Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crisis Ministries Video

So, in an effort to begin catching up on the video that I have taken, here is the video about my experience in Charleston, SC before I left for South America...back in November 2008. Thanks again to Crisis Ministries!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two weeks in Brazil...I mean, duas semanas no Brasil

Just over two weeks ago, Brazil was a frightening prospect. It promised a nerve-racking border crossing complete with full bag inspection and dark room interrogation, an even worse language barrier than in Argentina and Uruguay (since I theoretically speak Spanish and couldn't even count to ten in Portuguese), and a crime rate that assures each visitor a blind-folded minivan ride before the end of the first week. After seeing the Brazilian movies City of God (Cidade de deus) and The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), I started to wonder if the entire country was one giant lawless favela. The State Department Travel Information wasn't helping to allay my fears, though it rarely does. I did find some reassurances amidst the doom and gloom:

Travelers should "dress down" when outside and avoid carrying valuables or wearing jewelry or expensive watches.

Considering I have only 5 t-shirts and 3 pairs of shorts, one of which is a swim suit, and laundry gets done every 2 to 3 weeks, there is really no other option than to "dress down". The next step down is not showering, and I don't think that is necessary, though it does happen from time to time. Basically I should try and avoid looking like a tourist with money. My question is, does this look like someone with their act together?

Very poor neighborhoods known as "favelas" ... are sites of uncontrolled criminal activity and are often not patrolled by police. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid these unsafe areas.

After pondering this for a few moments, I came to the conclusion that they are just saying use common sense. For example, if you see someone carrying a big automatic weapon, don't walk towards them; walk away. Fortunately my mom instilled in me a healthy sense of precaution, maybe not as much as she would like, but enough to keep me from putting myself in certain senseless situations.

All joking aside, it really is important to take into consideration the travel warnings and stories of crime and social disorder when traveling through an area. On the other hand, you cannot let all the possible bad things that could happen to you keep you from going. New York can be pretty scary, but it's worth a visit.

In contrast to my initial fears, I slept through the border crossing while the bus company dealt with border formalities for both Uruguay and Brazil, the only guns I've seen were in the hands of armored truck guards transporting money to and from an ATM (which I feel is normal enough), and I have managed to pick up enough Portuguese to buy bananas on the side of the road.

R$ 2, or about US$0.90, for the whole bunch! That's like 3 cents per banana!

I spent my first week in the comfort of a hostel where English was spoken. Most hostels, especially in touristy areas, have English-speaking staff. I wanted to ease into needing Portuguese to acquire the essentials for a sustainable existence. It has its other benefits as well. One of the best things about the hostel scene in tourist spots is the incredible diversity of people and points of view from all over the world. Here is a condensed list of the people I met while in Florianópolis: droves of Argentinians, a few Isrealis, an Italian geologist on vacation, Australians, an Austrian who lives in Brazil for half the year, a group of young English chums, an Irish dentist who gave me a much-appreciated free consultation on my impacted wisdom tooth, a Dutch girl that I first met in Bariloche back at the beginning of February, two sweet Swedish girls, a smily middle-aged Swiss arquitect, a Portuguese guy, a German with dreadlocks, a Japanese cyclist who had been traveling by bike for the last year and a half starting in Canada, a multilingual French guy who ended up being my adventure guide and translator for the first few days, and of course Brazilians. By the way, the Brazilians that I have met generally seem to be jolly, kind, giving people. One of the reception workers at the hostel who is from Floripa offered me a free lesson in Portuguese and gave me a book of poetry by one of Brazil's most beloved poets, Fernando Pessoa. It has been a useful and enjoyable study tool. It is also probably essential to my ability to buy those bananas on the road trip from Florianópolis to Piracicaba. So, a big thanks to Flavia.

Fortunately, I have found that I can get by with Portuñol here, a rough mix of Portuguese and Español (Spanish). I have even resorted to speaking straight Spanish when I have no clue in Portuguese, and most of the time I can make myself understood with the help of lots of gestures. It is frustating though when you want to communicate ideas more complex than 'I need food' and 'I need a bathroom'. Discussing social inequality or the role of television in shaping society using only gestures just doesn't get the whole point across. I did manage a short conversation about the latter where our common language was gestures and noises. It consisted mainly of making circles with the index finger around the temple, which is the international sign for 'crazy', and walking like a zombie, also internationally understood by sticking your arms out in front of you as you groan and stiffly stagger forward.

One of the times that I really wanted to know the language was in the center of Lagoa da Conceição in Florianópolis. Bars, restaurants, hotdog shops and pastelerías line the main road, and people pour out onto the streets accompanied by live music flowing from the open-air bars. I noticed a number of people roaming about picking up cans and rummaging through bins for other recyclables. After noticing it in the center that night, I continued to see the same thing in many bus stations all over the island. I assume cans are worth a few cents each, and I wondered if these people survive completely by collecting them. One night I put some cans from my hostel in a plastic grocery bag and took them with me to the center. I handed them to the first person I saw collecting cans. She was a short lady perhaps in her late 50s with a kind, tranquil face and thin silver hair almost to her shoulders. When I first offered the bag, she stopped and gave me a baffled look, I'm sure wondering what this strange bearded foreign dude was handing her. When she realized what was in the bag, she accepted with a warm, squinted smile and continued on with her search.

That smile was a simple thank you, but it held a certain degree of contentment that made me wonder about her way of life and how happy it makes her. There is no one right or wrong way to live. If the goal is to be happy, who is to say what way of life brings that about? We are predisposed to thinking that these people are less fortunate than us, but that judgment depends on how you define success. We would assume that someone who collects cans for a few cents each is not financially successful, but if she has her basic needs met and is content with having nothing more, then she must be successful. My point is that I don't know because without a common language, I had no way of knowing anything more about her, but the experience made me reevaluate some assumptions. I found a poem by Pessoa that might shed some light:
Un dia de chuva é tão belo como um dia de sol.
Ambos existem, cada um como é.
Fortunately, this is close enough to Spanish that I can offer a translation:
A day of rain is as beautiful as a day of sun.
Both exist, each one as it is.
-Fernando Pessoa

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Uruguay In A Week

I arrived in Colonia del Sacramento, a famous historical town in Uruguay across the river delta from Buenos Aires, a week ago tomorrow. Three days in Punta del Diablo followed by two and a half in the capital, Montevideo, and already I have to leave. Last night my new Uruguayan friends invited me to stay with them here in Montevideo, and if it were not for the looming 90 day expiration of my Brazilian visa, I would likely take them up on the offer. As it is, however, I board a bus at 9:30 tonight and endure an 18-hour ride to Florianópolis, Brazil.

With so little time in the country, I had to soak in as much as I could of Uruguayan culture in a short amount of time. Last night I went to see a murgas show, which is part of Uruguay´s celebration of Carnaval. Murga is "musical theatre" (in the accurate words of Wikipedia) that provides political and social commentary in an extravagant form. While I did not understand everything the groups sang about, I often heard "yanqui" (people from North America) and "Obama", which shows how much American culture and politics affect people all over the world. While our policies and culture were a common topic to touch upon, the groups obviously did not sing exclusively about yanqui things. They provided social commentary on a plethora of topics related to Uruguayan politics as well as South American policitics in general. They made some very poignant observations, not that I understood what they said, but judging by the crowd's reactions, their commentaries were accurate depictions of the Uruguayan mentality.

On another political note, the president gave an address in a plaza in downtown Montevideo, and according to one of the Uruguayan workers at my hostel, large protests were anticipated. I will try and explain what I understand of the situation:

In the 1970s, many governments here in South America fell under violent military dictatorships: Argentina, Uruguay and Chile especially. The governments of these countries kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of people who came to be known as los desaparecidos or "the disappeared ones". Before losing power, the military government here in Uruguay passed a law making it illegal to persecute those government officials responsible for the murders and violations of human rights. All military files regarding this time period remain confidential (Check out this picture and the following two from Córdoba, Argentina that show the names of victims from this era in the form of a fingerprint - you can also see the years in which they disappeared).

The current leftist government (let´s not get too wrapped up in the word "leftist" - you can be leftist and not be extreme) promised to revoke that law and seek retribution but has done nothing since taking office. When government officials do not keep their promise here, the people unite and protest. Banging pots and pans during the president's address is a common form of protest. Another method of protest someone described to me is turning off all the lights in the city at night. This seemed particularly benign, but after thinking about it, it seems like a rather poetic form of protest. It doesn't really affect the politicians directly, but it shows that the people are united. I can't imagine all the lights going off in Washington, D.C. or New York to protest a lack of political action, though I would love to see such a show of solidarity in the U.S.

With that said, I had to see for myself what the president's speech would be like. Would there be banging of pots and pans, angry protestors , riot police? Travelers are typically advised to stay away from political events, but I nevertheless found myself walking to the center of town with some Uruguayan university students to a political rally. In contrast to what I heard, there was lots of flag waving and supportive chanting rather than banging of pots and pans. I was also surprised with how close spectators were allowed to get to the president. At one point, I was less than 25 meters from the stage!

Thanks to my friends María and Fede for showing me some authentic Uruguayan culture and giving me a taste of the democratic process as manifested here in Montevideo. If I could stay longer I would.

Next, Brasil.


Where I Am and Where I've Been