Friday, June 27, 2014

Bulletins From BA #30

Bulletins From BA #30
27 junio 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

World Cup Report #3 - Más half-baked opinions and debatable observations.

Our Top Story: “Zombie Apocalypse Strikes World Cup” - So, Uruguayan superstar forward Luis Suárez, a 26 year-old man with the impulse control of a 5 year-old child, inexplicably/inevitably decided to take a bite out of an Italian defender on an off-the-ball play during a Group D match and is now banned from the World Cup and more. Not surprisingly, the entire nation of Uruguay blames the English media. Sorry, but the actual culprit is singularly more prosaic: Me. I did it.

[Schadenfreude Sidebar - And thus is fulfilled the curse I visited upon Suárez’s sorry ass for his epic cheat against Ghana in 2010. I take full responsibility (de nada) and make no apologies.]

The Group of Death - Both the German-coached teams, USA and Germany, are through Group G; a perfectly acceptable result. Meanwhile, my beloved Black Stars imploded in spectacular fashion reminiscent of the French. It started with alleged altercations involving players, the coach, and a GFA (Ghana Football Association) official that resulted in two starters being sent home before a must-win match against Portugal.

Then there’s the matter of $3,000,000 for appearance fees - in cash, up front - shipped by the President of Ghana to Brazil to avert a threatened player boycott. And to top off this trifecta of embarrassment, they lost to Portugal thanks to an own goal. (Sigh…) You can’t make this shit up.

“Win or Go Home” - 16 teams are in the knockout round: Europe (6), South America (5). Africa (2), North America (2), and Central America (1). Past winners still standing: Brazil (5), Germany (3), Argentina (2), Uruguay (2), and France (1).

[No Asian side made it through group play this year. Too bad, too, because they had some great nicknames: Samurai Blue (Japan), Taegeuk Warriors (South Korea), and, my favorite, The Socceroos (Australia).]

Who To Watch - I’m still predicting Germany, although any one of a number of badass teams could win this thing. If you’re looking for a “plucky underdog” to root for (other than Team USA, of course), I suggest Los Ticos de Costa Rica. If you’re feeling Eurocentric, you might consider The Red Devils from Belgium.

[FWIW, I am transferring my African loyalty from Ghana to the Super Eagles of Nigeria, at least for their first match with France.]

Do I Have To Say His Name? - Sí, sí, Lionel Messi. The best player in the world and our next Argentine pontiff.

This is going to be fun. Más tarde.



Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bulletins From BA #29

Bulletins From BA #29
22 junio 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

World Cup Report #2 - Más half-baked opinions and debatable observations.

Say Who? - Costa Rica is going through from Group D. Excellent; let’s hear it for the little guys. So what does FIFA do? Drug tests for seven players. C’mon, say it with me: FIFA (insert adverb here) sucks.

Shocked. And Stunned. - Spain fails to make it out of Group B. It’s sad, but the defending champions just didn’t have enough in the tank this time.

The Group of Death - Germany vs. Ghana: 2-2. USA vs. Portugal: 2-2. Group G features great, heartbreaking fútbol and is totally up for grabs. It’s unfortunate that only two of these teams can advance.

Better Lucky Than Good - Argentina has (1) Lionel Messi, (2) a weak group draw, and (3) Lionel Messi. Good thing, too, or there would be even more fútbol-related angst in the streets of Buenos Aires than usual. Incidentally, the nickname for the Argentine side is La Albiceleste, meaning “The White and Sky Blue”. Cool.

Best Uniforms – The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon get my vote for their kit of green jerseys, red shorts, yellow socks, and yellow shoes. Leave it to an African team to pull this off. Awesome. [Honorable Mention: France. Yeah, I know, but the throwback blue jerseys (white collars!) with white shorts and red socks? Très spiffy.

Fashion Victims - We live in what I believe will one day be remembered as an era of truly goofy hairstyles for men, and some fútbol players are fervid trendsetters in tonsorial silliness. That, and the ongoing pandemic of ill-considered tattoos. I blame Beckham.

Due Credit - To Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez (aka, “The Most Hated Man in Ghana”) for his comeback from a knee injury and subsequent brilliant play. Of course, I’m still rooting for him to fail in spectacular fashion, but there’s no denying his talent.

Más tarde. ¡Adelante!


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bulletins From BA #28

Bulletins From BA #28
17 junio 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

World Cup Report #1

La Copa Mundial de 2014 (2014 World Cup) is well and truly underway in Brazil, and Buenos Aires is in the grip of some profound fútbol fever. Having lived in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, I find myself once again giving over to it with great enthusiasm.

Which is not to say that I am any kind of expert about the game itself. In fact, it barely turns up on my sports radar in between these quadrennial outbursts. Naturally, this in no way precludes my having very strong opinions about the whole extravaganza; opinions I am willing, nay, obligated to share. With you.

FIFA – The international governing body of fútbol is an enterprise of operatic proportions; answerable to no one, subject to no laws but its own, and corrupt to the core. It is an organization seriously in need of a few RICO indictments.

Patriotism - Not so much. Nothing against the USA side; they’re good and might actually survive Group G (“El Grupo de la Muerte”).  I’m just not all fired up about them, that’s all.

Best Outcome - Argentina wins, preferably beating Brazil in the final match. Oh, por favor. This place would go berserk.

Likely Outcome - Four years ago, I fearlessly predicted that Germany would win the 2014 World Cup. I stand by that.

Favorite Player - Argentine forward Lionel Messi is easily the most popular person in Argentina, with the Pope running a distant second. Messi is brilliant, his footwork is impeccable, and he does not reenact the death scene from “Camille” every time he’s touched. Plus, he looks like the guy who makes pizzas at the corner café.

Favorite Team - Ghana. The Black Stars should have made the semi-finals in 2010, but were robbed through a combination of flagrant cheating and bullshit rules. Also, it would be nice to have a World Cup Champion from somewhere besides Europe or South America, but, I don’t see that happening this year.

Sworn Enemy - One of the great things about the World Cup is that it allows one to harbor and nurture grudges for four whole years. Mine happens to be against Uruguay; specifically, forward Luis Suárez. Suárez is a world-class player and (arguably) racist drama queen. It was his totally intentional hand block that resulted in Ghana losing in 2010 and, thus, I hate him to the bottom of my socks. I don’t just want him (and Uruguay) to lose: I want them defeated and humiliated. I make no apologies.

Happy Consequences - I remarked on this is a one of my “Postings From Pretoria,” but it bears repeating. The World Cup inspires no end of informal chats among Embassy employees. Everyone is engaged and conversant and it all makes for a very cool working environment.

More later. It’s game time.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Bulletins From BA #27

Bulletins From BA #27
03 junio 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:
  “Cusco/Machu Picchu”

Excursión a Machu Picchu (continuación)

Día Tres - Up at an (obscenely) ridiculous hour to take a bus 65 km to Ollantaytambo, where we boarded the PeruRail Vistadome train for a three and a half hour journey to Aguas Calientes, the departure point for buses to Machu Picchu citadel. Anne and I love trains and enjoyed the ride immensely. And anytime you’ve got kids on a train, hey, fiesta.

Machu Picchu is an economic engine for the entire region, so the locals have got the whole tourist thing down pat. We exited the train station, walked through a maze of vendors’ stalls and made our way to the bus stop. Buses depart Aguas Calientes every few minutes, navigating the switchbacks up the mountain and depositing loads of people at the gate, where you present your entrance ticket and passport to gain admittance.

[Tourist Sidebar - The great thing about a package tour is that all of your vouchers and tickets are paid for and arranged in advance, thus mitigating somewhat the stress of traveling. At this stage in my life, I can do without unnecessary drama.]

Writers more adept than I have commented extensively about the history and significance of Machu Picchu, so permit me to simply offer a few personal observations:

1. It is an amazing place and, due to its much-deserved reputation, something of a human anthill, with several thousand visitors daily. Some come as part of a larger exploration of the Inca Trail, some because it is a trip of a lifetime, and some (apparently) to snap a boatload of “selfies.” No importa. The amazement, it abides.

2. We lack certainty about what Machu Picchu was designed to be, but the whole enterprise was conceived, built, and abandoned in less than a century. I find this fact staggering. Fortunately, it also means that the Spanish didn’t find the place at all.

3. At one point, I took a slight detour and found myself solo in one of the citadel’s many roofless stone structures. For a brief time, I experienced an uncommon quietude, with only the wind for company. It was a perfectly sublime moment, with a slight breeze of understanding.

Upon our return to Aguas Calientes, we checked in at our hotel, ate dinner, then retired and slept very well to the sound of the refreshingly turbulent Río Urubamba.

Día Cuatro - Breakfast, then back on the bus; but no guides, just a choice of hikes: Huayna Picchu, a climb involving intense verticality and potential for real distress, or Intipunku (“sun gate”), a terminus on the Inca Trail at the same altitude as Huayna Picchu (2720 m/8924 ft), but accessible via a steady incline. Either way, panoramic views of El Valle Sagrado de los Incas (Sacred Valley of the Incas) were the order of the day, so A.J. and I opted for Intipunku, which, given the altitude and our not excessive athleticism, was just fine. It proved to be the perfect spot for a picnic lunch that we had improvised from the hotel breakfast buffet.

[Shoutout Sidebar - To “Ricky Ricky,” one of our three year-olds, who walked pretty much the whole way up and back. Sweet little guy and a real trooper.]

Fed, rested, and panoramically enhanced, not to mention sweaty, sundrenched, and footsore, we made our way back to the citadel, onto the bus, and into Aguas Calientes in time to grab a quick bite before the return trip. (The alpaca burritos were outstanding.) The train - this time featuring a Peruvian textile fashion show en route - then took us back to Ollantaytambo where a bus was waiting that soon deposited us at our hotel in Cusco. We showered (¡Sí!), repacked, and made ready to return to Buenos Aires the next day.

[Tour Suggestion Sidebar - It would have been very nice to have one more day in Cusco on our own. So many restaurants, so little time.]

Día Cinco - Airport karma kicked in big-time, and everything fell into place. All flights were on schedule, all baggage got handled, and we nearly made it through the diplomatic line at immigration without undue delay. Our journey to Machu Picchu was complete, and completely memorable. Y el asombro todavía permanece.



Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bulletins From BA #26

Bulletins From BA #26
02 junio 2014

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:
  “Cusco/Machu Picchu”

Like most expats, A.J. and I create “The List” of the places we want to visit while we’re posted to a particular country. And, with careful planning and a bit of luck, we make it to… oh, maybe two-thirds of them. But there are places of such significance that visiting them is simply not optional. Places such as Machu Picchu in Peru.

Día Uno - Up at a (typically) ridiculous hour to catch the flight from Buenos Aires to Cusco, via Lima. The sun is contemplating rising, the traffic is surrealistically sparce… and the baggage handlers are out on strike. Again. So, instead of arriving in Cusco with time to spare for self-guided exploration, we get there late, exhausted, and dealing with the possibility of soroche (altitude sickness), Cusco being at an elevation of 3400 m/11,200 ft. Forget touristing. We have some soup at the hotel and go to bed.

[Demographic Sidebar - We are a small tour group of 13 Embassy folks, consisting of nine adults: One single and two couples, and two additional couples, each with two niños (two three-year olds, a toddler, and a baby). Alright, then.]

Día Dos - Somewhat recovered, we begin our day by visiting various sites near Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire. These include Saqsayhuaman (a walled complex overlooking the city), Tambomachay (which features a series of aqueducts and canals), Pukapukara (a military outpost), and Q’enqo (thought to be a place of sacrifice and mummification).

After a brief lunch break, we continued the tour in the city itself, beginning with a visit to Qorikancha, built in the mid-15th century and once the most important temple of the Inca Empire. Splendid beyond measure, it was inevitably stripped of its gold by the Spanish, who then erected the Convento de Santo Domingo, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the church.

[Construction Sidebar - Incan masons, utilizing only stone tools and no mortar, left an astounding legacy that may be seen in many locations. But the foundation walls at Qorikancha defy belief. As I put my hands on them and ran my fingers along the joints between the enormous stones, I felt I was in the presence of perfection.]

Our day’s peregrinations continued with a visit to Barrio de San Blas, a district of artisans, workshops, and old Spanish houses built on Inca foundations, with steep hills and narrow streets designed for llamas, not taxis. We concluded at Plaza de Armas in the historic center of Cusco, and the Catedral Basílica de la Virgen de la Asunción, an imposing edifice and HQ for the Archdiocese of Cusco. Interesting though it was, by this time we were some weary tourists in need of sustenance.

Opting to stay close to the hotel, we ended up at a place called La Cusqueñita, which featured a buffet. (Peruvian food is, in my opinion, one of the world’s great cuisines. Even the buffets are worthwhile.) Unbeknownst to us, the restaurant also featured a floorshow with a band, dancers, and people in colorful masks mixing it up with unsuspecting diners. It was great fun, especially for the three year-olds in our gang.

Continuará en Bulletins From BA #27: Excursión a Machu Pichu.