Charging into Battle

Sao Paulo is like Prince Harry in Vegas; a good idea that got out of hand. I recommend that anyone with an ego problem visits Rodoviaria Tiete, the principal bus terminal, and any lingering delusions of grandeur will swiftly pale into feelings of insignificance. Around twenty million residents have created the third largest metropolis in the world, dwarfed only by Tokyo and New York, and after fighting my way through the swarms of Paulistas battling for buses, I felt this was a conservative estimate.

Rodoviaria Tiete

I checked into Havana hostel and took my laptop to their Cuban-themed bar and immediately began researching exit routes. This is when I discovered my charger was broken. The receptionist told me about Rua 25 de Marzo, Brazil’s largest market, named to commemorate the signing of their first constitution on 25th March 1824. Soon after, waves of Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants began arriving and settling at the nearby port. Indeed, there are more Japanese, Chinese and Lebanese in Sao Paulo than anywhere other than their respective homelands. They opened shops and started trading with relative ease until the 1960’s when the area suffered from frequent flooding. The resulting necessity to sell inventory before it became water damaged established the market’s reputation as a centre for wholesale pricing. This sounded like the perfect place to pick up a cut-price charger.

25 de Marzo

The market was clustered by genre. I walked through the jewelry district, the fashion area and the toy section before encountering the electronics. I asked a man, who appeared to be presiding over every appliance produced in the last decade, whether he had a Macbook charger. He said yes, and rustled through a laundry bag full of multicoloured wires. Finally, he produced a charger and handed it to me. It was white, which was a good start. I inspected the input device and screwed up my face in thought.
“I’m not sure this is gonna fit,” I said.
“What laptop do you have?” He asked.
“A Macbook Pro,” I replied.
“Yes, this will work,” he said. I had a feeling I could have told him I had a GameBoy and his answer would have been the same. I looked closely at the shape of the charger again and my doubts remained.
“I don’t think it will.”
“Trust me, this is the charger.”
“Okay, if I buy it, and it doesn’t work, can I bring it back tomorrow for a refund?”
“Of course,” he nodded.
“Okay,” I said and, sale confirmed, prepared myself for the bargaining process. We settled on a price of around £20, which seemed fair considering the extortive Apple store charges sixty. And there’s no Apple store in South America.
“I hope I don’t see you tomorrow,” I said as I walked away.

Back at the hostel, I took my laptop out of my locker and laid it on the table. I extracted the charger from its cheap plastic bag. I moved the charger towards the laptop and attempted to insert it. It didn’t fit. I took a deep breath and headed straight to the Cuban bar.

Cuban Bar

I was the first person at breakfast the following morning and had sunk three coffees to ready myself for battle before anyone else had even considered rising. By the time they did, I was on my way to the metro station; I had business to attend to. I marched through the first few streets of Rua 25 de Marzo, heart beating slightly faster than usual.

“He-llo!” I said, grinning widely. The Charger Man did not respond.
“Remember me?” I raised the cheap plastic bag with the charger inside. The Charger Man shrugged.
“Let me remind you. I bought this from you yesterday and you said if it didn’t work, you would give me a refund. And guess what? It doesn’t work. So, how about you give me that refund, we’ll say no more about it and I’ll be on my way.” The coffees were clearly still buzzing through my system.
“No, you buy, you keep,” he said, busying himself by untangling a football-sized squabble of wires.
“That’s funny, because yesterday you said you’d give me a full refund.” I had expected this, and I had a plan.
“No, sorry,” he said.
“So, here’s the deal,” I said. “Either you give me a refund or I will personally ensure you sell nothing for the entire day.”
He shrugged and shook his head.
“Okay, see you in two minutes.” I walked back to the toy section and bought a pink plastic Barbie chair for a couple of pounds. I returned to the Charger Man’s stall and sat right beside him. He eyed me suspiciously. For ten minutes. Then, an American couple arrived and asked if he had any headphones.

“Would you mind if I interjected?” I was on coffee number four now. The American couple looked at me.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” I said, enjoying myself.
“Do you not work here?” The lady asked.
“On the contrary,” I answered after a large guzzle of coffee. “I am here to inform you that nothing this man is selling will work. And when it doesn’t, he will refuse to give the refund he promised, just like he did with me yesterday,” I shook the cheap plastic bag a little too vigorously and spilt some coffee on my shoes.
“Really?” The man asked.
“Oh yeah.” I nodded wildly. They consulted each other briefly and decided to leave. Whether this was because they were unwilling to buy a faulty pair of headphones or because they were scared of the weird, coffee-wielding maniac, we’ll never know.

Ten minutes later, a woman approached the Charger Man’s stall and said something in Portuguese. He rustled about in his laundry bag.
“He-llo! What are you looking for today?” I asked her. She looked at me blankly.
“English?” I asked. She shook her head. The Charger Man smirked.
I took my phone out, turned on data roaming and accessed Google Translate. I realised 3 Mobile would probably charge me more than the cost of the charger for the privilege, but this was war.
“Nada que você compra a partir daqui vai funcionar,” I said in my best Portuguese accent.
“Si?” She turned towards me, worried.
“Si.” I nodded, shaking the cheap, coffee stained plastic bag at her.
She paused, then left. The Charger Man emitted a rueful chuckle, shook his head then turned towards me. I waited for him to throttle me. He shook my hand and offered me my money back. I returned the bag with the charger and apologised for the coffee stains.

A few stalls further down, I found the model I required for £5 cheaper. Jubilant, I strutted triumphantly towards the metro station. En route, I passed a mini casino with slot machines. Feeling like the king of the world, I entered and briskly frittered away the £5 I had saved on the new charger. Realising I was now not only high on caffeine, but also dangerously confident, I considered returning to the hostel via the bus station, to bring my ego back down to earth.

Buddhism and Blackmail

“Hi sir, you want ganja?” The red-eyed man poked his scraggly head and cracked palms through the space where the train’s door presumably once stood. Picking up weed in Sri Lanka, it seems, is easier than Jamaica.

Sri Lankan Train

After a polite refusal, Thaksin introduced himself and stepped past me onto the Colombo to Hikkaduwa express. I returned to sitting on the open steps, staring outwards as palm tree jungles, buddhist shrines and cricket pitches rolled past. I was watching a farmer struggle to contain an unruly tribe of goats when I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw Thaksin’s right hand pointing at my battered blue leather bag.

“Puma?” Thaksin had just proved he was literate, or at least recognised logos.
“Yes.” I smiled back, unsure of whether I was required to further the conversation. He was grinning expectantly and clearly felt it was my duty to continue the dialogue.
“Fred Perry.” I pointed at my plimsolls. He shrugged, unimpressed.
“I have Puma trainers,” he announced.
I glanced down. He was wearing mangled black sandals.
“At home,” he added.

Hikkaduwa

I alighted at beautiful Hikkaduwa and Thaksin followed in his hunched shuffle. He had a full head of hair, two teeth and a winning smile that I couldn’t refuse. He showed me to his family’s guesthouse and gave me an en suite room for £3 a night, or £4.50 if you include the quarter bottle of local whisky he suggested I purchase on his behalf, which I classified as a finders fee. He informed me of a Buddhist celebration at the local temple that evening and encouraged me to accompany him. We agreed to meet at seven and he relieved me of a cigarette as he sloped out of the door, which I supposed was a light form of information tax.

I returned from the beach at seven to find Thaksin staring wistfully into the distance, cradling an empty can of lager. May is the holiest time of year for Buddhas, he explained on the walk to the temple, and is marked by a month of festivities across the country. May is Buddha’s birthday, when he achieved enlightenment and also the month in which he died.
“Today is Hikkaduwa’s celebration of Buddha, your timing is very lucky. We should buy beer,” Thaksin suggested. I bought us two beers and felt it was an appropriate tax for my good fortune. It seems that in Sri Lanka, you are excised even more frequently than they are in Scandinavia.

I enquired about Thaksin’s personal relationship with Buddha, curious about a man whose life was guided by a higher purpose than money and modern western ideals. Life is a series of pathways, Thaksin philosophised between giant gulps of Lion Lager, and there are good and bad pathways. Buddha never tells us which to take, but he appears to us through his teachings and offers guidance, he described.

We arrived at a crossroads; one path thronged with Buddhists following a handpainted arrow pointing towards the temple, the other was a dirt track through a stagnant swamp with an equally informative red signpost, featuring a crocodile.
“Sometimes, Buddha teaches us not to take the easy path. Hard work can bring great rewards,” he said. I didn’t like the direction this teaching was taking us.
Without hesitation, he strode into the darkness and a single splash was quickly followed by several squelches. Call me cynical, or unenlightened, but I wondered whether traversing a crocodile infested swamp was more likely to lead to the loss of a limb than a blessing from Buddha.

We emerged through some dense shrubbery and rejoined the marching buddhists just outside the entrance to the temple. My flip flops were dripping.
“I need to bin this beer now, right?” I asked with a shake of my can, pretty sure that a central tenet of Buddhism was no mind-altering substances are welcome. There were also two policemen standing guard at the entrance.
“No, not yet. Only when we enter the temples,” answered Thaksin.
“You sure?”
“Yes, I live here!” That was hard to argue with.
I could sense the spirituality as I approached, and prepared to feel the warm embrace of inner peace and tranquility when I entered.
GRAB! A policeman restrained me, snatching and locking my right arm at the same time. He was pointing incredulously at my left hand, which was clutching the can of lager. I was swung round one hundred and eighty degrees and frogmarched for three short steps until I arrived back on the other side of the entrance. It wasn’t quite as peaceful an introduction to Buddhism as I’d imagined.

The policeman motioned at me to remain where I was. He strutted over to his colleague and they quickly became embroiled in deep conversation. On my left, I noticed a third policeman bounding towards them excitedly, a hyena sniffing out a fresh carcass. I sensed I was about to become a victim of blackmail and hurriedly transplanted my money from my pocket into the depths of my underwear as they returned.

“You have drugs?” They began rifling through my pockets and found but a solitary packet of cigarettes. They regrouped and brainstormed possible bribes in frantic Sinhalese before approaching me again.
“Three cigarettes?” Suggested the man I assumed was the sergeant. He was sporting a corrupt moustache, which lent him the look of a man who’s an expert in falsifying documents.

Well, that sounds reasonable, I thought. In Sri Lanka, it seems the hustlers charge a higher rate of tax than the police. I offered them each a cigarette and my lighter and they all accepted. Then, they stole my lighter.

Transaction complete, the man with the moustache pushed me back over the threshold into a fairytale of temples and fairy lights.

Fairy Lit Temple

In Islam, if you contravene a central commandment you can get stoned to death. In Christianity, if you break the rules you’re sentenced to an afterlife of hell, fire and brimstone. In Buddhism, it will cost you three Lucky Strike; now, this is the religion for me.

Sri Lankan Buddhist Statue

Trapped in the World’s Tallest Building

It was 2013 and I was in Dubai, selling advertising space in private airport lounges to earn enough money to travel again. My colleague Michael and I were transporting furniture to our new office in the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Tallest Towers

As we stumbled into reception carrying a cumbersome desk, we were shunted off to the service elevator by a surly security guard. We maneuvered our way inside and were joined by two Afghan members of the cleaning staff clutching a bucket and some rice. I was also carrying a mini portrait of Elvis Presley I used for inspiration on particularly barren days of business.

The lift was gliding seamlessly towards the 36th floor when the lights flickered off. The jangly sound of electronics complaining, then we shuddered to a halt at the 22nd, leaving us blind to the views outside.

We all looked around in the futile hope that one of us was a secret elevator engineer. The blank faces confirmed none of us were. I pressed the emergency button and an Indian voice answered. I explained our predicament succinctly and the Indian voice returned with something indecipherable. Michael and I both glanced at the two Afghans, wondering whether it would be racist and or stupid to assume they could understand him just because they come from the same continent. One of them manned up and took on the role of talking us to safety. So it wasn’t stupid, but probably was still racist. After a little less conversation he turned to us and said the words we had been waiting for.

“Someone is coming.”

“When?”
 I asked.

“Soon, I think,” came the less than certain response.

“Well in the meantime, we’ve got food, The King and a bucket.” Michael said, motioning at the rice, the portrait of Elvis and the bucket.

It was now that I saw one of the Afghan men shuffling uncomfortably between his two standing feet. I raised my glance upwards and was disheartened to see him staring longingly at the bucket. He crossed his legs. I looked over to Michael and his grimace confirmed we shared the same suspicious minds. Swiftly, we assumed a position on either side of the lift doors, gripped, then pulled as hard as our arms allowed. They edged apart seductively, flirting with our freedom. As a gap appeared we gave the doors a final yank to buy enough space to slink out onto the 22nd floor. We had escaped; an anticlimax perhaps, but a vastly preferable ending to an Afghan relieving himself in a bucket. We walked up the remaining 14 floors and went back to work to sell people stuff they didn’t really want. Viva Las Vegas.

Elvis