Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Part 2: lax > mia > mvd > PUNTA > eze > dfw > lax

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

We usually attend a welcome party before any major international poker tournament, which is both good and bad. The downside is that if I drink too much, then I begin the first day of work with a hangover. In this instance, I had to write a small piece about the party itself held at a club named Guappa in downtown Punta del Este. Obtaining the material about the party was easy. Trying to post it in our hotel with the crappy wifi was a friggin' chore.

And yes, I woke up hungover in another country.

The welcome party was similar to most poker parties. Free booze. Bite sized food. Industry people complaining about their jobs. Poker players complaining about bad beats. In short, it's a sausage festival. The only good thing is that these parties in Latin America feature hot models who get paid to... well... stand around and look pretty. The police actually block off part of the street so the club could have an "outdoor" lounge. That raised the element of cool. The locals in Punta know how to party.

Wednesday morning began with the routine that I would repeat over the next four days. Wake up hungover with my feet dangling off the bed. Scorn the bug bites. Eat breakfast buffet in lobby with colleagues. Wait for shuttle van that shows up 20 minutes later. Drive to work. Work for 12 hours. Wait for late shuttle bus. Drive home. Eat Italian food at Midnight. Drink beer until 3am. Watch Olympics with Spanish commentators. Play cards. Pass out. Rinse. Repeat.

We worked in one of the swankiest casinos in South America. I didn't see any hookers, but a couple of Colombian drug lords, and a famous Brazilian race car driver. The casino was lovely and the taxis out front were all Mercedes. The food was ridiculous. $20 for a ham and cheese with the crusts cut off. $5 for a bottle of soda. Our buddy Mickey got charged $10 for a chocolate milk in a malt glass! No booze in the shake in case you were wondering.

The food at the restaurant affiliated with our hotel was super cheap. Nicky and I ate there with our colleagues at least five days/nights because the casino eateries were over-priced and super expensive. Our total tab (including the minibar in our hotel room) was $193 USD. For both of us. That was well under our daily per diem. Punta is retardedly pricey but our hotel food/booze was cheap which is one of the reasons why our client put us up there. The rooms were horribly overpriced at $170 per night, but the food/beverages were top notch with tremendous value. That's the only thing that saved us.

Even the steak at the Italian joint was kick ass. Rey taught us how to order it the right way so it's not overcooked -- the trend in South America. They cook the shit out of their steaks. We were always the last table of the night, but we tipped well, which kept the staff happy. During our first trip, the Uruguayan waiter insisted that I looked like someone he had seen on TV. We all had a hearty chuckle. TV? Rey, my buddy from Costa Rica, told him in Spanish that I was on the Playboy Channel. I am El Gigante. That's it, the waiter said. He thought that I was a porn star.

I dug the local beer. Patricia. I liked it almost as much as Quilmes in Argentina. We drank so much Patricia that the restaurant ran out! We were in Punta del Este at the end of the summer season which meant that they had no more scheduled beer deliveries. We were forced to drink 40 oz. bottles of Budweiser for the rest of the trip. No shit. At least the food was tasty.

A grandma-type was in the back doing most of the cooking and made gnocchi from scratch! Melted in your mouth. The brick oven pizzas were solid for South America. But the price... like $15 meal... Nicky and I ate/drank what would have cost $75 in the US.

We watched about an hour or so of the Olympics every night in Spanish on ESPN+, including the Canada/Slovakia game. Canada whooped them and it was strange to hear the banter in Spanish. Rey liked that the main focus of the sport is to score a goal, so it resembled soccer, er football for Latin Americans.

I was bummed that I missed out on the US/Finlandia game. The game was on when I was at work, so I could only sweat the outcome via ESPN and Twitter. We watched ice skating one evening and we were pretty wasted shouting obscenities at the screen. Figure skating is more palatable with Spanish commentators than listening to Scott Hamilton shriek like a little girl every time someone does a triple axle. We were betting on whether or not a skater would fall. Degens.

Nicky and I watched a bit of random TV too, such as Mad Men and Los Simpsons. They aired old episodes of The Osbournes but since the program is subtitled, they don't bleep out f-bombs. MTV used to block those out, so it was cool to see the "unedited version" on Uruguayan TV.

Rey taught us a game called Big Deuce. I played variations of the card game before and our crew (Mickey, Nicky and Eric) became addicted. We stayed up late playing Big Deuce when we should have been sleeping but we really didn't have anything to do with the crappy internet and entertained ourselves drinking beers from our mini-bars and playing cards.

I worked with a photographer from Argentina named Carlos. He's in his early 50s and a fisherman by trade. His English was spotty but he was a nice guy. He called me Pablo the entire week.

Our buddy Joe Giron used to be the main photographer for our client during South American events, but he costs too much money so he didn't get the gigs this season due to budget cuts. Joe is a renown rock-and-roll photographer and was Pantera's official guy for many years. He's one of the best in the poker industry. He also grew up in New Mexico and speaks perfect Spanish too which is a bonus. It is always tough having to replace someone who is irreplaceable. However, Carlos did an excellent job for a fisherman and amateur photographer.

I sat next to Sergio for the entire week. We worked together in the Bahamas last year. He's Brazilian and speaks amazing English. He taught me a new word in Portuguese every day including curse words like "faggot" and "fuck you" so I can use them in the chat box when I'm playing online poker against Brazilians.

At one point, I walked up to a famous Brazilian poker pro and uttered "Va'se foder!"

He gave me a look like, "What did you fuckin' say?" and then laughed his ass off that I told him to go fuck himself.

Sergio and Rey manned the foreign language blogs for my client. Nicky and I wrote stuff in English and they translated excerpts for the Spanish or Portuguese blogs. Rey is invaluable on these trips because his English is perfect and he acts as a translator or go between. One of my favorite parts of covering events in Latin America is getting to work with and hang out with those guys. Good folks.

The earthquake happened at 4:30am. We had just gone to bed and did not feel it. I heard about it when I woke up. Just a day earlier, we were all talking about the Japan earthquake that had just occurred and then the Chile's 8.8 rocked the world. Ocho-Ocho terremoto is what the news were calling it. The Pacific was under a tsunami watch/warning. We were on the Atlantic side of South America and the Earth absorbed the shock waves so no tsunamis for us. My mother wondered if I was OK. I told her that I was in a safer area than if I was in LA since Southern California was also under a tsunami watch.

My colleague Gloria was in the Bahamas when the Haiti quake hit and experienced a tsunami warning at that time. I was going to be working with her in Chile in mid-March. We doubted that the event would continue as scheduled (and most likely postponed) since the Vina del Mar area was hit pretty bad. She had just emailed me the flight info the day before. Nicky was also working that trip for a different client and we kept saying how lucky we got that we weren't in Chile at the time instead of Uruguay.

On Saturday in the press area, we pulled up live video feeds in Hawaii as they awaited for a tsunami to hit. Slowly, more news trickled in about the earthquake from citizen journalists.

On Sunday morning, the church bells from the chapel next store woke me up. I had popped a Vicodin the night before and woke up with a pharmie/beer hangover. Once you get into the cycle, you have to keep popping pills because you're head constantly throbs. Gah.

I watched the Ocho-Ocho terremoto news coverage with Rey. Riots and looters engulfed Concepcion, the second-largest city in Chile. Anti-riot transports were spraying looters with high-pressured water hoses. Rey translated the crying ladies being interviewed by a camera crew, as they all stood in front of the grocery store. The lady said that she had money but all of the stores were closed. Her kids were hungry. How was she going to get food? I later learned that most workers were paid at the end of the month and the quake happened before they were paid. They had no money for food or to pay the extortion fees that the price gougers were charging for food and water.

The Chilean version of Anderson Cooper stood in the middle of the street and interviewed a woman in tears clutching a baby, and behind them, you could see the mass hysteria unfold. Insanity. Chaos. People wheeling out carts of goods that they just lifted. Old men dragging garbage bags out stuffed with food. Groups of teenage boys carrying grocery carts down a flight of stairs filled with items. Old ladies were waiting outside and grabbing stuff off the ground when other looters dropped it in an attempt to quickly escape. The military anti-riot squad dosed everyone with water. Even the Chilean Anderson Cooper. He got drenched too.

"That's what I'm worried about," I told Nicky as I pointed at the TV screen. "That sort of hysteria in LA after a quake. That's why I want to have a shotgun for our Earthquake/Armageddon closet. If survive a 8.8 or higher in LA.... can we survive the looters and uprising when all social services and law enforcement breaks down?"

Here's a similar version of what I saw...

We turned off the TV and went for a walk to the beach. The last day of the summer. All of the vacationers were getting in the last bit of their vacations before they went home.

We packed up our gear and ate lunch on the veranda of our hotel. We drank more beer, this time Pilsen (thankfully the bar at the hotel had something other than Bud), and played more cards until two taxis arrived to take the six of us to the airport. Our cabbie was missing three teeth and told Eric a bad beat story on our way back to Montevideo.

We played more cards at the airport and I ate a bad cookie at a McCafe. I spent most of my time in Montevideo Airport in their immaculate toilet. At least they had a 3G connection on the crapper, so I was able to check my email and Twitter.

We had to endure three flights to get home. The first leg was to fly to Buenos Aires. 25 minutes of total flight time. We left at 7:30 and arrived at 7:30. I know... a firgging time machine! Actually, Uruguay is one hour ahead of Argentina.

Nicky and I went to the Admiral's Club where I watched the end of the gold medal hockey game. It was 2-0 when I boarded my flight in Montevideo. It was 2-2 by the time I sat down to watch the overtime period. I sat with two Americans and a Canadian. We ate stale crackers and cheese and sat on the edge of our seats. I let out a hearty, "Awww fuck!" When Sidney Crosby scored the sudden death goal. Miller was unbeatable for the entire tournament --- until that moment.

The Yanks lost to the Canucks in the gold medal and I watched it on ESPN+ in Argentina. I guess that I'll never forget that odd moment.

I popped a Vicodin and prepped for the long haul home. Nicky and I made our way to the cramped gate. Argentinians are known for their inability to understand a "line" and they rush towards front even though only first class passengers were the only ones called. Nicky and I had priority boarding and had to wait until first class and business class were called so we inched our way up through the mob. That's when I thought I heard my name on the intercom. Thirty seconds later, I heard it again but that time with Nicky's name. I told her to wait near the front of the boarding line while I investigated.

I asked the guy at the desk if he called my name. He said yes and asked to see my ticket. He started a speech, "We're oversold..."

I quickly protested, "No way..."

"It's OK," he assured, "You and Nicky are getting upgraded to business class."

I whirled around to Nicky and shouted, "Give me your ticket. We're getting upgraded!"

Nicky barreled through the crowd with both of our wheelie luggage.

"It's about time we got a break!" she said.

The flight had open seats in business class and they needed to fill those to fix the oversold coach cabin. Because of Nicky's standing as a Platinum member, she was at the top of the list of people to get bumped up. We caught a break, especially since I was prepared for another flight from hell.

I always think that first class and business class is a waste on domestic airlines. However, on international flights, the business class experience is a sincere luxury. I flew business class from Australia once and it was one of the most pleasurable moments that I encountered while on the road. I knew that we'd be in for a treat for our flight from Beunos Aires to Dallas. After all of the other bad beats, it felt awesome to final get something back. The best part is that we didn't even have to pay for the upgrade and Nicky didn't lose any miles.

The only drawback was that we had middle seats (not together). It didn't matter in business class because of the excess room. The seats almost recline into a full bed. The personal TVs meant that I could watch something during the insomnia hours. The higher quality of food meant that I'd actually eat something on an airplane. The exclusivity of business class meant that I didn't have to deal with crying babies or leering sexual deviants whacking off in the middle of the aisles of the coach cabin while people slept.

I was probably the worst-dressed person in business class. I opt for comfort over than nice clothes, especially on long ass trips. That didn't stop the flight attendant from calling me "Mr. McGrupp" the entire time.

I didn't even have the booze. I asked for club soda. They always kept my glass full. Yes, it was a glass not a recycled plastic cup, and they often swapped it out for a chilled glass with ice. Oh, and how about those warm nuts? Not too shabby. Much better than the stale orange-dyed cheese crackers they serve you in coach.

The Beef tenderloin and a side salad were average. The hot rolls were clutch along with the whipped butter. The dessert was the best part of the meal. Ginger ice cream with chocolate sauce on the bottle of the large glass. One of the best desserts I've had in a very long time. I wanted to ask for seconds. I should have. I regret that I didn't.

I watched a bunch of flicks starting with The Men Who Stared at Goats and then moved onto a Robert DeNiro flick that I never heard of before called Everybody's Fine. It was OK and more sad that I expected. I fell asleep after watching Glengary Glenn Ross. I forgot how much I loved that flick. The flight attendant woke me up when it was time for breakfast (OJ, fruit, omelete, and two croissants). I popped on Star Trek for the rest of the flight and enjoyed the last hour or so of the life of luxury.

We were one of the first passengers off the plane at 6am and breezed through immigration. We killed time in the empty Admiral's Club in the Dallas airport and loaded up on newspapers so I could read about America's filtered and water-down coverage of the Chilean earthquake.

I pulled a muscle in my shoulder retrieving Nicky's carry-on from the overhead. It was sore so I popped a Perc and settled into our short flight from DFW to LAX. The plane was packed with business travelers (more than half the flight was Platinum and boarded early. The rest of the plane had private school kids from Dallas who were on a field trip to LA for the first time. I sat next to two of the kids and they couldn't sit still, hyped up about seeing California for the first time and getting to go on an airplane. I forgot how much fun it used to be to travel. I remembered about my first plane trip when I was in kindergarten and my parents took me and my brother to Disney World for the first time. Getting on planes were a prelude to a whole new set of experiences.

The flying process used to be such a gratifying experience. Too bad I'm a jaded vet and can no longer share the youthful exuberance of the kids who sat next to me. They shrieked when they saw the HOLLYWOOD sign as we prepped for landing at LAX.

I was damn happy to be back in LA. Certainly fortunate that we escaped any threat from the Ocho-Ocho and even more lucky about the business class upgrade. But as we exited the plane, I started making a checklist of a more items that I needed to stash in my Earthquake closet. I wonder if Nicky will let me buy a shotgun?

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