Saturday, April 28, 2012

What are you doing on Saturday night?

Howdy folks!  I had a great day at Parque Mangabeiras with the Maple Bear students and staff, belting out the Beetles songs. It went relatively smoothly (i.e. not TOO many children crying) And I'm pooped. 

I get to go to a Brazilian birthday party tonight for my son's closest friend at his new school.  I've been trying to rest all afternoon, and psyche myself up for a night of speaking Portuguese while children overdose on Guarana and candy.

And then I went to the website for the party.  Oh my. I should have known that a party place with the word "marshmallow" in it would be over the top.

Wish me luck. What are you doing this Saturday night?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Kino, Kiwano or Horned Melon

Last week I found this crazy looking "fruit" at school:

The package said "kino," and I said, "I have to try this!"  Unfortunately, it pretty much just tasted like water.  I cut it open, and it had LOTS of little seeds inside.  It kind of looked like maracuja (passion fruit), but the seeds were lighter.  Wikipedia says it tastes tart, so I must have tried one that wasn't very mature, or just plain bad.  Here are some better pictures:
Wikipedia also says that it's a traditional food plant in parts of Africa.  Interesting looking, and I found some really fascinating pictures of it online (makes a good subject) but not a fruit I'd recommend.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

paranoia and the expat

Ay.  What a day.  Actually, a week.  Here's the story.

I work one day a week at a campus that is about a 40 minute drive outside the city.  Last year I started the year by driving, but quickly realized that the roads were sooooo crappy (think big trucks, heavy rains, and minimal road repair) that it was not worth adding more grey hairs to my head.  I was able to carpool with a group of teachers.  But this year, for various reasons, the carpool doesn't really exist.  At least a convenient carpool.  So I've been trying to figure out how to get to work without spending too much time (taking the bus) or without going thru too much hassle to meet up with other teachers to get to work.  Each week there are always various factors that affect my decisions regarding transportation.  And I'll admit, I've driven a few times.

A week and a half ago,  I drove.  I was having a great time, belting out "All We Need is Love" by the Beatles, puttering along in my VW Beetle.  Feeling so 1973.  And then I heard a VERY loud noise.  I was almost on the exit for the school, so I kept driving, but midway thru the exit I realized that I had a flat tire.  I almost freaked out right then and there, thinking "I AM IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY WITH A FLAT TIRE, 40 MINUTES FROM REAL CIVILIZATION."  But I was able to calm myself down, pull over, and start changing the tire.  Granted, I haven't changed a tire in almost 20 years, but darn it all, I was going to try.  And I actually got the car jacked up pretty good (like, on the jack, not messed up).  But thankfully a very kind man named Julio stopped and took over.  He changed my tire and also managed to make me feel very wonderful about being a) a teacher b) a native English speaker and c) someone who can play the guitar.  Wow, thanks Julio for changing my tire and giving me an ego boost!  The spare was a little low, so I drove to the nearest gas station to fill it up.  The guy at the gas station told me that my spare had a leak.  He filled up the spare to 30 psi (even thought I was pretty sure that I'd been told 24 was okay), and within 30 seconds it lost 2 psi.  He convinced me to leave the car there so that I could come back after work, refill the tire (that would be flat by that time) and drive to the closest tire repair shop.  I then walked to school, and even managed to make it to class ON TIME.  Yes, I am that awesome.

After work, I walk back to the gas station, and what do you know?  The spare tire is NOT flat.  He insists on refilling it up, and of course it loses 2 psi in 30 seconds, and at that point I was pretty sure that he really knew nothing about tires, and I'm just thankful that he didn't blow up my remaining tires!  I made it back to BH, picked up the kids from school and got home.   I then got the chance to look closely at the tire, and saw that I had hit something pretty serious, and ripped a big hole in the tire.  But I had to at least try to see if it could be repaired.

I went to the neighborhood tire repair shop, and was kindly informed it was a lost cause.  Then began my search for a good price on tires.  I went back to the place where we had purchased 2 new tires back when we bought the car, and the prices had gone up almost R$50 a tire!!!  I called around, but found pretty much the same price.  And of course, because the tires were used (not that much, but enough to count), I had to buy 2 new tires instead of just one.  This stupid drive to work was starting to get really REALLY expensive.

So I finally scheduled the time to get the new tires.  And that was today.  I took the car.  No problem.  The shop even called to tell me there was an issue with some machine and my car would be ready later than they had told me (that NEVER happens!  Usually I have to call the shop and harass them to find out when my car will be ready).  Finally, they call and say everything is ready.  I went to pick up the car, pay my hefty bill and leave.  But then I realized that I'd forgotten to check the spare, and make sure that they'd traded the old tire with the hole for the old "good" tire.  I pulled over a block away from the shop, and saw the old, holey tire.  So I went back and explain what I need.  And then this guy shows up holding a tube, and says that the tube has a hole so they can't give me a good spare.  But what happened to my two good tires?  The old tires that you just took off?  I went back and forth between the secretary and the grease monkey and I just didn't get it.  At that point, I should have called my husband to get his help with Portuguese and even to help me think rationally here.  The grease monkey said he would see if he could get a new tube and they would call me.  And I drove away.  And I felt this increasing sense of dread.  How was is that I drove into the shop with 4 decent tires, but then bought 2 new tires and drove away with only 4 good tires?  I should have gone back to the shop and tried to clarify things.  But instead I went to the grocery and then home.  By then I was feeling really crappy.  So finally I told my husband, and of course he was mad that they had put a hole in the tube (that was the only conclusion I could come to based on what they were telling me) and we were going to have to pay for yet one more thing. 

He called the secretary to ask how they were going to fix this problem that they created, and she was really rude to him, and then he got really frustrated.  He said that he was not going to let them take advantage of us, and we had to go back there and figure out how they were going make this wrong right.  In the process of driving back, we found out that they had broken the handle on the driver's side door that had just been repaired.  I didn't notice it when I went to the store because I was so upset about the tire problem.  Ug.

We get to the shop, and the secretary is still trying to talk over my husband, and is not listening to anything he's saying.  Finally the manager comes out, and explains.  All the tires have tubes.  Old tires.  New tires.  They used the old tubes (which were still good) with the new tires.  They didn't make any holes in any tubes.  The grease monkey was talking about the repairing the tube in the tire that I had put a hole in.


And he would fix the door handle.  He apologized about it, and was quite nice, even though we got all worked up about it.

So essentially I made a big mess of things by not understanding Portuguese.  And I realized, that we are still in the paranoia stage of being expats.  We still are very quick to assume that people are trying to trick us, take our money, and essentially use jeitinho to take advantage of us.  The blog that I linked to defines "jeitinho" as personal benefit or advantage that is detrimental to the benefit or advantage of others.  

It's tricky in Brazil, because jeitinho is alive and real.  Not a day goes by when I don't encounter it (either attempting to use it, or being it's "victim").  So it's easy to quickly jump to the conclusion that someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes.  But there's also the reality that we are foreigners in a foreign land, with still a very limited understanding of social norms, culture, language and the many, many nuances of communication.  When I don't understand how something works, it's tempting to make a quick judgement that I'm being made fun of, and that my lack of understanding gives the person I'm interacting with full license to "get" me.  It's hard to be vulnerable.  It's hard not having the tools of language and culture.  It's hard to not understand.  And it's hard to live in a place where people can maneuver their way into benefits without following the rules (my rules?  North American rules?  Just who is making these rules...)  But somehow we've got to hold in balance the reality of jeitinho and our assumptions.   Like when it seems like someone is charging us too much for an inferior productOr convincing us to do something that we don't wantOr giving us the raw end of a deal.  Hmmm....

But my moral to my story is, if I don't understand, keep asking until I do.  And maybe try not to jump to conclusions so quickly, and then drag my unsuspecting husband into the paranoia as well.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The downside of living in an older building

We have a nice apartment.  It has a nice "area privativa," what we also call our patio.  It is on a VERY quiet street, and we don't have construction or traffic noise to deal with.  It's close to many bus lines, to some nice restaurants (not that we go out that much) and a very nice bakery.  Our neighbors are usually quiet, and the sindica (building super) is very helpful.  And the owner of our apartment lives upstairs, which has been very, VERY helpful.

And the building is 40 years old.  When we were looking for apartments, I remember several people telling us to avoid renting older apartments.  In many people's opinion, anything older that 10 years is considered old.  In the US, older buildings can be charming, quaint, with lots of retro chic details.  And I think that those kind of places exist in Belo Horizonte, but the challenge is that unfortunately most rentals have not been well maintained.  I think there are many reasons for this.  First of all the imobiliárias (the property management companies) really only want to take your money.  In my opinion (biased, and very uninformed I'll admit), the imobiliárias exist to serve the interests of the owners, and renters have fewer rights.  And the rights that we renters have, have to be fought for.  You have to work your tail off to get things fixed.  You have to jump through lots and lots of hoops to have documents corrected and updated and notarized.  The imobiliárias are not here to help us renters out.  And that means they do everything possible to avoid fixing problems.   

Secondly, I think that renters in Brazil don't take care of the problems either.  Renter are already paying lots for rent, condominium fee (the fee for maintaining the building and public areas, which also pays for doormen, cleaning, elevator, the pool if the building has one and so on), and taxes (yes, renters have the pay the owner's taxes).  Renters also will want to paint when they move in (the previous renters used the cheapest quality paint when they left), but of course you have to paint when you leave because the walls have to look the same when you leave.  So why would a renter really want to take care of the place?  If you are already feeling taken advantage of, why bother keeping things up?  If you already know that when you leave you will have to pay out the nose for things that were broken YEARS before you moved in (and the imobiliária and owners will just pocket the money and not fix things), what the point?

We decided to politely disregard the advice that was given to us, and we decided to rent our current apartment.  Like I said, there are many great things about it.  And yet my list of problems to take care of seems to grow week by week.  Right now, and for the past 2 months, one of the problems has been our "extra" bathroom, referred to as the "service" bathroom.  It's the small bathroom next to the maid's room (yes, think The Help.  But we use the maid's room as my husbands office, so hopefully the beautiful music he makes there redeems any injustices committed...).  We found out while we were in the states that the pipes in that bathroom had rusted and they were leaking into the downstairs neighbor's apartment.  Within a week of returning, we had a bombeiro (plumber!  not fireman!) come and rip everything out and change the pipes.  Wow!  It was so quick it left our heads practically spinning!  But that's what you get when a grouchy Brazilian grandma neighbor is fed up with water coming into her home.  And then we waited for the pedreiro (mason, tile guy).  And we waited.  And waited.  The owner of the apartment wanted to make sure that she had a trustworthy guy that would do a good job.  And it's really hard to find those kind of people right now because of the HUGE construction boom in the city.  But finally after about a month, she found a pedreiro.  And after 2 weeks, he got the tile down, and the toilet back in.  Hooray!

Not so fast.  While all this was happening, a problem was growing in our other bathroom.  The sink had been leaking, and someone did a very crappy job attempting to repair a leak in the shower.  Water had infiltrated the floor, and was damaging the wall in the hallway.  Great.  So now that the service bathroom is repaired, we are going to have to repair the main bathroom.  But the problem is that there isn't a functioning shower in the service bathroom.  So starting tomorrow, I don't know how we are going to shower for the next week.  Fun times.

I am thankful that we have bathrooms.  I'm thankful that we have a roof over our heads.  It really could be a lot worse.   But when you are already daily dealing with language/culture challenges, it gets pretty tiring to have to come home to a place that is constantly leaking, breaking, getting repaired, getting broken again, smelling funny (mold!?), or being eaten by termites.

So if you are in the market for an apartment in Belo Horizonte, beware of the older buildings.  They are cheaper, but are they worth it?  And if you are in our neighborhood this week, and smell something stinky, it's probably just our family...

Monday, April 9, 2012

All in a days work

Creepy dolls.

They are just another part of the reality of living in Brazil. My fellow Brazilian blogger has documented this phenomena with much frightening detail.  And I've taken quite a few pictures on my cell phone, but they've never really turned out.

Until last Wednesday.  I was at school, walking the Nursery class back to their classroom, when I encountered this:

I almost screamed, but caught myself and made a very strange sound.  And you know what the 3 and 4 year olds did?  "Oooo, bonitinho!  Look at all the cute little babies."

We have a very different perspective on what cute is.  My Grandma Ryan used to have a thing against buying me stuffed animals, because she always said they were "homely."  Lord a-mercy, these baby dolls are HOMELY.

Props for being anatomically correct, but what's up with the wrinkles?  And I just noticed that the legs are a different color than the body.  Yikes!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter, chicken?

Happy Easter morning!  The kids have already opened their large Brazilian chocolate eggs (this year we found out that a friend makes them herself!  So instead of shelling out R$75 at the drug store for crappy chocolate and cheap plastic toys, we paid her to make YUMMY eggs and we even got to choose our own filling).  The kids found the "easter eggs" the Easter bunny hid on the patio.  The broccoli quiches are made, green beans prepped, ham is seasoned and potatoes au gratin ready to go.

And as the hubby and I are sitting down to enjoy our 2nd cups  of coffee, we heard this.

And not just once but every 20 minutes or so.  So of course, we start playing the  "what the heck is that noise?" game.  My husband thinks it's someone's TV.  I think it's a car with BIG speakers on it, driving around the neighborhood to advertise...something.  Any other guesses?  If I hear it again, I'm going to go out and investigate. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gruta da Lapinha

For quite some time, I've heard about the caves in Minas Gerais.  It's Semana Santa (Holy Week), and my husband has 5 days off, and myself and the kids have 4 days off.  We'd talked about taking a little trip, but we just didn't get our act together soon enough.  So instead I convinced the hubby to drive to Gruta da Lapinha--probably the closest cave to Belo Horizonte.  We met up with a friend in Pampulha.

Mozambique Overpass
We take Pres. Antonio Carlos (the "road" or "freeway" or in my opinion, big street) to get to Pampulha.  We think it's kind of funny that the city has named the overpasses after African Countries.  We finally got around to taking some pictures to share.  And by the way, this is probably one of the nicest stretches of road in BH--it's new, it's wide, it's not bumpy.  It's great!

Congo Republic Overpass!

After we got to Pampulha, it took about an hour to get to the Gruta.  You have to drive to Lagoa Santa, and then follow the signs for "Gruta."  I wish I could say that I had better directions, but I wasn't driving, and Corinne got the directions.  And I'm really bad with directions anyway.  But, if you are going to try it, I'd say go for it, because it wasn't so complicated. 

The cost is R$10 for adults, and R$5 for meia (kids, students, senior citizens) and kids 4 and under are free.  You HAVE to wear close-toed tennis shoes.  We made the mistake of having Beatrice wear crocs, and they told us she couldn't wear them, but then eventually everybody just ignored it and she was able to go in.  Ah, Brazil.  The land of rules, and the land of ways to avoid following those rules.  

We packed a picnic lunch, and enjoyed it at the covered picnic tables.  There is a little snack shop, but it looked like it really only had coconut water and Popsicles.  There were several dogs around, lizards and butterflies, and the kids loved playing with them and running around while we adults chatted.  

Then it was time to don the helmets and go into the cave.  
Dora, Sebastian, Kevin and Bea


entrance to the cave

cool formations in the cave


watch out for spiders!

more formations in the cave

The guide didn't talk about this (not at least according to my understanding of his Portuguese), but Peter Lund discovered these caves sometime in the 1830s.  Peter Lund was a Norwegian naturalist who came to Brazil for treatment for tuberculosis, but ended up doing a lot of research and exploring caves.  He's considered the Father of archeology.  I'd heard that it was at Gruta da Lapinha that he found the oldest human remains in South America.  However, I did a little research and found out that the remains were actually found at Lapa Vermelha in the 1970s.   Luzia, fondly considered the "first" Brazilian, is the oldest human skeleton found in South America, and is between 11,400 and 16,400 years old!  But Luzia is considered representative of the "Homem de Lagoa Santa" or the people that lived in this region during that period.  And the connection of all this to Peter Lund, is that Lund did find 31 skeletons that belong to the "Homem de Lagoa Santa."  But I don't know where this was.  And if this has anything to do with Gruta da Lapinha.  I've opened up a can of worms here...

I'm glad we went to the caves, and I had a fun time getting out of the city and satiating my curiosity.  However, if anyone out there is thinking of going, I would recommend spending more time at the park or in Lagoa Santa to make the most of the drive.  We spent about 3 hours driving there and back, and only about 2 1/2 hours eating lunch, playing and touring the cave.  There are lots of restaurants along the road close the cave that looked interesting (quaint little farm-restaurant looking places), and the guide for our cave tour mentioned a hike to another cave that sounded interesting.  So with a little more research and planning, you could add this cave tour to a fun day out of the city.