FOZ DO IGUAÇU, Brazil -- I met my tour guide on the two-hour flight from São Paulo, Brazil, following the 10-hour flight from Chicago. He introduced himself as Kevin -- or was it Keith? He looked more like a Francis. (Sheckler, by the way, was sitting in the seat to my left -- you know, just to drop a name. I was in the middle.)
Kevin, it so happened, had been to Foz do Iguaçu before. "So, what is there to do there?" I asked.
"Nothing," he answered. "Besides the waterfall."
I should say that Kevin wasn't a tour guide in any official capacity, but he seemed authoritative enough, and after touchdown and during the ensuing shuttle ride to the hotel, it appeared he was right. The topography from the road could be described as a strange mix between Midwest farmland and Hawaiian tropics with little more than a cow or two in the way of anything to shake up the view.
Upon entering the city of Foz proper we passed all the mundane storefronts of a small city going about its business: the pharmacy, the tire shop, the grocery (Super Muffato!), the hardware store, and then a few places that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of selling bottled Coca-Cola.
Customers were scarce. Each shop was generally fortified with brightly painted tall plaster walls or heavy-gauge steel fences. The shuttle continued on, finally bringing us to an obnoxiously luxurious resort-type hotel in the middle of nowhere. This is where we would be spending the week.
I ditched Kevin and teamed up with my roommate, Neal Hendrix, for a two-day romp through the city before our role as X Games judges would have us locked up in a tower of scaffolding overlooking a variety of oversized skateboarding obstacle courses.
Foz do Iguaçu means "Mouth of Iguaçu" in Portuguese, Iguaçu being the river that separates Brazil from Argentina. The real draw, however, isn't the mouth, but the falls, so we made the requisite visit with the idea that going there was old-people stuff. But it turns out these falls make the ones in Niagra look like something Fisher Price might sell at Kmart.
We took the path down to the bottom of the falls while monkeys swung in trees overhead. A fellow visitor poked one with an umbrella while Neal and I agreed on a general distaste for tourists. Along the way we learned that back in the 1930s you could pay a guy to take you right up to the edge of the falls in a rowboat. Seven unlucky tourists later, that particular option was discontinued. We settled for a jaunt out onto the observation deck. So there was that.
Foz is not São Paulo, where you never stop feeling like something terrible is about to happen. But still, it's Brazil, and Brazil is known for being rough all over. In fact, the rumor floating around was that Sheckler and his agent had hired bodyguards to ward off would-be kidnappers.
Neal and I, however, are unflappable, so we chose to head straight to the most authentically foreign (to us) part of the city and have a look around. Besides the obvious difficulty of communicating in a different language, it's really all the little things that induce the feeling of culture shock: motorcycle taxis (no thanks), cobblestone streets, wild horses grazing in empty fields, a glut of old-school VW bugs, emaciated dogs and cats just about everywhere and the ever-present machine-gun-toting polícia.
A few blocks later, the sidewalk sort of fizzled out under our feet, coming to an end along with the city itself. A jumble of probably 100 crude homes rose up in a grassy field in front of us, every dwelling made up of whatever was lying around. We opted to cruise the perimeter, watching as a number of people moved around the town while trying to take photos and remain as incognito as possible. A guy outside one of the houses whistled, then pointed and yelled something in our direction. Having seen everything there was to see, we turned around to head back to our hotel and our fantasy lives as X Games judges.
Oh, and Kevin, good call on that waterfall.
Paul Zitzer and Neal Hendrix -- both former professional skateboarders -- will judge Skateboard Vert, Skateboard Park and Skateboard Big Air at all four summer-sport X Games in 2013: Foz do Iguaçu, Barcelona, Munich and Los Angeles.