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!