Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cooking in stone and clay pots

Something about cooking beans in a soapstone pot makes them taste better. Or maybe it’s just me. And there is quite simply no better way to make a shrimp moqueca than in a big clay pot. Perhaps I just feel differently about food cooked in an old-world stone or clay pot.

There are two types of cookware you will find for sale along the side of the road: stone and clay. Big black clay pots (made of mud and mangrove tree sap) are often stacked three high in three sizes and lined up along the dirt shoulder in coastal areas. Handwritten signs hawk the pots, 4qt., 3qt. and 1.5 qt. with lids, 3 for R$10 (or just US$5.50).

When driving through the state of Minas Gerais you can find pots carved from local soapstone. Various sizes are available, as are pizza stones and other meat roasting platters. These pots are not quite so cheap, but still a dream for the price.

When we were first dating, Luiz secured my heart via my stomach and my fondness for all things rustic by having me over for a seafood moqueca cooked and served in a clay pot brought from Brazil. In these clay (or stone) pots you can sauté or boil on top of the stove, or cover and roast inside the oven. Then they go, beautifully, from the stove to the table, keeping the food warm with their dense thermal properties.

Today Luiz cooked up some white beans and stewing meats in a big stone pot and his famous perfect rice in a smaller pot. Many thanks to Carlinhos and Dü, our friends in Belo Horizontes, who brought us these wonderful pots for our birthday last May.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Luiz as tour guide

This time Luiz was the lucky one. He just enjoyed a week long all-expenses-paid trip to Ilha Grande and Paraty. Luiz: the tour guide extraordinaire.

Our friend Ricardo was hosting his ex-roommate, Bob, from Phoenix for several weeks. But as is always the case, he could not take three weeks off work to accompany Bob to all the places he wanted to go. Not being the terribly independent one, Bob was looking for a guide to show him around.

I looked online and asked around with others in the know and got the skinny on a personal guide in and around Rio. Guides charge about US$150 a day for their services, plus all additional expenses: their tickets to the various sights, their lunch, etc. Not too bad for the visiting American.

But Bob wanted to travel about 3 – 4 hours south of Rio. One guide was charging US$300 for transportation costs (a US$50.00 round trip bus ticket if you go it alone).

Long story short: Luiz had just finished a gig and didn’t have anything on his calendar for a week so we suggested that Bob just take Luiz along for the ride. No guide fees and they would use the bus (very comfortable, by the way). Bob picked up all expenses and Luiz showed Bob around and acted as translator. Win win.

Breakfast at the pousada in Paraty.

Luiz is ready to do it again if anyone is thinking of coming for a visit!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Watercolor of Brazil

This classic 1942 Walt Disney animation of Donald Duck meeting up with Zé Carioca has all the clichés of Rio rolled into one sweet and charming package. The music is great. Take a look.

Ana Carolina and Seu Jorge

Flipping through my iPod the other day I noticed that I've listened to this song WAY more than the rest of the other 973 songs - almost twice as frequently as the next most listened to song.

It hypnotizes me - complete with goosebumps. Their 2007 live album together is flawless. Check it out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Too much time on my hands

You know you are spending too much time in front of the computer when you dig up videos like this. Very cool - but I think I'll go outside now.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fathers Day in the mountains

Father’s Day in Brazil was Sunday, August 9th. Luiz and I suggested to Tonico that we spend the day up in the mountains at our favorite waterfall in Boa Esperança. Neither he nor Zozó have been there. Tonico loves a road trip and Zozó loves a good waterfall. It was a go.

Just like he warned us, a few seconds past 7:30 a.m. we heard Tonico tooting the horn downstairs. Did I mention that Tonico loves a road trip? Before long we had left the urban sprawl of Rio behind and were winding our way across the flatlands just north of Guanabara Bay and into the foothills toward Nova Friburgo.

Tonico and I share a bad habit. We don’t really pay attention to the chatter coming from Luiz and Zozó in the back seat. Tonico has the advantage of his failing hearing and I will just miss what is said if I don’t pay close attention to the Portuguese cadence. This helps us both not overheat from the unsolicited backseat driving commands offered by Zozó or the impatient vocal snaps from Luiz which he uses to modulate his conversation with his mother. (It can sometimes be a long drive, regardless of our destination.)

By about 10:30 a.m. we turned off the main mountain road and headed even further upward toward Lumiar and Boa Esperança. Along the way the road gets smaller and the towns get cuter.

After the final couple of kilometers on a wickedly eroded dirt road we parked at the entrance to the barzinho and picnic area located at the waterfall.

From then on it was all goodness and light. Beautiful spot, cold beer, fresh salgadinhos, and an inspiring waterfall.

Happy Father’s Day.

Inspiration in the sand

I saw this at the Huffington Post blog. Check it out.

Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine's version of "America's Got Talent." She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and "sand painting" skills to interpret Germany's invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII.

For more on the artist, read this Guardian profile.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fear and loathing in the US

It angers me SO MUCH to hear the hateful things going on in the US regarding the so-called debate around health care reform. This is one situation in which I am grateful to be so far away. Just reading about the histrionic goings on gets my blood boiling.

The racism voiced against our president from all corners is so disheartening.

I am grateful to be just one step removed because I can only imagine how much worse the cacophony must be if I were hearing it all first hand from the media in the US.

Peace and safety be unto you and your family President Barack Obama.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ballet in Niterói

Tonight was our night out at the ballet. Or so we had intended. There is a special place in Luiz’s heart for ballet, given that he himself was a ballet dancer in his youth. In fact, he was a professional dancer with the Rio de Janeiro ballet company, including some touring.

In Niterói the ballet company performs at the historic Theatro Municipal. This beautifully restored small theater in the heart of downtown Niterói was the first theater in Brazil with a resident theater company.

When I saw that the ballet company was performing this weekend I suggested to Luiz we go see them. To my utter amazement the tickets were priced at R$10 (US$5.40), plus – if we could demonstrate we are residents of Niterói we could get a 50% discount. So we bought tickets for just R$5.00 each (US$2.70). Fifth row! Incredible!

So we got all dressed up, got on the bus and went downtown. Unfortunately, once we got to the theater it was dark. Taped to the main doors were notices that the theater would be dark for the entire month of August due to the Swine Flu epidemic. The health department has requested that crowded, confined spaces such as theaters close until further notice. (I must admit I had been a bit nervous about going to the ballet for just this reason.)

Ultimately our R$5 ballet was in fact too good to be realized. We turned around and went home.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A whole lotta love

One of the things I love most about Brazil is all the touching and kissing. Everybody touches and kisses everybody. Warm, nice, sweet, affectionate touches and kisses.

When we arrive at a party the first order of business is to go around to every person present and, depending on their gender or sexual orientation, kiss, hug and/or shake hands and pat shoulders with each person and say hello. At the end of the evening when we begin to leave, once again we will kiss or hug or otherwise touch every person present and say goodbye.

My mother-in-law will put her arm around me and just share some affection at the most random of moments. No reason. Just because we are standing near to each other.

Every time our neighbor from upstairs comes by to drop off a slice of cake she’s made or a bowl of soup she just concocted, we exchange kisses on the cheeks.

All the kids we know come up to us and kiss and hug us hello and goodbye.

Every female medical professional we have seen: allergist, endocrinologist, oncologist, physical therapist, all of them – kisses at hello and goodbye. (With the men we shake hands and pat shoulders.)

It’s so sweet to see mothers and teenage sons walking arm in arm. Dads hug and kiss their sons of all ages. Best girlfriends will walk arm in arm. Teenage boys will walk with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

Almost without exception when an adult is near a child (theirs or someone they know) there is affectionate touching. And it is clear the children thrive on it.

There’s a whole lotta love goin’ on here. It warms my heart.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Luiz health update

After a quiet three month respite Luiz had to return to his cancer doctor for a check in. It is a two day process. First he has to go to INCA (Brazil’s National Cancer Institute, in Rio) to have his blood drawn to run the numbers. Then on the following day or so he returns for his scheduled appointment to get an update.

By now Luiz is accustomed to the 80 minute bus ride, to the point that he can fall asleep after boarding and wake up just before the hospital. But you never get accustomed to spending time in a public cancer facility. It can be a real body blow to your otherwise steadfast optimism and practiced tranquility.

On Tuesday Luiz and I made the trip to INCA for his 1:00 p.m. appointment. Unfortunately for us it was a day filled with drama on the hematology ward. There were a number of priority patients with late afternoon appointments that came in early and were seen in front of those of us scheduled to be seen right after lunch. We waited for more than two hours for Luiz’s name to be called. (Understandable, but not fun.)

Good news: Luiz’s numbers remain steady. There were barely notable increases in a few areas, but nothing calling out for attention. His physical exam showed no growth in lymph nodes. All good. As always Luiz and his doctor shared a few minutes of pleasant small talk, checked in on vacation plans and exchanged kisses and hugs. We are to return in another three months.

One other note about INCA. A few weeks ago I was in Paraty with my friend Beth and her daughter Cece. We were sitting at an outdoor luncheonette enjoying a caipirinha and struck up a conversation with a man sitting near us. Turns out he was the president of the Portuguese Hospital in São Paulo (apparently one of the larger facilities) taking a few days off with his family. Without tipping my hand I casually asked him what he thought of INCA in Rio. He said he hated to admit it (because the rivalry between Rio and São Paulo is such that residents of either never confess to the superiority of the other) but that INCA is the best there is, even better than anything in São Paulo. “That’s nice to hear,” I said.

While the news remains very positive, as I mentioned above, it always takes a toll on Luiz to have to wade into the CLL pool, even to receive good news. Please send some love his way.

Swine Flu in Brazil

The Swine Flu pandemic is slowly but surely crawling over Brazil. The death toll is up to 134 people. So far it has been concentrated in the south of the country (south of us as well). But as these things are known to do, the bug is making its way northward.

As of today there have been two deaths from the flu here in Niterói. Given the introduction of the virus into the local area the health department has now ordered all the public schools closed until further notice. It has been a week and they just extended it for another week. (Although some private schools and both of the English schools I teach at are remaining open.)

Given Luiz’s compromised immune system this situation is of particular concern to us. I’ve bought some anti-bacterial gel for us to use when using the buses or going shopping. But there is definitely a worry just under the surface.

When we went to see his doctor the other day I inquired about getting a flu shot for Luiz. It does not address the Swine Flu virus, but would help prevent about 30% of other potential infections. As a Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia patient he cannot take a “live” vaccine, as his system may not tolerate the small dose infection and he might just get the flu! It has to be a synthetic vaccine.

While the synthetic version of this year’s flu shot is available throughout the US it is not available here. So – we slather on more disinfectant gel and try to stay out of harm’s way.