Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another 13 hour party

Our good friend Lilian turned 39 this weekend. As is our group’s want, we pooled our resources and threw one heck of a party out at the house in Itaipú. The house is all but deserted these days, but that just made it easier for everyone to camp out on the floor overnight. (No drinking and driving!)

So it was 10 hours of BBQ with a DJ mixing it up followed by 3 hours winding down with Victor playing old standards on the guitar. In spite of the tepid weather, the kids enjoyed the pool.

I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Here are the kids in front of what must be the largest stag horn fern on the planet.

Just for the record, I am not the only one who cannot stay perky for the full 13 hours.

The next day we fired up the BBQ once again to finish off the meat (not to mention work our way through the left over beer).

In case you are not familiar… hammocks were made for the day after a rockin’ party.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Flor de Luiz to the rescue

There’s nothing like having a florist in the family to whip up an arrangement for a birthday present.

We went to celebrate our friend’s 80th (?) birthday last week. Delicious food, dynamic DJ, open bar and lots of WAY FUN widows over 70 years old cutting a rug. Let it be a lesson to us!  Grrls just wanna have fun!!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Finding the groove

It’s pretty much understood that Brazil is an expensive place to live these days.
When I first visited Brazil it was totally different, mostly because the currency exchange rate back in 1999 was 4:1 Real to the Dollar. So every US dollar bought 4 Reais worth of goods/services. We were living large back then, coming to visit with US dollars in our pockets.

The problem these days is two-fold: living here, shit is expensive and wages are stupid low. Plus the exchange rate has cooled to 1.7:1 Real to the Dollar. That is, one dollar only buys 1.7 real’s worth of goods/services. A far cry from the previous spend thrift days.

We are living local. Exchange rates are nearly irrelevant, except when we occasionally transfer funds from the States. For the most part we earn our wages here and pay the cost of living here. And it is not easy. Brazil is an expensive place to live.

Many ex-pats are earning US wages at their local US company office, plus getting perks above and beyond their wages like housing, maid service, nanny service, car and/or driver service, health club membership, travel costs to and from the US several times/year, and on and on. It is another world.

But I’m here to say that you can live here on much less. While travel and entertainment costs can be high, just enjoying a normal life at home is quite affordable. This is where the Brazilian focus on family and friends comes into focus. It does not cost anything to enjoy our friends or to spend time with our family.

Luiz and I definitely took a hit on the income front when we moved here. But we have re-learned the joys of personal relationships as life enhancers. Less (stuff) is more.

Ultimately I would rather work less and spend casual time with my friends than work constantly (like we did before) and focus on brief getaways for respite.

Everyone has their own priorities. We have found ours and are quite happy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Life is hard for so many

I am struck by the images portrayed in this documentary video of an elderly woman living in a Rio favela who is simply trying to get to her doctor's appointment at the hospital. Simple, practical, without complaint. But should it be so difficult?

Take a look at Dona Maria's trip to the hospital.

Those readers who have known me for longer than my blogging days know that I have been a social justice and social service advocate (and fundraiser) for my entire professional life.

You will hear more from me in the future about how we might all offer some real assistance to favela residents like Dona Maria. Stay tuned. It is difficult to stand idly by.

This video and others are posted at Mundo Real.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Luiz health update

While this darn “watch and wait” period drives us crazy, Luiz’s Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia seems to have found a nice and stable path that it has been sticking to for the past 33 months.

Luiz makes the trip to the National Cancer Institute every two months (or as my Brazilian English students would say: “every two and two months”) for a check up. Honestly, the stress of the bus ride over followed by sitting in a stuffy smelling, overcrowded, public cancer facility waiting room with patients in all stages of their disease – is sure to be worse than just a phone consult if his complete blood count numbers have not changed in any real way. It’s always good to get a physical exam, for sure, to check for swelling of the lymph nodes, but perhaps that could be every four months.

But hey, I’m just the guy who wants to spare Luiz the hassle and discomfort.

[Happy blood]

We’re happy to report that all of his indicators remain stable and any change is within the margin of error. His platelet count went up again this time. My favorite.

I never get tired of reporting that his disease indicators are nearly identical to his time of diagnosis.

[Blood, like Luiz's, struggling to stay happy]

Thank you everyone for you support and words of encouragement to the both of us.

Driving and congestion

Anyone who has traveled the roads of Brazil knows that they are dangerous, filled with scofflaw drivers in the extreme. The number of traffic accidents seems to climb to ever higher levels each year over holiday weekends.

There are some people in our circle of friends with whom I refuse to be a passenger in their car. They drive too dangerously and refuse to slow down or stop weaving in and out of fast moving traffic. Sorry, I would rather take the bus.

Busses have a reputation for being driven by crazy drivers as well (municipal as well as inter-municipal) but I have to say that in the past 10 years or so I have noticed a big improvement in safety on inter-municipal busses: slower speeds, less aggressive maneuvering, etc. I feel safe traveling by bus.

Given the growth of the middle class, the greater access to consumer credit and the government’s tax holiday on car purchases, Brazil has seen a real explosion in personal car ownership in recent years. This has definitely translated into way more cars on the road and heavy traffic.

[This classic photo of gridlock in São Paulo makes the rounds whenever this topic comes up. Click to enlarge.]

When you combine all these cars with minimal road capacity PLUS drivers who see no reason not to use the shoulder as an additional lane, or to turn right from the center lane, you’ve got trouble. Congestion is a serious problem in urban areas.

But then I saw this article about a traffic jam in China that has been going on for 9 days (and counting) and stretches more than 100 kilometers. I thought we had it bad.

Uh oh - we do have it that bad.  This morning's news reports 99 kilometers of congestion in São Paulo due to an accident.  Oh well, at least there will be vendors walking between the lanes selling biscuits and beverages.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Some things are just stupid crazy

I've been following a new discount website that delviers a daily special at a local business to my email.  It can be 60-, 70- or 80% off the original price.  Kinda fun.

Forgive me if I laugh.

Today the discount was at a "Tex-Mex" restaurant in Priatininga.  You may recall I recently saw this place out of the window of my passing bus and thought I might go there.

Well, according to the "discount" opportunity the usual chicken wrap costs R$19.50 (offered today for an exciting R$7.00).  WTF?  A chicken wrap for $20?!  There is problably R$2.00 worth of food in that item.  Where do Brazilian restaurantuers come up with this stuff?  Can you say highway robbery!?

Sorry guys -- never.

Back in San Francisco you can get a "wrap" or a burrito for US$4 that is as big as you arm and impossible to eat in one sitting.

Farmers' market inspires a fantastic lunch

Twice a week there are farmers’ markets in our neighborhood. On Thursdays it is along a tiny side street a few blocks away. Cute, simple, fresh produce and a fish monger. On Saturdays it occupies a long street on the other side of the park and includes a cheese seller, several flower stands, fresh eggs, easily 20 produce stands, a basic kitchen utensils stand, a couple cookies/crackers sellers and that same fish monger.

Anyway, today we got inspired at the market and decided to cook up a fish and shrimp mouqueca with rice and pirão.

We bought veggies, shrimp and fish fillets, plus some apple bananas and strawberries for dessert. On the way home we stopped to buy coconut milk.

Luiz and I shared counter space in the kitchen, he de-veinied the shrimp, and I chopped all the vegetables (it is usually the other way around but this time I called dibs on the vegetables). Then Luiz went to work assembling the tasty lunch in one of our stone pots.

[That tall pot filled with pink stuff is all the shrimp heads/shells and veggie scraps simmering into an intensly flavored shrimp sauce to be used later to make the pirão.  Yum!]

OMG! I love it when food tastes this great. I could have eaten three plates of the stuff. But I was disciplined and stopped after a full plate of flavorful Brazilian-style seafood wonderfulness.

"Dilma Boy" video goes viral

Remember the “Obama Girl” YouTube video that went viral during the last US presidential campaign? Not to be outdone by its northern neighbor there is now a “Dilma Boy” video making the rounds.

Since satire and jokes about presidential candidates is forbidden by law (on television and radio) in Brazil during the final weeks running up to the October 3rd election, you might find a little silly relief watching this true devotee crooning about his passion for Dilma Rousseff (the front runner from the Workers’ Party) and his confidence in her victory.

This video does little to advance a political argument, and I think comparing Dilma Rousseff to Evita Peron is a bit over the top, but it does remind us that Brazil, with its 72 million+ internet users, is going digital in this election.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Being a florist in Brazil

If you have planned a wedding or a corporate party or a teenager coming of age party here in Brazil you are familiar with the cerimonialista – the party organizer. They reign supreme. But as far as I can tell they dumb down the event and cut corners which leaves you, the party host, to feel a bit exposed about the shortcomings of your event and they stuff extra cash into their pockets at your expense.

OK – so I have an opinion here. I’m sure there are great cerimonialistas working for the rich and famous that spare no expense to create a fabulous party. But the rank and file? It’s a racket. Buyer beware.
Party organizers pride themselves in being “one-stop-shops” that will attend to all your needs for one low price. Everything is included. But having witnessed many, many such parties I have to report that the name of the game is to cut corners to pocket cash. It is disgusting, frankly.

Seriously, nearly every bride I have spoken to who had her flowers “included” in the buffet/event price was horribly disappointed. They report getting a bouquet that was the wrong color, or composed of flowers they specifically said they did not want. Table centerpieces were ridiculous in their simplicity or near-dead nature (perhaps recycled). People are totally surprised with what they get since no specifics were arranged in advance. They were told not to worry because it was all included.

Sorry folks, but you get what you pay for.

I admit I am being a bit defensive given the way Luiz gets treated by cerimonialistas who want to hire him for peanuts to be a work horse using provided trash flowers to create a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (there's one for you Fabio). He no longer agrees to work with these people. Luiz is the real deal – an artist - and must be hired independently to bring out the best in a bride’s dream for beautiful flowers. Unfortunately there does not seem to be an awareness here for what is possible and what it costs to see it through.

It has been difficult to find business partners who are not just looking to exploit Luiz’s international education, training and talents for their own gain. Sometimes it has been downright ugly.

In the end Luiz has found his opportunities and market niches, but it has not been easy. Business practices do not always translate.  To see more of Luiz's work visit his website http://www.flordeluiz.com/index.html

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The joys of being an expat

Living without stick deoderant, corn tortillas and functional plastic wrap can be a challenge, but I’ve gotta level with you – I LOVE being an expat. Let me count the ways:

- A busy work week means about 15 hours.
- I have not worn a watch since our plane touched down 2+ years ago.
- Brazilians are proud of/comfortable with their bodies, no matter the shape – it is an inspiration.
- Given the language barrier, I don’t have to have regular conversations with my mother in law. (But I love her all the same.)
- Nearly every store delivers.
- The only US political/campaign commercials I have to see are those I choose to click on.
- Fresh fruit juice (or coconut water) is the new soda.
- I get to see my favorite TV shows without any commercials (thank you internet!)
- Long vacations are the norm.
- Futebol is much easier to understand than football.
- Skype makes it painless to stay in touch with folks back home.
- It feels great to repair a broken appliance rather than buy a new one.
- Learning a new language is like growing a new pair of eyes.
- As luck would have it, so many Brazilians are happy in spite of their circumstance, not envious for what they don’t have.

- Being in a new country means a new adventure is just outside my door – or at least not too far away.
- We live near the beach!
- The dentist is cheap.
- There is no FOX news here.
- A bus, some bus, will take me anywhere I want to go.
- Having a pair of Havaianas in every color is reasonable.

We’ve definitely settled in.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feel the love

Today was one of those days when I’m out with Luiz, walking through the park, and soaking up the joy that jumps out from happy families.

It was a quiet morning, if chilly, and the park nearby was hosting a military band set up to play some favorite songs for an hour or so. We had read about it in a cultural schedule I picked up last Wednesday when I was at the MAC (museum). Any good excuse to get us out of the apartment before noon!

We also needed a new “puxa saco,” that ingenious tube of cloth into which you cram your used plastic grocery bags for easy dispensing later. Ours (perhaps 15 years old) had recently given way to age. The weekly feira (arts fair) in the park would surely serve up a good selection of the common kitchen accessory.

Showered and shampooed we hit the street and went to enjoy the music (just one block from our home).

I get this feeling often. I admire the clear expressions of affection between family members here. Not just new parents and their tiny ones – but also between adult children and their older parents. Teens and parents touch. Babies and grandparents feed off each other’s joy. Middle-aged couples kiss in public. Everyone seems to give the requisite privacy and tacit support to celebrate loving relationships without shyness or hesitation.

Together we were a crowd listening to live music, swaying to the rhythms, smiling, touching, hugging, kissing, and encouraging each other to get the most of it all. Old and young. Dark skinned and light. Just us, feeling the love. Enjoying a Sunday in the park.

Sure I’ve had similar experiences in San Francisco – perhaps in Stern Grove. But something about the personal openness here is really different. It feels both vulnerable and exhilarating. People are not afraid to demonstrate their affections.

Count me in. Even as a gay couple Luiz and I joined the celebration of Sunday in the park. Long glances exchanged, winks, brief touches. It may not be all that is available to others, but we stoled a bit of the joy all the same.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Birthday celebration

Last night we went to the 53rd birthday of a good friend of ours, Ronaldo. The party was at his daughter's house. Sweet little place in São Gonçalo. I always enjoy our getting together. Our friends are bold, happy, speak their mind, always bring their kids, and don’t skimp on food or beverage.

It continues to elude me, however – how do you party for 9 hours? I get exhausted half way through and need a nap. But then I come back with a vengeance, taking out the most energetic among us. (But I am cheating, I know.) My second wind is a killer.

As usual, long after midnight Victor broke out his guitar and got the so-inclined guests singing old standards. I was enlisted to provide actual grammatically correct lyrics for the Beatles standards. Everyone had well polished phonetic versions, but none were actually the lyrics. That was my job. We gave new life to some very well-worn songs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Visiting the Modern Art Museum in Niterói

What’s to do on a gray and chilly Wednesday in Niterói prior to my afternoon students?

The Contemporary Art Museum (MAC) is free on Wednesdays – although I rarely like the art when I visit. But this month is an art festival at galleries and public spaces throughout the city, including at the MAC. Maybe I’ll have better luck.

It is a mystery to me how such a famous and admired museum building can so consistently hang crappy art. Great architecture – “zero on the left” artwork. (You have been warned.)

But I went for the chance to take some casual photos and report back.

The museum was designed by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer (now 103 years old!). Its distinctive shape instantly became iconographic for the city of Niterói, showing up in the new city logo and used for various department graphics, etc.

Luiz tells me of the old days when the elevated spot of land on which the museum now sits was a “make out point” for generations of natives. Dark, out of the way, lots of stars.  And it had the best hot dog stand in the city.  None of the current nearby apartment buildings existed then.

Archetect Neimeyer understood the value of the visuals atop the little peak and thus designed a building that does not obstruct your view. The building is lifted up over your head so you can still enjoy the views.

The building really is captivating. I can say without hesitation that the building and the surrounding views have been more interesting than the art every time I have visited the museum.

The MAC is a great afternoon destination – but trust me – come on Wednesdays when you don’t have to pay to get in. (Although, c’mon, admission is only R$5)

Oh - and the bistro under the museum is nice (if a bit pricey) with terrific views while sitting and enjoying your meal.  I happen to know a great florist who has dressed the place up a few times for parties.  Check here, here and here.