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!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The cake. Can you guess who the four characters are perched on top of the icing?
Surprise party for Rachel's parents (nearly) works! For obvious reasons, I wasn't able to mention this last week, but Rachel was cooking up a surprise party for her parents 50th birthdays (both this year). The party, billed as a 100 party, was in Joao Pessoa and Rach did a great job of rounding everyone up. I was particularly pleased to see old pal Andy Roberts (and seriel plagariser of this blog for his own newsletters!) and his girlfriend Rose for the first time on Brazilian soil. Andy works down in Recife at the extraordinary church project to Brazil's poorest - the residents of a dump heap in Olinda. Ruth, who was here last month, had been doing short term work on the project in July along with a team of students from Newcastle.

Anyway, about the surprise party. This is a copy of some of what I wrote about it this week...

We managed to keep the party a surprise for Rachel's parents up unitl about half an hour before the party (the decoy was that it was a 1yr old party for Rachel's cousin Johnny - even Nelson was primed to repeat ad nauseum "festa de Johnny! festa de Johnny!). But, for the first time in their lives (or in the life of any Brazilian), Rachel's folks arrived EARLY for something and so we had to stall them. I called with the "we've forgotten nappies for Gloria" excuse to send them off to a pharmacy. But they foiled us again when Steve decided to drop off Celia at the party and go and look for nappies just by himself. So, on seeing a bunch of family and friends who would not normally be seen dead at a 1-yr-olds do walk in, she twigged.

Steve on the other hand was left in the dark and his surprise was genuine - only problem was the diversion worked too well. He couldn't find nappies! He ended up driving 4 miles out of town to a 24 hour supermarket and got back a lot later than expected... But when he did arrive he was carrying a huge toy for a 1 yr old and was bowled over by the surprise. As he said "I love surprise parties and tributes - but only for other people!".

The "miss marple" prize for opportunistic sleuthing goes to Rach on account of her overhearing her Dad call his ol school chum last Sunday to wish this guy happy birthday - Rach got hold of her Dad's mobile, searched the "calls made" list on the phone and copied the number down of this old aquaintance. Later, she called the chap explaining she was Steve's daughter and could he come along to the surprise party and bring some other back-in-the-day school chums. Some of them he hadn't seen since his teenage years. It was the highlight of the night and Steve couldn't honestly believe they were there.

Things I love about Brazil no.94: hearses. Yesterday we drove past an undertakers shop (do undertakers have shops?) which was amusingly and perhaps appropriately-named "After-life funeral directors". It reminded me what we had seen on coming back into town from our road trip to Joao Pessoa - a long procession of slow-moving cars with their emergency lights on snaking their way through the city of Natal on their way to a burial. At the head of the long line of cars was the hearse. But, I honestly didn't recognise it as such until we stopped next to it at a set of traffic lights. What would you expect a hearse to look like? Back in the UK and Ì'm pretty sure in the States (and I imagine several other countries) a hearse is normally black. Sometimes the coffin is on display behind large glass windows for all to see. Not in Brazil, or at least not on this day. The hearse was a VW Kombi, completely white (except for half a dozen stickers advertising Sao Francisco Funeral Directors) and 4 orange lights flashing out from up on the roof rack. No windows. The image that came to my mind was of a 1970s hippy ambulance. Or, perhaps of a remodelled and retinted A-team van. If it wasn't for the stickers on the side, I honestly could have assumed the drivers were some kind of emergency decorators and the contents in the back of the van were tins of paint.

Things I miss about England no. something-or-other. I don't seem to be missing anything from the UK this week so I'll have to write this later...