Saturday, February 16, 2013

Wind Shield Wipers=Limpador de Parabrisa

I have had numerous bad experiences with wind shield wipers.

1.  When Matt and I were just barely dating, I went from my parent's house in Central WA to Seattle to visit him.  The passes (highway over the mountains) had been closed for several days due to the excessive amount of snow that had fallen, but it just so happened that the roads were ok when I had decided to go.  My wonderful, adventurous sister Katie came along with me.  Being the responsible driver that I am, I made sure my Dad had the oil changed, and he also arranged to have the wiper blades changed because it was about time.  Great!  My sister and I took off, no problems.  It was such a nice comfortable drive, that my sister dozed off.  At the top of the pass, it started raining/snowing.  I turned on the windshield wipers.  After about 10 minutes, the DRIVER'S SIDE windshield wiper FLEW OFF.  Yes, it launched off the arm into oblivion.  I was driving close to 50 mph on the freeway, with lots of traffic, so there was really no way I could retrieve said windshield wiper.  I frantically woke my sister up, and told her she had to be my eyes, because I couldn't see a thing.  Meanwhile, the wipers are still going, and the wiper-less one on my side is now scratching the windshield.  Great.  Thankfully, we were able to exit the freeway pretty quickly.  We pulled into the first gas station we found, and I went in to ask for some help.  But because the passes had been closed and people had been forced to essentially camp at the gas station until the road opened, they were entirely sold out of EVERYTHING.  Seriously:  the shelves were bare.  The attendant told us that there was a truck stop another 10 miles down the freeway that had gotten a shipment of stuff in earlier that day, and we might be able to find wiper blades there.  We went back to the car, and I was able to find surgical tape in the glove compartment (??!?) so I wrapped the wiper arm to prevent any further scratching of the windshield.  I then went on to drive 10 miles on the freeway, in the rain, with my sister guiding me, to the truck stop.  The truck stop did happen to have a wiper blade.  FOR USD $75!!!  I had no choice but to put it on the credit card.

2.  Flash forward a few years to when Matt and I were almost married, and I was living in Eugene, OR.  Anyone who knows anything about Eugene, OR knows that it rains A LOT.  Within a few months of moving there, I had to replace my windshield wipers.  I vividly remember going to the auto supply store, and using their machine to make sure that I was buying the right size for my Toyota Corolla.  I returned home, and went to replace the wiper blades, and for the life of me, I couldn't get the old ones off.  My year in Walla Walla, WA had some how rusted my wiper blades to the arm! After a lot of work, and a lot of WD-40, I managed to get them off.  But then I found out that the blades I had purchased didn't easily attach to the arm.  I don't remember exactly what I did, but I recall using some kind of McGyver technique to get the blade to stay on the arm.  Arg.

3.  Flash forward another few years, and we moved to Tempe, AZ.  Anyone who knows anything about the desert knows that it doesn't rain very much.  But when it does rain, it rains like crazy.  By that point we have graduated to the ranks of the Toyota Camry, and I never once changed the wiper blades on that car the ENTIRE 9 YEARS I LIVED THERE.   Every time it rained, I thought "I've GOT to change these!"  as the mud slid across my windshield.  But then it wouldn't rain again for another 6 months.

4.  Flash forward to Brazil.  We lived without a car for 9 months.  I lost 20 pounds.  Then we bought a Fusca (VW Bug).  We owned it for about 2 years, and again, every time it rained I thought about how I should go out and buy wiper blades.  But then we bought another car and sold the Fusca.

5.  Flash forward to now.  Those of you who know Belo Horizonte know that for about 6 months of the year it doesn't rain, and then for 6 months it rains.  In the rainy season, it will rain probably about once a day (this is a very broad generalization) but it rains hard.  We bought a new car right before the rainy season.  It started raining, and it became clear that we needed a new wiper blade.  But we'd never bought one in Brazil before.  Where the HECK do you get wiper blades?  I saw a guy on some random street corner selling them for about R$30, but of course, I didn't have any cash on me.  I was getting gas at the station one time, and the attendant told me I needed a new wiper blade.  Duh.  I asked him how much it was.  He went to look, came back and said "eight."  Really!?!! Could it be that wiper blades were that cheap!!?!  I was so excited!  He tried to put it on, but realized it was the wrong size.  He came back with another one and said it was more expensive, like R$100.  Huh?  He said the first one was "eight-Y."  Oops, a case of hearing what I wanted to hear.  But little did I know that I should have just shelled out the money.

We then proceeded to drive 6 weeks with the same bad wind shield wiper.  We even drove to Tiradentes with my parents in a RAGING rainstorm that shut down the Maria Fumaça.  It was a very stressful drive.  We came back to BH.  I saw a place that I thought sold wipers.  My husband went back, and turns out they don't, but they told him somewhere else to go.  He went there.  He bought something that they said would work.  He tried to install it, and it was the wrong size.  He went back, and convinced them to exchange it.  He came back, wrestled with it for a while, and got it to work.

And you know what?  It hasn't rained since!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Carnaval at the Clube

How was everyone's Carnaval?  I love Carnaval.  I love the marchinas, the music that is composed each year for the "blocos" or block parties, that involves lots of drums and percussions.  Maybe it's my marching band past, but there's something about it that just gets me going.  I love the costumes, kids dress up like it's Halloween (minus the scary outfits), and adults put a lot of effort into coming up with creative and interesting costumes.  I love the excuse to get together with friends, to eat and drink and dance and have fun.  I even love the confetti and streamers, even when I find them all over my apartment a full week after it's all over.  I love the show on TV, watching the scantily clad dancers gallivant around fancy floats.  One day I'm going to go to Rio for Carnaval, and I'm gonna be in the Sambadrom.  Mark my word.

If you had the privilege of celebrating Carnaval in Brazil, I hope that you had fun, and you got to enjoy some of the joy I mentioned above.  But you may have also experienced some of the following:

-excessive partying.  Carnaval is a time to let loose.  Whether it's Rio de Janeiro or Salavador the Galo, or the Historic Cities and their revelry, Carnaval is a time to drink, dance, celebrate and party.  And with that comes all the craziness that people do while they are having fun.  I'm tempted to elaborate, but I will just let you use your imagination here.

-excessive traffic.  Everyone wants to go somewhere for Carnaval.  And they all want to go at the same time.  We experienced this 2 years ago at Carnaval.  A drive that should have been 1 hour, turned into a sweltering, slow, 3 hour endeavor.  Have I mentioned that I have a family member who HATES traffic?  This makes the traffic even more miserable. 

-excessive weather.  It is February in Brazil, summer time.  That means not only is it HOT, but it rains.  Often.  And like crazy. 

Now, I realize that I'm coming across as a grumpy pants.  Carnaval can come with it's challenges.  We had considered taking a 4+ hour drive into the interior of Minas Gerais to visit a friend's tiny home town where they have a very fun but low key Carnaval celebration (imagine people bringing their own instruments, making music together, staying up late, dogs and kids running wild....).  But we just recently returned from New York and Rio and Tiradentes, and we were feeling like keeping it mellow, and avoiding some of the challenges that are involved with traveling at Carnaval.  So we joined a club!

Brazilians who have the means (hmmm, didn't I say this when I was talking about school?) will frequently opt to buy a membership to a club, so their families can have a place to swim, take soccer classes, socialize, take Yoga, rub shoulders with a certain group of people, etcetera.  I think that one of the reasons that public spaces (parks) are so lacking in Brazil is because the middle class and upper middle class don't use them, instead choosing to spend their recreational time at the Club.  Clubs offer and enclosed "safe" space, with relatively well maintained and clean equipment, and you can order food and beer there!  What more can you ask for!  I supposed you could compare it to a really nice YMCA in the states, but you have to pay a lot more, and you can go and hang out for a whole day.  Clubs come in all sorts of flavors.  You can find the "very expensive and pretentious," "soccer," "low budget," "this neighborhood only," "I only play tennis,"  or "I like my pool open at the time I want and I have no problem paying for it" options.  We opted for a place that was close to our apartment, that offered classes for the kids, and that wasn't insanely expensive (i.e. NOT Minas Tenis, where memberships run R$20,000 to R$45,000!!  And that's JUST to join!  That's not including the monthly fee!!!) 

We've spent 3 of the 5 vacation days at the Club.  I love that the kids can swim and scream and burn off energy.  I love that they make friends there and play with the other kids.  And we've met some interesting people there too.  I can go and read or just space out or eat crackers, or do whatever I want and not have to worry about the mess that we are making.  And it makes me feel a little bit more Brazilian to be able to say "eu foi ao clube..."

Sunday, February 10, 2013



Oops.  I forgot to pay a bill before it was due.  Usually we pay all our bills online, through our bank. We either get an email boleto (bill) or a boleto in the mail.  Then we go online, and enter the code (which contains something like 30 numbers), check the amount, click and it's paid!

But when you don't pay on time, things get more complicated.  You either have to go to the bank that holds the account and wait in line for what seems like FOREVER.  Or sometimes you have the option of paying the bill at a Loteria or "Lottery."  You can buy tickets for any of the thousands and thousands of various drawings, contests, card games, etcetera.  And, you can also pay bills there.  I remember asking my first English student here about the loterias:  what were they?  Why were there always HUGE lines outside of them?  She had never been in one before, so she didn't give me much information.  But what I've gathered is that it's mainly a place to buy your lottery tickets, and a service for those who don't have the resources to have a bank accounts (i.e. the poor).  If you need to pay something in cash, you can go, pay, and get the ever important receipt.  Note:  always save your receipts for things like gas, rent, HOA bill, etcetera, because you'll need to show those receipts to the rental agency when you move out of the apartment to confirm that you've paid everything.  Even though you already email them the receipt every month, and sometimes you send them a physical copy, they STILL need to see the original receipts.  Arg.

But anyway, I had to go pay my bill.  As with most things new that I have to do here in Brazil, I was nervous.  How long would I have to spend in line?  Did I have the right documents?  Did I have to have the amount in exact change?  I'm glad to say that it was easy:  my wait was about 5 minutes, I simply gave the bill, the teller calculated the late fee, I paid and didn't need exact change, got my receipt and was on my way! 

I'm still not sure where there are so often HUGE lines of people waiting outside the loterias.  Maybe it has to do when there is a big drawing?  An important soccer game?  The alignment of the stars?  Seriously, sometimes things like that seem controlled by such random factors.  But I also think that many Brazilians just have a lot more patience and tolerance for waiting.  We Americans are an impatient bunch, and we want to take care of business as quickly and as conveniently as possible.  And maybe that wait in line provides people with the opportunity to pick the winning numbers, dream about how they might use their winnings, or come to terms with the amount of money they will have to pay on their bills. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Belo Horizonte vs. Rio de Janeiro

Belo Horizonte
Rio de Janeiro

We had the privilege of visiting Rio de Janeiro for 6 days in January.  My dear hubby has been there a few time for work, but it was the first time for the rest us, and for my parents.  It was amazing.  I can totally understand why people want to live there, and I have to admit I was quite taken by it all. Granted, I was also on vacation, so I had very few responsibilities, no laundry, no driving.  We flew there and took taxis to get around because 1) my hubby found tickets for less than R$200 round trip and 2) the penthouse we stayed in had no parking spot and 3) the mere thought of driving in an unfamiliar city known for its crazy traffic gave me the heebie jeebies.  We also ate out a lot.  So, I realize that my experience in Rio was made even more amazing because I was just there to relax and have fun.  Plus we were mainly in Copacabana, so please take all this with a grain of salt. 

But all that said, I have some comparisons to make between Rio and Belo Horizonte.

1.  Beauty.  Rio de Janeiro is beautiful:  there is the beach, the ocean, the mountains, sunset, Cristo Redentor, Pão de Açucar.  There are certainly parts that are not so beautiful.  We went to Centro to go to Confeitaria Colombo and then we walked to the Theatro Municipal, and it was certainly dirty and not such a great neighborhood (at least from appearances).  But I would have to say that the ugly views are well balanced by the very, very beautiful parts.  Although Belo Horizonte might mean "beautiful horizon" it is not by any means a beautiful city.  Sure the view from Mangabeiras Park is nice, and the Serra do Curral (the mountains "behind" Mangabeiras Park) are beautiful, but it is not very easy to see this part of Belo Horizonte.  And miles and miles and miles of high rise apartments are not my idea of beauty.  And even though Belo is called "the garden city," and there are some streets that still have nice trees, over all it is just not very visually attractive. 

2.  Tourism.  Rio de Janeiro hosts lots of lots of tourists from Brazil and the world.  Belo Horizonte is NOT a tourist destination.  Rio de Janeiro has resources to cater to tourists, and Cariocas (people who live in Rio) for the most part know how to welcome tourists and help out.  Belo Horizonte just doesn't have many great tourist attractions.  There's the Mercado Central, some parks, some museums, but honestly, it's not worth adding an extra day to your tour of Brazil to come visit Belo Horionte.  Just saying. 

3.  Accessibility.  We found Rio de Janeiro to be walkable.  This means that there were places that were flat, that had good sidewalks, and that we didn't feel like we were risking our lives when we crossed the streets.  In Belo Horizonte, the sidewalks are HORRIBLE, it is terribly hilly (if you aren't walking uphill or going downhill it means that you are standing still), and drivers here have no tolerance for pedestrians.  This was the thing that surprised me the most.  I think that Mineiros (people from Minas Gerais), or perhaps specifically just people from Belo Horizonte get really mean when they get behind the wheel.  They don't take traffic sign and signals seriously, they drive crazy fast, and they don't like stopping for pedestrians.  Unfortunately pedestrians here compensate by being stupid and running in front of cars.  But overall, drivers were MUCH nicer in Rio.

4.  How things work.  In Rio, the taxi drivers refused to stop at the side of the road to let us out because it was against the law and they could get fined.  Maybe I'm reading way too much into this, but I was very impressed by this.  There is a street in our neighborhood that has several NO PARKING signs, and any time a car parks in front of the NO PARKING signs, they block traffic and it causes cars to back up and it just makes a mess.  But no one cars, and people are always parking there.  In fact, in Belo, people stop their cars wherever they want to, whenever they want to.  I would like to say that I have never participated in this kind of behavior, but when in Rome...

5.  Cleanliness.  I found Rio to be overall a much cleaner city than Belo Horizonte.  Maybe it's because we were in Copacabana, but it was nice.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that Rio is a clean city, but compared to Belo Horizonte, it was cleaner.  I didn't see any dog poop on the side walk the whole time I was there!  Unfortunately, there is a lot of trash and dog poop in the street and on the sidewalk here.

6.  Expense.  I didn't find the prices to be all that much difference in Rio as compared to Belo Horizonte.  There were some things that were much cheaper (groceries! clothing!), and other things that were more expensive (eating out).  I assumed that Rio would be more expensive.  But then again, I didn't look into renting any apartments....

I think that I was expecting Rio to feel more dangerous, a little darker and meaner than Belo Horizonte.  But I was surprised.  My son said that when he grows up and has his own family, he's going to live in Rio de Janeiro.  I'd move there with him!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Back to School

It's February, and that means back to school in Brazil.  As a reminder for my North American readers, we are in the Southern hemisphere, so it is the end of summer here.  Vacation is over.  It's time to go back to bad traffic, more noise (thanks to traffic), and back to work. 

Well, almost.

As I mentioned in my last post, most things just go on hold between Christmas and Carnaval.  And Carnaval happens to fall during the 2nd week of school here.  So really, REALLY things don't get back to their normal routine until after Carnaval.  But that's okay with me:  I don't mind easing my way into the school year, breaking it up with a 5 day weekend at the beginning.

What does back to school here mean?  I've mentioned before that most Brazilians with the means pay to send their children to private schools.  Quality public schools exist, but for the most part your local neighborhood public school is unfortunately not very good.  The teachers are underpaid and overworked, the facilities are in disrepair, resources are lacking, and unfortunately expectations are low.  So, most middle class Brazilians have to decide which private school their child will attend.  By late January,  most people have figured out where their children will study.  The application process starts back in August/September, which involves paperwork, paying application fees, and usually having your child take a test to see if they will "make it" in said school.  However, sometimes a child doesn't pass the test, and so the process continues until you can find a school that works for you.   This is what happened for Sebastian's best friend, and just last week his parents got everything in order for him to study at a different school. 

Then once you decide the school and are accepted, you have to pay a full month's tuition in advance.  In Belo Horizonte, private school tuition runs between R$600 to R$1600 a month, with the American School being twice that amount (but the American school is "full" day, from 7:30 am to about 3:30 pm, or a traditional North American schedule).  But most schools will be about R$900 a month.  The school day will be between 5 to 6 hours a day, either a morning shift or afternoon shift.  I'd like to say that most young children (before 6th grade) study in the morning, and old kids in the afternoon, but it varies from school to school.  Also, education starts at a much younger age in Brazil than in the US:  usually children will start at age 2 or 3, and it's very rare that a child would wait until they are 6 (1st grade) to start school. 

After you pay, you then get the pleasure of paying more, for uniform and books/materials.  Uniforms can run between about R$25 a piece to R$50 a piece (piece means part of the uniform).  My kids always want me to buy the jackets and accessories, but I have to stop the madness somewhere.  I don't want to give you a heart attack and tell you the grand total of what we spent on materials/books, but I will tell you that Dora had LOTS of books, and they were between R$60 and R$125.  You have to buy ALL their text books, ALL their materials (notebooks, pencils, paper, EVERYTHING).  Beatrice had a list of materials for her kindergarten class that was crazy--paintbrushes, clay, cotton balls, cream of tartar, sand paper, playdough, construction paper, masking tape, etcetera, etcetera.  Thankfully I got the teacher [free] discount, and I didn't have to shell out the R$500 for all that stuff. 

The other fun thing about back to school shopping is the stores.  There are normally long lines, problems with the cash registers, extended coffee breaks taken by the employees that make for even longer lines, and lack of actual material to buy ("what?!?  The paper store is out of paper?!")   But then you add thousands of parents descending on the stores the last few days of summer vacation and you have insanity.  Just stay away from bookstores in the month of January and February, if you are wise. 

I feel such a sense of accomplishment when I finish getting all the kids school supplies.  I like to do it myself, and shop around (love me a bargain), and one things that I've found SO helpful is Google images.  Often times you get a list with something like "Pasta catálogo com 50 plásticos" or "TNT," and there just isn't an entry in the dictionary that can help you find out what the heck it is your supposed to get.  Doing a Google Image search for "TNT Brasil Escola Material" will help you realize that there is no need to blow up your child's school.  :-)

But on a positive note, it's my 3rd year of teaching.  I really, really like teaching.  And I think that I'm pretty good at it.  And now that I've done this back to school thing a few times, I don't feel so stressed.  I'm going to be teaching "ala carte" this year (i.e. I don't have a classroom), but I'm okay with that.  I'm looking forward to seeing my students again, and having fun with them.