I am the CEO of Meograph, the four-dimensional storytelling platform, based in San Francisco.For two years I consulted with McKinsey & Company in Atlanta, GA, and Shanghai, China, working on over a dozen projects in four foreign languages across seven countries. My project management focus was on innovation and marketing for high tech and public sector clients. While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I earned Masters degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and Technology & Policy, and did research at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University. At the University of California, Berkeley, I earned my BS in Engineering Physics and served as the President of the student body. I grew up in Irvine, CA, and was born in St. Louis, MO, several years after my parents had emigrated from Chişinău, Moldova.I believe that technology is the driving force behind civilization and improving people’s lives everywhere. My mission is to use business to enable technology to change the world.
2012 wasn’t the end of the world, and it was the start of a wonderful new chapter for me. Here’s what happened this year.
The biggest thing this year was leaving my job at McKinsey to found my interactive storytelling startup Meograph. Luckily, I can share more about my 2012 (and also the latest of what Meograph can do) with the story of my year: www.meograph.com/mishaley/12051/2012-start-me-up
In February I moved to San Francisco, the epicenter of entrepreneurship. It’s been great here, living in Potrero Hill and driving my scooter all around town. I spend most of my time working, but have found occasion to travel to the east coast, New Orleans, Austin, and home to SoCal.
The startup is doing well: in the few months since launch we’ve gained tens of thousands of Meographers, lots of press, and have seen adoption by major news orgs, classrooms around the world, and many other great use cases. My cofounder Francis and I have big plans for the company in 2013. Naturally, as a tireless promoter, I’ll also invite you to participate in our “Meograph your 2012” contest
Best wishes for an happy and healthy year ahead!
I am excited to announce my first startup, Meograph. We are a four-dimensional storytelling platform that helps easily create, share, and beautifully playback stories in context of space and time. Demo coming soon: in the meantime, please visit our landing page to get the first updates, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.
We also need your help on several fronts …
Accelerator: Y Combinator is a prestigious startup accelerator to which we are applying. If you know any of the key decision-makers or former participants, an endorsement by the end of March would be wonderful. You can also help by tweeting “I hope @meograph gets into @ycombinator! #4Dstorytelling”.
Team: We will need more teammates soon. We would love introductions to any talented web designers or developers who are passionate about storytelling & visualization, find this job description interesting, are in the Bay Area (or willing to move), and will be available by summer.
Customers: We are investigating several applications of our product. Right now we are looking to meet folks who match the following descriptions to build relationships with as advisors and perhaps customers.
- Enterprise: Influential in selecting corporate presentation multimedia or developing interactive media for customers
- Education: Involved in technology platform or content generation for electronic textbooks
- Journalism: Responsible for newspaper/magazine/other news online business models or interactive media
- Consumer: Distinguished as thought leaders in multimedia storytelling
Investors: We may be looking to raise money from institutional angels later this year, and perhaps more from VCs as we grow in the future. Any warm introductions to friends in this world would be great, as we are looking to build trusting relationships well in advance of when we might actually need capital.
I am extremely excited for this journey. While the prospects of near-term success are uncertain, my appreciation of the value of your support is always clear. Thank you for your help and encouragement along what’s sure to be a wild ride.
2011 was the most nomadic year of my life, a seamless mix of interesting projects with amazing colleagues at McKinsey & Company and weekend adventures around the globe. I was based in Shanghai for most of the year as part of a professional rotation, worked on projects in China, Mongolia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Georgia (the nation), explored 35 countries, and then moved back to Atlanta. The travel has been always exhilerating, rarely exhausting, and often enchanting. It is amazing the variety of experiences you can have with two suits, a pair of well worn khakis and flannel shirt, and high performing workout tights that pack well and look ridiculous. For a visual of the tracks I made this year, check out this travel map.
Living in Shanghai was an unforgettable experience, and I’m sure China will continue to play a role in my life and professional interests going forward. The energy there is palpable and I was privileged to befriend wonderful locals and expats alike. I made some language progress: at least enough Mandarin to get by in restuarants/direct taxis/haggle in a market, and when I was serving a local client, was even almost able to make a joke once.
While it was great to adventure abroad, there is nothing like being back in Atlanta and the US, from sweet tea & BBQ to friends I’d not seen in over a year. One thing that I didn’t even realize I missed about home is simply the ability to connect with strangers with the same fluency of language. Truly unlucky for my taxi driver from the airport when I landed back home … we (I) didn’t stop yakking for a good 45 minutes!
Highlights of this year have included:
- Climbing the steepest and most dangerous mountain in China in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter by myself. It was adrenaline-pumping, toe-freezing, determination-challenging, and worth the view of the sunrise at the top.
- Visiting most of the Central Asian “Stans”, including a pilgrimage to my Papa’s birthplace in Unkhayat, Uzbekistan in honor of his 60th birthday. Best parts were meeting former nurses in their 80s who worked with my doctor grandfather and midwife grandmother 60+ years ago, calling my dad to wish happy birthday from the small room where he was born, and entertaining my hosts’ offer of a bride over a bowl of traditional wheat pudding.
- Being the first foreigner ever to compete in Naadam, Mongolia’s national wrestling tournament. Though the average match lasts 15 seconds, against the second ranked wrestler, I lasted a good 45 seconds. The secret was avoiding my opponent for the first 40 of those. Celebrated with a boiled sheeps head for dinner washed down with fermented horse milk vodka.
- Completing a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat in Indonesia. Truly an amazing experience: waking at 4am each day, meditating for 12 hours with short breaks, not eating after noon, and avoiding speech and eye contact. Still trying to keep up my meditation practice as it can be an incredibly powerful mental tool, and Papa thought it was interesting enough to have just completed the course on his own! More detailed account of my experience here.
- Traveling with Mama, Papa, and Jenny across China, again with Jenny in Malaysia, and meeting new baby cousins in Atlanta and Portland.
- Attending Game 7 of the World Series with my cousin Jon and cheering our childhood team the St. Louis Cardinals winning the championship in Busch Stadium!
- Closing out the year with backpacking through Central America: exploring epic ruins, relaxing on pristine beaches, and hiking/rafting/zipping through the jungle.
Very much looking forward to what 2012 will bring!
(“Meditation blue jeans: Part I”, describes my path to the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation course. “Meditation blue jeans: Part II”, is about the experience of taking the course. Part III concludes below.)
The silence was peaceful. The mild hunger was cleansing. The free time under a tree was relaxing. Except when dragonflies would start to hover above me, I was convinced they thought I was a carcass.
Days 7, 8, and 9 flew by as we doubled down to wring the most out of this experience. Goenka exhorted us in the evening discourses to use the “deep mental surgery” to uproot insecurities and sow equanimity. By day 10 I was boiling eager to apply in the real world what I had learned over 112 hours of meditation. My coursemates were of a similar disposition: eye contact was unnecessary to feel the growing groundswell of excitement. After the morning session on day 10, we were invited to start speaking again. The day went quickly, the time inbetween sessions devoted to sharing our experiences with one another.
The next morning, it was time to say goodbye. Hugs abounded, photos taken, email addresses exchanged. For only a few days of words between us, everyone felt the closeness of a week and a half of shared silence. We rode a van to the airport with our teachers, who smiling endured being a captive audience for all lingering questions.
I felt asettingly peaceful at chaotic Jakarta airport. Airline clerks were more smiley, security guards less brusque, restaurant waiters more friendly. As I strolled to my gate, a man with a trailing wheeled carry-on pivoted after running closely by me and his bag rudely rolled over my flip-flopped toes. My first reactions were two-fold: “Oww!” and “What a jerk”. Then my training kicked in: the pain in my toes was gone at second glance, I became compassionate recognizing that I’ve been that airport-sprinting jerk many times, and just hoped that he made his flight.
This trivial realization and the cumulative small incidents that have since mortared my daily life continue to reinforce what I have learned, the lessons planted in my subconscious. My possessions are to be appreciated, but not attached to. My family and friends are to be cherished, but not stressed about. My professional aims are to remain aspiring, but not fearing failure.
I can’t say if I think you should try meditation (Vipassana or otherwise) because I don’t know; it is too personal for each of us. I feel like I have acquired a powerful tool if used and kept sharp regularly. Have recommended it to my family, as I know the specific benefits each of my loved ones could gain, and my Papa just completed his own course. To me there was little downside of exploration: best case is inner peace, worst case is 10 days of detox from one’s preferred poison. Most of us will end up somewhere inbetween. If you do ever give it a shot, let me know. I’d love to hear your story.
Bhavatu sabba mangalam,
(“Meditation blue jeans: Part I” describes my path to the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation course. Part II continues below.)
We students trickled into the Dhamma Java meditation complex early noon of registration, the mood positively anticipative. Upon checking in we began to divest ourselves of the technological accoutrements which master our time. Handing over 3 computers, 3 mobile phones, 15 pens and pencils, 1 waterproof camera, a mess of cords, and my beloved travel guitar, I would like to say I felt unburdened. But that’s not true. I was checking emails up until the last moment.
We were shown our rooms: small cells with a simple twin bed and a yard of white tile floor off each end. Back in the dining hall, I got to know the 43-year old British divemaster living in Bali, the 76-year old Indonesian quail farmer, the 28-year old buena onda Argentinean backpacker. We each had our own paths to this moment, and no one quite knew what lay ahead. After the official welcome, we waited like toys in the claw game to be called one by one up the staircase to the Dhamma Hall. Then guided to our respective matrixed meditation pads, genders arranged like a middle school dance.
The first-time students were asked to accept five precepts: no killing, stealing, sexing, lying, or intoxicating. Also, no reading or writing and “Noble Silence” is to be observed. No problem. The “old students” (some repeating up to 15 times!) were asked to also accept no self-decoration, no sleeping on cozy beds, and no eating after noon. The Malaysian couple who radiated peace while they presided as head teachers began a CD of S.N. Goenka, who popularized this technique across the world. His calming voice wafted through the hall and asked us to observe our respiration. This was the first step of a journey that would, within a week and a half, have us recognizing subtle vibrations over our bodies and penetrating our focused awareness even through internal organs.
The Vipassana experience can perhaps best be explained by describing a day in the life and sharing tidbits about each activity.
4:00am: Wakeup. The gooooooonnnnnnnggggggggg rings through the complex. You feel a little sleepy because it is still dark, but generally well rested as you went to bed at 9pm the night before.
4:10am: Shower. Cold shower for me. You can upwardly splash yourself from a bucket of hot water, but it gets annoying. The faucets all run cold, but that’s perfect. Cold, you remind yourself, is just a sensation. It helps strengthen your equanimity. I still take cold showers. Like James Bond.
4:30am: Meditate. It is quite early, but you are not really tempted to fall asleep due to the cold shower. Very peaceful way to start your day. Two hours fly by.
6:30am: Breakfast. There is little as beautiful as gliding out of the Dhamma Hall to the sight of day breaking over camp. The whitewashed grey brick path is softly glowing, the trees wait patiently in place, and the red Spanish tile roofs oxygenated. You stroll to the dining hall to enjoy some combination of rice, noodles, vegetables, tofu, tempeh, and Indonesian hot sauce.
8:00am: Meditate. The first hour is a Sitting of Strong Determination. You do not open your crossed legs, hands, eyes, or move at all for a solid 60 minutes. This is very hard to do. More on this below.
11:00am: Lunch. They say not to overeat, fill your stomach only 3/4 to focus your mind. This was easy to do on days 4-7, when for some reason the food got really bad. We asked afterwards if it was a test of our fortitude. It wasn’t: the lady who cooks just got sick and the ones left were not very good in the kitchen. Simple explanations.
12:00pm: Free. You can get a 5-minute private audience with the teacher where you may ask questions about your meditation. I was full of questions. My teacher was full of patience. After question time I would often walk laps around the short track to try to teach myself meditation on the move.
1:00pm: Meditate. There is a Sitting of Strong Determination from 2:30-3:30pm. The rest of the time you may meditate from your room. I did this a few times and alternated between my best free flows of energy and accidently falling asleep.
5:00pm: Tea. New students are offered a piece of fruit and crackers. Old students just tea. From day 6 onwards I decided on my own to take up the old student practice. This alarmed the dhamma sevaks (“course assistants”); they made me ask the teacher permission. Somehow even at meditation camp I manage to get myself into trouble.
6:00pm: Meditate. The evening Sittings of Strong Determination were my favorite. These sessions were lent a nearly mystical air with the Dhamma Hall lights set on low smolder, the occasional bleats of distant goats, and the hum of a thousand crickets outside in sync with the vibrations coursing throughout your body.
7:00pm: Discourse. You break off by languages to watch a Goenka video about theory behind that day’s activity and what you should practice the next day. Very helpful and the man can be pretty funny from time to time.
8:30pm: Meditate. This is when I would have my best thoughts. Desperately wanted a pen around day 4 to write them down, but by the time I found one I’d thought better of it.
9:00pm: Sleep. From day 1, mimicking the practice of the old students, I shunned the “cozy bed” for the cold tile floor. Not comfortable. When asking the teacher about this the next day it was clear I had misinterpreted: cozy beds just means ones which are tall, wide, and fluffy. The simple twin beds we had were OK. After my night sleeping on the floor though it did feel quite cozy.
The Sittings of Strong Determination were by far the most challenging and valuable elements of the course for me. I had known from Manish’s book that at some point we would have to meditate without moving a muscle for an hour straight, but I thought it was a “final exam” at the end. It was announced on the morning of day 4 that we would be doing this three times daily, effective immediately. The pain starts to set in around the 40 minute mark. My sankaras (“impurities”) were concentrated in my right knee and hip. The first session I made it through by sheet grit and ego, focusing on platitudes about pain being weakness leaving the body. Over time this evolved. Next it was perceiving pain as my friend. Then ignoring pain. Then acknowledging it but robbing it of inflicting mental pain. Finally, simply observing it, recognizing its impermanence, and moving on. This was not linear: sometimes I would have a regression session. For the next sitting I would ditch my pajama pants for blue jeans and for some reason would always get back on track. When a session went well, my ears no longer strained to hear the labored sigh of the fellow two rows ahead signifying roughly 45 minutes, the burp from the lady in the front row marking about 10 minutes left, or the subtle click of the CD play button to start the 5 minutes of chants leading to the end. This is where I believe the real education and therapy was taking place.
Never before had I been asked to sit cross-legged on a blue foam pad for a four hour stretch with the simple mission of diligently observing the small triangular patch of skin bounded by my upper lip and nasal septum. This is not an easy task, particularly given an overstimulated mind’s mischievous delight in jumping everywhere from the faces of grade school classmates long forgotten to the elastic constant of the blue jeans helping to keep my legs crossed in position. But observe I continued, patiently corralling my attention back each time I caught my mind sashaying away. Closer inspection of my nasal exhalation made me wonder, but for the featherlight flow, how the heat of this airstream had never before scalded my upper lip. It was hot. Oh yeah, and I remember Chantel, whatever happened to her? Focus. Delicately yet seriously quite hot. One of a hundred discoveries each moment on the small of my face. This was the third day of Vipassana meditation training, and we were just getting started.
In 2001 I bought The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meditation, seemed interesting. Didn’t touch it for years. In 2006 I carried all 358 pages with me backpacking around the world, seemed like I’d have lots of time to read. Didn’t open it across 30,000 miles of wandering. In 2009 I cracked the spine, seemed like it was about time. Read it, took notes even, but didn’t do more than a few unguided sessions before giving up.
Finally, in August 2011, I managed a project in Singapore that was directed by my colleague and now friend Manish. He had attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course nearly a year earlier and had experienced a profound transformation in his approach to living his life in an even more balanced and productive manner. Hearing about the value of meditation to Manish as a senior business consultant and reading the book he published within 2 months of his course (The Equanimous Mind) made me determined to follow suit. I registered for a course in Cisarua-Bogor, Indonesia spanning late August and early September.
Vipassana is an ancient technique of meditation rediscovered by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. It is nonsectarian and is not only for Buddhists. Though, one who follows the path of dhamma prescribed by the practice of Vipassana may eventually become a buddha (“enlightened one”). Clear enough. The 10-day courses are designed to help students with one overriding mission: train the subconscious mind to become equanimous. The logic as I understood it is as follows. All misery and suffering arise from cravings (either unmet or met and replaced with new ones) and aversions. Both of these spring from attachments to objects and objectives. These attachments, however, have little point as everything in the universe is anicca (“impermanent”). You, me, a mountain, even Beiber. This is not to say do not care about people or things but rather do not let your happiness by defined by what you cannot control.
This is all relatively easy to understand intellectually, but the real action is in our subconscious where we have been craving pleasant things and avoiding unpleasant ones since day one. You cannot just logic your subconscious into equanimity: the only language it understands is direct experience of sensation on your own body. The word vipassana means “seeing things as they really are” and boils down to a technique whereby you simply observe real, increasingly subtle sensations on your physical being. At this experiential level, it is possible to train your subconscious mind to not get too attached to positive or negative feelings, as they are all impermanent. Sharp pain in knee? Impermanent. Pleasant buzzing along spine? Impermanent. Your body feels it come and go and your subconscious gets the point. In other words, firmly implanting the notion as relayed to me during my childhood by Rabbi King that “this too shall pass”.
At the end of a great year and start of a greater one, it is a perfect time to let you know what I have been up to and ask you to share your latest with me.
2010 redefined whirlwind for me. My first full year at McKinsey & Company was bursting full of drinking-from-a-fire-hose professional growth, working with incredibly talented colleagues, and perpetually living out of a carry-on. My projects have been varied and interesting, and it is inspiring being out of school and doing something tangible and satisfying. For a sense of how nomadic the job can be, check out this video overview of the tracks I made this year.
In the spirit of exploration, I transferred to our Shanghai office in September for a year of working in and exploring China and Asia. The year I spent in Atlanta was most certainly too short, and I hope to return someday to be reunited with that amazing city and the good friends I made there. However, the chance to work in China at this time of rapid growth and change is too unique an opportunity to pass up.
In personal news:
- Slowly but surely learning Mandarin, though when I try putting it into practice hilarity/confusion still very much ensues
- Ran my first fundraising marathon in honor of my cancer-survivor girlfriend Kate, raising $11K thanks to the support of over 300 friends! Training highlights included running up the Rocky steps in Philadelphia, in a haunted forest in Germany, and through more blizzards than my skinny legs could shiver at
- Attended the Kentucky Derby for the first time and picked the winning horse! … among my 65 other, larger losing bets
- Snuck home from Kuala Lumpur via Singapore, Tokyo, and San Francisco to surprise my parents for Thanksgiving
This next year should be a good one. I am hoping for more travel adventures, new professional achievements, some crazy physical challenge TBD, and the company of good friends.
All my best to you and yours for a 2011 that is healthy, joyous, successful, and full of laughter and love!
By mid-May, the itch to travel again was back. While living in Buenos Aires and establishing a normal routine has been fantastic, it was time to upend it all and embark on my most ambitious journey of this adventure to date.
To begin to familiarize myself with the countries I would soon be exploring, comprising nearly all of the west coast of South America, I stayed up all night before my flight watching The Motorcycle Diaries. Rather than La Ponderosa, I enjoyed the considerably more speedy LAN Flight 4640, and dropped into Lima amid a dense and clinging fog. As I taxied into town the sun woke up, the gloom burned off, and inexplicably my Spanish became 1,000 times more fluent.
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Lima was the first stop so that I could attend the wedding of my good friend from grad school, Miguel. His family couldn’t have been more gracious hosting all of the out-of-towners, and I was lucky to be able to steal an hour of Miguel’s time away from his impressively high-level government job. He served as the guide for my first foray into real Peruvian cuisine, which is incredible. The sauces are rich, the seafood juicy, and the colors lively. The drinks even more interesting: chicha morada (purple corn juice), Inca Cola (a bit like bright yellow bubblegum), and the national libation Pisco Sour all set me into sensory overdrive.
Guitar on my back, I wandered to the top of the hill to overlook all of Lima, amusing myself while walking by testing my budding Spanish translating Sublime songs on the fly out loud (“olía a Lou-perro adentro el coche“?). There was a church whose main claim to fame is open catacombs with about 25,000 human femurs in a box, my “All Security Guards Know How To Play Hotel California” Principle was strengthened (will be upgraded soon to Theory), and I discovered that I am the tallest person in Peru. You can get your shoes shined for 25 cents, which doesn’t feel right, and even when you give the guy a dollar it still feels weird.
I may not have digested the entirety of Miguel and Pame’s wedding, but enough to hoot and holler at the kiss. The lovebirds disappeared for 15 minutes directly afterwards, which I can only attribute to my explanation the night before of the best of the Jewish wedding traditions. The reception was a blast between the nonstop dancing and the women throwing elbows for the bouquet. I learned more slang; now if I can only remember the plusquamperfecto. In the morning, fellow MITer Carlos and I were up early for surfing among the plastic bags and bits of floating schooldesk. We saw a bit of the Lima high life hanging out at Carlos’s friend’s country club, then it was time to fly to Bolivia.
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Airport security just ain’t the same in La Paz. Landing after midnight, I was told that the rumor I’d heard of a $135 entrance fee for Americans was true. I didn’t have that much in any currency, much less in dollars. They let me into the country, making me promise that I’d fetch the cash from the ATM in the other terminal and come right back.
La Paz is a capital city with only a few day’s worth of tourist activity, and only a few breath’s worth of oxygen. I walked around the prison right in the middle of town where families live with their convicts, the Coca Museum where we chewed leaves mixed with banana resin, and wondered at dehydrated llama fetuses at the witches’ market. Met Rachel, who is Kate’s friend from their time at the US embassy in Chile, and learned more about la vida Boliviano. Smiled at the Bolivian currency, whose faces all have attitude, especially the dude who looks pissed to be on just the fiver.
Most of the evening was spent steeling myself for the next morning’s adventure. There is a famous mountain bike trek from La Paz to Coroico called “The World’s Most Dangerous Road“. It is a 70km, high-altitude, medium-traffic, low-safety tumble downhill on a car-width gravel road right along near-kilometer vertical drops. A 23-year-old semi-professional British cyclist had fallen 800 meters to his death just the week before. Initially I was against doing this, feeling that I had already cashed my cheat-death-on-two-wheels-in-the-mountains card in Vietnam in 2006. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had to do this. A man can’t stay sharp, hungry, and focused without regular calculated risk-taking: one cannot simply rest on the laurels of past challenges conquered without growing soft. So I signed up to brave the road (risk) with the company that boasts far and away the best safely record (calculated), Gravity Assisted Biking. After telling almost no one that I was doing this the following morning, especially not Mama and Papa who would certainly disapprove, I went to sleep anxious the night before.
The group of riders rendezvoused at a local cafe just after dawn, savoring our pancakes and more coffee than was advisable over gallows humor and rumor mongering. The van ride to the top was short, depositing us along a striking barren lake whilst the guides drilled us on safety practices and allowed us to tentatively spread our wings on the shock-absorbing suspension and powerful hydraulic disk brakes. For the first several kilometers we enjoyed paved roads to grow accustomed to threading the needle along the adjacent cliff. Soon, asphalt gave way to gravel and teeth chattered in sync with ohms hummed to stay focused. As the road narrowed and coarsened, we were made to up the ante by switching from the mountain side to the cliff side of the road, one dust-induced sneeze from a long way down. The crosses along the way marking the plunge points of prior unlucky travelers kept focus on knife’s edge. My motorcycle accident ensured that I was always prepared for a rapid bus to round the corner in my lane, and that every time I grew too comforable with racing over scattered stones downhill I should pay more respect to the powerful forces I was only barely sharing control with. The speed was humbling, and I gripped the brakes as loosely as possible to avoid devolving into an uncontrolled skid or flying over the handlebars. The scenery was magnificent, which I only allowed myself to appreciate when we would all stop to regroup, and the thin air I gulped was iceberg crisp.
Six exhilarating hours later, we rejoiced at the animal shelter at bottom over cold beers and hot showers. I took the opportunity to ask our guides about the real versus warned danger, as this was a topic I explored in my graduate thesis (linked HERE in hopes of upping its all-time readership from three to perhaps half a dozen). With no reason to instill fear/awareness any longer, they insisted all the stories and stats were dead on because “this bastard is just bloody dangerous”. Triumphantly we rolled back into La Paz and I broke my “don’t eat food from one country in a completely unrelated country” rule by celebrating with some llama tikka masala at Star of India.
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I took an early morning bus to Copacabama on Lake Titicaca (stop snickering), linking with Nora from Germany and Paige from Australia to explore Isla del Sol, the Incan sun god birthplace. We trekked up the Stairs of the Gods with all our gear, which was a breath-laborious exercise to all the gringos and none of the island kids who were touting lodgings all the way up. Redescended accidentally on the Camina de Burros (Donkey Trail) and was knocked down half a flight by an errant mule making a sharp turn while swinging a wide load. Off on top of Capitan Felix’s boat, we hiked out to the Inca Table and stumbled across an Asunción festival with a band and costumed dancers and more stars than you would ever believe dangling above.
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With these experiences as prologue, the meat of my trip was to begin. My sister Jenny had made the suggestion months before that we all meet somewhere in South America, and it had been too long since I’d last seen then: Jenny and Mama in January and Papa the previous November. The Leyboviches always start big, and we met in Cuzco for a lunch of cuy (guinea pig). It rhymes with fooey and it was chewy. We explored the city together, marveling at the Inca walls of huge stones lay perfectly smoothly against one another. The Catedral surprisingly became one of the favorite churches I’ve ever seen, decorated with amazing painting and gold leaf. Jenny paid homage to the patron saint of single ladies, the Virgin Mary was more important than Jesus to symbolize Pachamama (Mother Earth) and always in the shape of a mountain, and there was a huge Last Supper painted from the native perspective: guinea pig for dinner and Judas as the only dark one (hence the good guy, as he looked native and was against Jesus, much like the natives were resistant to their Christian colonists). Just outside town we visited Sacsayhuaman, where we warmed up for Inca ruins to come and Papa executed a perfect ninja roll.
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We sipped coca tea early the next morning (I don’t think I slept in once during this trip) and met Roberto (Beto), who was to be our guide for trekking towards Machu Picchu. We began in a small village a ways out of Cuzco where Papa talked about his boyhood home in Moldova being made of of the same adobe bricks as the shanties we passed and Mama telling stories about her girlhood “stop sniffling and cover your mouth when you sneeze, plis you know ze rules”. The first day’s hike was 16km, rising from 3200m to 4500m. We were told a max of 4200m before, but apparently telling hikers the magnitude of elevation change in advance tends to psyche them out. Battled the wind on narrow trail along precipices at times and basked in the sun in the middle of broad beautiful meadows at others. Jenny strutted through a herd of sheep and llamas wearing Beto’s baggy cargo pants when it got cold, and I served as Papa’s personal sherpa. Hours later we arrived at our campsite just outside a small settlement, nestled among fields of special cuy food. Made conversation with a few Quechua little girls over cookies until everyone’s Spanish was exhausted following the name and age exchange. We wandered into the village, and were offered potatoes cooked right in the ground by the farmer. The rest of the family was well into their taters by the time I started mine, and only by chance did I notice half a dozen maggots below the surface of each potato before taking a bite. Was faced with the dilemma: tell the family now and have them stop eating maggots at the expense of feeling sick because they’d know, or wait until Ecuador to share and meanwhile let them enjoy some supplemental protein. I think you all can guess which I chose. For their sakes. Mama faced a kissing attack by the drunk farmer’s wife with coca leaves pasted to her face. Dinner was eventful due to a kerosene lamp flare-up that almost took the tent, as was bed prep thanks to the magic camping toilet that didn’t flush properly, causing a rapidly accumulating pile of power bar. I preferred to poop on a hill. Between going to bed much earlier than normal, the -5°C weather, the loud donkey outside, and each Leybovich contributing in turn to the symphony of snoring, none of us slept much that night.
After enjoying fresh wild mint tea the next morning in our igloo, we continued down the valley on an Inca Trail. Not the famous part you hear of, as that was booked when I looked even months in advance, but some of the other 40,000km. The fantastic part of this “alternative trek” was that there were no tourists besides us anywhere, and I can’t imagine how it could have been any more beautiful. We trundled downhill, avoiding aca (poop). Many Quechua words are based on the associated sounds, which in English would change pig to “oink oink”, cat to “meow meow”, and, judging by the prior evening, Leybovich to “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. We arrived in Huchuyqosqo, the Inca summer palace, and reveled in the warmer and thicker air hundreds of meters down. It was remarkably well preserved for its abode construction, and the huge pool was impressive. Via Lamay and Ollantaytambo, we rolled into Aguas Calientes that evening, in the shadow of our destination.
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Up at 4am, we caught the first bus to Machu Picchu and topped the windy road by 6. From first glance, the complex is staggering. Only discovered in 1911, it used to serve as Inca U, where I understand they had a decent football team (Go Bears!). The pictures do more justice, and then not even, than a description. Suffice to say, it made a big impression, a testament to the power of the ancient engineers. The adventure portion of the day kicked off with climbing Huayna Picchu, the jagged peak looming over the ruins. The narrow path snaking up the rise was seriously steep and slippery, giving weight to the buzz in line about people falling off on occasion. Mama and Papa were troopers, giving it their all despite believing that all the hiking for this trip was done. The vertigo-inducing reasonably dangerous trek was worth it, with amazing views afforded at the top. You can see Machu Picchu emerging from the surrounding dense forest, and wonder how many other ruins are hidden in plain sight. The semi-controlled slide down was an intense international affair, with hikers from around the globe banding together to collectively crap our pants.
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We landed the next afternoon for our only day in Quito, Ecuador, and had arranged to make the most of it. A van whisked us to the site we’d most wanted to visit in the area, the equator. An invisible line all around the world, mostly over water, and given special significance here at Mitad del Mundo. There are actually two sites marking the hemispheric border a few hundred meters apart. The newer one, determined by GPS, was accurate and where we spent most of our time. The older one was off a bit but they’d already built a big honking monument there. Oops. We were pleasantly surprised by a very cool ethnographic museum at the site, and were impressed by the spear throwers, shrunken heads, and fish that swims up your urethra and makes itself at home. The activities around the equator were a bit hokey but fun. The sun rises each day year-round at 6am and sets at 6pm, water supposedly swirls in opposite directions on either side (though my jury is still skeptical on that one), and you can actually balance an egg on its end! It was lovely to get my northern hemisphere fix for a moment, reminded me of home.
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The second pillar of our trip was the Galapagos Islands. Prior to the flight we were much more extensively screened for illness lest an iguana should catch chicken pox. Whisked out to our boat, Galapagos Explorer II, by inflatable motorboat, we soon set sail. The first stop was Wizard Hill, where we were met on the beach by dozens of lounging sea lions. They are distinguishable from seals by protruding ears. Don’t mix it up, it hurts their feelings. Immediately apparent was their relative indifference to people. They weren’t afraid of us nor did they seek treats. The Ecuadorian government does a pretty good job limiting access to the islands, balancing sustainable and educational tourism with preserving the natural ecosystem. Our group made a friend: a teenage punk sea lion who would swim right up to people walking near the shoreline, burst out a-flappin’ and a-barkin’, and crack up when the startled folks would trip all over themselves. The variety of wildlife was also staggering, from the sea lions to long-beaked birds to Rama-like crabs to lava-colored iguanas right at home on the volcanic rocks. That evening we were treated to a magnificent sunset, exactly at 6pm.
The next day was devoted to Española Island: one of the oldest, smallest, and home to roughly 50% of the wildlife of the archipelago. As expected, the animals made this a very special place. Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks, marine iguanas, albatross, blue-footed boobies (stop snickering), and many more abound at Punta Suarez. Later that afternoon at Gardner Bay we couldn’t stop smiling at the genuine paradise we found ourselves in. The snorkeling was beautiful and at one point I found myself swimming next to a giant sea turtle while a woman down the beach splashed around with a shark. The beauty of the natural setting was only perhaps eclipsed by Papa’s karaoke rendition that evening of ABBA’s “I Have A Dream”.
Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island was our main educational stop. Learning more about the history of the islands, we also encountered the famous Galapagos tortoises. Two in particular are famous, a study in contrasts really: Diego and Lonesome George. The story goes that pirates used to use parts of Galapagos as a base of operations, to recuperate from scurvy or some such. They would make use of the wildly abundant turtles, either for food, animal oil, or gifts for their wenches. On one island, the poaching was so great that when researchers did a survey they found only 6 females and 2 juvenile males still years from mating. Remember that Galapagos is where Darwin first considered evolution, based on observations that each island featured its own related but distinct species of each animal. These scientists put out a call around the world to see if anyone had a male tortoise of this species, and found just one, at the San Diego Zoo. They brought Diego to Galapagos to see if he might help jumpstart his species’ population. Fortunately for the species (and for the lady tortoises) Diego … was a sex maniac. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but without the mutant and ninja parts. This tortoise could not get enough, and single”handed”ly increased the population from 9 to roughly 1,000. Now, as a corollary, take the case of Lonesome George. Similar story, except he was the only one of his species left, making him the Guinness Book of World Records’ “rarest living creature”. Willing to slightly compromise the genetic line in order to keep it from going entirely extinct, the researchers put 2 lady tortoises of a very similar variety to his Pinta Island breed in with George. Sadly, George is Just Not That Into these two, and the one time they thought magic might have happened, the eggs turned out to be infertile. This begs the question why not have Diego teach Lonesome George how it works, but perhaps they are afraid that the resulting offspring of George would bear resemblance to a certain shelled Lothario. Our last stop of the day was on Rábida Island, which with its crimson sands was like Mars on Earth, except for with cactuses and sea lions. In the same theme of animal procreation, we witnessed a fight between two bulls (males). Sea lions live in harems, with only one male for 6-8 females and their pups. The job is not easy, as the male is constantly tiring himself patrolling the area and “doing the Diego”. When another bull sees him wearing thin, he challenges the current harem leader, sometimes to the death, and typically wins. The defeated bull then sulks off to rest and regain his energy to try to win another harem. Average time with harem before being challenged and defeated: two weeks.
Far too soon it was time to say goodbye to both the Galapagos Islands, and then to my family. The destination ranks as one the most beautiful I have had the privilege of visiting, and the vacation as one of our top family experiences. Sad to say goodbye, but I know I will see them back in the US before too long. On the way home I managed to finagle my flights to allow for a daytrip layover in Santiago, Chile, and had a great time exploring the beautiful cityscapes, the Bellavista neighborhood, Pablo Neruda’s house, and one of the best lunches in recent memory. By the end of the day I was back in Buenos Aires, where my quests continue.
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Sometimes it is fun to explore other countries in the region. Sometimes it is nice to celebrate one’s birthday without a big bash. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish whether an idea is terrible or great or both. For all these sometimes, there was no better time than the first week in April to play host to my ex-girlfriend Kate.
The plan was to bookend her visit with days in Buenos Aires, and inbetween check out our tiny neighbor to the north, the last kid picked when the countries of South America play kickball, the polite mate-sipping friend you know will always return your power sander: Uruguay. The journey would include nearly the entire coast of the country, some R&R on secluded beaches, and my 26th birthday.
The great thing about receiving guests is you finally have an excuse to do the touristy things that you never bother with normally. While in Buenos Aires, we strolled around Palermo shopping, I finally had an excuse to visit La Cabrera (restaurant that expats will tell you is the best in BA), and Kate got to unleash her inner crazy cat lady in the Botanical Gardens. The first evening featured the obligatory tango excursion, where somehow, despite being one of the clumsiest girls I know, Kate was besting me in dancing within 30 minutes.
The fast boat to Colonia is one frequented by Argentinian daytrippers and foreigners needing to leave the country for a jiff to get their tourist visas renewed. Colonia is known for its quaint cobblestone alleys, rustic lighthouse, and all around adorability. While it is difficult to top the sheer kittenrainbowbabysmilingdoggiewearingpeopleclothes-like cutetasticalness of Cartagena in Colombia, Colonia was a welcome relaxed respite from a big city. We caught a bus the following day to Punta del Este before setting out for our real destination: Cabo Polonio.
Kate had discovered the still-scarcely-known Cabo Polonio in a great article online. With electricity essentially unavilable to the few dozen standing shanties, it is a place to escape from it all, to tune out, to find your zen, to mellow your yellow, etc. Wanting to drive American, we rented a little red Fiat and zoomed up the coast. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I still (brake) remember (stall) how to drive stick, and we enjoyed the scenery of the differently-themed towns and landscapes we passed.
Cabo Polonio is inaccessible by car: one must park in a cleared-out bit of forest and hire a camioneta (“monster truck”) to trundle over the rocky trails, shifty dunes, and slippery shore to reach the town. Dropped off in the modest central square, we only wandered a few moments before being offered a little casita on the beach to rent for a few days. Location is everything in real estate, and due to the stubby peninsula that the town is situated on, nearly every property is coastal. No solarium and wine cellar though, this was the kind of pad that Thoreau might have turned his nose up at. Water was available only when pumped, light was available only when candled, and the furniture seemed to be assembled only of crates.
The days were spent simply: eating, walking, surfing, sunning. Animals roamed everywhere and the biggest worry was to not trudge through the taller grasses in sandals lest you pick up some sticker burrs. We roamed the sand dunes at the perimeter, sliding with each step up on grains that were fine enough to fly yet managed to lay a sting on an exposed cheek. Evening entertainment consisted of beer, singing, and lots and lots of backgammon.
Before long, it was time to return to modernity. We eyeballed our way back to Punta del Este, relying only on a country-scaled map that on the back of a brochure and Uruguay’s well-marked roads. One fast boat through the muddy Rio later, we were back in BA and Kate’s visit came to an end. While sad to part, it had been great to reconnect, and there is no better nearly-fluent amiga to travel South America with. Sometimes things are just fun to do, in new places, with special people.
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Carnival in Brazil is reputed to be one of the most intense celebrations the world has to offer, the natural result of a fun-loving people taking seriously the mission to get out all their sins before Lent. Knowing that a foray into the madness would distract from my studies in tango and Spanish, I still could not resist the call to experience for myself why those who visit and leave Brazil immediately begin plotting their sun-kissed returns.
Bidding a temporary chau to Buenos Aires on a drizzly afternoon, my first taste of a long-haul Argentinian bus ride was as good as advertised. The overnight journey to Puerto Iguazú delighted with a deeply reclining executivo Lay-Z-Boy-style seat to keep me cozy, wine-included dinner and breakfast to keep me sated, and What Happens in Vegas playing in English to keep me moderately entertained. Unwilling to put my personal development mission on hold for three weeks, I alternated chapter for chapter between the meditation book I’ve been trying to read for a decade and The Bible, which I am exploring for myself for the first time cover to cover.
Drifting off somewhere between the Sahasrara chakra and Noah becoming a naked vintner post-Ark, I awoke in the midst of the modern-day deluge of Iguazu Falls. There are several ways to explore the Argentinian side of the highest flow waterfalls in the world. A gangway dangles you over a roaring chasm, dodging birds dive-bombing into the billowing mist. A raft skims across the top, past a wary caiman guarding her nest, keeping you just far enough from the edge for the boatman’s boss not to yell at him again. A speedboat plunges you into a solid wall of water, rendering your 6 peso poncho as effective as an Argentinian table napkin in keeping you dry. Finally, after a day’s adventure, the Brazilian side is the Ansel Adams to the Argentinian side’s Bear Grylls, affording spectacular panoramic views of the entire system.
The falls were a gorgeous welcome mat to Brazil as I continued towards Carnival, learning along the way that my terrible Spanish sounds like perfect Portuguese. Next came stops in Florianópolis and São Paulo, a study in contrasts. One a tropical beach island, the other an endless maze of concrete. While in the latter I stayed in a sterile hostel surrounded by an electrified fence, and in the former a ramshackle shanty run by a freelove German couple offering a jar of prophylactics at the door. With the Floripas I surfed for the first time in eight years and snoozed in a hammock cocoon. Among the Paulistanos I enacted my “it’s probably chicken” Kosher travel policy over a traditional lunch of feijoada. Able to stomach the “chicken”‘s tongue, hoof, and curly tail, I drew the line on the ear after spotting several patches of marinated hair still attached.
Lent approaching with still much to do wrong, I met my good friend Nate from Cal in Salvador en Bahia, the epicenter of Brazil’s festive northeast. The energy was palpable as we explored the narrow cobblestoned alleys, the laundry overhead dancing to the beat of mobile drum circles. The city’s characters played their parts: shirtless Santa Claus, salsa-dancing Norwegian CouchSurfers, and musclebound zombie chaser together wove a tapestry of stories and laughter.
Striking up a conversation with an Australian Moulin Rouge dancer whose unexpected clumsiness was ripe for comment, we were invited to spend a few days surfing the nearby beaches of Itapua. Later that evening we began to have second thoughts as we wandered lost into crumbling dead ends seeking an address that not even the taxi drivers could suss. As guard dogs barked nastily behind heavy gates on each lot, we finally found Lara’s address scrawled on a fortified metal door breached by only a small slit to see through. Only half joking about a Hostel-like feel to this arrangement, Nate sent a quick text home with our coordinates before the door creaked open to reveal a lovely empty guesthouse that seemed relatively unlikely to specialize in selling tourists to wealthy businessmen for torture. We spent the next few days riding surf, sipping caipirinhas, practicing yoga, and dancing tango in the pool. The only worry in the world was deflecting the gringo tax: surf shops claiming they meant 40 reals/hour when they said 4 and our beach waiter trying to overcharge us even above the menu he brought out at the end which was itself 50% inflated over the menu we actually ordered from.
The energy building up behind Carnival reached a boiling point. Blocos are the primary means of celebration in Salvador: an oversized megabus packed to the gills with speakers, a popular band on top (Timbalada in our case), a rope line maintained by workers every 2-3 feet setting the perimeter, and revelers on the inside all dressed identically in the most expensive t-shirt they’ve ever bought. It is safer inside the ropes, with only overly aggressive frat boys crushing beer cans on their foreheads while seeking ficar contigo to contend with rather than the real trouble outside.
Always seeking a complete travel experience, we got a taste of both. Late into a fun night, just a few feet outside the rope line sanctuary on our way out, a Brazilian tried to get into a fight with me. Busy diffusing the situation, I didn’t notice the distraction’s friend quickly cutting my digital camera out of my pocket. Quite self-satisfied with my handling of the situation, only 20 seconds later I felt something amiss as we continued walking. Nate and I quickly headed back, and spotted my former assailant preparing to pull the same trick on another. Confident, forceful confrontation having worked for me with thieves before, I approached and demanded my camera. While inviting me to frisk him, I noticed his upraised hands signaling his crew as chaos erupted. One of his friends shoved another as a diversion. Two tripped Nate, who received a quick kick to the head and lost his shirt. I saw all the developments quickly playing out … except for the liter beer bottle swinging towards my blindside brow. A gash opening up above my left eye, I fought my way out of the four guys with small street weapons surrounding me with blood dripping down my chin. The crowd was so dense that Nate and I lost sight of each other. While looking for him from higher ground to no avail, my Brazilian guardian angel appeared by my side, offering ice for my wound and urging me to the medical tent for attention. After resisting for several more minutes of cyclopian search, I submitted to four stitches while she held my hand. Meanwhile, Nate, reasoning kidnap as one possibility for my disappearance, hobbled (for his toenail had become separated on the way down) to the police outpost for help. We made it home within 10 minutes of one another, no easy task considering the short-term memory haziness induced by a strong blow to the head.
The next morning we found a hospital to get Nate’s toenail fully removed (during which he was a strong, silent stud), and ruminated over the prior evening. Dramatic and annoying, yes. But to have both traveled to 40+ countries and have this be the only incident of its kind for either of us is truly a blessing. It could have been much worse, and I was proud of the way we both remained fearless and composed. The losses were minimal: Nate’s toenail will be back soon, my camera is covered by travel insurance with only a few days of pictures missing, and I’ve got a cool eyebrow scar which I am told that “chicks dig”.
Each morning for the remainder of Salvador we woke up with açaí, the super energizing berry that is served in delicious smoothie form, which we (coincidence?) only neglected to enjoy the day we ended up getting hurt. We spent evenings dancing in the rain (Nate with a plastic bag over his bandaged foot), watching Brazilians kiss while unhinging their jaws like anacondas about to ingest small deer (presumably to avoid locking the braces many of them wear as status symbols), and enjoying another bloco (this time with intentionally empty pockets).
Halfway into Carnival, Rio de Janeiro beckoned, and “The Marvelous City” immediately began to live up to its reputation. First view in the morning was Sugarloaf Mountain rising proudly across from Flamengo Beach. Families frolicked among churro vendors at the edge of the crisp yet murky water and meatheads pumped “iron” at the makeshift beach gym of weatherworn benches supporting rusty bars which balanced coffee cans filled with cement on either end. Despite, or perhaps because of, the emphasis on fitness and skin on display, there is no shame of body in Brazil. The Girl from Ipanema makes each one she passes go aaahh in her fio dental but she is far from the only one sporting dental floss, many of the others neither tall, tan, young, nor lovely. At first it is jarring to witness such brazen image indifference, but soon becomes refreshing to appreciate the lack of attempt to nip and tuck from reality by the women who wish they had less, or the men more.
The bloco experience in Rio was a world removed from Salvador. While the latter was more “spring break wooo!”, the former was a quinceria combined with jazz in the park, led by a jester-costumed Dick Van Dyke. Beginning with a small group of neighborhood friends singing to a sax, drum, and ukulele on speakers, we paraded up a winding hill road. As we disrupted neighborhoods with joyous sound, recruits went from dancing on the roof to streaming out the door, and the collective swelled with each block. Merriment ensued, and no one even tried to hit me in the face with a bottle that I didn’t deserve.
Rio’s Carnival is famous for images from the Sambódromo, where the best samba schools in Brazil compete for King Momo. The garish costumes, imaginative floats, and spirited dance tickle the eye and ear, this MIT nerd most appreciative of the Ode to Technology entry with men in foil jumping in and out of giant semiconductors. Putting to shame Prince Ali’s seventy five golden camels, the coterie grooving to the recursive samba beat set the packed stands into frenzy. Stork heads bobbing between feathered samba princesses in jewelled bikinis among Viking warriors prancing around dancing splashes of color and monkeys. The monkeys won … they always do.
The buses made exploring the city much easier than actually remaining upright in them as they rocketed through favelas:
- Adjoined Leblon and Ipanema, centered around Post 9, are the two most fashionable strips of beach, the shore a maze of umbrellas and beach chairs, flying soccer balls, and jugs of Brazilian sweet mate. Yes the girls are pretty but I’ve still got to give it to SoCal.
- Trying to strike a pose just slightly less cheesy than the other tourists in front of Christ the Redeemer, huge thunderclaps made me hope that my phone calls last Yom Kippur and relative sinlessness of the Ash Wednesday pilgrims around me were enough to prevent our smiting.
- Sugarloaf Mountain revealed a breathtaking panorama of Rio, the contaminated water than Nate swam in gently lapping far below against the severe peak.
- A taxi that we tried to hail crashed just down the street. My EMT training asserted itself, but the other standarounds could not be bothered to pay attention long enough to help me immobilize the fellow’s neck or refrain from trying to pour shots of cachaça into his bloody mouth.
- We enjoyed an “epic dining experience” at Restaurante Marius. By far the most expensive meal of the trip, but the pirate-themed churrascaria (all-you-can-eat meat buffet) had a bathroom made of rocks, boats and grandfather clocks dangling from the high ceilings, bottle breaking for sport, and most importantly approval of our loosen-the-top-two-buttons-halfway-into-the-meal gluttony.
One night after Carnival we tapped into the national rhythm at a samba club. The dilapidated building housing Democráticos, the scene for young beautiful people to see and be seen, was intense with character and energy. Salsa steps adapted surprisingly well, and I secretly thanked Mama for making me take dance lessons at the retirement home (classes were the cheapest there) as a kid. It was a classy change from the bump-and-grind of American clubs, language no longer a barrier, exchange of more than smiles and hand cues unnecessary.
Rio also provided the opportunity to finally make my thesis credible. My tome on government regulation of commercial human spaceflight used adventure sports as analogy, and hang gliding was the only one that I had not yet personally experienced. I felt a slight nervous anticipation as the line of wings in front of us grew shorter, and soon I was running off a mountain strapped to a Brazilian and a hastily-assembled foil of plastic and curved metal spokes. The other peaks within reach and people reduced to extreme minature below, the birds gave us knowing looks as we flew by. Occasionally, to better take in the city and ocean below, we would intentionally stall and just float upright in the air, neither rising nor falling, physics be forgotten. At the end, my professional stuntman copilot executed his signature move: a steep dive down to the beach, panicking the sunbathers we swooped past, pulling up just as our toes grazed the sand.
One last açaí con manga and eggcheeseburger at my favorite corner stand, and it was time to return to Buenos Aires. On my way to the airport I drank in Rio again: the sun pleasanty smiling, the floats in suspended animation outside the Sambódromo for one last bash, and the Big Jesus on Corcovado waving me goodbye, welcoming me to return to Brazil anytime. He knows I will.