Blums in Brazil
Tchau, Fortaleza; hola, Salvador!

Hi friends! Sorry for being incommunicado this past week. We had various Internet problems—we had to return our modem thingie to Denise, who had lent it to us, and the hotel promised us wifi in the lobby but it only worked about a third of the time. And I was too busy to go hunting for Internet cafés.

But anyway, we’re in Salvador now, and our hostel has semi-decent wifi, so I can blog again! Hooray! Here’s what we’ve been up to since last I wrote:

Friday before last, we traveled outside Fortaleza to a sugarcane farm/cachaça factory. The farm is very small and dates back to the days of slavery, and they make some money on the side by hosting tours of it. They’ve converted the “casa grande” (slavemaster house) into a historical museum, which is dedicated to informing the Brasilian public about the horrors of slavery, as well as the importance it has in Brasilian history. As I stated before, Ceará was the first Brasilian state to end slavery, so the museum has some information about that, too. It was really cool, and we got to drink some 40-year-old cachaça, which was delicious. I also bought an excessive number of cachaça bottles to take home. The brand of cachaça that this particular farm produces is called Douradinha, and it’s excellent—way better than the typical Ypioca stuff you can get all over Brazil. After seeing the farm, we visited a small “eco-tourism” resort that had natural waterfalls.

Last weekend was a trip, literally and figuratively. Annette and I accompanied Denise, Tshombe, and their daughter Bea to Canto Verde, which is a tiny and very non-touristy beach near Fortaleza. The community of Canto Verde, which is a fishing community, has decided to adamantly resist touristic development. The only people who are permitted to build on the land are people who grew up in the town, or are related to (by blood or by marriage) someone who did. Because of this, it’s basically just houses, one or two barracas, a few shops, and dunes. It reminded me a lot of Fire Island, in a way. It was gorgeous, and we stayed in a really cool little house that was maybe 30 yards from the ocean. They fish there using traditional wooden boats, the same that have been used in that region for hundreds of years. Several times a day, a few dozen men, young and old, rig up the boats and go collect fish. It was interesting to watch.

The weekend was quite relaxing, up until Sunday when we were about to leave. We went to go eat lunch at a barraca, and during that time, Denise’s dog Jade (whose name I just learned how to spell correctly—it is pronounced “Ja-gee” with a soft J) disappeared. Tshombe and Denise looked all over for Jade for a couple hours, but found nothing. Then Denise mentioned to a local woman that she was offering a reward, and like magic, the woman suddenly seemed to know where the dog was. She was about to lead Denise to it, when, sitting at the barraca, we witnessed a group of young men running across the sand, carrying Jade. Someone in our group started yelling “That’s our dog! That’s our dog!” and as soon as the men heard this, they did a 180-degree turn and started sprinting in the other direction. A couple of Denise’s friends pursued them, and got the dog back, even though the men were saying that it was really their dog (which was obviously a lie). We left very soon after that. What happened—we suspect—is that the men (who may have been in cahoots with the woman Denise spoke to) kidnapped the dog and planned to accept a reward for “finding” it when its owner came looking. Crazy, huh? 

Anyway, we all returned safe and sound. Monday through Wednesday, we had more Portuguese classes and completed our last week of volunteering at the community center. We actually did manage to paint a mural there. The children didn’t participate as much as I’d originally planned, because having them participate was somewhat chaotic, but they did get to put their handprints all over a wall. We worked really hard on the mural and it came out beautifully. Seriously, it’s amazing, and the place looks really great now. My role was basically art director/designer, though I had some design help from others in our group. I will be sure to post pictures. On Wednesday, we had a going-away party with all the kids and mothers from the community center. It was such a lovely occasion. Happiness and sadness, all at once. I’m going to miss them!

This past Thursday, we had our final Portuguese exam, and then Annette, Tatiana, and I all went to a beauty salon in Fortaleza, because I wanted to get my nails done. We ended up spending quite a while there, because Annette decided she wanted a haircut, and I also opted to get an eyebrow wax. (Brasilians are all about the hair removal, so you can trust them to do it right!) Except it wasn’t a wax, because for whatever reason, the woman who did my eyebrows decided to pluck them instead. I guess it’s because I told her really specifically what shape I wanted, and she wanted to get it right? I don’t know, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it! It hurt like hell, and it took a lot longer than a wax would have, but she did a very good job. Don’t worry, my eyebrows pretty much look normal—just a lot nicer, and more shaped. I guess you can say I had a truly authentic Brasilian experience ;-)

Yesterday morning, we said goodbye to Fortaleza and flew out to Salvador at about 7 am. Salvador, which is the most famous city in the state of Bahia, is BEAUTIFUL. It’s incredibly vibrant and has tons of great things to see. The city has held strongly onto its African roots, which is a nice change from Fortaleza. For various complex reasons, people in Ceará tend to downplay their Native American/Indian and African origins. Most people there are some shade of brown, but black people are few and far between. Bahia is much different—there are many more black people here, and Afro-Brasilian culture is actively celebrated. Capoeira is very popular in Salvador, for example.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to end it here. I will write a few more posts this weekend, taking advantage of the wifi, and there I will post pictures and give more details on our exploits in Salvador. I hope all of you are doing well!

Até logo,

Laura

Did you take any photos of the beautiful beaches you've visited??

Yes!! I did! I will post some pics soon :)

On “helping”

This trip, at least for me, is not about being a passive or uncritical observer of Brazilian culture. While I am aware that I am (and always will be) an outsider, I want to learn as much as I can about my surroundings and the people who live here, while at the same time being mindful of the impact that I may have on them.

It’s a problem that anthropologists and scientists in general have struggled with for a while: it is virtually impossible to merely observe a place/culture without having any kind of impact on it. As much as I would like to simply be a fly on the wall, I have to remember that my mere presence in a place will change it—imperceptibly, perhaps, but it will be changed nonetheless.*

It’s good to keep the above in mind when traveling to a culture outside your own, especially when doing so with the intention of “helping” or “improving” someone or something that exists there. Americans, especially white/middle-class Americans, have an extensive history of going to other countries and meddling with things. The purposes for this meddling have been (and continue to be) extremely varied. More recently, some of this interference has taken the form of volunteer and/or charity excursions, wherein well-intentioned US citizens perceive an urgent need in some far-off land and attempt to go fix things. Rather than seeing the local residents as collaborators and equals, the well-meaning Americans approach them with an attitude of superiority and self-righteousness. “We know what’s good for you! You are uneducated/poor/stupid/helpless, and thus, you NEED us to make things better!” While perhaps real, lasting change for the better has been enacted by such people, it’s my feeling that most of the time, they just drain resources and complicate matters, leaving things no better than they were before. And much of the time, the locals clearly state that they don’t need or even want this type of “charity.” (See Invisible Children’s notorious Kony 2012 campaign.)

I can tell you from personal experience that it is extremely difficult to avoid having this mindset. I’m not sure why, but it’s all too easy for privileged people to have lofty dreams of Going to Another Country and Doing Some Good, even if they try very hard to be realistic about the matter.

Perhaps it’s a result of living with so much and being aware that others have so little. We look around at the depressing state of our own home towns, cities, states, and countries, and we see the situation as hopelessly complex. We don’t even know where to begin. Meanwhile, we see distant countries as any person views a foreign place: relatively simple, homogeneous, with problems that are easily identifiable and seemingly easy to fix.

But as any traveler will tell you, nothing is as you expect. You cannot fully prepare for what you will find and experience in a different country. You can read as much as you want, watch hundreds of movies and documentaries, and spend hours researching a place on the Internet, but you still will be unprepared for its reality.

So I have to admit that before we left for Brazil, I had high hopes for the work we’d be doing in the community center. I tried to stay realistic and stay grounded, but my idealistic imagination ran away with me. I will come with an open mind, I thought, and a willingness to listen to their needs and really help them! I will paint a mural with the children! I will Teach them about the Freedom of Art! They will be Inspired and Changed Forever!!

I’m pretty embarrassed to say that, but it’s basically true. I had that mindset. I tried so hard to not have that mindset, but I did. And I was pretty damn wrong.

First of all, on a practical level, I had the wrong idea about the scale of the volunteer work. We only have 9 days total to work at the center, and by “days” I mean 2-hour blocks. So, 18 hours in all, spread out over 3 weeks. Not exactly a whole lot of time!

Second of all, the work we have done so far has been remarkably disorganized. I’m not blaming anyone for this; it’s just the way things have happened, and running a nonprofit is really complicated and difficult, and I’m sure the people who run Casa do Afonso e Maria have busy lives and many other things to attend to. But this disorganization means that we haven’t gotten a whole lot done, at least not as much as we expected.

Third of all, since I know little Portuguese and the people at the center know even less English, communication has been difficult. Tatiana and Denise can translate for us, but it’s not the same as having a direct dialogue.

So, as you can imagine, I’ve had to adjust my expectations. Rather than viewing the volunteer work as simply helping or giving something to the center (which implies an unbalanced, one-way relationship), I am instead seeing it as a cultural exchange, a chance to work with people I’ve never met before and learn a bit about them. And, in the meantime, I hope they can learn a little bit about me. At the very least, I hope we can all have a good time!

It definitely has been fun so far. At times slightly frustrating, but fun. Everyone at the center is really sweet and friendly, especially the children. Every time we arrive at or leave the center, the children run up and hug us. The mothers of the children, who we are also working with, are very, well, motherly, but in a warm and kind way. A few of the children are learning English from us, and talking/listening to the people at the center is great Portuguese practice.

And we have made some progress on the various projects. We planted a lot of flowers and other plants, which was great fun for the kids, and we gave a few of the outdoor walls a much-needed paint job. Next week we might attempt to paint a mural on the wall, but we’ll see if that comes to fruition. Annette has also been spearheading an interesting project that the center’s mothers are enthusiastic about: planting herbs and medicinal plants in empty 2-liter soda bottles, and then hanging them on the wall. We also helped the center organize and itemize a roomful of clothing donations they have, which they are planning to sell garage-sale style in order to raise money for the center.

It’s insidious, guilt. It makes you fail to enjoy all the great things you have by thinking that you somehow don’t “deserve” them; and then, to add insult to injury, it warps your perception so that you feel the need to run off and “help” others, but all you end up doing is (temporarily) easing your conscience.

As someone who can be both fiercely idealistic and deeply despairing about the state of the world, I wrestle with this kind of thing a lot. My views are in no way static. This is the way I feel right now, at this moment; it will very likely change in the days, months, and years to come.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this lengthy post, and if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, lay ‘em on me!

keep cool & stay safe,

Laura

* It’s worth remembering that the inverse is also true: when you visit a different place or different culture, it will also change you.

Progress update

We’re nearing the halfway point of our trip, and things are going pretty well. Annette and I have been moved to a different room in order to accommodate group dynamics (the other 4 girls on the trip have formed a cohort, and it’s more relaxing for Annette and I to not have to share a room with 2 of them, which was the previous arrangement). Our new room is nicer and more comfortable, though it does not have WiFi, so I have to make do with this USB modem device that doesn’t have as fast of a connection.

Wednesday was our 6th day working at the community center, which means we have only 3 days left (we go there Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons). I also had a Portuguese test that day, which I did very well on.

Yesterday, after class, we took a bus down to Centro, which is Fortaleza’s “downtown” and the oldest part of the city. It’s a huge commerce center, with hundreds (thousands, maybe) of shops crammed into narrow streets. Whereas big, modern malls (such as the one I saw Spider-Man at) are aimed at middle or upper class Fortalezans, the shops in Centro are much more reasonably priced, and are where working-class people go to buy basically anything under the sun. There’s also the Mercado do Centro there, which is a giant 5-story bazaar-style building, mostly stocked with handmade stuff for tourists.

After seeing the sights of Centro, we walked to Dragão do Mar and had chopp vinho, a drink that is pretty much unique to Ceará. It is, quite simply, beer mixed with wine. It sounds disgusting, but it really just tastes like slightly malty, alcoholic grape juice. I’m not sure what kind of beer or wine they put in there, because I can imagine that some types of beer/wine mixed together would be revolting, but this stuff actually tasted sorta decent. Some people really love chopp (pronounced “shope-ee”), others hate it; I’m kind of on the fence. It is pretty damn sneaky, though. Two mugs of chopp and I think I’d be set for the night!

And finally, after we all got a bit tipsy from the chopp, we took a cab to Praia do Futuro and ate at a big outdoor seafood restaurant next to the ocean. We had crabs (Maryland-style, except without the Old Bay, and with a different species of crab), shrimp, and drinks, and there was live music playing, sort of adult-contemporary-bossa-nova type stuff. It was very fun and the food was great, but by the end of the night I was totally exhausted!

Last weekend was super fun and very relaxing. We had a great time at Canoa Quebrada, which is apparently one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, according to some authoritative list. It certainly is breathtaking. I got a few minor sunburns, but it was worth it. The water is warm and shallow and gentle, and the dunes are immense. There are also giant wind turbines everywhere, since the wind coming off the ocean at Canoa Quebrada is intense, especially in the evening. Annette, Lea and I got to watch a quadrilha, which is a traditional Northeast Brazilian type of square dance. Men and women dance in pairs in a large group, dressed in elaborate and extremely colorful costumes, singing in unison the whole time. The dances are usually are reenactments of a famous tale or historical event. It’s pretty fun to watch. Annette said it was like “Gilbert and Sullivan on drugs.”

Today we’re going on an excursion outside Fortaleza to see some waterfalls and visit a cachaça factory. Cachaça is a Brazilian liquor made from sugar cane juice. It’s very good, and is typically used to make caipirinha. I believe we’re also going to hear a bit about the history of slavery and abolition in Brazil. Ceará abolished slavery in 1884, making it the first Brazilian state to do so.

After today’s excursion, Annette and I have been invited to accompany Denise and her husband Tshombe to a cabin on yet another nearby beach. According to Denise, this beach is much smaller and much less touristy than Canoa Quebrada. It’s a traditional Indian* fishing village, and its residents have adamantly resisted touristic development. I’m excited to see it, and hopefully learn a bit about local Indian culture and history.

I’m working on a blog post containing some of my thoughts about doing volunteer work, but I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to post it. Maybe this evening, depending on when I can access the Internet. Stay tuned!

Beijos,

Laura

*In the US, it’s considered disrespectful to refer to Native Americans as simply “Indians” (though the term “American Indian” is acceptable), but in Brazil, they are called that pretty much across the board. If I’m not mistaken, I believe many Indian populations in Brazil refer to themselves as such. I could be totally off base about that, though, so I’ll do some research and report back.

The inherent paradox with being on a busy trip full of things to write about is that you don’t have much energy or free time to write about them.

I will say, though, that I got to hang out with some Brazilian kids who are my age today, and it was very fun. We saw The Amazing Spider-Man (in English, with Portuguese subtitles) in a HUGE movie theater that was part of an even bigger mall. After the movie, we all sat in the food court and had a lively and hilarious discussion about Brazilian and English slang, powdered milk, thrash metal, Mormons, and some ridiculous Internet music fad called “nightcore” that I have yet to Google.

Anyway, I promise I will write more in the next few days, ‘cause I have a lot I want to write about.

Okay I’m going to bed now.

tired forever,

Laura

Fotos, fotos e mais fotos…

Hello friends! I thought I’d make a post giving some pictorial representations of our adventures thus far in Brasil. So, without further ado:

This is Chaji (“SHAH-jee,” not sure how to spell it), our host Denise’s cachorro. Denise found her on the beach as a mangy, disease-ridden stray, and took her in out of the kindness of her heart. Chaji is a funny-looking dog because she has a long, small body, tiny stubby legs, and a disproportionately large head. She basically looks like a German shepherd crossed with a corgi. 

The beach! This is a segment of Praia do Meireles, which we have a wonderful view of from our hotel. I haven’t spent much time on the beach itself, but I have walked along the avenue beside it. Apparently the water is very polluted and potentially dangerous for someone who hasn’t been exposed to its various microorganisms.

And here’s Annette, gazing upon bonita Fortaleza from our hotel room’s balcony. Lap of luxury! (well, kinda.)

Another angle of our balcony view. That’s the pier, with wind turbines and boats and factories galore. I haven’t been out there yet, but perhaps next week we’ll make an excursion. That building on the far right of the photo is a gigantic hotel/apartment complex that is being built in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup.

This big ol’ boat of sushi cost 60 reais, which is a little less than $30. It was delicious, but poor Annette got sick from it later that night!

Here’s a girl who takes ballet classes at Casa de Afonso e Maria, surrounded by a few relatives. I’m not sure of their names, but I thought this was a cute picture. The people in the community are all very sweet, but very shy! In Brasil it’s normal for lower-class people to show a lot of deference to upper-class people (and we, as Americans, are most certainly considered upper-class people), so it can be difficult to get them to open up. They also don’t know very much English at all. But we’re working on it, and it’s been great fun getting to know them!

I wish I was able to take more pictures of the streets of the favela, but it’s kind of dangerous to be an American tourist waving a fancy camera around in that neighborhood, so alas, you’ll just have to Google it or something. I do have some photos of the project itself, though. 

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. They really do sell GIANT 10-POUND WHEELS OF GOAT CHEESE in Brasilian supermarkets. brb moving here permanently

Self-explanatory. Annette, holding a coconut with a straw in it. These coconuts are found everywhere, cost 2 reais (about $1), and are cold and sweet and delicious. Their juice is also considered to be a cure-all remedy for various bodily ills.

Oh hey! It’s me! I’m not sure what I’m doing with my arms/hands, but oh well! (it was very windy that day, also)

E finalmente, a giant rusty boat carcass that washed up on the beach and has stayed there ever since. It’s right next to a long pier, which is apparently a monument built for people who have died in shipwrecks.

That’s all for now—I have to get up early tomorrow so we can travel to Canoa Quebrada. Hope you enjoyed the pictures! Ciao!

—Laura

vai Brasil!

Great news! About twenty minutes ago, Brazil’s club team Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores, in a 2-0 match against Argentina. (I’m talking about futbol/soccer, in case you’re confused.) This means they will go on to compete in the Club World Cup this winter.

Annette and I were eating dinner in a restaurant by the sea (on Avenida Beira Mar, which literally means “Seaside Avenue”). We had just finished a meal of frango á Cubano when the waiter changed the channel from Brazilian telenovelas to the futbol match. The mood in the restaurant changed very quickly. Almost all the patrons, waiters, cooks, and busboys turned their eyes to the television and kept them there. The restaurant continued to operate, of course, but service was notably more slow, as the waiters kept pausing to watch the game.

It was a fun atmosphere, so we ordered dessert and watched almost all of the first half. Predictably, a few of the restaurant patrons occasionally shouted or leaped up in excitement while watching, but when we left, neither team had scored. We didn’t even know who was playing or understand the importance of the match (the TV did not specify the countries), so we assumed it was two Brazilian clubs playing against each other.

We got back to the hotel and were settling in when, all of a sudden, a chorus of whooping and yelling erupted from outside. I ran out to the balcony (we’re on the 12th floor of a high-rise hotel) to see that several people in the surrounding buildings/hotels/apartment complexes were leaning out of their windows, screaming jubilantly into the humid night. It was a wonderful thing to witness.

Suspecting that this joyous outburst might have something to do with the futbol match (cause, yanno, Brazil is sorta into futbol, I mean, just a little bit), I quickly Googled the names of the teams and found a website where I could stream it online. Annette and I watched the rest of the match on the hotel room’s daybed. The online stream had a delay of about 10 seconds, which was amusing because we’d hear the outside reaction before we watched it on the screen. (Spoiler alert! Ah well.) Brazil scored a second time, people in the street shouted some more, fireworks were set off. And, of course, the game ended, with Argentina denied a chance at the Copa.

It’s a happy night for Brazilians. As I type this, I can hear a cacophony outside of people honking their horns repeatedly, women screaming with wild abandon, and men shouting exuberantly. Also, somebody seems to be setting off fireworks right outside our hotel.

This is something about Brazil that I love: the regular, unbridled displays of emotion. It’s certainly not unique to the country (all of Latin America goes crazy over futbol), but I think Brazilians have their own special flavor of emotionality. It’s not like people on the street everyday are cheering or sobbing—in fact, when in public, Brazilians are very reserved and polite—but when the time comes to be emotional, they are emotional.

I’d love to write more, but I desperately need to go to sleep. Oh, by the way—Lea, our trip leader, arrived this evening! The Portuguese classes and volunteer work have been pretty disorganized thus far, but I think she’ll whip us all into shape. Remember, this is a study abroad trip, not a party abroad trip… I think some of my fellow travelers could do well to keep that in mind… ;)

More tomorrow, I hope! Plus photos! Boa noite!

—Laura

Just a quick post to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AMERICA! To all my friends and family in the U.S., I’m sad I won’t be celebrating with y’all. I’ll have to settle for eating Brazilian-style barbecue and singing patriotic songs to myself. And by “patriotic songs” I mean only this song.

Beijos,

Laura

Boa noite!

[That’s how you say “Good evening” or “Good night” in Portuguese. It’s used as a greeting or a farewell, though mostly as a greeting.]

Well, here it is, our first substantive blog post! Here’s what’s been happening since we landed south of the equator:

After many trials and tribulations in various airports, we finally arrived late Saturday night at our hotel in Fortaleza. Unfortunately, our trip leader, Lea, learned at the last minute that her visa was not valid, and she had to stay behind. She’ll be here tomorrow night, but in the meantime, we’ve been on our own. Well, not really—we are well taken care of by our gracious hosts, Denise and Tatiana, as well as several of their friends and family members.

On Sunday we had formal introductions and an orientation. It’s going to be an action-packed trip. Three days a week, we will be volunteering at the Casa de Afonso e Maria, a nonprofit community center in one of Fortaleza’s favelas. (A favela is essentially an urban slum; they usually feature unpaved roads, rudimentary houses, no running water, and high rates of crime. Denise and Tatiana, who have been working as teachers in various favelas for a while, prefer to use the term “community,” since “favela” has a a lot of stigma attached to it—much like the word “ghetto.”) Casa de Afonso e Maria aims to prevent children in the community from getting involved with child prostitution and crack cocaine—problems that Fortaleza is unfortunately plagued by. To keep the kids busy, entertained, and fulfilled, the center hosts ballet classes, karate classes, and also has a small library.

The purpose of our volunteer work is twofold: one, to help improve the center (which is not even a year old) with various projects such as painting and gardening; and two, to facilitate a cultural exchange and two-way learning process between us Americans and members of the local community.

Along with volunteering, we are also learning Portuguese. It’s only been about 4 days and I already have a grasp of the pronunciation and can understand quite a bit of what people say to me. Spelling, writing, and forming sentences are my biggest challenges at this point.

On the weekends, we will take trips to various destinations in the surrounding area. This weekend, we’ll be in Canoa Quebrada, a very popular beach resort about an hour or two from Fortaleza. Work hard, play hard, né? 

On the positive side of things: Fortaleza is a lovely city, the beach is beautiful, and our hotel has a view of the ocean. My experience so far interacting with Brazilians has been quite positive. On the whole, they are warm, generous, and extremely courteous people. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences so far, and I’m hopeful there will be many more adventures to come.

But, of course, travel is not without its challenges. The language barrier presents a problem, since not many Fortalezans know English. And it’s been a bit of a difficult adjustment for me—typical culture shock, pretty standard stuff. I miss a lot of the “comforts of home.” I also do not do well in this weather. Since it’s so close to the equator, Fortaleza is hot and humid pretty much all the time. There’s a rainy season and a dry season, but that’s about as varied as the weather gets. The sun rises at 5:30 am and stays blazing hot until it sets around 5:30 pm. Temperatures are a bit cooler at night, but even at night it’s just as humid. It’s the kind of weather that makes me very exhausted, very quickly. (and not to mention sweaty!) On top of all that, I came down with a minor cold last night. Bleh!

Anyway, it’s time for me to go to sleep. I will hopefully post a few photos in the next couple of days, and perhaps I can convince Annette to write something as well. Stay tuned!

Beijos,

Laura

Bom dia! We’re alive, awake and we finally figured out how to use the internet in our hotel! More updates to follow, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of a highly desirable iPhone case I spotted in the Sao Paolo airport.

Hope you’re all well!
—Laura

Bom dia! We’re alive, awake and we finally figured out how to use the internet in our hotel! More updates to follow, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of a highly desirable iPhone case I spotted in the Sao Paolo airport.

Hope you’re all well!
—Laura