Friday, June 28, 2013

Innovative flower designs at Flor de Luiz

click to enlarge images

As the persistent and inspiring street protests by Brazilian citizens demanding cleaner government and improved social services enter their fourth week, things back at Flor de Luiz continue apace.

Luiz has introduced a new line of flower arrangements utilizing pieces of drift wood collected from the beach near our apartment.  These natural beachscape pieces combine flowers, mosses, insects and nesting bird details to produce stunning results.

Introducing these innovative designs is meant to both feed and inform the curious public that comes to his booth at the weekend art fair. Luiz has earned a reputation for unique and unusual designs. So many  local florists follow a tired old (perhaps tried and true, in their opinion) formula for arrangements that amounts to little more than “chop and drop” simple pieces that everyone has seen a hundred times before.

Luiz is never content to stay on the beaten trail. He feels best when he is on the path less traveled. It has been an uphill struggle, slowly teaching those who visit his booth that innovation is not only possible but beautiful when it comes to flower designs. He invites people to join him in thinking out of the box and to value design over sheer volume of blooms.

We have witnessed the steady morphing of his clients from elderly women looking for that simple bunch of roses in a pot for their bathroom vanity into a younger set of urban professionals excited by innovation, seeking to lead the pack with feature designs that light up a room rather than just fill up a space.

It has not been easy to convince the inexperienced consumer to eat their vegetables (even when they taste so sweet). Luiz definitely has a selection of the tried and true designs available as gifts for grandma. But slowly his booth is blossoming into a weekly destination visited by curious neighbors out for a stroll in the park on the weekend.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Brazilians are daring to hope

Much has been written in the news, on Facebook and among bloggers about the historic and truly revolutionary demonstrations currently taking place in most major cities throughout Brazil. Ignited by the back-breaking final straw of yet another urban bus fare increase, youth activists as well as professionals, their families, seasoned change makers and even atrophied activists from an earlier time have taken to the streets to cry ‘enough!’

The cry has widened from this original ill-conceived revenue increase once again placed on the backs of the poor and middle class to include demands for better health care, schools and general infrastructure improvements. An obvious example of misplaced government priorities is writ large in the billions of dollars going to host the World Cup and the Olympics rather than to solve entrenched social problems.

The focused target identified as the source of much of what ails Brazil and what must change to ever see lasting improvements is the endemic corruption among politicians at all levels and the often ridiculous and always expensive burdens they levy on the people.

In this post I am not going to repeat the news about the inspiring demonstrations happening throughout Brazil or try to offer my two cents about where or by what means this popular uprising will go from here. I have included a number of links at the end of this post to direct you to some terrific resources (in English) that offer some background, current reporting and varied analysis worth your time. Please follow the links for some really great stuff.

In cases like these, as a foreign national and new resident in Brazil, what I don’t know about the depth and breadth of this problem outweighs what I do know. But I have had quite a few personal experiences that have brought me face to face with the mood of many Brazilians when it comes to politics and any hope for change.

Clearly a sleeping giant has been awakened. Brazilians are at the end of their rope and are speaking out. Let me share with you some of my personal observations that betray the size of this giant.

When I first arrived in Brazil I noticed a kind of resignation among people that the trains would never run on time. It was taken for granted that politics was a lost cause and that all politicians were thieves. You may recall that in the last national election the politician that received the most votes of any Congressman in Brazil was an actual professional clown and humorist; he was a protest vote.

Several thousand people came out in Niteroí.

Any time I spoke with enthusiasm about what I saw to be hopeful political signs (like the election of Lula from the Workers Party) people were polite/patient with me but dismissive and impatient with the subject. Even electing Lula (who most of my friends voted for) brought but a moment’s grin before folks would shrug and retreat to their place of indifference and hopelessness.

Any example I would raise to suggest the possibility of a positive change was slapped down with a dozen examples of corruption, cronyism, government inaction or downright hardship brought on by elected officials. These were well seasoned opinions built over time by countless real life examples.

Time after time friends and family would joke about crooked politicians (because only joking made the topic tolerable) and every story ended with a sigh and an exasperated “what are you gonna do?”

Being new to Brazil I always looked (and still look) for the ‘glass half full’ take away. This was my new home and I was in love in so many ways with Brazil. Learning about recent political histories just ruined the buzz.

Every family had stories of hard working youngsters finishing university only to lose opportunities to corrupt government officials or institutionalized prejudice or nepotism at public and private workplaces.

Nobody was surprised or even flinched when I reported my having to make multiple trips to the Federal Police office over 2 years to finally get my permanent visa. Unbeknownst to me, my story was actually seen by locals as a success story for getting my paperwork through the bureaucracy so fast.

People here have long since resigned themselves to a broken system run by men (mostly men) who line their pockets with citizen tax dollars and then conspire to never hold each other accountable. It is a mess.

On another note: In my former life in the States I was a professional fundraiser for nonprofit agencies of one sort or another for nearly 20 years. Here in Brazil people are skeptical to the bone that any monetary donations they make to a charitable cause will EVER make it to those in need. Everyone can recount a dozen stories off the top of their head about government officials (or evangelical church leaders, for that matter) pocketing these funds for personal gain. Making cash donations is exceptionally rare, with few exceptions.  [It’s worth noting that much of what is done by charitable organizations in the USA is done by the government in Brazil. There are only a tiny number of nonprofit organizations here compared to the States.]

There has always been a sense of hopelessness that the government, in any of its forms, was going to contribute to the solution for anything.

It appears, now, we have hit a breaking point. In the case of the current demonstrations young people are stepping up and demanding that their future not be stolen away from them. And they have found millions of likeminded others who are ready to join the chorus.

Some of the politicians are listening. Some are scared. Many will try to levy the heavy hand of the police to make this all go away. Whatever is yet to come – things seem far from over.

It does not help to protest and then return to the same corruption as always.
Protest today Brazil, but change the vote in 2014

The people of Brazil seem ready to hope again. I, for one, could not be more thrilled to be here at this time in history to witness the people of this country I have come to love so much mobilize to wrench the reins of power and the future from those who have stolen them. Wish us luck.

To learn more of the newsy details check out the following:

Videos that make the case for the demonstrations are here, here and here.

News articles that go at least a little bit beyond the violence by the fringe elements and try to lay out what is happening are herehere and here.

Other bloggers who have made interesting contributions to help folks understand what is going on are here and here.

And of course there is lots more out there...

Monday, June 17, 2013

Jogo do Bicho and the Zebra

Zebras in Brazil? Well, not exactly.

We are in the middle of the Confederations Cup here in Brazil. Today features the unlikely contest between Nigeria and Tahiti. In the States we would say that Tahiti is certainly the underdog in this competition. Here folks say that Tahiti is definitely the zebra. It would be a zebra of a game if Tahiti won.

The local expression here refers to the zebra as an upset victory, an underdog, or a dark horse. And just like in the States, many people have a soft spot in their heart for the zebra. But any bicheiro (the guy who peddles tickets for the Jogo do Bicho) will warn you that betting on the zebra is a fool’s folly.

Jogo do Bicho is a gambling game created in the early 1920s to attract visitors to the Rio zoological park. Visitors to the zoo were encouraged to guess the identity of an animal behind a curtain. Winners were awarded a cash prize.

The game quickly morphed into a very popular, privately run, regional lottery using numbers associated with 25 different animals. It was soon operated throughout Brazil, which naturally attracted the attention of government authorities who sought to shut it down. Despite its popularity, Jogo do Bicho is now illegal in 25 of Brazil’s 26 states. Rather than disappear, naturally, the game moved mostly underground and is run by illegal syndicates often shielded from disruption by corrupt politicians. Nowadays ticket sellers are found in busy urban areas, in nondescript corner bars or even sitting anonymously on benches in the park. More automated versions of the game have popped up on illegal slot machines or video poker games generally found in the darker corners of men’s hangouts.

To play, one places a bet on any of the 25 animals. Each animal is associated with a sequence of four numbers. You can bet as little as one real or as much as the bicheiro and his higher-ups will allow. In some places the winning numbers are drawn daily at the local bicho headquarters. In other areas the winning numbers are the last two numbers of the daily state lottery draw. Over time since the game’s inception betting approaches, odds given and payouts awarded have become quite complex and may pay up to 50,000 times the bet.

But not if you bet on the zebra. You see, there is no zebra included among the 25 animals in the game. To take home winnings from a bet on the zebra it would truly be an upset victory.

The cultural influence of Bicho de Jogo goes beyond the common expression “zebra” for a dark horse or a long shot.

One of the most impressive influences of Jogo do Bicho is the strong and persistent association of the number 24 with homosexuality in Brazil. In the game 24 is the number given to a deer (veado in Portuguese), an animal that has long been pejoratively associated with gay men. Guys associated with this number often have to deal with jokes about their sexuality. This happens, for example, with schoolboys listed as number 24 in the class' alphabetical list or men that are born on the 24th of any month.

The number 24 is heavily avoided by Brazilian male athletes, with rare exceptions. In Stock Car racing, for example, drivers are allowed to choose their numbers, but the number 24 has never been chosen since the first Stock Car tournament in 1979.

The elephant in the game has come to be associated with death, and whenever there is a fatal traffic accident involving a car with one of the elephant's numbers (45-48) on its license plates, the betting on the elephant is unusually heavy.

Casual... casual...

So whether you are fond of butterflies, camels, tigers, goats, peacocks or cats, you have a daily chance to strike it rich in most parts of the country. Next time your nightly dream includes an animal, ferret out your local bicheiro (he may have moved his spot since last you saw him) and give it a go. But save your bet on Tahiti for today’s game against Nigeria.

For more information about Jogo do Bicho, including a lot more details regarding the illegal activity involved and the impact is has corrupting politicians, I refer you to this entry at Wikipedia. Most of what I have included here comes from their listing.

UPDATE: Nigeria took the game 6 -1 over Tahiti. No zebras here...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going off-market to renovate our apartment building

For privacy reasons I am not including actual photos of our building.

Workers have just completed the resurfacing of our building’s exterior. Here is the story.

We live in a 12 unit apartment building (condominium) that was built in the early 1970s. It is a typical building of its sort here in Brazil: clay brick and cement construction, two bedroom apartments a bit on the small side, no elevator or off street parking, and a great street corner location across from a rare green space in the neighborhood.

Most of the units have been occupied for the past 40 years by their original owners.  Five of the apartments are now occupied by aging, widowed octogenarians. The rest are mature families or second or third generation family members of original owners.

It is a quiet building on a loud and busy neighborhood thoroughfare where most newer buildings have commercial spaces on the street level. Ours is among the older buildings in the vicinity. Over the years smaller buildings have been bought out and replaced by shiny new 20 story condos with all the modern conveniences (like parking and hot water). One of these years our building will suffer this same fate. But until many of the older residents no longer need their unit there will never be a consensus among residents to sell to developers. In the mean time, I suppose, the location of the building continues to hold its value.

As a smaller building without an elevator or a door man we enjoy a very low monthly condominium fee. Most residents are happy to simply have a weekly cleaning of the hallways and entry as well as a well functioning front gate and intercom system. Not much to keep up. Once in a great while we get the walls painted in the interior hallway/stairway.

Alas, some time ago, neighborhood youth came through and “tagged” our building on the outer first and second floors. It has been an eyesore for years. I have not encouraged my friends to look us up on Google Maps Street View because the resulting snapshot revealed our shame. Getting the building residents to kick in the extra monthly fees required to afford a resurfacing of the outside of the building has been like pulling teeth (maybe the wrong expression, as many residents lack their original teeth). But finally the younger residents prevailed and we got a temporary condominium fee increase passed, prescribed for a building face lift.

So – big deal, we got the building resurfaced. I say resurfaced and not repainted because we have this cute but maintenance-intense sandy coating applied to the cement outer surface of the building. It looks great, but it is not suitable for a coating of paint. To freshen it up you have to apply a new layer of this sand-like material (we can choose the color).

But still, what is the blog-appropriate tale behind this activity? As with so many things here in Brazil, it is not the destination, but the journey, that makes living here such an adventure.

OK – so we start with the assumption by all the residents that we will not be hiring a big, professional building maintenance company with a crew of trained employees to do the work. Everyone knows that that will be expensive and that surely somebody knows somebody who has a guy who does this sort of thing for a lot less (working 'off market,' in the grey market, or underground). Sure enough, the síndico (the building resident elected by everyone to take care of building issues) identifies a couple of these off-market ‘tradesmen’ and gets some bids. Once a guy is chosen he is given 50% of the agreed upon fee to buy materials, rent scaffolding and get the ball rolling. Sure enough, a motley crew of disheveled workers appears and begins the process. As usual, I am taken aback by the lack of safety equipment, proper shoes and apparent lack of supervision. But hey, this has been my experience over and over again here, so I am not surprised. I will say that my early suggestions to get a detailed written contract and proof of insurance, etc. fell on deaf ears. Fellow residents were not up for going legit for something as ‘simple’ as resurfacing the building. (Insert swelling ominous background music here.)

Not long after erecting the scaffolding (including trampling over one of Zozó’s patio flower beds) the materials arrived and work began. The next day the contractor (the white guy with the nice car) showed up to tell the síndico that his bid had been too low and that he would need an additional R$6,000 to complete the job. WTF? (Insert cartoon image of Jim with scrunched face mouthing ‘I told you so’ here.)

Across the street, to save money, they repainted the building without the use of scaffolding.

Sigh. No agreement was reached. After about a week of activity and only 1/3 of the job completed the contractor pulled his workers, refusing to continue without his extortion pay additional payment. To make matters worse, he returned in the middle of the night and stole building materials we had paid for.

Now the síndico was left with the unenviable task of finding another off-market guy who would pick up the pieces and complete the job for a price that would not cause a total revolt among building residents. It was not a happy time. Under the circumstances she did a great job finding another friend of a friend’s friend who does this kind of work and who would take the job for the available price.

Once again we were invaded by a crew of (seemingly interchangeable) anonymous workers in flip flops ready to spread sandy mud on the building façade. They were a jovial crew and worked pretty fast. Being tidy or detail oriented did not seem to be included in the contract, but before long the job was finished. 

Unfortunately these guys did some pretty serious damage to the remaining two flower beds in the patio area, but I was told to hold my tongue. They were done and the whole process would soon be behind us.

I’m sure we saved a lot of money by going this all-too-common “nas coxas” route (to do something in haste, without care or attention to quality). But the proof is in the pudding. We will see how long the treatment lasts. It could easily be of equal or better quality to the same work done by a more expensive company, but nobody knows at this point.

The point of this whole thing has more to do with the common propensity here to get things done off-market and save some money. Many people feel hopeless about any guarantees offered by larger companies and they are very accustomed to using casual labor. The fact that any finished product may have its flaws, or that gardens may get trampled in the process is just how it goes. Suing for breach of contract or unresolved disputes like replanting the gardens is just unthinkable and impractical to almost everyone. Any suit filed could easily take several years to resolve, even if settled out of court. In general, people don’t go there.

Having grown up in a family where my father was a contractor with keen attention to detail, trustworthiness and value, this local approach sets my skin to crawling. On the bright side, in the end our building looks great and no big harm seems to have come from working off-market. And we saved nearly 50% over the cost of a ‘regular’ contractor. Fingers crossed.

Google Maps Street View, we are ready for our close-up.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Weekend hike in the Juatinga Ecological Reserve

Luiz and I really enjoy discovering new places. We especially enjoy it when they are very close to home, outdoors and beautiful. This time around we discovered a tiny but stunning slice of the Juatinga Ecological Reserve (ReservaEcológica da Juatinga) located in the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) just a few hours south of Rio.

We have previously been to, and I have blogged about, Paraty and Trindade. Both are beautiful destinations with history, natural beauty and comfortable pousadas.  This weekend trip was to a place between those two coastal towns featuring incredible natural beauty, but since the area is only accessible by trail or boat, accommodations were a bit more rustic.

I’m going to let the photos do most of the telling in this post. We took more than 180 images in our short visit. The place is really a delight.

The hike and accommodations were arranged by our friends at RJ Adventura. We rendezvoused with 10 other people (including three guides) early on Thursday morning at the Nova Rio bus terminal where we loaded our backpacks onto a mini-bus and set off for the Reserve. The trail-head that was our destination is also available by bus. To get there, take the bus to Paraty, then transfer at the terminal to the local bus, number 1040, for an additional hour or so to the tiny town of Laranjeiras/Vila Oratório, just north of Trindade. The bus will terminate very near the trail-head.

From there most of the group hiked the 1.5 hours trail to Sleep Beach (Praia do Sono). I, on the other hand, volunteered to take the heaviest bags from everyone and join with our guide Cristiani on a sweet 15 minute boat ride to the same destination. (No sense breaking a sweat, I say.)

A quick shower on the beach to wash the salt off.

Praia do Sono is a beautiful beach and a cute little village of about 400 people featuring Gilligan’s Island-style beach restaurants, camping areas and a few chalets for rent. Overnight visitors have the luxury of electricity, if this is your final destination.

Who says your bamboo and mud house can't look fabulous?

It looks just like how Luiz would do it up.

You can take the boy out of being a waiter, but you can't take being a waiter out of the boy.
After lunch we continued past two more beaches to our nighttime destination of Black Point (Ponta Negra). Walking onto this remote little beach we were immediately ducking soccer balls being kicked about by the village youth on the futebol pitch on the sand.

The neighborhood.

We stopped at this house to ask if we could buy some rice and salt. The girl is showing us where in the forest we can look for fresh limes.

The family's bath tub.

The village fish market - which we took good advantage of.

Just a few modest restaurants lined the beach. Mostly we saw fishermen mending their nets sprawled over the sand. We got the key to the house we were renting for the next two nights and headed up a wisp of a trail to find our temporary home. BTW, there is no electricity in Ponto Negra.

The house we stayed in was amazing!

How's that for a balcony view?

Friday lunch.

Cooking up the fish.

Tasted great!

All that hiking (and a great meal) will put you out.

Between the hiking, lifts in the boat, swimming, fresh seafood meals, great friends, a fantastic rental house and pitch black nights – this place was wonderful!

View from the second floor of our house.

Moderate to challenging hiking for about 5 hours total (or pay a guy with a boat), two waterfalls, four beaches, two villages, fresh seafood at beach-side restaurants and super friendly locals. Brazil at its best.

There is nothing like a true getaway weekend to sooth the soul. This trip is very doable and highly recommended. Another option is to spend several nights in Paraty and one morning take the local bus service to the Juatinga Ecological Reserve area trail-head (or connect with the guys with boats) and spend the day at Praia do Sono, returning to Paraty for the night.