#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Me and The Promise

I was an eighth grader when I purchased the album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Actually I purchased the cassette. Probably at Korvette's in West Orange. Maybe at the music store on Bloomfield Ave. in Caldwell. Probably at Korvette's because it would have been 50 cents cheaper.

I had a little yellow Panasonic tape player that served as my stereo, even though it wasn't actually a stereo. One speaker. The seven or eight bucks I spent on Darkness had a negative impact on my ultimate savings goal, which was the $100 or so it would cost to buy a boom box.

From the first drum beats (duh-duh dum-dum, duh-duh dum-dum) that led me into Badlands, I just knew I was listening to something different from anything my ears had ever heard before. I was 15 years old, living in the most affluent of New Jersey communities, so I'm not sure what the lyrics meant to me. But I knew I liked the stuff like, "Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, but a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything..." It sort of made sense. Maybe not.

I just knew that it was moving me.

Next came Adam Raised a Cain, which sent chills down my spine. I grew up on Jim Croce, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel and wasn't really prepared for this kind of anger.

And I loved it. Why? Not sure.

I won't take you song by song through the album because, chances are, if you're reading this you know all about it. I won't say Darkness became "the soundtrack to my life" (even though it's true) because that's become the most ridiculous of Springsteen cliches. But I will tell you this...

I listened to it over and over. Thirty-two years later, I can still sing every word without hesitation. Not only from the studio album, but also from the bootlegs I started collecting later in high school and college. For example, in Prove it all Night, on the album it's "I've been working real hard tryin' to get my hands clean" while on the bootlegs (circa '78) it's "I've been working real hard, to get my hands clean." Years later, when me and my buddies would be singing out loud to the album, we'd often inject the subtle changes from the bootleg lyrics, simply to pronounce our superiority over what we considered to be pseudo Bruce fans. You know, the folks who shout "Born to Run!" and "Hungry Heart!" throughout a concert.

I think it was the live performances of Darkness that made this album my favorite of all-time. And it's been cool to hear Springsteen during his recent interviews admit that these songs, while full of...darkness...come to life in a different way when performed live.

Again, if you've made it this far into this post, you know that in the studio, songs like Badlands, Prove it All Night, Promised Land and the title track do not even come close what you experience live. I do not know that I can say the same thing about Springsteen's other albums. I've never really needed to hear Born to Run or Jungleland live. Not that I don't enjoy those songs live. But there's something different about the songs on Darkness. I can only describe it as emotion.

I'm not even sure it's the lyrics that strike the nerve. I have these 25-year old memories of laying on my bed in the house where I was living in Germany in the summer of 1985, listening on my walkman to a bootleg version of Racing in the Street, which runs for more than 10 minutes. I remember how I could feel Gary Tallent's bass line deep in my soul. How I could close my eyes and listen to each note of Bruce and Steve Van Zandt's electric guitars. And how I would actually get a lump in my throat, sometimes a tear in my eye as Roy Bittan carried the piano "out-tro" on and on and on... I once read how Pete Townshend of the Who mocked Racing in the Street because it was just the quintessential Springsteen song about cars and girls. But it's not.

I realize that now. It's not about cars and girls. I don't think so.

Today Springsteen releases The Promise box set. I've heard the whole thing already and it's a dream come true for any Springsteen fanatic. You've got cuts you've heard on outtake bootlegs. You've got songs that were handed over to others. What newer Bruce fans may not realize is that, if you were from Jersey, back in the late 70s and early 80s scoring a ticket to a Springsteen concert was like getting a ticket to the Super Bowl. How many folks do you know who've been to a Super Bowl? Telling someone, "I saw Bruce live" was akin to that. It was a badge of honor.

As an aside, the next best thing back then to going to see Bruce was going to see Southside Johnny at the Asbury Jukes, usually at a college somewhere. My first-ever concert was Southside at Princeton's Dillon Gym. My second-ever concert was Bruce at the Garden. I can thank my brother Bob for both of those experiences, and I'm forever in debt. Can you imagine being a 21-year old recent college grad and taking your 16-year old brother to a Bruce concert? Back on point, in the late 70s, Bruce was handing over songs to Southside. Songs like Talk to Me and Hearts of Stone. Great songs that Southside sung soulfully. Well, on The Promise, Bruce unleashes at least half a dozen songs that, when you listen to them, you say "Southside."

It's like being able to relive a part of my life.

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered HBO for one night ($1) so I could watch the documentary about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In this weird way, listening to Bruce talk about the album has helped me understand what I was feeling, yes, back when I was 14.

What Bruce was singing about, turns out, is the thing I've struggled with my entire adult life. And that's the guts to stand up for what you believe in. Darkness did not come out for three years after Born to Run because Springsteen was fighting against a manager who enticed him into signing a bad contract. Springsteen didn't want anyone controlling his writing or his music.

For my entire professional career as a writer, I've let others call the shots. It's how I've put food on the table for my family. There have been times when I've stood up for myself, insisted that its my story and they need to be my words, but many more times when I've compromised because of what needs to be done to please the guy who writes the checks.

Thankfully, Springsteen had the guts, the faith to stand his ground...yeah, I'm plagiarizing.

Not many of us do. And maybe that's why Darkness remains my album.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Power of Having a Friend Like Johnny

Here's the "speech" I delivered last night, at the Ninth Annual John P. Salamone Memorial Foundation Golf Outing. What an honor to be a part of this event. All thanks to Johnny's dad, Bud Salamone.

Eight years ago, we stood on the putting green at Essex Fells Country Club, under a cloudless blue sky, and prepared to participate in the first John P. Salamone Memorial Foundation golf outing. I remember how Johnny’s dad, Bud, could barely speak as he welcomed everyone to the event. There was not dry eye to be found.

I remember how everyone came to the outing, check books in hand, looking to help out. The tragedy of September 11th was still so fresh in all of our minds, it was almost like therapy, to be a part of the event, to contribute to a foundation named after Johnny.

But more than anything, I remember how when the crowd had thinned out, a handful of us lingered at the bar with Bud. It was Johnny’s old posse. It was Kenny Turnbull and Tommy Paranzine. It was Greg Vassallo and Pete Veritas and Brian Campolatarro. Slowly the tears turned to laughs as we began to tell Johnny Stories. Remember The Time when??? stories.

I think a group of us sensed something during that part of the evening. That, even though this was just the first year we’d gotten together to remember Johnny, that this outing HAD TO BE an annual event. For one thing, it was great to see Bud’s face, as he heard a few tales about his son that I’m sure he’d never heard before. I mean, what father wouldn’t be proud to learn that his son was a shark, a hustler, a con artist?

But the after-hours stories, I think, made it clear to us, to Johnny’s closest friends, that the power of HAVING a friend like Johnny, had to outweigh the sorrow of LOSING a friend like Johnny. And that this golf outing was going to endure, if only for the group of us to take a break from work and family and everything else, and get together once a year to remember and celebrate all that Johnny brought to our lives during his time on earth.

As I drove home, back to the shore, that night, a few things crossed my mind. One was this: As long as we could keep this event going, I was going to be a part of it. Another was this: how the hell did Johnny Salamone become a member at Essex Fells Country Club? Didn’t anyone on the selection committee get wind of the way Johnny terrorized me, probably the only member of Essex Fells Country Club he knew back in the day?

Seriously, as we stand here today, I can’t help but think back to my first rides on a school bus down Green Brook Road, from Essex Fells to West Essex. Understand, half the kids I went to elementary school with ended up in places like Montclair Kimberly Academy, Newark Academy or Delbarton. Why? Because West Essex had drugs…And Italians.

Walking through the doors at West Essex for the first time for an Essex Fells kid is about as intimidating an experience as you can imagine. I mean, a seventh grader from Essex Fells doesn’t typically have a hairy chest, a tattoo and a pack of Marlboros in his back pocket. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it was kinda scary for those of us from the Fells.

I know, more than anything, I wanted to fit in with the cool kids. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – there was Johnny Salamone, to make sure I was never, ever, ever going to be cool. In fact, the cooler I wanted to be…the less cool Johnny would let me be.

During the feeling-out process at West Essex, where kids from four different towns are suddenly merged into one school, most kids seek acceptance, a group of kids they can hang with, eat lunch with, maybe play on teams with. Very few kids are willing to step up and be leaders. My group…many of whom are here tonight…well, we had Johnny.

You think you’ve picked out the right shirt, the right jacket, the right sneakers, there’d be Johnny to say, “Bradley, what are you wearing? Are those Garanimals?” You think you’ve done a good job with the Clearasil, covering the big pimple on your face, there’d be Johnny to say, “Nice zit, Bradley.” You want to look cool in the junior high cafeteria, when you’re first hoping the girls will notice you. Forget about it.

Nine years ago, I wrote a little tribute about Johnny for espn.com, remembering a teammate. One of the stories I told was about the game – if you want to call it a game – Johnny invented during school lunch.

It was called “Fresh Bait.” The game went like this. During lunch, if you put your hands down on the lunch table, anyone in the group was allowed to pound it with a closed fist while yelling, “fresh bait!” I don’t remember anyone in the group being very good at the game, except Johnny. You’d be finishing up your tater tots, and without thinking about it, you’d put a hand down on the table to suddenly feel Johnny’s fist, bashing it.

You could not help but feel the pain. You’d want to kill Johnny. But when you’d look up at him, all pissed off, Johnny would shrug and say, “You know the rules, Bradley.”

Bradley, Bradley, Bradley.

In fact, I never remember Johnny calling me by my first name, though he did refer to my mom and dad as Mary and Jerry. And our coaches were never Mr. Albanesius, Mr. Ortiz or Mr. Silva. They were Hughie, Tony O and Felipe. And Johnny could do spot-on impersonations of each of them. There was Hughie’s angry face. Tony O’s perplexed look, and Felipe’s Spanish accent. We’d lose a game and were supposed to be upset during the busride home, and there’d be Johnny imitating the coach. Making us all laugh.

I don’t want to make it sound like Johnny wasn’t a serious athlete. He was. He was a great competitor, and an even better teammate. But it was almost like he had a sense, even back when we were kids – when we believed the wins and the losses meant so much – that what really mattered was the time we spent together. That when it was all over, it was those moments on the bus, or in the lockerroom, that we’d remember most of all.

Johnny was right. And that’s why we do this every year. And why we need to keep doing this every year. So we never, ever forget Johnny and those moments we shared together.

Friday, July 9, 2010

South Africa: Days 25-31


Later today, I get picked up by my driver Dolf and taken to the airport in Johannesburg to begin the long trip home. I should be walking in the door of my house around 12:45 p.m. I can't tell you how good it will feel to be home.

I used to have road trips that lasted this long, back in my days at the Daily News, when I'd embark on Yankee spring training for six weeks, or the baseball post-season for five weeks.

Those were different times in my life. Single in the beginning. Married with no kids at the end. And as much as you missed being home, you never felt like you were leaving all that much behind. I was always able to get my wife Linda down for a few days during spring training.

So this was different. I missed my son Tyler's 14th birthday and his graduation (I like "promotion" better) from 8th grade. I missed his entire Babe Ruth baseball season. I missed the end of my son Beau's Little League season and wasn't there to coach his travel team in the playoffs. But more than anything, I just missed being there for the day-to-day stuff that Linda and I have to tag-team. Driving kids around. Making them breakfast. Walking my dog.

So, it will be good to get back to those things, and to Manasquan Beach for obvious reasons. My summer has not yet started.

Hard to describe this journey properly. It was at times physically exhausting, working late nights, packing and unpacking my bags, moving from one place to the next. In each location there were places to be driven (thanks to my employers for taking care of all the rides) and assignments to tackle. There were scenes to be absorbed and history lessons to be learned. And then there was the task of writing it all in a way that would make sense to my readers.

I am lucky to do something I love for a living. Some call it "journalist" or "reporter" but I prefer "storyteller." I know all too well that I talk too much. It's a trait I've had since I'm a boy. I was the kid who had "disrupts the class with his chatter" written on his report card. In college, my fraternity brothers would roll their eyes when I told yet another tale. It got to the point that they'd look at me at times and say, "Go ahead, Brads, we know you've got a story to tell."

Well, who'd have thought I'd be able to tell stories for a living? Lucky guy, I am.

My final full day in South Africa was spent in a van, driving about eight hours from Durban, a large city on the Eastern coast, to Johannesburg. It was me (the American), a Canadian, an Englishman, a Mexican, two Argentineans,
and our South African driver Jan. It was wide open country, similar in topography to Montana and Wyoming. Rolling fields and incredibly shaped mountains. Our group shared some laughs as we reminisced about our month together. I think the entire group realized that I'm ready to go home. Probably more than anyone else.

When we got back to hotel, we made a quick turnaround. One of my colleagues had made plans for us to eat at an authentic South African restaurant in the township of Soweto. It was a small place, sort of like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant you'd find in Newark, with a buffet. We filled our plates and laughed a lot. After dinner, our driver Dolf (a police officer by trade) took us to a Shebeen (these are illegal drinking establishments...they originated in the days when alcohol was forbidden to black people). It was, basically, family's garage in a part of town that was a bit downtrodden. Certainly not a place you'd go without someone with local know-how. Dolf had asked a couple of policemen to escort our group to a Shebeen. And this was it.

We were the only patrons, so they had to set up shop for us. Large bottles of beer were served. Music was turned on. Soon, our hosts were asking us if we'd pose for some photos. Next, they were asking us if we'd put our signatures on their wall. Such lovely people. Suddenly, power was lost. The music went off and the whole place went dark. I figured it was time to go.

But no. Our hosts arrived almost instantly with battery-operated lamps. They did not want us to leave. Is there a moral to this story? I don't know. It was just a nice memory to take home. A family opening their garage to a group of strangers who were looking for a few laughs.

Farewell, South Africa. Thanks for opening your arms to me for a while, but I think you understand it's time to go home. Peace.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

South Africa: Days 20-24

So, all the crew went on a safari today, except for me and "Luke from The Magazine." We both had things to do, so we couldn't join everyone for a day of animals and fine dining. That's fine, I got my own personal safari at Pumba a couple of weeks ago, and today I had my own adventure.

Took a little walk on the wild side. Now, I know my parents read this blog, and though they're pretty hip for their age, I'm pretty sure they're not familiar with Lou Reed. But anyway, I was badly in need of a haircut, so I left the compound known as City Lodge and went for a walk.

We have been warned by our security task force that leaving the compound is not safe, but the truth is, during the daylight, it's fine out there. Remember, I was in Luanda for 12 days. I know where I should not be walking, and outside this hotel is a long, long way from Luanda. It's fine. Really.

I was not sure if there was a place to get a haircut, but I figured I'd give the strip mall a shot. Was hoping there would be a South African "Super Cuts," or maybe a South African "Sal's Barber Shop." As I've lost most of my hair, and have grown less fond of the hair I do have because it is wiry and gray and has a life of its own, I am not particular when it comes to haircuts. My normal instructions are "short" or "very short."

Well, there was no Supercuts and there was no Sal's. So, I ended up in a "salon." I was greeted by my stylist "Beyonce," who sent me back to get my hair shampooed, rinsed, conditioned, rinsed, massaged with something tingly, rinsed, and I think that was it, but there may have been one more step. It was wonderful, really. So, then when "Beyonce" came back to retrieve me, I began to notice she had some interesting...ummm...characteristics. One of which was...a deep voice.

"Beyonce" was a dude. Now, listen, I'm cool with it. "She" was pretty appalled at the state of my hair, probably since I'd hacked it up with a trimmer, trying to tighten up my sideburns and creating a big mess in the process. When I said "short," Beyonce said, in her deep voice, "Let me try something ok? If you don't like it, we can go shorter." I was not going to argue with Beyonce.

So, in the spirit of the World Cup, Beyonce gave me a modified Cristiano Ronaldo Faux Hawk. The whole thing took about 20 times longer than when I got to SuperCuts or Carmen's in Manasquan. There was some cutting. There was some trimming. There was Beyonce backing away and staring at her work for a while. There was this "fine trimming" around the ears. And then, just when I thought I was done, I was sent back to the shampoo area, for more stuff. And then, as I tried to walk to the desk to pay and leave, Beyonce told me she was not done. She said she needed to style it. To apply some "product." Again, who was I to argue. Have a look.

Anyway. Home Stretch.

Eleven days to go on this fantastic journey, though, truth be told things have slowed down considerably as more and more countries (including my own) have gone home.

The emotional roller coaster (mostly highs...with only one low... in my opinion) that I went on for the first two weeks, left me pretty wasted. So much pride, so much joy, and so much heart ache and emptiness when it was all over. I'm glad my brother and my nephew are built for it.

Three more rounds to go.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

South Africa: Day 19

"If they are brave enough to play, then you should be brave enough to be in the stands."

These were the words spoken to me by an old friend who works with my brother. I wasn't sure if I had the toughness to go sit in the stands today, but these words got to me.

So, I'm going to take a two-hour ride in a van with a bunch of my colleagues who are going to work. And I'm going to watch. I stand by what I wrote yesterday. I'm admittedly biased. Whatever happens today, my pride is intact. I'm in complete awe just being here.

I'll go back to being a know-it-all eventually, but for now I'm a know-nothing, completely blind to what's going on. Blinded by love and admiration. Nothing can change that.

The photo above was taken by my niece Kerry on Christmas Day, 2008. It's Rob and Michael playing ball with my two sons. This photo is in my office and is one of my prized possessions. What's funny is that I'm way more in awe of Rob and Michael than my two boys are. I remember that day so well, because the four of them returned from the park drenched in sweat.

To Tyler and Beau, they're just Uncle Rob and Michael, and when they're playing ball together, they might as well be some kids in the park. There's a purity in that I can't really describe. If my boys were here, they'd have no problem sitting in the stands today. They wouldn't consider it some act of bravery. They'd just be wanting to go to the game, and probably wishing they could go on the field at halftime and kick the ball around. I'll try to keep that in my heart today.

Friday, June 25, 2010

South Africa: Days 15-18

There's no way I could be any more distracted.

Trying to stay focused on what I'm supposed to be doing here while something else is going on that not only has my stomach churning but also has a good part of the USA's stomachs churning...not easy. As my old friend Bruce Springsteen sings, "Some day we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny." But for now, not much funny about it.

I want to write a little bit today about the emotions I've been feeling, mostly the overwhelming pride that literally brings me to tears once or twice a day (no lie). But I don't think everyone gets it. Some do. Many don't.

Something happened on Wednesday that took 12 seconds and it totally changed the perception that Americans would've taken away from this event. In 12 seconds, Americans went from a bit angry and very frustrated to, quite simply, overjoyed. But if those 12 seconds had not happened, while I'd have been sad, my pride would not have been altered even a little bit.

It's said often that it's not the results that really matter, but the journey. I've witnessed a four-year journey from close range. I know the sacrifices that have been made, the hard work that's gone into it. I'm pretty close to a couple of incredibly dedicated guys.

My pride was intact, regardless.

In my line of work, I'm often asked to analyze, to critique, to break things down. But in this case, I refuse to do it, and I am trying my best to tune it all out. It's not easy, but I'm doing my best.

I know not all my friends can get on board this train, where it's all about love and hope, where there's no room for criticism. I don't expect everyone to jump on.

Just understand it's the ride I'm taking. The journey.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

South Africa: Days 12-15

Getting brave.

Not sure if was a touch of boredom -- not a lot happening the last three days -- or just that I was trying to be a nice guest here in South Africa, but this afternoon, I ate a worm.

To be more exact, I ate a Mopane (Mo Pah Nee) Caterpillar (worm, I dunno). It was fried, I guess, and covered in some kind of red sauce. It was crunchy, chewy, gamy, nasty. I thought it would be rude not to try it when our driver Jan ordered it up for the table, but after me and my two colleagues each choked one worm down, we noticed Jan wasn't exactly digging in. "No, I don't like it," Jan said with a smirk. "But a lot of people do!" With that, Jan chomped one down, then handed the rest of the order over to the folks at the next table. They left the dish alone.

Again, not a lot going on the last few days here. Work and hotel meals. The restaurant serving the Mopane was in downtown Johannesburg, and music filled the air and local artists and craftspeople were selling their stuff. It was a pleasant lunch break, all in all...except the worm.

And then it was back to work in Mission Control. It's been good to catch my breath here after traveling around the country for the better part of a week, but working in the International Broadcast Center is kind of a drag. I do get to go to a game tomorrow. Not "that" game.

Big day tomorrow, obviously. Huge day, actually. 'Nuf said.

I'm going to write in the next few days about the amazing side trip my nieces, Kerry and Ryan, took to Kenya to see their little sister Beatrice, a young lady they've been sponsoring for the past year for an organization called Oasis for Orphans.

Kerry has promised me photos of "Little Bee" but in the meantime, check out this video from Christmas 2009, where Beatrice introduced herself to my brother's family. If you enjoy that one, here's another taken a year ago where a soccer field was dedicated.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

South Africa: Days 10-11

It's a mystery to me.

Whenever I travel abroad I become the world's clumsiest man. To date, I've stumbled and fallen to the ground twice (and I was not fouled), dropped important things (plug adapters) into places I could not reach without getting on my belly to find them (in public places), spilled drinks, and backed into about 1,000 people with my overstuffed backpack. Thankfully, folks here speak English (and most speak at least one other language), so "I'm sorry" and "Excuse me" work.

No explanation for any of it.

Let me ramble a bit. If anyone is thinking this trip is anything like my Angolan adventure, rest assured it is not. Not only are the people of South Africa extremely hospitable, the country is well-developed. No issues eating salads. You can order a steak medium. If you and your driver are starving after a long day, you can hit any number of drive thrus. Most of the hotels I've stayed in are of Holiday Inn caliber. Functional, clean, etc.

I had a little setback in Bloemfontein when I was assigned a handicapped room that did not have a shower. Not much of a bath guy, honestly. Especially when the room is cold and the bath water stays warm for about three minutes. I thought that was a pretty big inconvenience until I got to my latest hotel in Rustenberg. Yeah, it has a shower, but it would more accurately be called a trickle. And the H/C controls are pretty archaic. I got into a warm trickle and had to jump out of a scolding trickle. I've been going with the homeless man look a lot lately. It works for me.

Anyway, I work with sadness in my heart today. It's my son Tyler's 14th birthday, the first of his birthdays that I've missed, and hopefully the last. He's a stoic young man and he understands why I'm here, but that won't keep me from feeling sad today.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

South Africa: Days 8-9

Trying to keep the glass half-full here.

Been a long couple of days, post-game reserve. A 4 a.m. wakeup call, a long ride in a van, a couple of flights, a couple of delays, a lot of metal detectors, a freezing cold hotel with no shower, many cups of bad coffee, and the overall tension of something going on in another part of this country that I have no control over (yeah, "that"), but which occupies a lot of my brain.

But, as the kids like to say, it's all good.

The last few days sort of bring me back to my days as a baseball beat writer, the unusual rhythm of life on the road. I think Bill Bradley wrote about it in his book "A Sense of Where You Are," which I read as a young kid. He was describing the life of an NBA player. Something like this: A cab, a plane, a cab, a hotel, a game...repeat. Days turn into weeks, I find myself looking repeatedly at my watch, not to see what time it is, but to see what day it is. Scarce little time for this blog, but hope my handful of followers are checking out my real work at this little site.

Those who know me, know nothing means more to me than my family. As we near the end of Week 2 in South Africa, I continue to relish the experience, but also have to fess up. My son Tyler turns 14 on Saturday and I won't be there to celebrate. He's about to graduate from Manasquan Elementary School, and I'll miss that, too. My son Beau made Little League All-Stars and has begun to prepare for the Districts. This is the time of year when my sons run home from school, sling their backpacks in the door and ask me if I can throw them batting practice. It pains me to not be home with them. And, of course, that's not to mention my wife Linda who has to bear all the responsibilities of making sure they're prepared for their final exams, on-time to practices and games...and, of course, able to participate in all those "kid things" that go on at the close of a school year. Lin's pretty amazing at keeping it all together, but it doesn't erase the pain in my heart when so much of this goes by while I'm away.

A long drive through South Africa awaits me tomorrow, about five hours with my new driver, Jan ("Yon"), and hopefully back in JoBurg in time for "that" thing I'm stressing about.

Glass is half-full, trip's about one-third over. Peace all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

South Africa: Days 5-7

The dominant emotion I’d describe right now is guilt.

But that’s just my nature when things like this happen to me when I’m traveling on business. A slip-up in reservations left me without a hotel room in Port Elizabeth, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, so the best our company travel service could do was a "private game reserve" about 100 kilometers from Port Elizabeth.

That sounded nice, but when my driver Chris started taking me north on the N2, and kept driving and driving, passing nothing but wide open space, I started to wonder to myself, is this going to turn out ok? When we finally made it to our turn-off, and started heading down a dirt road, well, then I really started to have my doubts. When that dirt road, full of potholes and rocks, stretched on and on, for about 30 minutes, I began to wonder if I’d be better off sleeping in the airport on Tuesday night…my final night here.

But then we arrived. Breathtaking does not begin to describe this place.

I’m staying in a grass-roof "hut" that’s simply gorgeous. My room has a waterfall shower, a fireplace, mahogany floors, a deck overlooking a pond where a family of hippos play. In the distance are the hills of the reserve. There's also an outdoor, open-air shower and a jacuzzi, too bad it's winter.

When a sweet woman named Tanya showed me to my room, she asked if everything was ok, I could barely spit out the word, "Amazing." She then told me, "Mr. Bradley, one thing. After dark, do not leave your room alone. Call the office for assistance. At night, the animals sometimes walk right into the village. There could be a lion waiting at your door." I laughed, but she told me she was not joking.

A fellow named John took me on a two-and-a-half hour safari, where we saw giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs, a variety of deer with a variety of names I can’t remember. We went looking for the lions (there are 11 here) but found none. John explained to me that this is not like, say, the Disney safari where staff members feed the animals. This is survival of the fittest. He talked of how the lions weigh “work vs. satisfaction” when choosing their prey. In other words, they’d rather wait for something big and slow (a buffalo), than spend all day chasing something thin and fast (a blessbuck). Giraffes, he said are not very protective mothers, so a lot of baby giraffes become snack food for the lions. It’s nature, John explained to me. "We don’t interfere," he said. Pretty cool.

Anyway, back to guilt. I wish Linda and the boys could be here with me. But, the adventure will be over quickly. A long trip into Port Elizabeth today, a long trip back here tonight. I’ll probably miss dinner, and I have a 5 a.m. wakeup call tomorrow.

Fun while it lasted, no doubt.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

South Africa: Day 3/4


The only word I can come up with to describe this day. Here I sit thousands of miles from home, on the continent of Africa, in a small hotel room that just happens to be only about 200 miles from where my brother and his family are. Tonight, I will sit by myself in this hotel room and watch my brother and nephew on a 13-inch television screen.

Probably not the way most of you imagined I'd be spending this day. But that's sur-reality, I guess. In a way, I wish I'd figured out a way to get to the match, but in a way, it's probably better for me to watch it alone.

I keep telling myself, it's just a game. And I know it is.

Meanwhile, adventure has kicked in for me. I'm in the township of Polokwane, which used to be known as Pietersburg. The driver who has joined me out here could not be nicer. We had a great chat and I learned a lot about South Africa and, believe it or not, there's a lot of issues here that mirror those in the States. Things like illegal immigration. He explained to me that a number of folks from Mozambique and Zimbabwe make their way to South Africa to become day laborers on farms and on constructions sites. Many risk their lives to make their way across the border.

"Some come by way of the river and are eaten by crocodiles," he explained. "Some come by land and are eaten by lions." He explained how many of these people are willing to work for 70 rand a day (about 10 bucks) and put in more than a full day's work.

Sound familiar?

Anyway, not going to get too serious here, because I've lived a virtual Bloopers Video here in South Africa so far. You heard about the monkey/pigeons growling outside my window in Johannesburg, well that was just the beginning.

Yesterday I had my first freakout moment when I thought I'd lost my passport. Understand, I'm about to embark on a bunch of travel and losing a passport would be catastrophic. So, I went nuts. I checked the pocket of the jeans I "knew" I'd worn the night before. Nothing. So I began to turn my hotel room upside down.

I saw "another" pair of jeans, but I "knew" I had not worn those the night before, so I emptied my two suitcases and my laptop backpack (that was ugly, sort of like when Brodie cut open the shark's belly in Jaws and the unthinkable appeared). No passport.

More on the laptop backpack in a minute.

Now, the 9 a.m. bus was leaving for the stadium and I was, well, panicked. I went down to catch the bus and was told there'd be another leaving at 10. I did not say a word to anyone about the missing passport, but simply said I'd take the 10. I repeated the process described above. Suitcases emptied. Crap strewn everywhere. No passport.

I mean, there was still that pair of jeans that I "knew" I had not worn. Well, what the heck, at this point, I figured I'd check them even though I "knew" I had not worn them. Well, what do you "know." There was my passport. Sigh of relief.

Meanwhile back in the laptop backpack, I was a bit disgusted by all the crap, so I went to cleaning it out. First time in a while. Nice clean backpack for my travels.

So, with my nice clean backpack, I took off for Polokwane and when I got here, I took out my laptop and prepared to do my workout DVD (stop laughing), the DVD would not go in the slot of my MacBook. What the heck? Well, turns out in my nice, clean backpack there was an old hotel keycard that somehow found its way into the disc drive.

Now my DVD doesn't work. The lesson I learned is, don't clean out your backpack.

Peace everyone. Go USA.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

South Africa: Day 2

"It" starts tomorrow. Thankfully.

For two days now, I've basically been office-bound. See the photos? That's the Master Control Room and the door that leads to my desk. Yeah, that's where I've been.

It's no one's fault, it's just the way it's been at some events. It has nothing to do with South Africa as much as it just has to do with a massive event, lots of folks who do what I do working in one location and also needing transportation here, there and everywhere.

Not complaining, just excited that tomorrow I will actually get to see some very talented athletes perform on a brilliant stage.

Then, after tomorrow, it should get exciting. Solo flights to parts unknown. Various forms of transportation to get me to all sorts of places. Can't provide much more detail as much of it is a mystery to me. Fun, right?

My heart is very torn, of course, because I'm here, but I'm not exactly where I'd be if I was here in a non-working capacity. I'm actually fine with that, because the work manages to distract me from something that would be all-engrossing and nerve wracking.

I did some radio shows today. One with some old friends from Hull, England, and one with my employer. I had to explain to both that I'm here, but I'm not here to cover my brother and my nephew. When asked to provide analysis on them, all I could say is I know they've poured every ounce of their heart and soul into this endeavor.

And that's the truth.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

South Africa: Day 1

And so it begins, my 35-day South African adventure.

Most of you know why I'm here, but I'm not really supposed to write about "that" on this blog, so you'll have to keep tabs on www.espn.com/worldcup to read what I've got to say about "that."

What I can write here is about my journey, which began with a quick flight to Atlanta, a six-hour layover that was supposed to be a three-hour layover and a little 16-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. All told, about 26 hours of travel. Piece of cake.

For those who followed my trip to Angola, well, this is nothing like that. Not so far. Hotel outside of JoBurg is very nice, and across the street from a swanky casino with about 30 different restaurants. I feel like I could be in Anywhere, USA, so far.

"So far," is probably the operative phrase. On Saturday, when most of my friends and family are going to be watching my brother and nephew trying to do something pretty special, I'm going to be flying to Polokwane, which I'm told is going to be "different." Again, I'll reserve judgment until I see it for myself.

The only bit of adventure that happened so far occurred in my hotel room. First, I flooded the bathroom. I turned on the shower, which is one of those phone booth-sized units and the nozzle was pointed straight out the door. All it took was one two-second blast of water and I had an inch of water in the bathroom. Four towels dried it up.

Then, when I went to bed, exhausted from the day of travel, I woke up to what sounded like a growling animal. Now, understand, it was 3 a.m. and I was working on only a couple of hours sleep in the past 30 hours, so maybe it didn't really sound like growling. But that's what I heard. And it sounded like it was in my room.

Remembering a time when a raccoon somehow got into the hallway of my Boston apartment, I wasn't ruling anything out. So, when the growling sound persisted, and I began to think, "This is Africa," I reached for the rolling desk chair and rolled it toward the window, which is where the sound was emanating. I figured if there was indeed a wild African animal in my room (perhaps a monkey?), the chair would startle it, and I'd have to make a bee-line for the door.

No animal emerged, but a short while later, the sounds persisted and continued on through the night. In the morning, when I drew the curtains, I saw animal feces on the window sill. I'm guessing the growling was pigeons. We'll see what happens tonight.

The better part of Day 1 was spent in the International Broadcast Center, where we picked up our credentials, got a lay of the land, and watched (in amazement, as always) as 99 percent of the non-American journalists chain-smoked cigarettes in the courtyard. Food in the IBC was decent. Things will pick up day by day as we get ready for you know what. Yeah, I'm talking about "that."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Colonel John McHugh, 1963-2010

The following entry will be all over the place. I apologize ahead of time.

Yesterday, I lost a dear old friend when U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. I had known John since I was about eight years old.

We lived in different towns but always crossed paths in sports. Always.

From Church Basketball (he played for St. Al's, I played for Caldwell Presbyterian) to soccer camp in the summer, to watching our older brothers play American Legion baseball together, to the day when he and I learned as freshman we had made the Legion team. We warmed the bench together and loved every minute of being a part of the Post 185 squad. A year later, in 1980, we both got our chance to play...two years later, we were part of a team that won the Essex County championship and came within a game of winning the state title. As seniors, we won another county title, but John missed out on the post-season as he had to report to West Point to begin his life as a cadet. Without John as our backstop, our team was not the same.

He was a catcher in baseball...a goalkeeper in soccer. He was a born leader.

John went on to play goalkeeper at West Point. He loved soccer with all his heart. He was a great goalkeeper because he was a student of the position. Always in position, head always in the game.

In fact, he recently went to US Goalkeeper Training School...I saw this on Facebook.

"I got schooled this weekend by the Director of Coaching for the NY Red Bulls youth team; however, I recovered in time to knock the ball out for a corner before it crossed the line. of course, I also pulled a muscle; maybe it's because he's about 20 years younger and much better than me. But will I ever learn? Of course not, just keep playing."

Growing up, John was always one of those kids looking to organize a game, be it soccer, basketball or baseball. He (like myself) was a field rat. In high school, he not only was the goalkeeper on a team that went to the state finals and a catcher on a team that won the Greater Newark Tounament (a big deal in NJ), but wrote the game stories for the Caldwell Progress. Seriously, I thought he'd one day become the mayor of Caldwell. He was loved by everyone because he was so good-natured, friendly and honest. He was one of those guys who never had an off day. Always had a smile.

John graduated from West Point in 1986 and served his country for the next 24 years, most recently at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. He still found time to coach soccer teams in Kansas. He was really looking forward to watching the World Cup. He wrote me recently asking if I needed someone to carry my bags in South Africa. He was a huge fan of the US team and my brother Bob. John had two older brothers, Jim and Frank, who crossed paths in a similar way with my older brothers.

Different towns...same upbringing. Clean-cut boys, like me and my brothers. Parents that wouldn't let them get out of line. Like my parents.

On May 15th, John wrote on Facebook. "On the road again tomorrow. Heading to Afghanistan for a couple of weeks. If my travel doesn't get whacky I should be back in time for the Indy 500." The next day, John wrote: "Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Phillipians 4:6-7."

Three days later, he was killed.

John leaves behind his wife Connie and five children, three daughters and two sons. He recently became a grandfather at 46. It had been 25 years since I'd spoken to John and I'm thankful that he and I had gotten back in touch. We'd talked about having a 30-year reunion for our 1981 Legion team. I was counting on him to put it together.

He would've been our leader.

Rest in Peace, John. I'll never forget you, my friend.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Angola: Day 11

The Final. Egypt 1, Ghana 0.

And so it's over, all except for a day of waiting for my flight to leave Luanda, and 22 hours of flights and layovers...plus customs clearance, etc. It's pretty much over.

The final was an exciting game, well attended by the people of Angola. In fact, at the start of the game it looked like there would be a lot of empty seats, but when I scanned the stadium at the start of the second half, I think it's fair to call it a sell-out. I was touched at the end of the match, as the Egyptian players celebrated, that the crowd broke into a spontaneous chant of "An-GO-la, An-GO-la, An-GO-la!"

All things considered, I think the people in Luanda deserved to blow their own horn. Getting to these game, and home from these games, was no easy feat for anyone. Last night, it took us three hours to work our way back to the city (again, it's about 15 miles), and we witnessed a bad-looking four-car accident and a subsequent gathering of people in the street that had Ricardo and me wondering if there'd been a fatality.

The drive home was especially stressful for my man Ricardo, who said at one point, "Mr. Jeff, my head is hot (rhymes with boat)." He apologized profusely and asked if it was ok if he opened the window and had a smoke. "No problem," I said. When we got home, I had a cold can of Cuca in my fridge (leftover from the night when Payzin hopped out of the truck to buy a sixer) and Ricardo accepted it without hesitation.

As frustrating as it's been for me to sit in never-ending traffic jams, I can imagine it's been even harder on the guy behind the wheel. See, it's not just traditional traffic, it's also folks trying to circumvent the traffic by turning two lanes into three, four or five, and sometimes folks driving up on curbs, through road-side ditches etc. And there are also the scooters that seem to come out of nowhere.

I can't imagine driving through this, though I did joke with Ricardo that on my next trip to Luanda I'd just rent a car. "You think so, Mr. Jeff?"

No way.

And so it's over, all except for the actual work that comes now, the transcription of interviews, the organizing of material and the writing of my "real" stories. I've been doing this blog sporadically for the last year or so, but it seems these tales were able to reach more than just my normal circle of friends (see some of the comments), and I'm happy that people have gotten some easy entertainment and even enjoyment out of them.

It was not the easiest place to work, but Angola provided me with an experience I'll not soon forget, and as anyone who's been reading along knows, a friend for life.

In about 36 hours I should be back at the Jersey Shore. It will be good to be home.

Angola adeus eu não vou te esquecer.

E ao meu amigo para sempre, Ricardo.

Regards, Mr. Jeff

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Angola: Day 10

Tonight we cried a little.

Ricardo and I, we both miss our families. And this is what we talked about at the end of a long day. But we'll get to that later.

Ricardo picked me up in the morning and drove me out to the the fancy hotel at Talatona, where I was able to get a few good interviews with "the important people" of this big event. At this point in the trip, I have one friend who has been with me from start to finsh, Ricardo, so it feels awkward to have him drop me off in the front of the fancy hotel and tell me he will wait for me. But this is what we do, even though I'd prefer for him to come into the lobby and hang out with me. He says he cannot.

Thankfully, it was not long before we were back on the road to downtown Luanda, blaring the same music and watching the same busy scenes. The reason I was happy that I was able to get my work done promptly was because Ricardo had mentioned to me earlier in the day that he'd been asked to play in a 5 v. 5 game with some of his friends. "But only if there is no work for Mr. Jeff," he said.

I was, in fact, done with my work so early that I asked Ricardo if he could take me by his apartment, because I knew there would be pickup games going on in the nearby "court." I figured I'd end this trip the way I began it, with the story of "the ball."

Maybe it's naive, but the people of Africa that I have spoken to believe the ball brings people together, that the ball solves problems, and the ball can be the answer to so many issues these people face on a day-to-day basis. So, I needed to see the ball in action. It was just pickup game on a sheet of asphalt. A game amongst boys of limited skill, but indeed, the ball had done the job of unifying a neighborhood. If only for a while. "This is most days," Ricardo said. "There's always a game."

I looked at my watch and asked Ricardo if he could now take me back to my hotel. "I have work I can do," I said. "Just give me a call after your game."

So Ricardo dropped me off at the Roux and I spent the afternoon transcribing tapes and watching Premier League games (and my nephew's game on the internet) and thinking a little bit about tomorrow's Cup of Nations final between Egypt and Ghana. And around 6:30, my phone rang and it was Ricardo. "Do you want to eat?" I asked him.

"No, Mr. Jeff," he said. "I have already ated" (I hate to show Ricardo's grammatical mistake, and it's not meant to be disparaging, but I found it endearing. He had gone home and eaten something after his game.) When he picked me up, Ricardo was limping. "I got kicked hard during the game," he said. "It hurts very bad."

Our normal drill went on. Ricardo opened the truck door for me, made sure my door was locked, and drove me to my rice and beans place, Sindicato. I loaded up my plate, asked Ricardo if he was hungry. "No, Mr. Jeff," he said. I gave him the look that said, "are you sure?" He finally relented and filled himself a bowl of rice and beans.

And then, the moment of this journey that I will not forget. I ordered a beer, a Cuca, of course, and Ricardo ordered a water. When he asked me if I wanted a second, I said, "Only if you will have one with me."

And Ricardo said, "I do not think I can do this, Mr. Jeff."

"I think you can..."

When the waitress returned, she had two mugs of beer. We toasted our friendship and our families. "I do this, Mr. Jeff, because this is the last night we will eat together," Ricardo said."

"That's right, Mr. Ricardo," I said, bringing out a huge smile.

And we drank our beers together, talked soccer as the highlights of the African Cup of Nations were being shown on the restaurant's big screen. Ricardo and I will both pull for Ghana tomorrow, as we agree Egypt seems arrogant. We agreed that Lionel Messi is the best player in the world right now, better than Cristiano Ronaldo, and we differed on who is the greatest player of all-time (one said Pele, the other said Maradona). And we talked about our wives and kids, and how we miss them...as Ricardo says, "A loat (rhymes with boat).

When he dropped me off, Ricardo and I discussed tomorrow's agenda. "I will watch the news before I go to sleep, Mr. Jeff," Ricardo said. "I need to know how early we must leave." And then he paused. "I want to say I'm sorry, because I should not have had that beer while I was working, Mr. Jeff..."

And I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "No, no, no, Ricardo," I said. "I am so glad we were able to have a beer together, my friend, don't be sorry."

As I said the final word, I could feel tears welling in my eyes. And Ricardo had the same look. We shook hands and gave each other a brief "bro hug double-back-tap."

I'm ready for this trip to be over, but I'm going to miss this guy.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Angola: Day 9

A weird day, for sure. A day of mixed emotions.

It was a day spent with the muckity-mucks of FIFA and CAF (Confederation of African Football) at the official CAF Hotel. Ricardo and I got lost on our way out there, stopping for directions a few times, before ultimately finding it.

"I was here when I was younger," Ricardo said. "I fought here in the war, but it was nothing but bushes and sand." When we finally found the hotel and convention center, I wasn't sure what to think. It was brand new and gorgeous. Some officials from FIFA and CAF were emerging from the fitness center in their green adidas gear. Others were having coffee and breakfast in the swanky cafe.

Outside there were freshly planted palm trees, valets, fountains. The lobby was nothing short of spectacular, with marble floors, crystal chandeliers, more fountains. For a while, as I sat waiting for the press conferences and interviews to begin, I thought, "How much easier this trip would've been had I gotten a room out here." I mean, I could've eaten in the cafe, had drinks at the bar, worked out in the gym...

But as the day wore on, as each packet of information was handed over, one glossier than the next (one was Qatar's 1022 World Cup bid propaganda), I started to realize, if I'd stayed in this hotel, I'd have missed out on all the long trips in the truck. It took us forever to get out there this morning, and the trip home was no picnic either. And it has been on those trips, I think, that I've learned about Angola. Two hours after I told Ricardo I was ready to be taken home, he and "Boy" (aka Payzin) showed up in the truck, ready to begin the trek back to the Roux.

"We call Friday, 'the Man's Day,'" Ricardo said as we crawled through a the mass of traffic. "You can see all the men are out together, having some drinks." Ricardo was right again. The streets were lined with men. In the earlier hours, men were doing pull-ups, sit-ups and push-ups in one of the "fitness parks." As night fell, yeah, they were drinking beer from the bottle. Toasting the start of the weekend.

I had not eaten all day, not wanting to sneak into the fancy luncheon (I think I saw lobster) that Qatar was throwing for all the delegates. I asked if we could return to "Sindicato," where we've eaten rice and beans. "Of course, whatever Mr. Jeff wants to do," Ricardo said. So Ricardo, Payzin and I sat down to dinner together.

"The Man's Day," I said to Ricardo and Payzin, raising my Cuca.

They simply nodded.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Angola: Day 8

So little I can write about today.

Ricardo picked me up at 1 o'clock to take me to the stadium for a 5 o'clock game. Traffic in town was bad as usual, but traffic out of town was nothing like it was the day Angola played Ghana, so I arrived at the stadium very early. For my non-soccer-writing brethren, there is no pre-game clubhouse access in soccer. You get to the park early, basically, you hang out 'til game time. So I hung out, ate a "Fahita" (very chewy) for 600 kwanzas, nearly fell asleep, and chatted with my Ghanaian friends.

Ghana beat Nigeria 1-0 to advance to the final. The non-biased Ghanaian press corps, dressed in team colors, waving flags and screaming at the top of their lungs, were pretty happy. I posed for a bunch of pictures with them. I'm big in Ghana.

Always good for a sports scribe covering a soccer game when the guy who scores the only goal in a 1-0 game (Asamoah Gyan) decides he doesn't want to talk to the press. Maybe the fact that half the press corps was hugging him left him speechless, I dunno.

Ricardo, as always, was there to pick me up after the match. Only he had a "very good friend," who was standing in the back of the pickup.

"What's his name?" I asked Ricardo.

"I'm not sure, I just call him Boy," Ricardo said.

"I thought he was a very good friend," I said.

"Well, he's done a lot for me today. He keeps the truck clean. He helps me," Ricardo said. Well, that was good enough for me. So I opened the window and asked Boy in Spanish what his name was. "Payzin," he said with a smile.

"His name is Payzin," I told Ricardo, who was now in stitches.

When we hit traffic, Ricardo shouted something to Payzin, and wouldn't you know it, Payzin jumped out of the truck, ran into a gas station and emerged with some cold Cucas for Mr. Jeff. We began the long trek home, through Luanda's dusty roads, always filled with people, always filled with life.

Ricardo blasted 50 Cent, which was cool, because I got to explain to him what an "Oompah Loompah" is what a "P-I-M-P" is...see, me and Ricardo help each other out.

Three days to go. Ghana and Egypt in the final Sunday.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Angola: Day 7

All I can do is smile.

If you read yesterday's post, well, it was more of the same today. Only worse. Won't bore you with all the bad-day-at-work stuff. Just know, I've never seen anything like the city of Luanda in terms of congestion and chaos.

I had two tasks to accomplish today and I was 0-for-2, sitting in traffic for almost the entire day before telling Ricardo "Enough, just get me back to the hotel. I can't take it any more."

That's not to say we didn't have a few laughs along the way. The first good one came when I told Ricardo I was just going to take out a wad of Kwanzas and start buying everything that was offered to us as we sat in traffic. Shower heads. Cell phones. Batteries. Brushes. Pots and Pans. Remote Controls. Plastic Toys. Watches. Car chargers. Art. CDs. DVDs. Fruit. Coca Cola. Gum.

"No, no, Mr. Jeff," Ricard said, laughing. "Don't do it!"

Then I threatened Ricardo that tomorrow, I would bring my entire stash of candy and power bars out on the road and do a little selling myself. "You make me laugh, Mr. Jeff," Ricardo said. "And this is good for me, because I am very stressed."

Ricardo and I got our best laugh, however, when we finally made it to Ghana's team hotel. No one from the team or the press was around, but former U.S. (and Mexico, Costa Rica, Nigeria, China, Honduras, Jamaica, Iraq) coach Bora Milutinovic immediately saw me as I got out of Ricardo's pickup. "I know where we need to go," Bora said, excitedly. "I go with you!" Bora threw three suitcases in the back of the pickup. When Ricardo told him it would likely be stolen as we sat in traffic, Bora said, "No, no, my friend." Then he hopped in the single-cab pickup, crashing his knee into the stick shift. Yes, three adults across the one seat.

If you've never met Bora, I'll just describe the language he speaks as Span-Eng-French-ish. He told Ricardo the name of the hotel and Ricardo had no idea what he said. He took out a piece of paper and said it again. Still, no clue. Ricardo asked to see the piece of paper, but Bora's writing was nothing more than scribble.

When I told Bora my goal was to interview some of the Nigeria players, he got very excited. "Give me your phone, I will call Kanu for you. We will go talk to Kanu!" I gave Bora my phone and he took out his checkbook, which was filled with more scribble. He handed me the phone and started calling out numbers for me to call. None worked.

When Bora finally communicated where he needed to go, Ricardo whispered to me that it would take us all day to get there. Instead, Ricardo called his friend who owns a cab and told him to come and pick up Bora. We waited a half hour and sent Bora on his way.

Then it was back into traffic.

Game tomorrow in Luanda. We literally have to leave the hotel six hours before kickoff. I believe the stadium is 15 miles away.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Angola: Day 6

Guess it's time for me to send home a dose of reality.

And the reality is, this is a tough place.

I've traveled to many countries in my 20 years as a journalist, but this is the first time I've ever been in a city for this long and cannot tell you even where I am staying. Each time I come back from any part of Luanda, the return trip is like putting a 1,000-piece puzzle back together. I could be a block away and I couldn't tell you where I was in this town of narrow, dirt and mud roads, crumbling cement and incomplete construction projects.

I've focused on the people throughout this trip, in particular my friend Ricardo, because I've tried to look for the good while I"m here. I'm not giving that up, but I don't want to paint a completely inaccurate picture of where I am.

When I mentioned to some South African businessmen who are staying in my hotel that it doesn't look like the city has recovered well from the 28-year war, one looked at me and said, "Twenty-eight years was just the civil war. More wars preceded that."

It shows. Any beauty in the old architecture here has been covered with dust. There are piles of concrete at the feet of nearly every building. And in the day to day hustle and bustle that defines this place, it seems there's no time left for clean up. Garbage bins overflow. While there is certainly some wealth in Luanda due to the oil business, the overwhelming majority of people are poor. Very poor. I've read that 60 percent of the people here live on two dollars a day. You see a lot of desperation.

Today, Ricardo even showed frustration with the city he grew up in, as he got stuck in yet another traffic jam, got cut off by yet another car or scooter. "When will people start to follow the rules?" he asked. "It is chaos. I am embarrassed."

He said he had a long talk with his wife last night. She is South African and they've spent their entire married life together in Johannesburg. "I told her I feel very bad for Mr. Jeff," Ricardo said. "I feel very bad for this man who is trying to work."

Of course, I told him it's not his fault, but I am reaching a frustration point because I am not used to being able to accomplish so little in the course of a day. The streets are choked with vehicles and pedestrians and riders on scooters. I could walk more perhaps, but Ricardo would not hold up in the heat. And that's not what he was paid to do. Go out on my own? I have thought about it, but not a single person here has given me an inkling that I could negotiate this city on my own safely.

"I'd just like to have a place where I could walk for coffee," I told Ricardo today. He just shook his head and said, "I am very sorry, Mr. Jeff. There is not that place."

And with that, Ricardo slammed his hand down on his thigh. A man was tapping on his window, trying to sell us DVDs. Decaying, dilapidated buildings surrounded us.

I drew a deep breath.

"No worries, Ricardo," I said, even though that happens to be one of my least favorite cliches. "It is what it is." And that happens to be my very least favorite cliche.

I did not know what else to say. Tomorrow is a new day. Five more to go.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Angola: Day 5

Probably my least-interesting day so far.

Talk about a sentence to suck the reader in, eh? Honestly, it was a work day not so different from an off-day on any American sports beat. There was a hotel lobby. There were journalists waiting for some time with players. There were PR guys calling the shots. Didn't matter if it was Luanda, Angola or Kansas City, Mo.

When that drill was done, I asked Ricardo if he could find us a decent place to watch the quarterfinal match between Cameroon and Egypt, so we took the road-less-traveled...literally, the road with less traffic...to the part of town known as Ilha.

Ilha looks quite like so many coastal places I've been before, in some ways. In other ways, it's like nothing I've ever seen before in my life (except for maybe Asbury Park eight years ago). You've got wide beaches bordering next to shanty villages filled with trash and stray dogs. You've got a few night spots that look nice. One is called Chill-Out Luanda, though Ricardo pronounces it "Sheelout" and he warned that it's pricey, which is saying something here in Luanda, which I've learned is the most expesnive city in the world. Seriously, you will get raked in this place if you're not careful.

"If you would like, I will take you there one night, Mr. Jeff," Ricardo said. "But these places, I don't like them too much." Without going into much detail, Ricardo explained that in these places his job becomes very difficult. I think he had visions of me drinking a bunch and dancing. Go ahead, I'm laughing too.

We watched the game at an outdoor cafe called Ponto de Final and I enjoyed a couple of cold Cucas, which I must say is a pretty nice beer. I let Ricardo order for me and he ordered me a piece of beef covered with a fried egg, french fries, a salad, and he also ordered up some rice and beans because he's heard me say I like them. Understand, Ricardo had a secret plan to pick up the check, but I would not let it happen. Because I had described a piece of meat I'd eaten at my hotel as "shoe leather," Ricardo asked me, "Is this meat soft enough for you, Mr. Jeff?" Indeed, it was soft enough.

Ricardo watched me like a hawk as I took some photos of local scenery, including a filthy flea market that bordered some woods that Ricardo described with one word. "Drugs." Still, my spirits were lifted by the youngsters on the beach, playing pickup soccer and doing things I did as a kid, before XBox and PS3. They played leap frog. They played tag. I saw a little girl just spinning around, making herself dizzy. She had a beautiful smile. "You love children, Mr. Jeff," Ricardo said. "I can see that."

I told him he was right. And I could tell Ricardo was sad. He misses his daughter, Lolly and his son Tony, who are back in South Africa with his wife Rita. He has explained that he is here because he thinks in Angola he has more opportunity to provide for them. "As you can see, Mr. Jeff," he says. "Money is spent in Angola."

It's got a chance to get a bit tedious here the next few days. Training sessions and waiting on players who don't want to be interviewed. I told Ricardo I might just drink 10 Cucas and do the "Kuduru" for him. He laughed hard.

"I'm going to miss you very much, Mr. Jeff," he said. I think he knows how I feel.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Angola: Day 4

A long day for me and Ricardo.

I could moan and groan about the traffic here in Luanda. It's like nothing I've ever seen before in my life. But it's here and it's not going away, so we'll deal with it.

I'd rather focus on other things.

The people of this country continue to amaze me. I look around and see so many depressing things these folks could harbor and turn into sadness, but instead today, they decked themselves out, from head to toe, in their country's colors and sang and danced and tried to will their team to victory.Every car, every building was seemingly bedecked with a flag. "If Angola wins," Ricardo said as we stood still in our Toyota pickup on a dusty road that led to El Estadio 11 de Novembre, "tomorrow nobody works." He thought for a second and said, "Of course, Mr. Jeff, I will work."

For a second, he was worried that I might be angry with him. If he only knew.

Silly things have made me smile on this trip. Every morning, I eat toast in the lobby/lounge (there's no bar, so it's hardly a lounge) area of the hotel. And every morning, a five-song John Denver CD plays over and over and over. For some reason, I think Farah and Fuad, the hotel owners, think I enjoy it..."Follow me, where I go..."

Every time I get into Ricardo's truck, he has the same four or five songs blasting. He explained to me that the music is for the "kuduru," which he translated as the "hard ass" dance (that's not my photo, it's google's). It's a cultural thing, for sure, because to me it sounds like the CD is skipping. At any rate, I pump my head up and down to the beat, tap the dashboard, and it makes my man Ricardo laugh. And that's cool.

I'm repeatedly amused by the array of American sports jerseys that seemingly have no real significance. A Mike Singletary Bears shirt. A St. Joseph's hoops jersey. A Vanderbilt T-shirt. A Troy Aikman jersey. A Dodgers Little League shirt from some American town, with the name of some local sponsor on the back. I'm guessing the folks who throw these items in the Salvation Army and Goodwill bins in their hometowns can be happy they're being put to use.

Ricardo was sad on the long trip home, but I'm happy for one thing, he went inside the new stadium (his first time) and watched the game with his countrymen. He had not planned on attending the game because he did not think it was the professional thing to do. After I told him I'd be angry if he did not go on account of me, he changed his mind, found some kids with extra tickets in the parking lot and was able to be a fan.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Angola: Day 3

It was day of joy and sadness...and ultimately, hope.

We began the morning in search of football and it was easy to find. Maybe 100 yards outside the gate of "The Roux," around 10 a.m., a group of men were playing a pickup game on a patch of asphalt that was sprinkled with sand, pebbles and glass.

It hardly mattered as they flicked around a half-deflated "bola" as one of the goalkeepers, muscles glistening with sweat, barked out instructions. I knew this would be the case coming into Angola, having traveled to places like Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil. A ball can do wonders.

As we drove around the streets of Luanda, you couldn't travel far without seeing a ball. A boy dribbling along the sidewalk in his flip-flops. A street vendor selling replica game balls emblazoned with the logo of the African Cup of Nations. (The streets are already on fire for tomorrow's clash between Angola and Ghana, a quarterfinal that will bring this country to a 90-minute-plus-stoppage-time halt). And a group of young boys playing on the beaches known as "Ilha."

Caked in sweat and sand, but full of pure joy as they played their games, with no parents around to tell them to "spread out!" or "shoot!" No, it was their game and their game only.

The tallest boy in the group came over and showed me a notebook he was keeping. He explained that this was his "league," and the teams, though not uniformed, were all named. A.C. Milan, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Chelsea were some of the names I was able to read. He said the boys all contributed money, and the winners of the league would take home the kitty. I was impressed, even if it was only his dream.

As we drove away from the beach, I told Ricardo I might want to buy an Angola shirt and he told me, "We shall see, Mr. Jeff." About an hour later, after we'd driven by dozens of shirt vendors on the street, Ricardo asked if I could wait a moment while he went into his apartment. When he came out, he handed me a shirt. His shirt. "This is a gift from the heart," Ricardo said. When I said it was unnecessary, he said, "I'm honored you want to wear the shirt of my country." When Ricardo told me to wear it to the game tomorrow, I didn't have the heart to tell him that would be inappropriate for a journalist to wear a jersey (though many Angolan writers will surely be wearing their country's colors tomorrow), I think I will wear it tonight when we go out to eat.

Ricardo has been my greatest gift on this trip. A true friend. Over lunch, I learned that he recently lost his mother, who died at the age of 49. Ricardo says it was the stress of the war that killed her. Stress of the war that took her husband over 30 years ago. The war that had Ricardo fighting in the streets as a young man. "She was forced to be my mother and my father," he says as we eat big plates of rice and beans. "It's very hard now for me without her."

I am happy that Ricardo likes to talk, to tell stories, because it keeps me from getting too lonely. He does ask, however, that most of what he's telling me remain between the two of us. There's still not a lot of trust here, for sure, even though the country has been at peace for eight years.

I will say that I've never met a 33-year old man in my life who has been through so much. Who has every reason to be bitter and angry. But who repeatedly says to me, "I believe, Mr. Jeff, that if I work hard and live an honest life, good things will happen. This is what I want to pass on to my son and daughter. That an honest man can go far."

Tomorrow is game day. I came here hoping to see Ghana and Ivory Coast advance. But it will be hard now not to root for Ricardo's country. Forca Angola!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Angola: Day 2

Meet my "Fixer." His name is Ricardo.

"I would like you to see that the people of Angola are beautiful and peaceful," Ricardo says. "Because this what I believe in my heart."

It is Ricardo's job to make sure I get where I need to go, which is no easy task here, because of the choking traffic and less-than-adequate roads. Today I had two tasks to accomplish. I had to get my media credentials and I wanted to register myself as a visitor to Angola at the American Embassy, just in case...well, ya know.

We left the lovely Hotel Rouxinol around 9:30 after a satisfying breakfast of toast and toast. Six hours later, I was back at the "Roux" having procured my credentials and taken Ricardo (the Fixer) and Mauro (the Driver) to lunch.

I believe we drove about 10 miles total.

Ricardo apologized profusely for the traffic (as if there was something he should have been able to do about it), explaining, "This is the way it is here, Monday through Friday. You can see the people are busy. The people are working." When a policeman stops our car at a traffic circle and asks to see Mauro's license, Ricardo does not want to hear Mauro express any anger or frustration. "He is doing his job," Ricardo says. "He is only doing what he's told to do."

As we putter along, Ricardo tells me that he was once a champion in Karate, beginning at the age of 5 or 6, but when he reached the age when he would truly begin to compete, he was called into a different kind of fighting. The Angolan Civil War ended only eight short years ago and Ricardo says that he and many other young boys were running the same streets we now drive, "We had no shoes and no shirts," he says. "But we had AK-47s. You had to learn to fight or you would become dust."

Ricardo's father died in the war when Ricardo was only three months old. He had many other relatives who also died in a war that ran from 1975-2002 and killed half a million people. "What's especially sad," he says, "is we were fighting our brothers."

Ricardo moved to South Africa for a while, met his wife and had two children, and now he's back, "Because I want to see this country, my country, to succeed." He looks outside the window and says, "Ten years ago, this was all sand. It's getting better."

I look out and see poverty as extreme as anything I've ever seen in person. Shanty villages and mountains of trash. Kids wallowing in mud. Pregnant women carrying bushels of bananas to sell on the streets. I guess perspective is an amazing thing.

When we stop for lunch of rice and beans, Ricardo tells me, "Try a Cuca, it's our national beer." He then adds, "Of course, The Driver and I cannot have one."

I take a pass and tell him to order three Cokes. "Are you sure, Mr. Jeff?" Ricardo says. "I am here to make sure you are doing everything you want and need to do."

As you can see, my Fixer is doing a great job...and before this trip is over, I am going to insist that we have that Cuca together.