Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Learning my ABCs

I guess I never fully learned the pronunciation for all the letters in the Portuguese alphabet when I was in Brazil last time.

When I was checking in for my flight from Rio to Curitiba, I read my confirmation code to an airline employee. As I read through the combination of letters and numbers, I couldn't help but notice that the airline representative was chuckling.

I paused and thought for a second what she would be laughing at. As I looked at the code again, I noticed that it had the letter Q.

I guess I just assumed that you pronounce the letter the same as you do in Spanish (Kew, rhymes with Jew). In Portuguese, the word "cu" means asshole. I asked her how I was supposed to pronounce that letters. She said it is pronounced "kay." Then we proceeded to crack up together.

Now I know the Portuguese alphabet and have a great story to explain how I learned it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Race

The above photo shows the start of the Canoe Race during the Shrimp Festival on Superagui Island this weekend. I spent the weekend in the fishing community in the middle of the local national park because my office works there. The festival was an opportunity to celebrate their labor, the canoe race being part of the three-day extravaganza.

I was intrigued about the canoe race from the moment I saw it on the schedule. I wanted to test my skills against those of fisherman who do this on a daily basis. Someone from the island let me borrow a canoe and paddle. The event organizers found me a partner.

I am the ball of hair sitting in front of the first-place canoe. Anderson is the guy standing at the back of the boat.

We are opposites.

Before we got into the canoe, Anderson said he had to fill up before the race. He went to the liquor tent and downed a healthy glass of cachaça (something similar to rum) and smoked a cigarette. I drank some water and ate a banana.

His body is covered in tattoos. Instead of a cross neckland, he has one tattooed around his neck and chest. He also has a giant marijuana leave on his forearm, in addition to many other examples of body art. The only lasting impressions I have on my body are from an encounter with a mohel when I was a baby and a horseshoe-shaped scar on the back of my head.

He drank until 4:00 a.m. at the Shrimp Festival dance party and was still pretty hungover by the time the 10:00 a.m. race got underway at 11:30. I decided to go to bed early to try to get rid of a gripe that had been bothering me for a few days and then went for a 10 km run on the beach when I woke up.

He makes a living fishing for shrimp. I have never tasted it.

We even contrast in our canoeing styles. I am used to sitting down while paddling. I tried to do it standing up and nearly flipped our canoe over. Anderson refused to sit down.

I was told he was one of the better oarsmen on the island. That´s pretty much all I cared about.

When I signed up for the race, there were only three other canoes entered in the competition. If one of them flipped over, we would easily win the third-place prize of two life jackets (hopefully we wouldn´t need them during the race). Maybe we could somehow finish second and win a basket of essential goods that the Brazilian government gives to poor families every month. I was convinced the first-place prize of a new fishing net was out of our reach.

By the time the race was starting, three other canoes had registered. Even if Anderson was the best oarsmen in the village, he probably didn´t have the endurance to complete the mile-long course. All hope of winning was out the window at that point. My personal goal was not to finish and not flip the canoe.

As you can tell from the photo, we had a great start. We were neck and neck with the other canoes for the first minute. Then, they started to pull away. I kept paddling as hard as I could, but the other canoes weren´t getting any closer.

One by one, the other canoes realized they would not have the endurance to stand up the entire race. They still managed to stay ahead of us, though. By the end, the only person left standing was Anderson. Unfortunately, our canoe was also the last one to cross the finish line.

When working in community development, the unspoken goal of all work is to entertain the local population. Mission accomplished in the canoe race.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fighting for soul of Brazilian soccer

When I visited the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, I wrote a story for The Michigan Daily about how that stadium was the most democratic space in a city renowned for inequality. It was a placewhere people from all over the city, from every social background, could gather to enjoy the national pasttime.

The last few years have made soccer in Brazil significantly less accessible to the everyday fans, with escalating ticket prices and rule changes that have reshaped the experience of going to the stadium.

One of my coworkers at the university is involved with the National Front of Soccer Fans (FNT, according to its name in Portuguese), an organization whose mission is make soccer in Brazil more democratic and available to everybody.

Founded in 2012 in response to drastic changes in stadium rules and ticket prices, the FNT is fighting against the country´s ´´soccer mafia´´ that has controlled soccer policy for decades. In recent years, the national soccer federation has significantly reduced the kinds of instruments fans can brings to games and limited the kinds of banners they can display, while raising box office prices. Tickets that used to cost as little as R$1 (0;50) per ticket now cost R$50-60 ($25-30) at the cheapest.

In an effort to maintain soccer´s role as a unifying force in Brazilian society, the FNT engages in a variety of activities. In its two year´s of existence, the group has gained thousands of symathizers around the country and an active core of  dedicated members.

Some of FNT´s first actions were a bit more aggressive, such as occupying  the Brazilian Soccer Federation´s office in Rio de Janeiro or bringing banners to the games to suppor their cause. They launched Twitter campaigns to raise awareness of hypocrisy and corruption.

They have decided to adopt a strategy that focuses more on legal processes to achieve change. This includes a reformation of a statute about the rights and responsibilities of soccer fans in Brazil, changing the rules so that the national government has greater power to regulate sports, and changing the electoral processes in the national soccer federation.

My friend says they are also promoting some progressive strategies to make the game more available. He links the price of the entrance to soccer games to the right of Brazilians to leisure activities and culture, just like they should have reasonably priced cinema and theater. One of their ideas is that the minimum ticket price not exceed 2% of the monthly minimum salarly.

Many of the soccer clubs have significantly high debts to pay for stadium reforms and other poor financial decisions. They think that clubs could receive some sort of debt releif if they offer a certain number of tickets as reasonable prices.

Whether or not these policies are realistic is not for me to say. I don´t know enough about the subject. I enjoy the fact that they care enough about their national pasttime to try and keep it within reach for everyone in society.

I could not help but notice how some of the same trends that are reshaping the landscape of soccer in Brazil are also transforming the nature of college football. Although the FNT is still in its nascent stages, it is interesting to see how residents in another country are organizing to address these issues.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Sweet Spot

As everyone in the Northern Hemisphere enjoys the balmy summer days and warm nights, the Southern Hemisphere faces winter. 

For Curitiba, don´t think White Christmas. Think something resembling the middle of autumn. Some days are pleasant and sunny, but most are cloudy, cool, and rainy. The absence of indoor heating here means that you need to find another way to keep warm.

The hot shower. 

Although some in Curitiba have gas-powered water heaters, the more economical version is an electric contraption you connect to your shower head. There are only two kinds of people who know how to install them: Either you have a degree in electrical engineering or you have no understanding of how electircity works. Anything in the middle means you are unqualified for the task. I am somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, which means I can only marvel at this technology and speculate as to how it works.

Mastering the opeartion of the electric shower heater, or ducha loca as Peace Corps volunteers affectionately refer to it, is an art form. There is a fine balance between finding a water temperature that will allow you enough water pressure to do everything you need to in the shower. At the same time, you run the constant risk of electricuting yourself. 

If you don´t turn the shower on enough, you will not activate heater. Once you turn the water on enough, you will hear a rush that reminds me of the sound of a waterfall. That signals the beginning of the dance.

Now that you have turned on the heater, you need to find the ever-elusive sweet spot where you balance pressure and temperature to achieve the maximum shower experience. The water pressure where you activate the shower is too high to get it hot enough. So then you have to back track a bit, turning the handle ever so slightly. If you turn it too much, you will turn off the heater and be standing under a stream of frigid water. If you don´t turn it enough, you will remain under a tepid flow of water that is not quite comfortable enough to consider a warm shower.

So the dance continues until you achieve the nirvana that is the perfect shower with the electric shower heater. 

Keep in mind that I am unqualified about how these things work, so the previous five paragraphs is pure speculation. If you have any ideas as to how I can do this any better, please let me know.

As I learned from my time in Ecuador, anytime you walk out of a hot shower into a chilly morning, you are bound to be hit by gripe. But the thirty minutes of gripe-related discomfort are totally worth it for the escape that the shower provides.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Worst case scenario?

In Brazil, nothing unites society like the national soccer team.

It doesn't matter where you are from, what social class you are, how old you are, which political party you support., The national team, or seleçâo, is the great unifying force. When the team plays, everyone proudly displays their jerseys. Life stops for the games.

Any seeminly casual fan harbors stronger opinions about their beloved national team than some of the most ardent American fans have for any of their professional teams. I have engaged in conversations about soccer strategy with grandmothers in the last few days that rival the tactical complexity of any conversations I have had about any sport. All of it in relation to the Brazilian national team. You won't find this anywhere else. 

Heading into yesterday's semifinal, many in the country believed it was their destiny to win the World Cup on home soil, espeically after the infamous loss in 1950. That sense of destiny came up against a German squad that didn't abide by those beliefs.

I watched the game with one of my friends and his family. With the entire extended family gathered around the televsion, we witnessed Germany dismantle Brazil's hubris, one goal at a time. After three goals, most people left the room. I sat in the corner of the couch, without anything to say - not knowing what to say. The fact that the game was out of reach so early allowed everyone to spend the remaining hour of the game digesting, or trying to comprehend, what happened in the game's first 25 minutes. Luckily, Brazilians have a very self-depricating sense of humor, which made the last hour as enjoyable as a national nightmare could be.

I came back to the university dorm I have been staying at and saw blank faces among the other guests. They are all college students, whose first sports memories came when Brazil was still king of the soccer world, raised to believe that their national team is the best in the world., But to watch that team get picked apart was humiliating. It was a mixture of silence and jokes about how some of the players didn't show up for the World Cup.

It was foreign to see the ever-ebullient Brazilians reduced to a reserved, sad people.

When I showed up in the office this morning, everyone was feeling a little glum (and maybe a little hungover). People walked around speaking fake German accents all day long. Many times they would just answer the phone in German accents (which gives me ideas on future use of my beloved Russia voice).

Using humor to cover the emotions of the day helped, but it will take years, probably decades, before we understand the gravity and reverberating effects of Germany's win. 

One thing that I know for sure is that almost the entire country of Brazil will be rooting their hearts out for Germany in the final. As miserable as Brazilians felt about seeing their team lose in humiliating fashion, the sight of archrival taking the field in the World Cup final at the Maracana will take that pain to new levels. 

As my friend said at the end of Argentina's win this afternoon, the only thing that will make us feel better as a country would be a 7-0 win for Germany on Sunday.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The great philosophers of the modern era

I saw a documentary a few months ago about a ballroom dancing instructor, who works with Arab and Israeli children in Jaffa. One of the scenes from the film that I remember most is a conversation that the dance teacher had with a cab driver. In the span of thirty seconds, the cab driver was able to summarize and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that politicians have supposedly been trying to do for decades.

When I saw this movie, I had two ideas: first, we should consider employing more taxi cab drivers as diplomats; and second, I would watch a TV series (or listen to a radio show) that has taxi cab drivers from different countries and cities explaining and solving problems. 

On my way to Curitiba, I had a nine-hour layover in Rio de Janeiro. I spent the time with a friend before catching my evening flight. Because of the mayhem of the World Cup and the fact that my friend was unsure of the bus schedule back to the airport, I decided to err on the side of caution (I've never written phrase before) and take a taxi back to the airport.

The conversation in the car on the way to the airport confirmed that a show with taxi drivers explaining local problems would be a smash hit. In between jokes about local politicians and comments about women we saw on the street, the driver was able to propose solutions to Rio's most pressing problems.

We started talking about the World Cup, as most conversations in Brazil go these days.  Somehow, over the course of the next 35 minutes, we discussed the World Cup, the lack of sexual eduation in Brazil, the limited opportunity for economic advancement in Rio's poor neighborhoods, global warming, the price of gasoline, Carnaval, the Costa Rican national team's improbable run,  the inescapable odor that you catch when driving to the Rio airport, the volunteer work I would be in Curitiba, and the upcoming Brazilian presidential elections.

When I got out of the car, he insulted one of the World Cup cars that was parked in the drop-off lane at the airport.

Somehow, it all flowed and made logical sense. More than anything, it also confirmed that a show about taxi drivers would be a smash hit.  You could also have policy experts respond to the driver's proposals.

Each season could take a certain theme and go around the world getting the opinions of cabbies on that issue. Another way to handle it would be to have the season focus on a certain city, that way you could get some character development.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

On the way back to Brazil

I couldn't really think of a more ideal way to spend my six-hour layover on the way to Brazil. I spent the first two hours watching the World Cup quarterfinal between Brazil and Colombia, while dedicating the remaining hours to plowing through my stash of produce and blogging about the experience of watching the game at an airport food court.

When I got to the food court near my gate, it was full of people wearing yellow jerseys. Because Brazil and Colombia both have yellow jerseys and fans from each country yell "vamos" to cheer their team, the only way to tell which team someone was rooting for was to pay attention to when they were yelling (I guess you could also look at the name of the country on the jersey, but I was too busy paying attention to the game to notice). I settled into a corner next to the airport piano player and next to some Venezuelans.

When I sat down to watch the game, I wasn't sure who I wanted to win. After a quick reflection, I realized that I should probably want Brazil to win this game. The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup, 1950, it lost to Uruguay in the finals. The game is remembered by people in Brazil as one of the country's greatest tragedies. If Brazil were to have lost to Colombia, I would hate to arrive in Rio the morning after?

Why was I feeling so indifferent about this game? As much as I love soccer and the World Cup, I'm a bigger fan of responsible governance (Where do they sell responsible governance apparel? I need to get some of that). I don't think that spending $6 billion on a soccer tournament in a country with such inequality in terms of health and education is the best use of resources. 

I can still have these reservations while not wanting the country to go into a state of depression that could last for the entirety of my trip. In conclusion, vamos Brasil! (at least for this game)

I still like Colombia's coach and the fact that I might have seen him at Mount Sinai.

The ebbs and flows of the game were great. One bunch of yellow-clad fans would scream. Then the others would. Because it was a back and forth game with plenty to complain about (especially if you though Brazil should have been called for some yellow cards before their 40th foul), it was a very vocal group. The Venezuelans and I just watched, as did the piano player, who was able to simultaneously play and watch the game. She was, however, unable to match her song selection to the emotions of the game. If she were able to do that on the fly, she probably wouldn't be at Hartsfield Airport.

Things got a bit more exciting the second half when Colombia nearly tied the game up minutes before Brazil extended its margin to two goals. Then Colombia cut it to a one-goal game in the waning minutes, alowing the frantic atmosphere on the field in Fortaleza to be reflected in everyone in the airport. Everyone except ther Auburn Univresity football fan standing behind me who seemed a little lost (and out of place).

If this experience foreshadows anything, the rest of my six-week trip to Brazil this summer should be exciting and include plenty of fruit, new friends, and somewhat-talented piano players. I look forward to keeping the blog going to share my adventures with friends back home (and around the world).