Thursday, December 17, 2009

Good Morning and Welcome to the United States of America

I keep turning around reflexively when I hear people speak English, expecting to know them. Except that I'm in the Atlanta airport right now, so English isn't exactly uncommon. A young woman with a foreign accent just came up to me to ask how to connect to the internet, and I explained it to her -- I'm so much more helpful in English! I'm sitting right next to a coffee shop with bagels and muffins and big cups of coffee, waiting for my flight to Portland in about five hours. Since it hasn't sunk in yet that I've actually left Brazil (I still haven't felt the cold Atlanta air, much less the cold Maine air), I'm excited to be back in the United States.

While I had pumped myself up over the past few weeks about my return home by reminding myself of what would be awaiting me back in Maine (my family, friends, the cold, Christmas, food), the past few days were spent thinking about what I would be leaving behind in Brazil. There was a lot of eating and not a lot of sleeping (I would estimate about 15 hours total over the past four nights). By 6:30 pm yesterday, when I got the call from my doorman that the taxi was waiting outside, I was quite sure I didn't want to leave.

My last full day in Brazil was Tuesday, and I took a hike to a lookout point for one last view of the city I had called home for the past 23 and a half weeks. I ended up covered in mud and sweat, with a bruised tailbone and mosquito bites dotting my ankles and shins, but it was definitely worth it. Rio has many problems, some significant, but nobody can deny that it was kind of an ingenious place to put a city. It will be a change going back to boring old Providence; even Maine pales in comparison to these mountains lining the beaches.



Next on the list of last-day activities was watching the sunset at the Arpoador, which, as I mentioned in my last post, is one of my favorite places in Rio. Although we were doubtful it would be a good one, as the sky was cloudy, the sun managed to poke out near the horizon, and the clouds only made the colors more vibrant.




Our plan was to spend one last night out on the town and return in time for the sunrise and a morning swim. The night would also serve as a last chance to eat and drink some of my favorite foods and drinks. As I sipped my last Brazilian caipirinha at Rio Scenarium I already was planning for my next one back in the United States. I have a feeling the cold lime, sugar, and cachaça won't taste quite as good in the snow, but I've brought back some mortars and pestles so I'm determined to use them.



Back in Copacabana, we stopped by the hot dog van for a last cachorro quente completo -- complete with peas, corn, raisins, potato sticks, a quail egg, and of course ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise. My last água de coco came at a stand on the beach, where we also shared some final fried manioc (and discussed how weird it is to use the English word "manioc" instead of mandioca or aipim, two of several Portuguese words for the same tuber). 

By this time some of the weaker members of our group were starting to yawn. We returned to Sarah's apartment to crash on her couches (unfortunately the hammock had been taken down) for about an hour and a half, and then I put on my best camp counselor/mom voice and woke my reluctant friends back up just before dawn. We were a little more lively once we got a good look at the sky over the beach and saw that it had started to change color. 



The sunrise was as beautiful as the sunset had been the evening before, and it marked the first time I had watched the two consecutively. The waves were huge and the beach still empty, and we took advantage of the abnormally warm water to throw ourselves into the surf.



There's so much more to say about Brazil, and I'm planning on continuing to blog so that I can say it. I'm sure I'll have a lot more free time now that I'm home Also, I'm convinced the 80-degree temperature drop and my general exhaustion is going to seriously hinder my efforts in avoiding catching swine flu from my mom, so I might be house-bound for a while if I succumb to it. Keep reading, I'll keep writing, and I will see many of you very soon!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ó Mar Salgado

I think we probably can all agree that I've come a long way since this picture was taken:



But the reason I dug up that picture is not to prove what a bathing beauty I used to be (although we all can be glad that I did not grow up in Brazil, where my fat little baby-self would have been stuffed in a miniscule bikini with no demure ruffles to hide my chubby hips).

The real reason is because I've been thinking about the ocean a lot lately, and my relationship with it goes back a long way. The first place I lived was an apartment in Portland not much farther from the water than my apartment in Rio is. For many years of my life, it was inconceivable to me that anyone could bear living more than half an hour from the ocean. This was one of the reasons I was excited to come to Rio, where the beach is a way of life.

I've gone to the beach quite a bit here, and my swimsuit tan can prove it. However, there have many more days when it's been too rainy or quite simply too hot for me to go to the beach. The super-hot days when I do manage to go, I simply lie on my kanga, sweat soaking through it, and when it gets to be too much I go wade into the ocean -- along with the tens of thousands of other people at the beach that day.



I do like the beach here. I really do. I like that it's so accessible and open to everyone, that it's perfectly to acceptable to go to the beach in all your spare time, that you can get whatever you want to eat and drink without even having to do so much as stand up.

I don't think I realized, however, to what extent I missed the kind of ocean I had grown up with until I traveled with the Brown-in-Brazil group to Ilha Grande last weekend. As its name suggests, Ilha Grande is a big island off the coast a couple of hours south of Rio. And, of course, we needed to take a boat to get there. The morning we left was brisk and cloudy, with bursts of rain every now and then. It didn't look like a great day for the beach, but it was a great day for a boat ride.



For me it was, at least. The old wooden boat took about two hours to lurch its way to the island, and several people ended up getting sick (including on my face, but that's a story for another day...). I enjoyed myself immensely, though. It reminded me in some ways of zipping around Casco Bay in a motor boat and letting myself be thrown in the air as the boat sped over the waves.

The next day was a lot nicer and we spent the day at what is now one of my favorite beaches. After being tossed about by some huge waves and showing my skills at beach soccer, some of us went over to climb on the rocks that formed the edge of the beach.



The rocks were a blast to climb on, and the view was amazing (unfortunately I didn't bring my camera for that part of the adventure). The waves crashing against the rocks reminded me of one of my favorite places in Rio: the Arpoador.



The Arpoador juts out between Copacabana and Ipanema, and at its tip is a huge rock that's always a bit cooler than the rest of the city, as it gets some of the best wind. In the past couple of months I started going up there to read and to sometimes watch the sunset -- it's definitely one of the best places in Rio for doing so.



I'm leaving Brazil in two days, and there are plenty of things I'm going to miss and that can never be recreated in the States. For example, I walked past a group of monkeys while I was coming back from the beach at Ilha Grande. That just doesn't happen in New England. However, there's a reason I like sitting on the rocks at the Arpoador so much.

I can stand on top and to my left is Ipanema Beach, to my right is my home of Copacabana, and in between them I can see the Cristo looking down at all of us. It's so Rio it's ridiculous. But then I can turn around and look out at the open ocean with its white-capped waves on windy days, and feel like I've suddenly found myself in a Winslow Homer painting.



I'm going to miss Brazil; I'm sure of it. But I'm pretty excited to go back home to Maine.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a great poem by Fernando Pessoa called "Mar Português". Oh salty sea, how much of your salt/ Is the tears of Portugal!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

770 mL Day And Other Accomplishments

Today was a day I had looked forward to for a long time. Today was my final Portuguese test, which symbolically, if not actually, marked the end of my Portuguese studies. I finished level five, and there are only five levels -- so I should speak perfect Portuguese, right? Ha. Yeah right. It mostly means that I know every Portuguese tense known to man -- and there are a lot. 

Anyway, the real reason that I was looking forward to today was that it was 770 mL açaí day. (That's pronounced ah-sigh-ee for all you gringos out there.) I know you've all heard about this magical berry from the Amazon, with more antioxidants than blueberries; you've probably even had it in iced tea or some other flavored drink. But until you've come to Rio -- and for some reason it doesn't seem to exist in this form in other states -- you've never had açaí as it was meant to be eaten. That is, frozen, mixed with guaraná syrup, and covered with your choice of toppings.

I actually wasn't a huge fan of açaí upon my first bite five months ago. However, as with many other foods in Brazil that didn't seem very appetizing at first glance -- suco de abacate, farofa, cachorro quente completo (that is, avocado smoothie, manioc flour sprinkled on beans and rice, and hot dogs with ALL the toppings (including corn, mayonnaise, quail eggs, peas, etc.)) -- it quickly won me over. If it's possible to be addicted to açaí, I'm pretty sure I am.

Tuesdays and Thursdays I have (or had, I guess I should say now) an awkward two-hour break between my translation class and my Portuguese class. Since it's from 3-5, no one is ever around except for my friend Stephanie, who is also in those two classes with me. We were always looking for ways to occupy ourselves, sometimes getting açaí while we killed some time. This quickly turned into a habit, and eventually we would leave our translation class and head straight for the açaí stand without even having to discuss it. I worked my way up to 400 mL as the semester wore on (com paçoca no meio e em cima -- sweet peanut butter powder in the middle and on top), but to celebrate the end of both of our classes, we decided that today was the day to go all out and get the biggest açaí offered. That's 770 mL.



I was thinking the other day about how I don't eat much ice cream here. Those of you who know me well know that I'm obsessed with ice cream. In my essay writing class senior year of high school, I wrote my persuasive essay on how amazing ice cream was. So yeah, I like ice cream. And it's consistently 90 degrees Fahrenheit here. Today it was at least 97. Perfect ice cream weather. But here's the thing: açaí has replaced ice cream in my life. I never would have guessed anything was capable of that.

And yeah, 770 mL of açaí is as big as my face:



Apart from the açaí, today was rather stressful; besides the Portuguese test, I also had a translation and a revised translation due, as well as a third of a paper that I had forgotten about until I was reminded at 9:30 this morning. Twelve hours later, I am done with 4/5 of my academic classes, with only a short paper left for my Brazilian Literature class.

My iTunes must know that things are ending soon, since it just started playing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Seriously, it just did. You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last. But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast. I wish I could keep açaí; unfortunately, I don't think it would travel very well. I wonder what I will take away from this experience that will last. Great memories, photos, and friends, of course. 

I just hope that many months from now I will also still remember how to use the future perfect subjunctive and the simple pluperfect indicative.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Boas Festas!

Thanksgiving dinner outdoors is not something I ever expected to experience. However, the spring night with temperatures in the 80s turned out to be a perfect setting for a feast. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but the fact that I was sweating off all the liquid I consumed made me feel like I had more room for solid food, and the light summer dress I wore certainly rid me of the need to loosen my belt or unbutton my pants. 

I wasn't expecting much from this Thanksgiving, but the fact that it didn't actually feel like it should be Thanksgiving helped me forget that I was missing out. There were hints of it, though. When I Skyped with my family I noticed that they were all wearing sweaters and that there were no leaves left on the trees -- it actually did feel like Thanksgiving in that part of the world. When I made the green beans I was bringing to yesterday's potluck, I remembered how at home the job somehow always falls to me to cut off the ends, though I usually get away with doing it in front of the parade or football game. So maybe it felt like Thanksgiving, if only a little bit, since my green beans were about three times the size they are at home. They didn't even fit on the cutting board.



In any case, my green beans and my Thanksgiving turned out wonderfully, though like no other Thanksgiving I had experienced with my family, where we always have the necessities and only the necessities (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, pumpkin pie, apple pie) and where my brother and I get quizzed on Thanksgiving history. This feast included quesadillas with avocado, two different kinds of rice, lentils, açai sauce, and Korean BBQ-ed beef. However, there was stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and apple crisp, among many other delicious dishes, and we all said what we were thankful for before digging in, and there was even a hand-turkey drawing contest, so it was about as Thanksgiving-y as we could manage. I left stuffed, after seconds of both dinner and dessert, and that's really what Thanksgiving is all about, right?



When I finally waddled back into my apartment building last night, I noticed that there was a small, lit-up Christmas tree in the lobby that I could swear wasn't there when I left that evening. I would say that this signified the beginning of the Christmas season and the arrival of my holiday spirit if I hadn't already been bombarded by Christmas decorations for a month now. Whoever complains that Americans start advertising for holidays too early has never been to Brazil. With no Halloween or Thanksgiving to pace them (though we have had plenty of other days off, for holidays that no one seems to celebrate), Brazilians just leap right into Christmas in October.

I love Christmas. I love Christmas songs, and Christmas movies, and Christmas lights, and Christmas trees, and Christmas-themed hot drinks, and everything to do with Christmas. So I should love that stores were proclaiming that "Christmas has already arrived" as early as last month, right? Well, no. It just doesn't feel like Christmas when it's the sunscreen advertisement in a store window that is decked out in Christmas paraphernalia.



Or when the Celsius temperature could just as easily be in Fahrenheit near a similar display of Santa and snow back at home. (There are kids building a snowman farther down on the display. Many people here have never seen snow before and probably would have no idea how to go about building a snowman.)



Oh, and that was taken just after I had been discussing with my friends how it was a cool day. A cool, 86 degree F spring day.

I haven't listened to any of the Christmas songs in my iTunes library yet, nor do I have any desire to, and it hasn't even crossed my mind to watch Love Actually. All that will be saved for as soon as I step out of the airplane in Portland on December 17 and feel like my plane has been rerouted to the North Pole. I will pack the following week as full of Christmas spirit as I can, since I certainly am not feeling any here. Although I won't be able to go to the beach on Christmas at home, at least it will feel like Christmas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Theater, Film, Literature -- Look How Cultured I Am!

I'm a very thrifty person -- sometimes to a fault. This can lead to my mother complaining that I am not eating enough, or that I'm walking too much instead of taking a bus or a taxi, or anything else about my lifestyle that she can think of from 5000 miles away. However, last week I saw a play and two Brazilian movies for a grand total of 5 reais (almost 3 dollars), and I don't think there's anything worth complaining about in that.

The play was called Além do Arco-Íris, or "Over the Rainbow." Despite the fact that I am taking a translation class and learn for about four hours per week how words are polysemic, I was translating this in my head as "Beyond the Rainbow." It wasn't until the first notes of the song started playing that the beginning of the play that it all came together for me. 

Nothing to do with Dorothy and Toto, this play was about a woman whose husband has just died. For much of it, she just sat around on stage and told us how sad she was, and reenacted their first meeting, and sniffed his shirts. Pretty cliché stuff. I thought I wasn't going to be able to take it anymore when the stage went mostly dark and she started reciting "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks...") -- in Portuguese, of course. 

But then the pieces started coming together. There was the revelation of a secret abortion, an affair, and of course some fraud. If you think that's melodramatic, you ain't heard nothing yet. The big kicker came right at the end. We figured it out right as the main (and mostly only) character did (spoiler alert): she's actually dead too! Yeah, I didn't see that one coming. Unfortunately any mystery the play still held was quickly destroyed when the other character, who had been mostly clearing out the apartment until now, answered the telephone and said, "Unfortunately, the lady of the house died yesterday in a car accident." So that was a little abrupt.

I did enjoy it; it really wasn't as bad as I'm making it out to seem. The actress was quite good, and I was proud of myself for being able to laugh at the Rio-specific jokes. Plus we brought cookies.

The next day a Brazilian cinema chain was having a special day for national films, with each playing for only two reais. I skipped both of my classes (ok, I guess there's something for my mom to object to -- but it's not like I missed anything important!) and went straight to the theater.

The first film I saw was called Tempos de Paz, and it was about a Polish actor who comes to Brazil in 1945 hoping for peace, but who instead is almost sent back on the next boat by an immigration agent who suspects him of being a Nazi. It all takes place within a couple of hours, with the actor learning that things aren't so idyllic in Brazil and the agent learning about the importance of theater. And me learning about Eastern European immigration to Brazil during and after the Second World War.

I really liked the film -- though I distrusted the fact that the actor spoke such grammatically correct and fluent, though accented, Portuguese, despite never having been to Brazil before. I left the theater impressed and went to buy some chocolate before my next showing.

The next film was Besouro, about capoeira in 1920s Bahia, less than 40 years after slavery was abolished and before capoeira was legalized. The movie seemed to me to be kind of a Brazilian version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There was a little bit of flying involved. While very beautifully and fantastically made, I thought the characters could have been developed a little more. The love story was settled and over, as was the film, before I even realized what was happening (though I guess I did manage to finish my whole chocolate bar...).

After that I decided not to go home right away because the air-conditioning in the mall was heavenly. So I did some shopping! I haven't bought any Brazilian clothing yet, besides bikinis and my Flamengo shirt, of course, so I thought I'd look for some souvenirs. Brazilian clothing tends to be kind of weird though, with lots of flowy shirts with weird straps and no backs, so I didn't end up getting anything.

Instead I went to the bookstore. I was looking for a book by Fernando Pessoa, which I didn't find, but I ended up buying O evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) by José Saramago, a contemporary Portguese author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. Harold Bloom called him "the most gifted novelist alive in the world today," so I figured I might as well try to read one of his novels, although they are known for being extremely difficult. Paragraphs are an average of a page or two long (the first chapter is all one paragraph) and individual sentences aren't much shorter. I haven't gotten very far yet, and it's definitely hard, but I found that if I read very, very slowly, I can kind of get the gist of what's going on!

The reason I haven't gotten very far is this: the next book I bought was Harry Potter e as relíquias da morte... aka Harry Potter number 7!  I haven't read it since the week it came out over two years ago, and it's really fun to read in Portuguese. When else would I learn a word like "The Burrow?" (A Toca). I'm not even a quarter of the way through, though, and I'm already sad knowing that it will end soon. We will see if I cry as much at the end as I did when reading it in English.

Books in Brazil are kind of expensive (and people here don't really read! It's a vicious cycle....), but I think my mom will be glad to know that even if I end up spending my last month surviving on fried eggs and pasta and walking the 3.5 miles to school every day, at least I will be reading.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

BLECAUTE!

"O Brasil Apagou," read the headline of a newspaper I saw this morning, a picture of a single candle in the darkness taking up almost the whole page. Brazil turned off. It was slightly overdramatic, but the melodrama about the blackout that affected much of the country last night wasn't limited to the media. In my Portuguese literature class, the professor was talking this morning about the rise of the bourgeoisie and the materialism that was a part of bourgeois culture. The girl sitting next to me started to say something but stopped short. "Go ahead," my professor said. The student hesitated, saying that it had nothing to do with the short story we were discussing, nor with literature at all, for that matter. "Go ahead," my professor told her again.

"Well, the power outage last night," she began. "It really makes you think. We have all of these things, but when you really think about it, they're nothing." She stared wistfully off into the distance, perhaps contemplating ridding herself of at least one of her cell phones (tons of Brazilians have several, weirdly enough) or maybe her laptop. "Nothing," she repeated.

I won't say that last night's blackout changed me so profoundly. However, it was fun to compare it to any of the many power outages I have survived in Maine (email from my mom: "hope you told everyone that you live through much longer power outages in Cumberland all of the time").

It started a little after 10 o'clock. I was sitting at my desk when suddenly my computer shut off (I didn't have the battery in it) and my light started flickering and dimming. I went to the door and found my host mother, Glória, fumbling around for one of her cell phones (she has at least three) in total darkness. The light in my room was completely out by then but I nevertheless found my (singular) cell phone and turned on its flashlight to help Glória. That's right, it has a flashlight! "Tá ótimo, o seu celular," she and Ariadne, the other woman I live with, kept repeating all night. Damn right my cell phone is awesome -- the cheapest one in the store, its light still managed to beat all of Glória's super chique phones... combined.

Ariadne had been in the shower (I was planning to go after her, so thank goodness she didn't finish just a little bit earlier!) and was still soapy when she came to stand next to me and Glória at the window that looks out onto the street. I tried to get some info on what was going on and why, but once it was clear that they didn't have any answers, we just stared down at the street and observed.

There was still some light on the streets, since cars were passing, but the lack of street lights was eerie. Even the lights at the Copacabana Fort were out. "Os bandidos vão aproveitar," Glória kept repeating (She's big on repeating things -- usually it's "That's just how life is."). The criminals are going to take advantage of this. And that was the first difference between a power outage in Rio and one in Cumberland.

The next was that we didn't have any candles! Or flashlights! Completely unprepared, we were relying on just our cell phones and therefore did not do anything the whole night besides stand by the window and chat.

I tried to tell stories about Maine winter power outages, such as the epic ice storm of '98, but I think I fell short in describing the real extent of the situation when I couldn't remember the word for "heating" (and why would I have used that word here?). Or "fireplace." Or "ice storm" (tempestade de gelo?). It's amazing what Portuguese vocabulary I lack simply based on the weather here. And vice versa -- for example, I know all about surfing in Portuguese.

"Do you think anyone is trapped in the elevator?" Glória suddenly asked. Ahh! I hadn't even thought of that. It never was a problem on Field Road. "The doorman is going to have to stand at the door all night," Ariadne pointed out, since the door-opening button requires electricity. Another power-outage casualty that had never crossed my mind. Glória then told me a horrific story of a girl getting trapped in an elevator for a week while her parents were on vacation; it was only when they returned that they found her dead. So I was not only glad that I hadn't been on the streets or in the shower, I was also very thankful I hadn't been in one of the several elevators in my building.

Some things I learned during the blackout:
  • The description of what to do when in a car accident in Rio that we discussed in my Portuguese class back in July was pretty much right on target. At one point last night there was a loud crash: a taxi and another car had crashed in the intersection we were staring down at (No traffic signals! Glad I wasn't in a moving vehicle! Or the metro! I didn't even think of that at the time.). There was a lot of screaming and honking, one car drove off (no information exchanged, of course), and the taxi driver pushed his cab to the side of the road and made a lot of angry phone calls. No one, not even one of the many police cars who sped by, stopped to help him.
  • There are tons of bats who live in the trees right under my window. This doesn't have to do with blackouts at all; I'm just saying. I have had enough experience with bats in my bedroom for one lifetime.
  • My host mother is a compulsive liar. She got several phone calls from friends, and she tried to convince each one that we still had light. The story began that our whole neighborhood had light, and by the last friend she talked to, she was saying that it was just our building that still had light because we were chiques and it was only the poor people who were left in darkness. She even told this friend that the door that the friend always came in was actually the service entrance and that the social entrance was a lot nicer and around the corner. While this sounds exactly like something I would have tried to get away with, I'm suddenly worried that I have been putting too much faith into what she tells me.
  • Fish can survive in aquariums without a electricity for the filter or oxygen circulation for up to five hours. The thing Glória said she was most worried about was her "peixinhos," and she made me hold my cell-phone flashlight up to the aquarium for her so she could make sure all her little fish were alive. Thankfully, one of her friends told her they had five hours (though I'm guessing that was just an arbitrary number, as I had been thinking of making up my own prognosis just to get Glória to stop worrying about them). After that, however, we should just fry them up.
  • "Blackout" is spelled "blecaute" in Brazil. I loved being able to say "blackout" with a Brazilian accent the whole night and this morning, and hearing others use the word always makes me laugh. I didn't actually learn how it was spelled, though, until this afternoon when I was able to use the internet again and finally read the news.
  • Which brings me to one thing I didn't learn: why? OK, there are some explanations (it all started with a hydro-electric dam on the border with Paraguay) but I'm not going to lie, I'm still a bit suspicious, and nobody seems to be giving clear answers. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but if people can't seem to agree on where and when it was raining yesterday....
Anyway, after over an hour of standing at the window, we all decided to go to bed. I stayed up for a little longer and started the seventh Harry Potter book, which I had just bought in Portuguese. I was sweating without my fan, not shivering by the fire, and I was reading by the light of a cell phone and not a candle, and there was no Central Maine Power outage line to call for information, nor a hand-cranked shortwave radio for access to the outside world, but in the end, as I read about Voldemort and the Death Eaters in the dark, it didn't feel all that different from a power outage at home.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

You Look Lost.

I figured I had better finish up this chapter of my adventures before I go off on too many more. (I realized yesterday though that six weeks from right now I will be on my way back home. Crazy! I will have to stuff in my last batch of adventures.

After a wonderfully calm morning at the beach in front of our pousada, Sarah and I went to the front desk to check out and to make sure the bus back to Recife came by when we thought it did. The man there told us that it came by around noon at the square where all the vans leave from. We hurried up there.

That was when things go confusing. First of all, we had read that the bus left Maceió at 11 so it couldn't possibly get to Maragogi by noon. Also, we doubted it came through the town center, which was made up of a jumble of narrow streets.

However, no one was much of a help. Everyone we asked gave us different answers to our questions. The van drivers told us that we would have to take a van to Barreiros and catch the bus there, but we weren't sure if they just wanted us to pay for their vans. After much standing around in the sun and lugging our stuff from place to place, we made it up to a main road, where there was an actual bus stop. There, a trustworthy-looking young man told us that the bus did indeed pass by, but maybe not for a while, and it would be faster just to take the van to Barrieros where more buses come through.

So we finally did. In the van, we sat up front with the driver, who played us Eminem and told us how happy we was to live in such a paradise. He dropped us off at the bottom of the hill leading to Barrieros and told us we could either get a bus or a just slightly more expensive car there.

We sat in the shade with another young man who asked us questions until he suddenly sat up straight and whistled. A bus was coming by, and we ran to it, got on, and I promptly closed my eyes. It had take about a dozen people to get us on the bus to Recife, but we had done it.

We had plans to stay in Recife with Carolina and her family, whom we had found on CouchSurfing.org. We planned to go straight to her apartment from the bus station, but guess what? The bus didn't take us to the bus station. We go out in some unknown corner of Recife and had no idea where to go. I guess we must have looked lost, though, since someone came up to us and gave directions without us even needing to ask. This happened again when we got off the city bus in Carolina's neighborhood but didn't know where to go from there. It's a fool-proof technique: just look lost, tired, and sweaty, and someone will come help you!

Carolina wasn't home yet, but her mother and sister welcomed us into their apartment and gave us some water and snacks. While talking to them, we finally understood what we had slowly been realizing over the course of the week: in the Northeast, people's accents were next to impossible for us to understand! We had no idea where we were going, but we soon got into a car with Carolina's brother, who neither looked old enough to drive nor seemed to care about the basic laws of physics (there was a lot of needless acceleration and some screeching tires).

After a nice evening with Carolina and her friend in Recife Antigo (which is where we finally ended up), I was happy to go back and get into bed.

The next day, after a delicious breakfast, Sarah and I headed off to Olinda, a small colonial town right next to Recife. We went to about a billion churches and I took way too make pictures of colorful buildings. The views from the tops of the hills were gorgeous, though, and we found our way up to a lighthouse identical to the one we had visited earlier that week. The one actually had a padlock on the gate, unfortunately, and someone was guarding the entrance.

Mysteriously, after a much needed coconut water, we made it to the Museum of the Man of the Northeast, which we had tried twice to visit earlier in the week but had failed. It was very interesting and worth the trouble and confusion it took to get there (I think I asked more people for help and directions on this one trip than I have in the whole rest of my life).

Back at Carolina's apartment, we met up with some of her friends and siblings to go to a sushi rodízio. First of all, rodízios are the best thing ever: all-you-can-eat food. I had been dying to try a sushi one, and the restaurant we went to was absolutely delicious. I especially couldn't get enough for the strawberry sushi. i just ate lunch, but I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it now.

The next day we had been planning to visit a city in the interior, but our plans didn't work out. instead we visited a random castle in Recife, with an even more random collection of medieval armor, as well as a collection of art from the Dutch-influenced period of Brazilian history. Both the art and the museum itself were beautiful, and I learned some stuff about Brazil that I had never heard about before.

After a final dinner at a restaurant with foods typical of the region, we headed to bed for a few hours before our flight back to Rio.

That night, however, happened to be the night when Brazil moves to summer hours. BUT not all of Brazil, which we hadn't realized -- just the southern half, so Recife wouldn't be staying in the same time zone as Rio. What we didn't know was whether our flight would be leaving on Recife time or Rio time. After some clever research on the airline's website, we figured it out. And the flight wasn't even late! We soon made it back to Rio, where the sun was miraculously shining (though not for long).

And that was my trip. Recently in Rio, the sun has been shining quite consistently, but I'm about ready for some rain again. I tried to go to the beach yesterday and only lasted 30 minutes. You don't want to hear about the quantity of sweat I produced just lying there, reading my book, so I'll stop here....


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Training For The Appalachian Trail

Before we return to our regularly-scheduled programming, I'd like to remind you all that I am now three hours ahead of the East Coast. Over the past year, I've lost three hours, one at a time -- one in the U.S. last spring, one when I came to Brazil, and the last two weeks ago when Brazil switched to its summer time. When I fly home in December, I'll be regaining my three lost hours all at once. Weird, huh? I don't know how I feel about this. Time zones confuse me.

Anyway....

We arrived at the bus station with the goal of going south and a vague idea of some of the towns we wanted to visit along the coast. But when we mentioned some of these names to the guy selling us tickets, he didn’t seem to know any of them. “Do you have a map?” I asked. But of course not – why would he? He did, however, manage to pull out a list of towns that the bus does go through, and when we recognized Maragogi on the list and remembered the pictures of its crystal-clear water that we had seen on the internet, we decided to go there.

The bus ride was scenic but uneventful – perhaps too uneventful. The bus would randomly stop and pick people up or drop them off without anyone announcing where we were. There was next to no signage either, so when we got back to the coast and started seeing signs referencing Maragogi, we figured we must be there.

Except that the bus didn’t stop. When it seemed to turn away from the coast and we stopped seeing pousadas (small inns/ bed and breakfasts), we realized frantically that we had missed it. By now, however, there were no more seats left on the bus and people were crowding the aisle, and it took us a while to make it to the front. Sarah asked if we could be let off there, the bus driver practically screeched to a stop, and we got out. In what was pretty much the middle of nowhere, Brazil.

So we started walking. With all of our bags. In the hot sun. In order to cheer ourselves up, we pretended we were training for the Appalachian Trail. (Though if/when we ever do hike it, we’ll probably bring hiking backpacks and boots and leave the duffel bags and flip-flops at home.)

We finally made it to one pousada, faces red and sweaty and looking like the two biggest gringas Maragogi had ever seen. It was way out of our price range, though, so we kept walking, until finally we heard a honk behind us and found ourselves being passed by a old white VW bus. We waved it down and ran to catch up with it.

Vans are an integral part of the transportation system in Rio, so we had ridden them before. They’re often crowded during rush hour, and some people have to awkwardly stand in between the door and the seats. This van, however, was approximately 40 years old, maybe two-thirds the size of a normal van in Rio, and took “crowded” to an extreme. From my position squeezed amongst three large, hot (in terms of temperature and not attractiveness, unfortunately) Brazilian men in the back seat, I could count the van’s every occupant – and at one point there were 19 of us.

While I was marveling at the capacity of the little old van to keep put-putting down the road, dodging potholes and sliding over speed bumps, Sarah was near the front, grilling the guy who takes the money about cheap pousadas. We had originally told him we wanted to go to Maragogi, but he steered us toward São José da Coroa Grande – little did we know that this was because we were actually going in the complete opposite direction of Maragogi.

We were dropped off in the center of the town, a small but bustling fishing village that was probably the least touristy place we could have gone to. We walked around for a bit, still lugging our bags, looking for the mysterious pousadas the van-guy had told us about. People all around us were wearing swimsuits and cangas and walking to and from the beach, which was exactly what we wanted to be doing. So when we finally stumbled upon a colorful building called the “Hospedaria Shalon Mayim,” complete with a Star of David on its sign, I told Sarah that I was counting on her Jewish cred (her dad is Jewish), we practiced our “Baruch atah Adonais,” and we went in.

A young boy was manning the desk. And he had a room for us! Cheap, and complete with a fan! However, without windows. And one of the walls was actually a padlocked garage-door-like contraption that led outdoors. And the tiny TV had an antenna that had to be knocked every once in a while to clear out the fuzziness. But the biggest surprise was probably the “Exclusive Property of the Lord Jesus” sign in the open space outside the rooms. (In retrospect, this should not have been a surprise at all. Why would there be a need to lodge Jews in São José da Coroa Grande?)

We finally made it to the beach and then to seek out some food. Yet somehow the town had none. We found some bread and what turned out to be the worst cake either of us had ever eaten. Our hunger was finally sated, however, when later that evening São José da Coroa Grande turned into a par-tay. We each had a delicious cachorro quente completo – a hot dog with ALL the toppings – and a “Swiss” crêpe (I have no idea how the Swiss really make their crêpes, but these are simply crêpe dough on a stick with a small candy bar melted in the center). We watched little children play in the center square and enjoyed the feeling of being the only gringos in the whole town.

After some unsuccessful searching for internet and a successful morning at the beach the next day, we decided it was time to move on. We found another van, told them we wanted to go to Maragogi, and were surprised to find that the actual town was significantly farther from where we had gotten off the bus the day before. Oops. But once in Maragogi proper (where we were actually happy to find other tourists), finding a pousada was a lot easier. We found a beach-front one with internet (!) and cable TV and a bountiful breakfast for about twice the price of the previous pousada – but it was definitely worth the splurge. I have taken very few more welcome showers than the one I took that night.

We decided that snorkeling was a must. After managing to talk down the price by using our sick bargaining skills on a young boy who soon became our new best friend (i.e. we shared a lot of thumbs-up after we kept good on our promise to tell NO ONE on the boat about the price he had given us), we shipped off to the reef that lines the coast in those parts.

Wow. Snorkeling was pretty awesome, and as I told my brother, I felt like I was living “Planet Earth: Shallow Seas.” The water was clear, the fish were cute and colorful, and it was cool to watch the waves crash against the reef, several kilometers out at sea.

After we returned after sundown and enjoyed several cups of much-needed hot coffee, we set out on a trek that would lead us to our second best friend in Maragogi. The waiter at the one open restaurant that looked like it was for the local folks and not tourists sat us down, mumbled the available dishes in the fastest Portuguese I have ever heard, and then chose for us when we stared at him blankly. We ended up being served carne de sol and some big hunks of mandioca, which is kind of the local equivalent of steak and potatoes. It was good, if a little lacking in excitement (or vegetables).

The next day, after a breakfast for which I have no words (it was that amazing), we decided to explore some of the other towns in the area. We took a van to Japaratinga, home of a beautiful and deserted beach, and asked around for the way to a couple of the other towns we had read about. We wanted to visit a lighthouse and see the manatees, but everyone we asked seemed to be borrowing the Maine saying, “You can’t get there from here.” We decided to set out by ourselves and prove them wrong.

With sunblock breaks every half-hour or so and plenty of water, we walked about six miles through paradise, only coming across a few fishermen and youngsters playing in the water. We thought several times of stealing one of the many fishing boats lying around, or perhaps one of the horses we passed, but we never went through with it. After all, we were still training for the Appalachian Trail.

After finding the mysterious balsa (small ferry) that we had heard about all morning, we arrived in Porto de Pedras and enjoyed the most refreshing coconut water I have ever had. We had made it, but we still needed to climb up the impossibly steep hill to the lighthouse that was had seen from several miles away and used as inspiration for our trek. We ignored the “entrance prohibited” sign though we were unsuccessful in our attempts to break into the lighthouse itself. The view from the hill it was on was beautiful enough for me, though.

The way back was about a million times as efficient: we took moto-taxis! It was the first time I had ever ridden a motorcycle and I was kind of scared to death as I had nothing to hold on to and my driver kept spinning around sandy curves and hugging the curb to avoid speed bumps (though going over the speed bumps when he couldn’t avoid them wasn’t actually any better). I gave up my dream to marry a moto-taxi driver and decided that it might be better if I were the driver myself, as I would have more control. Unfortunately I have no plans to move to the northeast of Brazil to do so, as the heat there almost killed me.

After another dinner at our friend’s restaurant (He chose our meal again for us: fish and salad, this time. And of course more mandioca, which, though unbelievably tasteless, was actually growing on me.) and of course some ice cream, we went to bed, absolutely exhausted but ready for more adventures the next day.

To be continued! One more episode left!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

In Which My Weaknesses For Sugar and Small Children Are Tested

So, my trip. I’ve been promising this post for almost a week, and I’ve been writing it for three days, so I figure I owe you guys something by now. However, I’ve decided to split the trip up into three parts. This first one is over a thousand words so if you’d prefer to just look at the pictures, go ahead! (But obviously you would be missing out on my sparkling wit and unparalleled wisdom, so choose carefully.)

(Also – is this title too creepy? Probably, but I'm also not planning on running for public office so I'll let it stand. I just want a Brazilian child to speak Portuguese with!)

Like I wrote earlier, we set off without knowing anything but our flight times (and even those we were a little iffy, as you’ll see later). Our plan was to fly to Recife Friday night, go to the hostel where we had first tried to make reservations, and then go to the hostel where they were going to send us because the first hostel was full (obviously we couldn’t go directly to the second hostel – this is Brazil, and I’ve learned the most efficient possibility is always automatically out of the question).

So, Friday afternoon I headed off in the pouring rain to Sarah’s apartment, bags in hand. We had originally planned to go bathing-suit shopping before leaving, but neither of us wanted to venture back outside – you can see why we were desperate to leave Rio! We settled for watching the latest episode of The Office while finishing up some leftover food that needed to get eaten: ice cream, a mango, and some orange glaze.

By the time we made it back outside and down the block to the beach, where the airport bus runs, the rain had mostly stopped. We were still shivering in our sweatshirts, though. And we shivered for almost an hour before the bus finally came. (The thing about buses in Rio: they don’t have schedules. And even if they did, it would be useless to try to follow them.) Once on the bus we shivered some more, as the air conditioning was quite unnecessarily on full blast.

We were a little taken aback by the amount of people who got on the bus at Rio’s smaller airport, Santos Dumont, where many domestic flights arrive. Why were they taking the bus to another airport? Also – we thought as we finally arrived at the airport about 30 minutes before our flight was supposed to leave – why are there so many people traveling at 9:30 on a Friday night?

Well, it turned out that almost every flight was delayed. We later learned that Santos Dumont had been closed, which answered the rest of our questions. However, we still didn’t know when our flight was going to leave, or, perhaps more importantly, which gate it was going to leave from.

After three different gates, three more hours, and almost an accidental trip to Belém, we handed our ticket to the gate agent. Wow, I thought – if they do this quickly, we might be able to leave just three hours after our original take-off time! Alas, when we got to the end of the tunnel we didn’t find the vehicle I was expecting. Instead of an airplane we got onto a bus!

So by the time we finally took off it was past 1:30 in the morning and I was half-asleep. Apparently when I am half-asleep, I think that every bout of turbulence is a sign that my death is imminent, so it wasn’t the most pleasant flight. I did manage to get myself fully conscious when the flight attendants came around with sandwiches and juice, however.

4:30 in the morning and we are standing at baggage claim in the Recife airport, mulling our options. Do we try to get a taxi and do the whole hostel charade in the dark in a city we’ve never been to? Or do we just lie down right here next to the baggage carts and take a little nap. We decided on the latter, obviously. For about five minutes until a security guard came to tell us that sleeping there is prohibited. BUT! he said, there’s better sleeping up in the food court anyway. And what do you know, up in the food court there was a whole colony of people sleeping on benches! We joined them and took a nice three-hour nap.

We finally made it to hostel number 1, where they were a little confused about our situation, and as they had told us earlier, had no space. It was cute and colorful, though, and the people were nice (and the breakfast they were eating looked delicious) so when they offered to clean out the laundry room for us and put down some mattresses there we accepted. And then we were finally off to explore Recife.

Recife is known for two things: for having lots of bridges and canals (it’s known as the Brazilian Venice) and for having lots of sharks. So we decided we’d skip the beach while in Recife and take advantage of the rest that it had to offer.

Recife was colonized soon after the Portuguese arrived in Brazil in the 1500s, and quickly became an important city in the sugar trade (a fact I definitely took advantage of – I have become quite addicted to sugar over the past three months or so). There are a lot of colorful colonial buildings, especially in the neighborhood known as Recife Antigo, which is actually an island connected to the rest of Recife by bridges.

We spent Saturday and Sunday checking out the sites and trying to figure out how the bus system worked (being in a new city made me realize exactly how well I know Rio now). On our second failed attempt to get to the Museum of the Man of the Northeast, we instead stumbled upon a children’s festival and small zoo and enjoyed some amazingly cheap food (one real for a hot dog, or a stick of meat, or a cup of ice cream, etc.). There was also a monkey eating a heart-shaped lollipop, which was pretty cute. (Not to mention the hundreds of adorable Portuguese-speaking Brazilian kids – it was a tempting place for a potential Brazilian child-stealer like me.)

We went to a market in Recife Antigo and had even more to eat (a common theme of this trip), this time some tapioca. While I had had tapioca in Rio before, they are especially obsessed with it in the Northeast. They pretty much make a tortilla-like thing by cooking little tapioca balls and often coconut, and then fill it with either something sweet like doce de leite, or something savory like meat and cheese. While I wasn’t a huge fan at first, since the tapioca itself has pretty much no taste, it is definitely growing on me.

We had signed up for two nights on the laundry-room floor at the hostel, so by Sunday night we were planning to get out of Recife the next morning. We had with us about six printed-out pages from a Brazil travel guide (budget travelers we are), but fortunately the hostel had a 1998 version of the same book, so we could fill in some of the information we were lacking. After much confusion over the names of towns and distances between them, we decided on one thing: we would go south.

To be continued…

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spring Break Recife

This can't be a long post, since I have a plane to catch in just a few hours, but I figured I owed it to my readers to tell you why I won't be updating (or answering emails, facebook messages, etc.) for the next week or so: I'm going on Spring Break.

I'm pretty much the only person who's calling it that, but considering I was in cold cold Maine for my spring break last March, suffering through one of my many dental procedures, I'm going to make this one count. It's not even technically a whole week of vacation; we just have Monday and Thursday and Friday off, but I'm doing the Brazilian thing and skipping some classes (just two, as it turns out -- other professors cancelled theirs).

(Monday is Dia das Crianças, Children's Day. When I used to ask my parents why we had Mother's Day and Father's Day but no Children's Day, they would tell me that every day was children's day. Now that twenty years of keeping me in the dark about this holiday is up, I only hope it's not too late for me to celebrate.)

After a long and arduous decision making process, I ended up choosing to go to Recife with my friend Sarah. We have absolutely no plans besides a flight there and back, and a night in a hostel tonight. We're working on finding some Couchsurfers, as I did that with success this summer, but right now everything is up in the air. It will be an adventure!

My host mother has told me that I need to make sure to obey her this time. Last time she told me to wear sunscreen I got horribly burned (but let me point out how proud of myself I am that it took three months in a tropical country for it to happen) and now she thinks I'm some kind of rebel. She didn't really understand that lobster-red is not necessarily an unknown color to my skin. But I'm bringing a full bottle of sunscreen to Recife because if I come back burnt she might just kick me out of the house.

Right now it's 66 degrees and pouring rain in Rio. It's 82 and sunny in Recife. According to my weather widget, every day next week in Recife is a sun with a high of 86 and a low of 77. I could not be more excited.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

É a vez do Rio!

Breaking news isn't exactly my forte, so I'm assuming everybody who's reading this already knows that Rio de Janeiro beat out Chicago, Tokyo, and Madrid to be the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games. You might also have seen pictures of the tens of thousands of Cariocas dressed in yellow and green, cheering on their city on Copacabana beach last Friday. Well guess what? I live on Copacabana beach, and I was there rooting for Rio along with them.

I'm not sure I knew that Rio was in the running for the 2016 games before I came to Brazil, but the news was hard to miss once I got here. "Eu quero!" signs were all over the city, and on the morning of the decision, several planes flew above the beach, trailing banners which read, "Vamos Torcer! É a vez do Rio!"

The planes urging people to cheer because it was finally Rio's turn weren't the only signs that something big was happening that morning. As I walked down Copacabana, several helicopters -- though no uncommon sight in Rio -- hovered overhead. It seemed like everyone was taking advantage of the excitement, including the guy walking around the beachside bar with a sign that read "Olympics 2016 Rice beans beef with french fries." That's probably the most common meal that exists in Rio, but on Friday it was something special. 

Long balloons in yellow, green, blue, and white were being handed out by the dozen, and I snagged a few to play with while I waited. This little boy had the same idea:


There was a live concert in front of the Copacabana Palace hotel, and I stood in the crowd as the Brazilians danced and sang along. When the first news came, no one was expecting it, and a collective gasp quickly turned into cheers. The two big TV screens read "Chicago has just been eliminated." The music continued, and I waved my balloons with the screaming crowd. Just a few minutes later the next message came: "Tokyo has also just been eliminated." The woman next to me turned in excitement. "Eliminated! They've been eliminated!" she yelled to me, as if she couldn't quite believe it and wanted to confirm that I had seen the same news.

Though the news about Chicago left the next hour or so slightly anti-climatic, the Brazilians in the crowd weren't losing any of their energy. I moved farther into the crowd, trying to find my friends, and found myself centered in front of the stage, packed in too tight to move any farther. But don't worry, I made some new friends.

When the IOC chairman flipped over the card and read out "Rio de Janeiro," I neither saw it nor heard it. But suddenly the screaming was several times as loud and a blizzard of shiny pieces of confetti -- that I was still pulling off of me that night -- fell from the sky. I felt myself being lifted by one of the Brazilians next to me as I tried to capture the moment on film.

That was the best I got. It was chaos. A woman next to me asked me if I won. I figured the best answer was that I had, and she told me that she had too, and then gave me a big hug. I told her congratulations. Another guy found out I was American and asked me how long I would be here for. I'll be staying until December, I said, and he replied, "Well then, you must have my flag." He handed me the Brazilian flag he had been waving; it's now hanging on my wall. I told him congratulations as well.

Judging by how the Brazilians have welcomed me to their country, I know they'll be good hosts for the rest of the world. There are certainly huge problems in this city -- poverty, homelessness, transportation, crime -- that need to be remedied before then, and I don't think they'll find the most perfect and efficient solutions for them, but somehow they'll pull it together. Somehow things just work out in Brazil.

Even so, it will be no easy task. But when I saw the pictures of President Lula crying in Copenhagen, I remembered why I had supported Rio all along. Even though Chicago is his hometown, I can't see Obama reacting with the same outburst of emotion had Chicago been picked instead. The pure pride and joy that Lula and most Brazilians felt upon hearing the news is reason enough to have chosen Rio, and to bring the Olympics to South America for the first time. It really does mean a lot.


The crowd sings "Sou Carioca" (I'm Carioca) not long after the news was announced

P.S. Check out more photos from Friday here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Provas, Provas, Provas

This past week was week one of two weeks of midterms (or, as they are called here, provas de G1). I managed to survive a week of presentations, written tests, and papers -- and, surprisingly enough, for a brief moment it felt kind of like I was back at Brown. I actually had to use my free time to study and do work! (Though I was doing reading on the beach last Sunday, so I don't know if that counts.)

Tuesday morning at 7am I had my first written test here, this one for my class on the health of the worker. I was slightly worried about it because the assigned book never showed up in the library and the professor never responded to my email asking for her Powerpoint slides. When I complained about this to my dad, he reminded me that everyone in my class was "in the same boat." Not exactly, considering everyone else in my class was Brazilian and not only spoke fluent Portuguese but had actually written essays for tests in that language before.

While we did have to write short papers in my Portuguese classes at Brown, they were always assigned for homework, so I could use a dictionary and spell check and stop to think about what exactly it was I was trying to say. That's added to the fact that they were on subjects like "describe your ideal family" or "describe your plan for a vacation in Brazil" -- which didn't inspire the most complex analysis, I must say. But now not only did I have to answer three essay questions in two hours without any outside help, I actually had to answer the questions in a way that would show my professor that I wasn't a complete idiot (a common misperception in this country).

I have always taken my ability to write for granted. In fact, out of the four language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), I think I'm best at writing, not only in English but probably also in French. It's not that I'm illiterate in Portuguese -- though it certainly sometimes feels that way as I do the readings for my Portuguese literature class -- but oral and aural skills played a bigger role in my learning the language than written ones.

This is something I have always been grateful for -- it's more helpful to my life in Brazil to be able to understand what the people I live with are saying than to be able to read 19th-century Portuguese literature. But it is also something that worried me a bit coming into this week.

Luckily, my fears were mostly unfounded. I pulled off the essay questions on Tuesday morning with plenty of time to spare. And for the paper on Brazilian literature that I had to write for Wednesday, I used a hint that my Portuguese professor gave us Tuesday afternoon. It all boiled down to looking like I could write in Portuguese. Adriana, my Portuguese professor, was explaining to us the use of the word cujo/a(s), which pretty much means "whose", and which is completely avoided in spoken Portuguese. But, she said, if you can use it correctly in writing, we send you straight to level five. Since I somehow fooled the Portuguese department into putting me in level five, I figured I might as well throw a few cujos into my Brazilian literature paper to see if I could fool that professor as well into thinking I could write Portuguese. I haven't gotten my grade back yet, but hopefully it worked!

I still have a couple more tests next week, but I'm not too worried right now. It's a beautiful day out, it's been declared an optional holiday for public workers, and I'm skipping surfing class to party on Copacabana beach with 100,000 Brazilians from 10am until whenever the party ends (perhaps all night, depending on the news from Copenhagen). But I'll write more about the Olympics later!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Happy Spring!

Since surfing class was cancelled today (I don't know why the instructors thought someone of my talent and ability couldn't handle the crazy waves after several huge rainstorms, but that's another story), I have devoted my day to reading Amor de perdição. I'm supposed to have read it by Monday, and I'm on chapter 2 (out of 20), and I have to give a presentation to my class on chapter 18 on Wednesday. And since I read the chapter and a half that I have read on the bus, I didn't look up any words and thus have only a vague idea of what's going on (it's kind of a Portuguese version of Romeo and Juliet, though written in prose -- and I feel like a Shakespeare reader who only two years ago didn't know a single word of English). So obviously that's going well.

Hence today's post. I've been promising it for a few days, and you all know there's nothing I like better than a little procrastination.

The last day of winter came this week, while I was busy recovering from an unfortunate attempt at an obstacle course (more on that later). I have officially spent, what, six months in winter in the year 2009? And since I'm planning on leaving Brazil on December 16, I'll be out of here before summer even technically arrives. So in all of 2009, I'll have spent approximately two weeks in summer (and less than one in autumn -- and can you really count December in Maine as autumn?). What a year!

The first week of spring started off with a bang: a presentation in front of my Brazilian Literature class. And since, for reasons impossible to understand, no Brazilians wanted us in their group, five of us Americans in the class made our own group. And guess what? We owned them (besides the speaking correct, grammatical Portuguese part of course).

My part of the presentation involved talking about how different authors reacted to the modernization (most French-ization) of Rio de Janeiro at the turn of the century. Since being French was very chic and à la mode at the time, the government decided to build several institutions, like the Municipal Theater and the National Library, based on French architecture. Even the Avenida Rio Branco, a main avenue through centro, was styled after the Champs-Élysées (the names link to a cool comparison of old postcards). The authors I discussed pointed out that there were bigger problems to deal with in Rio, and that most of its citizens couldn't even  afford to benefit from things like theater. The title of our presentation, a quote from Orestes Barbosa, was "Há, sem dúvida, duas cidades no Rio." There are, without a doubt, two cities in Rio.

Things aren't much different today. There's the city I live in -- tall apartment buildings, some quite beautiful, many on the beach; chic hotels; cars with tinted windows -- and there's the other city -- the favelas. Rio is known for being quite distinctly divided between the two. The poorer people live on the hills, os morros, while those with more money live "on the pavement," o asfalto. The visibility of the favelas was startling to me when I first came to Rio, but after a few months here it's easier to see why most middle-class Brazilians seem to pretend they don't exist (except when complaining about crime) -- they have become part of the natural landscape of the city.

(I don't know who took this picture; I found it when googling "morro asfalto Rio")

It's harder, however, to ignore the young boys sleeping alone on the sidewalks with plastic bags stuffed in their t-shirts to keep warm, or those who chase after you shouting "Tô com fome, tô com fome." I'm hungry, I'm hungry. And then on the other side there are my classmates at my private university, the guys in polo shirts and the girls with long, straight, light hair, who play on their iPhones during class. So yeah, I'm with Orestes on this one: Há, sem dúvida, duas cidades no Rio.

But I'm getting too deep. Let's rewind to last Saturday, when I went with a group led by the international office at PUC to a eco-tourism farm. Though I can't say I really had it together the whole day (I just hope I didn't represent the U.S. too badly), it was tons of fun.

It started off at the delicious and bountiful breakfast with which we were welcomed to the fazenda after a two-hour bus ride. As the line wound around a large table of food in a tiny room, someone backed into me -- while I held a cup of hot coffee. I didn't burn myself, but I returned to the table with a huge stain down the front of my t-shirt. I went to go wash it off (leaving my t-shirt completely wet but not actually completely clean) and came back only to have a friend tell me that I also had coffee on the back of my shorts. Not sure how that got there.

So I was already soaked when we went off on our trek through the Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic rainforest. While we were protected from the sun for most of the hike, it was incredibly humid, and let's just say there was some sweat involved. The views were beautiful though, and the hike ended at a pond where a donkey was tied up next to a cooler of water. 

As we sipped our water, we were given an option: we could walk back, or wait for the raft to arrive and go back on it. There were quite a few of us there, and we wondered if we would all be able to fit on the raft. It's big, we were told, and we voted for the water route.

When I imagined a balsa in my head, the raft that we soon saw another group of students paddling around the corner towards us was not exactly what I had in mind. I'm not sure I can even use the word "paddling." When someone pointed out to Linda, the international coordinator at PUC who was with us, that those were in fact not oars but simply bamboo sticks, she cried out (in English), "Of course they're bamboo sticks, you're in the jungle!"

After the hike came a delicious and filling lunch, but not before I made the ultimately tragic decision not to put on my bathing suit before eating. We ate right next to a pool, but after I finished I found that the room where we were keeping all of our stuff was locked. So I went to play soccer with a couple of friends instead.

I returned sweaty and gross to the pool area, and saw more friends waiting in line at the obstacle course. "Come over and do it with us!" they shouted. "Do I need my bathing suit?" I yelled back. "No!"

This obstacle course was over a pond, and there were two different routes. We made fun of some Brazilians struggling over the easy route, and decided to go for the hard one. When it was my turn, I set out barefoot and without a helmet or gloves (which the Brazilian group had been given). I bet you can guess what happened next.

I fell into the water after making it maybe a quarter of the way through the course. Fully-clothed, of course. My arms and legs were exhausted and my feet were cramping and I decided the pain was stronger than my pride, so I let myself fall off the metal triangle section of the course (and no, I was not the only one to fall off). So I'm going to delay my plans to audition for the next season of Road Rules or Fear Factor or Wipeout or any of those shows that are actually a lot harder than they look, ok?

Since my bathing suit was actually my dry change of clothes by this point, I decided I might as well go down the water slide completely clothed as well. And then I put on my bathing suit and wrapped myself in my canga, completely exhausted for the bus ride home.

Friday, September 11, 2009

O Último Capítulo

Today was a special day in the country of Brazil. The last episode of Caminho das Índias, the novela that has entranced all of Brazil (or so it seems) for the last nine months, was finally aired, and I watched it.


How could I not? The novela das oito, the prime-time soap opera that doesn't actually start at 8, despite its name, is a cultural phenomenon here. Not even Survivor or American Idol at its height could have ever competed with the novela. At least three of my professors, if not all of them, have mentioned Caminho das Índias in class. And not just as in, "Hey, did you see the episode last night?" (it's on every night but Sunday). More like, "blah blah blah characteristics of psychopaths are as follows: blah blah blah. You know Yvone from Caminho das Índias? She's a perfect example of a psychopath because blah blah blah." It's a teaching technique -- and one that works, because everyone knows who Yvone is.

Apparently this novela has increased Brazilian interest in India, where approximately half of the action takes place (the other half takes place here in Rio). Though I had seen some episodes previous to tonight's, it was never quite clear to me what the link was. Why are these Indians (well, Brazilians dressed up as Indians) all speaking Portuguese and what is their relation with these Brazilians? At least one Brazilian was married to an Indian, but that's as far as I got. The ridiculous thing was, the Indians didn't even look Indian -- because they were Brazilian. The women were usually dressed in saris, but when the men wore suits, it was impossible to tell who was supposed to be from which country. I don't think that would fly as well in the U.S.: a TV show about India whose actors aren't actually of Indian descent. 

The Brazilian with whom I was watching was crying within the first fifteen minutes, as were most of the characters. I didn't cry, but at least I didn't burst out laughing, as I had felt like doing in most of the other episodes I watched. If I had cried, it would have been during the epic scene when Raj came into the house with Maya, who had just avoided getting her hair cut off (???) and said, "As you can see, I didn't die," and everybody started crying. The father (I don't exactly understand whose father) kept sputtering, "Explain this; what is all of this" (he was as confused as I was). But since Raj and Maya's baby had just come home as well, and someone's sister or brother had also just announced that the baby would soon have twin cousins, and the father-figure joyously cried, "My whole family has returned" (some from the dead, apparently), it was a nice moment.

I don't really know what else happened, besides that Raj and Maya realized that they had "built a love" (in a scene set to Frank Sinatra's "I'm in the Mood for Love") and that the final scene had them say "I love you" at the same time, and that Maria Bethânia (a very famous Brazilian singer, and the sister of Caetano Veloso) randomly showed up to the red-head's wedding reception (I seemed to be the only one surprised by this), and that it was revealed that this random old guy was actually the father or grandfather of pretty much everyone on the show (instead of the dead old guy whose portrait everyone was always bowing to). Some of this, however, I actually already knew because it was on the front page of the paper a few days ago. No kidding.

Luckily I can leave all that confusion behind in just a few days. The new novela das oito starts Monday! It's called Viver a Vida and it looks promising. It seems to take place in Paris and Jordan and perhaps some other random locales (do they pull them out of a hat?). Since I'm starting this one from the beginning, hopefully I will be slightly less confused. I will finally feel like I can fit into society since I will understand more of the references. And maybe it will even help me with my schoolwork as well!

If you happened to miss any of the 203 episodes of Caminho das Índias, don't worry: you can check them out on YouTube here.

UPDATE: Of every 100 TVs turned on in Brazil during the last episode, 81 were tuned to Caminho das Índias. According to Wikpedia, the American program that comes closest to this in terms of market share is the Academy Awards of 1970, with 78% (the finale of M*A*S*H is next, with 77%).