Saturday, April 30, 2011

Luiz health update

It has been a while.  That’s a good thing. Things will be going poorly for Luiz when things start to change quickly. Nothing has changed much for Luiz in several years. Graças a Deus.
Our last visit to the National Cancer Institute in Rio (INCA) was remarkable only in that we now have another in a series of interns looking after Luiz’s case.  Our last doctor, whom we loved, has been reassigned. The new doctor is a bit shy and made less than a top-notch impression.  Her supervising physician was in the room the whole time – and frankly, I spoke with him, not her, when I had questions.
I’m sure she will be fine.  Luiz is, after all, attended to by the TEAM at INCA, not the physician in training who meets with him during this period of his care.
His blood count numbers remain stable and some have even improved.  Luiz is a remarkable Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia patient who has refused, over these past three years, to decline into mortal combat.  For now he is staying above the fray.
If you know Luiz you know that his secret weapon is his joyfulness and remarkable ability to live life every day to its fullest.  No bit of daily happiness slips past him.
Thank you to everyone who keeps Luiz in your thoughts and well wishes.  It means a lot to us.

The good the bad and the ugly of Brazilian freedoms

One of the love hate relationships I have with Brazilian society is the lack of regulation or oversight or restriction imposed by the government.  I should say the lack of enforcement of these things.  Laws may exist and rules may have been drawn up, but seldom do you see any enforcement of same.

One example that reminds me of the vast gulf between the USA and Brazil in this regard is the simple fact that for the past several decades in Niteroi there has been a paved/mosaic waterfront promenade in Icaraí that goes all along the beach and rocky shoreline.  This promenade is sometimes at the same level as the sandy beach and at times it is 5 meters above a rocky shoreline.  At no place along this popular, crowded and open promenade is there a protective railing to prevent people from falling off the “cliff” (in places) and injuring themselves on the rocks below.
[I should say that just last year the city installed a railing, but as I say, it was not there for many, many years. My example holds.]
In the States there would be a railing or there would be a slew of law suits. Here, you are expected to take responsibility for your own safety and NOT GET TOO CLOSE TO THE EDGE – thank you very much.  If you fall over – well, it was not the City’s fault now was it?
So that’s the “love” side of my experience.  No government controlling your every move. But here is the “hate” side.
There is a successful and ever-expanding restaurant located directly across the street from our apartment.  As it has grown in popularity it has needed to expand in any of a number of ways: more storage, more water capacity, more seating space, etc.  This “construction” work has clearly been done in an informal way, sans any engineer or permits from the City.  The owner just hires some workers and oversees their work doing what he wants done.
Over time the restaurant owner has added two huge water tanks up on the hillside behind the restaurant. (Water systems in Brazil are generally gravity-based, so water is pumped to a tank higher up than where it is needed and gravity moves it down to faucets below.) In order to keep the restaurant supplied in water, a water tank truck arrives every morning to pump water up into the tanks above.
Here’s the problem. A restaurant employee must scramble up the rocks to the platform where the water tanks are located to facilitate their filling.  There is a small walking trail now worn into the hillside, but it is not terribly safe. (Cue dark sound effects.)
A couple of weeks ago the employee who was assisting the water company in filling the tanks slipped on the hillside, hit his head on the rocks – and died.
So the “freedom” to build your restaurant without pesky city permits or construction designed by engineers is now paid for by a dead employee.

The restaurant closed for three days – and is now back open for business.  But what to our wondering eyes should appear – but an engineer-designed metal stairway and rails around the water tanks.  Duh!
The personal liberty that is so palpable here in Brazil does not come without risk or consequences.  I’m prepared to take some of those risks, but employers should not be able to put their workers at risk in the service of saving themselves a few bucks. Some government oversight and enforcement can be a good (and life-saving) thing.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Maria Gadú singing "Lanterna dos Afogados"

Time for a little calming enjoyment separate from politics or the daily grind.  Close your eyes and just take it in.

Afterbirthers demand to see President Obama's placenta

This just in from The Onion. [Off topic, I know, but I couldn't help myself!]

WASHINGTON–In the continuing controversy surrounding the president's U.S. citizenship, a new fringe group informally known as "Afterbirthers" demanded Monday the authentication of Barack Obama's placenta from his time inside his mother's womb. "All we are asking is that the president produce a sample of his fetal membranes and vessels—preferably along with a photo of the crowning and delivery—and this will all be over," said former presidential candidate and Afterbirthers spokesman Alan Keyes, later adding that his organization would be willing to settle for a half-liter of maternal cord plasma. "To this day, the American people have not seen a cervical mucus plug, let alone one that has been signed and notarized by a state-certified Hawaiian health official. If the president was indeed born in the manner in which he claims, then where is his gestation sac?" Keyes said that if Obama did not soon produce at least a bloody bedsheet from his conception, Afterbirthers would push forward with efforts to exhume the president's deceased mother and inspect the corpse's pelvic bone and birth canal

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Snow days for school kids in Rio

Where I come from – it’s a snow day.  You don’t have to go to school because the snow is so deep the city cannot clear the streets to permit the school buses to pass.  Better there is no school. It is not possible/safe.
Here we think in terms of rain days. When the rain comes, and comes with ferocity, the streets flood and traffic is stopped.  The water level rises and all normal activity comes to a halt.
People are used to simply sitting in a neighborhood bar, drinking a few beers, and waiting for the rain to stop. Then life can go on. I was recently on a bus in a flooded neighborhood, waiting for 30 minutes for the water to subside and make it possible for the bus to pass.
Recently the skies have opened up.  Luiz has had (so far) two days off from school due to the rain.  More than 1.5 meters of water have flooded his school.  On the first night several school employees/teachers had to sleep through the night in the school because there was no way to get out.

We check his email each night for the news about classes the next morning.
It’s not a snow day, as I remember them, but it pleases Luiz in the same way to learn he does not have to go to school tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Homemade cheese is on the horizon

Regular readers know that I have been on a quest for the cheese-making enzyme “rennet” or, “coalho” in Portuguese, for some time.  Cheese in Brazil is amazing-delicious, but dare I say it is either limited in variety or super expensive as a result of its imported nature.  If you have a bead on an organic goat or sheep farm out there making boutique artisan cheese here in Brazil (who hopefully ships their product) do leave a comment.
I am completely satisfied with (as in, I have eaten enough already, thank you) most garden variety queijos minas sold in grocery stores, and with the dyed yellow queijo prato which tastes a bit like a mild, mild cheddar.  Common mozzarella is nearly flavorless and fresh Mozzeralla de Bufala costs more than a tank of gas.  These are all perfectly nice cheeses, but this transplant from northern California misses the variety we enjoyed at our friend Mario’s “Country Cheese” (love you Mario!)store three blocks from our house in San Francisco, or at the infamous Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, or the selection at the Berkeley Bowl, or the cheap and varied options at Trader Joe’s, or the artisanal varieties we could get at the farmers’ markets or at farms along the drive to wine country.
OK – stop.  I’m sorry.  I don’t usually focus on what is NOT available (or affordable) here in Brazil.  But this gordinho likes his cheese and has been yearning for more affordable varieties.
Some cheeses here, like requeijão or caitupiry are truly heaven sent.  But I’m still salivating for a crumbly feta, or a smooth herbed goat farmer’s spread, or especially for dry, harder, aged cheeses that explode with flavor.
Rather than sit at my keyboard and whine I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.  I’m embarking on a self-taught (with Google’s help) cheese making adventure.  And I have finally located the liquid enzyme that has been the missing piece.

Shout out to Ray and all others who have been helping me find a local source for coalho. It is certainly available in Brazil, but apparently not in my urban environment.  When visiting our friends in Belo Horizontes this past weekend we not only found the Holy Grail rennet, but also a suitable cheese mold and ml-type measuring spoons.
I’m good to go.
Stay tuned.  First I’m going to try and replicate the queijo minas demonstrated by my friend Amanda’s mother, previously posted here.  From there I will move on to feta.  FETA!  From there, well, we’ll see where this goes…

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Yummy Apple Crisp

Last night I satisfied a craving for apple crisp that was ignighted while listening to a podcast of The Splendid Table.  If you love to eat, I reccomend that podcast.  Actually, it makes for great background listening when I'm working on lesson plans or correcting student's homework (if they ever send me any).

It turned out great.  Luiz ate his with some creme de leite drizzled over the top.  And I'm enjoying another serving this morning, heated up with a little milk, for breakfast.


The recipe and encouraging words have been posted over on Danielle's Cooking in Brazil blog.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brazil: A Racial Paradise?

Proud (and usually white) Brazilians will often tell you that there is no racism in Brazil, at least, not like there is in the United States. This topic has been the buzzing center of a whole host of blog posts from numerous bloggers, expats and otherwise.

I'm not going to open up another conversation just yet. First I want to watch the upcoming four-part PBS series called "Black in Latin America," which will begin airing April 19. It sounds VERY interesting.

Sam Allis at the Boston Globe posted a review. Here are some excerpts:

“Upward of 120 million people of African descent live in Latin America today,’’ says Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who, even though he is a scholar of African-American history, says he was staggered by the number when he first learned of it."

“We have our African-American exceptionalism,’’ says Gates. “We think slavery was all about us. In fact, 11.2 million Africans got off boats in the New World. Only 450,000 came to the US. All the rest came to areas south of Miami. The real African-American experience unfolded in the Caribbean and Latin America.’’

As with [Gates']earlier series, he wrote and presents this one, traveling to six countries for the stories: the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. In each country, Gates talks to its best historians and cultural observers about past and present roles that African blacks have played. These are uniformly fascinating conversations.

Gates also travels to Brazil, which abolished slavery late, in 1888, with 75 million people identified as mulatto (a person of mixed black and white ancestry) or black. “This is the largest black population in the world outside of Africa,’’ he notes. “There are 134 categories of blackness in Brazil. Like everywhere else, the poorest people in each country are the darkest, African-looking people. The elite in Cuba were white Cubans. The elite in Brazil are white Brazilians.

The title of this segment is called “Brazil: A Racial Paradise?’’ And the answer, Gates finds, is nothing close. In Latin America, African blacks struggle for respect. But the social structure makes change difficult to come by.

I look forward to seeing the full series.

The first program in the series is already posted at their website.  You can view it now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Celso Fonseca - Slow Motion Bossa Nova

I first saw Celso Fonseca in Berkeley, CA, at a Japanese jazz club.  Very smooth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All work and no play makes Jim a dull boy

I knew the day would come when demand for my simple “English Polishing” conversation classes and casual business/career consulting tucked in between explaining phrasal verbs would start to actually keep me busy. Add to that requests to provide written translation services – and suddenly I am very busy.  OK, well, not busy by my old San Francisco American Cancer Society 60 – 70 hour work weeks busy.  But for a guy who has gotten used to working 10 – 15 hours a week for the past three years, this drawing up lesson plans/exercises, working with students and meeting deadlines thing is starting to feel like real work!
The good news is that by working in the private teaching space I earn considerably more per hour than when teaching in a language school.  And the economies of teaching groups go into my pocket, not the school’s.  Being a native speaker allows me to charge more for both classes and written translation.
Although, when you add up the health care benefits, the 13th salary, paid vacation time, contributions to one’s retirement by school employers, etc. perhaps it all evens out or is maybe even better at a good paying school.  But the monthly financial reality for me, at the rate I am currently working, feels much more liquid as a private instructor.  (If I worked as many hours at home as I did in the schools – I would definitely make a lot more – but as I have said before: we did not move to Brazil to make a lot of money.)
Feed the pig!

Also- things can be really feast or famine.  One month I’m getting a flat, sore butt sitting in front of my computer all day (working), and another I am out enjoying the beach all the time, but having to run to the ATM more frequently.
All in all I’m getting to enjoy the work, and the more lesson plans I have banked the less time I have to spend on same for new students.  But I really sell myself as a customized teacher.  If (for example) your business is in computer graphics, I’ll make plans and exercises that grow your vocabulary in that area specifically.  Or if you are prepping for a big job interview, we focus right in on what you need to get the job.  There is no avoiding a little extra work prepping for these clients.
It’s all about balance.  Being my own boss is wonderful.  For the past 20 years in the US I was always in leadership/decision making positions.  Here, it drives me up a wall (and I can sometimes be insubordinate) being treated so poorly by managers.  Better I work on my own.
So for now I am busy.  But I relish being able to take time off when I choose.  And if a job looks hard or the client appears to have a lot of disposable income – I can charge more and see how it goes.  If I over-reach and miss out on the work, well, there is always the beach.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Surviving a hangover

Ever have one of those parties that picks you up all night, but then slams you down the next morning?  All night raucous parties are pretty routine here.  It seems every weekend its someone’s birthday or anniversary or reunion with out of town family, or it’s just a night to party with friends.
Among our circle of friends the parties run past 2:00 am pretty regularly, and well on to 4:00 am on occasion.  When the beer runs out someone passes the hat and either calls for a delivery of another few cases, or hops in a car and makes a beer run to the neighborhood barzinho.
Eventually we call it quits, often sleeping at the house where the party was.
The next morning a few people light up the stove and start cooking off eggs while someone else makes a bakery run for some fresh bread. And of course, someone walks around offering ENGOV and a glass of water to those with a hangover.
Have you tried this stuff?  People swear by it.  It’s an anti-hangover pill sold in every pharmacy.  You are supposed to take one pill before you start to party, then another one when you wake up the next morning (although many of my friends will pop a pill before going to bed – for good measure, I suppose).

According to one of those “Ask me anything” websites, ENGOVE contains mostly asprin for your headache, with some antacid to calm your stomach, some antihistamine to reduce nausea and vomiting, and caffeine to combat lethargy.
So ENGOV is designed to fight the symptoms of a hangover, but it does not actually prevent a hangover.  But it clearly seems to work.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Expatriate Salary Purchasing Power Parity

 Let me start out by saying that I am neither an economist nor a human resources professional.  I’m sharing here some information I have learned from mining the depths of Google, trying to stitch it all together into a coherent post.  Learning about the comparative realities of living here or in the USA (I’m sticking to just one country for simplicity’s sake) is both fun for the expat (“I knew I wasn’t crazy – that shit is expensive!”) and cautionary for the lovebirds contemplating a move figuring it will all work out somehow (goddess bless them!).

The first thing to understand is that economies are different on many different levels: the price of things, the salaries people can earn, the taxes one pays, the non-cash (and deferred cash)  benefits people earn over time, how value depreciates over time, how the banking and credit systems operate, what services are provided by the government, etc.  In the case of Brazil and the USA – believe me – they are two different worlds that do not easily equate/translate.

Most travelers think in terms of the currency exchange rate: “Oh Brazil will be an affordable vacation destination; the exchange rate is in our favor, unlike London (for example).”  Which may well be true, but moving here to live, work and retire is another matter altogether.

For the new resident, the impulse is to do a quick calculation in your head converting currencies to decide if something is expensive or not.  But currency exchange rates give misleading comparisons because they do not reflect salary purchasing power differences.

To try and sort this all out (OK, not all of it, but enough to wrap your head around it) let’s look at three different ideas: cost of living, salary purchasing power parity, and comparative salaries across borders.  This is a vastly simplified view, but as I came to discover online, this notion of understanding how one’s life will change financially when moving abroad is insanely complex and has birthed a whole industry of companies willing to sell you “calculators” and personalized reports to help you see into your future.

Cost of living.  

To help me understand this topic I relied heavily on the website where they lay things out in a pretty simple way and offer more detailed analysis for a fee.

Simply put, the cost of living is the cost of maintaining a certain standard of living. When comparing the cost of living between different locations the objective is to calculate the difference in the cost of living expressed as an index, or a broad set of cost points that you can compare in each location.

So in the case of the cost of living comparisons listed at Xpatulator they take 13 different “baskets” of costs – things like groceries, furniture and appliances, education, healthcare, household costs, personal care, recreation and culture, transportation, etc.  and compare these aggregate expenses – this index.

Using their index they came up with this ranking of the most expensive cost of living locations in the world.

April 2011 Cost of Living Ranking: Country, City
New York City in the US of A is listed as #43.  You can see it is no longer all about the US front and center.  The WORLD (including Brazil) has become an expensive place to live!

Salary purchasing power parity.
According to the folks at the core strategy driving expatriate pay programs globally is the principle of protecting an employees’ domestic income and spending power, irrespective of global location. In the short term, exchange rates, even when averaged over a period of time such as a year, are not a good measure of the comparative value of a salary in relation to its comparative international purchasing power.
In simple terms the salary purchasing power parity is the rate of salary purchasing power that equalizes the purchasing power of different currencies, given the relative cost of the same basket of goods at the exchange rate versus the US Dollar. 

But I would add there are still differences in the QUALITY of the goods and services bought.  For example, a home washer and dryer in the Sates might finish a load of jeans from start to finish in less than 2 hours.  In Brazil is could take upwards of 5 hours. Or hiring a plumber to reroute your water lines to remodel your kitchen may take half a day in the states and four days here, depending on who your local plumber guy is, and given the concrete nature of building construction here.
Comparative Salaries.
This one may or may not surprise you.  Brazilians (and expats finding employment in the local market) earn jack shit compared to their US American counterparts. [You have to separate out those US workers who are working here with an international company earning a US wage – more on that later.]
Where was I? Oh yeah – jack shit.  For this section I am relying on some dated information, but it was the only good listing of salaries I could find AND that compared the same jobs between the USA and Brazil.  Special thanks to Expat American Living in Brazil and a post he posted some time ago.
So the salaries are a bit old (2001 – 2004), which could mean the numbers cited are low-balling it.  Actually, given the boom in the economy in Brazil of late (and governmental increases in the minimum salary), chances are the salaries are now a bit higher in Brazil. But given the serious economic realities in the US of late, the salaries listed may not be all too off.  In any case, I am trying to compare apples to apples – even if they are slightly old.
I’ve taken just 6 typical jobs across the spectrum for comparison.  Go here if you want to knock yourself out with additional comparisons.  I’m offering the somewhat current currency conversion rate of US$1 : R$1.65 and expressing the US American salary in both dollars and reais for ease and because we are looking from the living-in-Brazil perspective.
Are you sitting?  Monthly salaries, on average.
Computer programmer: Brazil – R$4,114  USA – US$3,088 (R$5,095)  +24%
Teacher: Brazil – R$745  USA – US$4,055 (R$6,691)  +798%
Accountant: Brazil – R$3,671  USA – US$3,370 (R$5,561)  +51%
Professional Nurse: Brazil – R$1,766  USA – US$3,168 (R$5,227)  +196%
Car Mechanic: Brazil – R$649  USA – US$2,526 (R$4,168)  +542%
Bus driver: Brazil – R$762  USA – US$1,594 (R$2,630)  +245%

Ouch.  So now if you loop around back to the cost of living: rent, the price of a car, a movie ticket, a new computer… the reality is that these prices can be significantly higher here in Brazil (cars are R$40,000 – R$75,000 easy) yet the earning power of workers is significantly lower than those in the USA.
In short: if you move from the USA to Brazil - you are going to take a hit, maybe a BIG hit.  Lower wages, higher consumer prices. I’ll repeat what is often said: Brazil is not for beginners.
If you are looking for a reason why Brazilian children live with their parents well into adulthood (perhaps even all their life), look no further than how scarce money is and how expensive everything else is.
The lucky ones are those expats who are working here for their foreign company and are earning a wage that their company has calculated will provide for the same relative spending power as back home and as a result provide for a similar standard of living here.  That’s why their salaries appear so great. But even if you ask them, I bet they will report having to live on a budget.

The moral of the story for Luiz and I is to live simply and to be as local as possible.  We do miss the extra income that allowed us to be globe trotters for many years.  But we work so much less now and enjoy so much more quality time together.  We did not move to Brazil to get rich, or even to live large.  We moved to re-prioritize our lives.  And that we have done.

My advice?  Save a boat load of bucks before you make your move.  You will need it to help smooth the transition.
OK – so that’s my best swing at it. What do you think?  What did I get wrong?  What would you add?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Brazilian BBQ birthday - but different

We just spent the afternoon and evening at Luiz’s cousin’s birthday party; BBQ, more like it. It was a classic Brazilian family gathering, except in this case Gernaldo did not invite any family, except his mother and Luiz and I.

There were probably 60 people there eating, drinking, dancing, showing off newborns, and otherwise having a great time. But siblings? – nope. It kinda reminded me of my own birthday parties over time. I have traditionally invited my “chosen” family to these events.

But this struck me as odd for a Brazilian gathering. No family? It was weird.

What wasn’t weird was how the young children ran wild and occupied themselves in all corners of the space; how the youngest in the crowd were being carried around by the beaming oldest in the crowd; how the teenagers were finding their space to drink and kiss; and how the food was endless, salty, sweet and otherwise freshly picked.

Brazilian family (or chosen family) celebrations please everyone, coach the young regarding how to move into their role at a later date, absolutely focus on the tiny babies, and provide for the alcoholic indulgences of most everyone who wishes to go there. At the best parties (IMHO) the folks hired to help (the guy working the BBQ, the woman washing the glasses and or frying appetizers, the waiters passing the food and keeping the tables clean, the DJ keeping everyone on the dance floor…) they are given multiple chances to enjoy the party/food/drink – as was the case today.

But today was a bit different. Where were the siblings and their families? I can’t say for sure. I am not a fofoqueiro and I do not lean over to listen to gossipy conversations. But it was plain to see that the people present were members of the Macumbeira community where the birthday guy and his wife celebrate meaningful rituals. His siblings are rather ardent Christians. Herein could be the rub. But – none of my business.

It was a great party with fun people, terrific food, non-stop music (this middle-aged crowd of Brazilians really lit up to a little Donna Summer!) visions of future generations, and no drama from contrarian siblings.

We had a great time and were invited back for a celebration of São Jorge’s feast day.

Fruit Fibers Used To Make Car Parts

Did you see this?  According to an article here, Brazilian scientists are planning to build a greener car by making some of its parts out of fruit fibers.  They have figured out a way to use the fiber from fruit plants like pineapples and bananas to reinforce plastics that are used to make car parts like dashboards, bumpers and body panels.
These “nano-cellulose” fibers are apparently just about as stiff as Kevlar, but come from a green, renewable source (Kevlar is made from petroleum).
By using this technology they will be able to make parts that are 30% lighter and 3 – 4 times stronger.  Lighter cars means less fuel consumption.  Greener manufacturing and greener fuel efficiency.
Way to go Brazil!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bossa Nova Classic

Come with me back to an earlier post. These many versions of "The Girl from Ipanema" are a delight. Which do you prefer? Check them out.

Click here to begin your adventure.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Today our love and commitment turns 12

Our wedding day in San Francisco - but years after we met.

Today Luiz and I are celebrating 12 years together. We’ve come a long way together, literally and figuratively. But I don’t think either of us has had a second thought about being a couple since the first night we met (well, actually it was in the early hours of the morning – but that story is never told).

Literally weeks after we met Luiz was encouraging me to buy a ticket to Brazil and travel with him. It was May or June and he already had his ticket for December to fly home. Buy early, save big. I told him – “I might not even like you in December!” He scoffed at the very idea and said –“Just go ahead and buy the ticket. It will cost a lot more in November when you finally decide you still like me.”

I bought the ticket.

Since then we have traveled across four continents together and have come to settle in Brazil.

We are each other’s best friend. We are forever patient and forgiving with each other. And we challenge and support each other in our endeavors individually or as a couple.

We were married once in San Francisco, domestic partnered once by the City of San Francisco and once by the State of California. We had the privilege (cough) of having our relationship recognized as real by an employer of mine for the purpose of partner health benefits (we had to prove we shared a bank account, a will, and an apartment rental agreement) and have had our relationship certified as a “Stable Union” by the Brazilian government.

This morning - Luiz making a ham and cheese omelet for the two of us.

A friend once asked me: “So which day is your anniversary?” We stick with the morning I woke up in Luiz’s bed the day after we met (but that is the story that is never told).

Sergio Mendes and the Black Eyed Peas

Turn up the sound and grab a dance partner.