Saturday, August 30, 2008


Today I spent most of an hour scraping crud off of one of my plants.

This plant was so lucky because it is sentimental to me, being the first plant I bought here in Brazil, for my first apartment. It got a lot bigger, then I smallerized it, now it's bigger again.

I'm not quite sure how this plant manages to survive. During the winter (aka the 'rainy season') the tops of its leaves get covered with a black crud as thick as my fingernail and the undersides get covered with some kind of powdery white stuff. Eventually, if unchecked, this leads to the leaves falling off and probably the eventual death of the plant. That is- if I don't spend a couple hours a year washing the crud off with a soapy rag.

This isn't its first brush with death this plant has experienced in my care. Besides the recurring black and white cruds, one time almost all the leaves fell off and it became infested with horrible little scale bugs that are the bane of my existence. That time, I transplanted it and discovered that the pot was filled with earthworms- dozens of them. I have no idea how so many earthworms were managing to survive in there. I removed as many as I could, and the plant spent some time outside in Paripe where the ants took to the scale bugs and apparently killed them off, and once again the plant was healthy. The plant also suffers from weird little barnacle like things, little black nodules that I can snap off with a fingernail.

With the exception of the scale bugs, which I battled even in New England, I don't know what any of these weird parasites and/or diseases are. They baffle me, and I don't have the time or energy to deal with them. Consequently, many of my plants suffer, and too many of them die. This is a real shame because I have always been a plant person, and ideally would live in a house filled with plants, so that a visitor would be uncertain where the indoors ends and the outdoors begins. Doubly ironic is that I live in the tropics, which should be a dream come true for my taste in plants. I have always preferred succulents, the more bizarre the better. Give me an odd looking little stumpy thing with fat leaves and I'm a happy guy. Being hot weather plants, my succulents lived stunted little lives on my chilly windowsills in New England. Here in Brazil, I can grown them outdoors, theoretically to great sizes. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few extra hardy specimens, this has not turned out to be the case. Plants I couldn't kill in North America have withered and died here in my care- I even killed a spider plant!

Not all of my plants have died. In fact, I realized a couple years ago that I'd never owned a potted plant that was taller than me- now I have several. I also have a few that flower, seemingly to spite me. One is a cactus that flowers with great frequency. I have actually only seen the flowers on this plant once, since I am a late riser and they are always shriveled and gone by the time I get up, leaving behind odd pearly seed pods. I have tried, but never successfully planted one of these seeds. I had another fantastic philodendron that grew about 20 feet up the side of the air shaft in the middle of our house. It was very impressive until it became infected with the evil scale bugs, which killed off all but the topmost leaves. Now they seem to have arrived at a host/parasite impasse, with the bugs not quite able to finish it off and the plant not able to regenerate.

Another sad failure was the bamboo plant I bought- I had high hopes for it and I love bamboo, but it did terribly here in the house. It also got infected with the scale bugs and almost died, so I finally brought it out to Paripe and gave it to my brother in law. He's planted it in the ground and I'm sure it will recover brilliantly in his care. A couple years ago when it was doing better I divided it and gave him half, which he then repotted in the thick reddish clay-laden soil that is prevalent here, and it flourished while mine whithered. I couldn't believe the thing could survive in that dirt.

I think this may be part of my problem. When I lived in New England, I used to prepare what I thought was a marvelous blend of topsoil, peat moss, sand, fertilizer, etcetera. I tried doing the same thing here but it never seems to have the desired Victory Garden result. Maybe this soil is too rich, or dries out too fast, or is too hospitable to critters. I don't know. I have noticed on several of my larger plants what look very much like worm castings on the surface of the soil. I've dug into these plants, expecting a repeat of my worm nightmare from back in the beginning, but I've never been able to locate the bugs that make them.

And then there are the ants that like to take up residence in the pots...

And the fact that I refuse to use pesticides...

I could go on

and on.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Adeus, Hamster

Today I succeeded in giving away the hamster.

I think of all of us who lived with the little fellow, I was the one who was most bummed out to see him go. Certainly far more than Ruan, his nominal owner. Ruan stopped paying attention to the thing a long time ago. I think Lucas will get upset about it once he realizes that its trip to the 'pet store' was one way, as he's taken a recent interest in the hamster, or at least the idea of it. He keeps telling me he's a hamster and then pretends he's going to run under the couch, at which point I grab him around the waist to prevent him from doing so. Evani will not miss the hamster at all, as she was the one who had the most interaction with it, smelling its stinky cage whenever she went outside to smoke cigarettes. She called it 'the rat.'

I decided to give the hamster, who never even got a name, after one too many times of finding its food dish empty. It arrived in the middle of Carnaval, in a cardboard box originally containing rat poison, and I let Ruan keep it in the hopes that he would 'learn some responsibility' from it, naive fool that I am. That experiment failed utterly.

I liked the little fellow, and didn't mind taking it out of its cage from time to time and feeding it, but the truth was that I wasn't all that interested in it either and started to forget to feed him too. A couple times I caught him peering at us with unusual intensity as Evani was smoking, only to realize that he was trying to say that the food had run out some time ago and would we feed him please.

Things might have turned out differently if Evani had not insisted that he not be allowed to live inside the house. Her nose is exceptionally sensitive and she was not willing to accommodate the smell within the house. She barely tolerates my smell. That's why we only have fish. I often remark on the irony of this because apparently she was raised with lots of animals- dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, even pigs at one point (not all in the house though). Her mother loved animals. Evani's not having it. Doesn't jibe with her ultra-clean nature. So I hammered some nails into the grout between some tiles and hung the hamster's little cage under the stairs in our 'service area' off of the kitchen. I find it amazing she put up with it as long as she did, as she kept threatening to veto its existence.

I'm just now looking at the Wikipedia article on hamsters to see if I was right that the poor guy must have been terribly lonely, which was the main reason I gave it away. Now I'm thinking I should have read it earlier, because it's telling me that Syrian hamsters are solitary and 'will fight to the death if put together,' which clearly runs counter to my theory. Oh well. I have no idea what species it was (apparently there are 18), and even if it is solitary, it was getting neglected. And it wasn't teaching Ruan anything about responsibility.

I tried to give the thing away earlier this week, which is part of why I feel badly about the whole deal. I arranged with the owner of the 'pet store' here in the largo to find a new home for it, which he did. He told me to come meet the woman at noon on Monday. I brought the hamster with me at the appointed time, in a paper bag which attracted quite a bit of attention. Not the cage, it's quite common to see men walking around with cages here, although they generally contain birds. Paper bags, however, are completely alien.

The woman wasn't there, and I left the hamster at the 'pet store' while I went and ran some errands. When she didn't show up half an hour later, I looked into the bag to see the poor hamster so abjectly terrified that he was hanging, suspended in the air, from his jaw as he tried to chew his way out through the wire bars. I felt so badly I left my phone number with the owner and took him back to his spot under the stairs.

Yesterday the woman called me, and despite my attempts to explain to her that I didn't want to leave the hamster at the 'pet store' in order not to traumatize him, that's exactly what she wanted me to do. So I did. Presumably terrified once again, I didn't go back to check. I hope she didn't take too long to pick him up, and that he's now in a happier, more stimulating environment. If indeed that's what he really wanted.

Argh. I'm such a freakin' softie. I'd really love to have a dog, or a cat, if it would be allowed to live in the house with us, but as I mentioned previously that's not an option. And we have no yard.

Why, you are asking yourself, if indeed you have gotten this far, do you keep calling it the 'pet store?' I'll tell you. It's a place you can go to buy animals, but it's not what you would call a pet store according to any preconceived middle-class mainstream American definition with the cute puppies in the window. It's like a hole, a shaft drilled into the building that houses it, completely dark except for a single lightbulb and entirely lined with cages filled mostly with birds. They have everything from a couple ducks out front to dozens of little songbirds, most likely culled from the vestiges of forest around the city. There are people who 'make a living' by trapping birds and selling them. Ruan's father is one of them, worthless fuck that he is. The decor, aside from the birds, ranges from dark gray to black, with the occasional white flash of guano. A place like that in the States would be shut down in a day, at least in any place I've ever lived.

Interestingly, they used the 'pet store' in an odd commercial or PSA or something that ran on TV a while ago. It was quite cool, actually. It showed two guys washing windshields at a stoplight, also close to my house. When they get enough esmola (change) together, they go and buy a couple birds and some fish at the 'pet store' (where they don't actually sell fish). Next, they carry the animals to the beach, and release them. That was it.

Goodbye, hamster. I hope they give you a name at your new home.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Most Obnoxious Time of the Year

My poor blog. It's getting neglected again. And things have been happening- I've printed t-shirts and new stickers, sent stickers to international sticker events, tried to give away the hamster, and more! I started this post weeks ago and only now got around to finishing it.

These are dark days for Graffiteiros.

Thousands of dollars of top-quality imported spray paint is disappearing beneath thin layers of cheapo latex paint, almost entirely in broad swaths of red, white, and blue. Twenty foot banners with letters up to four feet high are destroying dozens of wildstyles, characters, and burners: 'trampos,' 'personagems,' and 'letras' as they are known here. The intended lifespan of these hideous monstrosities? Three months.

What is this horrible plague, leading to the insane destruction of the city’s public artworks?

It’s called an ELECTION.

Aside from the premature demise of too many fine street paintings, election time is quite unpleasant here in Salvador. Worse than the drab ubiquitous names of the candidates everywhere you turn are the dozens of cars with large speakers strapped to their roofs, blasting political jingles to further inundate us with candidate’s names, parties, and numbers. A friend of ours, visiting from Brazilia, saw one of these mobile aural advertisements and said they are prohibited in Brazilia, presumably a public nuisance. Man do I wish that was the case here as well.

The other thing that happens, which is not all bad, is a pre-election surge in public works in an attempt to save the incumbent's asses. This is completely transparently re-election-ly motivated, as everyone knows it and says so. Work on the Metro, stalled for months, has suddenly picked up again, and this year lots of drainage canals along principal routes through the city are being enlarged. Lots of the principal roads are getting repaved, which they needed desperately. This work will stop immediately after the election.

An amusing joke made the rounds by email a while ago- I found a version here, using our esteemed president Lula as the subject- if you speak Portuguese, have a look.

A politician dies and Saint Peter tells him that, being the first politician to be granted entry into Heaven, he is going to be given the choice of going to Heaven or Hell. He’ll have a day to spend in each place and afterwards he can decide where he will spend the rest of eternity.

First he goes to Hell, where he is met by all his old earthly politician buddies, who are having a big barbecue. They all have a fantastic time eating and drinking and swimming in the pool and doing all that stuff that politicians love to do.

Heaven is nice enough but kind of bland. Harps, clouds, Angels, peace and quiet.

When the guy gets back to St. Peter, not surprisingly he chooses Hell over Heaven.

When he gets back to Hell, the pool is gone, as is the barbecue and all the rest. In their place are the conventional fires, chains, and eternal torment.

“What happened??” he asks Satan.

Satan replies: “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today we got elected.”

Last election I witnessed a couple ‘amusing’ things. One was one of these local politicians who’s name is literally everywhere in parts of the city at election time make a visit to Evani’s family’s neighborhood in Paripe. He came in, shook some hands, shot the shit, and the only thing I remember him saying was that it was time to get the folks there a neighborhood football (soccer) team. This was met with some fanfare from the people who were gathered around. Do they have the football team today? Do you need to ask? Did he say anything about jobs, or clean water, or laying sewage lines, or housing, or food or anything?? No, of course he didn’t. Is he still in office? Of course he is. Will he be voted out this year? Of course he won’t.

The other thing they did that year for her neighborhood was what they call a cala boca, which translates as ‘shut your mouth.’ The idea is that the local government makes an improvement to get the people to stop complaining. As you can see from it’s popular name, it is recognized for what it is and treated cynically. They came in and laid down a thin layer of asphalt over the broken and twisted dirt road that leads into the neighborhood, doing nothing to prepare the surface beforehand, and sticking in three or four steep speed bumps as they went. Predictably, this cala boca is mostly destroyed now.

I've been following the American election pretty closely from afar (closely from afar?), and I suppose I've gotten a bit more cynical as a result of watching the mess they make of it here. I like Obama, I like him alot, but anyone who can run for national office and have a shot at the presidency is not the warm, fuzzy (or stern and Presidential) he or she tries to come off as on TV. There's a lot more going on there, and it ain't all pretty.

I actually heard a PSA on the only radio station worth listening to here a couple days ago that really surprised me- it said, in very plain terms, that you have to use your vote carefully because if you elect a corrupt politician then everyone suffers as a result.

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to the end of the election, when we'll have a bunch of new and or old morons running the show, and all this cheap political paint gets whitewashed again- presenting many thousands of square feet of blank canvas for the graffiteiros.

Myself included.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Drive Like Hell

Today I made a terrifying drive in the car with Lucas, something I'm sure all too many parents have had to do with their small children, a drive my parents took with me once when I was about his age.

We were all in Paripe earlier today, eating lunch, and Lucas was playing with his little cousin Adriane who is three weeks his junior. I noticed he had a bump under his eye, like a hive (if one can have one hive). This hive suddenly got bigger, and was joined by another right next to it, and they were growing so fast we could almost watch them increase in size.

Lucas has always had allergies, and they get worse in the winter down here, and I've always been afraid that they might get even worse. I've watched nervously as he tries new foods like peanuts in fear that he might have a severe reaction. That's what I thought I was witnessing today. I listened to his breath and he was wheezing, which set off the alarm klaxon so I threw some clothes on him, threw him in the car, and took off.

Despite my sister-in-law's last minute advice not to drive too fast, I drove very fast. The children's hospital where I take him whenever something happens is quite close to our house, but probably forty minutes by car. I got there in... substantially less than that. There was no way I was taking him to one of the crappy public hospitals that are much closer- they sometimes have no doctors on duty, and who knows about medications and the rest. Evani should have another younger sister, but she died as an infant of an infection she caught at the hospital closest to Paripe.

As I was driving like mad, I was also trying to keep Lucas from going to sleep. I know that you aren't supposed to let kids sleep if they get hit on the head, and I've heard anecdotally that you don't want to drift off if you should find yourself riddled with bullets, but I don't know about allergic reactions. I wasn't taking any chances. Lucas wanted to sleep quite badly and I think I scared him with my nonstop nervous shouted conversation and grabbing his foot. He started crying and calling for his mom. His eye swelled almost shut- the two hives turned into one big balloon under his right eye.

Finally after what seemed like hours of driving I got to the hospital and rushed him inside. The doctor on duty told me that he was breathing fine and his heart was fine and showed me a previously unnoticed red spot on his cheek directly below the balloon - some kind of bug bite. Since he hadn't complained of any bites, we suspect it was an ant. She told me it was okay for him to go to sleep, so while we were waiting for them to administer some medication, he did just that. He slept for a full hour while he was undergoing observation, awaking only briefly when he got a shot in the bum, not something he enjoyed particularly.

I'm sure I overreacted, but that's what parents do, right? At least I had the car and the insurance and the hospital to go to. Sitting around waiting for it to subside, wondering if it would get worse, is what too many people here in the city are forced to do. Evani's sister told me she'd done just that with her son when he had a very similar experience. Then again, I don't know if she's even heard of anaphylactic shock so maybe she wasn't as flipped out as I was.

When I was about Lucas' age, maybe a little younger, I fell off the back of a small stool as I was eating some nuts. A couple of these nuts lodged themselves over my windpipe, and my parents had to rush me to the hospital as I could barely breathe. Then, they had to rush me to another hospital because the first one said they couldn't deal with it. This was in a part of the country where all destinations are separated by many miles of trees and fields. At one of these hospitals, a doctor told my mom that I might not make it. Thanks, Doc.

Lucas is fine and was busy playing again, his eye subsided but still quite puffy, when I left him again in Paripe to come home to work, again, on a Sunday. Oh- and did I mention it's Brazilian Father's Day? That was the 'quality time' I spent with Lucas today. When we got out of the hospital, the first thing he wanted was to go back to Paripe and see his mom.

I would have posted a photo but I didn't have my camera... and I'm one of the last on the planet without one built into my cell phone...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

How Do You Spell That?

I just got the worst mangling of my last name that I've ever witnessed.

'Pfohl' is not an easy name to spell for anyone, but at least in the States we are so used to such a wide range of bizarre surnames that people are pretty patient about figuring it out. I'm sure there are other Pfohls in Brazil as well, down in the south that is, where the German immigration concentrated. Here in Bahia, almost everyone is 'Santos' or 'Araujo' or 'Oliveira'.

So I was dropping off some print cartridges to get refilled, and the guy asked for a name. I told him 'Marcos' which is what I usually do, as even the name 'Mark' causes problems. He got Marcos alright, but then he wanted a last name. Usually what I do when I have to give a last name is pull out an ID so they can copy it off of there, but I didn't do that today. I sighed inwardly and started to spell it letter by letter.

I should mention that I tend to screw up the letters in Portuguese, I learned them one way off of a CD ROM I had and then discovered that they use different names for the letters here, I've never really reconciled myself to that. Plus they tend to spell out things in this odd way- for instance the word for duck is 'pato,' but instead of spelling 'P - A - T - O' (peh - ah - teh -oh) they say "Peh-a-pah, Teh-a-toh". I don't get it. And it doesn't work for a name with only five letters, four of them consonants, and two of them silent.

As I'm speaking the letters as clearly as I can, slowly, but without the usual "P as in Peter" helpers I tend to use when it's important, I see he's adding all kinds of extra letters. Maybe he was trying to do a peh-ah-pah kinda thing with my name. When he finished he asked me if it was right. I made a frustrated gesture with one hand and said it was good enough.

I should have done what my dad does when he gives his name at a restaurant- he just tells them "Fole" and is done with it.

So how did he spell my name?