Friday, May 30, 2008

Long weekend getaway in the mountains

Boa Esperança is a tiny mountain town near Lumiar, a somewhat larger – and better known - tiny town made famous by singer Beto Guedes in a song by the same name. Another 40 minutes down the mountain is the city of Nova Friburgo. This area of Rio de Janeiro state was settled about 190 years ago by Swiss immigrants. You can occasionally see the Swiss influence in the curious mixture of Brazilian and Swiss home construction style (among those who can afford the extra distinctive wood trim.)

Our fun/party social group includes Sergio and Dora who have rented a little house in Boa Esperança for the entire year as their own little special getaway. And on this long Corpus Christi holiday weekend (coinciding with Memorial Day in the US) we all got to join them, sleeping cheek to jowl covering nearly all the floor space.

Not yet owning a car we loaded our suitcases and bedding onto an inter-municipal bus at 5:00 a.m. and took off for the mountains. The driver was kind enough to drop us, some two plus hours later, at the turnoff to Boa Esperança (not a regular stop). We waited there for the local bus to take us further up into the mountains to our host's modest cottage.

Gotta love these stripped down, no-nonsense, made-to-take-anything local busses. The 30 minute ride to Boa Esperança was over a dirt road. The bus was filled with school kids, folks going to work and families returning home from who knows where. And us. Hold on – the bus barreled ahead with confidence and determination.

The weekend was a ‘10’ as they say here. Great hiking, super friends, good song, lazy days and a blow-out BBQ where many of the locals joined in. Truth be told – Luiz and I came for the weekend, and stayed for a week! Sergio gave us the keys and we soaked up the quiet for a couple days after our group went home (read: back to work.)

Ready for the next visit to Boa Esperança.

Communing with nature - and orixás

Luiz has a very special relationship with waterfalls. If we get within a mile of one we have to stop everything and seek it out so he can take a plunge into the falling water.

Boa Esperança has three waterfalls (three big reasons Sergio and Dora rent a little house here for the purpose of weekend getaways.)

Waterfalls are powerful. Oxum the goddess of sweet water, ever-present at waterfalls, is often appealed to for good health. Also, given that waterfalls generally include large stones and are typically located in jungles or forests there is also the presence of Oxóssi and Xangô (the hunter and the seeker of justice).

In the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion there are roughly 12 orixás (there is some variation from one house of worship to another and one nation to another.) Orixás are essentially the earthly ambassadors of Olórun, the unknowable creator of all things. The orixás are nature gods. They are associated with distinct provinces of the natural world – water, air, fire, and earth – and it is from these primary sources that they gather and impart their axé, or vital energy.

So Luiz will jump into a waterfall even if the water is freezing cold (like those around Boa Esperança) to receive the powerful axé of Oxum, Oxóssi and Xangô. And he can’t understand why I’m not always enthusiastic to join him. (Usually, if the water is super cold, I beg off.)

Others in our group this weekend shared Luiz’s enthusiasm for bathing in waterfalls, so most of them went for a dip as well.

I understand Luiz’s belief that Oxum’s presence at the waterfall offers him an opportunity to ask for a blessing. But I must confess a worry that swimming in frigid waters will lead to getting a cold, which he should be making great efforts to avoid. But I keep this to myself. His belief trumps my worry.
[Information about Candomblé and orixás for this post was taken from "Sacred Leaves of Candomble" by Robert A Voeks.]

Road work: one stone at a time

In all of “downtown” Boa Esperança there is only about 80 meters of road that is paved. Paved with paving stones, not concrete or asphalt. It makes for the de-facto plaza area where town celebrations are held.

On one end of the road is an area that had fallen into disrepair, making a deep rut now filled with dirt that we were told gets muddy and dangerous during the rainy season. Locals told us that finally, after years of petitioning the local municipality (three towns away in Nova Friburgo), it was being fixed.

Every day while we were in town a small crew of older men took basic tools (hammer, spade, a kind of leveling rake, pick, and wheel barrow) and worked one row of stones at a time. First digging up the dirt, then laying down a layer of fine gravel mixed with a type of mortar, then tapping into place appropriately-shaped paving stones. Then another layer of the mortar/gravel mixture is spread over everything. The final layer would be left to settle and pack down under car wheels. The true excess would be swept up days later. Then when the rain comes it would harden.

Back-breaking work. The men were clearly expert at what they were doing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Great reason for high speed connection

I saw this amazing music video while reading another expat in Rio blog (thank you Rosemary). If this isn't a reason to upgrade so you can view streaming video I give up! (You know who you are!!)

Imogen Heap - Just For Now

Family tragedy in Boa Esperança

While enjoying our raucous weekend hiking, swimming, singing and drinking with friends in Boa Esperança we were in immediate proximity to a family mourning the loss of one of their most precious assets. In a little house a few doors down the road from where we were staying was a family holding vigil over their dying bull.

We had seen the eldest son walking the enormous animal from their yard to a grassy area in the shade, hoping it would eat. It looked sluggish, even to my untrained eye. The huge black animal looked like it was wading through mud even on the clean dirt road.

A conversation with the father revealed they feared the worst. Outside of their home, the bull was certainly the most valuable of family resources. They had spent nearly R$500 with the vet to try and save it. Money they surely did not have to spare except in an emergency. But still they were unclear of what ailed the giant and if it would even live through the night.

Three generations of this family stood around the yard in silence, arms crossed, fearing what was to be the inevitable. I felt conspicuous in our weekend revelry within earshot of this worried family. They were likely recalling the advantages the bull had brought them, and fearing the absence of its contributions in the future. This family was about to shift into precarious mode.

The next morning the shy son we had seen walking the bull confirmed it had died. All was quiet at their house. Because they did not know what had caused the animal to die, they were not able to consume or sell its meat. It was to be buried.

“Where do you bury a massive bull?” I asked Luiz. Without missing a beat he replied “Very close to where it died.”

[Neither of the animals pictured are the (more enormous) one referred to in this post. I just couldn't photograph the boy and the bull, so these guys were photographed further down the road.]

Largest gay pride parade on the planet in São Paulo

On Sunday, May 25th, somewhere between 3.5 and 5 million folks (depending on who you source) filled the streets in São Paulo to celebrate gay pride and demand an end to homophobia and sexism. This 12th annual São Paulo parade was by far the biggest event of its kind any time any where. By contrast, our beloved San Francisco Pride Day draws somewhere around 1 million revelers.

My enthusiasm for going to São Paulo to participate in the event was dampened by nearly everyone I approached with the idea. Mostly folks feel afraid of violence. And also significantly, in our current circle of friends the gay men are not of the more prideful and outspoken "let's go celebrate in the streets" variety. They're more of the "don't ask - don't tell" type. Sigh.

I'm struggling a bit with the much more closeted environment we live in. Gotta say my lesbian breast cancer awareness Tshirt featuring a big cartoon of a topless mixed-race lesbian couple exchanging breast exams does draw some curious looks at the super market. And every time Luiz and I kiss at parties our gay male friends cringe, look around and warn us to watch out so the children don't see us. Double sigh. The parents of those kids, by the way, are on record as being in full support of us kissing at will.

Got some work to do down here. I'm starting with challenging our gay male freinds when the situation presents itself.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Celebrating our birthdays with friends

Luiz's birthday is May 16th and mine is May 17th. Always a good excuse for a big party. This year was no exception.

We are part of a super-nice group of friends that extends out in several directions. We called them all together for the party. Lot's of folks could not make it, but we had a good 30 people or so.

Hawaiian theme, Brazilian BBQ. I'm not kidding when I tell you that guests started arriving at 11:30 a.m. and we kissed the cheeks of our last guests goodbye after 2:00 a.m. While the grill got off to a late start (our hired churrasceiro/BBQ guy was a no-show) we finally put meat on the grill at about 1:30 p.m. and the guys present took shifts at the BBQ until well after midnight; chicken, sausage, pork, liver, chicken hearts, chunks of beef I have no idea what they were, and even some Southern-style ribs. And the beer... LOL! The Brazilians reading may not be suprised, but the rest of you should sit down. We drank 192 ice-cold 600 ml bottles of beer. That would be just over 243 pints of beer. (And no - the kids present were not drinking beer.) Plus a couple liters of cachaça made into crowd-pleasing caipirinhas.

Man - what a marathon celebration. Good people. Good times. Terrific.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Remodel before photos

Here are a couple shots of the apartment BEFORE we tore up the carpet, refinished the parquet floor, painted all the walls and ceiling, installed more electric outlets, popped out the double door to the little veranda, retiled the veranda... and whatever else we could think of.

And here are two of the bedroom before and after.

Remodel after photos

Here are the AFTER photos. We had the guy who did our kitchen make a shelf unit for one wall and an entertainment center (with glass shelves) for the TV and such. Luiz now has more than 30 shelves to putz with. (Posted earlier: we had 80 odd boxes of stuff shipped from San Francisco.) The mirror on the wall was purchaced here from a local artist.

The couch was a real find. Most of the furniture we've seen is HUGE. We really needed something more like a love seat to fit in the space, but nearly all the sofas/love seats have these rediculously wide arms on either side. We finally spotted this one. They called it a feijão ("big bean") sofa because it's shaped like a kidney bean. LOL Plus the cushion is nice and firm (also hard to find).

We are super happy. And Luiz is in his element tinkering with what goes where.

Here's the cabinet maker and his younger brother.

Wanna feel better about George Bush?

Wow -- watch this! Nuf-said.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Slavery abolished in Brazil 120 years ago today

The Lei Áurea ("Golden Law"), adopted on May 13, 1888 was the law that abolished slavery in Brazil. It read simply:

"Article 1: With effect from the date of the present law, slavery is declared to be abolished in Brazil. Article 2: All provisions to the contrary are hereby repealed. (Signed) Isabel, Imperial Princess Regent."

The Golden Law was sanctioned by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil (1846 - 1921) who was regent at the time, while her father, Emperor Dom Pedro ll, was in Europe.

Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery.

Unlike Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, there are seemingly no festivals, parades or celebrations among Afro-Brazilians to mark this significant anniversary.

It is no real surprise that as a proud people Brazilians of African decent choose not to “celebrate” the day the white folks finally took their boot off their neck. Hello? They’re more like: “What the hell were you doing keeping us as slaves in the first place!?” Duh.

Much like the history of emancipation in the States, slaves here were not given compensation or otherwise assisted once their freedom was granted. The Wikipedia entry notes: "Before the abolition of slavery, the slaves in Brazil were prohibited from having assets or education; slaves were freed, but left alone with their own destinies. Without education or political representation, slaves faced many difficulties to gain economic and social status in Brazilian society; this explains many of the social inequalities observed in Brazil until today."

I’m no expert in Brazilian history and I certainly have no claim to a keen understanding of the black experience in Brazil, but I did find two informative articles here and here that shed a little more light on the subject.

Finally – here is a famous poem on this topic from Carlos de Assumpcao, a celebrated Brazilian poet. (Painfully-roughly translated. Major apologies to the poet.) Better to read it in Portuguese. The original is here.


Even if they turn their back
My words of fire
I will not stop shouting
I will not stop
I will not stop shouting

I was sent to the world
To protest
No spurious lies
Nothing will silence me

Behind the wall of the night
Without that no one understands
Many of my ancestors
They meet at my house
And we chat
About things bitter

About shackles and chains
What in the past were visible
About shackles and chains
What are invisible in the present
Invisible, but existing

In the arms, in thought
In steps, in dreams in life
From each of the living
Together me enjeitados the Homeland

The blood of my grandparents
What runs in my veins
They are cries of rebellion

One day, perhaps, ask someone
Be moved before my suffering
Who and what is screaming
What regrets and that well
Who is

And I reply
That's me brother
Brother you do not recognize me
I am the one who had become
Victim of men

I am a man
I was sold by men
In auctions, in public squares
What was sold or exchanged
As any instrument

I am who planted
The sugarcane and coffee
And watered it with sweat and blood
He argued that
About the shoulders black and strong
The progress of the country

I was the one who suffered a thousand tourtures
I was the one who cried for nothing
The one who gave everything he had
And now I have nothing

But today there is no shouting
From what has happened
What happened is past
My heart already forgiven
Today my brother shouts
It is because after all
The Justice does not come

I am who yells at me
The wrong in the past and in this present
It’s me who shouts
It's me who shouts, Me

I am that my brother
Who lived in prison
Who worked in prison
To build
The foundation of the nation

The foundation of the nation
It has the stones of my arms
Is the lime of my tears
So the nation is sad
It is very sad but great
Among so many people sad
Brother me the saddest
My story is told
With paints of bitterness

One day under ovations of roses and joy
Suddenly they threw me
From prison and I discovered
For a broader prison
It was a Trojan horse
The freedom they have given me
There were snakes to come
Under the cloak of enthusiasm

Suddenly they threw me
As crushed cane pith
As coffee straw
As something of no value
As something worthless

Suddenly they threw me
Into the streets of helplessness
Under ovations of roses and joy
Always dreaming of freedom
But the freedom they had given me
It was more illusion that freedom

Brother I who yells
I have strong reasons
Brother I who yells
I need more
From that scream to breathe

But know brother
Piety is not what I want
Piety does not interest me
The poor ask for mercy

I want something better
I do not want to live more
In the basement of society
I do not want to be marginal
I want to enter overall
I want to be well received
Enough of humiliation
My soul is already tired

I want the sun for all
I want a life for all
Either I receive what I want
Or I will shout the night away
As the volcanoes shout
As the cry of thunder
As the roar of the sea
Even the power of the dead
Will not silence me

*PROTEST AND OTHER POEMS, Carlos de Assumpcao, France / SP, 1982, edition of the author.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Luiz's Health Update

And so it starts: Luiz’s cancer journey in Brazil. Of course it began in San Francisco in November, 2007 when after ordering routine blood work to check on his diabetes our doctor veered off course and announced he had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) But that was then.

A lot has happened since November. Lots of distractions: visiting my family in Florida, the move to Niterói, visioning our new home and new life in Brazil. Making it happen. Luiz’s symptom-less days strung together for a full, distracted six months. But we were always quietly setting things up to engage with the health care system.

Luiz has enrolled with a very good health insurance company, Unimed, which will allow us to seek high quality care in the private sector. Monthly premiums are within reach (US$130) and there are no co-pays or deductibles.

We met with a hematologist a couple of weeks ago to get acquainted. His English is very good. I brought with me the already thick binder of lab test results from Kaiser in San Francisco, along with numerous articles I’ve researched to help understand the benchmarks to watch as we move forward. Consistent with my style of insisting on peer-like relationships with health care providers (even if that is quite unusual here in Brazil) I posed a series of questions to Dr. Roberto demonstrating we were well informed patients and he was about to engage with an insistent and confident patient advocate in myself. Then I handed him a copy of the newly published revised and updated treatment guidelines for CLL hot off the internet from Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology. (Maybe a bit over the top, but I wanted to show I knew the latest priorities for moving forward.)

After the customary long personal conversation (like, 40 minutes) to relax into our new relationship (SO DIFFERENT than the hurried 7 minute consultation in the US), and our discussing the test results from Kaiser, Dr. Roberto wrote up orders for similar tests to be done locally.

In San Francisco I had tried to get Kaiser to order two new prognostic tests not yet seen as “routine,” one testing for CD38 and the other ZAP 70. Sure enough, they refused. Dr. Roberto was just as curious as we were to see the results from these tests so he ordered them. As it turns out the insurance company here does not cover them either (too new) but the out of pocket for both molecular tests was “just” US$235.

Fast forward to our appointment yesterday. With Luiz’s test results in hand we returned to Dr. Roberto’s office. Basically, CLL is an indolent, or slow to progress, blood cancer. There were to be no surprises at this consultation. We were more or less going into set up a baseline for Dr. Roberto to begin his oversight. Luiz will likely not begin treatment for several years or longer if things go his way. While he definitely has leukemia, research indicates that there is no advantage to initiating chemotherapy at an early stage. In fact, the damage the chemo can cause may actually create more problems later on (a variation on the well known reality of chemotherapy: it might cure you, if it doesn’t kill you first.) Better to wait until symptoms pose a problem.

The relative good news is that the growing presence of lymphocytes has been slow over the past 6 months. Really slow. A doubling of the lymphocyte count over a six month period will be a tip toward initiating treatment. Other tests indicate Luiz is very much at the lead edge of this thing. All good.

The relative bad news is that since his physical exam 6 months ago in San Francisco there has been a slight enlarging of some lymph nodes, taking his Rai Stage from 0 to 1. Here we see some progression.

The contradictory news comes from the two spiffy new prognostic tests. Both tests seek to identify whether Luiz has a mutated or unmutated immunoglobulin heavy-chain variable region gene (IgVh). Mutated – good. Unmutated – not good. The CD38 test indicated mutated. The ZAP 70 unmutated. Sigh.

The test results do not offer treatment information at this point, just a better insight into disease progression. And we will see that soon enough anyway. Still, it is distressing to see any information that would suggest a more aggressive disease.

I asked Luiz if he wanted to go for the more intricate and vastly more expensive molecular IgVh test to get a better read on his prognosis. He replied flatly: "I don’t need to know that.”

So we “watch and wait” as they say. Or as I know better, we watch and worry. Our period of symptom-less quiet and contentment has been shaken. That was then. This is now.

We have another visit scheduled with repeat blood tests in August.

Please keep Luiz in your thoughts. This is scary stuff.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Drawing an eight foot long level line without a level

George, the guy we hired to do most of our apartment remodel, never ceased to amaze me. He was very talented, detail oriented and quite the problem solver. George spent several weeks going from room to room transforming our apartment. All for less than US$60/day.

When he painted the accent color wall in our living room he needed to make a straight, level line along the bottom of the rounded cove connecting the wall and the ceiling. Not owning a level he showed up one morning with a 14 foot length of clear 1/2 inch flexible tubing. Working with his son, they filled the tubing with water leaving about 2 inches empty. Holding both ends together George lifted the tubing and lined up the water level in each end. He marked both ends of the tubing at the aligned water level.

George took one end of the tubing up a ladder to one end of the wall and his son took the other end to the opposite wall. They held up the tubing ends and lifted them to the base of the cove where they both carefully aligned the water inside the tubing with the line marked on the outside of the tubing, then marked the wall.

Then they took a curtain rod from another wall and used it to connect the two marks. Poof! Straight level line!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

International news on television

It’s been refreshing to watch television news from sources other than the US’s major networks and cable sources. Even US cable news comes no where close to the international perspective seen daily here on Brazilian television. Back in the San Francisco television market it used to drive me crazy that items in the “International News” segment were essentially: the US in Europe, the US in the Middle East, the US in Africa, etc.

Take the passing of May 1st – International Worker’s Day, May Day, or Labor Day. While I did not have access to US television last Thursday my Google home page gathers news from CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, Reuters and “top stories” from any number of other sources. No real coverage of May Day. I’m guessing ABC, NBC and CBS did not offer reminders to the American public that May 1st is celebrated by workers around the world as the international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement. Just a guess.

I did hear that President Bush released a proclamation commemorating “Law Day”, the celebration President Eisenhower invented in 1958 to counterbalance international Labor Day celebrations that were seen to be too communist. (What?! Bush celebrating the rule of law?!)

Here (where Labor Day is a national holiday and most folks had a paid holiday) the midday and evening news were filled with coverage of celebrations/commemorations/and demonstrations around the world, including here in Brazil.

Less dramatically, on any given day here on the evening news we hear about developments and events in various countries around the world that are newsworthy for reasons related to their local populations – and not necessarily connected to Brazil’s interests or priorities.

Refreshing. And it makes for more interesting political cocktail party conversations (to the extent that I can sustain said conversations with my still limited Portuguese!)

Can't get enough of the music

OK, so call me old fashioned. I like Bossa Nova music, especially when Luiz and I listen together on the couch and he simultaneously translates the poetic lyrics. Always a love song. Always enchanting.

I do try to avoid dismissive eye rolling from the younger set by at least listening to more contemporary interpretations of classic Bossa Nova cuts, like this one from Bossacucanova. Check it out.

Neighborhood fair every weekend

Just one block from our apartment is the "Central Park" of Niteroi: Campo de São Bento. Every weekend it fills with families taking their kids for a bumper car ride or to shop among the crafts and food vendors. Luiz especially loves one woman’s quiche and empadão. Delicious.

I enjoy the park throughout the week, as it is a perfect place to sit in the shade and read or listen to my iPod.

We really are in a perfect location.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Brazilian President vs. US President

Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, President of Brazil, currently has earned a 69% public approval rating.

George W. Bush, president of the United States of America, has earned the disgraceful honor as the most unpopular president in modern American history. His current DISapproval rating is 71%

Brazilian politics is complicated, for sure.

I'm not saying... I'm just saying.

Flat Stanley in Niteroi

Being in Niteroi we, of course, got a request from Flat Stanley to pay us a visit. The parents of young kids know what I'm talking about.

So here we have Flat Stanley at the neighborhood weekly farmers' market hanging out with the fish monger.

Here he is chatting with a group of fruit and vegetable sellers. As you can see he makes friends quickly.

Later in the day Flat Stanley joined Luiz and I for a walk on the beach a few blocks from our apartment. There is a great view of Rio in the background.

There was no keeping Flat Stanley satisfied. Here is a shot of Flat Stanley on the ferry between Niteroi and Rio.

Kitchen remodel complete

It took a while. As usual, the prep work was most of the effort. We hired a very talented guy who has remodeled practically every inch of our apartment.

In the rear of the apartment he busted out and widened the doorway, tiled the wall, opened up and replaced a window, and painted the utility room. He replaced the toilet, tile and door - plus painted - the little bathroom. And in the kitchen he removed a room divider, repaired the tile, installed new light fixtures, painted the cieling, replaced the sink faucet and removed all the original cabinets.

Then our cabinet maker installed new cabinets. Check it out.