Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour at Casa Pfohl

Earth Hour, or Hora do Planeta as it is called in Portuguese, was observed at our house this evening. More or less.

I have no idea how much press this annual event gets where you live, but I suspect it's more than we get in Salvador. I don't think it even got a mention on the evening news. In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, go to It's a one hour event where everyone is supposed to turn off their lights to raise awareness about energy consumption and global warming.

I told the family earlier in the week that I wanted to observe Earth Hour, shutting off the lights for "just an hour" Saturday night, and was met with odd looks and skepticism. I don't try very hard to push my pseudo-environmentalist agenda around here anymore, nobody gets it or cares. They've learned that if they throw trash out the window of the car I will get very upset, so they don't do that anymore, but I figure they only restrain themselves for my benefit. I should say that I'm referring specifically to my family and in-laws, although I would be willing to make a gross generalization that Brazilians in general are pretty disinterested in making nice with the environment, there is an environmental movement here and I believe it is picking up steam. I recently discovered that the Linha Verde highway which runs along the coast to the north of the city was initially intended to be a coastal highway, but the plans were redone to keep it something like three kilometers inland. Bravo!

As the lights-out hour approached, 8:30, I almost gave up on the idea. We have a house full of kids and preparations are underway for Lucas' birthday on Monday and it didn't seem real practical to shut everything off. So I decided to do a partial observation. I shut down the computer and turned off all the lights upstairs. Then I went downstairs, and shut everything off except for the lights in the living room, where the kids were, and in the kitchen, where Evani and Ruan's aunt Joelma were making cakes. I explained to Joelma what Earth Hour was about, and her response was "A whole hour??" which is the opposite of my response: "Only an hour? Per year??"

Things went smoothly enough for the first forty minutes- I spent the time grating large bars of chocolate, by hand, eschewing our food processor in the interest of conserving energy. For the hour. Then, as the hour was winding down, I decided to ratchet it up a bit. I found a lone candle in the house, and informed everyone that we would be shutting off all the lights, but only for five minutes. Despite some groans and general statements about the sanity of yours truly, I got my way, so at 9:20 the lights went out for real.

I gave a quick talk about why I was doing this and what Earth Hour was, mostly for the kid's benefits. I explained that all over the world, and even here in Brazil, people were doing the same thing. I asked them if they knew what global warming was and none of them did. That took up about three minutes. As soon as I finished, Evani started talking about her childhood growing up- about how when she was small, they didn't even have electricity in Paripe, and sometimes they didn't even have money for kerosene. She told us that some nights her mother would serve dinner and say "Eat quick, we've only got one candle." This segued directly into spooky, dark-house stories. Evani recounted how her mother once heard a ukulele (the Portuguese word for this instrument is much nicer, cavaquinho) playing by itself as it hung on the wall and another story about Evani's father encountering a man on the road at night who subsequently disappeared. Some of Evani's friends, and Evani herself, have claimed to see people who weren't there in our house and those stories were told as well. The five minutes stretched to ten, then fifteen, and we almost made it to twenty minutes in the dark. I blew out the candle, everyone screamed, and then I turned on the light- Earth Hour was over for the year. Then the funniest thing happened: the kids wouldn't leave the kitchen. They were all completely spooked! It took almost an hour for them to finally work up the courage to go back to the TV in the living room.

Despite my dissatisfaction with some aspects of my life here in Brazil, one thing I feel really good about is the relatively small carbon footprint I have here. I live in the center of the city and can and do walk almost everywhere I need to go. I have a car, but I rarely use it and could live quite easily without it (and may have to shortly if my economic situation continues the way it has been). CFL's are much more popular here than (they used to be) in the US, and I have used them almost exclusively since I moved in four years ago. I don't need to heat my house. I suspect a large portion of my electric bill is due to the use of ceiling fans, but those can be turned on and off when needed, I'm not cooling my whole house all the time. Some of these pieces I put in place via lifestyle choices I made before I moved to Brazil, some were bonuses of living in a tropical climate.

A friend of mine was ruminating on Facebook about the concrete impact, ie energy savings, produced by observing Earth Hour. I doubt it was significant. One hour per year isn't going to do much to combat global warming- it's mostly to raise awareness, and I hope in that respect I did a little something to forward the cause. Now if we were to observe Earth Hour every day, that would be something else. I for one would be prepared to do so, although I think the rest of the family wouldn't be too happy about it.

Maybe next year we'll do a whole hour of ghost stories around the flickering candle.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Lots of stuff on my mind, and I'm supposed to be working (as usual) but I thought I'd write a quick post.

Got in a bit of an argument with my wife over comparative levels of violence. I should just stop watching the news as I never cease to be appalled at the things people do to each other. I'm not saying people don't do horrible things back where I come from, but it happens a lot more here. I tried arguing that there are safer places here in Brazil as well, but Evani doesn't seem to agree with this assessment, or doesn't care, or something. Eventually this will drive me out of Salvador (the violence that is), if not out of Brazil altogether. One way or another.

I attended another graffiti event on Sunday, which was fun. People are starting to know who I am, whether or not they like what I do. This event was put on by one of the guys who I took the graffiti course with. The funny thing was that a lot of the participants were complaining about the wall because it hadn't been completely rolled with latex paint beforehand. This was because the wall was freakin' huge, and the organizers didn't have a lot of cash for paint. I gotta say one thing about the graffiteiros here; with all due respect, these guys are spoiled. If this place is insanely violent, on the other extreme it is a paradise for graffiteiros. I mean- come on, you get several thousand square meters of blank, smooth wall to paint without fear of arrest and a free plate of food on top of it, and you're going to complain? There's so much wall at these things (usually) that a bunch of it doesn't get painted at the end of the day.

Here was my contribution:

And here is one side of the wall we had- this is less than half the space that was available to us:

And more pictures can be seen here if you're curious.

In other news, Lucas' fourth birthday is on Monday... he came flying into our bed two nights ago, probably because of a bad dream. I saw him fly in, but was so out of it it took me a while to figure out he was trying to hold my hand as I was sleeping, he told me he was scared.

Ruan has finally started school. After two weeks of waiting, we sent him to school to find out what was going on and he discovered that his class had actually been having classes for a week already. We'd been calling the central office almost every day and they had been telling us to be patient and wait for the substitute to show up- they didn't even know that classes had resumed in their own school? Come on- that's pathetic.

What was the last thing? I forgot.

Oh yeah- there was something else- I finally looked through an old sketchbook I carried with me through Australia and Southeast Asia when I travelled there. I brought it back with me from the States a year and a half ago, and finally opened it up yesterday. It was pretty cool- that was back when I thought I was going to draw comic books, and there are a couple stories I started in there, and even one that I finished. The other thing that took me completely by surprise was the beginning of a story I'd written for kids, complete with little thumbnail sketches. I'd completely forgotten about it. It was actually pretty cool, but of course I hadn't finished it, not even the little sketches. Who knows, maybe I'll finish it some day. Unlike in the States, I've found it really hard to find quality kid's books here in Brazil- really creative interesting stuff. Then again, there isn't the same kind of reading culture here in Brazil as in the States. I can't even get my own kid to read books with me half the time.

Which reminds me of one other thing- once when I did manage to get Lucas to sit still with me long enough to read Where the Wild Things Are for the first time, he tried to tell me something when we were done. I couldn't quite nail it down, but it sounded like he was saying (quite earnestly) that he wanted me to make one like it. Or maybe he was saying it reminded him of my drawings. It was a nice moment, whatever he was saying.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Art School, Bahian Style

Today I went to pick up some X-rays and then I had a half hour to kill before picking up Lucas at school. I had my camera with me, so I decided to look around for some graffiti to take pictures of. I spotted a large mural, not spray painted, and then I noticed that the lawn adjacent to the mural was full of sculpture. I'd stumbled upon the art department of UFBA - the Federal University of Bahia.

I went in and wandered around. I've always enjoyed art schools and art departments, the grime and the splattered paint, the artwork of widely varying quality posted on the walls. It brought me back to my nearly forgotten youth at the University of New Hampshire. A couple big differences struck me, beyond the obvious difference in climate: the primary building here in Salvador is a big colonial period ex-mansion, much more attractive than the modernist afterthought that is the Paul Creative Arts Center at UNH. Also, it appears the students here get a lot more leeway to paint the walls of their school, something we were definitely not allowed to do back at my school. In retrospect, the aforementioned ex-mansion was not embellished, just the surrounding modernist afterthoughts- but it was definitely an improvement.

Some of the stuff painted or glued on the walls is the kind of street art I wish I saw more of here on the streets of Salvador. Here's a sampling:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Big Graffiti

When I set out to paint my latest piece on Sunday, I almost chickened out.

I knew it was going to be big. And in your face. And seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people every single day. And it was also going to be in my neighborhood.

Now take that last paragraph, and change all the tenses to present, and you have my latest piece. I could add a bunch more adjectives, like 'sloppy' and 'simple'.

I think I've compared painting graffiti to playing Capoeira in this blog before- not in the physical sense obviously, I don't paint upside down or anything like that. But one of the greatest challenges for me in playing Capoeira, especially in the beginning, was getting into the roda, in front of everyone. I would either do well or make a total ass of myself, and I never knew how it would go beforehand. I feel the exact same way about graffiti. When I set out to do it, I have no idea if it's going to turn out well or badly. The difference is, a game of Capoeira only lasts a few minutes, then it's over. Gone forever, unless someone happened to film it. A shitty piece of graffiti, especially here in Brazil, might haunt you for years- unless you go and paint over it yourself. I've been tempted to do so in the past.

I don't want to paint over this piece, it turned out better than that. However part of me feels like I wasn't quite ready to make something quite this imposing, quite this central. It's on a pedestrian walkway just off of one of the busiest streets here in the center of the city. I'd been eyeing the wall for weeks, I even tagged it as mine so nobody would paint it before me. I did several sketches, which is unheard of for me, usually I do a two minute drawing and that's what the piece is based on. Not this time. I felt this one was important, because it is so visible, so I wanted it to be done right. I did the best I could, and it came out pretty well, but I still struggle to control the paint so if you look at it closely you'll see the errors.

I also really wanted it to be tall. One of my (minor) gripes about the graffiti here is that almost none of it extends more than about six feet off the ground. I so much wanted this one to be talle that I built a little ladder out of some leftover wood I had so I could extend my reach, and I think this made all the difference. Instead of six feet it's about twelve feet tall.

Some interesting things happened as I was painting it. I got pretty severely heckled by a big drunk guy, who eventually went away. Two people asked for my card, which like an idiot I didn't have with me. I told them to come back and copy my website address off the thing (yeah I can actually write contact info on my pieces). Several people told me it was really cool, and two women asked me what the two guys were doing. I told them they could make up their own story, maybe they were just about to get in a fight (it does look like they are about to kick each other in their non-existent genitals). One of them said it looks like they are old friends who haven't seen each other for a long time and just ran into each other out of the blue. I like that interpretation.

But the best comment I got was from a woman who asked me how much I charge to paint. Never having been paid to spray paint anything, I started to tell her how much the paint costs- this usually causes people to lose interest. She told me she already had the paint. Then she told me I wouldn't be interested. Of course, this made me even more interested, so I asked her what it was. She told me she was looking for someone to spray paint a school.

Painting a school is something I've been dying to do. Schools here tend to have super cheesy cartoon characters painted on the outside walls, and I really want to do something original and cool for a school, I also think it would be great publicity. I told her I have really been wanting to paint a school.

Thing was, she used the verb pichar, and she meant it. Pichar is the verb 'to spray-paint,' and while I do spray paint, what she was referring to was pichação, which is the illegal, vandal side of graffiti here in Brazil. Many people would consider this the only true graffiti that is done here, because doing something illegal is part of the definition. While what I do is quasi-legal, what they do is definitely not and can lead to arrests and occaisionally even shootings. But we generally respect each other, with one not painting over the work of the other, which is good. It's not the same in São Paulo, a bunch of pichadores there invaded a gallery a few months ago and painted over all the work in it, it being a street-art gallery. Luckily we don't have that kind of climate here in Salvador.

So it turns out that this woman's husband has left her for another woman, and the new woman runs or owns a school. She wants someone to go and deface the walls of the school to exact her petty revenge. She was right, I wasn't interested.

After about four hours of work I finished my painting, which is way too long for something like that. Part of what is so great about graffiti is it's big and it's fast. It should have taken me half the time. Initially pleased, now I'm mildly embarrassed by it. It's just a little too much. I'm worried people won't like it, or will get sick of it. But it will certainly take care of my anonymity problem- pretty soon, I'll be able to tell just about anyone that I painted those two guys in Dois de Julho and they'll know my work. So what do I do? Well, I wanted to take my work to the next level, so now that I've done it I guess I've just got to paint a lot more.

Evani showed Lucas and Ruan my painting the following evening on her way back from Paripe. Lucas said the blue guy is Evani, and the green guy is Ruan. I'm surprised he didn't say one of them was him!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Two of them, currently:

1. Ruan was supposed to start school on Monday, but his new teacher is on maternity leave and they can't find a sub, so he's missing his first week of school. Man do I hate the public schools here.

2. I have spent untold hours trying to configure my router/modem for my new phone company/ISP. The stoopid thing won't recognize the connection no matter what I do. Some tech dude in Russia or somewhere is supposed to be helping now but to no avail. I'm trying hard not to think about how the $20 I saved by not buying D-link or whatever has vaporized along with many other potentially productive money-making hours writing code and making money.

okay, well there's three:

3. My assumption that airline tickets had dropped along with the price of oil was apparently shockingly wrong... I tried pricing tickets to go home in July and I was simply alarmed at how expensive they are. Guess I'm gonna wait a while to buy those tickets.

well, maybe there's four:

4. Only kidding!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

People Come, People Go, and Mexican Food

So some things happened this weekend...

One is that my friend Cheryl, author of the incomparable Brazilian Chaos blog, is leaving Salvador. She will be missed. She has been my best (and pretty much only) American friend in this crazy place and I'm sorry to see her go. Good luck to you in your future endeavors Cheryl!

Second big news is that Ruan went to spend the weekend with his dad. For the first time ever. He's home again, and it seems it went well. He came back with a new cell phone (well, new/used , but with camera), new sneakers (that was a relief as I've been owing him a pair and now I'm off the hook), and 100 reis (now he can finally 'desbloquear' his Playstation to play pirated games). Much better than he would have done here at home!

Now I'm thinking about the future of this new relationship. I sincerely hope he gets to know his father, and the sister who he hasn't yet met. Obviously this kind of lavish spending will not continue, but that doesn't bother me. To be honest, I was happy about the sneakers, but Ruan just got a new cell phone for Christmas and doesn't need another one, even if it does have a camera. Focus on the practical spending, Beto. Buy him some clothes next time.

My concern is that he's going to see Ruan a couple times and then disappear from his life again. I really hope that doesn't happen.

There were a couple things that happened with Beto and his 'wife' that I found weird. One was that Beto kept calling Ruan his son, and also quoting Ruan as calling him 'my dad.' Well, it's true, he is his dad. But to spend over ten years ignoring your kid, and then suddenly step in and it's all 'my son' and 'my dad' after one day strikes me as a bit odd. Also, I have never heard Ruan refer to him as his father, he always calls him Beto. We'll see if that has indeed changed.

The other thing that was odd was Beto's wife telling me why she wanted Ruan to know his sister. "Just think if he doesn't meet her, and then they run into each other at a party and one thing leads to another... and then they're getting married and all of a sudden their father shows up and they realize..." Well, I can think of a lot of good reasons to know your siblings, and I guess that would be on the list, but probably not at the top. She started repeating this argument and I mentioned that I thought that kind of thing happened more often on the novelas (prime-time soap operas) than in real life. She insisted that that wasn't true, that she worked with someone who had had exactly the same thing happen to them, or one of their relatives or something. They didn't get to the aisle exactly, but he brought her home to meet the folks and they figured it out. Well, in that case, I guess it's a good idea.

But unfortunately they haven't met yet. Apparently her mom is super protective, and very suspicious of Beto, and hasn't wanted them to meet. I hope that changes.

So the plan is for them all to go to the beach next weekend. We'll see how it goes!

Now to the Mexican food. I do like Mexican, I love it in fact, and the only Mexican food I've eaten here in Salvador was extemely mediocre and wildly overpriced. The restaurant has since closed. I've seen ads for other places, but they are all in neighborhoods on the other side of the city. Well, a couple months ago I was surprised to see a Mexican place under construction in the food court at our local mall, not a ten minute walk from here, one of the humblest malls in the city. I didn't have high hopes for it.

One of my favorite phrases is that 'an optomist is never pleasantly surprised.' How true. Tonight I got to eat at the new Mexican place, and I was pleasantly surprised. Admittedly, I set the bar quite low, at Taco Bell quality. I'm happy to say that it was definitely, if not substantially, better than Taco Bell. And the price was much more reasonable than my last Mexican meal here in Salvador. Even better, they sell flour and corn tortillas for takeaway so I can actually start making Mexican meals here at the house! Yes, I know I could make my own tortillas here at the house, just like I could fix the missing floor tiles in the hall and install the ceiling fan in the kitchen, and a million other things I will never get around to. Buying a dozen tortillas to make some tacos or burritos is something I can relate to. Now if only Evani liked corn tortillas...

Just one final note in the interest of fairness and balance: there is a fantastic Mexican place here in Bahia, but it is in Lençois, about a six hours drive from here. It's run by a Mexican American guy from New Mexico and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Lençois. It's not 'Tex Mex' food, it's a distinct regional cuisine and my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Now I've got to try that Thai restaurant in Rio Vermelho...