May 5, 2009

Meanwhile Back on the Farm

Some days are just perfect.


The air is crisp and the dry leaves smell a little dusty and the mid-afternoon shadows are long and the light falls just so.

Overhead, the João Graveteiro has finished his nest.


The sticks he used still have green leaves clinging to them. Clever fellow, he knows how to build, but doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Lucky for him all those extra rooms confuse would-be thieves while he stays nicely hidden.

The neighbor’s horse heard me walking on the road and came galumphing down the hill looking for sweets or possibly a hairbrush.


Poor baby. Somebody really ought to tell him to stay away from the sticker burrs.


Dharma gets a wild look about her on afternoons as pretty as these.


And who can blame her, when air is so thick with the sweet smell of the Bella Cruz.


Sunday was the Festa de Santa Cruz – the Feast of the Holy Cross – and the Bella Cruz takes its name from this day because it blooms at the beginning of May. The hills are covered in it.

I love how many of the plants in the countryside get their folk names from the Catholic holidays. Every medicinal herb is seems to be named after a saint. And then there are the plants that bloom in season with the liturgical events, like Bella Cruz and the Quaresma tree.


Quaresma means Lent, and the trees, flush with royal purple blooms, dot the forests in the months of March and April. Lent is over, but I guess the trees on our farm are still feeling particularly repentant…

And then there is this plant. Vicente pointed it out to me.


It’s called Conta de Lagrimas. (The Rosary of Tears). On the roça they use the seeds to make rosaries. In English its called Job’s Tears or Chinese Barley even though it isn’t related to barley at all.

Sometimes I wonder if the early missionaries didn’t come to Brazil and see all of its wild, fecund abundance and perhaps feel a stirring in their chaste loins, and think:


“Oh Brazil, you shameless hussy! You unbridled temptress! We have to give all your plants proper Christian names to quell your wanton ways!”

And the butterflies laughed and said, “Whatever man. You go your way, we'll go ours.”

May 4, 2009

She's just a small town girl... living in a lonely world...

The mental entropy wrought by my new neighbors is my official excuse for blogging absence. That along with a small amount of translation work that finally fell my way in the form of insurance liability contracts – a process that went something like:

Portuguese legalese > Portuguese plain speak > English plain speak > English quasi-legalese.

I’m not that juridically versed, so I kind of had to fake the last part. Actually, unlike most translations I do, I was more concerned with making sure that the final version didn’t have fluid sentence structures. I figured, that if it read like a garble of pretension, then it must be an accurate sounding insurance contract.

Here’s a short list of a few things I've discovered since we last spoke:

1. My husband has a most revolting way of eating bananas. I was reading in bed the other night when he flopped down next to me and turned the tv on. I looked over and saw that he was eating a peeled banana like it was corn on the cob. The horror! How have we made it through 8 years of marriage with this disgusting habit going undetected?

2. No matter how much we need to be a two-income family, I am not taking a job in Brazil as a janitor. Finding work in Brazil is not easy. I didn’t expect it would be. But when a private high school that I had given my resume to some time ago called me up for an interview, I assumed it was for a coordinator position, not for a maintenance supervisor. I politely said, thanks but no thanks. C has taken to calling me the toilet washer (“lavador de privadas”).

3. Crickets are not good luck when found in the pant leg of your pajamas. Especially when wearing said pajamas.

4. Trying to outdo your inconsiderate 80’s music loving neighbors with a battle of the bands style showdown involving a medley of your own personal renditions of Journey and Queen's greatest hits is fruitless. No matter how loud you can sing, they will still be more annoying than you.

5. The interim director of the WHO has a most unfortunate last name. Especially if you're into mashups, speak English and Portuguese, and have an adolescent sense of humor. (I’m keeping my blog g rated, so I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.)

6. And finally, when the temperatures drop into the 50’s at night in an unheated house, rules get broken and the dog gets special privileges.

Cold morning

(Actually, we’ve been fighting over her.)
April 26, 2009

This isn't whining. It's a serious situation.

Have I told you how much I hate my new neighbors? I really hate them.

A few posts back someone misunderstood what I was saying about the influence of American culture on Brazil and the rest of the world. How it is heavily marketed, how easily the illusion of prosperity and the American dream is sold and in Brazil at least how it has cause many of the MTV generation to undervalue their own culture. But I didn’t go so far as to say American culture is the cause of the world’s problems. Even being the liberal scum that I am, I would consider that a stretch, what with aids and poverty and women’s rights and religious fanaticism clearly trumping Brazilian teenagers love for blasting Ludacris from the tiny speakers of their cellphones.

But selfishly, my personal sanity is starting to reconsider the definition of world problem now that we have new neighbors who have a singular obsession with 80’s pop. It seems these people just can’t stand to have silence around them nor are they capable of listening to any other type of music. Since this couple moved in a month ago, they haven’t spent a moment at home, and certainly not a weekend, without having their apartment rocking with Barry White, Heart, Whitney Houston, Bonnie Tyler and Anita Baker (Yeah, I’m giving you the best that I got, baby…). I almost got suicidal the other day when they cranked up Phil Collins (Oh, think twice cause it’s another day for you in paradise….) Sorry, but I’m going to make you suffer thought this with me.

The really annoying thing is that while it’s loud and I can always hear exactly what song they are playing, it is also somewhat muffled because they are on the 3rd floor and we are on the 5th. But the bass always makes its way up through the floorboards and I start to feel like the princess and the pea. Driven to distraction and constantly rattled by a low grade but chronic irritation, it's like I’m rolling round on my hundreds of mattresses all the way up here on the 5th floor while the pea thumps out familiar bass lines of Hall and Oats from down below.

The worst part is while I’m usually about to climb the walls, I sometimes catch myself humming along. (No, I can’t go for that nooohoo, no can do, no I can’t go for that…can’t go for that can’t go for that). And that’s when I really start to loose it.

So in fact the influence of American culture (and some Phil Collins) could indeed turn into a serious world issue if I go completely postal on them the next time they crank up that Linda Ronstad and James Ingram duet (I’ll spare you from that refrain). It could very well set off an international incident where I play the role of Gavrilo Princip and they turn out to be a Don Henley worshiping Franz Ferdinand.
April 22, 2009

Celebrating Earth Day on the Loo

In honor of Earth Day, I’d like to introduce you to our new best friend (on the left).


Anyone know what it is? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

It’s a Bio-Digestor!!!!

We’re so excited about this we could just… well…. pee!! And with this, we'll finally no longer have to do it behind the bananeiras.

So what is a bio-digestor you ask? Well, it digests biological stuff. At least at the end stages of that stuff.

In carving out our little spot of paradise (petulant, bratty and trying as it can be), we have done our best to keep it as sustainable and low-impact as possible. Not too hard so far, given that we don’t even have electricity.

But a suitable arrangement for our plumbing and septic had us a bit flummoxed for a while. The traditional way on the roça is either the afore mentioned bananeiras, or if you’re lucky enough to have running water and a porcelain vaso, you build a septic leech field. Well, behind our house and a level down is a large swamp. A beautiful one actually, full of lilies and cattails and birds. It is home to all sorts of animals and plays a very important role in the ecosystem, one that we didn’t want to upset with possible contamination from a nearby septic field.

Enter the bio-digestor. This little beast can handle organic waste of up to 600 liters. After it does its digesting job, it releases from one end water that is tested 99% pure. And from the other end, into a small casement box the effluent gathers which once every 4-6 months needs to be cleaned out. It comes as dry as ash, clean and uncontaminated and can be buried or sprinkled about as fertilizer. Cool, hugh!?

(Here's C with his internet instructions trying to work out with Vicente how to install it.)


But wait, there is more…

Do you know what makes this grand process work? You’ll never guess….

Soda bottles.

Yes indeed! The bio-digestor runs on PET plastic! We were totally blown away when the guy in the store opened up the top to give us a tour and out tumbled chopped up Sprite and Coke bottles. We though they were just in there for packing material, but no! They are actually the filter that enables the anaerobic process to take place. Don’t ask me how, I haven’t quiet figured it out. It’s a design invented by some clever Brazilians (they are very good at coming up with ways to reuse PET plastic) and I think patented as well.

Up until now, bio-digestors have been mainly used for recycling livestock waste. But there are a number of efforts being made, especially in areas where poverty and sanitation are real issues, to bring them into residential/community use. Many bio-digestor designs allow for the methane gas they produce to be reclaimed and used for heating, electricity and cooking gas! How cool is that?

We’re very excited about our newest addition. I was really hoping that we’d have it installed and ready to be inaugurated by Earth Day, but alas, as usual, things are moving slowly. So for the time being, we’re still roughing it in the great outdoors.
April 20, 2009

Life Less Large

We’ve all been hearing a lot lately about how people are cutting back, economizing, living more frugally. “The Crisis! The Crisis!” my nightly NPR broadcast screams. Even people who are comfortable and haven’t been laid off or foreclosed or even had their hours cut (although they may have seen their 401K disappear) have been trying to spend less and cut out extravagances. Of course this isn’t doing anything to help the economic recovery – there are a lot of people who have the same paycheck coming in now as before – but fear and uncertainty and also a certain solidarity that “we’re all in this together and it just isn’t fashionable to indulge” have cause a lot of people to reign it in. I think it’s good in one way because the American culture of excessive consumption could use a little balancing. But on the other hand of course, people are going to have to unfreeze their wallets eventually if any promise of recovery is to be realized. They will, we can all be sure of that.

In some ways, principally psychological, Brazilians haven’t felt the full impact of the global meltdown. The middle class was just starting to stretch its wings into the buy-more-spend-more areas. They were just beginning to dip their toes into those shark infested waters alternately known as “Living Large” or “Spending beyond your means.” So now that they’ve had to scale back, it feels more like business as usual than the sky is falling. For most part, that is. Certainly there have been layoffs and people are feeling the pinch in very real ways. Retail sales are down, wallets are closed, people are complaining. But given all the economic upheaval Brazilians from the age of 25 + have had to weather in their lives, I think for many this just feels like one more spin around the economic merry-go-round that has once again been manically and recklessly pushed by the invisible hands of greed. So they heave a big sigh, put their heads down and trudge onwards.

Anyway, all this talk got me thinking about the ways that living in Brazil has caused me to live less like a pre-crisis American with swagger in my pocketbook and more like a Brazilian, cautious and frugal. And although these changes were initially made out of necessity over choice, I’ve come to appreciate how it often translates into a less impactful way of life.

Here’s a few things I noted that have changed about my lifestyle. And I think they hold true for a large swath of Brazilians down the middle as well.

1. No clothes dryers:
Clothes are hung up to air dry. Electricity is just too expensive for the great majority of people to run them. A very small market for them also makes it a very expensive appliance to buy.

2. Lights on timers:
All the public spaces in our building have light switches that you flip when you come into the area and that automatically shut off after a few minutes. This is largely a hold over from Brazil’s energy crisis in 2001. Energy saving compact florescent bulbs have also been omnipresent since that time.

3. Conscious car use:
Gasoline is expensive, although the reasons for this are confounding. Brazil is now 100% fuel independent yet gas prices remain nearly double than what people pay back home in the States. (Someone’s Petrobras pockets somewhere are nice and heavy). Current gas prices are hovering somewhere around R$2.55 a liter, which translates into USD $4.70 a gallon. Remember when gas prices hit that high in the United States? People were freaking out. For Brazilians it’s just another day at the pump. What that means for many is more carpooling, public transportation (when available) and smaller fuel-efficient cars.

4. Less packaging:
I’ll never forget buying a small bedside lamp at a behemoth home improvement super-store back in Brooklyn. It had a tiny stem base and a small square paper lampshade. The whole thing wasn’t bigger than a breadbox, but it came with more plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard than my Imac. The added cost of producing and shipping goods with useless, unnecessary packaging doesn’t make any fiscal sense in Brazil. Packaging on everything from ketchup to dry cleaning to the new printer we just bought is lighter, leaner and minimal. Thinking about this, the line from that fake Trader Joe’s commercial keeps playing in my head – the one about 4 Fuji apples in a plastic box. Is there anything more pointedly indicative of unnecessary packaging than that?

5. Fix it, re-use it, milk-it-to-death:
There are repair shops for everything imaginable in Brazil. Recently I stumbled upon a galleria in a poorer section of our downtown shopping district that has a line up of 4 stores that specialize in umbrella repair. UMBRELLA repair. Yes. You can fix that bent, broken five buck umbrella that flipped itself inside out not ten minutes after buying it on a street corner one rainy day you got caught out wet and empty handed. It seems they’ll fix anything here in Brazil. Blender on the fritz? There’s a fix-it store for that. Cheap boom box isn’t reading cd’s anymore? They can fix that too. Blew out your counterfeit Nikes imported from Paraguay? Yep, there’s a store on every block that will put a new sole on them. When things finally do grow worn and tired, they aren’t typically thrown out either. They’re passed down to the maid who proceeds to fix, re-use and milk-to-death whatever comes her way.

6. Everything smaller:
And that applies not just to the famous bikinis. Not only are things less weighted down by unnecessary packaging, but the quantity, volume, general bulk of things is more diminutive. I’m thinking principally of items on my grocery list. You’ll never find a gallon of milk on the shelves here – 1 liter (1/4 gallon) is the biggest it comes. Gigantic tubs of mayonnaise? Not at the consumer retail level. Even the regular sized jars of things like mayonnaise are sold in a smaller quantity than they are in the States. Try to stock up on Tylenol – you’ll never find a big fat economy bottle, but instead will go home with a bag of pills in 8 count sleeves.

There have been numerous studies done on our consumption habits that have proven over and over that we eat/use more when things are presented in larger quantities. Hand someone a giant bag of Smartfood and ask him to eat until he’s full and he’ll eat far more than the guy next to him who was handed a bag half the size. Talk to any Brazilian who's traveled to the US and one of the things they always marvel at is the portion size of food in restaurants – “and on top of that they give you breadsticks!” they always exclaim in disbelief. (Followed inevitably by a comment about American waistlines…)

In Brazil things haven’t typically been sold in larger quantities, largely in order to keep retail prices attainable (with grocery items there is also the concern of spoilage in a tropical climate). But what it amounts to is that people end up using less and certainly wasting less of whatever it is – mayo, olive oil, turkey flavored potato chips (yes, they exist). And the end result being, they tend to look better in those tiny bikinis.

7. Eating local
Yes, I went ahead and pulled out the buzz word of the second half of the decade. In Brazil it’s largely inevitable. A quick perusal of my kitchen, came up with less than 6 items that had been produced out of state. Now one big factor in this may be that I live at the crossroads of the agricultural and industrial part of the country. But even so, there are still far more local brands throughout the country than there are national ones. It just costs too much and the roads and railways are too undeveloped to go shipping lettuce from one end of the country to the other. (The last time I visited my father in Panama, we bought lettuce shipped in from Salinas California. Talk about a carbon heavy salad! Can tropical Panama not grow its own lettuce?)

Local eating is not limited to just fresh fruits and veggies, but goes for a lot of packaged food too. In my kitchen I find corn meal, rice, beans, hot sauce, loaf of bread, frozen lasagna, pão de queijo and so on – all relatively local, produced in the state of Minas. I realize however that this may not hold true everywhere in Brazil, especially the Northeast where agriculture has long been based around a single crop economy of sugar cane. But there instead of importing what they don’t have, people historically gone hungry. That’s changed to a certain degree now, but there are probably still far more local products on the shelves than ones brought in from other places in the country.

Those are just a few of the thing I could think of. I’m sure I and my fellow ex-pat bloggers could come up with more. But while life and consumption habits are scaled back and simpler in Brazil, that doesn’t mean that Brazilians aren’t chomping at the bit to live large. Everybody wants the bigger car, the flat screen tv, the new house – even if it means that it has to be bought in installments at unreasonable interest rates. But those desires continue to be tempered by economic forces and at least for now, living the average day-today existence in Brazil feels more sustainable and a bit greener – without having to try at all.
April 13, 2009

Up in Smoke

We didn’t burn any literal figures of Judas on Saturday night, but we did burn a lot of bureaucracy.

My friend Juliana’s father recently passed away. It was very sudden. He was only 60 and it caught everyone by surprise. She’s now dealing with a mountain of legalities trying to sort out his estate. In emptying out his house, she collected 6 huge trash bags of paperwork dating back to the 1980’s. He had worked as a civil servant for the ferroviária and a lot of the papers had his CPF (social security #) and other personal information so in the absence of a paper shredder and in presence of a cool fall night and plenty of red wine we decided to make a bonfire.

It was good for her I think. People are buried very quickly in Brazil, usually within 24 hours and while Catholics hold a mass for the deceased 7 days later that tends to be as significant or even more so than the actual burial, there really does seem to be an absence of mourning rituals that help ease the transition for the family. We were up in the village when we got news in the morning that he had died the night before and that the funeral was being held that afternoon. We didn’t have time to get back for it. I asked if there was somewhere I could send flowers and the response was a bit confused. Flowers? For what exactly? They don’t do that here. Then we went to pay a visit to his house and I asked C’s aunt if there was any particular etiquette I didn’t know about - like do people bring a dish of food for the family? No, she said, we don’t do that here. It felt kind of strange not being able to do anything except offer words of condolence. But I guess death is like that. You can’t do anything. We are all completely helpless to the essential fact that every birth is eventually followed by death.

Burning up years of bureaucratic accumulation I think was a good cathartic exercise. And I felt happy to have at least something practical I could offer her by in the way of help. We tore open bag after bag and sent the papers fluttering into fire. It took us until well after 3am to get through all the bags.

Max decided to get in on the act and pulled out a box of papers that had been accumulating in his house for decades. He owned a video store back in the late 80’s and early 90’s and most of his papers were in relation to the store. For some comic relief, C started reading through some of the receipts for the store’s purchases and it sent us howling in laughter. Check it out:

Yes, it really truly is a receipt for $18,000,000 cruzeiros. Eighteen Million. The purchase of Imperdoáveis (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) alone cost $5,600,000 cruzeiros. And that's over 2 million for Pinocchio! This receipt is from 1993, right before the cruzeiro was flipped into it’s 3rd incarnation, the cruzeiro real – which would be the 4th currency in 7 years. The currency changes didn’t do anything to stem the rampant inflation that was increasing at a rate of 30% a month. They just kept changing the name and knocking off zeros so that the calculators could handle it. Bus fare alone cost 16,000 cruzeiros!

In looking around for details I read that at the time the currency was considered such a joke the central bank had a hard time to find mascots to print on it. No one wanted to be associated with it – the family of author Guimaraes Rosa (considered the Brazilian James Joyce) turned the central bank down when asked for permission to reprint his image. On the 5,000 bill they ended up putting a traditional looking character of a gaucho (a cowboy from the south of Brazil) on it framed by what were supposed to be mate leaves – although botanists protested that they were so badly drawn that they looked like weeds.

I also remember seeing in a exhibit at the New Museum in New York of Brazilian artists, one (I wish I could remember his name) painted on cruzeiros because they were worth less than the paper he would have otherwise purchased.

The cruzeiro lasted until 1994 when they finally got things under control with the current currency, the real. After scrounging around for some estimate on the exchange rate at the time – which was hard to pinpoint, with the inflation rising so rapidly on a daily basis – I did the calculations on Max’s movie purchases. In US dollars, that 5 million cruzeiro movie would have been around $70 USD.

We saved that receipt from the fire. If for nothing else then just to remember that crisis or not, things are relatively pretty darn good. But the rest we burned. Some things truly are better left in the past.
April 10, 2009

Coisas da Roça


It’s Semana Santa, the Holy Week, the heart of the Catholic liturgical year and pretty much the lynchpin of the whole theology. It’s a very sacred week with many activities. Passion plays, processions, masses, music performances and over 25 tons (tons!) of fish were sold in my city alone. Many business and most restaurants are closed today in observance of Good Friday, Sexta-feira de Paixão.

Geraldinha mentioned that growing up on the roça, you had to clean your house thoroughly on Palm Sunday and were not allowed to do any cleaning at all until after Easter Sunday. You couldn’t touch a broom or do any mending. That in addition to the ban on hunting and fishing.

But as holy and austere as this all important week is in the largest Catholic country on earth, there is at least one tradition celebrated throughout the countryside of Brazil that involves a party: the burning of Judas - a tradition not part of the church rituals.

I’ve never seen this ritual because, like Carnaval and Christmas, the Holy Week is a very expensive time to travel in Brazil. It’s a vacation week for most families, kids are off school, and prices on hotels double. So we’ve stayed home. Maybe next year if our house is livable, we’ll be up in the village and get to see the festivities, but for now I just get my stories second hand.

On Good Friday, in many small country villages, an effigy of Judas is strung up, tortured and then burned the next day. Usually the effigy has the cutout face of a corrupt politician, or anyone else that the village may hold a particular resentment towards. He’s smacked around a little like a piñata and people are encouraged to yell at it and get their frustrations out. Children sometimes make their own Judas doll and go around with it bugging shop owners for candy, until they fork over the sweets. Then on Saturday afternoon or evening Judas is lit on fire and sometimes fireworks are even set off from inside the effigy. The burning is usually accompanied by music and followed by a party.

The Burning of Judas started in Europe and is still practiced there in some places, although the celebrations have been toned down a good deal because of the obvious anti-Semitism involved. But I don't think that part of it enters into the countryside rituals here in Brazil. Most of the people who participate are simple, many illiterate, and probably don't have much inkling of a connection between their Judas effigy and the Christian dogma that vilified the Jewish people. Instead it’s about scapegoating their grievances for the year on the figure of Judas - particularly with politicians. Geraldinha tells me that they didn’t always even refer to the effigy as Judas – usually they called it by the name of whoever they have a gripe with and frequently it was more than one person. They’d chant, “Let’s burn Sr. João! And now let’s burn Sr. Marcos! And now let’s burn Sr. Henrique!” The poor Judas effigy was assigned many different roles.

Winter is over for many of you, (you lucky tulip-tiptoeing northerners) and while Spring doesn’t play into the Easter symbolism here, it is still considered a time of renewal and rebirth. And as twisted as the roots of the Burning Judas ritual maybe, those countryside fun-loving cachaça soaked celebrations are held in in a the light-hearted spirit of letting let go of past hurts and grievances and starting fresh. While I don't think any of us are going to go around burning a Judas effigy, we could probably all use a way to metaphorically get rid of our grievances and move on from whatever is weighing us down.

Happy Easter!