Friday, December 21, 2007

Theo's pictures of sand dunes. As has already been mentioned one of the best things about this part of Brazil is the proliferation of sand dunes. Theo took some ace photos, two of which are here. The first is of Natal's most famous landmark, the Morro de Careca (bald man's hill). The second is from a place called Maracajau. At Genipabu beach you can hire a buggy+driver to take you out on the sand for a rollercoaster experience and a chance to sample the extraordinary scenery and views. Ruth Leckenby described her experience like this. Anyway, I've added two videos to my YouTube account to give you guys an idea of what it's all about. Video 1 is the view from outside the buggy. Video 2 is the view from the inside. See if you can spot a yelling Theo and Tom in the back seats on the latter.

Christmas survey. This Christmas I will be without these usual British Christmas things a) mince pies and mulled wine b) cold weather c) the Queen's speech d) Boxing Day. None of these things exist in north-east Brazil. Of course, we have church and a chance to celebrate the real reason for Christmas, so I'm happy. But, which of those things would you say were (nearly) essential to giving you that Christmas feeling back home? Go on, vote!

Things I miss about England #60: Toilets don't block so easily, and you can flush toilet paper. Guests to Brazil from the UK or USA are often horrified to find that when you get here you are not supposed to put used toilet paper down the loo. When you're doing a number 2, and after you finished your business, any toilet paper you feel you need to use to... well, you know... has to be wrapped up and put in the bin. In part due to the visit of Tom and Theo who carried out the necessary toilet procedures in thoroughly British ways, and in part due to our forgetfulness while on the john and also the erroneous assumption we harboured that by living in a house as opposed to an apartment we were somehow more exempt from this sanitary protocol, our toilets - actually, one in particular - became thoroughly blocked last week. With rubber gloves on, a small and ultimately useless plunger in hand and a peg on my nose, I attempted to fix the stench-inducing problem. My best efforts resulted in little more than the discovery of a cockroach under the rim of the bowl so we had to call in a man. In the man came, and he fixed all our upstairs toilets (all 3 of them) saying that the other two were reaching the point of no return too. So, it's all sorted and we won't be flushing paper down the loo no more.

Things I love about Brazil #54: cheap labour. The cost of our toilet repairs: R$100 (about £25). A small price to pay for fully functioning commodes, I guess... The low cost of labour makes service provision very cheap in Brazil. This week we've had to rely on it in different ways. For example, apart from the toilet episode, we were able leave Nelson at a playgroup with a babysitting for half an hour at the shopping centre so we could get our Christmas shopping done (cost R$4 or £1). Rachel got our car totally cleaned inside and out (cost R$10 or £2.50) and Nelson has been constantly impressed by the small army of brass band players performing Christmas hits, the clowns, chaps on stilts, the Father Christmas', the Santa's little helpers all on hand to entertain him and his young colleagues at the shopping centre (cost to us zero!).

Christmas away. Tomorrow Rach, Nelson and I drive to Joao Pessoa for festivities proper with all Rachel`s extended family. Nelson`s great great granny Bemvinda is celebrating her 90th birthday too and a Brazil vs Rest of the World footy match will be taking place at some point to commemorate this. After Christmas we will be by the beach at a resort with Rach's immediate family. Anyway, the upshot of all this is I think I will rest the blog until after new year... it`s in need of a bit of a rehaul too, so watch this space in January for a new look, swisher blog. In the meantime, why note vote on the new poll to the left. Have a wonderful Christmas whoever you are, wherever you are, and a blessed New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Things I miss about England #100: the weather. Most of the time I do not in the slightest bit miss the English weather, the constant threat of drizzle, the slab of gray that covers the sky for most of the months between August and May and the fact that it'ss dark when you go to work and dark when you get home and worst of all that feeling when you're in bed that one inch either side of your already shivering limbs will touch iceberg-like bed sheets. Put it this way, in Brazil I have never had to turn my car headlights on at noon as I once did in York. OK, but sometimes I do miss the variety of the seasons and especially at Christmas I feel the season's festivities aren't quite complete when you can't genuinely sing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas". Here, the shopping malls are full of fake snow in their Santa's grotos, but the only white Christmas we're getting is a dusting from the nearest sand dune.

Things I love about Brazil #6: the weather. I love tropical weather, I feel better, healthier, fitter, more productice (cit. Radiohead), I see more clearly (seriously, I hardly wear my prescriptions), I get up with a spring in my step and the cold water coming out of the shower first thing in the morning is a refreshing treat, not punishment for sins, as it is in the UK.

Things I miss about England #95: mince pies and mulled wine. For most of the year I wouldn't notice this small luxury, but mince pies and mulled wine are conspiciously absent from my consumable Christmas options and this is a shame.

Things I love about Brazil #25: informal dress codes. I've just come back from the end of semester Christmas do. I was MC-ing the event in English with Amy doing the Portuguese. I was the only man there sporting a tie. Brazilians are relaxed, and from a small town like Natal, even more so. I'm glad I didn't pack a dinner jacket, bow tie or any such regalia when we moved out here. None of that faff would ever see the light of day round here.
Football details as noticed by Tom Reeves. When in Recife with the boys, we all went to watch Nautico play their final game of the season against Flamengo (like watching Fulham vs Chelsea in Brazil terms). Well, the underdogs won 1-0 which put a smile on my father and brother-in-laws' faces. Being his first experience of a Brazilian league match Tom noticed these details which we may have missed. Firstly, one Flamengo fan in a wheelchair was so keen to see the match from a good vantage point with his mates that he got them to lift his chair to the top of the block and back down again! No ramps, no lifts, just good mates. And, the other detail I think is hilarious. Referees in Brazil are escorted on and off the footy pitch by riot police. It was doubly important in this game as one of the linesman was a woman (i.e. a lineswoman) and was liable to get gyp at the slightest twitch of her flag. During the game the death squad got front row seats by the goal. It's just that their rock hard image as Brazil's toughest law enforcers was somewhat tainted by the nice little red children's chairs they had to sit on.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Theo and Tom back home. Rach and I and Nelson have had a fairly uneventful weekend by our standards after we said goodbye to Tom on Thursday. It's been great fun having the boys around. I think, if they don't mind, I'll use some of their pictures - taken from the perspective of people who don't usually live in Brazil - to add a bit of spice to this blog. Here's the first one from Theo. The view at night from Rachel's parents' 21st floor apartment in Recife looking back over the city.

It's the end of the semester as we know it (and I feel fine). This last week I've been saying goodbye to my students, some of whom I've taught for a year. It's a strange thing - you spend 2 and a half hours each week for 10 months of the year with these people talking about everything from personal life to interests and hobbies to politics and beliefs and then its over so abruptly, and I probably won't teach them ever again and some I won't ever see again. This is a sad fact as they really all are wonderful characters, or "figuras" as the Natalenses say. Fortunately, they all passed their courses and did well. I hope their year with the "gringo" improved their speaking and listening of English. They certainly helped me with my English grammar.

Nakedness: a cultural comparison. Somehow at one point last week the conversation with Tom, myself, Amy and Rachel's cousin Hebinho turned to the topic of Brazilian versus English perceptions of public nakedness. Brazilians are a funny lot - their view of nakedness seems somewhat paradoxical. Being a Catholic nation and up here in the northeast quite a conservative people, public nakedness is out of the question. Topless bathing is illegal, and the idea that somebody would streak at sports event or cycle naked through university campus (a frequent occurrence in York) or moon a politician is out of the question.

Anyway, although Brazilians don't condone outright nakedness they seem to draw the line at about 1 inch shy of nakedness. Some of the bikinis and speedos round here leave little to the imagination, let's say, and nobody has any problems with this. One amusing example what I'm talking about presented itself this Saturday. On TV was a Samba dance-off - in the style of American Idol or X-Factor. Scantily, and I mean VERY scantily, clad women came onstage and strutted, and I mean REALLY strutted, their stuff for the judges, the audience and the viewers at home. During one performance one such lady's bra thing/ boob holder - which consisted of some delicately balanced threads - came loose and more or less fell off and she finished her performance clutching her chest. Oddly, she didn't appear in the slightest bit embarressed about it. The male presenter joked, "anyone here want to help her put that back on?" Now, you may be wondering, why I, a married Christian man, would be watching this sordid display? Well, the truth is, the show was on a widescreen TV close to our table in a family restaurant beamed to us as we ate our lunch. According to Brazilians, a 99% naked samba competition is clearly all-age viewing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas lights on Brazil's biggest Christmas tree. We live about 200 yards from Brazil's biggest Christmas tree. It`s not real, it's basically a big pole with Christmas lights hanging off it (see pic downloaded from today's local paper). This being "Natal" (which means Christmas in Portuguese) the city prides itself on being, and it's tourist industry is pleased to advertise the fact that it is, the best, most bright place in Brazil for the yuletide season. A huge Christmas tree used to reside in an open space near our house. It was taken down a few months ago. According to the neighbours - who know everything there is to know about everything - Rio de Janeiro recently erected a larger Christmas tree. And so, Natal not wanting to be outdone, pulled its own tree down (again, not a real tree) and stuck it over the other side of town. In it's place, the gargantuan monstrosity we see today. The thing really is huge. I have some video and pictures I'll try and post on here at some point. Last night, after the big party and official switch on, our bedroom, several streets away, was filled with the glow of flickering neon lighting. Natal won't be needing a lighthouse anymore.

Natal's golden gate bridge. Natal's townsfolk have been buoyed by several things in recent weeks. The promotion of ABC football team to the Brasilian Serie B, the new Christmas tree and also the completion of a huge suspension bridge over the bay. It is an awesome sight. I've driven over it, Theo walked over it. According to the newspaper, a drunk has already met a tragic end by falling off it. It is an impressive sight, although some Natalenses are disgruntled by all these expensive gimmicks - the tree, the bridge. It's an example of populist politics - keep the people entertained and happy and they won't notice the real problems of society. South American governments do not have the monopoly on this though - millenium dome and London eye, anyone?

First Certificate in English. The most popular English test for non-native speakers in the world is the Cambridge FCE. Today, I had to be invigilator for the students sitting this exam who I had lovingly nurtured toward this goal. It's not an easy test. You need to be close to fluent and have Advanced proficiency to do well. Put it this way, Nelson will be going to university by the time I can do in Portuguese what they do in English. The test takes two days to do - and we had a small administrative glitch when a 7th Day Adventist refused to do the test on Saturday. But, this bring Brazil, a way round was found... During the invigilation to keep myself from nodding off I got stuck into a novel that Theo had left for me. The surreal tragi-comedy "Confederancy of Dunces" by JK Toole. Anyone read it?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Goodbye Theo. After a fun packed two weeks that have flown by, big Theo Georghiou heads back to the UK today. We plan to send him off with a beating on the go-kart track this lunch time. It's been great to spend time with my ol' school chum who I haven't had more than a passing chat to for the best part of 10 years. We still have Tom Reeves here, so fortunately Natal's supply of diamond geezers is still ample. Not that Tom and Theo are that similar. Theo is tall, thin, erudite, polite and sophisticated. As for Tom... well...

Hello Guga the turtle. For a while we'd been thinking of getting Nelson a pet. After the unfortunate demise of Perry the kitten, Rachel thought we should get a small turtle. Nelson has already expressed his preference for this kind of creature, pointing it out in books and on TV, and he does a good job of saying "Tartaruga" in Portuguese - "tataooggooggoogoggooggooggg GUGA!!". And, that phenomenal phonemical construction inspired the name of the 4 inch diameter creature. She (the turtle) was bought at a market in Recife by Rachel's Dad who, not being one to wait on a good idea, jumped at the idea. I came back from a morning out with the boys to find we had a new pet. Nelson loves the little creature and is constantly trying to feed her biscuits.

A small legal note: Many laws exist in Brazil for what can or can't be kept as pets. In part, so my students tell me, these laws are concessions to 'the global north' and help create an image of Brazil has a modern and concerned country. In reality, illegally owned pets are very common and the police have better things to do than knock on everyone's door trying to find rare captive spiders. However, some turtles are illegal. One of my students explained that a turtle should have accompanying signed paperwork when it is bought. (This same student has a turtle which her friend brought her from another South American country smuggled in the inside pocket of an overcoat). So, after the arrival of Guga I asked Rach if our new friend was legally acquired. "Yes, this is a legal turtle". OK, so where's the paperwork? "What paperwork?" came the reply. Rachel says if the police come snooping (which they won't) she'll dob in half the neighbourhood who have illegal menageries of parrots and exotic birds. All I can say is that, for Guga's sake, her previous home was some grubby water in the bottom of a cut-away plastic coke bottle. At least, now she has her own mini-aquarium complete with plastic castle and pebbles, space to paddle, and she has the undying affection and love of an 18 month old boy.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Weekend of fun. Drove the 5 hours back from Recife today after a long weekend there with the family and special guests Tom and Theo. We knocked off our to do list with gusto 1) eat-all-you-can meat 2) watch local team Nautico against Flamengo in the last game of the season - the right team won 1 nothing 3) plenty of beach 4) visit Recife Antigo, the old part of the city...