Wednesday, October 27, 2010

School and the Orphanage

Three months down, a little under two left, and the time couldn't be going any faster.

Though you wouldn't know it from reading my posts from the last two months, I actually am still enrolled in school here. Things at UFJF have been going smoothly for the most part, so I don't have a ton to share on the subject, but I thought it'd be good to update on what I usually do during the week.

The hardest part of school here is getting there. I live a block away from the bus stop, and the drive is maybe fifteen minutes from my house, but it will still sometimes take me at least forty-five minutes to get to class. Especially early in the morning, the city simply does not have enough buses to comfortably transport everyone to the university. As a result, they pack the buses here until you literally cannot fit another person inside. I'll be waiting for a ônibus and as many as three going to UFJF will drive by without stopping; unable to fit anymore passengers with students just crammed up against the glass of the door. It's way better on Thursday and Friday when I don't have class at eight, but the first three days of the week I get to have some very intimate bonding with my new compatriots. The bus ride there involves many curves, taken much too quickly, and a pretty steep hill. Remember playing that game in the back seat of the car where two people would lean really hard with the curves in the road, crushing the third against the door? It's kind of like that, just more fun since you play with sixty people you don't know. I brought my camera last week to document the whole ordeal, but I didn't want to use the flash because a candid early-morning photo shoot seemed like it may freak out my fellow passengers. As a result, the picture below turned out pretty psychedelic. Hopefully my artistic inspiration comes across: the presence of many bodies in a small metal space.

From Blog pictures

My classes are going well. The most challenging part of understanding them is paying attention; I have to really make an effort to focus on what the professor is saying but inevitably drift off at some point only to return to reality a couple of minutes later not knowing what we're talking about. In order to raise morale in my two economic history classes, the professor has decided that we will have periodic group presentations where the whole class receives the grade of the presenters. I'm looking forward to the look on everyone's faces when it's my turn, knowing that their fate is being decided by my ability to articulate concepts in economics. I actually learn quite of bit of Portuguese in my Spanish class; I sit with two girls who point out to me when the other Brazilians' errors are due to slight differences between the two languages. My Brazilian literature class is cool; we're now giving presentations on important contemporary poets and songwriters and last week I presented on Caetano Veloso with two other students.

My project in the economics lab is also going well. The highlight is the free cookies and coffee, though I tend to go a little overboard with this perk. Right now we just finished reviewing variables in the database we're going to use and will start to run some basic statistics about the countries we've chosen to analyze. The professor who's supervising us is super nice and I'm really enjoying collaborating on the project.

I'm also doing a lot of learning outside the classroom. Speaking Portuguese is usually a positive experience save the moments I inadvertently say widely inappropriate phrases. The other day, instead of ask the head of the international students office if she was planning on doing her masters degree, I inquired if she was planning on menstruating in the near future. I'm sure she appreciated my concern. Even worse was when asked by a guy if I had studied Portuguese before coming here, I responded that I had spent twenty hours in Minnesota doing a "little asshole" instead of a "little course." Thank you, diminutive suffixes, for making me sound like the creepiest pervert ever.

I was able to travel again last weekend, with two of the Americans and one of our Brazilian friends, to the colonial town Ouro Prêto. This city is known for its role in the Brazilian gold boom during the 18th century and is filled with amazing architecture connected by winding, and very confusing, cobble-stone streets. Apart from the tourist appeal, Ouro Prêto is also famous for its myriad "repúblicas," university student housing that could roughly be conceptualized as Brazilian fraternities. Using the website Coach Surfer, where you can coordinate with people to stay in their houses for free while traveling, we ended up staying in a república during our stay in the nearby town of Mariana. It was a super fun way to travel, though modest at times, since we arrived already knowing people who could show us around. Our república was called "the Orphanage," and we had a great time hanging out with the orphans as well as meeting other travelers staying there, including a Dutch guy our age who just finished meditating with Hare Krishna's for a month. I put up pictures of the whole thing on my web album.

From Blog pictures

Hope all is well,


Monday, October 18, 2010

The Fashion Edition

Manner of dress is usually a salient indicator of a person's foreign status in another country, something which I personally do an excellent job of reminding people. For example, on Juiz de Fora's "cold days," (60-65 degrees Fahrenheit), I typically show up to class in shorts, sandals and a t-shirt while everyone else is dressed in jackets, sweaters and jeans. There was also no planning whatsoever in terms of what clothes I brought down here, I hastily packed the day before, which resulted in a rather skewed color representation within my wardrobe. Having just counted, I brought 24 shirts to Brazil. Eleven, effectively half of my shirts, are either white or yellow, seven are blue, and one is striped blue-white. Only six fall outside this color scheme. It's not even as though I have that many yellow shirts, I just happen to have brought every single one I own to this country. Whatever, I've just made underdressing in only three colors my new thing.

Even considering my own eccentricities, o Brasil is no stranger to interesting fashion trends. The following are some of the standouts, of which I've included some pictures from Google Images to help illustrate.


Reinforcing the international stereotype, Brazilians really do love their bikinis and sungas (speedos). But what the picture above doesn't communicate is that this trend isn't specific to any age or body type; you're as likely to see a large elderly lady wearing a bikini as some sexy young thing, and grandpas and beach-studs alike sport equally skimpy sungas. One-pieces on ladies are not common at all, though longer swimsuits on guys are a little more prevalent (especially on foreigners). I think this inclusive aspect of the Brazilian beaches is great, and definitely suggests a different dynamic in terms of the amount of skin we deem appropriate for older or larger people to show in public. This being said, I have not bought a sunga; I just think it looks too funny when guys wear only a shirt over their speedo and it looks like they're naked.


From Blog pictures

Also stereotypical is the ubiquity of this popular brand of flip-flops; it is estimated that five out of every six Brazilians consumes at least one pair of these a year (thank you, Wikipedia). You see them all over at the beach, but where people really use these is just hanging out inside the house. And they're cheap; depending on the style, you can get a pair here for six or seven dollars. I never bought Havaianas in the States, but I've been told they're considerably more expensive. In fact, we met a guy the other day from England who said he paid thirty pounds for a pair in the UK, about five times the Brazilian price. I have bought a pair of chinelos (flip-flops), as those are my white legs in the picture above.

Retro Lady Spandex

When it's workout time, the women here are all about the knee-length spandex, which comes in the most hilariously 80's patterns you can imagine. There must be some unspoken rule that girls aren't allowed to workout in anything that's not totally tubular, because these things are everywhere. Someone who's actually lived through the 80's may disagree with this association, but in my mind, that decade looked just like a Brazilian woman's thighs on a stationary bike.

Diaper Pants

While looking for a picture on the internet, I have since discovered that this style of pants is actually called "drop crotch," though for us American students they will always be known as "diaper pants." Used by both men and women, these things just confuse me. Do you need more breathing room? Do you keep your purse there? Someone should tell me if these are a thing in the States, since I'm pretty sure I've never seen them in Minnesota or Montana. I considered ironically buying a pair, but they're super expensive and it just really wouldn't be that funny if I did. Also surprising, Google Image searching "Brazilian pants" turned out to be more of a educational experience than I would have expected. Turns out, adding "Brazilian" to any piece of clothing in an English search is enough to make you blush.

"English for the sake of English" shirts

These are definitely not unique to Brazil, but I thought they deserved a mention since they can be so over the top funny. From what I've seen, placing English, regardless of the phrase, on a piece of clothing can be a major selling point. Frequently, however, the messages that people end up wearing come across as hilarious to native speakers. For girls, they usually say something like, "Fierce and Fabulous, Yes I Am!," and for boys, "I like hot girls and cold beer!" I saw my absolute favorite one the other day on some middle school girl:

[ ] Clothes
[ ] Cute Boys
[ ] Fun Parties
[ ] Cats and Dogs
[√] All of the Above!

That's right honey, don't just settle on the cute boys when there are cats and dogs to be had.

Hope all is well, keep it fab.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"They just hang out in a house and fight with each other"

In terms of scripted TV drama, most people associate Latin America with the novela, soap operas famous for their popularity and over-the-top acting. Brazil, along with Mexico, is one of the most important producers of these shows which command a significant portion of the airwaves here. However, if you're looking for a good bout of television backstabbing, you can't overlook Brazilian reality TV.

My roommate and I have started following two reality shows here, both originally based on American programs. The first is called "Hipertensão," (hypertension), inspired by the show "Fear Factor." In the American version, each "episode" consists of a group of people competing for a sum of money which is awarded to the contestant able to complete three challenges in the shortest period of time. These tests follow more or less the same format; typically involving eating something gross, doing something high in the air, and getting tied to something heavy and being dropped into water. In the Brazilian show, this aspect is basically the same save for the presence of thong bikinis, which I'm pretty sure aren't allowed in American shows. Also of difference is that in "Hipertensão," you follow the same group of people across an entire season and, despite being aired everyday, there are only challenges on Thursdays and Sundays. I asked my roommate what happens during the other five days of the week, to which he responded that during those episodes, "the people hang out in a house and fight with each other."

The other show we follow is "A Fazenda," (the farm), which apparently also comes from an American version, though I never watch this and so am unable to provide a comparison between the two. The show here consists of a group of celebrities who live together on a farm and divide their time between several activities: about 5% is spent doing farm work, 10% working out, 25% is for challenges that are vaguely farm-themed, and 60% is spent sitting on couches gossiping or fighting. It should be noted that the people are allowed to gossip during the chores and exercise parts and most of the challenges are meant to get people mad at each other. Last week, for example, the contestants had to dress up in blue jump suits and throw horseshoes into the buckets with the names of the people they would like to leave the farm. Things got pretty tense...

While it's fun just hanging out and watching some girl in a g-string bikini get covered in tarantulas, all the fights in these programs are nearly impossible to understand. Anyone who has traveled can attest to the difficulties of understanding a foreign language under certain circumstances, some of the worst being: crowded places, right after waking up, conversations involving many people, joke telling, and listening to intoxicated individuals. Fights are especially bad since everyone gets worked up and speaks super quickly with a ton of swearing and slang. It would be very helpful for me if we could get some sort of judge or a mediator in there to get everyone to look into the camera and calmly explain why they're feeling upset.

Yesterday was Children's Day, aka. the best holiday ever. For me, it meant a five day weekend spent in Ilha Grande (big island), in Rio state. I rented a house with five Argentines, so I got to practice my Spanish, and we hung out with a larger group of two other Argentines, one of the other Americans studying in Juiz de Fora, and sixteen Brazilians. The weather was not cooperative at all, it was overcast the entire time expect for the last day, but we still had a ton of fun and the beaches were beautiful regardless. You can see some pictures I put up here.

From Blog pictures

Oh, and while playing soccer the other day, I literally scored the first goal of my life.

Um abraço,


Monday, October 4, 2010

Apparently they don't let Americans vote here

Some may have already heard that Brazil had its first round of elections yesterday. Going forward, all the races where a candidate did not win with over 50% of the vote will be repeated on the 31st with all but the top two finishers eliminated. Of obvious importance and visibility will be the presidential runoff between Dilma Rousseff, the current president's former chief of staff, and José Serra, former governor of the state of São Paulo. Dilma finished first last night with about 46% of the vote, but was not able to command a majority due in large part to a strong performance by the Evangelical green candidate, Marina Silva. It will be interesting to see how Marina's votes are divided between the two remaining candidates in the weeks to come.

A couple of people have asked me about how my friends here feel about election. Among the young people I've talked to here, the most prevalent attitude has been a general discontent with the candidates this cycle, with education topping the list as their most important issue. As such, most of my Brazilian friends reluctantly voted for Serra and Marina; though I do know a handful of die-hard fans of the current government who enthusiastically voted for Dilma.

Here, the process is done exclusively by machine. You only vote for about 6 candidates each election with no referendums or initiatives, but you must make sure you've written down the specific two to six digit code for each candidate beforehand. As you enter each number into the machine, a picture of the candidate pops up on the screen and you push "enter." It's much quicker more entertaining than filling out fifty little bubbles while feeling bad about not having researched any of the city council candidates you're supporting.

Voting is obligatory for all people over 18, optional for 16 and 17 year olds, so I was feeling a little left out by when all my friends had to go vote yesterday. So, I went with my friend Lucas and we asked the officials if I could help him vote. I was denied. All I wanted to do was type in the codes for Lucas and press enter, but they only allowed me to watch. I tried to argue, but the people working there were not convinced by my argument that parents are allowed to let their kids type in the codes for them. Stupid electoral laws.

In terms of "experiencing" the election thus far, I occasionally watch the presidential debates with my roommate as well as "political hour," a daily period of time in which stations are required to give free programming to candidates and literally air nothing but political ads. Yet above all else, my engagement with Brazilian politics has been dominated by one particular form of media: the jingle. Candidates here hire people to decorate their cars or bicycles with stickers and posters of their face, strap huge speakers to the top of their vehicle, and drive around playing highly annoying and sappy songs about their qualifications that are impossible to get out of your head. As a result, we're always quietly singing to ourselves about how bright our future will be once we elect some candidate for senator or governor.

As an amateur analyst, I have specified three fundamental characteristics of an effective Brazilian jingle:

1. It must be played very loudly and very frequently
2. It must be as catchy as possible
3. It should contain as many words from the following list as possible: friend, smiles, experience, growth, progress, family, future, trust, happiness, the right choice, the right vote, the right guy

To demonstrate, I've embedded a youtube video of a jingle from the campaign of Antônio Anastasia, who just replaced the current popular governor, Aécio Neves, of my state, Minas Gerais. This is about all the information you need to understand the lyrics. I particularly like how creepy and weird the video is.

Amigo que é amigo (A true friend)

Minas grew, and may it keep growing
you can choose our future
Anastasia, the right vote to win
we are going to write our history together
A true friend, that we trust
I want this one, I want Anastasia
and our days, will be of much happiness
with Anastasia we will win

He know what progress is, he is a professor
Aécio approves Anastasia for governor
All that needs doing, will be done,
Anastasia as governor, with him I go
He knows what progress is, he is a professor
Aécio approves Anastasia for governor
All that needs doing, will be done
Anastasia as governor, with him I go

My favorite part is when he cites his credentials as a professor to prove that he knows what progress is.

Anyway, hope all is well and everyone hasn't been going too insane because of American-style election madness.