Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Free Postcard Request

I can't believe it! I just got my first free postcard request (at, from someone in São Paulo! Some glorious person who I have never met ever in my life!

Thank you thank you thank you!!!

I didn't realize quite how excited I was going to get when someone finally filled out that form.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday is Wheatpaste Day, Vol. Whatever

These days are not good ones to waste money on spray paint. I'll tell you why in another post. Wheatpasting remains feasible and economical, so I took it upon myself to deck the streets with silly pictures once again today. I stuck to my usual route here in the center of the city, and gained some insight on some very important questions that have been bugging me since I started this enterprise:

1. If you freeze wheatpaste, is it still usable?

Excellent question. The answer is- maybe. The other answer is, it appears to still work, but I'm not going to try it again. I froze, thawed, and then re-froze the wheatpaste I used today, and it wasn't as gummy as it generally is. Nothing fell off the wall as I was sticking it up, but I don't know if it will survive the next rainstorm.

2. How do these guys who remove posters operate?

Another very good question. I sighted one today, and he was alone, with a ladder, and a bucket, and a scrub brush, and presumably some kind of scraper although I didn't see it deployed. His presence, along with the questionable twice-frozen wheatpaste I was using, made me seriously consider whether I should bother pasting anything today. I lurked inconspicuously until he finished the telephone pole he was cleaning up in order to see which way he would go, then I headed in the opposite direction in hopes of not get my stuff scraped off the same day I was hanging it. It appears that at least a couple things escaped his insidious scraper for the time being.

3. What happens if the owner of a wall shows up while you are pasting something on it?

A question of most critical importance, probably possessing many answers. I got one answer today as I was pasting something on some plywood in front of a construction site, a spot I have already hit before both with posters and spray paint. A guy holding a young child asked me who had given me permission to put up my poster, and I answered truthfully that nobody had. He told me I couldn't put it there. I asked him if he was the owner and he said yes. I went to peel off the poster and then he said what is that anyways? and I answered it's just art. So he told me to forget about it and go ahead. Thanks dude!

4. Do I look silly walking around with a plastic stool along with my bucket of wheatpasting stuff?

Yes, you do. But it allows you to paste things higher up.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lucas the Photographer

I plugged my camera into my computer to download some photos and got a surprise: photos by Lucas!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Big Rodas and Care Packages

Today I participated in an event in the Praça Municipal, which is a square at the top of the most famous landmark in Salvador, which is an elevator. The first time I heard that I thought what kind of city is famous for an elevator? but the truth is it's a pretty cool elevator. In the praça there were to be ten simultaneous Capoeira rodas, although I'm not sure it was quite that many.

I arrived and the scene was a sea of white clothes, rope-like belts of different colors, and bare feet. That is, consisting almost entirely of practitioners of the other style of Capoeira, Regional. Regional is OK and it's fun to watch, but I'm an Angoleiro and I lose interest pretty quickly. Tonight there was a spot on the news about the event and wouldn't you know it, all the footage was of the Regionalistas doing flips and crazy kicks- not a single shot of us humble Angoleiros.

After a little hunting around I was able to find 'my people'- they weren't hard to track down being dressed in black and yellow. Our group, Nzinga, combined forces with the other Angola group in attendance, Fica, and made one big roda. One big, raucus, high energy roda.

The thing is, I don't like big rodas. And I don't really like big capoeira events. I don't like the vibe along with a number of other things that tend to emerge when you get that many capoeiristas together in one place. I was mostly there to help out our group, not because I expected to have a good time.

Well, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most fun I had at the event was watching over the bags and the instruments to make sure nobody walked off with anything. I didn't even really care if I played or not, and when I finally got the opportunity to do so, I was completely out-played by a woman from Fica. I'd played her before a couple years ago, and she bested me that time too, but this was much worse. She was all over me, feet in the face and all the rest. For my part, I felt like I was stuck in third gear. I kept trying to ratchet up the energy and I felt like I was playing at 1.5 gravities, like I was ballasted with sandbags, like I was playing in six inches of wet cement. And the game just seemed to go on forever, with all these people watching, and me just repeating the same dead-end moves, and her foot in my face over and over again.

Finally it was over and I went and sat down. The sun was in my eyes, and that was annoying. Some non-Angoleiro showed up and started playing all these short Regional-style games with people, and that was annoying. Suddenly everything about the roda was annoying. I was annoyed and embarrassed by my shitty game. Part of what made it so embarrassing was that I'd been feeling all good about myself the day before because I'd actually trained three times in two weeks, instead of my usual once in three weeks. I was already starting to get that nice loose but sore feeling in my muscles rather than the creaky stiff limited-range-of-motion feeling from sitting in a chair all day. All for naught. Clearly the woman I played trains much more than three times in two weeks.

So what did I do? Well, I had to go back to work and I don't want to say that I slunk away but basically what I did was slink away. I really didn't want to call attention to myself any more than I already had, and to the fact that I was leaving before the roda was over, or anything. I just wanted to go. There were lots of people there and I didn't expect to be missed, and I doubt that I was.

I went and got some work done. Then I got a phone call from Evani- my birthday care package from my mom had arrived! This was a complete surprise because the post office has been on strike for some time with no end in sight. The irony of this? The last time she sent me a care package, the same thing happened. I didn't get that package for over a month.

I'm sure you're wondering what was in it. I got a whole bunch of Obama For President gear (most of my family are enthusiastic supporters), a book I've wanted for some time, some extra-fine-point Sharpie markers (not available in Bahia), and perhaps most important of all, two pounds of red licorice! My day had taken a turn for the better.

My good mood was tempered somewhat later on after I called my mom to thank her. Lucas decided he wanted to visit Grammy's house, and became quite insistent about it in true three year old style. I couldn't explain to him why that wasn't possible. The best answer I could give him was "Hopefully next year," which was just as opaque to him as trying to explain that Grammy lives 24 hours travel from here, and it ain't cheap.

I often find myself thinking about all the immigrants that got on boats and said goodbye to their homelands and families, knowing that it was really goodbye- there was no going back. That must have been so terrible. Nowadays we have airplanes (although the cheap air travel days might be over, is it possible?) and telephones and even the internet. Someday my Mom might even have broadband and a webcam so we can see each other as we chat (although I don't expect it to happen soon).

But I gotta tell you- it's way too far from here to there.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Inexplicable Children

This isn't about my kids.

This is about the muleques, the 'street urchins', the 'captains of the sand' as Jorge Amado called them, that live on my street.

They aren't really Captains of the Sand because they aren't homeless, they just act it. They have parents, but don't appear to have any parental guidance- they stay out on the street unsupervised until presumably whenever they feel like going home and going to bed. There are a fair number of them that play out in front of my house, and they have gone through periods of being extremely loud and annoying and then fading into the background noise.

Lately, their noise has swelled as their number has been augmented by three new ones who moved into the rooming house next door. They look to be about 7, 5, and 4 and their mother is... someone I have no polite words for... who only makes brief and random appearances. She has been sighted smoking drugs on the street in front of our house and my guess is that the word 'discipline' is not in her vocabulary, but I already know that 'whack' is. The kids quickly became friends with the worst of all of the Captains- a kid known as 'Chucky' presumably after the Boneco Assassino of horror movie fame. FWIW 'Chucky' is pronounced 'Chook' in Portuguese...

Anyhow, these new kids have been around for a few weeks and raising the noise level in front of the house. We've already had one incident with them playing on the roof next door and spitting and throwing rocks and water at Ruan. Evani reported the other day that Lucas spotted the youngest letting the air out of someone's tires on our street. Last night I heard this same kid yelling to get his mom's attention, on the street, after midnight.

Yesterday, I was parking my car and a young girl came over with a friend and wanted me to speak English for them. I was indulging them when this little tire-flattening angel showed up and started to mess with my car. He tried to work the window buttons, honk my horn, and open my door. Basically he was acting like he owned it, or like a kid that is never told not to do something. I told him to leave my car alone.

A couple hours later, I went back to my car. The kid met me at my front door, calling me Ingles, which means English. I told him my name is Marcos and asked him his, which he said was Rael, short for Israel. Nice to meet you, Rael.

As I was about to unlock my car door on the passenger's side, I saw him already trying to open the door on the driver's side. I told him not to mess with my car and not to open my door. When I unlocked it and walked around to the driver's side, he already had the door open in spite of what I said.

"Didn't I tell you not to open that door?"

Silence, and a distracted half-smile.

"Did you hear what I said?"

He made a vague acknowledgment and then proceeded to pepper me with questions. Where was my bigger son? Where was the little one? And their mother? Was I going to get them? I was annoyed and I checked to see if his mother just happened to have witnessed our little interaction- not that I did anything wrong, but she is clearly a sacizeira (troublemaker) and Evani and I agree that she has the look of someone who will go ballistic on anyone who says anything to her kid. I saw her go ballistic on another kid who got in a fight with another of her dear neglected darlings- screaming at him "I'm not going to hit you because you're little!" and making it clear that was the only reason she wasn't going to do so. At least she's got some restraint. Evani's already made it clear what's going to happen if she tries to start something with her, or our kids.

Anyways, all this is explicable. I'm just getting to the inexplicable part.

This afternoon I left the house on the way to my office and glanced down the hill to where I had the car parked. I don't usually do this, but for some reason, today I did. And what I saw, to my utter astonishment, were two of these little rascals from next door, and Chucky, washing my car.

What the hell are they doing? I thought, and decided I'd best go find out.

As I think I've mentioned before, Brazilians take good care of their cars, and like to keep them clean. Very clean. I've a convert in this myself, and there's a guy we call Professor who washes my car for me on a regular basis. He used to wash it a lot more than he does lately, as he's fallen prey to the domestic budget cuts I've been implementing. We call him Professor because he calls me Professor, as he knows a few words in English and maintains that I'm his teacher. Professor hadn't taken a pass at my ride in the past few days so it was pretty dirty. Actually, it was really dirty- earlier in the day a car pulled in front of me and threw big sticky clots of mud all over the windshield.

Despite its filthiness, I had not contracted these children to wash my car. They had done this on their own initiative. But why? As I approached, Chucky slid away from my car and positioned himself behind the next car down the hill. This is a tactic I've seen him employ in the past when he thinks he's going to get into trouble, and is ready to run for it if necessary.

"Why are you washing my car?"

The bigger of the two remaining kids pointed at Chucky and said "He said 'Let's wash the car of the uncle.'"

This isn't as bizarre a statement as it sounds in English. It's really common here to call people aunt or uncle, or sometimes cousin, even if they are not related. Likewise, adults often call kids aunt or uncle as well, in this weird reflexive naming thing that they do here. You call me uncle, so I'm going to call you uncle too. The Portuguese words Tio and Tia are much nicer than their English counterparts. Evani thinks uncle is one of the ugliest words she's ever heard- and after thinking about it I tend to agree with her.

Chucky, despite my efforts to call him over, did not add anything to this explanation. A young girl who was with him on the car came over and told me: "He said 'let's wash the car because he'll give us three reis'." Three Brazilian dollars, about the going rate for a car washing.

I replied: "You've got to ask me first, I didn't agree to pay you guys to wash my car."

Despite this being the most obvious explanation for their charity, something just didn't seem right about it. Why would this kid, who must know I don't like him, decide to wash my car and then hit me up for money later? And then act like he'd done something wrong? No sane Brazilian would honor a contract-writ-backwards like this, in fact, they would take the lack of prior agreement as the perfect reason not to pay for services rendered. Which means that either they think that I, being a foreigner, must not be sane, or that there was something missing from the explanation.

Regardless, I didn't really want to get into it any further and was eager to be on my way. They were, after all, just washing the car, as far as I could tell. I considered briefly giving them a couple reis for their trouble, but then decided to take the Brazilian route and let em hang. You can't prove you're not an insane gringo if you are determined to act like one. Plus I didn't want to set up a precedent that would have them washing my car on a daily basis. "Thanks anyways for doing that," I said, and left.

I haven't been down to have a look at the car since- the mud it was caked with was the least of its problems as what has been a small but unmistakable hole in the exhaust has suddenly blossomed into a full-throated busted-piped roar worthy of a Harley or a small airplane. I don't want to drive it unless I have to, which means I'm not going to bother to wash it until I decide I have to drive it.

The thing that's bugging me is my first thought when I saw them washing the car, which is that maybe they were doing it to hide the evidence of some other mischief. Maybe they had smeared the mud clots across the windshield and someone told them they'd better not leave it like that or I'd get pissed.

Or maybe something else. Maybe they just couldn't stand to see it all dirty like that.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Last of the Bombas

It's the 12th of July, which means that São João was over two weeks ago, which means that all the local vendas (places to buy anything, often just candy and cigarettes) have finally run out of bombas, which means I can finally enjoy relative peace and quiet here in the city. Bombas, literally 'bombs', are home-made firecrackers of varying size. They consist of a wooden match wrapped in gunpowder and paper, and vary in size from






which has to be imagined with the accompanying echo through the narrow streets of my neighborhood. This year I heard one of the larger (but not largest) explosions followed by some kid in front of my house yelling "Bomba de mil!" which presumably means a bomba with 1000 milligrams of gunpowder, although that's just a guess.

At any rate, all those bombas going off was extremely distracting and made me wish they had fireworks that crackled and whistled and flew in the air and did other things than just explode with varying degrees of noise. And even more than that, made me wish that they would go away, which as I said they finally have.

So why am I waxing melancholic, and fondly remembering a holiday that happened over two weeks ago? Not because of the bombas, but you figured that out already. I'm remembering my favorite part of São João, which is the foguerias.

A fogueira is a bonfire. Every year, along with the Forro music and the peanuts and the corn they make bonfires across the northeast of Brazil. These are invariably log-cabin style affairs (built with criss-crossed logs) with a bunch of sticks in the center. When São João rolls around, you can see them for sale by the dozen by the side of the road.

The thing about bonfires is that they bring me quite suddenly back to my childhood. I always loved making fires as a kid, and although I was never a boy scout, I got quite good at it. I used to take great pride in starting a fire with a single match (I never learned to make a fire without matches). So when the bonfire gets set up I immediately want to get involved. Or take over.

The funny and often frustrating thing for me is that despite their rural roots, the Brazilians I know have no idea how to start a fire. They always want to get it going with plastic bags. This infuriates my bleeding-heart liberal New England pseudo-ecological soul, so I fight tooth and nail for them not to put plastic bags on the fire. This year someone threw some diesel oil on the fogueira before I showed up, and in spite of this and a large quantity of plastic bags, they couldn't get the thing going.

The problem was that it had rained a lot before São João, and all the wood was wet. All the kindling was wet, and even all the paper was damp. When I stepped in, hero and veteran of many campfires past, the tools at my disposal were feeble at best- a few sheets of a limp glossy brochure, some damp twigs.

My fire building theory is simple: to make a big fire, first you have to make a little fire. And to make a little fire, first you have to make a teeny tiny fire. Despite the popularity of the log-cabin style of firebuilding, I go in for the miniature teepee approach to get the ball rolling. Ideally this miniature teepee should have a heart of a couple sheets of dry newsprint and tinder-dry pine twigs, but I had to make do with what I had at hand.

I don't know if my brothers-in-law think I'm incompetent, or that they are disinclined to the lone-wolf approach to problem solving, but they never want to let me do anything by myself. They used to drive me nuts whenever there was a project that required manual labor and they would come over and take the shovel away from me. What, I'd think, you think that just because I'm a gringo I'm incapable of shoveling? This is probably unfair to them, but it used to drive me nuts. I ran into the same problem with the fire. Despite my repeated requests that they leave the fire building to me, without the use of plastics, they huddled around loudly debating various schemes for lighting the bonfire. You need to cut the bottom off of a bottle of bleach, one of them kept saying. I have no idea why that would have helped, if bleach-bottle bottoms are particularly flammable or have some other fire-building dynamic quality unknown to me, but he was a loud advocate of the theory.

One Match Pfohl one of my older brothers called me once, after I successfully started the largest bonfire of my life with, quite honestly not a single match, but a single flick of my trusty bic. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to prove myself to my brothers-in-law, such was not to be this particular evening. Despite the careful culling of the tiniest and most flameworthy kindling and the delicate crumpling of the glossy brochure, the stupid little teepee just didn't want to catch. I was reduced to a cursing, match-lighting, red-faced gringo fool in front of my in-laws, who overrode my protests and attempted a plastic-assisted ignition further up on the pile. Luckily for me, their bags flamed out without result and on the seventh or eighth try, I got my teepee lit. Let's belatedly bask in it's glow:


What TV is to my wife, fires are to me, and I can spend hours basking in their glow and tending to their needs- adding firewood, optimizing air flow, consolidating under-performing fuel and chasing off plastic-wielding in-laws. No matter that there is no plot and no characters- there is no inane dialog and no commercials. Just a nice hot bed of coals, skin dry and tight on my face, and the rest of the world can go to hell.

After I had asserted my manliness by getting the stupid fire burning and building a nice big bed of coals, we were all able to enjoy another ritual of São João - fire-roasted corn on the cob.

I remember my dad trying this when we were kids- telling us how the Indians would cook corn right in the coals, and I remember he tried it once or twice with the corn still in the husk. It made an impression on me although I can't remember the final product. I also remember thinking that my oldest brother-in-law was crazy the first time I saw him stick a shucked ear of corn directly into the coals- dude, you're supposed to let it roast in the husk!

Maybe it can work the way my dad tried to do it, but I've tried, and let me tell you, it doesn't compare to sticking that baby right into the coals all naked and husk-free. Don't be alarmed by how it looks when it's done:

This corn was delicious. The corn I tried cooking in the husk: well, maybe I wasn't patient enough, but it was raw and tasted terrible.

When I was a kid, I thought I had the best birthday in the world: June 25. Six months to the day from Christmas, which meant presents every six months. Now, I live somewhere where my birthday arrives on the ressaca (hangover) of São João, celebrated on the 23rd and 24th of June. Oh well- I'm not a kid anymore so it doesn't really matter. This particular birthday was my 39th, and very much over-shadowed (at least in my mind) by next year's looming inevitability. That's all I have to say about it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Liquids and Automobiles

Today's post is about two different liquids and the effect they have on the Brazilian driving experience. One is to be found in the car, in fact, inside the driver, in quantities ranging from clearly too much to teeny tiny, infinitesimal, almost nonexistent. The other liquid is to be found outside the car in potentially enormous and terrifying quantities, such as I experienced about half an hour ago.

The first liquid, as you may have guessed, is alcohol, and I'll talk about that one later. The second one, as you also may have guessed, is water- rain water in fact, lots and lots and lots of rain water.

I did something in my car today that I've never done in my life: I headed for higher ground. Rain here in the tropics is often torrential, as I have mentioned before in this blog. Today's torrential rainstorm caught me in my car, and scared the shit out of me. The route I was taking winds through a valley- actually, a couple valleys, and it is a quite scenic and pleasant route most of the time. Low lying roads like that tend to have a big canal in the median to deal with the kind of extreme runoff I experienced today. Problem is, the median is in the middle of the road, which means the water has to cross one side of the road to get into it. If it can. If it can't, then you get what I believe is known as 'flash flooding'- terrifying uber-puddles of unknown depth and contents. At one point I was actually trying to tell if my car had begun to float- that's when I headed for higher ground.

The funny thing about rain like that is that it is generally very localized- in the midst of my distress I got a call from my sister in law not ten miles away and it wasn't raining a drop there. When I called her back half an hour later and no longer raining here, the rain had reached Paripe and it was pouring.

Now moving along to the second liquid: alcohol, or 'booze,' or 'cerveja' or 'cachaça' or whatever you want to call it. Brazil just enacted a zero tolerance drunk driving law. The traffic police, or SET as they are called, are allegedly setting up roadblocks and testing people with disposable breathalysers, or 'barfometros' as they are known in Portuguese. 'Barfometro' is a great word as it consists primarily of the word 'barfo' which means 'bad breath' (also used for other bodily-produced stinks), so it's a bad-breath-meter.

On the one hand, this is great news and I am thrilled, as I have often been appalled and terrified with the lawlessness on Brazilian roads and highways, especially in respect to drinking and driving. I asked Evani what drunk driving law this was supplanting and she told me that previously there had been nothing. No law? No repercussions at all for driving drunk? She said no, which I find a bit hard to believe, although if there was one it wasn't getting enforced. Like lots of laws here. Actually, referring to the ever-informative Wikipedia, there are a surprising number of countries that have no legal limit for alcohol consumption behind the wheel- then again, half of these countries have banned alcohol entirely.

On the other hand, why did it have to be zero tolerance? if you are caught with any alcohol in your barfo, you get something like a 960 reis (currently $600 US) fine, and if it's much more you're looking at jail time, car impounded, etcetera. This seems a bit extreme to me, and it means I can't have even a single glass of beer, even a single swallow, at the beach, or out in Paripe, or after Capoeira, or anywhere else if I've got my car and I plan on driving it. On top of that, I think it's a setup for disaster- my guess is that within a year or two the law will be repealed and we'll be back to lawlessness again. Or even more likely, they'll run out of barfometros and enforcement will stop.

I know how annoying Americans can be with our incessant "Back in the States, we do it like this!" and I generally try hard not to be one of those Americans and I can't believe I'm actually going to vouch for field sobriety tests, but why the hell don't they just do it the way we do it in the States? You know- have cops driving around looking for weaving vehicles, who then get stopped so the cop can get a better look at them- perhaps smell the barfo first hand, in which case they can be run through a series of tests, which if failed can lead to the dreaded barfometro. Seems like a better plan than hoping the drunk drivers happen upon a roadblock and then get a barfometro stuck in their face (as you may have noticed, I'm trying to get the word 'barfometro' in here as many times as possible barfometro barfometro.)

There's already been at least one scandal involving a judge getting busted and then released without repercussions, and that's the other side of it- there will probably be lots of cash quietly changing hands, and lots of the more socially privileged people getting away with murder like they usually do.

Well, I have been successfully deterred- I can't afford a R$960 fine. I'll be saving money on gas and wasting money on taxis. Or maybe I'll just save money on beer. Or maybe I'll stop going out altogether.