March 9, 2007


Jack Chang - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I woke up March 9 about two blocks away from George W. Bush, probably the closest I've ever spent the night next to him. This was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in a neighborhood called Novo Brooklin or New Brooklyn, where Bush had arrived the night before on the first leg of his Latin American tour. He was at the Hilton, and I was at the World Trade Center (insert irony here), both two soulless business high-rise hotels in a bland, business-parky part of Sao Paulo. Our two hotels were separated by another high-rise building, so I couldn't actually see where he was staying. But I could feel the George W. Bush waves from my room.

Every time he came and went, the thump of helicopters filled the air, and the Marginal, one of Sao Paulo's main highways, would be halted for something like 45 minutes. Soldiers in fatigue walked the streets below, and sirens flashed. It was pretty ridiculous. I thought of Hugo Chavez over in Argentina, who was going to lay into Bush in a stadium full of tens of thousands of people that night. Bush couldn't even fill a shopping cart with sympathizers around here.

I stayed in my hotel room most of the day, starting from after breakfast. I ordered a room service cheeseburger for lunch and wrote my little story based on two 20-minute-or-so press conferences that I watched on TV. Bush and President Lula said nothing, although Lula did mention with a straight face that he wanted to reach the G-spot of trade negotiations.

Then, I dove into the gridlock madness of Friday night Sao Paulo traffic, with all the streets an endless patchwork of stalled cars. I was going to be late for my flight to Montevideo, where Bush was going, might even miss it, and imagined the conversation I would have with my boss about that. But then we caught a highway along the Tietê, probably the most polluted river on earth, and it was clear sailing til the airport. Everyone on the roads - my taxi driver, neighboring taxi drivers, people my driver talked to by cell phone - were complaining about how Bushee (as Brazilians pronounce it) had messed up traffic. Police had blocked every road and every feeder road he had passed. They also had to close down the airport when he flew away, aggravating already snarled air traffic. Whatever good will Bush had produced by palling around with Lula, he had lost by leaving Sao Paulo at the peak of rush hour. Someone's got to tell the advance team: Leaving at 7 p.m. on a Friday and tying up the whole city is a tad counterproductive.

Miraculously, however, I arrived at the airport about 80 minutes before my flight, and it was late anyway. I sort of expected that. I made it through immigration, found my way out of the labyrinthine Duty Free shop and settled into a hard plastic seat at the boarding lounge. There were other Americans waiting, secret service types, some square-jawed TV people following Bushee around. I set aside the Brazilian part of my brain and pulled out Clarin, the Argentine newspaper I had just bought, and started thinking Montevideo, Argentina, Spanish, another cast of characters. My body settled, like an old house, as that day's battle wound down, and another day quite similar to this one awaited. They announced my flight was boarding, and I gathered my stuff in my arms. With a prayer, I stepped into the fluorescent boarding ramp and onto another world.


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