Monday, July 26, 2010

A barbecue in a favela

I had heard about the favela's in Brazil before I even got there. Giant hillsides stacked sky high with shacks piled one on top of another. There are shantytowns in other South American countries, and possibly just as poor areas in the US, but the striking in your face-ness of them in Brazil is why they are so well known. Some of the favelas have even been in Hollywood movies, such as City of God, about a favela in Rio with the same name (Cidade de Deus).

Here is a shot of the bus ride into Salvador, Brazil. The bus passed about 10 minutes of these favelas on either side before making it into the city center near the water.

Here is a photo taken at the bottom of one favela in Rio. We went here in February to pick up our costumes for the Carnival parade. In fact, the 'samba school' I danced with, which are usually neighborhood based, was for one of the favelas, Rocinha.

Anyways, on my third trip back to Rio, my friend Anderson invited me, Brian, and Brian's family to his place for a Sunday barbecue. Anderson actually lives in the favela Rocinha.

Not only was it my first time in this favela, but it was Brian's as well. His parents had been in the middle of a favela, maybe one or two times in their lives, but even they said this was unusual for them.

We took a taxi from Brian's place to a parking lot at the foot of the favela. Anderson was going to meet us there before we all headed up in a group with accompaniement. About 10 other family friends also met us at the foot of Rocinha.

After everyone had arrived and was ready, Anderson came down from his house, met us, and we looked for a taxi up. At the foot of the favela's were both motorcyle taxis, and large van taxis, looking to shuttle people up. The 12 of us all piled into a van taxi, and we were headed up the favela.

There is only one road going up through Rocinha. It is a windy, curvy, steep road. Think Lombard street in San Francisco. There were motorcycles zooming up as we navigated the street upwards in the van. About halfway up the favela, only about a 2 minute ride (but a large change in elevation), we all piled out of the van.

I then realized I had basically stepped into a separate world. The streets are lined with houses wall to wall. Then the most unexpected happened. Instead of just entering a house, we went down a sunken stairwell jammed between a few houses. These led to more stairs, which led to more pathways, and more stairs, and more narrow passageways going up, down left, and right. To me, it was like a maze between the houses, with entrances to peoples places all over the place. There was even an outside bar at one point on the side of the stairwell.

Anways, we filed our way in a long line and zigzagged our way to Anderson's place. He had a 2 story house where he lived with his family. The barbecue was on the top floor, which was basically a giant outdoor patio, it was real nice. The patio had an incredible view from halfway up of Rocinha.

Anyways, the barbecue was awesome, they cooked TONS of great food. There was about 20 people or so there, and they were celebrating the return of Anderson's sister, who had studied for a year in Germany.

Anderson was able to tell me many interesting things about the favela. For example, I asked about why everyone had a giant water tank on top of their house. I still don't understand the details of this, but water is free (or stolen) from the residents of the favela. I am not sure how it is pumped into each family's tank. But the rest of Rio ends up paying for the water.

Electricity is often stolen, in one form or another. Many people pay the authority to turn the meter back so they pay for electricity, but just pay less. Also, I had assumed everyone owned their own place. But, the places are actually rented out.

Anderson specifically told me not to take pictures while on the street in Rocinha. There would be people looking and watching. Drug dealers, most likely, and in general people who would not want their identity seen. He said it could be dangerous to take photos for this reason. In his place, from his porch, though, it was perfectly fine to take photos (and I took alot). For this reason, though, I don't really have any photos inside the favela outside of the view from Anderson's place.

When we left, we proceeded through the cooridoors & walkways, back up to the main windy street. There was music blasting from someones car to the side of the street, and we waited there for about 10 minutes to take another van taxi down as a group. Brian saw a guy with a giant gun on a motorcycle riding down (but he did not tell us until later that day as he did not want to say anything).

In general, the favela is almost it's own world, separate from Rio. The government basically has no involvement. The police do not enter unless they want to arrest a specific individual. Each favela has their own sub laws and unwritten laws. A good example is motorcycle-taxi's are illegal in Rio, but completely unchecked & common in the favela's. But different favela's have different laws. More or less, however, it is not safe for foreigners to walk through a favela. Sadly enough, there is a large industry of poverty tourism there. Pay 100 bucks, and someone will drive you up to the top of the favela and walk you down. There are, however, a few foreigners living inside the favela, usually teaching English, and that is understandably ok & safe.

Why doesn't the government do anything about it? Well, that's a question not even Anderson could really answer. It would require immense changes in many different areas that can't be done overnight. For me, however, it was one of the most interesting, educating, and unique experiences of the entire trip. And one heck of a barbecue!

The best shot I could get in the passageway while walking (we are exiting the walkway to the main road here):

How electricity works? Your guess is as good as mine. There is a footpath below, actually:

The blue bins are water tanks:

Yum! Barbecue

The festa:

Anderson & his Dad:

Possibly my favorite food of the entire trip, chicken hearts!

Me, Brian, Sergio:


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reverse Cultural Observations

Here are the first observations I had in my first few hours after landing in Chicago:

-It was hot as hell out and humid in Chicago and after being in Rio for a few weeks, I just wanted to do the natural Carioca thing and take my shirt off. Guess that doesn't fly in our culture. I refrained.

-Why do people need so much damn space? A couple did not want to get on the airport terminal shuttle because they 'thought' it was full. I wanted to tell them to get the heck in and stop wasting their time. Memories circa the loco Buenos Aires subway (and many a subway ride in other cities). Dummies. The American's need their space stereotype rand through my head.

-I saw a few greyhound buses downtown, and they looked real crappy in comparison to South American buses. I did see a MegaBus, and it looked of comparable quality. I was stunned to see a massive line outside of it, though. Must be the $1 fares.

-I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the Chicago River and some nutty bum yelled some crazy talk at me (If I recall he actually kept asking me if I saw a pigeon poop on him). I thought at that point I saw something that the US had in common with many places I had visited. Nutjobs and poverty.

-There was a lot of random types of people in the US Immigration line. I heard a guy with a thick Texan accent, and remembered thinking, that is American culture, embrace it or be proud, even if there are some dumbass politicians from the state that I don't agree with. I had so many people mention Texas in my trip. It is one thing America is defined by.

-There was not a drug store on every corner (drogaria in Portugese, farmacia in Spanish).

-I saw a Cadillac Escalade, and thought the guy was a dumbass. Then, I thought he probably didn't have any money and just thought he was cool. Then, I thought about how I saw a lot of really unusually nice cars in Asuncion, Paraguay, and how those people really did have a lot of money.

-The freeways are really big.

-I could ask for directions in English. Always nice.
-I went to the beach for a large volleyball tournament. Everyone that was not wearing shirts or was wearing bikini's looked good. If you had an ounce of fat or were somehow not a model with a tan or hadn't been working out lately, you were covered up. I really hate that. That's one big difference with Brazil. People shouldn't feel like they have to cover up if they don't fit into the sterotype. Well, really, I guess our society is filled with people who are so damn self-concious. Must be all those silly work out and teen beauty girl magazines, or something, clouding many a naive person into thinking they need to look a certain way. My skinny, white ass was out there without a shirt blinding everyone in sight, haha. Hope I hurt their eyes good! haha, just kidding.

-I could buy Mountain Dew. I bought one within 2 hours of landing.

-Oh, one other observation. The airlines in South America always have their stewards and stewardesses dressed up REAL nice. But I flew Southwest, and they were wearing shorts, tube socks, and polo's, real ugly attire. I think the business world down there seems to be much more formal/serious still, while we have been moving to a much more casual dress, in general. I'm only talking about dress codes here, people.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The last days of Rio

So as I said, I arrived at the hostel in Rio de Janeiro, for my 3rd trip there, about an hour before the Chicago amigos. The day before, I had received my ‘official’ acceptance letter from Ghent University to the master fire protection program. Oddly enough, the letter said ‘September 2010’. At that time, I was not too worried. I figured she made a mistake, since our previous 10 emails had mentioned September 2011. So I just sent her an email to clarify this.

Well, I had a big surprise waiting in Rio. After I checked into the hostel, I checked my email, and found a pleasant little email from the coordinator saying that it was in fact September 2010! I was quite frustrated as to how such a big detail could be overlooked. Plus, after I read that, my head just started spinning for at least the next 24 to 48 hours at the quantity of things and changes that needed to be done immediately and in the next few months before I arrive in Scotland to become a student with less than 60 days notice. I didn’t really know where to start.

After reading that, I think I needed to cool off a bit and think slower. The sun was just starting to set, so I walked a few blocks to the Copacabana beach, bought a Brahma, and sat in the sand while watching the sun set. I think I’ll remember that for awhile. I was just trying to think of the things I needed to do….flights…visas….admission stuff…insurance…, lots of stuff. Plus, I was thinking about all the plans I had that were now officially cancelled. But of course, all for a good reason.

Watching the sunset from Copacabana beach:

After processing all this in my noggin on the beach for an hour, I started walking back to hostel, and bumped into Chicago amigos on the beach. I think they could tell I was flustered right away! Anyways, that night we all went out to Lapa, had a few drinks, and I just tried to think of nothing at all to clear my head. It was a fun night, filled with stuffing too many people in back seats of cabs and some bad dancing.

The next day was the latest Brazil game. Being in Copacabana, we went to the beach to watch it at the massive FifaFanFest tent that was set up. There were thousands of people there watching on the jumbotrons, decked out in their Brasil gear. The sun was poundingly hot. It was quite the scene. I actually ran into Brian and his girlfriend in the second half of the game, and I asked to stay at his place so I could have real internet and make some phone calls instead of dealing with the crap hostel facilities I was working with.

Their eyes are set on the jumbotron:

One side of FifaFanFest:

Just part of the scene:

Everyone decked out in green, yellow, & blue:

Unfortunately, Brazil lost the game. There was not much hooplah, just a bunch of dejected & stunned people now hoping that Argentina would lose their next game as well. They blamed it on the coach, Dunga, who was fired shortly thereafter. Chicagoan’s proceeded to do touristy things that I have already done, and I spent some time with a little TCB (takin care of business) that afternoon. Then, we went to the most expensive restaurant of my entire trip. Thankfully, it was fejoida, which you can’t go wrong with, and at that point I had realized I had so little time left in Rio, so the price was of no importance. Admittedly, Dulce’s (Brian’s mom) fejoida was much better.

Chicagoan’s did more touristy things the next day. I took in some sun in Copacabana and Flamengo beaches, and made it my mission to enjoy the beach and beautiful scenery as much as possible the next 3 or 4 days. I had purchased a ticket to Brasilia when I arrived in Rio, but had to make a hard decision and decided it was just too much to do in too little time, and I needed to be available to get work done on the program. I headed to Brian’s in the afternoon, and stayed there until I left for the next 4 days.

My last two dinners in South America were hilarious. Second to last night: Restaurant that was extremely American like in which I ordered a ‘Chicago burguer’. Thing TGI Friday’s like. Still trying to figure out what made it Chicago. It was huge, though. Last night: Domino’s pizza for the buy one get one free deal. At least the pizza had Brazilian cheese and toppings. And we drank Guarana soda instead of Pepsi or Coke or Mountain Dew. Either way, both meals were still good. I went to the beach between 2 and 4 hours each day Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before I left Wednesday, and got a real decent tan (for a gringo). Enjoyed swimming in the ocean in the middle of winter, and had some fresh young green coconuts. Also, I think I had grilled chicken hearts each day the last 3 days…a new favorite food from Brazil.

Next I am going to write a little bit about the barbecue in favela Rocinha that I went to. A place warranting it’s own blog entry & photos.

The fejoida restaurant didn't give us spoons for dessert, so Rocio went with the next best thing:

Theresa tries out fresh coconut juice:

At a kilo buffet with Jorge, eating chicken hearts in addition to other scrumptious items:

How lovely:

Strolling the beach:

In Brazil their forms of persuading you from smoking take a slightly different approach. Back of a cigarette pack:

The funniest sign I have ever seen:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Return to Sao Paulo

After Itai, I decided to continue on with the Chicago amigos as they spent a day in Sao Paulo and then went to Rio. I’m not a big fan of Sao Paulo, but even though I was there less than 24 hours this time around, I got to see some things that I hadn’t before.

No homestay this time, it was hostel for us. Last trip, I stayed with my friend Thiago & his family in a neighborhood very far from the center, so it was a very different experience. Here, we had our own room to the 6 of us, so we were not really disturbed too much by random people coming in and out. When we got there, we dropped our things and headed out pretty quickly. Two things they wanted to see were the Mercado central, and also the tallest building in Sao Paulo. That worked out great, because I hadn’t seen either of those.

We took the subway to the center. We walked into an old, huge church that I had been to the first time around. Then we headed to the tallest building (I don’t remember the name). The funny thing is, I believe this building is only 37 stories or so. The thing about Sao Paulo is it just doesn’t have a skyline. It is basically mid rise buildings, in every direction. It was a perfect day out, so visibility was great in all directions. No smog for us!

Walking downtown Sao Paulo:

Sao Paulo:


We walked around the center some more. We ended up going in the wrong direction while looking for the Mercado Central, but it was ok, because we found our way to the main plaza in the downtown, the Praca de Se, which has a massive church. The plaza is also filled with nutjob preachers, preaching nutjob stuff in crazy person ways, surrounded by nutjob followers (or spectators laughing, like myself). So that was good/comical to see.

Hanging out in downtown Sao Paulo:

Cathedral in Praca de Se, main square:

We ended up walking about an hour more before we finally were able to get our bearings and found the Mercado Central. It is in a huge airplane hanger sized building. There are stalls selling fresh cheeses and meats, stalls with an incredible variety of fruits, dessert stalls, fish stalls, and random souvenir stalls. Basically, you can get almost anything there. We had our lunch there in one of the restaurants on the 2nd floor, so you know you are getting a fresh meal. After, I was in a fruit tasting mode, so we went down to one of the stalls and tried/bought a bunch of odd looking fruits that you can’t find in the US. The best was one that was green on the outside, looked like a brain on the inside, and tasted like straight sugar.

Entering Mercado Central:

A fruit stand:

Dried Meats & Cheeses:

Brain fruit that tastes like sugar:

That kind of concluded the Sao Paulo day tour. At night, a girl we met in Itai, who lives in Sao Paulo, picked us up at the hostel and we went out to a young Paulista joint with pizza and drinks. And it was good.

I still maintain I am not a big fan of Sao Paulo. It certainly has alot to offer, but does it in a more in your face, polluted, diverse, overpopulated way than cities like Buenos Aires or Rio.

Rocio and Theresa helping her down to go out to Pizza. Those high heel addicted women from Brasil:

The following day Chicago folks had a flight to Rio. Since I didn’t really plan anything I figured I’d just take a bus and meet them there. The ride is about 6 hours, so I left about 8 hours before they were scheduled to arrive in Rio. Unfortunately, I slept through my alarm (I never do that!) and woke up an hour late. I got up at 7:44 am. Within 5 minutes, I checked out, and left. Took the subway about 8 stops to the massive terminal Tiete bus station. Bought at ticket at 8:23 am for the next bus to Rio, and it was headed out at 8:30 am. Not bad timing, 46 minutes from waking up to arriving at bus terminal, buying ticket, and being on my way. In the end, I arrived at the hostel in Rio more than an hour before them! (...and my ticket was a paltry 30 bucks and came with amazing bus scenery, a definite win in my book).

Rocio dissects why napkins are so thin and useless in Brazil over lunch in Mercado Central:

This building downtown had a peice of graffiti under EVERY single window:

The bus to Rio:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Itai, Brazil

Left Rio on Sunday to fly to Sao Paulo to meet Chicago people for the following week. 6 people from Rotaract were coming down to complete a year-long project (which I was involved with for 6 months), to raise money to buy equipment to help create an emergency room in the hospital in a city of 25,000 people called Itai, about 4 hours outside of Sao Paulo. The project was initiated because for emergency services, many patients in Itai must be sent to the neighboring city, which is obviously a problem in a situation requiring immediate medical attention.

But it was good to see everyone again. We were picked up by a van and drove out to Itai, a scenery of many rolling hills/mountains and red dirt.

The Rotary club we were working with had planned all these different things for us to do while we were there. The hospitality was great. The 7 of us stayed amongst 3 different houses. The first full day there, we went to an orphanage to give some toys to some kids there. Mr. Potato’s, inflatable balls, things like that. It seemed like the kids actually really enjoyed playing with the toys, though. I think there were probably 5 or 6 girls there between about 6 & 11, one toddler, and a boy. So, to my surprise, it was fun, and while there wasn’t much talking going on because of the language, they seemed to show they enjoyed it with their smiles and enthusiasm.

Jorge poses in the Orphanage with his favorite character, haha:

The courtyard of the orphanage:

That afternoon was another Brasil world cup game. One of the families prepared a massive outdoor meal, full of different barbecued meats, some salads, and beverages. About 20 or so people watched the game (well….a few non soccer enthusiasts from Chicago snoozed through it, ha), and predictably Brazil won. After the game, many people of the town took to the streets. People driving around the main street honking horns and waving flags while blasting world cup music. We stood on a corner for about 45 minutes just to watch the festivities as more people & cars made their way to the main street of Itai. I almost went deaf after some knuckleheads behind us decided to occassionaly throw a massive M-80 (or something like that) firework into the street near us only 10 0r 15 feet away. Anyways, it was a festive atmosphere.

The party/lunch before the Brazil soccer game:

People celebrating and waving the flag in the street:

People celebrating in the street:

Cars driving around after the game with people and speakers blasting the world cup song:

The next day, we drove out to an ethanol plant, which they use sugar cane as opposed to corn to produce. It was pretty interesting. The problem was, the tour guide spoke Portuguese (rather, my problem was I didn’t speak Portuguese), so it was really difficult to learn much during the tour. We went up onto one of the catwalk platforms where they process the sugar cane. Then, we walked up to a tower in the plant that had an incredible view of the plant and surrounding area. We also then got a tour of the hospital of Itai. It was larger than I expected and in very good condition, but they have been working the past few years with some funding to improve it. They showed us the empty rooms in the hospital where our medical equipment was to go, so that was great to see that it was something they really needed, and know exactly where the money was going.

Following this, we went to the radio station. Itai has only 2 radio stations. One is Rotary radio, which was created only 3 or 4 years ago. The DJs were a few younger guys. They talked about the project we were doing in Itai. Then, we each introduced ourselves, and Rocio said a few words on our behalf. The told Jorge he had a good radio voice, so they asked him to speak for a minute, in English. The thing about this radio station, they told us, is people do listen to it, since there are only two radio stations. So we’re famous. Random note on radio in Brazil. In the major cities, like Brasilia, Rio, Sao Paulo, between 6 & 7 pm, every station plays a government run new program. So if you want to listen to the radio between this time, forget about it. It is a product of the Kublichek government in the 50s, which was quite communist. After they created it, they just left it, so today everyone gets the same news on every radio station between 6 & 7 pm.

The radio station:

Dinner for the last night was a small little party they had for us, in which they made fejoida. Me being a fejoida expert (just kidding), I knew what to expect. Any time you throw black beans, rice, and a bunch of juicy types of meat together, it’s probably going to taste good. And it did.

So it was an eventful 3 days, in which we saw many different things in Itai and were jammed full of food. No complaints.

This was a first. The guy was towing speakers. But the speakers had turn signals and brake lights on them!

A hill you can see from Itai with 2 tall trees on it:

lazy, empty Itai street at sunset:

PS. There is a giant Monsanto plant towering over Itai. It added alot of jobs. So they really love it.