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.