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July 18, 2007

What's "Motherboard" in Portuguese?

Every once in a while I wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. in the middle of a terrible nightmare that goes something like this:  I’m in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  It’s a Sunday.  Argentina and Brazil are playing in the final America´s Cup in Venezuela so the city is more than a little on edge. 

The city is hosting a major multi-faceted sports event, say the Pan American Games, and police checkpoints abound due to increased security.  Two Pan Am soccer games have just let out on separate ends of the city and traffic is jamming up the roads faster than a kid can snatch your camera off your shoulder.   I am in a rush to get online coverage of the Pan Am dressage competition for the Chronicle written and posted onto the Internet.  And the electrical cord for my Macintosh is on the fritz. 

But of course, every once in a while you don’t wake up, and it turns out that you really are in such a pickle.  Sunday, July 15, was such a day.

Despite the Brazilian’s affinity for clean simplistic design, Macintoshes have yet to catch on down here, so finding a power adapter presents a genuine challenge.

The carioca version of Best Buy, and my usual choice for electronics, is Uruguaiana: a 10-block labyrinthine souk of stolen or Chinese-reject-quality televisions, binoculars, pirated DVDs, rechargeable batteries, and similar black-market items at drastically reduced prices. 

But alas, Uruguaiana´s Macintosh accessories department has always been a little lacking, to say the least.  Finding a power cord there would be about as easy as finding a Brazilian in a one-piece swimsuit on the beach.

So I headed to the biggest mall in South America, (think Mall of America only in Portuguese) for the second time in three days, but the headache-inducing trip proved fruitless, so I opted to head back to the apartment where I’m staying on the far side of town.  Surely I can pound out an article on his desktop. 

But imagine, if you will, trying to drive from Staten Island to the West Side of Manhattan during rush hour, only with all the aforementioned obstacles and--for an extra challenge--one of the lanes in the overstressed three-lane highway is dedicated only to Pan Am participants’ buses, but not taxis serving the Games.  After finding a feasible track to return home proved impossible, I gave up, and the driver gratefully took me back to the main press center where I got my work done with the help of a Mexican sportswriter’s borrowed cord. 

So, the next day, I headed into the venue for the individual competition, determined to get my work done earlier so that I would have time to make it to the Apple store.  I’m feeling so confident I even entertained the idea of attending a party that the uber-fashionable writer from Folho do São Paulo invites me to, mentally thanking myself for bringing my “cool” dress. 

But it’s not to be.  After the laptop starts acting up even with a borrowed power cord, I knew I had a capital problem. My dreams of late-night caipirinhas faded as the prospect of spending the next day learning the Portuguese words for “motherboard” and “overnight shipping from Middleburg, Va.” crept into my mind.

But the buses are late and of course, I’m running late because the buses are late, and I can’t get a cab in the pouring rain, and after I finally get a cab it’s rush hour.  At least the cab driver kindly let me leave the light on in the back of the cab so I could write my article out by hand as he navigated through traffic before typing out the article on a strange computer with a Brazilian keyboard and no thesaurus.

So then it’s off to the Apple store, where I spent the better part of my day off negotiating to rent a laptop for the rest of the trip.  Although there were posters for iPhones and new iPods, the selection in the store was a little less modern (iPhones aren’t expected here for at least another year).

Refurbished desktops abounded, and the five employees managed to find me--their only customer of the day as far as I could tell--the only power adapter in Rio, used of course.  After five hours of diagnostics and negotiations, we were finally ready to swipe the credit card and call the deal done, but alas, when I pulled out my new handy-dandy Chronicle Mastercard the cheery face of the staff all fell in unison.  The store only accepted Visa. 

People rightfully complain about the lack of organization in Brazil, the bureaucracy and the general difficulty in making things working well, but what happened next exemplified what is right with the country. 

As I tried to get my head around how I would get back to the apartment two neighborhoods over to get the card, return to the Apple store and split the $1,800 deposit between my over-stressed Visa and cash (which I would of course have to get from the ATM), then return both the rented and broken computer to the apartment via taxi, and the head tech put his hand on my shoulder and smiled.  “It’s OK,” he said.  “Let Igor go with you to the ATM and you can give him just cash for the rental, don’t worry about a deposit for the value of the computer.” 

So Igor accompanied me to the ATM, took a few hundred dollars of my money, and put me in a cab with an expensive computer, trusting that I would return it on the appointed day.  Most importantly, he didn’t think of it as a favor or as being kind, it was just being.

Brazil shines when the kindness of individuals trumps the complications of government.  I’ve never met a Brazilian having a bad day, nor anyone who would take their troubles out on you. 

Mollie Bailey

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