Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Guest blogger: Dave's Mum. We have celebrated Christmas in many different ways in quite a few countries and this year is at the top of the list as perhaps one of the most special and most unusual! Above alI it is a wonderful joy to be together with our family who we’ve been apart from for too many years. This Christmas was celebrated in a beautiful resort on the beach south of Recife with Rachel’s family. (Sorry for everyone back home struggling with snow and freezing temperatures!) We had our own family time of worship and giving gifts which was great, but I guess we did miss the joint worship with other believers and singing the familiar Christmas carols. Nevertheless we have been overwhelmed by love and generosity on all sides and feel thoroughly spoiled. God has been so gracious in sending His Son the Lord Jesus at Christmas to bring us salvation and He continues to pour out wonderful blessings as we follow Him.

Sally Maclure

Monday, December 22, 2008

Guest Blogger: Dave's Mum. Wow! What a joy and privilege to be here in Natal after all the past months of planning and anticipating coming to visit David and Rachel, Nelson and Gloria. (The two most beautiful grandchildren in the world!) Natal is a lovely city with beautiful beaches stretching north and south along the coast of N/E Brazil. It is surrounded by amazing sand dunes covered here and there with bunches of trees and bushes. Its lovely and warm, not too different from Florida where we came from, but not as hot as Chad. There are many reminders of Africa – mangos, paipai, pineapples etc, some bumpy roads, horse drawn carts etc but all mixed in with high rise apartment buildings, huge beautiful malls and interesting old churches. Everyone we meet is friendly and pleasant – probably because David and Rachel have made many friends here and for us it’s a great joy to see something of the life and situation in which they are living. Our only regret is not being able to speak Portuguese, especially with Nelson who is not keen on English!

Sally Maclure

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Internet goals 2009. A bit like new year's resolutions and a few weeks early, I've decided to follow the suggestion made on of making a list of blogging/internet aims for 2009 and publishing them as a post. The idea is then to check this next year and see how I've been getting on. So, in no particular order, in 2009 I will aim to:

1. Finish and finish well Maps and Legends when I leave Brazil in August.

2. Rachel and I are working on an idea for a website called, tentatively, "BRitain BRazil BRidge" which, as the name suggests, aim to be a bridge between these two fantastic nations. By this time next year the website should be up and running with half a dozen key articles and full resources sections.

3. To get over 100 daily hits on

4. To read the internet more efficiently and to apply (in my life, in my writing) what I like about what I read.

5. Write better blog entries. This entry from Jim Estill posted on copyblogger is a good model to start with, although I don't want to "dumb down" just for the sake of it.

6. Write at least 1 article per month for a website/publication which I am not a regularly contributing writer.

7. To be somewhere further down the road on understanding what God thinks of the internet and what he wants us to do with it.

8. Give twitter a go...

What are your internet goals for 2009?
Mum and Dad are here! I've not had the time to even say this - but Mum and Dad arrived positively on time at Natal airport on Sunday lunchtime. We've had a great, if full, few days. Nelson seems to be handling the English coming at him from his other Grandparents quite well. Gloria has learned to clap which impresses her Grandparents no end. I haven't told him yet, but I may try and get Dad to "guest" blog on here.

Christmas blogging. I'm expecting this may slow down a bit over Christmas as we'll be travelling and doing a lot. So, wishing everyone a happy Christmas and fantastic New Year if I don't get many opportunities to say so...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Anderson and Kessia on their wedding day.
The good news: they didn't get food poisoning.

Football round up. The Brazilian season is over and Rach's Dad's team Nautico survived on goal difference from being relegated. Sao Paulo won again. Corinthians were promoted and now look to have Ronaldo playing for them (or sitting on the bench for them). Vasco, Romario's old team, were relegated. But, more tellingly, my sister in law enjoyed a VIP salmon dinner at Stamford bridge with flowing champagne overlooking tonight's Champions League fixture. As the English teacher of several of the Chelsea staff, including Scolari's coaching assistants, she's entitled to her Christmas dinner, I suppose...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

6 reasons why Dave is thankful this Sunday morning... (a belated Thanksgiving post)

1. Anderson and Kessia's wedding went really well.
A couple from our little church group organised a small and intimate wedding gathering involving just a few of us to officially dedicate their relationship to God. Rachel and I had to speak at the service which involved me preparing a talk in Portuguese. It seemed to go OK thanks to my wife proof-reading the whole thing beforehand. It was a very special evening. Anderson and Kessia (with the help of their three beautiful daughters) run a fantastic little restaurant called "Sal da terra" (Salt of the earth - notice the biblical reference there?). I was telling Rach that their restaurant which serves fantastic homemade Brazilian fare with delicious meat for a good price is like our local pub, like "Central Perk", like a home-away-from-home rolled into one for us.

The painful irony is that Anderson and Kessia hired a friend to cater their wedding - preferring not to do it themselves on this occasion. This guy is a lovely Christian man and a mutual aquaintance and has catered for us before. Unfortunately, and this is not the first time this has happened, I and a few others got food poisoning the next day. (This rasises a thorny question in Brazil - you are obliged to provide business to people you know personally if you can. What now? Are we to keep using this guy just because he's our friend and a fellow-Christian?). Well, my prayer is that Anderson and Kessia didn't feel any after effects of the grub!

As the restaurant takes up their entire time (they never get holidays) they were to have a 1 day honeymoon on the Saturday with their daughters manning the ship while they were away. It would be awful for them, who have a reputation for cooking such great tucker, if their one holiday had been undermined by somebody else's bad cooking!

Anyway, I had it pretty bad last night. It wasn't helped by being at a kids party where I had to chase Nelson round for a couple of hours. But after an early night...

2. I feel much better this morning.

3. Carnatal finishes today.
Carnatal is Natal's carnaval (you see what they did there?). Knowing a bit more about the sort of stuff that goes on there, knowing how it puts a strain on emergency services (sirens were the soundtrack to my night), knowing the mayhem it causes to the city in terms of clogging up traffic, knowing how much it disrupts my students who fail to show up for their final exams because they're too hungover or drunk... we'll be glad to see the back of it.

4. Natal's Christmas tree is nearly up.
The town council have really not held back in lighting the town up for Christmas this year. Being a city that is obviously named after the festive occasion, Natal prides itself on attracting its tourists with the biggest and best lighting displays. Recently, as I have been driving home each night, I've noticed they've added more and more to the trees in the central reservation of the main road. I'm beginning to think they look a bit garish now - they certainly aren't very subtle. I also have no idea what its doing to Natal's power grid. We had a power cut at the school yesterday. Carnatal + Christmas lights = no power for anyone else.

In any case, Natal is once again making a bid for having Brazil's largest (fake) Christmas tree. This was what I said about last year's effort. Not to be undone by Rio who keep putting up bigger ones, Natal have put together an ENORMOUS crane and scaffolding-like construction close to our old home. This bohemoth of metal will be lit up in the shape of a Christmas this week, I guess.

5. We haven't been in any road accidents.
Having talked about Natal's road safety in recent posts I thought I should mention an incident yesterday. It's not uncommon to see people shunting or rear-ending each other. Traffic volume does seemed to have increased in Natal recently and I am spending more and more of my time in jams. Consequently, I see the aftermath of small traffic incidents once a week, more or less.

But, yesterday, we arrived at the scene of some particularly nasty carnage probably within 30 seconds of it having taken place. Natal is situated on a triangle of main roads with a national park in the middle. For the last few days, we've been driving down the other side of the triangle, down
Via Costeira, a tranquil but lengthier coastal road which has all the main hotels dotted along it, to get places because of the disruption caused by Carnatal.

At a seemingly innocuous point we saw a taxi and a car had just met in a nasty head on collision. The road was impassable because of debris, including a bumper strewn across it. Fortunately, it seemed most people had seatbelts on so they were shaken up but not seriously hurt. Nonetheless, an ambulance was called for the driver of the car. As we pulled away, and after saying a prayer for all those involved, I donned my (figurative) Hercule Poirot hat and tried to deduce how that could've occurred. In short, (and driving home the same way confirmed my suspicions), the driver of the car must have been from out of town, perhaps a guest at one of the hotels along the stretch. About 20 yards before the incident the road splits but, based on the non-conclusive road markings (scroll down to Nov 24 post for more on that), he may have assumed he was to carry on straight, the split being only for traffic entering the hotel. If you hadn't been along there before it's more than possible you would draw this conclusion. The taxi driver, an old hand at Natal's roads, probably quickly pulled out as the road was clear (in the direction it should've been!) and would never have expected somebody coming up the wrong side to his left. A nasty shock for both, then, as they pummeled into each other front to front. Both cars totalled. I pray no lasting injuries.

6. Mum and Dad arrive a week today!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sorry the hiatus. I love the word "hiatus" and am always looking for ways to worm it into my writing. Anyway, sorry for the sporadic posting. General end of semester busyness is to blame. Also, our internet has been dodgy but then so has everyone else's across the city. I think (with the opinion of a complete layperson on these matters) the servers are melting in the summer heat. It has been hot around here.

Too much to write about. I love writing and rarely seem to encounter writer's block. On the contrary, I often have the opposite problem which I will call "writer's flow" meaning I have a bunch of stuff to write about but not enough time to do it... how frustrating.

So, just two stories from yesterday...

Nelson the jovial dentist. Rachel (with kids in tow) was in a medical centre near here for another reason and was stuck for a place to sit and wait. Nelson the jovial dentist let her use his waiting room. He was so jovial, jolly and kind-hearted we decided to make him our family dentist. (Scroll down to November 7th for my first impressions of the man).

So far, he has proven to be a great dentist, just inefficient with his time-keeping (a problem, it has to be said, for 95% of Brazilian medical professionals). He works for 10% of the time and banters for 90% of the time. When he's not bantering his cheerful assistant takes up the mantle. Unsurprinsgly, they both banter with me about my two small children, endlessly. Yesterday he even showed me he had a picture of Gloria on his cellphone... In turn, I learned about his older son (who is studying computer science at the university) and about my dentist's passion for cycling and also that the procedure he was using on my teeth was invented by a Brazilian dentist from Sao Paulo who has the extraordinary name "Iraildes Jesus de Deus". All this with the astonishing view from the 16th floor of the medical centre of Natal's via costeira and north side beaches. And all this with piped Celine Dion and Enya coming out of his CD player...

Brussel sprouts. Another tale from the supermarket. One of my first destinations upon entering the hallowed aisles of Nordestao with my shopping list in hand and empty squeekless trolley is the back of the veggie section, where a cooler resides with imported or special goods which are only occasionally stocked. I'm always dying to know what they've got in. Sometimes the price is extortianate for something that is relatively ordinary in the UK: fresh mushrooms, asparagus, fresh broccoli and rocket salad spring to mind. But, yesterday, for only the second time that I can remember, they had brussel sprouts. These dozen sprouts looked a bit dissheveled for the price I was paying for the quantity contained but I went for it anyway as I was to buy a roast chicken and potatoes in order to fix a faux English roast lunch for Rachel.

At the check out the two baggers suspiciously eyed my brussel sprouts. One of them muttered something to his colleague along the lines of "what the @*$# is this?"

I decided to chirp up at this stage with an explanation. I accounted for the fact that I was a gringo and that this was popular where I came from. Both baggers, who were what Americans would call "blue-collar workers" and who may never have spoken to a foreigner before, returned a look of utter incredulity. Neither of them had any idea how to continue the conversation at this point. Eventually, one of them asked me something so fast I had no idea what he said. After a couple of repititions (where I apologised - like a true Englishman - for not speaking very good Portuguese) I got the gist. He was asking me what it tasted like. I confidently began my reply. "They taste just like small cabbages!". However, inexplicably, the word for cabbage had, without telling me, taken a hike out of my brain and I was left open-mouthed saying: "Tem sabor de.... de.... de... a coisa que voces tem ai... esqueci o nome!". At this, both baggers wore expressions that suggested they were conversing with a recent fugitive from the nut house.

I smiled and chuckled inwardly. It should never have been this hard, surely...

"Couve" is the word for cabbage, which I remembered, of course, once I was in the car park and on my way out.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Life is life. So, over a week since my last update on here. Basically, we`re pretty busy! The kids were also ill last week which really reduces all systems to survival mood. Having said that, we had a quiet long weekend (thanks to a saint`s holiday on Friday) and I think Rachel and I are refreshed to a certain degree. This is the final busy week before the semester starts to wind down... some kids are already on their summer holidays and won`t be back at their schools until February! Not surprisingly, they complain a great deal about still having to come to English lessons.

Noisy driving, night driving and drink driving. Continuing the theme of Brazilian driving habits started in recent blogs... our apartment block is on the corner of two main roads and it is one drawback that the noise level can be quite high. Windows will invariably be open to let some cool air in, and you`ll be halfway through a conversation when a motorbike with severe exhaust problems will tear down Alves Fonseca or Albrto Maranhao and you`ll have to stop and ask everyone to repeat what they just said. If sleeping at night is a stuggle with two small children it isn`t helped by night time traffic.

Two nights ago, I was woken at 3am by a man driving very fast beeping his horn without ceasing until he was out of ear-shot. "Why on earth...?" I bleerily thought to myself. Last night, the same thing happened again and I twigged what it was. Brazilians have a different set of road rules after dark. Basically, in the interest of security folks will ignore red lights so they don`t have to stop their cars, thus potentially falling prey to carjackers. This used to be more popular in Recife but it seems to be catching on here. What this means is you can`t trust a green light after dark - you have to look both ways anyway, and it means if you`re prepared to play chicken with a blind junction you can drive across on red. In order to make one`s presence heard and to announce that you will follow on through on red, one repeatedly sounds the horn to warn the greenlighters you`re going to be in the way. At 3am, somebody obviously feels its not even worth waiting for traffic lights to be any colour - they`d just rather drive home, across red lights without slowing and have their horn on 100% of the time. Nevermind, all the sleeping residents.

Last year a famous footballer, called Acosta, who was playing in Recife for Nautico at the time crashed late at night in an incident probably caused by two people driving across green lights. The other guy, whose car was a wreck, was alright and he hung around for the police and ambulance. When it transpired he had crashed into a Acosta`s car, he was reported to have broken out into a cold sweat. As a Nautico fan he couldn`t face the fact that he might have just hospitalised his team`s star player. His pals and fellow fans would ostracise him! When the medics arrived, his first question was: "are his legs OK?"

Night time accidents are also common because of drink driving problems, especially with motorcylcists who somehow seem to feel they are immune to road laws and traffic rules. I noticed a motorcyclist zoom through a red light in broad daylight this weekend and I commented to Rach "It seems that the smaller the vehicle you are in, the more you feel you have the right to ignore road rules". Come to think of it, the opposite is also true - the bigger you are (like public buses) the more you can aggressively and illegally boss the roads at the expense of others.

The Brazilian government has recently clamped down on drink driving and stricter laws are in place across the country (including no alcohol at football matches!). Adverts for alcohol now all have to contain the statement: "Se for beba, nao diriga" - If you`re going to drink, don`t drive. So, things are on the way up, but driving under the influence is still a severe problem in this part of the world. And, whatever you do, don't trust the traffic lights!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dave is a ninny. It's Saturday night and I'm home alone writing another blog entry... I should be in Recife with Rach and all the family but this morning I missed my flight to see them.

The flight was due to leave at 4.15am so I dutifully set my alarm for 2.30am to ensure maximum time to get up and drive out to be at the airport at 3.15 or so, an hour before I needed to be. I woke up at 1am when I heard noise outside. Seeing that I still had plenty of time for sleep I put my head back down and next thing I knew it was 3.35am. In a blind panic, I threw some things in a bag and raced out the door. I bombed down the main road to the airport arriving at about 3.55am. But the lady there said they had already closed the doors on the plane... As we were only going to stay until Sunday, Rach and I decided it wouldn't be worth getting another flight and so I've been enjoying a quietish weekend here. I've been able to Skype several people today, do some paperwork, watch some football, go to the cinema as well as read and pray too - the sorts of things that usually get pushed to the side in the busyness of life.

Rach and the kids were in Recife because this weekend is a national holiday. The reason I was coming down later was that I stayed in Natal to help with a spelling bee competition at the language school. Annoyingly, I lost my voice this week after a cold so I wasn't much good at the spelling bee reading out words or even judging on the panel. It went OK though, the winner being a young girl (who had negotiated the tricky word "symphony" at one point) scooping an ITouch for the top prize.

Why is it called spelling bee? Wikipedia informs us:
Although its only modern usage is in spelling bee, the word bee has historically been used to describe a get-together where a specific action is being carried out, like a husking bee, a quilting bee, or an apple bee.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Should I stop or should I go? A small display of Brazilian traffic lights. This post is dedicated to Ruth Leckenby - a long-standing fan of the Brazilian mode of traffic signalisation.
Things I miss about England #20: Traffic lights.
Things I love about Brazil #21: Traffic lights.
Let me take the latter first. Continuing a theme started a few posts back about driving in Brazil, it seems an appropriate time to comment on something I noticed within about two days of being in Brazil.

Basically, local councils use their transport budgets to continually innovate in the realm of traffic lights - often, it seems, attempting to out-compete the last guys with ever more ground-breaking, animated and at times baffling signalisation. Above are pictures of four sets of traffic lights which all sit at junctions within one block of our apartment. As you can see, there's a paucity of consitency about the whole thing. At least they've stuck with red and green (although occasionally dispensing with yellow when necessary). If you were to go to Recife, you would see traffic lights with a countdown digitial display of when the light will change - a sure-fire ticket to people speeding up at an alarming rate as they notice the counter approach zero. But, it has to be said, it makes life interesting and it is quintessentially Brazilian - uniformity is not prized here, flexibility and acceptance of new technology are. Long live non-standardised Brazilian traffic lights.

On the other hand, taking the other side, there's something altogether reassuring about driving in the UK that almost everywhere one goes one can expect a consistent set of road markings, signs and traffic lights. Local road habits and norms vary considerably between cities (for example, turning on red or driving through red after 9pm at night). Sometimes traffic lights won't work (who's to know if we can go or not?) and efficient and long-suffering traffic police are often called out to speed up the rush hour jams. Sometimes one way streets are created and nobody erases the old road markings leading to immeasurable confusion. Out on the open road it's anyone's guess where you are and how far you are from your destination. Your best indication is to make sure you know if the sea is on your left you're driving south and if it's on your right you're headed north. In Natal, somebody has decided you can't turn across traffic at a junction (see pictures above with no left turn signs). This results in us (and everyone else) driving for miles in the wrong direction looking for a spot to do a U-turn. Seriously, Rachel was once half an hour late for an engagement as a result of trying to find a location to perform this maneuvre. We call it the "Natal shuffle" and, although it probably reduces accidents somewhat, it's not something I love about Brazil at all.

I'm not saying here that the British have the perfect road system. Far from it. Apparently, the French say we have too many road-signs and they're right. Come off the A64 into York and there is no way you can possibly digest all the information on display - there seems to be a sign for everything from low-flying planes to recycling rubbish. But, all in all, I think more signs and more consistant signage is still arguably better than no posting whatsoever or the potential for traffic mayhem a la Brazil.

And speaking of transport...
We took Nelson to the Natal air show last Saturday. We had a great time and so did Nelson. Only, problem is he was far more entertained by the small display of vintage road vehicles on display than any of the jetplane acrobatics taking place in the sky.

Staff dinner.
A few weeks ago it was teacher's day in Brazil - a wonderful idea for a national holiday. Pictures in the slideshow to the right are of the Cultura Inglesa staff at a special meal for the occasion.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Vitrola. I mentioned a couple of posts back that I'd seen a local band playing at the university "Science" Fair. Well, lo and behold, my good pal Dyego got ahold of their latest CD and its ace. They are called Vitrola and this is their myspace page and, yes, that first song is in English - it reminds me of old indie stalwarts the Bluetones.

Things I miss about England #8: Cream teas. Perhaps 90% of the things I miss from the UK are comfort foods and here's yet another entry about grub. I was giving a test the other day to students in a classroom which had a picture on the wall of a bonefide English cream tea. Scones, fresh cream, real home-made strawberry jam ... it was torture to see it.

Things I love about Brazil #9: People are not afraid to pray, really pray. I recall one summer at university when I worked for a programme that accepted foreign teenagers to the UK to learn English. I was an activities organiser and one fine day we went to Howard's Castle. The tour finished at a small chapel on the premises. I was astonished when a dozen, rowdy, disinterested, flirting, swearing Italian teenagers all sobered up, got on their knees and started saying their prayers as soon as we stepped into the little sanctuary. Something of holy fear exists in these Catholic nations which we've lost in the Protestant north...

Today, as I drove to work I passed a lady I had seen several times. At a certain corner near a lamp-post not far from the language school, there she was as usual bent over with a shawl across her head, face in hands, weeping and rocking back in her knees with her face to heaven and arms outstretched. A few yards away a car had pulled up and I saw someone else on the pavement, a younger lady, a professional, head to the floor, also praying - I couldn't tell if the latter was an acquaintance of the lady or a stranger who had been convicted by the older woman's devotion.

I've often wondered why this old lady is there. I once thought it was a routine of hers - every Thursday, but I haven't worked out a pattern as she disappears for a while and comes back on random days. Once, she was out there in torrential rain - and it made for quite a dramatic sight. I have to admit that as I'm driving to work, head full of things to do, her presence their unsettles me. It forces me to consider my own spiritual life just when I`m least thinking about it. Occasionally, a list of my fine Protestant criticisms roll through me head: "Why is she there? Hasn't she got anything better to do? Is she mourning someone who died near there? She should get over it! Is she praying to saints? What good does that do?". The truth is I don't know why she's there so my list of complaints sounds very Pharisaic. I think of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus' feet... for many reasons it wasn't a sensible idea and everyone vocally pointed that out at the time. But, Jesus didn't see it that way.

In other more familiar settings too, I`ve seen Brazilians far less inhibited to get on with the needful thing of praying, often with a dramatic accompaniment of body language and tears. To the extent that this equals a genuine pouring out of the heart, we could learn from them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Trip to the dentist. This week has flown by in a whirl and I'm not sure next week is going to be much easier. Sporadic posting will probably result. One reason for busyness this week was a trip to the dentist that was supposed to only last an hour and took all morning. That was Tuesday. Neither Rachel and I had been to the dentist in probably 3 years so it was high time. We picked a Dentist Nelson (good name) who was the most jovial, friendly medical professional I have ever met. It reminded me of this observation I made around the time Gloria was born of Brazilian Doctors. It was like meeting a cross between Dr.Patch Adams and Dr.Julius Hibbert. Anyway, after a quick inspection, Dentist Nelson, gaffawing all the way, delivered the not-so-good news. I need to have quite a bit of work done, the result of which is my wallet is probably going to hurt even more than my gums will. But, we'll probably go ahead with it as it will be cheaper here than in the UK and the idea is to "invest" in my teeth not causing problems later, I suppose...

Homophones. I've been doing some work with my higher level students on homographs, homophones and oronyms. I found this cool poem which sums up homophones and oronyms quite nicely. You need to read it aloud for the full effect...

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rarely ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect in it's weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

Obama and Hamilton. So, fans of both the politician and the racing driver have had a good week all in all. Brazilians are preferring to "not mention the war" concerning the dizzying climax to the F1 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. I, meanwhile, by not being a fan of Ferrari or Felipe Massa have been seen to be rather smug of late.

CONSPIRACY THEORY: Barack Obama, Lewis Hamilton and Theo Walcott are secretly brothers imbued with special superhero powers. It's not just that they each have mixed black-white lineage and have recently become lauded by the public for their extraordinary abilities, they also have similar faces - so much so that one chap out here keeps me calling me the Obama supporter because I cheer for Hamilton.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Every cloud has a silver lining. There's a whole series of posts waiting to be written about driving in Brazil, and, on balance, there's a bit of work needed to be done by my Brazilian counterparts to ensure efficiency and safety in their road travel. But for now, let me concentrate on some of the positives.

I recently discovered the joys of driving with the window down. Usually the car is so hot that AC is necessary, but why not, I thought to myself recently, switch off the AC and enjoy the fresh(ish) air of Natal's rush hour combined with the cacophony of sounds that eminate from every street corner. It's oddly liberating, it relaxes me and it's giving me a truckers one-armed tan in the process. Things I love about Brazil #51: driving with the windows down (and not freezing in the process).

On weekends and on mornings off I'll get into my car with flip-flops on as will the majority of drivers in Natal, I suspect. Driving with flip-flops is actually illegal (you don't want your havainas wrapped around the accelerator by accident!) so people shuffle them off and drive barefooted (barefeeted?), which is something I had to get used to when we arrived here. Sometimes the police try to scare tourists by telling them driving barefoot is illegal, but that's a big porky pie.

I reckon driving barefoot is the automobile-piloting equivelent of swimming naked in a lake at night. It feels mischievous and wonderfully liberating and may result in your extremeties (I'm talking about toes in the car example) being unusually exposed to the elements. After some time, and most people I know who drive barefoot agree with me on this, that skin to metal contact results in better clutch control and a feather-light touch on the accelerator. Things I love about Brazil #52: driving barefoot.

And, as a direct result of the thing I love about Brazil #54 - things I love about Brazil #53: Somebody fills your car up with gas, checks your oil and your tires without you having to get out.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Every silver lining has a cloud. Just a few short observations today and tomorrow. I realised recently how often I get in trouble with Rachel (and other folks for that matter) for storing everything important from keys to DVDs, from money to essential certificates in the pockets of my multi-pocketed shorts. The problem is, I change my legwear everyday resulting in stuff left behind in yesterday's pockets which at times finds its way through the wash. I caught myself recently, much like an Israelite wishing for Egypt, thinking how nice it would be wear a jacket for a change - a big leather one with an inside pocket for a wallet and two hand pockets on the sides for keys (to the left) and coins (to the right) as was my way in York. Living in a climate where no jacket is required (spot the Phil Collins reference) is its own reward and I should be grateful but I can't help thinking that this is an example of a thing I miss about England, in this cast #99 to be exact: leather jackets.

Things I miss about England #63: photocopiers. Things I miss about England #64: people know how to photocopy. Photocopiers are expensive beasts to maintain up in the north-east of Brazil and, like many things, they break down with monotonous regularity (why would it work?), and despite the language school being a good-sized business which relies heavily on photocopied material, its not possible for us to have our own "xerox" as the Brazilians say. So, we have it done at a shop down the road.

Teachers have to prepare their copies several hours in advance if they want handouts for every student in their class. As you might expect, I am only ever that organised about 10% of the time so my photocopying count is always quite low. I always seem to get inspiration for my lesson plans 5 minutes before the class starts (necessity is the mother of invention?) but I often have to make do without copies because there isn't one handy for last minute emergencies. If only I was back in the purple towers of the St.Mikes office in York...

Anyway, even when you do order photocopies from the shop, there's a fair chance they might cock it up. This they did spectacularly for me this week. I am giving an exam preparatory class for FCE (the world's most popular general English test, by the way). I wanted 15 tests photocopied and stapled, one for each student coming to the class. When the copies came back, some bright spark HAD stapled them, oh yes, but without collating them. In other words all the page 1s were stapled together in a pile, all the page 2s were stapled together, all the page 3s etc. As I grumbled away with furrowed brow pulling the staples out, re-collating the whole stack of sheets and re-stapling them one more I wondered to myself, "what possible use in the whole world could I have had for a stapled collection of exactly identical sheets?" - I suggested that the jobsworth at the shop obviously had no lateral thinking capabilities. Fiona, my boss, thought s/he probably didn't have any thinking capabilities, full stop.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Things I miss about England #69: small talk. There's an old joke: Two Italians, two Frenchman and two Brits are stranded on a desert island. The Italians immediately strike up a conversation and launch an Italian restaurant. The Frenchmen do the same and start a patisserie. The two Brits move to opposite sides of the island and never speak to each other as they haven't been formerly introduced.

Now, what would happen if you put two Brazilians on the island? I think they'd watch football together buut sleep with knives under their pillows for fear of the other guy stealing their wallet in the night (see this post for more on why Brazilians have the lowest levels of trust for all of South America). Either that, or they'd discover they were distantly related, in which case they'd team up and start a successful samba school.

So, why the long preamble? Well, its just that how Brazilians get to know strangers is profoundly different to how Brits do it. For many Brits there is an expectation that small talk, although often a nusiance, is an essential part of social interaction. For example, weddings. There are always a few tables at British reception dinners made up of a handful of odds and ends friends and relatives who have to sit next to each other. By the end of the meal, Mr.X has discovered he shares a passion for tiddly-winks much like Ms. Y sitting next to him and Mr. Z has learned that he shares an office with one of Mrs.A's old school friends. etc. etc.

In Brazil, the situation is wholly different. At a wedding, all the family and kids would all come along and there wouldn't be set places so there would never be this need to confront people anyone didn't know. What I've noticed (by often being on the receiving end as a stranger in various settings myself) is that to get to know Brazilians you have to approach them in much the same way as Donnie Brasco did the mafia. Just keep showing up with people who can vouch that you're "safe" and after some time you'll be absorbed into the group and find yourselves doing the same things as everyone else. Equally, its possible you could hang around some Brazilians for a long time and never learn any details about their lives - you just happen to have a few shared experiences together. I have this sort of relationship with some of Rachel's friends - I'm definitely part of the gang on account of being married into the Barlow clan and a handful of them are even my facebook friends, but none of us have actually had anything like a conversation. Small talk has been absent.

Why do I mention this now? Last Saturday we went to a birthday party for a kid from Nelson's school. The usual candidates were there - Nelson's best pal Rafa and her Mum and one or two others that Rach has gotten to know. To my delight, I found that one of my ex-students, a lawyer was there with her husband. And then, one of her friends, also an ex-student turned up. They eye-balled me suspiciously for a while to the point where it was just getting embarrassing for me and for them so I crossed the balloon-infested floor to do "small talk". After some stiff handshakes and kisses they asked me how I was and what I was doing there. I explained my presence at this festa on a Saturday night and pointed out Rachel, Gloria and Nelson strewn around the corners of the room. My two friends/aquaintances shot me a quick glance as if to say "why are you telling us this? We won't be introducing you to our families". So, I quickly changed the subject to the weather or travel or something and moved on. We never spoke again all evening. Small talk was absent, and I have to say I missed it.

Things I love about Brazil # 69: live music. On Friday afternoon I took Nelson on an adventure. We recruited Tio Dyego and made our way onto the UFRN campus for the Sciene Week fair. Now, thoroughly accustomed to the fact that any Brazilian event doesn't have to do what it says on the tin, I wasn't sure what to expect and I thought it might be lucky if we saw anything sciene-related. As it happens, they were starting to take down some of the stalls as it was the end of the week but I, and Nelson, did get to see some cool stuff. I found out one interesting fact: UFRN (the State university of Rio Grande do Norte) had about 8,000 students in 1970, about 9,500 students in 1998 and now has nearly 30,000 - a testament to both how little education was prioritised until relatively recently (this stems from the colonial legacy - unlike the British, the Portuguese were not interested in educating their subjects) and also how much the government sees tertiary education as the key to Brazil's future as a competitive developing nation.

Most perplexing though, was how the sciene fair was dominated by two large stages for Rock concerts. Indeed, the evening performances by the acts on stage constituted the heart of the week´s events as the students themselves had been given the week off from studying to contribute to the whole hoopla. As for me, I was able to see, over a popcorn with Nels and Dyego, the start of a set from a pretty nifty campus band and it brought back fond memories of propping up dingy bars in York catching the latest wannabe act. In the end, as was the case with the local elections a few weeks ago and also with a recent Catholic procession that practically rearranged the paving stones outside the language school thanks to a bass drum, academia, debate, religion and a serious consideration of the facts very quickly give way to a party atmosphere where he who plays loudest wins. If heaven is a place where Brits will provide the hymn-writers, Americans will supply the electric guitars and Africans will be the singers then without a doubt we can expect the Brazilians to provide the walls of speakers on wheels.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some final firsts: Obama, the economy and the Tampa Bay Rays. Last Wednesday I sat down and watched most of the final presidential election debate, a first for me. It was rivetting stuff and I found myself watching more of that than Brazil`s World Cup qualifier against Colombia which was on at the same time. Politics ahead of football? Another first for me. For me I thought Obama won hands down - he gave reasoned responses, appeared calm and in control and on top of his subject matter, was magnanimous but firm and presented his policy ideas with clarity. McCain appeared blustery and resorted to the rhetoric of fighting and conquering and often opted for listing ideas rather than providing a rounded policy package. Perhaps, McCain needed this as the polls show him losing - his approach was throw mud and the kitchen sink at a wall to see what sticks. I guess both styles of communication appeal to different sections of the populace but I was left more convinced than before of Obama`s credentials of being president. The CNN tracker of undecided voters responses to the speech as it was happening suggested so as well. I, for one, would vote for Obama - I have far more in common with his outlook than not - and I think the appointment of an African American to the presidency pours healing oil on a lot of America`s own history as well as it`s relations with the world outside it`s borders. Most Brazilians agree, although some folks here have voiced their concern that Obama may become an assissination target if he were to be elected.

If, as seems likely, Obama does become the first black president of the USA he has the enormous burden of a crumbling economy to sort out. In small ways news is trickling through to us here of how the credit crunch is affecting people we know across the globe. Brazil has remained relatively immune so far, a product, says Rachel`s Dad, of a history of huge monetary upheavels in the past and dictatorships freezing savings accounts. In other words, its nothing Brazilians haven`t seen before and they were never too keen on filing their money away in savings accounts or pensions for a rainy day only for somebody else to help themselves. Furthermore, Lula`s workers party, despite attracting investors and opening up markets, still have more clout to reign in their own market it seems. Certainly, the Brazilian banking system is not nearly so ubiquitous in the lives of its citizens as it is in the UK or the USA. That said, this week we had lunch at one of our favourite little restaurants called Sal da Terra. The proprietor and his family are friends of ours and attend our church group. He told me some of his larger suppliers who are linked into foreign markets are feeling the pinch and are starting to raise prices. The chain reaction impacts him , of course, leaving him a tricky choice of hiking the cost of the dishes on his menu or cutting costs elsewhere. So, this is the first direct example I`ve seen of the economic crisis affecting Natalenses.

There`s been a few firsts in sport recently too. Andy Murray won his first Master Series final, well done to him. Lewis Hamilton just needs to finish higher than 5th in the Brazilian Grand Prix next weekend to claim his first F1 World Championship. The Tampa Bay Rays are in their first World Series. The team, which is only 12 years old, are largely responsible for my interest in baseball. I watched them several times back in 1998 when I was living in Florida. Back then, they were dire and could only fill their stadium by a third so it was a case of watching them play more prestigious teams like the New York Yankees (in the same way that if you were a Derby County fan you would try and get along to watch them play Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal). Now, Tropicana field is packed and they stand a good chance of taking the game`s biggest prize. I'll be sure to tune into the first game of the World Series tonight. I`ve even twisted Rachel`s arm to watch the first innings with me so I feel like I have somebody to be excited with about all this. Go Rays!

And thereby concludes my posts about firsts...

Monday, October 20, 2008

The third first: Our first visit to the Bull festival (festa do boi). The annual bull festival has been in session this week in Panamarim, a small town nearby which doubles as Natal's southerly suburb. We took the kids along on Friday afternoon and a great time. "Bull" festival is an apt name as their are cows everywhere including some MASSIVE horned beasts who look like they share their genetic makeup with rhinos, bison or mammoths rather than their bovine counterparts.

All this was basically an excuse to see what Brazilian cowboys do. There was cattle auctions and best breed competitions and displays from the major suppliers of compost, cow urine, vegetables, fish, beef, cowboy hats, farm machinery and tractors. The last was of particular interest to Nelson, and perhaps surprisingly Gloria, who both happily passed 15 minutes sitting on a new Massey Ferguson pretending to tend their crops. As was the case at the Brazil shows Brazil fair I mentioned a few months ago, there was plenty that was not strictly relevant to the occasion's billing - noticably, swimming pools for sale and fake Nike baseball caps. They had a fairground too which Nelson loved despite the very real lack of health and safety procedures on most of the rides. For me, even more interesting than the astonishing smells and tastes accompanying the bevvy of snacks that were being roasted, fried and boiled everywhere, was just the chance to see Brazilians from the interior - real Potiguar folk, generally smaller and with darker skin - in their element displaying their cattle and wares proudly.

NOT QUITE A FIRST: The musical soundtrack to the north-east interior of Brazil is forró music - which features a heavy dose of accordians. The general consensus is that the old forró stuff is excellent but the new bands are very brega (cheesey). Playing after the bull festival on the Friday night were the forró outfit Deseja de menina, one of the brega-ist around. These were the guys who remade Robbie Williams' Angels as I mentioned (with a link to the video) back in May on this post. I would have given my right arm to go to this - just once to see a full-on cheesey forró show. But, sadly, I needed to keep my right arm so it wasn't to be. Next year, maybe.

On the subject of cheesey forró I recommend the following delight. I mentioned back here that James Blunt has become extraordinarily popular after his song Same Mistake was used as the theme team to a Globo TV soap opera. Well, the airwaves are still clogged with Mr.Blunt's warbles and his song has also been given the forró make-over by the most famous of contemporary forró acts, Aviões do Forro (Airplanes of Forró). Their version is better, in my opinion. Click here to be entertained and amused. And this is also funny - a forró remix of the same song but keeping James' voice.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The second first: Nelson's first cinema experience. I was not wholly convinced when Rachel piped up on Wednesday with the idea of the whole family, her folks included, piling along to the cinema on teacher's day holiday. I expected Gloria to cry all the way through and Nelson to get bored after ten minutes. But, in the end it seemed like a good idea, as we were going to watch the animated feature Fly me to the moon and internet reviews said it was pretty dreadful so I figured if we had to leave early we wouldn't really be missing out. In the end, Nelson - and Gloria for that matter - sat transfixed through the whole thing. The lad was visibly upset when the credits rolled and the lights went up: "Quero mais, Daddy. Quero mais!".

AMUSING MOMENT: Nelson sees the spaceship shed its rockets in space and in a voice loud enough for the whole cinema to hear declares: "Olhe! Quebrou ess... quebrou!" (Look! It broke. It broke!)

All in all then, a successful first...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A few firsts...

The first first: My first visit to INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais). Thanks to one of the teacher's at the language school who organised it, I took 4 students on a field trip (well, a 20 minute walk) onto the campus of UFRN (Universidade Federal Rio Grande do Norte) where INPE have a base. INPE is to Brazil what NASA is to America, except on a much smaller scale.

I learned a whole lot from the hour-long presentation, given by a middle-aged, CPE-level, English-speaking engineer who went by the name of Alexandre Nowasad. Principally, I gathered some interesting insights into why a developing country like Brazil needs to be involved in the space race.

Brazil doesn't have it's own satellites but it shares a couple with the likes of China and the USA. They also have 10 offshore buoys (compare to the USA which has a whopping 300!) which measure depth, sea-temperature and weather patterns and Brazil has some fancy equipment at the South Pole amongst other places. INPE seem to have their fingers in a lot of pies, working with the likes of the the Brazilian Air force who launch INPE's satellite pieces, the private sector in testing materials and products in specialised conditions, with the Navy and also with various environmental agencies, governmental and non-governmental, as they try to map and account for the climate changes in the oceans and the amazon. The last point is crucial for Brazil. As our excellent host informed us, vast expanses of dense foliage still mask potential species of animals and plants and possibly some lost Indian tribes still in the jungle of Brazil's interior. Brazil's vastness makes it exceedingly difficult to govern efficiently - INPE are trying to help the country's elected officials have some idea about who and what they are officiating over. Also, given the controvesy in recent years concerning the destruction of the rainforest, Brazil needs to know what's going on inside its own borders for the benefit of future generations. As Alexandre succinctly put it: "We have to know whats in our own house if we want to protect it".

THE DUMMIES GUIDE TO INPE: As I'm no engineer or scientest I appreciate all the help I can get in understanding the intricacies of something like INPE. At one point Alexandre said: "Has anyone seen the film The Day After Tomorrow? Do you remember the satellitles, the buoys and the control room at the start of the film - basically, we do that for Brazil but on not such a big scale". Helpful.

A few more firsts tomorrow and through the week...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beetle: the backwards Good Luck car? The side-panel reads... FOR ARE YOU sun a day is overfiown with warm the Memory will stop here to savor the sweet fragrance.
Amusing uses of English: Nelson's party present. Nelson had a party at school for Daniel, a buddy of his. As per usual he came home with a small box full of sweets. This time the box in question was a small metal car. On closer inspection I found it had been made in China and demonstrated some startling authentic examples of Engrish.

I recently wrote a big chunk on one of my other blogs about why the English language is funny - you have a read of that here, if interested.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Macaco Tião. Finishing in a respectable 3rd place in the 1996 Rio local elections.
Things I miss about England #33: Elections. Despite all the fun that surrounds an election in Brazil, I've became increasingly disillusioned (as I'm sure many Brazilians already have) with how the democratic process is carried out. Although British politics is by no means a model of how to organise power, my main objections with the Brazilian way are:

1. Candidates are not elected for real policies. The general rule of thumb is "say what you need to say to get in to power". Doesn't sound wholly unlike British politics but here there really is a license to say almost anything. In the local election here in Natal the third placed candidate promised to build a bridge from Natal to the island of Fernando de Naronha. Sounds like a good idea? Not when the bridge would have to be over 350 kms long!

2. When candidates do have real policies - their campaigns struggle to gain traction unless they flower them in populist rhetoric. One candidate from Recife, a Sr.Henry, and the preferred candidate of Rachel's brother and Dad proposed a solution to the problem of violence in Recife which is the worst in Brazil. Henry suggested bringing experts in from Colombia who had run a series of urban community projects working with young people that had produced astounding results there. So, why not in Recife? It sounded like a great idea, but as Rachel's brother told me, Henry rarely had the opportunity to talk about it and even when he did he opted for a fairly meaningless populist pitch as per the norm.

3. Debate is often avoided. Some Politicians prefer not to turn up to debates for fear of being made to look like idiots. This is what Lula did in the first round of presidential elections in the last presidential contest. As the big man of Brazilian politics the best way for him to maintain his popularity was not to say anything to anybody else. And, generally, it seems to me that electioneering at local level is all about noise, parties (the non-political kind) and music and not about a series of debates with other candidates as is (occasionally) the case back in the UK, or even door to door discussion with constituents. I recall on my first visit to Brazil seeing the national football team playing in Fortaleza. A politician standing for re-election had organised the occasion and used the match to do several laps of the crowd before the game started.

The harsh reality is all of this may stem from the lack of education among the numerically massive contingent of Brazil's poorest. Politicians want them on board and aren't losing sleep over a handful of university professors.

3. Nepotism and Corruption. As Pastor Neto, one of my students and a very important man in Natalense Evangelicalism, told me with respect to Christians involvement in Politics - the further you go into politics, the dirtier you become. In order to gain credibility Christian candidates have to form coalitions across the board and often end up palling up with some disreputables in the process. In his opinion, Christians should steer clear - an unfortunate conclusion when involvement in Politics would surely be a good thing. But, he has a point - how far can Christians meaningfully make a difference and keep their integrity? Probably, this is the question all Christians have to circle when they enter political life in any country.

Even so, nepotism and corruption is a frowned upon but generally an accepted part of the political process in Brazil. Rachel's brother was telling me that politicians who are not in office lobby for harder and stricter rules about who can work for an elected official (namely, not the guy's wife, kids, cousins and school chums) but, not surprisingly, as soon as those politicians are elected they forget their election pledges and appoint their next of kin to the treasury. A ticket to office is, as is the case across the globe in countless so-called democracies, a free lunch for the family, relatives and associates of whoever just got elected.

4. It's too noisy! Elections are just plainly a big din. After our busy weekend in JP we got back last Sunday and crashed into bed at 9.30pm. 25 minutes later and a cavalcade went by blaring music at top volume and setting off fireworks. I would have been annoyed if I wasn't just numb - this has happened so much in the last few weeks.

5. Candidates would rather vote for a monkey. This may seem funny or a collectors item in the history of democratic elections but in 1996 450,000 Cariocas (people from Rio) voted for Tiao, a monkey from the local zoo to become mayor. Tiao (pictured above) garnered 9.5% of the votes and came third, significantly way above many other human candidates. As a monkey is not allowed to vote or be voted for, all of the ballots were nullified. Tiao died a few years later, a famous hero in a famous city. Its all a good laugh, but it doesn't say a whole lot for the development of effective democratic processes in Brazil if people feel they can waste their votes in this way. We have our crazy candidates in the UK but none of them have got as far as an ape has in Brazil.
The Ney Lopes Jr Kombi. (Visible beneath the loudspeakers)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Children's Day. The frankly ridiculous idea of giving children their own day has caught on in Brazil and that day was today. Yesterday, we went to the mall and they had a small troup of actors doing a (tame) take on the 3 little pigs. The bad wolf was dressed as Elvis and played electric guitar. Today, we went to another mall where they had clowns and magic tricks - birds and bunnies coming out of hats, that sort of thing. Nelson endured it all admirably...

Anyway, on Friday, as part of something Rachel organised through the language school a few of us went and spent a couple of hours with 35 orphans at a home we've been involved with. It's a challenging group of kids but Rachel and I were pleased to see they had more amenities and generally looked in better health than when we'd first come. We delivered presents as donated by the parents of students of the language school and we played loud and silly games and generally had a good time. Pictures are here on flickr and are now circulating in the slideshow in the sidepanel over here >>>>. To round off Children's Day/Weekend, we held a small and intimate dedication service at our church group for Gloria. We'll do the same when my folks are here at Christmas and all the family are together. Despite my frequently grumblings, I suppose children are pretty cool...

Things I love about Brazil #74: Elections. Last Sunday saw the culmination of the local elections, held simultaneously across Brazil on the 5th of October. Natal got a new mayor in the process - Micarla, the daughter of a famous TV presenter. I chuckled this week as I saw a poster hanging in the language school written by one of the lower level classes. In an activity where the kids had to describe people I read: "George Bush is boring, short and old. Micarla is short, chubby and interesting". That about sums it up, I guess.

There's a lot of razzmatazz that accompanies an election and some of it can be a lot of fun for the innocent bystander. Unlike in the UK where the primary tool of the local campaigner is the poster in the window, the most essential piece of equipment for the Brazilian equivelent is a VW Kombi with a loudspeaker on the top (see pic). From there begin the festivities, music, parties, flags-waving and general hubhub that certainly help make life more colourful. Brazil is a young democracy and, to be fair, they certainly make participating in the electoral process seem a great deal more enjoyable than back in the UK. As voting is compulsory, its something people can't simply ignore... and so, for all of the above I salute the energetic Brazilian democratic system and toast its health for the future.

Tomorrow, the bad news...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Blog recess. Sorry for the delay in getting any "proper" posts on here. There's been lots going on and I've had a few writing engagements elsewhere so promise to get it back on track this week.

For now, if you're a fan of Premier League football. you might want to have a peak at a blog entry I wrote for on Brazilians in the Premiership. Click here for that.

Weekend away and adventures on the road. In part for Rach's birthday and in part for the chance to have a curry and a banter with some British blokes, we headed down to Joao Pessoa this last weekend. Rach got to see plenty of rellies all bearing gifts of chocolate cake and wotnot. Saturday evening was spent in the most excellent company of Andy Roberts, girlfriend Rosie and Marcus and Tamara Throup, Anglican missionaries to JP. As 3 British blokes of roughly equal age who like football and curry and are married to or dating Brazilians we all had a lot in common. The next day I was able to preach at the monthly English-speaking Anglican service. It was great to be singing songs in my mother tongue again and following the Anglican order of service was a treat; something I've missed from St.Mikes in York.

The weekend's major adventure came on the way back home. 2/3rds the way back to Natal and we stopped off at a petrol station to have a loo stop. We also changed drivers and Rachel sat down in the front seat only for the car to refuse her key and complete fail to ignite the ignition. Our spare key was in Natal, still some 45 minutes drive away, locked up in our apartment. Thankfully, my phone had 1 bar of battery so Rachel was able to make some calls. The people at the petrol station provided a number for a chaveiro (key guy) and it happened to be that he was driving past anyway (thank God!) and pulled up to see what he could do.

It transpired that our key had lost the coded chip which was unique to our vehicle - a security measure on Ford EcoSports cars. Amazingly, we found the chip on the ground outside - it had fallen out when I first stepped out the vehicle, but even after it was reinstalled the car still assumed we were robbers and refused to start up. The chappie got it working though and at a price too, but unfortunately we didn't have much cash with us with which to pay him. In the end, as the banks weren't taking Rachel's cards, we bought him petrol on credit at the gas station. Anyway, we made it home, and not too late - it could've been a lot worse and the two little ones behaved themselves very well considering. Also, how bad would this have been if we had stopped, as we often do, for a loo stop behind a bush in the middle of nowhere?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rach is 28 today! Here's a short history of my exceptionally wonderful wife. Click here to see.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I'm outta here... The Maclure clan have a packed few days ahead. Today, directly after my Saturday lesson, its off to the airport and on a plane and down to Recife to see our good pals Mariano and Babi and their kids Miguel and Sofia back from Seattle. Should be great fun!

Finlay Joel Byrne. Awesome news coming out of York this week - another Byrne! A brother to Gracie and a son to Danny and Caz. Congratulations you guys!

A fuller post coming soon...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Elections, Brazil-style. Across the nation in October local elections will be taking place in Brazil. Already, our streets have been filled with the cocophany of Brazilian election fever where the reigning philosophy on electioneering appears to be (literally) "he who makes the most noise wins". More about that later. Following the advice of Rachel`s cousin Hebinho I tuned into half an hour of party political broadcasts on a local channel recently. The point being that the comical value of what people have committed to film in order to pitch their angle is priceless. And, as in the UK national elections, democracy has opened the door to the world`s crackpots and fruitcakes to have a go at elected office. I`m sure the Monster Raving looney party would garner a massive following in Brazil if they were ever to set up an HQ here.

For now though, feast your eyes on this - a compilation of the `candidatos bizarros` running in this election in Brazil. I suggest watching until the end to see the icing on the cake - Moura, the fighter of corruption... Click here for the video.

Good weekend, busy week. All in all I can chalk this last weekend down to being one of the best in recent memory. Here`s some reasons why:

1. Spoke to Mum and Dad on Skype. Managed to get hold of them on Sunday as they were sweeping up and moving out of their home of the last 10 years in Chad. They will stay in the mission guest house as their replacements take over their old home. Mum and Dad will be out of Chad by the start of October for good and then it`s a countdown to their visit to see us in December. As ever, it was great to speak to them.
2. I did a little talk at church in Portuguese and it seemed to go OK.
3. Rach and I managed to have not one, not three, but TWO take-away film nights. We watched Batman Begins (accompanied by pizza) and A Mighty Heart (with a generous helping of noodles). The latter, a Michael Winterbottom film about Daniel Pearl the American journalist captured in Karachi in 2003, is somewhat harrowing. The former was good but not as good as the Dark Knight.
4. Arsenal won and are now top of the league and Liverpool, Chelsea and Man Utd all drew. This makes it a close to 5-star weekend football-wise.
5. REM guitarist Peter Buck had his stolen Rickenbecker guitar returned (hooray!). And, in further REM developments, one of my favourite blogs of all time - (a commentary on every REM song by creator Matthew Pepetua) - is finally reaching its glorious finale. As an exciting conclusion to us loyal fans and commenters on the blog, Michael Stipe himself has been answering fans questions about REM lyrics. One of my questions got answered on Saturday so that made my day!
6. A few DIY things got sorted - no thanks to me, I might add, as I am not Mr.Fixit - but largely thanks to Sr. Joaquim from Cultura and one of the porter`s in our apartment block.

Anyway, it`s back to work now and a busy week ahead. I thought I`d post something now in case I don`t get a chance over the next few days...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Things I miss about England #35: BOGOF. Whilst once again perusing the shelves of Nordestão today I was struck by how few promotions there were. Sure, they label their discounts on each aisle but it's usually a saving of a paltry 4 centavos or similar. Only occasionally can you find something with a reasonable mark down but generally they haven't got the hang of it - at least, not like Tesco buy one get one free. The closest I saw to this was buy 2 bottles of olives, get the second at 37c less. Wow. Cash back. I'm sure, but I couldn't be certain, the vendor of pirate DVDs on the corner of the street tried to sell me 1 for 3R and 3 for 10...

SPECIAL POST: Polticial correctness

I need to be careful what I say here as political correctness does have it's place. Fighting demeaning socially constructed-language and systems is a good thing. You don't get to hang around left-wing historians and political scientists at York University to not see some sense in standing up to oppression in various forms as it exists in society and in the world. (Thank you, Rachel, for buying me the film Cry Freedom for my birthday. I love the scene in this film where Steve Biko is in court and is asked by the judge, "Why do you call yourself black? Surely, you are more brown than black...". Biko replies: "And why do you call yourself white? Surely, you are more pink than white...").

Things I love about Brazil #33: non-PCness. BUT, and this is a huge but, Brazilians seem to have got it a whole lot more sorted in SOME respects than we do back home. Blair's Britain, the New Labour experiment, has left us with a straight-jacket, ironically created in the name of tolerance, which stifles effective dialogue and open and frank discussion in favour of layers upon layers of meaningless (John Piper would say cornerless) language all designed to tread softy softly through the 21st Century landscape of religion, class, gender and sexual orientation (my goodness there was a lot of metaphors in that last sentence). Do Indians in London prefer to be called "Ethnic minorities" or "Minority ethnics"? Is the term "disabled" un-PC even when a wheelchair-bound professor chooses the name for himself? Political correctness fire-fighters are shunted out to every corner of society to pour water on fires that don't exist. Its soul-destroying at times and often a hindrance to the education of genuinely curious people trying to ask important questions.

OK, enough about that. Let's talk about Brazil. Let me not say that Brazil has got it all correct. The Paralympics finished this week and with it Brazilian sports coverage of the Olympics in Beijing. Brazil is a country learning about its own identity and trying to understand the identity of other countries, even rivals if you will. Generally, the Chinese are seen to be something of an object of quiet ridicule - buck-teethed and slitty-eyed. The international furore (led by a blustering section of the British tabloid press) that surrounded the Spanish Basketball teams appearance in an advert making slanty eyes hardly caused a ripple here. The reason being that Brazilians saw nothing strange about that. In fact, I've seen worse here. One of the culprits was (the American no less!) Sports network ESPN. Their Brazilian presenters ceaselessly dug away at the Chinese with the fascination of a small boy poking a frog. Presenters were sent out to find strange Chinese food to try and then ridicule. Back in the Braizlian studio, a goofy cartoon Chinaman doll sat alongside the presenters throughout (see pic above). In the centre of this was was a bonefide Chinese-Brazilian reporter Alex Tseng (of whom the doll was a caricature, I believe), an out and out Paulista who, because of his heritage, had been given the task of covering the Olympics from live in Beijing. Often the butt of his colleagues jokes, he seemed strangely aloof of and often complicit in this borderline political incorrectness going on. So, Brazil is still learning how to approach the people of other nations, especially other continents. Brazilians, for example, have very little to say about Africa and what they do have to say is mainly how much they would want to avoid a country [sic] like that...

Whereas the professionals of ESPN should probably know better, up here in the north-east away form the big cities the average person's exposure to things from other countries is minimal. Brazil is so big, you have to travel thousands of miles to even get to the border of another country. Television coverage on the national stations of world affairs is not great either. I am, to many of my students, their primary contact with a place that is not Brazil. In Joao Pessoa for Rachel's Granny's 80th in June we saw this first hand. During the church service the local Presbyterian pastor welcomed all the family who had come from different parts of the world. He noticed Rachel's Uncle, originally from Taiwan. The pastor started to dig a hole: "Welcome everybody! Including people from as far away as Japan... I mean, China... I don't know. They're the same thing right!? No, wait. China has the Olympics.... er.... everyone watch the Olympics!"

But, and finally I arrive at it, my main point is this - Brazilians are happy to talk about all this and seem genuinely interested in acquiring new points of view with which to approach the world. I have had far more constructive discussions with my students on a wide variety of taboo or controversial subjects - Jesus, hell, gender equality, immigration, sexual orientation, regionalism, Catholicism, corruption, abortion, Western tourists, US foreign policy etc - than I did back in the UK. I distinctly remember (and will never forget) a "social" at the pub I had with my MA colleagues back in 2005 in York. It was to be a quiet night of jazz. Rachel came along too - and simply on account of being Christians (stupid and irrelevant) who had got married (an out-dated and oppressive institution) and were deciding to have children in a home where Rachel wanted to take time out to care for them (sexist!) while I worked (so 1950s!) we were almost ejected from our seats by a hoard of hostile, muttering lefties. The Brazilian youngsters I meet are so remarkably free of assumptions and preconceptions (or at least preconceptions they would stubbornly hold onto) that I honestly wonder how I'll ever survive back in the UK again. There is real liberty in being able to speak openly here and share your lifestyle choices, faith experiences and eccentric opinions, however quirky they may be. Nobody seems to want to hit you with sticks for having an alternative point of view. On the contrary, they'd like to sit you down with an acerola juice and hear you out…

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dave mistaken for a native shock! OK, I was at the mall last night with my good buddy Dyego. We were about to go and watch the new Morgan Freeman/Angelina Jolie film when I decided to nip over and get a Pretzel from Mr.Pretzels. We're frequent visitors to the finest (and only) pretzel-making establishment in Natal and perhaps because I was devoid of screaming children or Rachel, the guy serving didn't recognise me. Anyway, I placed my order and then he asked me: "Então, tem Mr. Pretzel lá no Portugal?"... Strange, I thought. It sounds like he's asking me if they have Mr.Pretzels in Portugal. How would I know that? I probably misheard. "Como?". Back came the question, followed by "Voce é do Portugal, não é?". "Am I from Portugal? No, I'm English!". He shrugged his shoulders and said he thought I spoke very good Portuguese but that my accent was European so he thought I was from Portugal. I almost hugged him and wanted to take a picture of the moment! So, I may not sound authentically Brazilian, but it seems as if my accent is slowly creeping out of the British Isles, traversing Europe and is now poised on the shores of Lisbon. How many more months, before my accent sounds authentically Brazilian! I pray for the day...

Things I miss about England #75: luxury cars (or how to get a Porsche to Natal). It was one of the first things I noticed about being back in the UK last summer. When Mum and Dad picked me up from the airport, Dad had parked next to a blue Aston Martin and by the time we got to London luxury cars were two a penny - in all shapes, colours and makes. For a guy, it just makes life more interesting if there are some interesting cars to look at...

In Natal, the major popular car manufacturers have outlets here - Toyota, Fiat, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, VW and Honda. All of there cars are either black, white or silver. You have to look back to some of the pre-90s bangers that still clutter the roads here to see a bit more variety - namely, in the form of Brazilian-built box cars or VW Beatles and Kombis. In the case of the latter two they are often painted in a variety of startling colours reflecting many years of replaced panels at dodgy back-street garages. There are of course buggys for riding on sand dunes - and it is said that Natal had a big factory for these a while ago. You see a lot of SUV and pick-up trucks too. According to the Cultura driver Natal has the highest proportion of new cars bought and pick-ups bought for anywhere in Brazil - a statement of the new wealth that this town has in recent years of economic prosperity. So, there is some variety of cars on the road, but not much. I suppose I don`t really care too much but I know it would make Nelson very happy if we had a few more interesting cars that looked a bit like racing cars.

So, what is there here? I once asked my students and they immediately named (while counting on the fingers of one hand) the luxury cars here in Natal. There`s a yellow hummer (owned by an American), a Porshe, a Chevrolet Firebird and a handful of Mercedes and BMWs. The fact that all my students knew where these cars were, who owned them and how many there were highlights the first problem of owning anything "out of the ordinary" here - you draw unnecessary attention to yourself in such a small city. And then there`s the roads - Natal`s only Porsche is owned by a man whose daughter goes to Nelson`s school. (I hope we get invited to her 2nd birthday party!). I saw her Dad driving up to the school recently and seeing his flat-as-a-pancake Porsche struggling with the potholes and sleeping policemen. And there`s the traffic. Being rear-ended or (instigating rear-ends) seems to be a regular part of life for most Natalense drivers - when most buses and trucks don`t pay much attention to the vehicles around them, hiding in a sportscar that probably rides below the view of bigger vehicles` mirrors (if they have them) can`t be a good idea. When I asked my students how a man would get a Porsche to Natal, I suggested the answer myself "Perhaps he had it driven from Rio?". They fell off their seats laughing. "Drive a Porsche to here from Rio!?!". The 3000kms trip, they clarified, would, thanks to the roads, absolutely tear the vehicle to shreds. They also thought that based on the crime-rates of cities that the Porsche would have to pass through, there would be nothing left but 4 rims, an axel and a brake light by the time the car rolled into Natal. In other words, the Porsche would need to be shipped by sea... an expensive and time-consuming venture in its own right. This is probably how the chappy in Natal did it - and it`s a valid question to ask if it was really worth it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sports bloopers. Brazil are still stuttering in their World Cup qualifying campaign - drawing 0-0 with Bolivia in Rio which is not on really. I was so bored I literally nodded off during the first half. For once, I can be proud to be a football fan of England after their 4-1 drubbing of Croatia last night... Other sports bloopers this week come from my students in their tests this week. Complete this sentence - "The person in charge of a football team is a c_______". Answers ranged from captain and coach (both correct) to the more surreal cheat (possible I suppose!) and champion (also possible). Or, "If you do a lot of exercise you will g___ f____". Get fit was the answer we wanted here, but one guy imaginately put great footballer whilst another put got fallen which is just a bit bizarre. Lastly, for the question "Mexican food is sometimes hot and s______" most students responded with the correct word spicey but one guy wrote strange. Well, if in his opinion Mexican food is strange, he deserves a mark.

Street Evangelism. On Saturday Rachel and I and the kids joined our little church group for a spot of street evangelism around the Ponta Negra tourist area. Now, street evangelism can be undertaken by Christians in ways ranging from the frankly bizarre to the downright offensive, so both Rachel and I were a little trepitious about what we were getting ourselves into. Brazilian Protestants, in part due to the freshness of relatively recent revivals and also because of a desire to distinguish themselves from traditional Catholics, have sometimes drawn hard battle lines between themselves and mainstream society. There`s nothing wrong with that - in fact, to an extent it`s quite biblical - but it can mean Christians can come across as mean-spiritied rather than loving. My fears were not wholly allayed when the pastor rang me on Friday to ask for my and Rachel`s shirt sizes - the idea being that all involved would have matching uniforms. I pictured a ragbag bunch of guitar-playing, bibles-poised-for-bashing, sandal-wearing, fixed-smile-sporting believers dressed to the hilt in lemon shell suits descending as one on unsuspecting tourists or joggers or coconut water vendors. In the end, and as is almost always the case with me where my fears are never fully realised, the whole thing passed without a fuss. It was quite fun and I`d do it again. Our shirts were very tasteful, we simply politely approached people to hand out flyers and spoke further with them if they were interested and had the time. In the end, we ended up at the quiet end of the beach away from the tourists, prostitutes, tarrot readers and had a sing-a-long and ate hot dogs. It was a good time - a time to bond as a group - and an important first step in publically displaying our faith in appropriate ways. I even felt a niggling feeling we could have done more - next time, let`s get up the busy end of the beach!

Adoption and Social Responsibility. Rachel and I are not considering adoption - at least, not yet - but Rachel saw an event publicised recently as a fundraiser for an organisation which works with orphans and sponsoring children and placing children for adoption. Generally, it is said that in terms of philanthropy and charity work Great Britain is far ahead of many countries in the world. This is due to our many years of wealth, our rich history of social action and mission work and also a sense of guilt following our carving up the world through our Empires. On the other hand, South Americans, to generalise massively, are focused on survival and aiding the family interest. Negatively, this exposes itself as corruption - the underming of communal values and laws or common goods for all and the neglect or marginalisation of the alien and the poor. Positively, it means an unswering commitment to the relationships of all generations within families - something lacking in contemporary Britain, in my opinion. Brazilians, however, of all South Americans (at least according to my friend Roberto from Chile`s MA) have the lowest levels of trust for each other outside the family. In other words, there`s no way I`m leaving a key with my neighbour when I`m away for the weekend because I don`t know if they`ll let themselves in and walk away with my DVD player. Even if I offered them my key, they would refuse it on the grounds that they may be accused by me even if they didn`t steal anything... you can see, I think, how this is different to the UK (although maybe this is changing for the worst back at home too!).

Knowing all this, Rachel and I weren`t sure what to expect when we rolled up last Sunday evening. Fundraisers are not so common here and we were expecting a low key affair. Not at all! The place the group rented was huge and was packed with well-to-do families emptying out their pockets for a good cause. It was a superbly run operation with clowns, presentations, slide-shows, oodles of cute children running about etc. We were really taken aback. Maybe, the next generation of wealthy Brazilians - of which there are many in Natal -are catching onto social responsibility. That, and Brazilians unswerving estimation (almost idolisation) of children, resulted, in this case, in an exhuberent outpouring of generosity.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Brazilian fruit juice company invents novel way to consume liquids.More examples of barmy English in my next post as I'll just have marked some student tests - huzzah!