Sunday, April 28, 2013

Waterfalls cleanse the spirit

The Waters of March (listen here to the classic version and here for a beautiful bi-lingual version) and those into April do more than create joy in our hearts. They also fill some of our favorite waterfalls to roaring capacity. One of Luiz’s favorite spots is Boa Esperança in the mountains just outside of Rio. It is a very small town a little further up the mountain road past the more famous hippy turned eco-sport funky town Lumiar.

I have posted about our adventures in Boa Esperança several times before. We have spent time there with our group of close friends as well as on our own. Previously we stayed in a humble little cottage rented by our friends Dora and Serjão. This time we were invited to join Dora and Serjão and their ever-growning son (soon to start high school!) João in their new, wonderful, three bedroom rental up the hill with fantastic views of the tight river valley that tracks Boa Esperança.

Wow – what a difference a little altitude makes in the view department. The morning view out of our bedroom window was stunning. Dora is a master of DIY house warming using rich colors for interior walls and furnishings she has collected over the years that scream rural Brazil. Delightful.

Top of our list when visiting Boa Esperança is spending a few hours at cachoeira São Jorge (St. George waterfall). The manicured picnic area and full service luncheonette make the two kilometer walk up the weathered dirt road from the middle of town (the end of the bus line, three family run stores, two bars and an Evangelical church) worth the effort. Actually, the waterfall makes the effort worth it. It is the cold drinks, hot food and lovely surroundings that take the sting out of the climb. You can visit the waterfall in your flip flops carrying just a few bucks in your pocket.

Wherever we find a waterfall we will also find Luiz in the water soaking up the blessings it brings.

Boa Esperança and cachoeira São Jorge never disappoint.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Gay and lesbian marriage gets easier in Rio

At first glance: whoopee! Rio state is getting its legal house in order and finally complying with National protocols regarding lesbian and gay marriage licenses.

But then, it is never that simple. Let me try to explain. [Note: I am not a lawyer and do not have a complete understanding of all the legal nuances here. But I have read through a bunch of stuff since the recent ruling and offer these comments to help shed some light on the subject. Please add your comments if I have gotten something really wrong.]

Civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples, which has technically been legal in the State of Rio de Janeiro since the May, 2011 unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Brazil allowing gay couples to enter into legal Civil Unions (which were then later converted to marriages), is now easier to obtain and no longer requires a legal petition to a judge. Or so it seems.

While local LGBT rights groups are generally pleased with the April 19, 2013 ruling by Judge Valmir Silva de Oliveira, Rio state’s General Magistrate of Justice, determining that gay and lesbian couples can apply for a marriage license directly through regular channels (thus skipping the previous Civil Union step), there is some question as to whether easier access to marriage will play itself out equally across the state given the staunchly anti-gay marriage rulings to date by Judge Luiz Henrique Oliveira Marques, of the First Court of Public Registry in Rio city. (Sorry for the long sentence, I am starting to write like a Brazilian.)

In practice, when a marriage license is applied for at the notary public office you complete some paperwork, present some documents, pay a fee and then there is a minimum 15 day waiting period during which an announcement of the request is published in the Civil Registry ostensibly so others may contest the marriage on legal grounds and to give the local prosecutor time to weigh in, should they have a beef. Then the application is forwarded to the local judge in the Court of Public Registry for final approval. Then voilà! You have a marriage.

So the recent statewide ruling that streamlines the process for gay and lesbian couples is a good thing. The process is the same as it is for straight couples. No more extra steps getting a Civil Union license and then petitioning the court to have it converted into a Marriage license. Sounds good.

But the reality to date for local gay and lesbian couples has been that when they have petitioned the court to have their Civil Unions converted to Marriages (consistent with the opinion expressed by the Supreme Court) nearly every petition has been denied by the particular judge that presides in the Court of Public Registry in Rio city. Now guess who is the judge who grants final approval of marriage applications in Rio? Yep, same guy.

So people are worried that he will continue his longstanding behavior of denying gay and lesbian marriages by not giving final consent in the new streamlined process. True, the question before the court is not exactly the same. But the judge has ticked off a lot of queer couples (more than 100) in Rio to date and they are not looking forward to a repeat appearance of their petition before this guy. Nobody wants to hire a lawyer and fight in court just to get married.

Perhaps the judge will get with the program. Perhaps the slight change in the process tips the legal scales such that the judge no longer has the prerogative to deny petitions. Perhaps we should not be worried by this whole “what’s past is prologue” thing.

Time will tell.

Why bother, some may ask. Just get the Civil Union. Throw a party and invite your family and friends to buy you a new toaster, thirstier bathroom towels or maybe a night out at a nice restaurant. Forget the whole “marriage” thing. Well, as you might imagine, being in a legal “marriage” comes with critical legal rights. The differences between the two types of marriage go well beyond the status. For example, in a marriage the spouse may use the surname of their partner, may be enrolled as a dependent on Social Security, a health plan or for income tax purposes. Furthermore, spouses can add the income of the household when applying for some types of financing, the spouse is entitled to alimony in a separation, they automatically receive inheritance in the event of death and they have the right to adopt a child. Outside of marriage, all these issues need to go through the legal system.

But hey, we won the case, right? Who wants to be a Debbie Downer? In the short term – whoopee! Luiz and I are getting married! The date is set in June. Luiz’s friends have already been checking in about the party. Process be damned – here we go (again). Plus, we live in Niterói, just out of reach of the wicked witch of the west (we hope).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Starting a business in Brazil – some tips

First, as my 77 year old Brazilian father-in-law and previous business owner used to say (may he rest in peace) “Be careful what you wish for.”

Should I start with the positives or the negatives? Oh heck, I’ll dive into the starry eyed positives as seen by this newcomer through his rose colored glasses. Luiz and I traveled to Brazil many times in the years before we picked up and moved here. During that time I had one eye looking out for business opportunities – and thought I saw many sure things.

Like: we could open a Mexican restaurant/taqueria. Cheap ingredients, hearty food, great take out for working people and the taquerias in San Francisco ALWAYS had a line out the door. Easy peasy.

Or maybe Luiz should take his formal education and international training as a floral designer and open a flower shop with event flowers as a featured service. We went so far as to produce a beautiful website, brochures, note cards and brought a ton of specialty items to make his arrangements pop.

How about an import/export business? So many things are cheaper in the US. We could import them to Brazil. And there is a rich art and fashion pulse in Brazil that would surely appeal to US Americans.

Best of all, we could find a tiny coastal village just beginning to get noticed and open a tropical paradise bed and breakfast (pousada). We would make it a cut above and appeal to the international travel set and the expanding middle class of Brazilians taking family vacations – all the while sitting on the beach sipping chilled coconut water and telling our housekeeper and pool boy what to do next.

Then our plane landed in Brazil. We moved into our apartment and, once we got our bearings, we started to investigate the possibilities for real. (Here comes the negative part.)

Truth be told, we did not move to Brazil to start up a whole new chapter in our life growing a business and working too much. As far as 60 hour work weeks go – been there, done that. So we scratched most of our fantasies and focused on our “unfair competitive advantages” e.g. Luiz’s international floral design expertise and my being a native English speaker from the United States in a country that likes those kinds of English teachers.

It became immediately apparent to us that Brazilians are very clever, hardworking and seasoned (not to mention cut-throat) entrepreneurs. In a land with a history of minimal (honest) opportunities to earn a substantial living and one with a byzantine legal system that regulates and taxes (or charges fees for) just about everything, as outsiders we were at a decidedly woeful disadvantage in the mainstream of building a successful business. Knowing how to manage the system and flourish within a web of personal connections is baseline. These are insights and relationships generally out of reach to most newcomers.

As an outsider I could see so many ways that businesses could be made more efficient or otherwise improved, or so I thought, only to learn that government regulations, bank loan interest rates, taxes, labor laws, the availability (lack thereof) of skilled workers with an earnest work ethic, taxes, local corruption, near closed business environments in some competitive areas, and taxes were the real culprits.

To my friends looking to move to Brazil and open a business I say: welcome, good luck, and start looking for a good lawyer and a “fixer” to help you get started. I’m sure it could be a breeze for some, I just have never seen evidence of that. I prefer my rosy glasses and chilled coconut water on the beach.

So we bailed on any thoughts of a pousada or an import/export gig from scratch. Luiz has found his niché in flower design working in “permanent botanicals” showcased at the weekly arts fair in the park and designing for individual clients.

Over time our musings about opening a lunch and dinner Mexican restaurant have morphed into launching a food truck specializing in wraps of all kinds. This addresses the reluctance among locals to try “different” foods. We could produce a “Carioca Wrap” or a Mexican inspired burrito with carne seca, or maybe a Bahian inspired spicy seafood wrap. Also, the truck eliminates the need to rent space etc., we would not have to hire people, and we could move it around to where the people are (festivals, street parties, nighttime hot spots, etc.) But still there are the regulations, licenses, taxes and turf power brokers. That beach still looks pretty good to me.  

I have settled into a comfortable work schedule (including the afore mentioned beach, glasses and beverage) as an “English Polisher” for adult professionals preparing to present at an international conference or about to ship off to the States for a 6 month work gig. Doctors and lawyers are always looking to improve their English speaking skills. Students headed for graduate school in the States always want to speak better. And my sometimes favorite: bored rich housewives preparing to go on a shopping trip to New York City are sure they need specialized vocabulary assistance.

All that said, here are a few new ideas for a bright and overachieving entrepreneur looking to make a go of it here in Brazil:

-          -  Running a mobile copy service: a cart you can park in front of the Federal Police office, the Notary Public, the Consulate, etc. Visitors to these offices always need additional copies of some document or another and the offices themselves do not make their copy machines available.

-         -  A private parking and traffic enforcement operation. In the past five and a half years I have never seen a city official write a parking ticket or stop a driver for even the most egregious driving offense. Of course, you would have to convince the local government to outsource this function – but believe me, it would reap a fortune for all stakeholders.

-        -  Full service business consulting for expats looking to beat Brazilian entrepreneurs at their own game. To put your clients at ease, put a pink light bulb in your desk lamp and serve coconut water in your office cooler.

I’m sure other expats who have been here a while would have a few suggestions and/or a cautionary tale or two.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

We're going back to the USA -- to shop

After five and a half years of acclimating to Brazilian life we are finally making a trip back to the United States. We will visit family and friends in Florida for three weeks in May.

Obviously it has been a while, so catching up in person with folks in Florida will be great. Also, we are looking forward to doing some shopping for things we thought we could live without – or could find here in Brazil - but will now buy in the States and bring back with us.

Shopping for stuff you either cannot get here or you can get it but for a ridiculously expensive price often takes front and center when expats make a return visit to the US (or Canada, or wherever). Luiz and I pride ourselves in our simple lifestyle and adaptable ways. Learning how best to morph into locals has been quite an adventure. But there have been some surprises along the way, for sure. So now we will go on a shopping run to fill in some of the blanks.

Seemingly simple items have proven elusive or crazy expensive. For example – you know that collapsible little round steamer insert you place into a pan with a little water (you probably have one) and use for steaming vegetables? The local equivalent here is R$30. Or that nice, spicy fragrant, triple milled French bar soap that makes you feel special? The cheapest I’ve seen it here is R$25 a bar (and not the super bath size). Vitamin supplements are easily three times the price as in the States. As has been noted on other blogs, finding a slow cooker (Crock Pot) has proven fruitless.  Horror stories about the price of plastic children’s toys are legend among expat new moms (luckily, not our issue).

But hey, we did not move here to live like US Americans, just in another country. Brazilians have been getting along successfully for centuries, thank you very much. And in recent years even low income folks have acquired decent size refrigerators and automatic washing machines (cold water only).

It has been rather adventuresome learning to cook in a kitchen stripped to the bare essentials. Frankly, as many of you know, I adore cooking with clay and stone pots and I love the look of our carved wooden serving bowls.  We even use clay bowls intended for Candomblé ritual offerings as salad bowls. Very cool.

But I must confess that, in my case, you can take the boy out of San Francisco, but you can’t take all of San Francisco out of the boy. I still crave a decent croissant. I miss my Trader Joe’s. And what I wouldn't do for a large selection of quality cheeses at reasonable prices!

The Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley!
So, while in Tampa and environs, we do plan on shopping for some of the things we have come to miss and want to have around again.

For the most part our focus will be on kitchen stuff (ice cream maker, slow cooker, tofu maker, tortilla press, various baking related items, Ziplock bags and a few simple utensils) and food stuffs (Masa Harina for corn tortillas, the usual chocolate chips and peanut butter, spice packets and jars of sauces for Chinese, Mexican and Indian meals, Splenda and maybe some canned cranberries).

While we are at it we will pick up some things that are available here, but cost too much to justify their purchase locally (or are just painful to buy): some clothes, sneakers, sunscreen, quality herbal soaps, bed sheets and maybe a computer tablet for Luiz.

Just the fun stuff essentials.

 I’ve made a list of the local cost of most of these items so I can be sure we don’t just get swept away in a fantasy of cheap shopping but rather truly seek out deals worth the haul back through the airport.

At the top of my list of things to do, aside from visiting with family and practical shopping, is to eat out at authentic ethnic restaurants. I have some serious pent-up desire in this area. Good quality and truly authentic ethnic restaurants in our area are rare (very rare) and charge insane prices for disappointing kitchen results. But then, we lived in San Francisco for nearly 25 years, where you can eat authentic Ethiopian, Cambodian, German, Salvadoran, Laotian, French, Spanish, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Vietnamese, ahhh… the list goes on. It is not fair to compare. But my desire is there all the same.

Here, in our city that lacks ethnic neighborhoods or significant ethnic populations outside of various regional Brazilian folk, restaurants are pretty much all cut from the same cloth, with few exceptions and when you can find an “ethnic” restaurant, the effort to make international flavors bend to local tastes often makes the end result rather simplistic and fairly unrecognizable.

Our trip to “Disney World” will take the form of restaurant hopping and adventurous home cooking with ingredients we haven’t seen in years.

Naturally this is a two way street. Tucked in our bags heading toward Tampa will be multiple packets of Pão de Queijo mix, various jars of Dolce de Leite artesanato, and lots of cashews (cheaper here than walnuts). Gifts for family members will be unique arts and crafts from Brazil – and maybe a few soccer jerseys.

So the countdown to our visit is on. We’re making our list and checking it twice. Do let me know if you think I have forgotten anything.

You can rest assured we will return to our life in progress here in Brazil.