Monday, 11 March 2013

Brasil, eu te amo!

Every day of my trip, I fell a little more in love with Brazil, mostly because of the amazing people I met every step of the way.  My last day ended up being perfect- Rogerio picked me up early to head back to Niteroi for a hiking and sunny adventure at his favorite beach.  He took me to Parque Estadual da Serra da Tiririca, a beautiful state park... one of it's claims to fame is that "even Darwin was here".  I was told that we'd start the day with a quick 40 minute "hike".  
Hiking/rock climbing
I didn't expect to be scaling rock faces but I am glad I brought my sneakers!  The view from the top was spectacular!
View from the top
A beautiful view of the beach, surrounding mountains and Rio across the way.  We also encountered adorable little monkeys, lots of lizards and even some cactus.  After our hike, we hit the beach- the waves were "dangerously high" and so we enjoyed watching the surfers and getting wet but it wasn't the best conditions for swimming.  He purposefully took me to the beach early during the day so I wouldn't boil into a red shrimp... I did get a little burnt but it was all so relaxing- perfect end to a fast-paced trip: the beach was beautiful, we drank ice-cold mate (Brazilian ice tea) and listening to the roaring surf.
On the beach!
 He's in the middle of exams so he had to transfer me to Raquel at the base of Sugarloaf mountain for the rest of the afternoon.
Raquel was such a sweetheart- the only couchsurfing girl who offered to show me around this whole time.  She's 20 and works as a receptionist while trying to improve her English to get in a better public university to finish her biology degree.  We went on a nice walk through town to get to the park- meandering by a beach and a bridge with a good view of the sea and colorful fishing boats.  Then we hiked up Urca mountain which was the first stop of my cable car on the Sugarloaf mountain tour.  It was interesting how Pao de Acucar was my first and last activity in Rio- it was infinitely better to hike through the forest to get there with a new friend instead of immersed in a tourist throng.  So that was an excellent hike- also pretty steep- people were surprised to see Raquel and I attempting it in flip-flops.
Raquel and I, flip-flop hiking queens!
 She brought bananas and we fed the tiny, cute monkeys and made friends with a couple of Italian boys.  
So many monkeys- can you see three in the tree?
We went back to her place, I took the best shower of my life, watched some futebol (I looked for Vitor, the professional futebol player that I met last night but without success) and her mom made us a lovely dinner.  I couldn't have had a better time in Brazil- everything went so smoothly, I met such generous amazing people and hopefully I'll be back.  Everywhere I went, people invited me to come back.
Currently, I'm in the Dallas airport, listening to a samba station on songza and not wanting to go back to reality...  I have a report to write for the American Physical Society International column, data to analyze, a class to teach... oh dear, not going to think about that now...

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Another day in paradise!

Renata was an accounting acquaintance of my aunt who showed her friend and I around today.  We started off at a market that sold flowers, Portuguese food and assorted other things, drove by the stadium which will host the finals for the World Cup then went across the bridge to Niteroi, Rogerio’s town, which surpassed my expectations (although I didn’t have many expectations haha).  
One of the many beautiful views... the church on the hill in the background is supposed to be full of secrets haha
There were gorgeous views of the bay, people playing on the beach in their thong bikinis and speedos and interesting old buildings.  We went to the Contemporary Art Museum, a spaceship-shaped work of Oscar Niemeyer.  The art inside was pretty strange but you couldn’t beat the views!  We ate lunch in a very nice restaurant underneath it, looking out at the sailboats in the wind.
Me at the Contemporary Art museum
After that, we went up a verrry steep hill with hairpin turns up to the Parque da Cidade where parachuters jump.  We saw three people jump and glide through the sky.  It looks more fun that skydiving but I don’t know how much training is required.
Parachuter in the sky, one getting ready for lift-off
After that, we stopped at a church that’s a popular wedding spot for its excellent views.  And she pointed some sights out on the way back- the samba school, site of Carnival, her workplace, etc. and she dropped me so I could get ready to meet Vitor, my professional futebol playing CS-friend.  Time to go meet him!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Back to traveling how I like it!

Never underestimate the awesomeness of traveling with locals!  Before fun explorations with Rogerio, I did do something science-y to justify my expenses here for my fellowship.   I meet with some chemistry education people at did go to the  “Universidad de Cuidad” of Rio to and discuss what they were doing and share what I was doing.  This university was the first in the city and it seems like one of the best.  Recently, companies (General Electric and some more local ones) have been moving there so it seemed similar to NCSU's Centennial Campus.  The Chem Ed group was also focused mostly on secondary education but they have pretty expansive facilities that they plan to further expand.  Now they’ve got some great classrooms and computer labs where they can bring high school students in for experiments.  They enjoyed what I had to say and are contemplating adding a SCALE-UP classroom when they fill in the hole in the middle of their building and expand.  In general, the professors understood the importance of active learning but they said their students were incredibly resistant to working collaboratively and I agreed that getting students exposed at earlier stages in their education was essential.  They also asked a bunch of questions about how to deal with students in the favela (slums) who have no quiet place to study and often have other jobs.  I gave some suggestions but we're lucky that we don't have to deal with this level of poverty in Raleigh.  After lunch with the group, I headed to the city of the center to meet Rogerio.  Traveling around, people were wishing me “Feliz Dia Internacional da Mulher” and giving me free things.  I never noticed this celebrated in the US.
This afternoon, Rogerio lead me on a walking tour of the city, one of the highlights of my entire trip.  Rogerio is currently studying engineering at the University, an avid language learner (he traveled to Canada and Germany to work on his English and German, respectively) and a guitar and ukele player.  He can easily make a career as a tour guide if he gets bored of engineering but he wants to do that in Germany so he probably won’t get bored.  We met at the Municipal Theater, a gorgeous example of European architecture in the cinema section of the city center and wandered by the city’s famous aqueducts (party central on weekend nights).   The next stop were the “Stairs of Madness”, a project of a Chilean who moved to Brazil and loved it.  He collected tiles from all countries and visitors to create several flights of stairs completely covered in these mosaics, featuring the colors of Brazil.  It’s in the Saint Teressa district so the houses are adorable and pastel colored.  The artist lived here up until last year (when he might have committed suicide) but was known for his friendliness- always wanting to show tourists tiles from their country or ones he thought they’d like.  It was created as a continuous work in progress so I hope people still add to it.
Rogerio and I on the landing of the mosaic stairs

The stairs go on forever and the houses are so cute!
Then, we went to the Confeitaria Colombo, a fancy schamcy Portuguese bakery.  I didn’t have much of an appetite with the heat of the afternoon but I did make sure to try the bridgadeiro during another stop of our walking tour.  Fernando recommended this chocolate condensed milk dessert.  He said when he watches American movies, girls always stuff themselves with ice cream and he said this was the Brazilian’s indulgent guilty break-up food (also often served at children’s birthday parties).  We walked by a Starbucks and Rogerio recalled how he visited Starbucks on his first day in Vancouver.  It was the middle of winter, snowing like crazy and his teeth were chattering, he was so cold.  He was looking forward to a nice warm drink, chose a vanilla something and it turned out to be a frozen beverage. He just remembers walking down the snowy street with his hands with this icy drink.  This story made me feel better about being a clueless traveler here because whenever I go anywhere by myself, I feel like I struggle with the most obvious things but at least I make people laugh...
We saw a lot- the bank of Brazil’s cultural center and the current exhibition on animated movie clips.  We stopped by some pretty churches, historic squares, cute and crazy shopping streets, the place the Portuguese first landed in the city and this amazing library, which literally felt straight out of Beauty and the Beast.  You’d never be shown magical places like that on big bus tours. 
Me in the magical library
So it was a perfect afternoon!  I could say more but I think I’m going to take a nap- communication has been tricky but hopefully I’m going to meet up with a CS friend this evening for a Friday out on the town.  If any of you are interesed in groovin' to Brazilian tunes here's a playlist suggested by Tales that I'm definitely diggin'.  I think these are the classier tunes... among other things, Rio's known for their "funky" music (David's words) which tends to be repetitive, sexual, not-very-sophisticated but oh-so-addicting.

Marisa Monte - Beija Eu
Marisa Monte - Amor I Love You
Tribalistas - Já Sei Namorar
Elis Regina - Vou Deitar e Rolar
Elis Regina - Águas de Março
Alceu Valença - Girassol
Alceu Valença - Anunciação
Waldir Azevedo - Brasileirinho
Gal Costa - Canta Brasil
Clara Nunes - Morena de Angola
Clara Nunes - O Mar Serenou
Cláudia - Deixa Eu Dizer
Sergio Mendes - Mas Que Nada

Being a tourist in Rio

So it seems like every trip should have at least one huge-tour-group experience to remind me how lucky I’ve been to be able to avoid the crowds and the superficial exposure during most of my travels.  The tour was certainly an efficient way to see the city’s most popular sites but it’s hard to feel intimately acquainted with anything when you are part of the picture-taking mob.  So I was the only one on the morning tour bus under the age of 50 (the vast majority were post-retirement SKIPpers “Spend the Kid’s Inheritance in Paradise” as I learned from folks today).  But they ended up being fun to talk to- most of the morning, I spent with two Australian couples- one from Perth and one from Brisbane, which made me think of Jimmy’s semester abroad on the Gold Coast.  Sugarloaf Mountain was the first stop.  You take skytrams up to Morro da Urca (Urca Mountain) and Pao de Acucar for spectacular views of the city and the Bay.  I learned that “Rio de Janiero” translates to “River of January” because the Portuguese landed on the first of January and they mistakenly thought the bay was a river. 

View from Sugarloaf
The next portion was a (mostly) driving tour around the city with a stop at their Metropolitan Cathedral, another interesting example of modern architecture.  It was actually designed to look like a Mayan temple and it’s so massive, our tour guide compared it to a nuclear power plant.  The inauguration of the new pope in June is actually going to happen in this Cathedral for World Youth week.  So many global events happening in Brazil these days!  I look forward to exploring the city in more detail tomorrow afternoon with a walking tour with a CS friend- the Portuguese/European influence is much more obvious here than the past two cities.

 After that, we had a lunch break and they swapped up the tour groups slightly then went to the oh-so-famous “Christ the Redeemer” on Corcovado “hunchback” mountain.  Originally they were going to name it “the Pinnacle of Temptation” which is interesting.  Here, we took a cog railroad through the Tijuca forest and national park to get up to the monument.  Apparently, several decades ago, all that forest had been destroyed to make way for coffee plantations but that caused the city’s water supply to dry up and so they decided to replant and were surprisingly successful, thus leading to the nickname “miracle forest”.  It’s amazing how you can see the monument no matter where you are in the city- it’s even most of my Sugarloaf pictures.  So that was fun to see- once again, there were beautiful views of the city.
At Christo... the photographer told me I look like an angel haha
During that part of the tour, I met a Davidson graduate who worked with Disney for twelve years but currently she’s the manager of the Jonas Brothers so she follows them around the world (she’s here since they play in Rio Tuesday and Sao Paulo Sunday). 
After the tour, they dropped me at Cococabana Palace “the most famous hotel in Rio which hosted celebrities from Stevie Wonder to the Rolling Stones” just in time to watch the sunset while walking the beach.  It was a very nice beach with many Brazilian men in speedos, people playing sports informally and there’s a stadium where teams compete in “futevolei” (a cross between beach volleyball and soccer) among other things.
Then just kinda crashed at my hotel.  Ideally, I wanted to go to the Rio weekly couchsurfing meeting but the internet’s been too inconsistent to figure out to get there.  I got on the wrong tour bus for awhile this morning and befriended this awesome guy from London who was telling me how to navigate the various sections of Copacabana- kid’s section, gay section, nudist section- among other things.  He hadn’t heard of CS but was excited about checking it out tonight… however, I had to switch buses suddenly without exchanging contact information so he probably won’t be able to find it either.
Copacabana at sunset
Looking forward to talking to some chemistry education people tomorrow morning at the University of Rio then a walking tour of the downtown and hopefully going out on the town.  However Lucio who may be taking me out just came back from a vacation in Uruguay where he “ate too much meat” so I don’t know if he’s still recovering.  Another benefit about being a vegetarian is I don’t run into that!  Boa noite!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Another packed day in Sao Paulo!

I met Andre (the professor who wrote the SCALE-UP grant) at the USP (University of Sao Paulo) relatively early this morning and was definitely impressed by the beauty of the campus.  UnB was a huge university, sprawling all over the city and not too well contained.  However, USP had a relatively secluded, very green campus… you won’t even know it was in the middle of the crazy city. 
I learned that physics is a huge program- over 140 faculty members in 6 disciplines/buildings.  Unfortunately the SCALE-UP grant didn’t get funded this round and he thinks the size and traditionally-minded instructors will make it difficult to adopt SCALE-UP.  So we had a nice chat and four other physics professors joined us for lunch at the campus cafeteria (I wish my college food was that good!).  Fortunately for exhausted me, lunch was followed by coffee.  Brazilians are crazy about their coffee (even though I’ve met a surprising number of Brazilians who don’t drink it).  Here, they served your shot of espresso with a shot of mineral water “to cleanse the palate” and a crystallized orange rind.  I took a picture because it was so elaborate but then I deleted it by accident…
My talk went well and it’s nice to be done giving talks for awhile.  It was the smallest attendance so far (~20-30 but it didn’t seem well-advertised either) but everyone stayed and asked questions for 20-30 minutes afterwards.  One graduate student is currently studying condensed matter but he said my talk made him want to do Scientists without Borders in the US and spend a year with my research group, which is cool.
After that, Ivan and David met me at my hotel and we hit up the last major attraction I wanted to see in Sao Paulo- Parque Ibirapuera… which is a huge park with a river, ponds, fountains and some museums.  All the museums were closed by the time we got there but it was a nice walk, nice chat and nice to get fresh air before we spent 90 minutes in traffic getting out of the city.  David actually lives with two American missionaries so his English was great and he’s hoping to work on a cruise ship.  He thought I was hilarious, especially when I tried to speak Portuguese.  I taught them the word “stuffy” and they loved that word.  They taught me “What's up, brother?” so I could be cool when I got to Rio but I already forgot.  And supposedly the accent in Rio is really strange which I’m not looking forward to- I already noticed dramatic differences in the pronunciation between Sao Paulo and Brasilia.  I asked the two of them where they would travel anywhere in the world and by the end of our time together, David was convinced he wanted to go to “North Caroline” to visit me even though I told him Raleigh was a nice place to visit but a boring place to live.  So it was an absolute pleasure to spend my last few hours with them.    .  The fun cab ride back stood in sharp contrast to when the cab driver first picked me up- 90 minutes of awkward silence as I listened to “sexual healing” and other awkward soft rock tunes on the radio.
Ivan and I

Boys being awkward in front of Estatua dos Bandeirantes

David and I in front of a lion in the park
Ok, I’ve gotta head out soon.  I had an easy flight to Rio but I booked a hotel in a random place far away.  Interesting architecture and historic building but it’s in the middle of nowhere, slow internet that you need to pay for and no hot water in the shower!  So I will have had one nice, warm shower in the 16 days I spent in Brazil.  Today is my tour to all of Rio’s most famous sights but I told them the wrong hotel for some reason so I have to get to this other place… Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Brazil's New York City

Got to Sao Paulo, “the New York City of Brazil”.  As predicted by some Brasilia friends, I don’t think it’s my favorite place in Brazil but it's probably a more exciting place to live than Brasilia.  I did meet a lot of nice people and had a great day walking around the city with Tales, who Henrique connected me with. However, I would not recommend going out of your way to travel to Sao Paulo if you come to Brazil (a sentiment that was echoed by people who grew up here).
Flying into the city at sunrise
 Tuesday was action-packed- my flight left Brasilia at 5 AM and so I got to Sao Paulo just in time to experience its infamous morning rush hour (the city is notorious for having some of the worst traffic jams in the world).  After an adventure trying to hunt down coffee and an even more annoying adventure of trying to get my internet to work in the hotel lobby, Tales rescued me from my frustration at 10 AM.  He’s Sao Paulo born and bred but he spent a year in Ireland (and subsequently did some extensive travels around Europe) and he was a great tour guide.  We share a lot of interests- music, love of traveling, appreciation of Asian culture (he’s into Buddhism), he’s a vegetarian so we had plenty to talk about in the almost 12 hours we spent together.  His goal with the day was to show me the “real Sao Paulo”, the grungier, crowded chaotic side because he said the pretty parts of the city where just like any other.
We started by walking the Avenida Paulista, the “Wall Street” of Sao Paulo and saw one of the famous art museums (but didn’t go inside because it’s mostly European art that you can see anywhere).  We went to the city center, saw the city cathedral (much more traditional-looking architecture than in Brasilia), the “zero-point” of the city and enjoyed being submerged in a sea of people with street musicians, living statues as well as a significant amount of homeless people.  The ethnic diversity of Brazilians was especially dramatic in Sao Paulo- you see Brazilian Japanese, Black-Japanese, Indigenous Brazilians, aesthetic Jews, German descendents (at the couch surfing meeting, we talked to a Brazilian from the South which is the German part- pale with strawberry-blonde hair)… there’s definitely no one consistent image of what a Brazilian looks like.  Not too many natural blondes though- people still stare at me.  You probably have an idea of that if you’ve been seeing pictures of the people I’ve been meeting during this trip.  We went to the municipal theater, Japan-town, this crazy shopping street famous for selling costumes and cheap imported stuff…
My favorite spot was definitely the municipal market- a huge building of various food shops and restaurants (kind of reminded me of Faneuil Hall).  We sampled exotic fruits- passion fruit, dragon fruit (the mysterious looking one from the Farmer’s market), this delicious fruit that looked like a potato, the fruit from cashew trees and more fruit you can’t find in the US.  
Tales sampling exotic fruits at the Marketplace
For lunch, we ate at a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain featured on No Reservations for giant boloney sandwiches.  We split pastel, which is a fried pastry that could be filled with anything but we had palmello stuffing.  This was another must-eat dish in Sao Paulo (where they get as big as pillows!) but apparently it is Chinese in origin. 
We met some Czech people and convinced them to join us for a 360-degree view of the city from the top of an Italian circle building.  Tales was right- Sao Paulo is filled with buildings as far as the eye can see.
View of the city from the top of the tall building
 After that, we went to a richer, nicer part of town to see the “Museo do Futebol” which is below the current stadium.  It was a really fun museum- lots of interactive exhibits (we played foosball, electronic football, shot a goal to see how fast we could do it) and saw all the goofy uniforms, soccer balls and crazy things Brazilians play soccer with (from baby heads to crushed soccer cans to coconuts to bottle caps).  Brazil’s the only country that’s played in every World Cup and they’ve won most often (five times).  They are already getting pumped for the 2014 World Cup.
Tales and I at the soccer stadium- Museo do Futebol is below us
After that, we stopped for some caipirinhas at a fancy bar looking at a park- I had a passionfruit one and he had a watermelon one with Sake (apparently, since their popularity is grown, anything with ice, sugar and fruit can be considered a caipirinha). Tales and all Brazilians really blow me away with their knowledge of their country and its history. Tales was telling me about how Brazilians' laid back attitude and lack of technological skills really goes back to the indigenous people.  Brazil has no natural disasters (earthquakes, tornados, etc.), a nice climate and the Amazon provided all the fish and fruits the people needed so they never had to work hard to control their environment or build advanced structures.  He said when the Portuguese tried to make the indigenous people slaves, they quickly realized that the Indigenous people don't know how to work and eventually gave up and imported African slaves into Bahia.  The country still lacks innovative skills in engineering and technology.  Richard Feyman actually spend some time in Brazil and complained about the education system here- I suggest you read his short reflections here because it's incredibly telling.  He complains that the schools teach students to memorize and they can repeat definitions word for word but are completely clueless to applying it to related content in slightly novel settings.  The latest president started a Scientists without Borders project which provides scholarships for 160,000 undergrads a year to various countries to get training in these areas.  However, people worry that once you expose Brazilians to other countries, it may cause an exodus of the brightest minds- from what I gathered from talking to Brazilians who studied in the US, this was true.  The money would probably be better spent improving secondary education... but Brazil definitely needs to do something to improve its GNP.  It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in S. America which is a good thing but the economy isn't growing as much as it should....
After that, we rested in the grass at a classy park briefly but decided to stop at my hotel to check the address for the weekly CS meeting.  Then we went to the CS meeting, which was awesome- I really wish these happened in Raleigh.  The basement of a bar was reserved and everyone had a nametag for “Established Paulista member”, “Newbie” or “Gringo/gringa”.  I met a ton of amazing people- some people from Brazil- including a film major who suggested I see City of God, Eliot Squed, Neighborhood Sounds and Colleagues (so if you are into foreign films, you can check that out too!).  I spoke to people from Spain, Russia, Ukraine and a Pilipino guy who lives in Singapore when he’s not traveling around South America (we exchanged contact information for when I’m going to be there this summer).  One of my favorite conversations was about people's favorite American words.  The girl from Southern Brazil loved the words "passionfruit" and "ladybug" and thought they were incredibly poetic.  The film critic's favorite word for "eggplant", for a reason he couldn't describe.  How random! It was amazing to speak with world-travellers from such diverse backgrounds and I wanted to stay there forever but I was also exhausted and my legs were about ready to fall off.  So we left there around ten and Tales brought me back to my hotel.
I’ll be traveling to University of Sao Paulo shortly to meet with faculty (I guess) before my colloquium.  It’s the best University in all of South America so hopefully I stay awake for my talk.  I found a couple guys to show me a few last sights, eat dinner with and take me to the airport tonight so that’s a relief.  Tchau!  Wish me luck!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Sunsetting on my time in Brasilia, preparing to fly with the sunrise to Sao Paulo

Another lovely afternoon with a couchsurfing friend.  After an “odyssey” of near misses (in his words!), I finally met up with Fernando, the pharmacy graduate, and it was worth the wait.  We walked around some of the monuments downtown that I had only driven past, taking pictures at some famous spots in Brazil.  We saw a building designed look like a dove with a mural inside to commemorate Tiradentes. His name literally translates as “tooth puller” and he was a dentist who became a martyred revolutionary when he protested the dictatorship.  Among other monuments in the surrounding area, Oscar actually built a house for the pigeons of the city, which is kinda cute.  
Os Candangos and I
 After that, Fernando and I went to Pontao near Lago Sul where I had been with Emmanuel but this time there was much better weather and tons of people walking, boating and taking pictures.  I had been told that I needed to try the wildly popular acai dessert.  It is similar to a berry-flavored ice cream served with a grape, banana and granola.  It was pretty good but I probably won’t go out of my way to have it again.  After a leisurely afternoon, chatting and enjoying the sunshine, we raced to Dom Bosco park in an effort to catch the sunset.  We got there in time but the gathering rain clouds made it pretty umimpressive.  However, it was a beautiful view of the city, overlooking the lake and we hiked around to see the Dom Bosco shrine (known as an upside-down ice cream cone around here) and the first small, chapel built in the city.  It was an excellent visit, definitely worth the wait and Fernando promised to send me a picture of a real Brazilian sunset, because they are supposedly breathtaking during the dry season.
Fernando and I at Pontao, Lago Sul: great tourguide and great new friend!
 This morning, I interviewed the vice director of computer science who was a pleasure to talk to.  She’s very interest in SCALE-UP as a way to improve the retention in their introductory courses, since less than half the people who intend to major in the exact sciences make it through.  She was the professor whose father helped advise and construct the city so it was fascinating to hear how the city evolved.  She was lucky to have an incredibly supportive family who encouraged her to pursue mathematics from a young age.  She said she never felt strange entering mathematics as a woman since growing up in a newly constructed city freed its people from traditional stereotypes.  She recalled, five years ago, a male classmate asked her daughter what she was doing in a calculus III class so she thought females in this generation may have a more difficult time pursuing these fields. 
I thanked some people at the University, saying my goodbyes, had a photoshoot in the physics teaching lab for my American Physical Society article.  I’m looking forward to a final couple meals of Reva's exquisite cooking, not looking forward to waking up at 3 AM to fly to Sao Paulo but looking forward to a day of sightseeing with Henrique's friend, Tales.
Sunset at the Dom Bosco Shrine

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Loving my last weekend in Brasilia

What a lovely final weekend in Brasilia!  I’m going to miss this place.  After the farmer’s market yesterday, I met up with Henrique, another couchsurfing connection.  He’s a 36-year-old police officer and avid cyclist (a sport that seems to be popular in the city as a whole).  He picked me up with his girlfriend and son and we headed to his parent’s house for an amazing family meal.  He’s one of three and his older brother brought along a wife, son and daughter and I enjoyed talking to Henrique’s youngest brother (a sophomore at UnB studying economics).  So it was a rather large gathering but I felt right at home.  I was playing Pretty Pretty Horses with the youngest girl (~3 years old) and while drinking Chilean wine they brought back from a trip to Santiago the prior week.  The meal was standard Brazilian food- fried chicken, lasagna, potatoes, rice, beans and salad with flan and ice cream for dessert.  Henrique was a huge help preparing me for my arrival in Sao Paulo, providing advice for public transportation and he put me in contact with his friend there. Henrique travels to Sao Paulo regularly to do two things: watch soccer and go to Starbucks.  There are no Starbucks in Brasilia and his whole family is obsessed with Starbucks, despite that I find Brazilian coffee better than anything you can get at Starbucks.  Henrique actually collects Starbucks mugs from around the world- both mugs that he’s purchased and that couchsurfers have brought him. 
The whole family put their heads together trying to figure out a place for him to take me that I haven't been but the Gargs were such good tourguides, they could not think of much.  Since he’s a police officer, he joked he could take me to see the “real Brasilia” but his family decided I was too blond for that.  I tried to get the dirty details of some things he had to deal with but he was pretty vague- just said his job kept him busy, Brasilia wasn’t a safe place and he dealt with all types of crimes.
We ended up going to Dona Sarah Kubitschek park (Brasilia’s version of Central Park).  It had a lake, small amusement park, go cart track, a castle where teens were having swordfights and a variety of playgrounds.  We skipped rocks on the lake, drank cocowater, walked around and enjoyed the sunshine.  
Drinking cocowater with Henrique and Jessica at the park

At the lake, skipping rocks- Henrique's son was fun to talk to

Henrique's original plan was to drop me off for a couple hours of rest and allowing lunch to digest then pick me up again for banana pizza, a favorite local delicacy of one of his American friends.  When I got home, Reva was planning a pizza dinner for their friend and us so I had to postpone with Henrique and was bummed about missing out on this unique treat.  However, after our regular pizza, Reva, the mysterious magician pulled a banana pizza that she planned to make without me even saying anything.  Vijayendra made homemade pineapple juice and the combination was heavenly! 
Sunday morning, we joined Raquel and Flavia (the wife and daughter of the man who joined us for pizza last night) for a journey to the Digital TV tower. I really enjoyed talking to Flavia- she speaks Japanese, English and “the language of love” in addition to Portuguese (obviously).  She’s been to Japan several times and gave me some travel advice since hopefully I’ll make it there this summer (she said she wanted to come too!).  She’s been to the US several times for silent meditation retreats and she has another one coming up in Lake Tahoe shortly.   Why you would travel to another country to spend five days in silence beats me but I guess she really likes the American guy who runs these retreats.
It was everyone’s first time to the Digital TV tower and the view was very impressive.  They had some shops at the bottom that featured local crafts and natural foods from the Amazon.  Flavia insisted I try this natural ice cream from the Amazon which is supposed to have a host of healing properties- I tasted the pumpkin/coconut and tapocia flavors. 
At the 7th floor outlook of the Digital TV tower

Digital TV tower from below

Reva, Vijayendra and I went out to a vegetarian “by the kilo” restaurant for lunch, superyummy and I insisted on treating them.  I’m meeting up with Fernando shortly for a walk and a visit.  Hopefully I’ll fit in some more translating of the survey results.  The ones I’ve read so far have been fascinating- one teacher said her parents moved here two years before the city was built.  Her father was part of the archectiture faculty at UnB and actually worked with Darcy Riberio and Oscar Niemeyer to design and build the city.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Brazilian jams and The Art of Asking

Last night turned out to be surprisingly amazing.  I was originally supposed to go out with a couch surfing friend but do to some communication mishaps, I ended up going to another orchestral concert instead.  I was a little skeptical at first- it was hosted in an elementary school and I didn't realize it would feature Brazilian tunes, highlighting the work of Pixinguinha.  I highly recommend you listen to the link youtube video as you read this to hear an example.  This composer hails out of Rio and is famous for revitalizing the choro by integrating contemporary jazz-like harmonies, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, and sophisticated arrangements, helping to popularize it as a uniquely Brazilian genre in the process. So there were string instruments, brass, a drum kit, what looked like a ukelele (there's probably a Brazilian term for this), a glockenspiel for one song, some other afro-Brazilian percussion and all the musicians looked like they were having a great time playing.  The elementary school itself was gorgeous- another school run by Americans "Casa Thomas Jefferson"- there were man-made waterfalls, sculptures, ponds and all sorts of fragrant-smelling vegetation growing inside.  The whole occasion was a relatively classy affair- people dressed up, they served wine and cheese and there was a rotating art gallery of some contemporary art, colorful portraits that I really enjoyed.  Whether seven year olds need (and/or appreciate) all this art, culture and landscaping is another question...  But overall, the evening was excellent and I'm really glad I got to enjoy some live Brazilian music.

When I came back, Fernando still wanted to go out but I decided to call it a night.  I came across a TED talk on the "Art of Asking" posted by Eri, my gypsy friend that resonated with my experiences as a guest staying in this country.  The speaker speaks about starting out as a musician, having to be creative about how to support their music- she was a living statue, they had to surf couches, use Twitter to ask fans for favors of various kinds.   Eventually, they increased in popularity but their record label still wasn't happy so they decided to part ways.  They make their music free and publicly available whenever possible and rely on the donations of others.  This approach exceeded their wildest expectations- they were hoping for $100,000 in annual income but earned $1.2 million the first year.  The speaker talks about how asking for things isn't easy since you make yourself vulnerable and you can always be refused.  The humility of asking and exposing this vulnerability connects two people, often in a mutually beneficial way.

I'm typically a very independent, self-sufficient person and it's hard for me to ask people for help.  But when you are all alone in a foreign land surrounded by people talking in a language you don't speak, you have no choice but to rely on others.  And people's generosity and patience have blown me away so far- certainly with Reva and her husband letting me stay here, providing all my meals and transportation, translating, taking me places and exposing me to new things.  The posts I've made on couchsurfing (CS) have been replied to quickly with dozens of people so excited and willing to take time out of their lives to show me their cities.  It's an unfortunate reality that you still need to be careful about whose hospitality you accept because you are basically trusting these people with your life. So you have to be smart and make sure these people are verified and vouched for, I introduce them to my hosts so they know I have people who will notice if I disappear and I always leave names and contact information with Reva.  But certainly the people I've met so far have been phenomenal- all of them want me to leave the country with good memories of the time spent here.  Hopefully my luck will continue.  And just like the Mark Twain quote I just added above implies, you need to take risks in order to experience life and see amazing things.  Anyway, I think I got off-track but I've definitely enjoyed becoming a part of this community of give-and-take.  And I look forward to helping out visitors who come to Raleigh- I've already given a couple people some travel advice but I look forward to further paying it forward once I return and opportunities arise.
Farmer's market- this is just a third of it... so huge!
Spices- spanish speakers, play the game I always play and try to figure out what the spices are
Not much else to report here- we drove by the military district which had some more interesting (always concrete!) buildings then went to the farmer's market this morning.  Huge building of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, cheeses, spices... it smelled so good!  A couple booths even carried Japanese food and sushi.  The professor we traveled to Anapolis with was an informal expert of human migration patterns so I knew Brazil had a significant portion of Germans and Japanese.  What I didn't know is that Sao Paulo, where I'll be going next, has the largest population of Japanese people outside Japan!  Supposedly Brazilians have a very welcoming culture of all ethnicities- I've certainly felt welcomed!

Friday, 1 March 2013

"I imagine this is how the Beatles felt on Ed Sullivan."

This post is the reply of my friend/colleague, Colleen, after I updated my research group about my first two talks.  As you may guess, today's colloquium also went really well.  It was at the State University of Goias in Anapolis, about two hours away.  Ironically enough, the professor I mentioned last post who wouldn't listen to the data decided to join us.  Oh the glories of retirement- only then would one want to spend four hours in a car just for a free lunch and a talk they already heard!
The drive was a nice opportunity to see the Brazilian countryside- Goias is an agricultural state, known as the breadbasket of Brazil.  We also passed through Abadiania, a small town which has grown dramatically with the rising fame of "John of God", a self-proclaimed psychic surgeon.  Apparently, he gives his patients two  options: an invisible or visible operation, where for the first option, people just mediate in a room and often are prescribed a concoction of passionfruit herbs.  Supposedly, this guy is really well-known (he was on Opera, case in point!) for curing everything from Lou Gehrig's disease to paraplegia to a brain tumor and people come from all over the world to see him.  Gilberto actually said that he met someone through couchsurfing was hired as a nurse to someone who traveled from the US to Brazil to see this man.  Apparently the nurse decided the free trip wasn't worth stick with her sick friend, did some sightseeing around Brazil (when she met Gilberto) then went home.  So that was interesting...
It was hard to get a good picture of the countryside but here's a general idea
The University itself was built only six years ago and one of 43 state university campuses, offering undergraduate and master's programs in scientific fields.  Since this school is less competitive, English is even less common and when I met the director of the school, he didn't speak it confidently.  Originally my talk was scheduled to happen in a room slightly larger than a typical classroom so I started presenting there in a pretty full room- a dozen professors, mostly graduate students and some undergraduates.  Before I started, I tried asking them about their backgrounds to figure out why they wanted to listen to me speak but they were pretty shy and I didn't get much information but supposedly they all attended willingly.  During my introduction, the room started to fill and they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate people.  As I started to speak, there was a growing crowd outside the door  that couldn't be easily squeezed into the classroom.  So they actually stopped my talk halfway through to move to a large classroom down the hall, people followed me into the room even though at this point they knew that I'd only be speaking in English and I ended up presenting to a crowd of ~60 people.  I got a few questions but the translator wasn't there and people were shy but everyone seemed to be listening intently and nodding so hopefully they understood what I said.

Delicious Brazilian lunch with University of Goia faculty and employees
 After that, the director, a couple professors, a couple secretaries took the Gargs and I out to lunch.  It was a nice traditional Brazilian restaurant with food by the kilo- I'm definitely a fan!  It's nice to be able to try a variety of foods and you only have to pay for what you want to eat.
I learned more about shall I say "ineffective" policies of the government.  Not only do students get free education, but supposedly many of these educational funds go to supplementing food and housing costs  and therefore the funds run out before improving quality of teaching or the facilities/equipment.  The students aren't competitive and high career aspirations typically aim to being a civil servant, which you can qualify for by doing well on an exam.  Supposedly, they are paid an annual salary of $100,000 (more than a college professor) to sit in Congress and do nothing and they can't be fired.  I was talking to a pharmacy professor about how I was surprised at the quantity of students studying pharmacy.  He said a degree in that here doesn't hold the same prestige as in American because Brazilian companies don't innovate- they just copy medications from elsewhere.  Near this campus was a Hyundai and Pfizer factory so graduates have opportunities to be employed but they aren't usually given opportunities to innovate or research.  Health care is also basically free but most of the hospitals are contained in big cities so the government reimburses distant ambulance rides to these centers but even these hospitals are too full to meet demand....  Generally, ineffective and unsustainable policies.
On the way home, we stopped at a rest stop/road side restaurant where we had "sugar cane juice" where they literally stuffed sugar cane into a machine and some sweet juice came out, freshly made.  I guess in India, they add ginger and lemon which sounds delicious.  The other professor ordered this mushed corn drink which we made he made me try.  It tasted like liquified corn muffin.  Interesting but I didn't want a glass of my own.
So I don't like to get into politics but it's all very different.  Just one weekend and one weekday left in Brasilia!  I've gotten settled in a nice routine- fruits, nuts and coffee for breakfast, learn Portuguese, work on my blog, delicious lunch (recently she's made naan, samosas, a couple pumpkin dishes, popular Brazilian cheese balls, this tomato, homemade mango juice and soybean stew... everything always from scratch), research, update blog, teatime with occasional meetings/interviews at the University throughout the day, followed by some sort of afternoon/evening adventure... but I'm also excited for a change of scenery.  I don't know how much I'm going to like the big city of Sao Paulo but I've got some people excited to show me around so that'll make it better!