Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Final Piece of the Puzzle

Atenção gente: agora tenho o visto na mão! Yesterday I returned to the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco to pick up my visa, and besides the long line, everything went perfectly according to plan! It's official- I'm going to Brazil!

It's such a relief to have everything in order. Now I can worry about more exciting things like culture shock and language barriers and memorizing the Flamengo roster to pretend I've been a diehard fan since diapers. This past week, unlike the past six school years, I've been a voracious reader. Harvard's International Travel Handbook preaches, "Students who have lived abroad emphatically agree that learning as much as possible about the country before you leave is the best way to prepare." The Sonoma County Public Library doesn't have many books on Brazil; I was able to check them all out and carry them all home in one trip. 

Ironically, after working for LG last summer, I knew that guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rick Steves and even Let's Go were going to bore me to death. They're valuable resources if you're actually in the country, but painfully dry if you're not. I read the Features and some of the neighborhood intros, and then I put those books aside. If I have the energy, maybe I'll go through them and jot down some points of interest, things I'd like to visit while I'm abroad. Then again, maybe I'll just ask my personal cultural informants (aka my homestay hosts) what's hot and what's not.

Travel narratives and historical fiction about Brazil have proved much more exciting. One of these was an old but still-relevant book by British journalist Paul Rambali called In the Cities and Jungles of Brazil. It was an insightful mixture of Brazilian history and his experiences in Rio researching and writing an article on Escadinha, a modern-day Robin Hood from the Juramento favela. What began as a heavily romanticized assignment ("...I hoped this story would combine romance and lawlessness in an exotic setting...") transformed into a critical overview of Brazil in all its past and present glory and tragedy. 

I was intrigued to learn about the illegal Jogo do Bicho, the numbers racket based on animal characters that employs 50,000 cariocas and has a local turnover of $10 million a week. It began in 1892 at Baron de Drummond's zoo in Rio, a scheme proposed by a *Mexican* named Manuel Zevada (oh wow...) to pull Drummond from his dire financial straits, and soon spread beyond the gates of the zoo, at which point it was outlawed and thus exploded in popularity on the streets. Today, the bosses- Bicheiros- are filthy rich and often the presidents of Samba schools. "And so here," writes Rambali, "is the power hex: supposedly clandestine, the Bicheiros like display, flirt with notoriety, want to be part of the legend. Since the Seventies, they've all been spending on ad hoc social programs and Samba schools. The sums have reached millions of dollars, causing purists to complain they're perverting the popular spirit of the Samba parades." They might be perverting the popular Samba spirit, but it's difficult to judge and punish these men who build homes, fund programs, and introduce running water and electricity into some of the poorest shantytowns in the country. Some people complain that they exploit paternalism, that their good deeds mask bad deeds. I don't know which side to take, but at least I'm aware of the debate. And if a stranger on a street corner asks me if I'd like to make a little wish, I'm not betting on the dog... for fear of barking up the wrong tree.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Wheels in Motion

Reality is beginning to set in, and it's maravilhosa! On Thursday morning I received my housing assignment and was thrilled to discover that I'll be living in the Leblon neighborhood, which shares the same beach as Ipanema [cue the classic bossa nova song]. According to Wikipedia, a veritable fount of undeniable knowledge, Leblon is "very much like Ipanema but even more exclusive, being the home of very rich, affluent and famous people. The beach is a bit more quiet and relaxed than the hip and trendy beach of Ipanema, and the neighborhood has the highest land prices of Brazil and Latin America." Ipanema.com, a self-proclaimed online insider's guide to the marvelous city, calls Leblon "one of the best areas to stay or live in Rio." Professor Luiz Valente, the director of the Brown-in-Brazil program, told me over the phone that my apartment on Rua Timoteo da Costa is within walking distance of the university! I'm also super excited that Leblon is home to the headquarters of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, the most popular soccer club in Brazil (with an estimated 35 million supporters)! Looks like I'll soon be reppin' the scarlet and black of O Mais Querido 

In other news, yesterday I took a trip to the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco and officially applied for my student visa. It's been a difficult bureaucratic maze. I initially attempted to apply by mail through the Boston consulate, but while my documents were in transit, the Brazilian government completely overhauled the visa process. Now there's an online portion and a few more required documents, all of which must be legalized by a notary public or similar authority. After waiting in line for a while, my number was called and I handed my packet over to the young woman behind the glass. She started chatting to me in Portuguese, and I surprised myself by comfortably holding up my end of the conversation. We spoke about life on the East Coast, different places I should visit in Rio, and the Romance Languages department at Harvard. It was the first time I've used Portuguese extensively in a non-academic setting, and my facility with the dialogue made me so anxious to start my journey already! I don't mean to boast, but I felt like I was pretty much EMC.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Brazilian culture, in my opinion, is the racial mistura. In the consulate office there were two ticket dispensers- one for Brazilian citizens and one for everyone else. I watched an Asian businessman with glasses and a briefcase walk in and carelessly grab a ticket from the Brazilian dispenser. My immediate reaction was to think, "Look at that fool, grabbing the wrong ticket. Haha, he should have read the sign. A webo, that's embarrassing..." Then his number was called, he walked up to the window, sat down, and busted out perfectly native Portuguese. Oops. I eavesdropped a little and discovered that he was born in São Paulo. The next number that came up belonged to a blonde woman with blue eyes, a native of Porto Alegre. For the next half hour I inconspicuously tried to pick out all the Brazilians in the office, and it was dang hard. Unless I heard them speaking, it was impossible. It made me realize that I can be Brazilian, or at least successfully pretend! I want to shed everything "American" about me and blend in. That's true immersion, and that's the absolute best way to learn, né?

I'll return to San Francisco on Monday, June 15, to pick up my passport and visa. Mal posso esperar!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Q: So why a blog?

A: Because I can. Because I like to write, and because I'm about to embark on a roller coaster journey that deserves to be documented and imparted. In one month exactly, I'll be celebrating my American independence in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Six months later I'll be headed to Bologna, Italy, to study at the oldest university in the world. I understand the magnitude and rarity of these opportunities, so I'm doing what I can to provide vicarious international adventure to those of you who aren't on the road. 

I envision this as a virtual travelogue, updated roughly once per week with pictures and stories. I'm gonna do my best to steer away from mushy emotional posts- I have journals for that- and instead focus on newfound wisdom, cultural insight, and reader enjoyment. After much personal deliberation, I decided to name this blog "Lost and Found" because it has a nice ring to it. Oh, and because I intend to lose and find myself time and again this next year. I look forward to open reinvention and refinement, to figurative anthropophagy, wherein I appropriate my favorite aspects of each culture and reshape myself as a global citizen. Yeah. Let's Go™!