Thursday, November 26, 2009

Inventor rides motorcycle from Brazil to Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — Paulo Roberto Vieira stumbled into the Brazilian consulate, bedraggled, nearly broke and at the end of his rope.

Dressed in a battered black leather jacket and scuffed black jeans, he told consular officials an almost unbelievable story: He had ridden his motorcycle from his home town in southern Brazil to Washington, an 18,000-mile quest for official recognition of his life's proudest work, an automobile accessory he said he invented.

Vieira's arrival last month ended an odyssey that wound through 11 countries, and it illustrates Washington's enduring power as a magnet for ordinary people who think the answer to their prayers can be found in what's seen as the capital of the free world.

Standing next to his Honda CG150 Titan several days later, Vieira, gaunt and looking weary, recounted in his native Portuguese the improbable tale of his four-month journey.

He described how he rode for more than 1,900 miles on mostly unpaved roads through the Amazon, narrowly avoiding becoming lunch for a jaguar, one of the rain forest's most feared carnivores. How a delay in obtaining a U.S. visa forced him to traverse Mexico three times before crossing into Texas. How he hoped for sweet justice in the U.S. capital, perhaps even from the president himself.

"I decided to come here because Washington is where things get done," he said. "Barack Obama is already solving so many other problems — how much more trouble would it be for him to solve



Vieira, 58, followed a well-worn pattern of travel to Washington. Over the years, people have traveled to the city to seek redress for grievances great and small, including the Bonus Army encampment of the early 1930s and the itinerants who make Lafayette Square their home while they fight their causes.

Washington was not the endpoint Vieira had in mind in June when he left his home town of Campinas, an industrial city of a million people about 60 miles northwest of Sao Paulo. He said the trip sprang from his decades working as a motorcycle mechanic.

Vieira, a lifelong tinkerer, developed a device in the mid-1990s that detects low tire pressure in vehicles and alerts drivers with an alarm. He registered a patent for it in Brazil in 1999. Since then, he has waged a battle for international validation of his rights as the inventor, particularly in the United States, where a similar accessory is made under a U.S. patent. His goal is to open a factory in Brazil to produce the alarm.

"This is my family's patrimony," said the divorced father of eight adult children, tapping an inch-thick binder of official Brazilian documents that he said back his claim. "It's for my children, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

The patent fight led him to leave Campinas on June 25 for Brasilia, where he hoped his government could solve his problem. But after several fruitless days sparring with bureaucrats, Vieira decided there was only one place to go: Washington.

From the road, Vieira called his youngest daughter to inform her of his plans. She tried to talk him out of it.

"I cried and begged him for the love of God not to go, but he went anyway," Camila Souza Vieira, 21, said in a telephone interview from Campinas. "When he gets an idea in his head, no one can change his mind."

Over the course of his trip, Vieira said, he went through two wheel rims and four tires, changed the oil 29 times and burned through 250 gallons of fuel. The most difficult stretch was in the Amazon in northern Brazil, where he rode for hour upon hour without seeing another soul.

As he continued north, Vieira amassed a collection of passport stamps: in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico.

The odyssey nearly ended there. When he arrived in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, officials at the U.S. consulate denied him a visa. So Vieira rode more than 1,000 miles back to Guatemala. From there, he caught a flight home to Brazil, where he secured a U.S. visa in a matter of days. He flew back to Guatemala and resumed his ride north, recrossing Mexico again until he entered the United States on Oct. 21.

"There's no greater thrill for me than when you cross a country's border," he said, "and the greatest moment was when I finally entered the United States."

By the time Vieira dismounted in the District of Columbia on Oct. 28, he was down to his last few dollars. He had gone more than a day without eating.

Knowing no English and having no contacts in the city, he turned to the Brazilian consulate. After leafing through his passport and verifying his story with family members back home, consular officials fed him lunch, spotted Vieira enough money to cover a day or two of living expenses and steered him to a cheap motel in Falls Church.

"His case was a huge surprise for us," said Cyro Cardoso, vice consul of the Brazilian consulate, who is used to dealing with tourists who have lost wallets or passports — not ridden a motorcycle to the point of exhaustion. "It's one for the history books."

Vieira got a money transfer from home, settling basic survival questions. But a big problem remained: He had no plan for what would come next.

Vieira had not set up any meetings with government officials. He had no one to help him wade through one of the trickiest areas of U.S. business law. And the consulate was neither equipped nor authorized to wade into a battle over intellectual property.

So Vieira made a liberating, yet agonizing, decision: He set aside his patent quest and declared victory, at least temporarily.

"You can't put a price on an experience like this," he said with a smile. "For me, it's the equivalent of going to the moon."

For three weeks, Vieira has enjoyed Washington as other tourists do, riding his Honda downtown, snapping photos and soaking up the sights. He has made near-daily visits to the consulate, drinking coffee with officials and chatting up anyone willing to hear his story.

The motorcycle, adorned with Brazilian and U.S. flags, has drawn attention from passersby. The local Brazilian community has embraced Vieira. A worker at the consulate let Vieira sleep in a spare room. Another gave him a new set of motorcycle gloves.

Vieira was laying the groundwork to return to Campinas and planned to leave within days. He said he considered flying to Sao Paulo and sending his bike by boat, but, emboldened by his achievement, he has decided to return the way he came — albeit with a different itinerary, tracing the western edge of South America.

He pointed to the bike's odometer. It registered 35,114 kilometers — 21,819 miles.

"I don't know how many miles it's going to have when I get back," he said. "But it's going to get there well traveled."

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