Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Our honeymoon in the Visconde de Mauá region in Rio state

There’s nothing like another commitment ceremony to cue up a travel adventure.

This past February 14th marked the 10 year anniversary of Luiz and my then temporarily-legal marriage performed at San Francisco’s City Hall. As a gay couple, settling into a marriage which includes the rights, privileges and protections afforded all married citizens has been an on again, off again experience for us. When your civil rights are put up for a vote in the public square or horse traded by loathsome politicians you often find yourself chasing after those rights into whatever legal margins might offer a foothold.

After one marriage (since struck null and void by the California Supreme Court) and two domestic partnership contracts (one in San Francisco and one in the State of California) we finally took advantage of Brazil’s “separate but equal” Stable Union option, and the 10 year anniversary date, to re-up our “marriage” thing. This legal union in Brazil affords us the rights, privileges and protections (and obligations) of civil marriage throughout the country. It’s a good thing we like each other so much. We have been through more than our share of “commitment ceremonies.”

At the risk of working our friends’ last nerve on this subject we hope to, at a future date, legally convert this contract to a full-on “marriage” in name and substance when (we hope) the LGBT activists in Rio will organize their second annual mass public wedding ceremony. Given the relatively invisible (but ever-increasing) LGBT rights struggle here we think it is important to participate in a public event to draw attention to the urgent need for a Brazil without homophobia. Stay tuned.

If you came to our most recent (re)commitment party and brought a toaster or set of bath towels to wish us well, you need not feel shy about coming to our next without a gift.

But to the point of this post: we just got (re)hitched and it called for a honeymoon getaway.

One of the best facts about being relatively new to Brazil is that there remain many, many cool places to visit that we have never seen before. Our objective for our honeymoon was to identify one such place and take it on with gusto. We settled on the mountainous Viconde de Mauá area in Rio de Janeiro state near to the borders with both São Paulo and Minas Gerais states. The region is both remote, with hiking trails, rivers and waterfalls, as well as populated with scores of pousadas from basic to quite lavish. For the outdoors types this place has something for everyone.

Our chalet.

A good internet search and few phone calls brought us to reserving a chalet at Brilho da Natureza. This place was perfect. Located one kilometer further up the mountain from Maromba it was peaceful and absolutely beautiful. Our chalet was right on the river with a natural swimming area just a few steps from our veranda (although the mountain spring water was COLD).

Pousada central, including the breakfast room.
They have 16 chalets in all over two pieces of riverside property.

The cool mountain air was SO refreshing. We very much enjoyed a privilege most recently withheld from us in Rio’s record breaking heat wave: sleeping in each other’s embrace under a blanket. Honeymoon bliss. Good sleeping weather.

Temperatures during the day were in the 80s but after the sun set the temperature dropped into the 60s. For us that’s pretty chilly weather. We took advantage of the chill to make a romantic fire in our chalet’s fireplace.

Waking up to a super delicious breakfast spread is the hallmark of a good pousada in Brazil. Folks in the States would be blown away by the extent and quality of the breakfast served in even the most modest of Brazilian pousadas. Brilho da Natureza set a high bar in this regard. Nearly all of the baked goods were fresh made on premises: bread, ham and cheese rolls, pão de queijo, cookies, cakes, etc. Plus the cheeses, jams and honey were fresh from area farms. Of course the juices served were fresh as well. To top things off, after we sat down the delightful woman from the kitchen came over (with toddler son in tow) to ask if we would like her to prepare us some eggs. Fantastic.

Our days were occupied hiking to waterfalls. Our evenings were quiet, first walking to and through Maromba (longer to walk the one kilometer to Maromba than to walk around the tiny village) and then snuggling in our cozy chalet.

I’ll shut up and let the pictures speak for themselves.

Busy downtown Maromba.

Cachoeira Porção da Moramba

Luiz taking a blessing at Cachoeira Véu da Noiva (Bridal Veil)

What Luiz made look simple I struggled to complete. Yikes!

Cachoeira do Escorrega

Portuguese speakers will get the joke.

True to our style of adventure we spotted a tiny, makeshift “restaurant” on the banks of the main river in the area. Drawn in by its funky charm (and the big sign advertising fresh grilled trout for 2 for R$25) we decided to enjoy an early lunch to take advantage of this unlikely but super scenic restaurant.

Thanking our proud host.
The trout lunch was fantastic.

After three nights in Maromba we decided to relocate to Maringá just 3 kilometers down the road. Maringá is the tourist hub in the area (exceeding Viconde de Mauá proper in this regard as well). Still a small village, Maringá afforded us more restaurant choices and some boutique shopping as well. The Rio Preto river runs through this tiny town and is also the geographical border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states. The town has a decidedly Minas feel, which was just fine with me. I absolutely LOVE comida Mineira (food from Minas Gerais).

The busy main intersection in Maringá.

Shopping is not really our thing, but we love finding a deal and especially love buying from the source as much as possible. While in Maringá we pretty much avoided all the boutiques (except the ice cream and chocolate shops). As an alternative we kept an eye out for “direct from the source” opportunities. As such we bought fresh berry preserves from a woman behind a rickety roadside stand, a jar of unprocessed honey (complete with tiny bee bits floating in the product) from a family tending bees in the area, goat cheese and sausage from a delicatessen featuring local products, and – our favorite – tiny paper flowers and fabric butterflies on long thin reeds made by a local retired pharmacist-turned artisan.

Luiz requested butterflies without the reeds.

Having spotted “the flower lady” on the street making a delivery of her wares to a boutique for resale, we asked how we might reconnect with her in the coming days to buy some of her flowers. She invited us to her home to check out the possibilities. Sorry to say I do not have a picture of Carmen's tiny cottage home/studio. It was super cute: teeny tiny, filled with art, super organized efficient kitchen, steep stairs/ladder to the bedroom loft, and 8 visiting humming birds buzzing around a feeder hanging from an eave over her porch. When we visited we found the cottage a short distance up a driveway to a much larger main house. As is traditional in Brazil, we clapped loudly when approaching the house to signal our visit. Carmen called out from her kitchen for us to enter via the side walkway (the front path had a wobbly stone step). We spent the next hour or so having coffee at her kitchen table, admiring her work, and sorting out which flowers and butterflies Luiz wanted for later use in his own flower arrangements.

We had done well choosing this area for our honeymoon getaway. It was all the nature we could want plus sufficient tourism infrastructure to make it easy and convenient. Pousada and restaurant prices have gone up all over Brazil and that was apparent here as well. But there were still values to be found. Our strategy of arriving late in a weekend and staying through the weekdays worked well to get us good deals on the pousadas we stayed in. It also meant that there was next to no one at the waterfalls we visited. We hiked all alone (except for the huge green snake with half a frog sticking out of its mouth that crossed our path one day) and never saw more than three or four people at a waterfall. Most of our time we were in our own private paradise. But we did learn an important piece of information about little Maringá. It is basically a weekend-only village. Nearly ALL of the shops and restaurants were CLOSED Monday through Thursday. It was kind of weird. But the locals just shrugged and said there was next to no business during the week, so it made sense to them. Be forewarned.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Adventures of a care package from the States

There are few pleasures as joyful as getting a care package from a friend or family member filled with the stuff you want, really want, or the stuff that’s simply impossible to find where you currently are. Sometimes it is just the idea of a care package that soothes the soul. Oh, a box filled with your favorite things…

It is often the case for many an expat here in Brazil that the emotionally comforting box also promises to save you a bundle of money. Getting any sort of electronics, baby items, specialty bath items, or even some simple kitchen zip lock bags can mean cost savings easily into the hundreds of $Reais over having to purchase them locally.

But – as any expat in Brazil will tell you: care packages are more easily dreamt of than realized. Finding an ally in the States to pack it and make a trip to the post office; paying the crazy expensive shipping fees; passing through customs without being slapped with ridiculous import taxes; or even just seeing a fully realized delivery in an understandable length of time -- believe me, there are bumps in the road in the life of a care package.

Several months ago my beloved iPod Shuffle bit the dust. Luiz had encouraged me to buy a backup Shuffle when we were in Florida last May, but I foolishly ignored his good advice. My iPod is a daily companion while riding busses, standing/sitting in lines, or just going for a walk in the evening. Losing my best electronic friend was motivation enough to try and scare up a care package from the States.

Locally I could buy a replacement 4g Mp3 player (Sandisk) for about R$225 on Mercado Livre, Brazil’s eBay, plus shipping. The same item at Amazon.com goes for $R84, with free shipping within the US. Buying an actual iPod down here would just be stupid expensive… I don’t have a cell phone (by choice), so obviously I cannot use my phone to play Mp3 or Mp4 files.

So I figured I would bundle up some other items Luiz and I would like and leverage it all into a value-filled box of practical and “treat” items. A true care package.

Here’s the story. (Heads up – this is a rather long post. But it is a good one.)

[Note: values in this post are listed in Brazlian reais, not US dollars. I earn and spend reais, so dollar values are really irrelevant. All things considered, residents of the US can just think in terms of dollars and get a feel for the relative costs – i.e. shit is expensive, plus salaries are lower. Unless you earn dollars and are spending in reais, making a currency conversion is misleading. For the record, values here are based on a 1:2.4 exchange rate from dollars to reais.]

In September 2013 I casually inserted an off topic request into a Face Book msg with a dear friend in the States. Actual msgs.:

Me: “Hey - another topic - my iPod died. I went to look at replacements and saw one - super cheapo Chinese-made thing for R$90. Then I looked on Amazon.com and they sell the exact same thing for R$12.”

Unsuspecting friend: “No shit! Really?”

Me: “Any chance I can buy what I want and ship it to you and have you drop it in the mail to me? I could also pull together a short grocery store list. LOL.” Electronics here are shit and STILL stupid expensive.”

Unsuspecting friend: “Sure no problem.”

Me: “Sorry to put you out so much, but there are some shortcomings to being here that get you to lean on family and friends for relief. Thanks.”

Unsuspecting friend: “Happy to help. I love you.”

Hook set.

Feeling only mildly guilty for roping a dear friend into what I knew was going to be more than what she bargained for I went online to shop for a few items and had them shipped to her house. She really does love Luiz and I and she really does have a super huge generous heart. I had my fingers crossed this would go as smoothly as possible. But I had my doubts.

Those of us who live here and have traveled back to the States for a visit know the immediate popularity you receive when others learn of your vacation plans. Phone calls, emails and msgs stream in with lists of items people either casually ask you to bring back for them or quite brashly insist won’t be any trouble for you to buy and bring back on their behalf. This is the kind of favor you agree to do only once. You quickly learn that being a mule for others desperate for a bottle of maple syrup or a new notebook computer is ALWAYS more trouble than it is worth. Transporting things is a favor reserved for those on your short list.

But just putting a box in the mail… simple, right?

Let me see if I can shrink this 4+ month saga into a few paragraphs. Yep. You read that right. 4+ months.

Like I said, not long after my friend agreed to help out I went online and bought an Mp3 player plus five rainbow hot air balloon wind spinners. Luiz brought one of these wind catchers back in May and uses it to grab attention at his flowers booth in the park on the weekends. EVERY weekend people ask him if it is for sale. While it costs R$36 online in the US, he can easily sell it for R$110 here in the park. These would be re-sale items to help pay for the box.

As promised, I sent my friend a short list of items to pick up at the grocery store, plus, as is generally the case, I added a few additional items that would require an extra trip to a housewares store on our behalf. Oops- I was acting like the others I have so little patience for. But I repeated time and again that my friend could say no to anything and that I would be grateful to get just the basics. And there was no time rush. Of course my dear friend was happy to tack more errands onto her personal favor for me. The monster had begun to grow its second head.

Before long I was occupying space in my friend’s garage as the pile of items grew. First in the pile were the items from Amazon.com., then the stuff from the grocery store.

I was hoping the things from the discount housewares store would be fun to shop for (keeping Luiz’s smiling face in mind). We did, in fact, have fun with this. Well, I certainly had fun. I hope the feeling was mutual. It became clear to me that my friend and her partner were embarking on a multi-stop errand morning. They were messaging me photos of fun stuff from various stores along their journey. I was giving the thumbs up or down. It was a virtual shopping adventure at Sam’s Club, HomeGoods and elsewhere from the comfort of my home office. My fingers were crossed that they were not too quickly tiring of the whole affair. I certainly had fun.

The pile in the garage (and another head) grew. Once everything was in hand it was ready to be shipped.
Reality check: none of this was “on the way” in the course of my friends’ lives. Making time to accomplish the shopping, the packing, the shipping… That time had to be carved out from an already hectic and tiring weekly routine. That pile in the garage was not going to get to Brazil on its own. There needed to be packing material, shipping tape, boxes (we decided to go with two smaller boxes over one large one to try and avoid unwanted attention from the Brazilian Customs office), and ultimately time standing in line at the post office. The monster continued to grow heads.

For my part, my emails and FB messages oozed with happy talk and words of thanks and encouragement. As the weeks went by I knew my friend was feeling pressure to get these boxes in the mail and harbored a growing desire to get that damn monkey off her back. I assured her there was no rush. I suggested she forget about the whole thing until after the holidays when life would calm down a bit and the lines at the post office would return to their normal slow-moving selves. Keep breathing. Don’t go sour on me.

As my friend would come to discover, there is a bit of a trick to packing a box for international shipping. To save space it is best to remove extraneous packaging from the original items. Shipping costs are calculated by weight AND size. Protect fragile items. Evenly distribute weight among the boxes.

You could write a book on the tips and tricks for getting your box shipped without drama through Customs. Everyone has their favorite method – or wants to learn yours. Gringos here can tag a hundred replies to a post on Face Book trying to help out a fellow care package dreamer. Do this, don’t do that…
Here’s what we did.

The main issues are postage and avoiding import taxes.

It seems like I've heard stories from all over the spectrum regarding shipping. Some folks swear by UPS for a promised delivery, even though it may cost a little more. UPS is supposed to handle the package right to your door, but I've heard tales of it being plopped into the Brazilian postal service for the final bit. If this is so, it trumps any “strategy” to avoid a grumpy Correio (Brazilian postal service) worker who never really attempts a delivery but just fills out paperwork documenting three attempts to no avail and then sends your package back to the sender.

Some folks swear by Brazil’s postal service, citing international comparisons that place their level of service well above average. So for them going with the US Postal Service who then hands things off to Correio is a fine choice.

Everyone, it seems, has a horror story. Folks talk of waiting months for a completed delivery. Many folks speak of pieces of postage and packages alike disappearing into thin air (the common assumption is that they are snatched up by workers along the way, for whatever reason).

For me, actual cost trumps real or imagined tales of woe. I go with the US Postal Service.

Then there is the concern over if and/or how much the package(s) will be taxed by the Brazilian Customs office for the contents therein. Scary tales of ridiculous taxes assessed on boxes of used clothing and such abound. How do they discern what is in the package? Mostly you tell them by whatever is written on the required Customs Declaration form that gets affixed to the outside of the box. The form requests a “detailed description of contents” and their value. Plus they guesstimate further value if you have paid for extended insurance coverage. And many times if a tax is assessed they will include the cost of shipping when totaling the to-be-taxed value (go figure…). The tax is 60% of the value of most items.

Generally speaking, shipping veterans encourage you to be more general in your description and to try and keep declared values below US$50 to avoid drawing the attention of the tax man. So for example, we chose descriptions like: “kitchen ingredients” and “party decorations” to generally describe most of the items being shipped. If particular items fail to make the inventory, well, sometimes innocent mistakes can happen.

We divided all our items into two boxes so that a smaller value could be declared for each. Shipping costs would go up, but if import taxes were avoided then we would save in the end. General inventories were made and the value of each was kept well below US$50.

As an extra bit of “strategy” to avoid a randomly tired or irritated Customs worker who might be therefore choosing to be especially stern or strict in the execution of their duties, we prominently taped a number of pictures of Jesus, the cross, and some common prayers to most of the surfaces of the boxes. I listen to countless people go on about Jesus, Mary and the Father around here, why not work that to our advantage? Kinda like the survivors on The Walking Dead smearing rotting flesh all over themselves to avoid being seen by the “walker” zombies. Make our packages invisible.

Around the last week of January my by now weary dear friend found her way to the post office to wait in line and finally peel that monkey, now entering adolescence, off her back. At this point we had done all we could to make this whole care package folie à deux a good experience and avoid it turning into a super expensive shipping and tax adventure gone wrong. Everything was in Jesus’ hands, if you will. Note: the postal worker in the States looked at our piously adorned boxes and asked if they were being shipped to a missionary. My friend bit her lip and said “No, we just want the Lord to look after them along the way.” With that the packages were sent. Done. Multi-headed monster slain. (Thank you!!)

To wrap this part up… the shipping time was actually quite surprising. Once they were dropped off at the post office they were dispatched to a sorting facility in another city. The online tracking details reveal that it took 4 days for them to pass through that facility and be sent to Brazil. Seven days later they passed through a sorting facility in Brazil, clearing Customs. The very next day they were both delivered to our door by noon. Just 12 days! Record time.

Plus, there were NO TAXES applied to our care packages. Whoo hoo!! Big score. Thank you Jesus!

Now – to run the math. Was this whole rigamarole worth it? The willingness on the part of our dear friend and her partner to help us out was simply priceless. That value cannot be put into the equation. But I can give you a general idea about content values and overall expenses.

Our total shipping costs were R$396 (about US$165). That seems like a high bar to get over to recoup a savings on items shipped. But don’t forget, we are talking about Brazil. Shit is expensive here.

The money we saved over just three items: the Mp3 player, a single 120 count bottle of 1,500 mg glucosamine dietary supplement caplets, and a collection of 12 boutique bath soaps MORE than paid for the shipping. The Mp3 player was R$141 cheaper in the States. The supplements were an unbelievable R$304 cheaper. And the soaps were about R$125 cheaper. Everything else was gravy. And a valuable gravy at that.

Opening the care package was like Christmas in February. In addition to things already mentioned there was stuff for Luiz’s flower design activities, Thai curries for me in the kitchen, other beloved spices and extracts, and more. Yeah!

All in all it is a process worth doing, if only once. But be careful. And hope for some luck. If we had been hit with import taxes this whole tale would have had a sour ending. Be creative. Buy a Christian wall calendar and use the images… hahaha.

If you are a dear friend back in the country of origin of your good buddy abroad – have a heart. Be patient with us. We really, really appreciate the extra effort it requires to make a care package happen. And if you are coming for a visit, consider bringing an extra piece of luggage – care package express.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Carnaval Blocos de Rua in Rio

At last count there are 523 blocos (neighborhood street parties) scheduled in Rio from now through Carnaval 2014. I've got news for you. If you come to Rio for Carnaval and don’t have a good time… you are probably in a coma. For a growing list of Rio’s blocos, go here.

All too often the mistake is made that Carnaval in Rio is all, and exclusively, about the main event: the over-the-top fantastic Carnaval Parade in the Sambadrome that takes place all night and into the dawn on Sunday and Monday nights. That is truly a once in a lifetime party that should be on your bucket list. But the spirit of the loooong holiday weekend is definitely embedded in Rio’s residents, its neighborhoods and the very organic eruptions of neighborhood pride packed into its Blocos.

Blocos are the free, no tickets required, popular street parties that are the main popular expression of Carnaval throughout Rio. Blocos typically include live music, parading, party/costume themes and sometimes a performance stage. The bigger events may include a trio elétrico. All blocos are a riot of music, beer, celebration, beer, community pride, beer, and just plain fun, fun, fun.

Make no mistake, Blocos are not unique to Rio. They are popular in cities all over Brazil. Wikipedia cites the Brazilian state of Pernambuco as the center of Brazil’s Bloco universe, noting that the biggest bloco “Galo da Madrugada” attracts more than 2 million people in downtown Recife.

Some folks have their favorite bloco. Some blocos have a long, storied history. Some blocos have morphed in character over time, growing into huge events. Some have outgrown their earlier appeal. More and more are starting to include chemical toilets (thank you city government rules enforcement). All of them will have countless street vendors selling beer, other beverages and lots of food. These parties are walk up events open to all.

Going to a bloco is a very low maintenance thing. Just put on some very comfortable clothes. Be prepared for rain. Take just your house key, ID and some money. Leave all your unnecessary documents at home. Blocos are by far and away safe events, but you know how “opportunity creates the thief.” Pickpockets love crowds. Take your patience with crowds and your spirit of adventure.

Go. Catch the vibe. Dance. Smile. Feel the love.

Bom Carnaval.