness and my language skills. But I expect that that is not all that I will get from this experience.

If you want to follow along on this trip, you can subscribe to this blog and follow me on Instagram. There are buttons for doing those things on this page.

Rubber, meet road.

When I quit my job last year, the idea was that I’d spend a year dedicated to studying and training: I’d study Portuguese and Russian to get closer to working as a professional translator; I’d study Tsun Jo kung fu to get closer to working as a martial arts instructor; and I’d train physically to regain fitness and health that I had let drift away during more than 15 years working on software.

It’s exam time.

On Sunday, July 9th, I leave for São Paulo, Brazil. On the 11th, I’ll take a bus to Sertãozinho, a small city a few hundred kilometers north of the city of São Paulo. From there, I start walking along the Caminho da Fé (Path of Faith) to Aparecida. It should take me about 25 days to walk the ~1,100km from Sertãozinho to Aparecida, with numerous side treks and detours along the way.

um mapa do Caminho da Fé

I’ll give myself a passing grade on this exam if I make it on foot to Aparecida by August 9th without sustaining any serious injuries or using English with anyone—except for calling my family and posting updates of my trip to friends on social media and this blog.

Feel free to follow along. You can subscribe to the blog and my Instagram feed using links on this page.