Sunday, May 31, 2009

Baixa Fria

I've been wondering lately if I had a story worthy of The Moth (if you've never heard the podcast, check it out) and as of today I think I finally do.

My story would start like this: I would tell about the time our car broke down on the side of the highway after dark here in Salvador. Although well within the city limits, there is no lighting along the stretch of road where we got stuck. My primary concern was someone smashing into our car there on the shoulder of the highway, but Evani was much more concerned about someone coming out of the favela right next door and walking off with everything we had. Apparently she wasn't the only person concerned about that, because out of the same favela came a young guy who tried to help get my car going, and when we couldn't, he stayed with us until the tow truck showed up. I told him he could leave if he wanted, and he refused. I offered him money (at Evani's suggestion) and he refused that too. In the excitement of the ramp truck arriving and us getting out of there I totally forgot this guardian angel, and it wasn't until we had left the scene far behind us that I remembered I had forgotten to thank him.

I'm pretty sure I know what was going through his mind: stupid @#$% rich gringo jerk, all friendly in a time of need, and then once the cavalry arrives the Upright Citizen is forgotten.

I really didn't want to be remembered that way- I'm not that way. Well, mostly not, anyways. But I was determined to correct my error. At Evani's suggestion, I bought a little dress for his baby girl and drove back to the scene of the crime to leave it for him. Since I had no idea how to get to where he lived by the regular roads, I got on the highway and stopped at exactly the same spot, this time during the day, and clambered down the embankment into the favela to give him the gift. Luckily, he was there, working on a car, so I was able to thank him in person. I was extremely glad about that. I'd written him a note and included our address and phone number, telling him to look me up so we could get a beer or something some day. He never did, but at least I felt better about myself. I mean, how many people would go through all that effort just to thank somebody? I like to think not many.

So back to my Moth story: after recounting the car incident, I would talk about how I got into doing graffiti here in Brazil, and how these Multirão events happen here in Salvador from time to time. We had one just this weekend, in a neighborhood called São Caetano. The directions to get there were fairly straightforward, but it was a pretty long drive into an area I really don't know that well. I went out there with my friend Sins and from the end of the line in São Caetano we went even further, into a sub-neighborhood called Baixa Fria, which literally means 'Cold Low.' Like all of these events, it was situated in the middle of a favela.

I sometimes forget just how big Salvador is- it's creeping up on three million people if I'm not mistaken. One of the neighborhoods is supposedly the biggest in all of South America- that is, if you can call it a single neigthborhood: it's broken up into eleven numbered chunks. You can see the Favelas from the highway (or you can live in them, I've done that too), but when you get into them you realize just how many people live there. Most of them, obviously, are very poor. And in Salvador, most of them are black. I must confess that the thought of driving through parts of the Bronx or Brooklyn bothers me much more than driving through the favelas, at least during the day. I've never felt threatened and I've certainly never had any racial epithets tossed in my direction, except for the occasional 'Gringo,' which doesn't really qualify. I can't say the same for the less than two years I lived in Brooklyn- although I must confess I didn't get much abuse when I lived there either.

Anyways, back to my story. Actually, if this was a Moth story I was telling, I'd probably say that and more as background on Brazil. So there I was, in the favela, painting away, and there's this busy road behind me. I asked someone who was watching what the road was, and they said it was 'The BR.'

On the East Coast of the US, highways are just referred to by their numbers: "Get on 91 going south until you get to..." etc. In California, I was surprised to discover that highways are referred to as the number: "Get on the 5 going north until you..." I'm now convinced this is because of the latin influence in the region: we do the same thing in Portuguese. I was surprised to discover that individuals are referred to in the same way: someone might call me 'The Mark,' or more likely 'The Markie.' And similarly to the way we plunk an 'I' in front of our highway numbers, here they put a 'BR' in front for their interstate highways. Really these guys were referring to 'BR324,' which is the main road in and out of Salvador, but since it's the only highway in the city, it is simply referred to as 'The BR.' By everyone.

If you're paying attention you should be getting a glimmer of where this story is going. When I found out that this road was the BR, I suddenly recognized where I was. I had been here before. I was just one street over from where I had met my Guardian Angel from the night our car broke down; I was looking right at the bank I had clambered down, right up there was where my car had died. Totally by chance, I'd found the route to his house that didn't involve parking on the freeway.

I asked someone if there was a guy around there who fixed cars. I was told yes. I asked if he might be around, it being Sunday. I was also told yes, and the person who informed me offered to check, which is what I was hoping for. I may drive around the favelas without undue concern but I don't walk around them, at least not ones I'm not familiar with (and more importantly, are not familiar with me) by myself.

Suddenly there he was- the guy! I realize now I should have had someone take our picture. We smiled a lot and I asked how his little girl was and he told me she's fine, and there's a boy on the way. I thanked him again and told some other people how he'd saved our asses out there on the highway that night. One of his neighbors, who was organizing the Multirão, agreed. She said if he hadn't shown up, we would have been left with nothing.

So that's my Moth story. The Multirão was fun too, one of the better ones I've attended, and my painting turned out okay, but not great. Turns out you can see it from the BR. I forgot my camera this time, but Sins took a picture, so here it is. Sins painted the flower.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chainsaws After Midnight

It's two AM and I can hear two chainsaws running from my house. They've been at it, not continuously, but steadily, for almost two hours. Presumably some tree blew over with the crazy wind we have been having. Presumably it was a big tree as well, since they've been doing it for so long.

I really hope it wasn't one of the big almond trees in the largo, but I can't imagine what else would cause this much sawing at this hour. It's all I can do to keep from throwing on some street clothes and checking it out. I'm not going to, because if it is one of those big trees I'll be too bummed out to sleep.

The first time I was here in Brazil I walked through the largo where I now live, and what struck me about it was all the nice trees it had growing here. More than half of those got chopped down as part of the big, disastrous renovation they did, and I reckon the other half will go the same way if they ever get the cash together to renovate that half of the largo. On the upside, they did plant new trees, which will eventually be big and beautiful as well. And apparently as part of the renovation they budgeted a full-time gardener as there is a guy with really short arms who is always tending to the greenery.

Almond trees are the perfect shade tree- they have huge leaves, and low, spreading branches. The two that we have here in the largo predate the renovation by many years. And they provide almost all of the existing shade in the largo. If they're gone I'm gonna cry.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I wanted to write about the rain. It hasn't rained today, for the first time in about two weeks, but it's supposed to rain again tomorrow and the hell will begin all over again. My fellow bloggers are all writing about it, here and here and here.

My most dramatic introduction to tropical rain was when I was backpacking in Thailand- one time I was standing by the side of the road, waiting for something that I can no longer remember, in the full sun. Suddenly, to my complete astonishment, I saw rain coming up the street. There was a clear line dividing the dry asphalt from the wet asphalt. And it was raining hard on the other side of that line.

Since that time, I've always been fascinated by tropical rain, how it can vary in intensity from one cloud to another, how it can vary in intensity from light drizzle to a torrential downpour in seconds, and how an inch of rain can sometimes fall in ten minutes. Growing up in New England, our rain usually stayed at about the same speed for a whole day, or even several days. On the flip side of that here in Brazil, even when it's really rainy it rarely rains steadily for several days at a time. Often it's a couple hours of rain, then some sun, then some clouds, then more rain, etc.

These last two weeks did not fit that pattern.

It rained an insane amount, for many days. Essentially without a pause. Certainly without any sun. My guess is that it rained a couple feet over that time. Most of us think of the word 'awesome' as stoner/surfer slang for 'really great,' but the dictionary definition includes the words 'apprehension' and 'fear' and that's the kind of awesome that this rain was.

I was somewhat traumatized by this kind of rainfall soon after we moved into the house. During Carnaval, we experienced a torrential downpour (a couple weeks after a wind storm tore part of our roof off, but luckily it didn't rain that time) and the downspout on our gutter got clogged with bits of masonry. Since our stoopid gutter is inside the house, this caused water to pour out in great quantities into our bedroom. And down the walls. And into the living room. I freaked out. Ever since then, when I hear the hard drumming of heavy rain, I get tense.

Luckily nothing like that happened to us this time, in fact very little rain has gotten into our house this year. My car, however, is another story. It's not entirely waterproof, and I made the mistake of parking it under a downspout in front of our house, where it got pounded by a small waterfall for several days. The other day we all climbed into it and everything was covered with mold. The steering wheel. Lucas' car seat. Everything. When it rains this hard nothing gets a chance to dry out, so... mold.

But this is mild compared to what has gone down here in Salvador, and elsewhere in Brazil, during this rain. When you get this much rain it alters the ground it falls on, and soaks into, and runs off of. Dirt hills can turn to jelly and collapse, taking houses and everything else with them. One of Evani's cousins fled her house because a big crack appeared in the middle of it. A phone pole went down right by her home, the ground eaten away around it. Some of Evani's neighbors, including people I know, appeared on the evening news because their houses were flooded- they lost everything.

I asked Evani about these neighbors, if their houses had ever flooded before. They all live next to a nasty little sewer/stream that receives a huge amount of runoff. What she said disgusted me.

I got all excited a few months ago because Embasa, the local water utility, went into her neighborhood and installed sewer lines for everybody. Finally! I thought, city sewers have made it to the favelas. I was even going to write a blog post about it. But of course I didn't ask the most important question, which is where is all the sewage going? Answer: into the aforementioned sewer/stream. Which is where most of these folks were running their sewage anyways. Apparently Embasa added a lot more people's sewage and runoff to the stream, because it had never flooded before.

Now that's just nasty.

And if it's going into the stream, you know where it's ending up. Not that you have to search very hard to find black 'rivers' running into the ocean here in Salvador. Evani doesn't let any of us go swimming during the winter. Smart lady.

But even getting your house flooded isn't the worst that can happen, although it's happened to thousands across Brazil. People die too. Several died in a collapsed building, one that actually looked pretty nice, or produced nice looking rubble, when I saw it on the news. Usually the victims of that kind of thing are favela dwellers. I saw another report on the news showing a mud hillside where large notches had been carved out to build houses in. You think I get scared when it starts to rain? These people get terrified. And if they're smart, and they have the option, they flee. Like Evani's cousin. Not all of them have the option.

There's so much rain here that here in the largo many of the manhole covers, and other service-related steel hatches in the ground, get the dirt supporting them eaten away from below and the bricks or paving stones collapse with nothing to support them. This is nerve wracking, especially as I try to navigate my young son around them. Part of the problem is probably poor engineering and/or construction, but these guys have a lot of water to deal with so I'm somewhat sympathetic. Here in our largo this happens on a small if frequent scale, but where there is a lot of runoff these can become huge, potentially car-swallowing holes. It was apparently into one of these that a woman fell with her little girl last week. I think she was actually walking on what had been a sidewalk, or a road, and had become an overhang with all the dirt eroded away beneath it. It collapsed, and they got sucked into some raging runoff. They found their bodies miles away and days later.

And the forecast is calling for more rain tomorrow.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Laughter: The Best Medicine, Until it Starts to Hurt

I've been wanting to write a post about the rain, as it appears all my other expat blogger colleagues have done over the last week, and hopefully I will do so before the urgency passes- it didn't rain much today, but it has almost non-stop for two weeks, so the urgency may not pass anytime soon.

What I am going to write about, briefly, are the two laugh attacks I had today- two! in one day! I haven't laughed this hard since... I stopped using drugs... which was a long time ago.

Maybe it was the drear and misery of all the rain that set me up for the giggles. Maybe I just got lucky. I love to laugh, but I literally laughed so hard that both times I ended up in pain, and I woke up my wife to boot.

The first attack was brought on by an absolutely ridiculous slapstick moment that really won't tell very well- I'm already chuckling again but I really don't expect you to find it funny. I was bouncing Lucas' inflatable Superman on my knee and singing 'trit trot to Boston' when Lucas came up and belted Superman so hard in the head that he went flying. I'm tearing up. I've really got to go to bed. I went into paroxysms of laughter- not the loud, hooting kind, but the crying, silent kind where you can't even breathe anymore. It became a problem: I couldn't control myself and I couldn't breathe and my chest hurt and I got all wheezy.

The second attack happened because I watched President Obama's speech at the White House Correspondent's Dinner. If you've seen it, you know why I enjoyed it, if not, please watch it. If you don't think it's funny then I can't help you. I was trying to watch it quietly in bed with headphones on, because Evani was sleeping, but I got laughing so hard that the whole mattress was bouncing up and down and I had to flee the room. I watched the whole thing and some parts of it a couple times, and by the end I was trying to surpress myself because every time I started laughing my head would start pounding.

Man that was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would like to laugh that hard every day. I could do without the pain- I can't remember laughter actually causing me pain since I broke my ribs in a motorcycle accident and read Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. However, if I had to choose laughing with pain, versus not laughing without pain, I think I'd choose the former. Unless the pain was reealy bad.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Great Moment

Yikes- I've been watching the fur fly on the Rio Gringa blog over her latest post, in which she had the audacity to compare corruption and the rule of law in Brazil to that in the United States...

... And I just wanted to recount something I just witnessed. I was crossing what is one of the worst pedestrian intersections in the city- the light in front of the Center Lapa mall. This spot is evil- huge masses of people who tend to surge across the street whether the light is red or not. Cars charging through, with frustrated drivers that have probably spent too long in stop and go traffic already. I hate it, and usually try to jaywalk some thirty yards up or down from the light if I can because it's such a mess.

Now imagine trying to cross that same intersection, except you are blind.

Stepping back onto the sidewalk, having just successfully navigated said hated intersection, I saw three blind guys just about to set out across it. I am always amazed at how the blind get around in this city- there are so many random obstacles, as well as random pedestrians, just about everywhere. So here were these three guys, holding on to each other's shoulders, not tapping with their canes (no room for that) but more wielding them in front of themselves, to fend off chest-level interlopers.

Suddenly, a guy, probably in his sixties, jumped off a bus that was stopped at the light. I am sure he didn't know any of the three pedestrians. But he gently took the lead guy by the hand and guided them across the street before the light turned green. In a second they were gone, lost in the crowd.

End Feel Good Moment. I helped an elderly guy across the street in New York one time- one time. And I was so proud of myself that I remember it to this day. But I think if you talk to anyone who's lived here in Brazil for any length of time, at least those of us who circulate amongst the Povão (Brazil's underprivelidged), you will find stories like this are legion. I may rant and rave as I butt my head against this culture, I may get torn up inside by the poverty and the brutality, but when I see a complete stranger treat another with such selflessness, almost like they were family, it makes it all better. At least for a little while.