BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL — For most of the World Cup, I was stuck in a bubble. Not by choice; it was just the nature of being a U.S. team beat reporter in Brazil.
Many of us with eyes fixed on Jurgen Klinsmann’s gang for three weeks were enrolled in the USSF’s media program, an all-inclusive, not-inexpensive, almost-embedded arrangement designed to maximize time with the American squad and avoid the logistical hurdles that inevitably arise during overseas assignments, especially ones with as many moving (and unmoving) parts as a World Cup.
A typical day went like this:
Breakfast at our business hotel in an upscale neighborhood in Sao Paulo.
Bus to U.S. training at Sao Paulo FC (20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic).
Interviews and observations.
Bus back to hotel.
Pound out several hundred words in a private conference room with secure wireless while televised matches hummed in the background.
Run out for a quick bite at tony Patio Higienopolis or order lunch from the hotel restaurant (penne with “laminated” broccoli was a favorite).
Fire up laptop again.
Nap for five minutes.
Do a radio interview back home.
Venture out with between two and 20 colleagues for dinner in a section of the city largely untouched by the Brazilian street crime about which we had been repeatedly cautioned.
Turn on CNN International.
Turn off CNN International.
It was predictable and safe and monotonous. Given the work demands, it was perfect. And comforting. From a reporter’s perspective, five weeks away is too long. It causes personal and familial stress and mental exhaustion. I ache for a Beltway traffic jam, in my own car, on my own (lost) time, on the way to my own home.
We did have the flexibility to stray from the group: a stroll through Parque Buenos Aires, quiet time at an organic coffee house, learning Portuguese phrases from subtitled American police dramas.
For U.S. matches, all staged at great distances from Sao Paulo, buses moved us to the airport and collected us at the destination. They would shuttle us to the hotel and stadium. (Sometimes around the stadium several times before finding the proper entrance.)
Accommodations beyond Sao Paulo were set in advance, some better than others but all without major hitches. Problems were solved in our behalf.
We had a similar set-up in South Africa four years ago. It’s a grind, but a comfortable grind. Unlike other World Cups, when something irrevocably would go wrong almost daily. And unlike that World Cup qualifier in Jamaica last year, when a hotel reservation was not honored because the hotel had, well, burned months earlier.
On this trip, Post colleague Rick Maese was the adventurous one: a rented apartment and largely non-U.S. assignments. At times, I am sure he craved room service and a reliable internet connection. (And an absence of ants.)
For my purposes, the USSF plan was pricey but necessary — like working above a perpetual safety net.
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to be untethered. To take risks. To explore the unknown. To nourish the soul. To skin your knee.
Once the Americans were eliminated, the U.S. beat scribes were on their own. Many returned stateside, their assignment tied to Team Klinsi’s longevity. Part of me was jealous. Those of us who remain are like lost members of a tribe, scattered along the savannah, crossing paths every few days in various over-air-conditioned media centers and sharing the same media center buffets for 32 reais ($15).
This was nothing new for me: I have traveled by myself extensively over 20+ years of covering soccer. I enjoy the occupational independence. The bonds forged in the media program, though, condition you for constant companionship.
It did continue for a few more days. In Brasilia, for Argentina’s quarterfinal against Belgium, I split a hotel room with Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times, halving the $480 nightly rate. We taxied to the airport the next morning, he off to Sao Paulo for one semifinal (and Marriott points), me to Belo Horizonte for another semi.
My Belo hotel is nice and new and simple, and most importantly, the wireless is flawless. The neighborhood is not as pristine or cosmopolitan as the Sao Paulo haunt. It’s got an edge to it.
On Sunday, the streets were eerily quiet. Too quiet. Even with a small airport nearby. The hotel receptionist recommended a restaurant off the main road, maybe four blocks away. Peering out the window, I paused over walking alone in an unfamiliar city with limited language skills.
This was silly, I said to myself. Go. Go now. I walked up a craggy side street. A shuttered warehouse. Cracked sidewalks. Tall concrete walls covered in graffiti and topped by spiral barbed wire. An idling city bus with one passenger. Parking areas protected by iron gates. The silhouette of a guard inside a darkened security booth, with a green-and-yellow string of letters spelling “Brasil” hanging from the black window. A closed shopping nook.
I was approaching hopeless, not a destination.
Then I saw the smoke. Sweet smoke rising from grills behind a bamboo-covered wall. And heard the singing. And laughing. Inside Jardim de Minas, an open-air, buffet-style restaurant, a table of 30 gathered for Sunday brunch. A family of 20 at another. A grandfather and grandson at their own table. A birthday party. Kids dodging wooden chairs and table corners to reach the dessert table. A teenager in an Atletico Mineiro jersey with Ronaldinho’s name slapped on the back. Meandering musicians. Parakeets of every color in a large cage.
The long line waiting for slabs of beef, sausage and chicken snaked from the pavilion into sunshine. The smell was mouth-watering, even for me, a non-meat or poultry eater. The fish was great, too.
That evening, emboldened by the first adventure, I tried again. Two places on the map had closed early. I kept going. In the twilight, a half-dozen young teenagers approached. They were pulling homemade kites, giggling.
I wandered into a humble corner barbecue, a churrasquinho. A Brazilian club match flickered on multiple TVs. A young couple whispered to one another at a corner table. A surly waiter. An elderly cashier with a warm smile. An unfamiliar menu.
I was alone but in great company.