Monday, September 27, 2010

Brazil and I celebrate our two-month anniversary: reflections on our relationship

Last week marked the completion of two months in Brazil; the time is flying. As of now, I'm a little under the half-way point for the Brazilian leg of the trip and about a quarter of the way through my entire abroad experience.

Stay in a place long enough, and it becomes a part of you. Here are some of the habits I've picked up over the past two months, how I've affected this country since my arrival, and the subjects on which Brazil and I still just won't see eye-to-eye.

How Brazil has affected me:

1. Thumbs up and hang loose: Hand gestures and other non-verbal forms of communication constitute important parts of learning a language, and Portuguese is no exception. My favorite gesture thus far is for something that isn't just full, but REALLY full (ie. every bus I take to the university). This is done by opening and closing your hand, keeping you fingers straight and meeting your fingertips to your thumb. Another entertaining one is the gesture for sex, which for some reason is communicated by a movement that looks like knocking on an imaginary door with the tips of your four fingers. Try it; if it looks like your imitating a bird pecking at something, you're doing it correctly. It's beyond me how this became associated with the action it represents.

Just like any word, however, a gesture in one country may mean something totally different, and possibly offensive, in another. While one of our most common gestures, the "OK!" sign can be interpreted in other cultures as an less-than-polite reference to a particular bodily orifice. As a result, travelers to Brazil are often warned not to respond to someone in this manner regardless of their good intentions. I don't think I ever used the "ok" sign in the States, but for some reason, not being able to now has made me compensate by over-using other affirmative hand gestures; namely, the "thumbs up" and the "hang loose" (the one surfers use where you stick your pinky and thumb out like an imaginary telephone). Both of these are used here, though not exceedingly often, so I'm perplexed as to why I can't stop telling people to "hang loose" all the time.

2. Board shorts: One male fashion trend here is to wear board shorts like a normal piece of clothing, not just while surfing or hanging out on the beach. As a result, I've started wearing my bright blue and yellow floral Hawaiian-pattern swimming suit as I hang around the house, go to the grocery store and do other errands. The look is complemented well by my new "hang loose" habit.

My contributions to brazilian society:

1. Teaching American geography: The first time someone asked me if I knew that the Amazon was in Brazil before arriving, I laughed it off. The second time, I was worried about how ignorant I was actual coming across here. The third time, I knew something bigger was at play. After that, I stopped counting.

Apparently, there is a pervasive rumor that American schools teach students that the Amazon is actually politically international territory and have maps with that region excluded from Brazil's borders. As such, the other American students and I are frequently asked if this was the case in our education. At this point I'm getting ready to respond that it was, just to see the reaction. Until then, we've all just started cutting people off when the conversation goes in that direction:

"Let me ask you a question (all questions here start like that), in your school, did they teach you that...."

"NO! IT'S YOURS! I know it belongs to you!"

The sad part is that this rumor, albeit ridiculous, contains an element of truth. As many Americans do know, the region is vastly exploited by international companies and local power figures, and as a result is one of the least governable areas of the country.

2. Single-handedly raising the internal demand of bananas and cheese: In the Brazilian meal schedule, there is typically an afternoon "snack" or coffee break since dinner is eaten much later than it is in the States. One of the most common snacks here is the "misto quente", literally translated to a "hot mix", basically just a grilled cheese with ham. As a team, my roommate Felipe and I consume an obscene amount of certain staples and chief among them is the "hot mix". I actually don't feel comfortable offering an estimate of how many of these things we eat; but rest assured it's not just during the afternoon that our little electric grill is being put to use.

The other pillar of our diet consists of bananas; which are super cheap and Felipe's favorite fruit. Looking back I suppose it was only natural that our two principal food groups would be combined, but I was still surprised the first time I was offered a banana hot mix (sans ham, obviously, we do have standards). They are actually good, in the "I can't believe I'm eating this" way that only mozzarella and white bread can provide.

And my ongoing conflicts with this country:

Motoboys: Brazil is not unique in that it has much scarier traffic than what we're used to in the US. However, the specific danger in crossing the streets here is the veritable army of motorcycle delivery boys, "motoboys", in Juiz de Fora. These individuals feel compelled to disregard all traffic guidelines while going twice as fast as all other forms of transportation. Since I don't have a car and don't take the bus unless absolutely necessary, I spend much of my day trying not to get plowed over by some kid with a dirt bike loaded up with Chinese food.

The large quantity of motoboys is due to the fact that you can get almost anything delivered here: from arabic food, pasta, hamburgers, beer to even ice. People are always surprised when I tell them that we don't have delivery McDonald's in the US like they do here, and the more I think about it, I also am.

Air kissing: Similar to the hand gestures discussion, travelers in countries that greet with alternating kisses on the cheek should do some research beforehand to ascertain the appropriate quantities for given situations. Getting this wrong is unavoidably awkward.

When you stop air kissing too soon, the other person leans in, realizes you've had enough, then quickly moves their head back. However, by this time, you're now trying to compensate, so you're all puckered-up and moving back in to make things right. But wait, they've already retracted, so you snap back to your original position. If things are really going poorly, they've taken this as a cue that you actually do want to reach that magic number of air kisses that makes this greeting culturally legitimate. And so it goes on... When you air kiss too many times, the same scenario is triggered with the roles reversed. Though these situations are uncomfortable for all parties, since you are a foreigner and have no idea what the hell you're doing, the fault is always 100% yours.

For American men, the sensation is more or less like when you greet a distant male relative after a period of time, shake hands, can't decide if hugging is ok, and just end up squeezing each others' elbows or something comparably uncomfortable.

Enter Brazil, where from what I can tell the magic number is "less than or equal to 2." When you meet someone new, you need to quickly size them up as a "onesie" or a "twosie;" err at the risk of starting your new friendship off on a uncomfortable note. I've developed a few loose guidelines at this point that seem to help: you're more likely to kiss twice when meeting someone for the first time, while you usually kiss once and give a side-hug for friends. When saying goodbye, just one farewell kiss will do the trick, unless you didn't kiss when you met each other, in which case you should probably go with two. Older women are also more two-kiss material, while younger women typically are just fine with a single, yet you'll eventually run into the friend's aunt who just isn't into what you're offering in the air kiss department and will have one peck to-go thankyouverymuch. I also have no idea what this is like for newcomers who aren't twenty-one year old males; for all I know two kisses are always exchanged between women and people over forty-five. So until I get the hang of this a little more, a part of me wishes everyone was as awkward about touching as Americans are.

I've put up pictures and videos from this weekend. I went to my friend Lucas' godmother's dairy farm (I will you have you know that I guessed correctly with two kisses for this greeting). Highlights included:

Two wonderful nights of sleep
Horse racing
Cow milking
Finding the best tree for climbing ever
Hanging out with friends
Playing with Great Dane puppies

You can access my pictures here, and my video page on the right border of the blog. I've put up a video of me dominating at the horse racing, and me doing an absolutely terrible job milking a cow. The latter video confirms the fact that this activity is about unflattering for the milker as it is for the animal.

Hope all is well,


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cam sees the president, is puzzled by modern art

Despite its frustrations, there is an entertaing element of being out of the "loop." Since I usually only hear about big events or parties the day before, it always feels like we're all being really spontaneous together despite all the planning that has taken place without my notice. For example, on Thursday a friend asked me if I was going to see the President the following day during his visit to the University.

"The president of what?"

"Ummm, the country."

"I guess so, yeah." What a nice surprise for him to drop by so unexpectedly....

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is kind of a big deal. In the final months of his eight-year tenure, "Lula" currently enjoys approval ratings around the mid-eighties; not bad for a guy who dropped out of school before the fifth grade and didn't learn to read until age ten. He's typically contrasted with his Venezuelan counterpart as an example of the "good" left in Latin America, as his administration has been marked by sharp decreases in poverty and inequality and impressive economic expansion. He has quite the story; working his way up through organized labor in Brazil's automobile industry (he lost his pinky finger in a factory accident), before becoming one of the nation's most powerful syndicalists and founding the country's Worker's Party. Though elected in 2002, his presidential ambitions had previously resulted in several failed bids dating back to 1989. As a result, his image often emphasizes his tenacity and ascension from the ranks of the Brazilian poor.

Lula came to tour some new buildings on campus and gave a speech afterwards that was open to the public. The lead-up to the appearance had most the aspects I've come to expect of any sort of event here: everything started an hour late and there was a band that played Beatles' covers. Since I got there thirty minutes early, which was almost an hour and half early in actuality, I got a pretty good spot to see him. It was super interesting to hear about higher education from a man who had never had the opportunity to go to college. Like some past American presidents we know, his speech is famous for its mistakes and "unpolished" nature, and he jokingly began by commenting on how his university audience was going to "analyze" all of the errors he was going to make in Portuguese. Well, no need to worry about this audience member providing any such analysis.

Yet any lack of refinement did not keep Lula from effectively working up the crowd. He's very easy to understand and is a passionate speaker, making it quite the experience to witness. We're currently in the throws of picking his successor, so the speech was dedicated to talking not only about the contributions of his party to education, but to all aspects of the country. I lucked out with the timing of his visit, this is the first time he's come to Juiz de Fora during his presidency. All in all, it was an excellent way to spend my Friday afternoon and I'm looking forward to seeing who or what will "randomly" appear next. Here is a picture of me looking foolish with Lula behind me and a close up of him speaking

The rest of my weekend was spent in the state capital, Belo Horizonte. I was invited by some friends who study architecture to go with their class to a huge modern art museum on Saturday. This "museum" is actually a 90-acre park filled with crazy structures, buildings and galleries, some of which I've put up pictures on Picasa. My favorite building was a round pavilion on top of a hill that offered an excelent view of the surrounding park and city. Inside, visitors sat on a bench that ran around the structure and listened to the magnified rumbling sounds that came out of a narrow hole that ran 600 feet into the ground. The exhibit was called, "Sounds of the Earth." I think it was my favorite because it's the only piece of modern art I'm moderately sure I understood.

While super nice, the professor leading the trip was also quite the character. He would often stop conversation to loudly declare that "we need to smoke a cigarette!" while taking a Marlboro out of his bag. He would not, however, lite said cigarette. He still took long, dramatic drags and would blow out imaginary smoke, often while chatting up a group of people who were smoking the more traditional way. After a while, he would decide that he had had "enough!", and would replace the cigarette in his bag. During one of his "smoking" session I asked him what exactly he was doing, to which he matter-of-factly responded that he stopped smoking lit cigarettes when he was thirty-five. Like I said, "Sounds of the Earth" was about the only part of the modern art trip I really felt I had a handle on.

Hope all is well,


Monday, September 13, 2010

Bonbon disaster

Regardless of the country, regaining your academic focus after a long weekend is never easy. As such, my first day back at the university last week was characterized by my use of all sorts of delay tactics to put off reviewing dense economics articles for my research project. After checking my email for the third time in ten minutes, I decided that my hard work merited a bonbon. These chocolate treats are sold all over in the university "cantinas," which resemble those DECA stores where everyone bought ramen noodles and hot pockets at in high school. So I left "Determinants of city growth in Brazil" open on my screen, so passersby would know that I had at least located the article I was supposed to be wrestling with, and energetically made my way to the nearest bonbon outpost.

As I triumphantly walked out of the cantina, already three bites deep, I looked down and saw that instead of "doce de leite," my bonbon was filled with copious amounts of mold. A fit of spitting and hacking ensued right in the middle of the patio where all the law and economics students hang out between classes. Thankfully, the only witnesses to me emptying the contents of my mouth and throat were three girls quietly sitting at a table drinking diet Coke. Having already effectively got their attention, I thought it was an apt moment to explain why I just covered the ground with chocolately saliva.

I can only cram so many Portuguese words into my head a day and, not surprisingly, "mold" up until this point had never struck me as particularly important vocabulary priority. As a result, my strategy for communicating what had just happened was sticking my arm out, bonbon in hand, while saying: "it has... it has.... it has..." However, the girls did not inspect the contents of my bonbon, they were too busy staring at the chocolate all over my face and teeth. What's more, saying "it has," "you have," and the command "have," are all communicated by the word "tem". Since I was not providing any context for my verb conjugation, my repetition of this single word was not perceived as an attempt to explain what my bonbon "had," but rather as a command that my three new friends take the treat from my hand.

As can be expected, the girls were not particularly interested in trying the other half of the bonbon they had just seen me practically vomit up, and very politely declined my offer. It was only after hearing, "I'm fine, thank you," several times did I become aware that I was aggressively offering my bonbon to these girls instead of effectively explaining my freakout two minutes prior. Realizing this, however, did not help me think of a new way to communicate the word "mold," but rather made me repeat "tem... tem... tem..." louder and with more urgency. The story ends with me reentering the cantina to bargain for a bottle of water, you aren't supposed to drink tap water here and my mouth really needed a rinsing, while leaving the girls without any explanation whatsoever of why I had acted in that manner. What's more, I have no absolutely no recollection of what those girls look like. I probably passed by one of them today as I went to class, blissfully ignorant as she thought, "oh God, it's the crazy from the cantina."

In other news, this last weekend was an absolute blast. I went to a nearby state park with our friend Lucio, the one who took us to the soccer game in Rio a couple weeks ago. Lucio is a biology student who just got published in a Brazilian journal for his research about snakes in this park, and he and his fellow researchers spent all of Saturday and Sunday showing the Americans and another one of our Brazilian friends around. This is the first time I've ever lived in a city, so it was literally a blast of fresh air being outside again. We spent hours walking from one swimming hole to another, while hearing about the local plants and animals from people our age who knew a ton about the area's biology. The park, Ibitipoca, is a favorite among locals in Juiz de Fora on account of its many waterfalls and caves, and I've put up pictures for anyone who's interested, as well as a some poorly taken videos, (it never occurred to me that you shouldn't flip the camera on its side while filming....) It was one of those trips where all the preparations just work out in your favor; we had no plans going into the weekend, just happened upon an opportunity to see this place we had heard so much about, and were there by the next morning.

And in case you're wondering, the word for mold in Portuguese is "mofo," as in, "moldy bonbons make me act like a crazy mofo."

Hope all is well. Shout out to my Carleton friends that started classes today!


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Capitalizing on a long weekend to confront adolescent insecurities

My roommate commented the other day, "Cam, you're running away from playing soccer." Despite my indignant response to his allegation, he was absolutely correct. I'm all about cultural immersion and trying new things, but soccer has never been my "thing." Like any American youth, I played the game growing up, just never very well. The last nail in the coffin of my already lackluster career was placed when I was literally the only 14 year-old cut from a group of forty boys trying out for the spring traveling league, (they couldn't justify placing me in either the A or the B team). Apart from effectively convincing me to seek out my talents in other activities, such experiences soured my relationship with "the futebol" and I've been disinclined to play much ever since.

In the States, this was never really an issue. Here, this is an issue.

My repertoire of lame excuses for turning down invitations to pick-up soccer games has failed thus far to effectively convince anyone that I'm not a total weirdo for not falling over myself to play this sport whenever I have a free moment. My two most common responses to the "do you like futebol" question are typically:

"I LOVE soccer, watching it is super fun!" and "I like playing soccer, I just prefer individual sports." Translation: I have the coordination of a newborn fawn, so when I choose to look like a fool and exercise, I do it by myself.

The conversation then is usually doused with another layer of emasculation when I'm asked if anyone in my family plays the game; "oh yeah, my little sister just finished a summer playing on a boys' team in Paraguay..." My sibling is also the reason why my other backup story: "soccer was forbidden in my household because my mother said it was the Devil's game," was never particularly believable. I can't even blame not wanting to participate on culture differences, since the only other American male on the trip played through high school and has got some skills. Whenever you read short or stereotypical descriptions of Brazil, the obsession with futebol is almost always followed by some description of the country's illustrious Carnival celebrations. Yet, why am I never asked if I like flamboyant street parties every time I meet someone new?

I know what you're thinking, Brazil is the perfect place to confront my soccer issues! While impossible to find a place more passionate about the game, the self-proclaimed "soccer capital of the world" is also a rather intimidating place to start playing again. If I'm going to pick up some sport, I want to do it with other spastic nerds not a bunch of baby Pelé's.

Anyone who's read thus far would agree that it was time for my pity party to end. I choose to come to Brazil, I can hardly act surprised that I'm being asked to play soccer. The more important question is what pride I'm afraid I'm going to lose; I spend most of the waking day looking foolish. Every time I arrive at class in shorts, sandals and a t-shirt while everyone else is in jeans and winter jackets, accidentally order something crazy in a restaurant, or just speak in general for that matter, I'm acting out the "weird foreigner" routine that every exchange student does so well. I hardly have a reputation at stake. So, this past Saturday, I bit the bullet and went with Felipe to play with his friends.

For a country that loves this sport, it's shockingly difficult to find a place to play in Juiz de Fora. We, for example, had to rent out an indoor court since fields, even small ones, are expensive and hard to book. These court games, called "futsal" (foo-chee-sau) instead of futebol, are definitely different from the game that I remember as middle schooler. Like indoor soccer, everything is super compact, moves really quickly and the ball is smaller but heavy. As a result, the game favors your ball-handling skills. Perfect....

I was telling people that I would be a valuable asset on their teams since my soccer muscles should be well rested after my eight year hiatus, but my poor delivery of an already weak joke put an end to those antics. Anyway, I had more important things to concentrate on than my thinly veiled attempts to remind everyone around me that I hardly ever play and my skills were speaking just fine for themselves. Thankfully, the upside to such a small court was that I was constantly running into people and about half of the time the individuals I was getting in the way of were from the other team. My performance peaked my first time as goalie when someone kicked that heavy damn little ball right towards my face. I suppose they were probably aiming for the general goal area, though this worked out well since my reflexes to protect myself also prevented them from scoring.

In short, the whole thing turned out exactly as was to be expected. I played like a person that doesn't play soccer very often, and everyone was super nice, supportive and generally seemed glad that I was there. Brazilians simply love soccer; and showing interest and excitement for something that they feel passionately about is almost always going to be received positively, regardless of my skill level. Though not an important part of my life, this sport is an integral aspect of the culture here and it was overdue that I accept the gracious invitation to participate. So, I think I'm going to start playing with this group on Saturdays. I'll let you know when I go professional.

My photo and video updates are from this weekend. Today is both Brazil's and Garrett's birthday, so we got a four-day break from school. We started the mini-vacation off by going to the "German Party" on Friday. Brazil has a large population of German descendants, especially in the southern chunk of the country, so in one of the neighborhoods here they had an appropriately themed street party. On Saturday, we went to our professor's birthday party at one of the clubs here in Juiz de Fora. Yesterday, we had a big churrasco (barbecue) for Garrett's birthday. All of Felipe's family is in town, and Felipe and his girlfriend have been planning this for weeks, so it ended up being quite the event. It was a super fun weekend and I've really enjoyed getting to know my extended Brazilian family.