Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A visit to the MST

Tomorrow we leave at 7 AM for the wild blue yonder, a.k.a. the interior. We're going to be spending 5 days at a settlement started by the MST (Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem-Terras), a HUGE movement here in Brazil. As many of you may know, Brazil is big on agriculture--it produces a whole lot of the world's corn, sugar, coffee, just to name a few crops, as well as over a third of the world's meat (cattle and poultry, primarily). Most of this agriculture is controlled by huge, international conglomerates--many agribusinesses hold huge tracts of land, the size of Belgium and Portugal combined. I'm not making a judgment on this fact (at least not yet; I don't know enough), I'm just attempting to set the stage.

The MST is a movement for rural landless workers, attempting through various means to secure land reform in Brazil--to fight these huge companies and try to bring back a little opportunity for communities of farmers. Their trademark 'revolutionary' tactic is to go and camp out on latifundos (big farms).

Brasileiros view the MST in various different ways, but there's no denying that it tends to be a polarizing organization--either people really love it and think the MST is doing something that's necessary and vital (maybe even noble), or, conversely, 'those good-for-nothing rabble rousers who insist on making a scene'. But many Brazilians, perhaps the majority, classify MST as the most important social movement in Brazil and perhaps in Latin America. The MST has, without doubt presented poor Brazilians with real alternatives in terms of land tenure. But MST is not only about land reform. There are important objectives related to the full democratization of Brazilian society that are of fundamental concern to MST and part of its program and strategy.

Anyways, I'm trying not to go with too many preconcieved notions, though it's beyond difficult, due to the nature of the organization and the fact that it's portrayed in so many different ways that sometimes seem to contradict one another!

What I am looking forward to, beyond a doubt, is getting to see a different part of Brazil. This will be a vastly different experience than city life (much closer to 'roughing it' :)--hammocks ('redes') outside under the stars!! The moon is sadly pretty full right now but that won't stop me from stargazing, hopefully.

Apparently the Portuguese accents are horrifically different once you get out of the city, though...shoot! Just as I thought I was beginning to make progress, something new.

Until Tuesday, over and out.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mônica, Mototaxistas, and MPB

This weekend mostly involved me getting over a cold (almost all better now, thanks to Fátima’s hideous-yet-functional garlic-lemon tea concoction and lots of sleep), so my adventures were somewhat unexciting.

I’ve spent much of my time this week/end on the couch, absorbed in a Brazilian Manga series entitled Turma da Mônica (team Monica) that my 11-year-old host sister Duda introduced me to. For those of you who don’t know, Manga is a somewhat stigmatized style of graphic novel (read: comic book) that originated in Japan. Lots of Manga have been translated into English, but I have to admit I’d never read any before. Mônica is very popular here in Brazil. She and her galera (team) of 3 friends go on various supernatural adventures across the dimensions of time and space, saving the universe—one bad guy at a time. I’ve found it’s a really great way to start reading and comprehending Portuguese, for a number of reasons: it’s written in contemporary, fairly easy-to-read language, so not only can I understand it, I can actually learn some popular idiomatic expressions from it. And furthermore, if there’s something I don’t understand, the pictures usually clarify! It is quite cross-cultural, indeed. I’d wager I’m reading more manga than my roommate (Carolyn/Hemo), who’s living in Japan right now!

I’ve also been exposed to a huge new music scene here in Brazil, mostly live, but also recorded. When I wasn’t on the couch reading this weekend, I was working at the table with my host mother, Fátima (we both have lots of work due this upcoming week). She’s kindly taken it upon herself to educate me in MPB, Musica Popular Brasileira. What a blast! It’s great, and totally different. It’s a little like smooth jazz, with rhythm and percussion more of a forefront. She’s introduced me to a whole bunch of Cearense and Fortalezense artists. Boy, am I getting cultured, eh? It really is beautiful, and the part I love most is that everyone seems to know all the songs! I don’t really understand how. I’d kind of relate it to “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “Blowin‘ in the Wind” in the States, but I get the sense MPB is way more popular and universal than those songs. And instead of there being two songs of that status of universal knowledge, there are two thousand. At least, that’s the way it seems.

Unrelatedly. Did you know the Mototaxi was invented right here in Fortaleza? Apparently it’s popular all over Brazil now (maybe other places too?). That’s right, you can take a taxi ride on a motorcycle here. Not only that, but it’s wicked cheap, potentially cheaper than taking a bus. I haven’t done it yet, but I kind of want to. I’m intimidated by the traffic here (stop signs are merely suggestions; stop lights are just very strong suggestions) and I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle yet, but we’ll see what the upcoming months bring.

Was it stupid to write that paragraph somewhere my mother can see it?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Living in a tropical climate...aka how to avoid a sunburn, 101

So my Dad asked me the other day what it’s like to live in a tropical climate, and I’ve been thinking about that question quite a bit over the past few days. But it’s hard to separate what’s ‘tropical’ without writing about what’s uniquely Brazilian. I’ll attempt (probably poorly) to highlight some of the most striking things I’ve observed...while taking you through my typical day here.

Every day before school, I wake up at 6 and go for a run...on the beach! My apartment is just 6 blocks from Beira Mar, the street that runs along Praia de Iracema. So it’s an easy run down to the beach, which is gorgeously, stereotypically tropical: blinding-white sand and green-blue sea, and, of course, coconut trees. And of course, the sun is mega-strong here. I quite stupidly went running at 11:30 last Saturday...and came home with a slight sunburn, after just 45 minutes. You have to be extra-careful here. (shoot. I’ve already lost focus.)

My host mother, Fátima, made me a vitamina de mamão (papaya milkshake) this morning, which was delicious, surprisingly--surprisingly because she tossed oatmeal and granola (?) as well as the usual ingredients (milk, ice, fruit) all into the blender.

I usually leave the house with Fátima and Duda, at 7:10, give or take a few minutes. Sometimes I get a ride to school, or sometimes I’ll walk--it’s a 15-20 minute walk that’s absolutely beautiful. Right now it’s ‘spring,’ which isn’t manifested by a difference in temperature (it’s in the 80s year-round here, just 3 degrees south of the equator), rather, the flowers are in bloom! Beautiful tropical flowers, and their brilliant colors brighten up gardens, parks and balconies all over the city.

Portuguese class goes from 9-12 every morning, and then we’ve got a bit of a break for lunch. Usually I make my way to a ‘self-service’ cafeteria-type restaurant where you can choose from a number of options; I generally get rice and beans (I'm a vegetarian. do these beans have meat in them? no, I don't eat chicken. Nope, not fish either. It has hot dog in it? I don't eat that either. Sure, I guess I'll pick around the ham in the rice.) and a juice. The afternoons are spent in different ways, but usually it involves class.

I head home around 4:30 or 5, and sometimes if I leave later, the sun is already setting. There’s an 8 minute difference between the longest and shortest day here, but the sun always sets pretty early, between 6 and 6:30. Sunsets are so incredibly short, too: because the sun sinks straight into the horizon rather than slanting across the sky you can watch the sun disappear into the haze (or the ocean--some of Fortaleza’s beaches look west)

I pass tons of street vendors on my way home, selling Tapioca, a popular snack: it’s a type of pancake (not sweet) and is kind of like a fajita--cheese and other meats wrapped up inside it. I had a cheese one the other day and it was delicious!

Sidewalks are made out of cobblestones and tiles, not concrete, and sometimes when they’re missing stones they can get treacherous.

This past week, we spent our afternoons working at different Organições Não-Govermentais, Non-Govermental Organizations, (ONG/NGOs) across the city. I was lucky enough to get to work at a Creche, a day-care, located in a very poor region of the city (read: 2 blocks from a favela, a slum). I arrived during the kids’ naptime everyday, 30 brown bodies crowded on mats into a fairly small, bare room--some squirming, some completely still. The daycare showers the kids everyday and they brush teeth, because most of the kids don’t get that at home. Their happy, playful demeanor and willingness to joke and play with me reminded me that kids are kids, whether they go to Bowdoin Day Camp, Wellesley Children’s Center, or live in a favela here in Fortaleza. But it’s interesting to compare my experience working at WCC to my experience working in the day care here. Sure, kids are kids. But thinking about how different the realities of childhood can be is striking.

On a lighter note, I’ve come to the conclusion that pigeons are the same no matter where you go.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Fortaleza's incredible sweettooth

I haven't taken many photos yet, but I've finally uploaded the ones I have taken:
I learned how to eat an abacate (avocado) properly yesterday. You scoop it out into a bowl, pour an appropriate (read: incredible) amount of sugar on top, maybe some granola too if the mood strikes, and mush it all up with a fork. I told Fatima that in the States we eat it with salty food and she just laughed.

She also laughed when I told her I went out for pizza for lunch the other day. "No one in Brasil eats pizza for lunch!" she said. I then realized why we could only pick from a selection of three when there were 24 different pizzas on the menu. And why we got strange looks when we ordered.

Anyway, I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Fortaleza has a serious sweettooth. Everything here is consumed with sugar. When you make coffee, you heap the sugar into the coffee pot and then turn on the coffee maker. If you fancy more, it's completely acceptable to heap in more afterwards as well. Suco is sugary too, as are many desserts. I ate kettle corn the other day with condensed milk poured on top of already sugared popcorn. All over the place, street vendors sell Juice made from sugar cane.

It makes sense that sugar would be popular here--it's cheap and it is what a lot of people in rural places make their living doing, in some form or another. Like I said before, at least it's not refined, so I don't feel quite as awful.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Drop-Off

One of the hallmarks of SIT's program is called the Drop-Off. It takes place during the first week or two of the program, and it involves students venturing out on their own to different locations. No phrasebooks, no translators, just a notebook, $R15 (for lunch), a phone card, a map, and an address.

It's an interesting name--the Drop-Off. I immediately think of that point in the ocean where it gets really deep, all of a sudden, no warning. Actually, being here kind of has that effect--I just got thrown in, and I had very little idea of what exactly was happening.

...So. We all bussed together with Oélito to Papicu, a big bus terminal on the east side of the city, and then we divided up to go to our assigned locations.

I was paired with one other student, Tim, and we had to make our way over to Cristo Redentor, which is all the way over on the other side of the city. We visited an NGO (here it's ONG) called Acartes, involved in film production. I must say that being here makes me realize how not-standard some standards are. This program is a government-funded social exchange, in which students from Berkeley in California participate every summer. They make both non-fiction as well as fiction films about the problems of inequality and social justice here in the Northeast of the country...They have three computers for editing and they have a camera that looks like it's been functioning since the seventies. Definitely not up-to-date by any means. I think often the folks from Berkeley supplement equipment.

Anyway, Tim and I made it to our destination with minimal troubles, and set out with our map to look for a good lunch spot. We came across a spot that looked like it was serving lunch and walked up to the counter and asked (or thought we asked) if lunch was served at this establishment. The lady straight up told us, "Não." What? Ok. So we started to walk away and I pointed out to Tim that there were two people eating lunch right there. I'm ready to keep walking, but Tim thought we should figure it out, so we go back to the counter and we asked for lunch again. And she looked at us and kind of nodded her head. We ask for a menu, to no avail. Finally she points at a wall, where we see a lot of Portuguese food names written...but no prices for anything. We decided to take our chances and just order.

At the end of the meal, when we went to pay, she charged us R$7 for everything--both our meals. That's like $5 US. We felt like it was pretty low but we paid and went our way.

And that was my deep-ocean experience!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happy...7th of September?

Okay, this one's late too but I only wrote it last night.

Today was Brazilian independence day and my first day with my host family! I must say now--and I’m sure this will be a much-echoed complaint--that I cannot wait to learn Portuguese. Communication is beyond difficult right now.
Yesterday night we were all waiting at IBEU, the center where our classes our held, waiting for our host families to pick us up, and mine came first--Fátima and Marcelo. Bil, the academic director, introduced us, and Fátima started babbling to me in Portuguese, and pulled me in for a hug and a kiss on each cheek--peck, peck. I was so intimidated! All of a sudden I just...kind of shrunk. and I am sure I was blushing. “Nao falo Portugues” is about as far as it goes. 

Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but seriously, I just want someone to hook up a wire to my brain that immediately transmits the language, in its entirety. 
But Fátima and Marcelo are fabulous and great. Marcelo plays the guitar and sings really well, he even has a record out. And he loves the bands of the 70s, and keeps asking me about American ones but I don’t even know them. I feel so ignorant!
When we got home I got to unpack, finally, something I’ve been waiting to do since I got here. I’m sharing a room with Duda, who’s 12 (the same age as Sarah). We live in an apartment that is an easy walk to school and in a nice mix of residential and commercial neighborhood.
Today, we went to the beach with some other families, including one who is also hosting a student in the program, Charles. The beach was PACKED. It was so much fun though! It was pretty commercial--you could buy lots of food there, and there were people walking around selling sunglasses and sunscreen. There were also vendors selling agua de coco--they would slice off the top of a coconut and drill a hole in it so you could drink out of it Fátima bought me one and it was definitely interesting. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it but I’m sure I’ll be drinking more since it’s all over the place here--people drink it as a refreshment and also because it keeps your body hydrated well (I think the concept kind of got a little lost in the translation...but I got the jist of it...). It was so much fun (though very frustrating and limiting) to talk with people and learn about them! I also tried “queijo asada”--fried cheese on a stick. Boy, was that delicious!
Fátima made this jello stuff that was really interesting. She cut up lots of jello molds into little squares, and then put one container of jello into the blender along with condensed milk and blended it, then poured it over all the cut up pieces and stuck it in the fridge. We ate it today and it was one solid mass of jello-y goodness. (This is the first thing I’ve foregone vegetarianism for.) In general, food here is definitely interesting and kind of different. Today for dinner we had TVP, rice, and steamed (?) pumpkin and sweet potato--but the “sweet potato” was not orange like ours, it was the texture and look of a smallish potato, but the taste of a traditional sweet potato. Weird. 
My favorite thing so far with regards to eating HAS to be the number and quantity of juices here. There are SO MANY fruits to make juice out of, and I just had no idea. I guess most of them come from the Amazon jungle region, but they are delicious and tropical and I have no idea why they haven’t made big bucks on them in the states yet. I’ve decided I’m not even going to try and learn the translations because I’m not going to  have to refer to them in English. The one that really surprised me was caju--cashew juice. I had no idea cashew fruit existed, but it does, and it’s wonderful. Also, avocado here is abacate (pronounced ah-bah-CA-tchee) and pineapple is abacaxe (pronounced ah-ba-ca-SHE). It gets confusing. But I’m greatly pleased with the availability and diversity of suco (juice): abacaxe, abacate, caju, guaraná, cupuaçu, maracuja, to name just a few. 
Speaking of juice, everything here is sweetened. People pour mountains of sugar into everything, especially coffee. Oh my gosh. I take comfort in the fact that most of the time it’s not refined so it isn’t as bad as it could be, but I fear that I’ll come back from Brazil with diabetes.


note- I'm posting this now though I'd written it earlier because I've had very limited access to internet for the past week
Well, after traveling for more than 31 hours, I finally made it to Fortaleza late Wednesday night. The travel experience, considering, wasn’t excruciating or difficult, just exhausting. After the plane from Atlanta to Sao Paolo was already over Cuba, the captain came on the PA and announced we’d be turning around and headed back to Atlanta due to the malfunctioning of a hydraulic engine? I don’t actually remember exactly what the term he used was, but the jist was--we were turning around. So we arrived back in Atlanta around 1:45 and they were (impressively enough) able to get us on the runway headed back to Sao Paolo by 3--all in all, a pretty quick turnaround. It did mean that I missed my connecting flight to Fortaleza, though, but I got rescheduled easily enough and landed in Fortaleza (after an added waylay in Salvador do Bahia) at 10:30...9:30 Eastern time.

            One of the program staff, and my personal favorite, Oélito (pronounced kind of like Wellington), was waiting to pick the four of us on the flight up and we headed off to our orientation house, located about 30 minutes from the airport right on the coast in Beach Park.
            The first five days of the program, all thirteen students lived together in Beach Park, our temporary home base. I must say that I think it was a great way to get adjusted to the country, and get to know one another, rather than jumping in with our host families right away. The other students are really interesting and personable, and we’ve been able to establish a strong base right from the start which I’m so glad about. I did feel a little stir-crazy and cooped up by the end, though we got to get out and occupied ourselves well. Orientation was filled with lots of discussions about subject matter and the necessary ones about security, health, and general well-being in a foreign country, a cultural differences lecture, and a ‘what to expect in your homestay’ presentation. But when we weren’t talking we were busy doing something else. We explored the beach on our free time. We got to hear a sampling of “Musica Popular Brasileira” (MPB), traditional Brazilian folk music. My favorite day was a non-stop tour of Fortaleza (we began at 7:30 and didn’t get back until 9:30) given to us by Jose Albano (Zé for short), a local photographer. We saw many interesting sights in the city, including an old cemetery, a prison-turned-market, the Centro Cultural (with really modern architecture), and other sites. We climbed some dunes on the outskirts of the city, and watched the sunset from the top of them, and then went back to his house for tea and a photographic presentation. Zé’s house is absolutely fabulous, and if I can swing it I’m going to go back there to write my final project. He built it himself, and it’s very open--pretty much all one room, with the exception of the darkroom and the bathroom. It’s got glass bottles in some of the walls filled with colored water and they let in light from the outside.
            I’ve noticed something especially interesting about Fortaleza’s architecture--screens aren’t really used at all but windows tend to be big and lots of walls have designs and openings in them straight to the outside. I guess when you don’t have to worry about it getting cold you can do that. I like it a lot.
            Anyways, though I don’t feel at all oriented, I suppose I have to be. Tomorrow is the end of orientation and that’s when I meet my host family!


Saturday, September 5, 2009

I´m here...

And so far, it´s fabulous. I´ve had a great few days of orientation with my program--we´re staying at a house on the beach a bit out of town, and we have gotten to do so many really neat things over the past few days! I´ll have much more regular access to internet after monday so I´ll plan on posting more thoughts then! Read More...