Lessons From the Road: He No Longer Lives in Brasil

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The flight from LAX to Rio de Janeiro (GIG) had been a long one but while tired I was excited to be at last joining the movie company to film on location. I had been hired to train Jaguars and was the only America working for the British film. When I met Gabriel at customs, I soon discovered that I had stepped into a surreal world and time. He stared right through me wearing a sweat-stained t-shirt that read “Kill Them All and Let God Sort them Out.” I could just make out a faded French Foreign Legion logo on a worn canvas bag slung over his shoulder.

In a thick Portuguese accent, he said in rehearsed English, “Welcome to Brazil,” and commenced to orchestrate us through customs. This was the tone that the shooting of this movie would take for the better part of a year. We filmed in fifty-five different locations that year which took us from the coast to deep in the jungles of the Amazon. We were on a golden voyage, a real old school adventure and it was 1984. Each day took us further from what we knew to a world of wild animals, jungle darkness, danger, Voodoo and real outlaws. We were a long way from home.

The production company knowing we would be filming in the backcountry of Brazil decided to employ a fixer, a bodyguard to look after me and my crew. If you didn’t know the year you would have thought that Gabriel was playing an outlaw in a ’40s movie set in a Banana Republic. He wore a Panama hat tilted over one eye and a loosely fitting white linen shirt that covered the pistol which he always carried in his waist belt. Simply put, his job was to keep us safe and make things go smoothly. And he did it with dedication and vigor over the year of our filming. Gabriel and I developed a close friendship that grew out of sharing a dangerous adventure that required us to live by our wits and depend on each other.

He didn’t really speak English and I didn’t speak Portuguese. But fortunately most everyone in the country spoke Spanish so I relied on it to get us by. It didn’t take me long to observe that Gabriel was known and feared by everyone we encountered. He was closely connected to the cocaine trade of South America. This was after all the 1980’s.

Gabriel could get you almost anything and he could make almost anything happen. But his real specialty was making problems go away. But I didn’t realize how good he was at this or how seriously he took his job until one evening after a long day of filming.

We had found a great little open-air bar that was terraced on a river looking out into the jungle in a little village near one of our locations. Besides serving great local drinks, it had the best garlic, sautéed shrimp I had ever eaten. So most evenings you could find the production company there. We were young and single and as such fit right in with the young crowd in the village. But as we got more familiar this caused jealousies with some of the locals that we didn’t realize until that evening.

A mixed group of us were enjoying ourselves drinking and dancing on the terrace. It was late and most of us had had our share of the local drink, Pinga or Cachaça, a dangerously strong and delicious spirit distilled from sugarcane when a man barged in yelling that we had not given him a job and had taken all the women of the village.

My friend, Colin, who being Irish held his drink better than the rest of us, stood up holding a drink out as a peace offering. But the man picked up a bottle and threw it hitting him squarely in the forehead. Colin fell like a sack of potatoes bleeding profusely. Several of us including Gabriel jumped up to give chase, as the man darted out and into the cover of the jungle.

Several minutes later, I found Gabriel and a few of his men in a clearing where they had the man on the ground. Hastily, Gabriel sent me back with one of his men after assuring me he would take care of the matter. And trust me, there was no arguing with Gabriel when he was working. So we attended to getting Colin to a small clinic where they very efficiently sewed him up.

For days afterward, Colin who didn’t speak Spanish asked me to question Gabriel as to what happened to the man. Gabriel always gave a vague answer and quickly changed the subject. This didn’t satisfy Colin who pestered me to continue asking.

Finally, after about a month this, while having lunch, Colin pressed me to ask again. This time, Gabriel was at the end of his patience. He pulled his pistol out and laid it on the table, leaned forward and leveled his dark, hard eyes on me and said, “Tell Colin to stopped asking me about the past. Let’s just say the man no longer lives in Brazil.”

I never asked Gabriel again.

Hecho en Mexico! – Lessons from the Road

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Many years ago while traveling in the backcountry of Baja I learned an important lesson that I have carried with me ever since.

Several of us were on a fishing adventure slowly making our way down the old Mexican 1 which serpentines it’s way along the backbone of this wild peninsula. We were in the middle of one of the loneness and driest places on earth, the Vizcaino Desert, when I felt a hard jolt followed by a loud clanging. My jeep coasted to a halt next to a large Boogun tree, engine still running. My son, Sam, ran up the dusty road and retrieved the driveshaft. It is amazing at how quiet and empty the desert can feel when you are broken down in the middle of it.

After a little trouble-shooting we figured that we could limp back to the village of Catavina some miles away by engaging the 4WD, which still transferred power to the front wheels. And so we began a long and tedious trek back to that little pueblo.

Upon arriving, we searched for a mechanic to help us. Actually, this place had more abandoned dwellings than occupied. But as luck would have it we found a guy who had ran out of money and was stranded there waiting for an opportunity to continue his journey North and he was a mechanic—only in Mexico.

Julio examined the shaft by rolling it on the crumbling pavement of an old abandoned gas station to check its trueness. I remember looking at a peeling mural of a map of the peninsula with a star marking our location. We were a long ways from home. The station had shut down years before for lack of traffic. Since its closure, the only fuel available was gotten from fifty-gallon drums strained through a chamois. My attention went back to Julio, who was shaking his head while examining the broken strap. We would not be traveling far without a new one.

I began to worry when he shaded his eyes from the intense Baja sun and scanned the surrounding desert. Without a word, he abruptly left us and carefully picked his way through the cacti toward a line of wrecked vehicles. I watched him disappear underneath a rusting Chevy pickup with a cholla growing up through its missing hood.

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Upon returning, he told me he needed 80 pesos to pay the man who “owned” it. Sensing I did not understand, he explained that he would have to salvage the pin bearings from it and further he would need to buy a strap from another “owner” of an old Ford rusting on the other side of the road. He smiled sweeping his arms across the desert encompassing at least thirty old, rusting vehicles and said, “This is my parts department.” The parts he needed would need to be salvaged off these abandoned wrecks.

Without any further discussion, he began to work. Using the tools we always carried on these adventures and an old rickety jack, he worked for a couple hours in the sweltering heat. First, he replaced each pin bearing one by one and than slowly jacked the shaft back up in place using a cradle he had made from pieces of wood he had sent the village children out to gather from along side the road.

By now, we had attracted most of the villagers; us being the best entertainment in town. I remember my friend, Fritz, teaching the game of chess from the tailgate of his pickup.

I asked Julio at one point how he was going to balance the shaft so it would spin true when reconnected to the engine. He smiled as he propped one end on a rock and took a small hand sledge and carefully lifted it a few inches above and struck it. He did this a couple of times more with care and precision. When he finished, he proudly said, “Hecho en Mexico!” Made in Mexico!

I paid Julio less than a hundred dollars for the whole job, which got him on his way and us as well. We continued our journey south to explore many bays and beaches without names that fueled countless campfire stories to this day. Years later, I passed that jeep on to my son and it still runs and has never needed any modifications to Julio’s repairs.

When you leave the frontiers and venture down the back roads of Baja there is no Auto Club to call, no machine shops, no dealerships, or Auto Zones to stop at. You only have yourself and the kindness of strangers. These strangers, the locals, are geniuses at making do with what they have. They live by the adage that necessity is the mother of all invention. It is what surely attracts me to these lonely places over and over.

When not writing and adventuring on my moto, I work as an educational consultant here in California. Doing that work in these times is not much different. We are bombarded with an endless stream of regulations and directives from the state and federal government that cost large sums of money to implement while we are asked to do it with less.

We find ourselves spending more and more time out of classrooms meeting the needs of outside bureaucrats who claim to have all of the answers. But when all is said and done, the solutions are in the talent we have all around us. The secret to our success is the same as Julio’s; use our own talent and ingenuity to solve the problem.

We need to invest in ourselves for a change. This of course, will not make the test making companies, “consultants,” textbook publishers, software designers and outside trainers very happy in their quest for billions of our tax dollars.

But in my experience, a good teacher who makes positive connections with children will out perform any program, any time. That is were I have always put my money because I am used to betting on winners.