Muito sono, o é a idade?: Maybe I'm Not As Resilient As I Used To Be

Translation: "So sleepy, or is it my age?"


Because I arrived late to school I missed the first week of classes. In an eight-week module, this is 12.5% of the term, so there is a considerable amount of catching up I've yet to do. Arriving late also meant that I missed all the student orientations, the Portuguese class (included in the tuition), and the chance to get to know everyone. Yep, I have no friends here. In all seriousness, I know a few of the international students, but since they are not Brazilian I don't really speak Portuguese enough to improve as fast as I'd like. Also, since I was staying with my cousin for the first two weeks, I spoke more English than I should have done, which didn't help the situation much.

I should really consider myself lucky for having studied Spanish so long, as I can understand a lot of things without much explanation. But knowing a related language both helps and hurts: yes, I often understand all right, but I say most everything wrong and then they answer me with gracias, which just pisses me off. Unless someone spells a word for me, in my mind it's hard not to think of the Spanish word. Spanish is something like a band-aid for now.

Another difficulty related to Portuguese is that I've had to do a considerable amount of calling on the phone to get things done, and I've simply hung up a few times on the verge of tears because I just don't understand and the person on the other end is getting paid like $2 an hour and knows I'm foreign and just couldn't care less. The same is sometimes true in face-to-face interactions. Maybe Brazilians aren't as friendly as the Spanish (ah, to be back in Spain were things were easy!), or maybe my smile did more for me at 21. I'm only 27, so it's probably not that, but whatever the problem, speaking better would do a lot to help things go better, so the urgency of enrolling in Portuguese class já  is undeniable. (I would like everyone reading this to have a newfound understanding for foreigners who don't understand, especially the non-Western ones who must think we're so weird and think such horrible things about us when we speak to them disrespectfully. Don't be mean ...it really stinks when you're on the other end of that equation.)


The day before I flew out I was drinking a beer in my apartment and it spilled onto the keyboard of my laptop. The machine shut off when it happened, which was not good, but it was kind of working after it dried (the thing turned on, which was cause for optimism), so I packed it and figured I'd get it fixed here. I think I've written already about bureaucracy in Brazil, and the cost of making phone calls, etc., so that should serve as a context to this and all future stories. Explaining, understanding explanations and figuring out what I need to do to get my computer fixed has become the bane of my existencee. Brazilians have a different sense of service, and to add to the adjustment I have to make related to that difference, they also seem to have a propensity when they don't know the answer to a question to simply make something up. I'm sure they are trying to help, and perhaps in their minds they think they are helping in some way, but it really just makes things worse. There's nothing wrong with saying " I don't know," is there?

Anyway, it's not impossible, but highly problematic to do work without a computer, something to which I've become very accustomed. You don't realize just how much we need these machines until you no longer have one you can use when you want. Most of my reading and homework is posted on a site called Blackboard (seems to be an international success...we use the same site at Georgetown) so doing homework in a computer lab is tough. The labs are closed on weekends and during the week they shut their doors at 10 PM. When I'm there, the Brazilians talk very loudly, and there are a lot of 18 and 19 year old boys looking at porn on the Internet and laughing, and girls screaming on their cell phones about banalities of zero interest to me.

Calgon, take me away!


The long and short of it is that since I arrived I'm simply exhausted every day, all the time. Between the language, the cultural adaptation, encountering a challenge in the simplest of tasks, then going to school and working twice as hard to cath up, not having my own computer, yadda, yadda, yadda...I get too tired to keep my eyes open at around 10 PM, and feel so old because of it. I've lived abroad three other times, and I remember feeling exhausted like this but never so unable to brush it off. Maybe my mind is becoming more sclerotic, or maybe I'm just a little ( or a lot )more set in my ways and finding less charm in the little differences that make the world go round. Cynical grin.

This weekend I pretty much barricaded myself in my apartment and watched American TV and ate Nutella right from the jar. Maybe I'll gain a few pounds and make myself more miserable. I know this period of adjustment won't last forever, but for now (excuse the vulgarity) it sucks. That's all I can write for now...I need to go to bed (BTW, the time stamp on my posts seems to be wrong and I can't figure out how to fix it, but it is 9:30 PM).


First Impressions of Sao Paulo & Brazil


Sao Paulo is very large. Ways of measuring the size of a city vary greatly, so I offer you these facts from Wikipedia:

"The city has an area of 1,523.0 square kilometres (588.0 sq. miles) and a population of approximately 10.9 million (2005 IBGE estimate), which makes it the largest and most populous city in the Southern Hemisphere. 19 million people live in the greater São Paulo metropolitan area, as defined by the government (Região Metropolitana), making it one of the five most populous in the world. Including adjacent metropolitan areas, there are nearly 29 million inhabitants, more than any other city in the world except Tokyo with 35 million. (source: IBGE)."

The city center doesn't seem to be where the nice parts are. It seems kind of dingy and dirty there, with congestion, narrow streets and street kids. The more vibrant and sophisticated areas are located in the west end of town. Avenida Paulista & Avenida 9 de Julho are two of the city's main axes, and the areas south and west of where they cross seem to be the most urban and chic (Consolacão, Bela Vista & Jardins are some names of those neighborhoods). The school I'm attending, Fundacão Getulio Vargas (GV), is right in this area.

I'm staying with my cousin Lisa, who lives in a mostly Jewish area called Higienopolis, also in the west end of town. Through New York probably tops it in terms of diversity, Sao Paulo is very ethnically diverse, with strong Portuguese, Italian, African, German, Jewish, Lebanese, Korean and Chinese communities (not an exhaustive list, to be sure). Most people seem to be a mix of more than one, and retain their separate identities while being Brazilian at the same time. There is certainly a strong sense of national identity here, with loads of Brazilian flagsa on t-shirts, sandals, hung on walls, etc. Besides, the US, I don't think I've ever been in a country so diverse, but its nice...kind of like home, but everyone seems happier and is way better looking, and the sense of nationalism doesn't freak you out as if a Nazi demonstration were about to occur.


Here it's winter, coming onto spring, and it's been in the 80s (F) every day. Typical winter temperatures for this time of year are in the 60s, with a seasonal standard deviation of about 10 degrees. I'll be here until the height of summer, when it's supposed to be 90s and 100s all the time. It rains more in the warm months, and luckily it's been very sunny every day since I got here.


It's sort of a funny-sounding language, which I say with the utmost respect and affection. The Rs are like Hs, so Rio is pronounced Hee-Oh. Better still, is that they add a long E to the end of many works, and all foreign words seem to take this ending. For example, flat, iPod, and crowd, are all used in English done in Brazilian style, and are pronounced Flatchee, Ay-Pogee and crowdgee, respectively. I chuckle every time I hear one for the first time. But seriously, it's a very beautiful langauge, with soft sounds and a musical way of speaking, and many words have very rich meanings; that is, one word is used to mean lots of things..

I'm picking the language up quikly, but do need to enroll myself in a formal course in addition to reading and figuring things out on my own. From Spanish and knowledge of some other languages, I understand 90% if the speaker doesn't go too fast, and I can say most things with maybe 75% accuracy not counting the verb conjugations. I only learned present tense this summer, so getting at least one of the past tenses is urgent. It's coming along, though...I was pleased that I've been able to talk and get around by myself with relatively few frustrations since I got off the plane.


Brazil is cheap in some ways and extremely expensive in others. Eating locally produced food is cheap, and there is an abundance of amazing fruit, meats (churrasco), breads, and many local dishes that are delicious and, relative to US or European prices, very cheap. Oh, and of course coffee is inexpensive and quite good. Luckily, Brazilians eat very well.

Some global brands like Marlboro and Coca Cola are the same or cheaper because production is done regionally. However, electronics, mobile telephones and use of of them, foriegn clothing and basically any imported good is more expensive here, which blows your mind when you see how many people are buying those things. To give you an idea, the crappy phone I bought was about USD$100, and per minute I pay more than 50 cents, with text messages costing around 25cents. Granted, I'm on a pre-pay plan since I'm foreign an ineligible for invoicing, but still this is high. Everyone at school seems to have a $USD300 to 400 phone, but I can't justify paying so much for something I'm likely to break or lose. Sneakers are really expensive. Blah, blah, blah....you get the point.


It's rampant here, which I expected. Many former colonies have vestigial, dead-wood branches and departments of their governments, which seem to serve no purpose other than to provide a few functionaries a job and make life miserable for everyone else. Senegal had lots of this, and Brazil, while leaps and bounds better (can't stress that enough) is no exception. As a foreigner, I've had to jump through so many hoops to enter the country with a visa and maintain a legal status, and the cost in actual payout has been at least USD$300, while the value of the time I've spent doing all these things places that figure much higher.

This should give you an idea:

Visa requirements:

- Two Visa Application Forms
- Passport (so far so good right?)
- A copy of a round-trip ticket or a booked itinerary showing travel to and from Brazil, confirming purchase of the ticket and passenger's name, itinerary, flight number and arrival/departure dates;
- two recent 2" x 2" passport-type photos, front view, white background. Snapshots or computer pictures are not accepted;
- proof of financial capability during stay in Brazil (i.e. certified copy of bank or credit card statement, copy of savings certificate, letter from the employer or institution that granted a scholarship, etc). The Consulate will then legalize the signature of the notary public. US$20.00 fee will be charged
- affidavit from the sponsoring Brazilian company or institution containing specific information on the activity to be performed, location and duration of the engagement. The letter must be legalized by a notary public in Brazil;
- police clearance issued within the last 3 months, certifying absence of criminal record. Police clearance must then be legalized by the Consulate. A fee of US$20.00 will be charged;

(For this last one I had to go to the NYC police station over lunch and wait for about an hour with a bunch of degenerates and pay like 40 dollars in a money order (another errand). I had to go again (another lunch wasted) two weeks later to pick it up.

- proof of residence within the consular jurisdiction for the past 12 months (i.e., letter from the employer/educational institution notarized, utility bill or voter's registration)......since I moved to DC for grad school 9 months before I had none of the easier things, so I had to get a copy of my voter registration from City, which took some calling around to be sure. I'm glad I vote.

IN ADDITION, I had to pay fees totalling USD$160 or $180 (can't remember), which could ONLY be payed in USPS money orders, but after going to get the first one for $150 I realized it would be more, but it wasn't clear how much more, so I had to make an extra trip to the post office over lunch (good times) to get a few extra money orders in 10 and 20 dollar denominations.

I had a two-hour window during which I could hand all this in, then I had to go back the next day during a different two-hour window to pick up my passport with the visa sticker in it.

THEN, once in Brazil, I had to:

- Have every page of my passport photocopied and then notarized, which was like $25 but required that I find a notary.
- Also I had to download two forms from the Internet, which without the school's help would have been impossible to figure out, then take them to a bank to pay additional fees (Banks in Brazil open at 10 and close at 4) for payment, and then get a receipt.
- Two more passport photos (the ones I took for my visa, which were fine in NY, were unacceptable here because they weren't the right size)

Then, take all this to a Federal Police station, wait in line to fill out another form, then hand it all in, then wait another hour for them to call my name, finger print me (they finger printed me for the criminal background check in NY, btw, but I digress) and give me this little piece of paper the size of an envelope flap with stamps and typing on it that I'm supposed to keep in my passport.


Taxis are not much cheaper than in NYC, so after a few days of cabbing it everywhere I had to figure out something more affordable. The buses and subway are cheap in price (about a dollar for either mode), but the buses are kind of hard to figure out at first, and the subway is very nice and clean and safe (lots of poice with big guns) but doesn't seem that well designed in the sense that it takes me 3 trains to get about a mile.

Well, these are my first impressions. More to come.


Me, Varig and the Friendly Skies: Getting to Sao Paulo

I finished up my summer internship at Citigroup last Friday, and planned to fly to Sao Paulo on Varig, Brazil's flagship carrier, the next morning at 10AM. Stupidly, I stayed up very late that night, and arrived at the airport very, very tired, but ready to sleep on the 10hr flight, and excited to leave. I began walking up and down each row of ticket counters in JFK´s terminal 4. After two complete tours of the place and no Varig counter in sight, I asked an airport employee, who directed me to a solitary window located off from the main ticketing area with a Varig sign above it, and on the counter a little sign - the old fashioned kind you might see at a bank teller window - that said "CLOSED." More troubling was that our flight was not on any of the monitors. So, waiting around the window were the other less savvy passengers, who hadn't been following the news closely enough, or we'd have know that due to Varig's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and selling off of the company, all flights to and from the US had been suspended, including ours. No one bothered to update the website, and no one was picking up the phone, either.

Luckily, some young American girls, all shiny and ready to go on holiday with painted toenails and matching luggage, had the idea to call United, which was Varig's Star Alliance partner. Lacking the energy to move, I listened inconspicuously with sunglasses on as they went through the trouble of calling information, and then United, explaining the situation at hand. Once it seemed United was helping them, I politlely asked for the number. A very nice woman gave me a reservation for the next evening out of Laguardia via Chicago. I was annoyed I wouldn't be travelling that day or flying direct, but I was grateful I wouldn't have to buy a new ticket. Since I had paid for my summer sublet through the middle of the month, I was fine with the idea of going home to get some sleep.

The next day I arrived at the airport, and was asked by the United agent for my ticket number. Varig never gave me such a number, so after waiting in line, I was turned away and told that I needed that number or I couldn't fly. In desperation I called Varig, and for some reason someone answered the phone and very efficiently gave me the number I needed. It was really weird. So I got back in the line, and then learned from the same employee that the very nice woman from the day before had reserved a first class ticket for me, probably just to get me off the phone. She then told me that I'd need to pay $4,000 to fly that day, or wait until Tuesday, incur a 6 hour layover in Chicago, and arrive in SP Weds at 10 AM. I was so angry that I was missing all of my classes and basically at my wit's end, but had no choice. Again, with about 100 lbs. of luggage, I got back in a taxi and headed for the Chelsea studio of which I thought I'd seen the last. By this point, I had spent a good $200 going back and forth between my studio and two different NY airports, and for nothing! Luckily, however, the next day went as planned (NOTE TO TRAVELLERS: United still serves good food on their Latin American routes. I chose lasagna over beef, both of which came with a spinach salad and some other good stuff).

So after 4 days´ delay and 18 hours of travel, I arrived in Sao Paulo. I took a cab to my cousin Lisa's house. Bemvinda, her housekeeper (love her), was there and gave me something to eat. I wanted so badly to sleep, but I had to present myself at school to let them know I got there and make sure I was in good standing to start classes the following Monday (since all of my classes meet Mon, Tues & Weds, I had missed the whole first week) . Getting there was no picnic, either, which you can say for getting pretty much anywhere in Sao Paolo. With 25m people it is the thrid largest city in the world. It's dirty and disorganized, and I can only imagine how out of place I must have looked getting there in Birkenstock sandals and clothes that scream "I'm foreign", especially because my Portuguese was a garbled mess based on Spanish and my best guesses (or portinhol, as they say here). I felt like a week-old, spoiled crock of feijoada, but I knew the next day would be better. It had to be.