Monday, July 27, 2009

People in glass houses...

...wasted money on their entrance ticket. Luckily for me, I had the foresight NOT to enter Princess Isabel's Crystal Palace in Petrópolis, a transparent tourist trap. I walked around the outside and had the same experience, enhanced by the knowledge that I got mine for FREE ninety-nine!

Sunday's excursion to Emperor Pedro II's Imperial City an hour north of Rio was kind of a letdown. Don't tell the coordinators, please. As this was a field trip open to all 398 international students spending this semester at PUC, we had to cram into two buses. I liked meeting new university colleagues from California, Ecuador, France, and Denmark. I liked the fact that it wasn't raining. I liked the special slippers we had to wear upon entering the Imperial Museum in Emperor Pedro II's summer home. I didn't like that the tour was conducted in English. I didn't like paying admission to explore Santos-Dumont's virtually empty house. I didn't like spending R$20 for an average lunch. I'm such a whiner, but what did you expect after our Brown in Brazil excursion to Paraty, where we lounged on a boat and sang songs and ate fresh fish on secluded beaches and didn't pay for anything at all? Now THAT's an excursion! Alas, Petrópolis was a positive experience overall. I'm especially glad I had the courage to strike up a conversation with a pretty Brazilian girl who was tagging along with the coordinators. She felt out of place because she didn't understand English, Spanish or French, but she was a talker when I introduced myself in Portuguese. Her name's Keli and she lives in Rocinha. She aspires to be an actress and visit New York. She loves the Mexican novela pop group Rebelde and has two younger sisters, fifteen and six. Although she's studied English for two years, she was too shy to try it out on me. She'll have a chance though- she works at the PUC International Students' office. I told her I'll make up some fake questions as an excuse to visit her every once in a while, and she responded with a giggle. Ay, brasileiras!

I forgot in my previous post to describe the events of last Thursday evening! To celebrate the arrival of Professor Luiz Valente, the head coordinator of the Brown in Brazil program, we all went out to eat at a churrascaria called Barra Brasa in Leblon. For an idea of how nice it was, the basic price was R$56 per person. It was, without a doubt, the most exquisite restaurant I've ever visited. We began with a buffet offering everything from sushi, lobster, and mussels in lemon juice to fine cheeses, salads, and assorted nuts in honey. When we sat back down we were bombarded by men wielding large knives and tender cuts of chicken, pork, and steak in all shapes and sizes. We had personal tokens with a red side and a green side, and basically we played "Red Light, Green Light" with those meat men until our stomachs were on the verge of explosion. Red means "No thanks" and green means "Pile it on, my man!" It was fun and delicious while it lasted, but standing up at the end of the meal was a task in and of itself. When we conquered our nausea and managed to walk out, all of us pigs went our separate ways. On my walk back to my apartment I met a large group of Princeton students who are here for two more weeks. I chilled a little bit with them in their hotel- yeah, I thought I had it good until I saw the view from their room on the 23rd floor- and then headed back home to bed. Never know what you're gonna get, huh?

This is our final week of the intensive Portuguese course. Today I gave a ten-minute presentation on the state of Ceará, and we have a test and paper due Friday. I should be really focused on school right now, but my mind has already skipped ahead to Saturday, when we're traveling as a group to Salvador, Bahia, for a week of cultural insights and craziness!


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme...

I discovered lots of new rhythms this week, but have yet to find my own! Last Sunday I woke up early and attended a lively Protestant service at the Igreja Assembléia de Deus in Leblon with a friend from my program. We arrived a little bit early and found ourselves in the middle of an enormous Bible study that occurs before every service. Participation this week was overwhelming, and it appeared as if the pastor was having trouble maintaining control of the congregation! There was one little old lady in the front who kept asking the meaning of random scripture vocabulary at every opportunity, and a balding man who would stand up and boisterously recite every verse mentioned throughout the course of discussion. The poor pastor was saved by the bell, so to speak, because as soon as the clock read "10:30" he pointed at his watch, shrugged his shoulders, smiled wryly, and summoned the worshippers to the stage. Two women with booming voices visiting from a sister church in Brasília led the music, and then one of them gave a mini-sermon on keeping the faith despite hardships. The church is struggling to make payments on the facility after 75 years of continuous operation. Real estate prices in Leblon are ridiculously high, and the members of this church body are more likely to work in the neighboring homes than own them, gnome sayin'? I plan to continue attending until December because I liked the atmosphere and I met a couple people there who welcomed me with open arms, literally and figuratively.

Sunday night I had a fever and a cough, so I quarantined myself in my room. The next morning when I told Regina I hadn't felt well the night before, she freaked out and asked if I had swine flu. The fever had already broken and I was feeling better, so I said no and told her not to worry, but she told Monica to put more blankets in my room and keep refilling my juice glass. Regina is not the only Brazilian on ultra-alert about the swine flu right now- lots of my program friends have been sick with colds and ALL of their hosts responded the same way!

On Tuesday we had a lecture on Brazilian cinema before Portuguese class, and I felt like a boss because I had already watched all the films he discussed, thanks to my Brazilian Cinema course last semester. In class Tuesday and Thursday we learned some amazingly useful carioca slang from Adriana. I try out all my new vocab on Gustavo, who's getting a kick out of it. I especially like sinistro, which literally means "wicked" and describes something cool or great (just like in Boston!), as well as arroz, which means "rice" and describes someone who always tags along with large groups, particularly groups of attractive girls, and has no individual personality or aspirations. Rice is always a side dish in Brazil, and can never stand alone. Haha! It's also a Brazilian superstition that if you serve yourself rice before the other dishes at a meal, it means the money will soon stop coming into your household. Culture and language, my favorites!

On Wednesday I had to be at PUC at 7am for a trip to the Federal Police department at the international airport. Everyone who stays in Brazil for an extended period needs to appear in person at the police station within 30 days of arriving. Failure to do so can result in arrest and imprisonment. I know, I read the warnings plastered all over my visa. It was lots of bureaucracy, but everything's better with one Ipod bud in your ear and the other in the ear of the pretty Colombian girl sitting next to you.

Last night after class I ate dinner on my own in the apartment. Regina is traveling this weekend and Gustavo is with his dad, so I'm home alone and I'm enjoying it immensely. I went out with four friends from the program, first to grab an espresso at a bar in Copacabana and then to the renowned Clube dos Democráticos in Lapa, the nightlife center of the city. We went to a show by a famous French-Brazilian violinist named Nicolas Krassik featuring the 7-string guitar phenomenon Nando Duarte, whom is the husband of Alina (our housing coordinator) and son of Bella (a neighbor two floors up in my apartment building and hostess of the baby shower I attended). As it was my first time at a show in Lapa, I didn't really know what to expect. The music was a mix of Brazilian styles and perfect for dancing. I held back until the end, definitely intimidated by the men and women spinning and jumping and flipping each other around on the dance floor, but I eventually got up the courage to bust a move or two. Don't trip, I dazzled. It might have been the first time they've seen a thizz face at Democráticos.

Since I got home at 4:45am this morning, I slept until 1pm and woke up feeling like a bum who needs to do something with his life. I hate that feeling. I ate breakfast and lunch back to back, just to pretend to myself that I had a full day, and then went to the Leblon Jazz Festival at the bottom of the hill. The festival was free and took place in a main street of Leblon that was entirely blocked off for the celebration. Hundreds of happy Brazilians chugged beer in the street (the event was sponsored by Itaipava, one of Brazil's premier beer companies) and swayed to the live music, which ranged from bossa nova to hard rock. I thoroughly enjoyed the free entertainment- always do- and beautiful crowd, but after four hours I decided to head back up to my empty apartment for a finger-lickin' microwave spaghetti dinner. I'm staying in tonight because tomorrow morning I have to be back at PUC at 7am for an excursion to the imperial city of Petrópolis. More on that next week! Until then, valeu

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Moro No Brasil

Two weeks down, twenty-two to go! I'm just gonna jump right in, because it's Saturday night in Rio and I've got places to go, people to see, yadadimean? So I found the Igreja Assembléia de Deus do Leblon- the local Protestant church- last Sunday, but I was too late for the service. Tomorrow I'm gonna check it out at 10:30am with one of the girls from the Brown in Brazil program. I'm excited to see how worship works down here, and fully expecting a warm welcome from my Brazilian brothers and sisters. I'll let y'all know how that goes. On that note, yesterday morning as I was eating breakfast, I heard Monica singing along to a song on the radio as she was washing dishes. I recognized it immediately as the title track off of Jamily's album "A Fé Faz o Herói" and surprised her by telling of Jamily's visit to my Portuguese class freshman year. Jamily is a teenage gospel-singing phenomenon that won an "American Idol"-type competition when she was 11 and has been called "the Whitney Houston of Brazil." As a result of some random contact at Harvard, she happened to visit my class one day, singing to us and speaking about her life as a gospel artist. None of us in class knew whether she was actually popular in Brazil, although she could definitely sing. Now I know, and the answer is YES! Monica doesn't have any of Jamily's cds, so I told her I'd make her a copy of mine. In exchange, she let me borrow all of her Brazilian gospel music this weekend, which I've been listening to nonstop. It's crazy how worship music defies all language and cultural barriers- I can feel the spirit even if I don't understand all the words.

The Hippie Fair last Sunday afternoon was surprisingly low-key. After experiencing outdoor markets in Mexico and Italy, I just assumed all vendors yell promotional slogans ("¡¡Bara bara!!") at prospective customers and set their prices three or four times too high in anticipation of street-smart hagglers. Not so at the Feira Hippie. No vendors raised their voices to attract attention, and most items had pretty set prices to cater to the non-Portuguese-speaking tourists. I bought a couple cheap bracelets and a tiny crystal etching of the Cristo Redentor. I paid half price.

That night I went to a neighbor's baby shower upstairs. The mother-to-be was the sister-in-law of Alina, the housing coordinator for the Brown in Brazil program. Small Rio. She was also an actress in a popular Brazilian soap opera (pre-pregnancy), which made sense given her blonde hair, light brown eyes, and intangible glow (?). The next morning we had a lecture at PUC on race relations in Brazil, a topic whose surface you can barely scratch in two hours. As I was leaving class I ran into a bunch of my Harvard friends who are studying in Rio for their summer; since I already knew they were on campus, it wasn't a huge surprise, but cool nonetheless. On Monday night I went with Gustavo to play pick-up soccer on a dirt field at the university. The players were all around 26 years old and most were amazing; I was intimidated but played pretty well, even scoring a nice goal through the keeper's legs! On Tuesday we had the day off, and I spent my time wisely on the beach at Ipanema, soaking up the sun with some friends.

Wednesday marked the first day of our intensive Portuguese course that will run 3-5 hours per day, 5 days per week until real classes start. We'll be switching off every other day between two professors, Ricardo and Adriana. They're both really fun people and fantastic teachers. Ricardo covers culture and Adriana takes care of grammar, and that's the way we like it. Thursday we attended a pre-class lecture on the formation of the Brazilian national identity and the origin of jeitinho, the "Brazilian shimmy" that somehow gets things done when they appear impossible and usually involves some sort of clientelismo or bending of the law. Yesterday after class I wandered around Leblon with some of the program students searching unsuccessfully for tickets to the Flamengo-Botafogo game on Sunday at Maracanã Stadium. We ended up at the mall, where we wandered some more and eventually went our separate ways. I returned home to Alto Leblon, ate a quick dinner, then went back out to a friend's apartment in Gávea where we gazed at the lights of Rocinha- the largest shantytown in Latin America- and enjoyed a mix of philosophical discussion and Youtube videos of the Brazilian version of "Who's Line is it Anyway?"

Since I got home around 3am this morning, I slept in a little prior to my afternoon trip to the beach. I like simply strolling on the boardwalk, people-watching and taking in all the sights and sounds. Today I walked all the way from my apartment in Alto Leblon to Arpoador, which is an outlook point on the far side of Ipanema. I was in the sand four hours total, but not necessarily walking the whole time... I also stopped to play some futevôlei and work out on the permanent pull-up bars and sit-up boards scattered along the beach. I got a blister on my foot from my havaianas (Brazilian flip flops), an obvious sign that I still need to break them in!

--------So I'm just coming back to this post right now after five hours out on the town with Gustavo and two of his friends. They asked if I wanted to "get something to drink close by," and we ended up near the center of the city at a crowded bar. It was cool and amusing to hang out and listen to their conversation about the veracity of the pick-up tricks used in "The Game"- if you don't know what that is, look it up. Just when I feel like my Portuguese is getting really good in the classroom setting, I hang out with Brazilians my age and am humbled by how much I have yet to learn. One thing I love about Brazilian youth slang is the way they throw in random English words whenever they feel like it: Gustavo says "bruh-ther" at least five times per sentence when he's talking to his male friends. I'll impart more fun slang to you all in the next post. For now, I'm exhausted and calling it a night. Tchau gente!  

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Marvelous Beginning

This first week has been one of my longest and most amazing weeks EVER! Sitting here on the balcony of my Alto Leblon apartment in boxers and a tank top, looking out at the ocean and listening to the sounds of Saturday night samba and laughter, I feel comfortable and at home. In seven glorious days, Rio de Janeiro has transformed from intimidating labyrinth to vibrant community. I've already made some Brazilian friends, learned some carioca slang, and tested some delicious new dishes. I've seen fire and I've seen rain, I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end...

I love airplane window seats almost as much as I love free in-flight XM radio. On my Independence Day journey from Atlanta to Rio, I was treated to both. Five minutes after liftoff, to a soundtrack of the classic "Come Fly With Me," I was delighted to witness two different fireworks shows from several thousand feet. The massive explosions looked like slow-motion mini sparkler emissions from that height, but the perspective was definitely unique and probably once in a lifetime. A few hours before landing, just as everyone was rubbing his eyes and waking up for airplane breakfast, we were greeted by a spectacular sunrise over the Amazon River. If you've never seen such a sight, I highly recommend it.

The Brown in Brazil coordinator met me at the airport along with the two other program participants on my flight, and we were driven directly to our homestays. I was the last to get dropped off, and slightly worried as we turned up a hill and just kept ascending block after block. It turns out that I live towards the top of a very tall hill, which would be a bummer except that my apartment is straight out of "House and Home," with vanilla-white furniture, original oil paintings, and a breathtaking view from the enormous balcony. There's also a free circular bus for the residents of the apartment complex that runs nonstop from 6am to 11pm. I think I'll survive.

I'm sharing the apartment with Regina- my host mom, a business journalist, and a bossa nova aficionada- and her 23-year-old son Gustavo, who graduated from PUC and is now a broadcast journalist covering extreme sports. He speaks fluent English (though I'm trying to get him to speak only Portuguese to me!), plays competitive soccer, and is more or less a disciple of Bob Marley. He surprised me last night with his seemingly random knowledge of hyphy music- he's a big fan of Mac Dre and Keak da Sneak! A Brazilian friend introduced him to the movement, and now he's an avid follower. Small world. From Monday to Friday, a maid named Monica lives in the apartment as well. It was a little strange at first having her make my breakfast, clean my room, and wash my clothes, but that's just the way things are done here. She is an Evangelical Christian, and was overjoyed to learn that I'm also Protestant. She already researched the nearby Christian churches for me and gave me several options for Sunday services! I'll start exploring them tomorrow, followed by my first visit to the renowned Hippie Fair in Ipanema.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Paraty, a historic town about three and a half hours south of Rio. It was a program excursion, and basically a taste of paradise. We took boat rides out to several different islands where we played Frisbee and soccer on the beach, swam, and ate fresh fish. In the evenings we explored Paraty and got to know each other through self-initiated charade games and guitar jam sessions. The other students from the program are all really cool, with no exceptions. It's nice to have some contacts here in Rio, but when intensive classes start next week, I'll be looking to branch out to native Portuguese speakers.

Yesterday and today I've mostly been trying to get everything in order. I bought a cell phone and a Wi-Fi router, which a technician will hopefully hook up on Monday afternoon so I can have unlimited Internet access the next five months. I organized my budget and made arrangements to pay some extra money to Regina in exchange for laundered clothes and dinner five nights a week. Besides that, I also had my first lecture at the university yesterday, covering Brazilian music and culture. We took a quick campus tour in the afternoon, so now I feel confidant finding my way around. I can't wait to finalize my schedule and fall into a good rhythm.

As for now, I'm content to go with the easy winter flow of the River of January. Life is good.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

And heeere we go!!!

Summer was really lovely here in sunny California, but I'm all set to fly directly into winter in Rio de Janeiro. Fortunately for me, winters in the Marvelous City aren't usually as rough as those in Cambridge. I've been checking the temperatures, and they're hovering at a tolerable 82 degrees during the day, 71 at night. I've packed all my winter clothes- shorts and tank tops- and plan to buy my spring and summer outfit after I arrive (zunga?).

In other news, last week I took my placement exam for the university in Rio. It was kinda hard, but I felt I did pretty well. Yesterday I received my scores and was thrilled to discover that I placed in the fifth level out of five! I guess that means I can take the most advanced Portuguese class over there, and that I have complete freedom in choosing my other academic courses. Very nice. I also pre-registered for my classes: Portuguese V, Brazilian Culture, Sociology of Daily Life, Cultural Anthropology, and Digital Photography. Can you tell I'm a humanities guy? Pre-registration is totally tentative (I hope?), so I'll be able to think over my decisions in the coming weeks before the semester starts.

So this is it- my next post will come straight outta Rio! Fear not, I'll still write in English. Excitement levels are at an all-time high, in case that didn't come across in my previous posts. I'M GOING TO BRAZIL TOMORROW!!!!!!! AAAUGHGHGHGH!!!!!! :-D