Thursday, January 31, 2008

10 Guests for Carnaval

Ten guests, and those are the paying ones. Five Americans, two Brits, an Australian, and two Brazilians. Then there's Evani's sister and her son, and more folks on the way.

The trios have already started, I'm going out into the craziness with Lucas to have a look- he enjoys it almost as much as his mother does. Definitely more than I do. But it's fun, and we live close enough to the action that I can check it out for an hour and then come home.

Once more into the breach...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More Work I Don't Have Time For, and a Second Trip to the Hospital

Today I signed my first non-disclosure agreement. I signed it at my first real prospect for work within Brazil, which was exciting in itself. This of course was for the prospect of more work that I don't have time for, in spite of finally being in the office and supposedly having time for more things.

When I came home, I found Ruan, my stepson, writhing on the floor and crying out in pain, which was exasperating. I know that sounds callous, but the problem was that I returned home yesterday to exactly the same scene, and a trip to the hospital yielded the diagnosis that he was extremely constipated. The kid won't eat fruit, he, like many 10 year olds, would prefer to live solely on fried sausage, pizza, and McDonald's. And I hate to say it, but I had work to do- lots of work to do. It was, and is, piling up around me. And Carnaval starts tomorrow, did I mention that?

Now I'm sitting here waiting for a page to load on my new office broadband connection at a whopping 150kbps. Yes, I have broadband, that's another story, and it's slow, and expensive, but I don't think that's why I'm having to wait. After all, I'm streaming Last.fm no problem, this appears to be a problem back home in Vermont at the server, or some weirdness in the pipe between here and there. At times I feel like these things conspire to drive me mad with frustration, like the other thing I'm doing, which is trying to back up about 40 gigs in two gig chunks on my mp3 player- over a USB 1.0 connection. It's... taking... forever...

The page still hasn't loaded so I guess I can write some more. When I embarked on this blog enterprise I read that I shouldn't use jargon, so for those of you who can't be bothered, please ignore the numbers and acronyms in the above paragraph.

Ah! The page loaded. I'll do some work now.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Jesé


Someone died last night.

Not someone I knew terribly well, but he knew my wife well and was very dear to her best freind.

His name was Jesé, and we got a phone call at 2:30 AM with the news that he had passed. Evani saw him yesterday at the hospital, and he was unable to speak; unable to move even his eyes. We don't know why he died, but he had heart trouble and probably had had a stroke by the time Evani saw him. He was about 60.

What we do know is that he did not get any kind of emergency care, he lay waiting in a hospital bed for medical attention, in a public hospital that half the time doesn't even have a doctor on duty. They didn't when we were there this morning. This is what happens when you have universal health care, but not the funds to back it up.

Here in Bahia, and this may be true throughout Brazil, if someone dies they are buried the next day, almost without exception. There is no embalming, no planning a funeral and picking an appropriate date for it. I've tried explaining to Evani how it works in the States and our system is as much a mystery to her as theirs is to me. Actually, it's not: I think it's better here. I might not feel that way if someone close to me passed away and I was more than 24 hours travel time from there, but I think it's a better way.

I've been to more funerals and wakes here in Brazil in six years than I ever went to in my entire life previous to that. I've skipped as many others. It seems to me now, and even did at the time, that my father in particular was trying to keep me away from these events for some reason. When my grandmother died, he thought it best we not go to the memorial. When my great aunt died about 10 years later, who was in fact a good deal closer to me than my grandmother, he said the same thing. I guess he thought he was doing the right thing, but I'm not so sure.

When I was in high school, a kid a couple years younger than me died in a car accident. His family was Catholic, and they had an open casket funeral. At least, they opened it once, and they were supposed to open it again, but they decided not to. I guess they did this because of the gangs of teenagers hanging around wanting to look at the body- myself included. I think they should have let us see him; if everyone who dies is instantly whisked away and you have a memorial and that's the end, it's hard to really comprehend what's going on. Jesé's casket, like many I've seen here, had a little viewing window, his face was wreathed in flowers, and he had a strand of beads across his mouth. They brought his granddaughter, who looked about six, to see him.

Evani's seen death at very close hand all her life. Up until a couple years ago, groups of masked men would enter her neighborhood, smash down the door of a house with a known criminal inside, and said criminal was brought out and summarily executed. And left there, for the whole neighborhood to see. I'm sure she's been to dozens if not hundreds of funerals. When there are fatal car accidents, people are allowed to mill around and view the bodies.

Jesé was a Pai de Santo, a priest in the Candomblé. For the funeral, which I did not stay for, everyone wears white, not black. I was at his house for part of the wake, and they had a ceremony for him, which I could not be present at, since I am not initiated in the Candomblé. I waited in another part of the house with a large number of other people, some of whom were crying. A couple others had gone into trance, taking on the spirits of the Orixás. The future of Jesé's Terreiro, his church, is now in question. In the car from the hospital to the house I had both a Mãe de Santo (a priestess, literally 'Mother of the Saint') and another Pai de Santo in the car with me. They said that the house, which was undergoing an expansion, will close for a year and then the Filhos de Santos, his disciples, will have to determine how to carry on.

I liked Jesé quite a bit- he was almost always smiling and aside from seeing him at Candomblé ceremonies, we would also sometimes wind up in the same crowd for Carnaval or some other festival. He was a longtime member of the Filhos de Gandhi and I remember him showing up here once during Carnaval in full regalia, with two others simliarly outfitted with the turbans and the blue and white beads and the sandals, looking for Evani.

He will be missed.

Friday, January 11, 2008

In Search of Broadband

So close, and yet so far.

I got my first taste of the internet right before I traveled to Asia. On my trip, I made it a game to try to hunt down a place from where I could send email back to my family. Sometimes it took all day. There was no hotmail, no yahoo mail, nothing like that- some Australian librarian set me up with a copy of Eudora on a floppy disc and instructed me to install it wherever I could find an internet connection, and use it that way.

Nowadays, you probably can't travel in Laos or Yemen without finding an internet cafe in any decent sized town. Lord knows we've got plenty of them in Salvador. I thought at one time about opening one, but now the bottom of the market has completely dropped out and it would be impossible to make a living at it. Someone told me these places can only stay open by stealing their broadband connections, and that doesn't surprise me. At least here in Bahia, folks have ripping off basic services down to a science. They call it 'gato,' which literally means 'cat,' and thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, don't pay for water or electricity. Why not internet as well?

I guess it'd be okay by me if it didn't mean that I pay that much more for my services, legally, and sometimes those services are compromised. Admittedly, the brownout I had yesterday, the third in a couple weeks, may or may not have been caused by all the gatos we have here in the city, but I do know that I pay a lot of cash for my power and I'd appreciate it if it worked properly as a result.

But I digress. I find myself in this state of exquisite annoyance because of my new office, the office that is supposed to give me a normal life, that is supposed to make me more productive, that is to augment my income instead of dragging me further into debt. I've got the office, signed a one-year contract, and yesterday I got my phone installed. That was mildly annoying itself, but I won't get into it, except to say that I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a customer service rep who couldn't help me until my phone line went out along with 90% of my power.

One step to go- the broadband internet connection. So close.

They told me that I couldn't sign up for the broadband until they turned on the phone, and made sure it would work. No problem, I knew other folks in the building had broadband connections, I even asked! Plus it's right in the heart of the freakin' city, so if you don't have broadband here, where are you going to find it? I live just a few blocks away, and I have broadband, so it must be available in my new office!

I think you know what's coming.

I called up to get signed up for my new internet connection, which I should mention doesn't come cheap here in Brazil, no it doesn't. There's only one company that provides DSL in Salvador, and they call it Velox. The charming lady on the phone tells me:

"I'm sorry sir, but Velox is not available for this number at this time."

What are you talking about? My neighbors have it, you must be mistaken.

Nope. They could very well have it but because of how it's routed or some such garbage they can't give me Velox at this time.

Well, when can you give me Velox? Next week? Next month? Next year?

Could be next month, could be six months from now, they are always working to provide all their services to all their customers, etc. etc.

Yeah, spare me the bullshit. I hung up, after threatening to cut off my brand new phone line, as I really don't need the phone, just the Velox. This is true. But I didn't carry out my threat just in case I ended up in the kind of situation I'm finding myself- without options. In case I'm forced to go with dialup.

Here in Brazil nothing happens if you don't know people. If I knew people, I'd probably have Velox already, and be happily working away in my new office. What leaves me apoplectic is the random injustice of this place- one office gets Velox, the other doesn't, but maybe in six months or a year. It's not like my mom or my dad, who live in places so remote that nobody has high-speed internet connections, unless they go out and get a satellite dish, and I've heard mixed reports about those.

I really shouldn't be so surprised about this, I went through almost the same thing here at my house. After going ballistic because I couldn't get Velox, I decided to wait for them to get around to making it available, which eventually they did. Took about a year. In the meantime, I signed up with the cable internet service, another nightmare. If it had gone well with them, I never would have bothered to switch to Velox, but I did. I'm not going to get into it. The thing is, I thought they hadn't wired the whole neighborhood, like when I lived in Brooklyn and they said you couldn't get DSL in Park Slope. OK, the whole neighborhood I understand. But one phone line yes, the other no? That's insane.

So I slept on it. Today, rested, calmed down, I went to my new building and asked if any other tenants had Velox. Yes, they do. Who? Turns out my neigbor in 606 has Velox. I go and talk to the guy, he's very nice, he gives me the phone number of their office, turns out it differs from mine by only one digit- mine is 0484, theirs is 0464. Surely they must be mistaken, so I go back home to try again.

Exactly

The Same

Response.

The woman told me: "You can have two phone lines going into the same house, one will be able to handle Velox, and the other won't."

Once again I became enveloped by my belligerent aspect. She tried to explain to me how this could be but I didn't really understand and didn't really want to know either.

I told her I only wanted the line for Velox, and insisted they give me one that could handle it. She told me that even if they gave me another line they couldn't guarantee that it would work.

My Portuguese fails me utterly at these moments. Once again I threatened to cut off the line but hung up before I got transfered.

So now what? Explore other options. I called up Net, which is my cable company, who I hate. I've had many evil phone conversations with their staff. I'm convinced that whenever they pull up my file, they must get all kinds of warnings about my volatility and who knows what else. Generally I'm pretty justified in getting pissed off, and if I get upset at someone who isn't responsible it's not really my fault, they're never going to let me speak to the people who made me miserable.

Unfortunately, Net has not wired my building, so I can't sign up with them. I don't dwell on it too much.

Only one option left.

When I get in these moods, I take on this juggernaut-like quality, where I can't really be deterred from my objective, or calmed down, or told to forget about it, or deal with it later. My advice to those close to me is to get out of the way and let the thing run its course, and please forgive me if I'm an asshole for the duration. People generally think I'm this super mellow, low-key guy- they've never seen me when I'm like this.

So I put on a shirt and a baseball cap and go straight to the mall to explore another option I'd never heard of before last week- the Vivo Flash. This is a desktop modem that works like a cell phone. It's only about 5 dollars a month more than my phone line, without the Velox. I was a bit wary when I first heard about it, but I'm out of options.

"Does this work with Mac OSX?" I ask.

"With what?"

This conversation took place in Portuguese, of course. Portuguese is a beautiful but strange sounding language, and if you hear a Brazilian say something even more bizarre sounding than normal, it's probably a word they adopted from English. So even though I don't know how to say "Macintosh" or "OSX" or "Panther" in Portuguese, I pretty much know how to strangle the English enough that they understand. This wasn't the problem here- they just didn't know what I was talking about. Macs are practically non-existent here, although there are iPods, if you have a fortune to spend. I have never seen an iPhone in Brazil, and doubt they'll make it to Salvador for another 2 to 3 years.

So basically I knew the answer had to be "no," and I spent about 40 minutes trying to determine that fact. Boy was I surprised when, after I'd already decided to sign up for a one year contract with the thing that the brochure I'd snagged for some light reading said that they did support Macintosh. We'll see about that, I think, wisely.

I watched the salesman fill out the contract; he made a spelling error when he wrote "Flash" as "Flesh." Vivo Flesh- which translates as "Live Flesh." I find this amusing, so I don't correct him.

He tested the thing for me, and I was alarmed to see that almost nothing was downloading, it was running slower than my Mom's internet dialup, which is slow even for a dialup. I was extremely shocked when I went to a 'velocímetro' that I use to measure my connection speed- it showed a speed 4.7 times faster than the maximum on my Velox. What does that mean?

I take the thing home, fully prepared for more disappointment. It had to wait until after my Capoeira Roda, which was a welcome diversion and did what Capoeira should always do for me- served as a distraction and a release valve for my personal pressure cooker.

When I looked online for drivers for this charming new device, which I must say is really a great idea, and would be wonderful even if it means networking my race car laptop to my dinosaur vintage 2002 desktop system to get it to work. I may still need to do that. I found there are drivers for OSX, but not for systems with Intel processors, which mine has.

I also found that when I popped the installation disc into my other laptop, the one with Windows XP on it, which is what they absolutely said would work, it came up blank. Slotting the same disc in my new computer and it just gets spit out again.

I downloaded the drivers online, they don't work. I've given up installing it on that machine, and instead decided to write this. I can only justify this because I can't work because I can't access my email server, or any of the other Vermont-based servers that provide me with 90% of my income. But I had planned to write this anyways, it was just too good to pass up.

Now it's two in the morning and I'm supposed to move stuff to the new office at noon tomorrow. Why, I'm not exactly sure, as I don't yet have internet over there and it's looking increasingly like I'll be condemned to dialup after all. I suppose instead of going to bed, like I should, I will doggedly try to install the thing in the dinosaur, and the race car laptop in Vista mode, in spite of its Intel Processor.

Here's hoping, if only a little.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Godmother is Here

Lucas' godmother, or 'madrinha' as they are called (a much nicer word I think, it means 'little mother') arrived at our house and met Lucas for the first time. She brought presents and a friend. Lucas likes her just fine and she seems to like him even more.

For someone who was raised without religion, this whole godmother/baptism/church thing is pretty baffling. I never had godparents (actually I did, apparently, very briefly- but I don't even know who they are) and never felt like I was missing out on anything for the lack of them. However, here in Brazil they are a big deal and apparently everyone in Evani's family was waiting to see who would be chosen as the godparents- she snubbed them all by naming a friend who lives in another state and is entirely removed from the snarled interpersonal politics of her family and neighborhood. I guess I'm snubbing them all as well, and still, as I have yet to name a godfather, which is my responsibility. I have no freakin' idea who to name. Nobody around here, that's for sure. What's worse is that I have to get this worked out before Lucas can be baptized, which is another big deal, and will require that I take some kind of course or something and become at least an honorary Catholic or something of the like. I really don't know what's involved- I've heard it might be a five month course, or a one week course. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me as I'm going to remain nonreligious. I respect religion, and religions, and I'm okay with Lucas becoming a nominal Catholic by being baptized and all the rest, but I don't really want to be bothered with it.

Over dinner we recollected that we had all first met on my very first tumultuous visit to Brazil, when my relationship with Evani was at its most intense and agonizing. I had thought it was somewhat afterwards. Lucas' godmother and her friend got mugged at 8 in the morning at a tourist attraction, and we all met by attending a Candomblé - that much I remember. I remember a great many other things about that first trip here, in December of 2001...

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A New Office, and The Battle Vs. Exhaustion

Friday was a good day, and also a bad day.

It was good because I finally closed the deal on my new office space, abandoning at last seven years of working at home, a plan that worked well when I was single but has become a nightmare with a wife and two kids. It's amazing I've lasted this long actually, and I have the debts to prove it.

It was a bad day because in my daily battle against exhaustion, I was doing very poorly. I'm tired most days, at least for part of the day, but yesterday was worse. This was because I got up at 9, no big deal, you might say, except that I went to bed at 3 am as I often (generally) do. No big deal, you might continue to say, but unfortuately I don't function normally on six hours sleep. If I can't take a decent nap, I spend the day in an angry haze. I snap at people. Sometimes I even throw and hit things, usually things I need like my phone or my keyboard. This time I got so aggravated with the bureaucracy that I told my wife and a good friend of ours how much I hate this country at times, and how much I would love to get out of here.

When I was single, and not a parent, I loved being out of sync with the rest of the world. When I lived in New York, I'd take a nap at 9 or 10 pm and work until 3- then watch TV until 4 or 5. Sometimes I'd sleep too late to get breakfast at the local greasy spoon that closed at 3. I loved taking the train into Manhattan on my way to Capoeira class and watch all the jam-packed trains on the way out. It was relaxing. It was fun. I lived in New York and didn't get stressed out.

Now I stay up this late (it's 5 of 3 right now) out of necessity. This is the only time I can work, because Lucas won't let me alone when he's awake. I got more done when he was in school, but he's on summer vacation now- in January, this being the southern hemisphere. I sleep late in the morning and I miss out on time with him. I'm out of step with my family. It's driving me nuts. I want to be on a normal schedule now. Not to mention, I can't run out to the local bodega at 2 am for a pint of ice cream: no bodega open at 2. Dangerous. And the ice cream isn't as good anyways.

So that's what the office is about- it's going to be my sanctuary from my family so I can enjoy my family more. This works well on a couple levels- my natural tendency to hermit will be satisfied every day I go in there (try to explain that to a Brazilian- a natural tendency to hermit) and I will have lots of big unbroken blocks of time to concentrate. I might even be able to climb out of debt, even with the extra expenses.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

How to Rebuild a Plastic Tricycle


When I got up this morning, my son Lucas brought me the pieces of his plastic tricycle, or velotro as they are called in Portuguese. I would have loved to have bought him one of those little plastic cars you see everywhere in the States, but they aren't widely available here and the ones that are are horribly expensive. And poorly made.

Not that the trike was well made- one of the 'hubs' stripped its plastic threads and the wheels fell off. It's been busted for a couple months now. I've seen him scootch along on the thing, pretending to ride it even though it lacked two of its three wheels.

I'd been meaning to fix it since it broke. I decided I'd go ahead and do it today. Unfortunately, when he brought me the pieces, he didn't bring all of them- the axle and the damn 'hubs' were missing. I can't stand searching for things, and when none of the obvious hiding places yielded them up, I decided to improvise.

My family is full of tinkerers, and I'm one of them. I love to mess with tools, fix things, etc. I'm pretty good at it too, but my problem is that it takes me forever to fix anything. So, knowing I was going to waste at least a couple hours on a $20 toy I embarked on a reengineering of the tricycle.

The problem was, beyond the axle being missing, that all the weight previously being placed upon it had been supported by two square inches of plastic, one on either side, which was getting all bunched up and broken. The weight those two square inches had been asked to bear was considerable, when you consider the force of my large 10 year old stepson bearing down on it to push the little guy around. This was a problem I had noticed some time ago, and I had a solution all worked out.

I carved open the belly of the thing with a utility knife, and cut a plywood 'frame' to fit snugly inside the empty cavity. Then I nailed on a couple spacers, and cut a notch in a piece of hardwood (tropical, naturally- this is Brazil after all) to accommodate the axle. Then a couple braces were nailed onto that, to keep it from pulling loose from the frame. All this was fitted into the body of the trike, and screwed into place. I had a threaded rod left over from the restoration of our staircase that became the new axle. And after much banging and sawing (I used three power tools, but no ruler- this was just a cheap kid's toy after all) it was restored- better than new! Now the weight on the axle is ingeniously distributed across the whole body of the toy, not just on those suffering square inches of extruded plastic. Damn I'm good. And I didn't waste a single penny on anything- it was all stuff I had kicking around the house.

Better yet, when Lucas woke up from his nap and climbed on the thing, he actually started pedaling- a new skill for him. Of course, after two hours of my labor the toy only held his interest for about five minutes, but hey. It's fixed now. Mark one off my long list of handyman projects. too bad it wasn't a little higher on the list.

The last time I did a similar carpentry/engineering project was when I transformed Lucas' crib into a child bed- taking off one of the side panels and building an elaborate railing that keeps him from falling out of bed. What's elaborate about it is that it's rigged so that he can climb over the railing, and probably stand and jump up and down on it, without it ripping loose from the cheapo particle board that the rest of the crib is made of. It's also made of tropical hardwood and was constructed entirely from stuff I had in the house. This is the good thing about not throwing anything away.

With any luck, my next project will be the new office that I am looking to rent- finally moving the home office out of the home. This is an attempt at rescuing my sanity and getting on a normal schedule, instead of waiting for the kids to go to sleep to get any work done. I may have the key in hand tomorrow, but then again, I thought I'd have it last week so we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Morning coffee and unhappy kids

My father's wife makes him a cup of coffee every morning and brings it to him in bed. I used to think him terribly spoiled (she makes one for herself too), but now I find myself longing for the same treatment . Sigh...

For me, it's not quite so easy- Evani would never willingly bring me a cup of coffee in bed every morning. But Lucas often comes to wake me up, at 11 or so, and he's gotten big enough that I can send him on simple errands, like telling Ruan to bring me the coffee. Today the whole thing backfired, because Lucas wanted to be the coffee bearer, not just the messenger. I heard him start howling downstairs, and he came upstairs with Ruan, clinging to his shorts, as he brought the blessed coffee.

Obviously, getting the coffee in bed is no good if I don't get a nice 15 or 20 minutes to read my book in peace and drink it. Not happening with a screaming, crying two year old next to me. I tried everything to get him to calm down, and finally what worked was singing the elephant song from one of his favorite YouTube videos.

This afternoon I went out to pay a bill- it took about an hour. Don't ask me why it took me an hour to pay a bill, let it suffice to say that I live in Brazil. In Bahia. Bill paying, which eats up too many hours of my time every month, deserves its own entry and will get one.

As I sidled up to my computer, at 11:30 at night for the evening work session, I found a note by the keyboard from my very unhappy stepson. The fact that he wrote anything is notable- he doesn't like to write. I didn't let him go to his aunt's house because of an appointment we have with our educational psychologist. He wrote a long note telling us how unhappy he is and trapped he feels here in our house. Admittedly, he is on summer vacation and he hardly leaves the house, poor kid. This neighborhood isn't so great for him to hang out in the street, and the one friend he has on the next street over never visits anymore and vice versa- I'm not sure why.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Eve

I haven't been a big fan of New Year's for some time now- it always seems to end up being less than it could be, with people getting too drunk and expectations out of control, often ending up in vomit and/or tears, or for my part a general sense of let-down.

Here in Brazil they take their parties seriously, as well as their drinking, so I imagine they have an element of the New Year's Eve I was used to, but there are other aspects as well. For instance, it is tradition for everyone to wear white, so we got dressed up in as much white as we could (except for Lucas, the two year old, who is very insistent about what he wants to wear, and burst into tears when we tried to dissuade him from his new green penguin shirt). The clothes came after the banho de folias, which is a tradition in the Candomblé, the Yoruban-based religion practiced here. It is a ritual cleansing, a bath of herbs that one pours over oneself. A fine tradition for a new year. Then we met up with my English friends, my best english speaking friends here in Salvador. We all walked down to the beach, to meet other friends of theirs who were making offerings to Iemanjá, the Orixa of the ocean. They placed a large clay urn filled with flowers and I don't know what else into the surf, holes were dug in the sand and candles placed in them.

For our part, we took off our shoes and let the surf lap at our feet, all of us exept Ruan, who tried to outrun the waves and tripped and got himself completely drenched, including his brand new Nike Airs that I brought back from the States for him. That's alright, if anyone needs Iemanjá's blessing it's him. He also got a bit too enthusiastic with the champagne at midnight, got real goofy and complained of 'dizziness.' Ten years old- I guess a few swallows can have that effect.

My wife Evani came into the room as I was working on this. She is disappointed that we have passed the day in the house, apparently we should be out drinking with family somewhere. Everyone here is sleeping, the kids, our two house guests, even she just woke up. Me personally, I'm fine with kicking around the house- it's part of who I am, and I don't particularly feel the need to spend another day drinking. I need to get some work done, which is what I'm going to do right now.

New Year's Day

January 1, 2008 - and a happy new year to all. It's now been six years since I first visited Brazil, and about five or so that I've lived here. Salvador, Bahia to be precise. Now I'm married, with a two year old son and a 10 year old stepson, a lovely wife, a restored historical home and a rapidly aging car... more about all these things later.

As I embark on this project I fully expect it to wind up like so many of my projects, with much enthusiasm to start, and then petering out in a couple months (if that). Here's hoping I'm wrong.