Monday, June 29, 2009

Setting Out

Today's the day. At one PM local time, Lucas and I set out on a 24 hour epic journey to my homeland. To see the other half of his family. To eat exotic American food. To spend some time in the woods. And a couple days in NYC.

Lucas has been waiting a very long time for us to go, and me too, I might add. My original plan was to go home every six months or so (and an earlier version of the plan had me spending six months here, and six months there) but that has turned out to be completely unrealistic so now it's been almost two years since my last trip. And I have no idea when I'll be able to afford the next one.

I'm not sure if Lucas really gets just how long this trip is going to take- indeed, I'm not sure I get it either. I could be looking at the longest 24 hours of my entire life, depending on how Lucas deals with the airports and being cooped up in the planes and so forth. The last time he went to the states, he was a teeny guy- walking, but not talking. Now he's got a lot more attitude. Similarly, I have no idea how he's going to deal with two whole weeks away from his mom, or how I'm going to deal with two whole weeks as sole caregiver.

I'm sure we're going to have a great time.

One thing I didn't write about yet, and doesn't really combine with the topic of this post, is the fact that I got filmed painting some graffiti the other day- there are a couple of American film students here in Salvador making a short documentary about the street art scene here in their spare time. Here's a picture of me with one of them, in front of my masterpiece:



Photo taken by the budding young photographer Lucas.

My last experience with 'the press' was a bomb, I wrote up an interview for someone that never got published. I think these guys are a lot more serious, so I'm very curious to see what they come up with. Here's hoping they don't spend too long in post-production!

Now I'm off to do other things.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Birthday

Well, it's come and gone- been gone for twenty one minutes now. I'm not sad to see it go, but I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised by how my fortieth birthday went. I guess I got all the 'melancholy soul searching' as I phrased it on my Facebook status out of my system before the actual date. I mean, I woke up in a good mood, and that never happens. The best I can usually hope for is foggy indifference to consciousness.

I think the key was the low expectations. I didn't do much that was out of the ordinary, and that helped a lot. The pancake breakfast was something of a disaster, what with the smoke alarm going off and the griddle being too hot and everything getting kinda... burned... plus the fact that the Brazilian family reacted as expected to this breakfast treat. My stepson wasn't here, so he didn't eat any but probably wouldn't have anyways as he thinks maple syrup is gross. My wife claims she ate two pancakes, but she doesn't like sweet stuff in the morning (so why give the kids cake and chocolate milk for breakfast?) and I didn't actually see her eating them... but I leave the place of honor for my darling four year old son. He does like maple syrup, proving once again that he is not 100% Brazilian, but was not interested in the pancakes, even the not-burned ones. He insisted that ketchup be applied on top of the maple syrup (just like pizza), then he licked it off and left the pancake part behind. Needless to say, I didn't finish those pancakes for him. However, everyone did like the bacon.

And I gotta say- Facebook. Wow, man. Everyone from childhood friends to college buddies to coworkers to family to my mother's ex-boyfriend's niece wished me a happy birthday and it was great. When I first got here, I was going to buy a shortwave radio so I could listen to Voice of America and not feel so isolated. Now, six years later, I have Skype and Facebook and NPR and the Savage Lovecast to keep me company. They say that when the transistor was invented, there was no way to know that it would lead to the invention of the integrated circuit. Now the internet has transformed our lives (at least mine) to an incredible degree in a span of about ten years- what will it look like in twenty more? What is it that we can't possibly imagine that is going to happen?

So- I was talking about my birthday. Very nice, very low-key, I worked some, I hung out with my kid, I went to the bank. I have written about past battles I have waged with Brazilian ATM machines, so I was quite surprised when I realized the one I was using was wishing me a happy birthday. That's never happened to me before. Turns out I left the machine a gift, and not just the deposit I made.

Things started to get wonky on the way to dinner. We heard on the radio that Michael Jackson had been rushed to the hospital- I didn't think much about it.

Dinner was a disappointment. We had our favorite dish, shrimp mukeka, at our favorite restaurant, and it was surprisingly bland, along with most of the side dishes. We were so surprised we wondered if they had changed cooks.

Things really started to go south when I went to pay for the meal, and my trusty debit card was not in the little plastic sleeve I call my 'wallet.' No need to panic, I had cash, but still had to borrow from The Wife to pay for the meal (which reminds me, I need to pay her back). I was going to be antsy until I got home and had a chance to look for the card.

Then on the ride back we heard that Michael Jackson had died. I was more upset than I would have thought- although I'd long found him absurd, Thriller came out when I was just starting to be a teenager and I'll never forget the day that the Thriller video was released. I started to think about my birthday and how mellow it had been to this point, and that I would probably remember it in years to come mostly as the day that Michael Jackson died. Oh well, it could be worse- I have a brother-in-law who's birthday is September 11.

Then I got home and after catching up briefly on the Michael Jackson tragedy, it became clear that my debit card was gone. I'd most likely forgotten it in the friendly ATM that wished me a happy birthday. Now anyone who knows me well knows that I don't deal well with stupid mistakes, and if a stupid mistake has to be made, it is much better that I make it rather than anyone else around me. It's not that I berate the person, yelling and screaming and carrying on like a proper Brazilian would (only kidding, kinda) but I get real quiet and furious and make my displeasure known to the world in all it's hideous and loathsome anti-glory. When I can clearly place the blame on myself, I'm a lot more vocal about it, and I say bad things at loud volumes. I'm sure all my neighbors think I'm a complete psycho.

It's not the end of the world. Chances are all my money is safe. Tomorrow I'll go to the bank and work it out. I just wish that what had otherwise been a surprisingly pleasant day hadn't been capped off with a extremely asinine mistake and the resulting stress fest.

Someone told me a long time ago that men stop losing their hair at age forty, which means that after fifteen years of a gradually receding hairline, I can relax again. And you know, I'm okay with this head of hair. My dad tells me that life begins at forty, at least it did for him. Sounds good to me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

São João and the Impending 4-0

I'm sitting here, brain-dead, counting down the minutes until my fortieth birthday, which officially starts (in this time zone) in 48 minutes.

It's also the tail end of the big mid-winter holiday here in Northeastern Brazil, the Festa de São João. I wrote about this holiday last year, and this year was much the same... I'm not sure if my lack of enthusiasm is due to my impending middle age, or my general boredom with big holidays in general, or the fact that São João has been spoiling my birthday ever since I got here- it's like having your birthday on December 26th.

Get over it Mark. Yes, you're right of course. I have a brother who's birthday is December 28th and he's never complained about it as far as I know. I am a bit cranky as I wanted to be in the States for my 40th, and that didn't happen. Evani wanted to throw me a big party and I forbade her from doing so. My mom had a huge party on her fortieth birthday, which meant that all us kids had a party of our own, and one of us (most of us being 15 at the time) ended up passed out in the living room under a table.

So I'm NOT having a big party, in fact my only plans are to a. make pancakes for breakfast tomorrow and try to convince my Brazilian family to eat them, and b. go out for dinner in the evening which probably means a mean shrimp muceca at our favorite restaurant.

Continuing in the grumpy vein, let me tell you how we spent our São João. One of the big traditions at São João is to get out of the city and into the interior, as it is essentially a celebration of the rural history of Brazil. Well, for once we did that part right, driving about an hour out of the city to a small town called Amelia Rodriguez where some friends of Evani's have some land.

I love getting out of the city and I hardly ever do so, and I love being in the country, so why was I less than enthusiastic about this trip? Well, partly because I knew it was going to involve all the elements of parties that I don't like, not least of which is very loud music that I can't stand. Forro, the traditional music of the holiday, is quite nice, at least the traditional kind. But I wasn't expecting to hear much forro. Plus there was the mud and the firecrackers and the knowledge that I would spend most of the time sitting mute in a chair.

Well, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I did get to indulge my favorite part of São João, which is building a bonfire, and once again got to marvel at the Bahian fire-building technique:

1. make a big pile of wood
2. put plastic bottles, bags, etc. on top
3. add gasoline and/or other accelerants
4. light

I think this might actually work if they put the plastic items under the wood instead of on top of it. The guy in charge of making the fire was actually having some success, maybe because of the rubber tire he tossed on top of the plastic bottles. I made my little teepee style fire at the base of the stack, lit it with a single coal, and it soon overtook the hovering petrochemical mess, and I was finally having fun. I was also inhaling a lot of smoke, which I didn't think much about.

My wife, meanwhile, was suffering from a blimped toe. She had gotten her nails done a few days earlier, and this usually involves some savage digging in the cuticles with a small pair of scissors or clippers or something. Something broke this week, and her toe swelled up to twice its normal size. She couldn't walk on it, so dancing was out of the question. That was cool, I didn't really feel up for heading into to the town square for more noise. But wait! Somebody has brought more noise to us, by dropped a chunk of change on some fireworks! Or rather, half a plastic bag of home made bombas, consisting of a kitchen match wrapped in gunpowder and paper in varying sizes. The thick clouds of smoke from these made my eyes start to burn, and I had to go lay down for a while to get away from it.

To make a long story short, I woke up the next morning and my left eye had transformed into a ball of fire. A very itchy ball of fire. I was not pleased. Everyone chided me for having spent so much time messing with the fire, but I'm convinced it was an allergic reaction to something else.

I remember the first time I was here in Brazil and I caught dengue fever. I spent much of my time out in a favela, without access to anything, trying to treat my symptoms. I knew I needed lots of water, and I was terrified of drinking the tap water, so I asked for bottled water. There is none, I was told, and there's no way to get any. I felt quite helpless, and finally broke down and drank the tap water. That's a little bit how I felt when I woke up this morning- my eye was on fire, I had no access to anything to treat it with, and nobody could help me with something from their medicine cabinet, because there were no medicine cabinets. There were hardly even bathrooms.

One thing I've learned in my travels, part of the un-sheltering and eye-opening I received by getting out of the little world I grew up in, is that you can learn a lot about what you don't really need by spending time with people who have very little. Take hot water for instance. You might think you need hot water, but you really don't. At least not most of the time. There are millions, if not billions, of people on this planet who do just fine without it. That's not to say that I don't love hot water and consider it one of the finest things civilization has to offer, but it is a luxury.

The flip side of this, however, is you also realize how nice it is to be able to afford things that might come in handy when you least expect it, like saline solution or medicated eye drops, both of which we had at home. Which is exactly where I wanted to be.

And is now where I am. Forgive me, for I ramble. Evani's toe is much better, and so is my eye. And by the way, it's my birthday now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Changes

It's late and I should be sleeping, so I'm going to make this quick. I've been trying, with a fair amount of success, to get up earlier in the morning which means 'late' is now 12:45, and not 3:30 AM.

Lucas said to me today: "Papai, are you happy with me?"

I thought this was an odd choice of words for the little guy, until I remembered that I had just told him, probably for the fifth or sixth time, that I was not very happy with him, because of the way he had been acting. We'd gone to the mall on the condition (understood by me, but apparently not by him) that he behave and try to speak in a non-shout. It didn't go over so well, although it was better than our last trip to the mall.

I gave him an overly long answer to this effect, and then realized that it sucked. So I asked him:

"Lucas, are you happy with me?"

And when he said "Yes" I said:

"Well, I'm happy with you too."

So that's the cute kid story. Now on to the real news.

My wife has been working all week, for the first time in several years. Not that she doesn't work all the time, she actually works quite a bit harder than I do as far as doing physical stuff for most of the day. Unfortunately, it's stuff that she (and I) hates to do, like cleaning and cooking and laundry. This time she's actually working for pay for the first time since she quit her last job over five years ago so we could go gallivanting around Europe together.

It's not that she hasn't wanted to work, but rather that I've discouraged her from it, for the simple reason that it would cost us more for her to work than for her to help out at the house. This is probably no longer the case in the long term, although this week has basically borne out my theory, since I'm having to do all the child care and meals and such. Not that I mind too much (the novelty hasn't worn off yet), but I do need to get some work done.

The thing that's kind of harsh is that she went from not working at all to suddenly being gone for most of this week, spending the night at the job site and everything. You see, she's working at some fancy house in a town to the north of us, doing the grout work on a huge swimming pool. Does one say 'grouting?' I don't know, and I'm not going to look it up. 'Grout' is one of those English words that Evani says, rightly, is ugly as sin. In Portuguese the word is rejuntamento, which rolls off the tongue a bit more smoothly, with no bark or croak-like qualities. She gets paid by the square meter and since she's fast and works hard she can break out of the evil minimum wage cap that would unfortunately be her lot in most jobs.

So she's gone until Friday probably, and then it's almost São João, and then my 40th birthday, and then Lucas and I are off to the states. I have a feeling all of our lives in this little family are about to undergo a big change.

I think it might be a good thing.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Take Your Store and Shove It

Still groggy from a nap, I walked into my preferred hardware store and requested to exchange the pop rivets I'd bought there for another size.

"No, you can't return that anymore."

I was confused. I'd swapped something similar a month or so ago. I wasn't asking for a refund, the item I wanted was even the same price. Just swap the packages and I'm outta there.

"Nope. No exchanges after the first twenty-four hours."

I'd bought them on Friday. Today is Monday. He's closed Sunday, and most of Saturday.

"But I didn't even open the package."

"No."

"Okay..." I said, and left. I have given this guy lots of business over the last five years. I considered telling him he was losing a freguese (regular) due to his rude treatment of me, as well as his stupid non-return policy, but I didn't. But I don't plan to shop there again.

I'm not going to say that I'll never shop there again. If I'm desperate for something, I might look for it there as a last resort, but his shop is only one of about six crappy little hardware stores within easy walking distance of my house, the only distinction being it is the closest one. And until now, the owner had always been friendly with me. Well, for the most part at least.

I'm not going to go on a tirade about Brazilian (Bahian specifically) business practices. Let it suffice to say that I don't believe the motto 'The Customer is Always Right' has much relevance for them here. I have been repeatedly bludgeoned by short-sighted policies and lousy treatment.

Not that this is limited to Brazil. Or that the customer should always be right. I've seen customers do appalling things to clerks in the US, because they are 'always right.' I used to work in this store where a certain customer would come in and stand at the counter for an hour reading newspapers- not buying them, just reading them. He'd stay after closing if he felt like it. One time, when we were all ready to go home and he was still reading away, I told him it was time to go. He got all indignant: who was I to deny him his free newspapers? It was like I was whisking away his desert before he finished and insisting he pay for it. But the store was not a restaurant, nor a library, and although I was dying to tell him so I didn't.

I do believe that customers should be cultivated. Treat your customers right, and hopefully they'll keep coming back. I'm that kind of customer. I'll pay more for something if the service is good. And believe me, when I get annoyed, I will boycott a business. I can hold a grudge for a long time. Of course, this has its practical limits: when I was living in the small town of Putney, Vermont I finally had to give in because I'd gotten ticked off at every single restaurant in town for one reason or another, and I wanted to be able to eat somewhere.

So far, my list of no-shop stores here in Salvador is pretty short. There's this one fruit/vegetable store I won't go into anymore, because everyone who works there seems hell-bent on being as unpleasant as possible, and there was a stationary store I avoided as much as possible for the same reason, but they closed just this week. And now this hardware store.

There is one other that I can safely say I will never shop in again, and that's a computer supply store in one of the nearby malls. I was so excited when I found it, because it is much larger than the other options nearby, but I had such a terrible customer service snafu there that I left literally quaking with anger. That time, I did tell a salesperson that they were going to lose a customer over a stupid return policy. I have no idea if he cared.

I won't get into all the details about what happened, but it was similar to what happened at the hardware store: I tried to exchange a recently purchased item, in perfect condition, in the original packaging, with a receipt, for store credit to get something else. I was told no- unless the item was defective, I was stuck with it. End of story. Why don't you just put the stupid thing back on the shelf, and sell it to someone else, was my less than persuasive argument, let me buy something more expensive and then I'll come back and buy more stuff in the future, rather than leaving, furious, with something I don't want? Makes sense to me, how about you?

I don't know if this is true, but someone who stayed here at our house a while ago told me that if you walk into a Home Depot with a product that they stock, that can be put back on the shelf and re-sold, they will exchange it even if you don't have a receipt. I returned something at a Target one time and I was left open-mouthed at how quick and painless it was- they credited my credit card and I didn't even have to pull it out of my wallet. Granted I've had horrible retail experiences in the States too- I had a similar quaking with rage incident at a Circuit City about fifteen years ago, but we all know what happened to them heh heh. It's Retail Darwinism, dude!!

Anyhow, in a few weeks I will be back in Shopper's Paradise: the good ol' U S of A. But I've learned something from past trips back home, where I spent way too much time trying to buy things I can't get here: I do almost all my shopping online, weeks or months in advance, and have it all shipped to my mom's house. I'm almost done for this trip. Except for the iPod I'm buying myself for my fortieth birthday. And a couple other things. That gives me more time to enjoy my family, friends, and the great outdoors. And gourmet ice cream. And bagels. And Indian food. And any of a wide range of beers. And... you get the idea.

So what did I do after the shop owner was such a snot to me? Well, after an inordinately long period of being bummed and annoyed, I decided to get myself some ice cream. Chocolate. In the store, I watched the owner give an annoyed customer a full refund over a mixup at the register. The guy was happy and relieved, and I could relate. Then I got home, and I was happy and relieved too, because the ice cream neatly filled it's tub, rather than being sunken down two inches due to a previous thaw.

Then I filled a teacup with ice cream, and I ate it.

And then I had another one.

And another one.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Credit Cards, Anyone?

I just got an offer for a new credit card, something I was never offered in the United States. This card didn't sound too bad in that there was no annual fee. When I asked them what the interest rates were, she put me on hold. This was actually the second time she did this, I talked to the same woman yesterday and she didn't give me a real answer. You would think that if someone was cold-calling to offer someone a credit card, they'd know what the interest rates would be. When she came back on the phone, she told me it would be 16.9 percent. Does that seem high to you? Well, yes. But lots of cards are 20%, right? Even more these days I hear. At least for an annual rate. This percentage is monthly. That's right, I would pay almost 17 percent of any outstanding balance every month. That works out, if I'm doing my math right, to over a two hundred percent APR. How do you say 'usury' in Portuguese?

I told her I wasn't interested at that rate. I already have a card with a 12% MPR, and another that's over 13%. I don't need any more of this kind of credit. She tried to explain to me, several times, that I wouldn't pay any interest if I paid off my balance every month. I already knew that. The way they make these cards work here is by letting you pay in installments: buy something for 900 reis, make ten payments of 90 reis each so you don't get killed by the insurance payments. But what happens if you fall behind for some reason? You are screwed. What's really scary is that there are thousands, if not millions, of cards like this here in Brazil. What happens if the Global Economic Crisis gets worse, and suddenly there are thousands or millions of people with precarious financial situations who suddenly fall behind on the flat screen TV?

I don't know. I try to change the mental channel when I start thinking things like that.

I had to tell her several times that I didn't want the card if the interest rate was that high, thanks anyway.

She hung up on me.