Wednesday, April 30, 2008

recife redux

For those of us who had not visited Brazil before, one factor kept jumping out in each city we visited: the number of tall office and apartment buildings in each of the cities. Approaching from the sea, Recife looks like a huge city. And it is -- with a population of over three million.

The city is known as the Venice of Brazil because of its canals. It reminded me more of St. Petersburg. The wide canals and eighteenth century buildings seem to be designed more for a tsar than a doge.

But we spent very little time in Recife. Instead, we took a taxi to Olinda, another UNESCO-funded restoration project just north of Recife. It is an old Portuguese colonial city with a magnificent view. The buildings have suffered great damage over the years -- including the main church: Igreja da Sé. The exterior is very plain -- in the same style you still see in small Portuguese villages.

The interior is not much more elaborate.

With the sole exception of the altar.

Olinda is beautiful. Green and historic.

What is not so green and beautiful is Recife's reputation as the center of Latin American child prostitution. What makes such a beautiful place a pedophile magnet? Poverty and little girls exist elsewhere. But, in other parts of the world, the community takes a greater interest in protecting its children. Not even the most radical advocates of legalized prostitution could condone this saddest of tragedies.

Next stop: Tenerife and Madeira. But I want to intersperse some other topics before we reach the islands.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the skinny on skin

There is no way to avoid the following topic when talking about Brazilians. Undoubtedly, this post will offend some of my readers. But it is what is. And to avoid cries of sexism, I will be an equal opportunity exploiter.

When it comes to recreational wear, Brazilians are far more interested in comfort than they are in modesty. We all know the cliché concerning the girl from Ipanema: "tall and tan and young and lovely." And much of that is true. Young Brazilians are some of the most attractive people in the world. And when they are around a pool, they can wear less than most Americans wear as underwear.

But the girl from Ipanema's mother and grandmother (and father and grandfather) get in on the act, as well. During the two weeks of this cruise, I was impressed with how men and women in their 60s and older were willing to wear only slightly more clothes than their grandchildren. And that was not merely at the pool. The same attire was de rigueur for the running track, as well. (Note the attire behind the dancing women.)

There is an old saw that when an American woman puts on a bathing suit, she sees her mother in the mirror. When an American man puts on a bathing suit, he sees a Greek god in the mirror. In Brazil, no one gives it a second thought.

The couple in the center of the photograph are two
of the Brazilians I got to know on this cruise. Truly delightful

For those Margaret Meadites who are quick to assume that the presence of flesh inoculates community members from lust, I offer my own armchair sociology. This is one of the funniest pictures I took on this cruise. These two Brazilian brothers and their friends were surreptitiously taking pictures of young women in their bathing suits. You see the result. Titillation appears to be a universal sport.

Of course, the irony is that the boys are doing nothing more than what the rest of us are doing.

I could not help comparing my experience in Brazil with my visits to Mexico. My Mexican friends would have been scandalized by the acres of wobbling flesh on the running track. We have all seen our share of odd swimwear in Mexico, but no self-respecting Mexican would be caught dead wandering through a shop in the equivalent of a shorty nightgown.

The two guys are not
Brazilian. They are both
Argentinian and members of the cruise staff.
The fellow on the right is a former actor.

The lesson in all this? I will leave that for you, dear readers. All I know is that the Brazilians appear to have a very healthy attitude about their bodies. Age is not something to be ashamed of. It simply is.

As for me, I continue to buy baggy clothing.

Monday, April 28, 2008

sin in salvador

Salvador de Bahia is one of the oldest cities in Brazil. The first thing a Brazilian will tell you is that the northern cities are not the same as the southern cities (like Rio) with about the same disapproving tone a Bostonian uses to talk about Montgomery.

Salvador has a far different feel. You can see its history everywhere. Old buildings abound. As do derelict buildings. Without UNESCO's assistance, Salvador's old town would look less like this --

And more like this --

Tropical conditions are not kind to man's edifices. Robert Frost said it well: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." In the tropics, "something" is heat, humidity, mold, and insects.

But there is something amiss with Salvador's soul, as well. In the midst of all the restored beauty, every resident is a hustler. Where Brazilians will regularly touch your arm during conversations, Salvadorans will grasp your arm and try to cajole money from you. Women in hooped dresses prowl the square seeking tourists to take their picture -- for money. Athletic young men perform capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance, on the public street while their colleagues chase down tourists and demand $10 for any tourist so bold as to take a picture.

The buildings and the history attract the tourists, but the sheer desperation of the street hustlers scare them away.

Having had enough of the constant barrage of requests for money, I decided to take an alternative route back to the ship. I should have noticed that I was now the only outsider milling amongst the crowd. I turned a street to get down a hill to the port, and found this fascinating street.

On the left of the street was a series of small metal-working shops, one which featured this pagan sculpture. Bahia's African roots are apparent in almost all of its art.

At the bottom of the hill, I encountered this interesting bit of graffiti. An artist had added handmade tiles to the piece.

While photographing one of the tiles, I heard a young woman's voice. I looked up to find a very soiled young woman leaning against the wall asking me to take her picture. I had learned the photograph=money lesson earlier in the day. When I declined, she demanded money because she was hungry. And I did not doubt that. My Salvation Army training is that when I encounter a need, I should attempt to meet it. As I handed her the equivalent of $30, another fellow rushed over to me as the woman started yelling. Another bystander motioned me to start walking and to put my camera away. I did. But as fast as I walked, the woman followed asking for -- more money, food, cigarette, alcohol (her full litany of English).

When I told the story to my American and Brazilian friends on board, they wanted to know if I was going to report her. For what? The city is filled with people doing exactly as she did. The sad thing is that the behavior will drive tourists away and the poverty cycle will be worse.

I loved the city, but I doubt I will return. And if asked, I would tell anyone the same thing. If you want to see a lovely colonial city, visit Recife and Olinda. Skip Salvador.

Next stop: Recife.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

rio by the sea-o

When Gaspar de Lemos sailed into Rio de Janeiro's harbor in 1502, he thought he had discovered the mouth of a large river. When I sailed into the same harbor 500 years later, I thought I had discovered a land without sun.

What is it with cloud cover in Brazil? It is their fall, but this is the tropics. There are views to be seen. I had to choose between Sugarloaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer -- due to time constraints in port. I chose the statue because the view is known around the world as being the very essence of Rio. After all, when we arrived, I could see it from my cabin's balcony. There might be no sun, but there would be a view. (You can barely see the statue on the top of the highest peak.)

After taking a tour bus, a train, an elevator, and walking several flights of stairs, I arrived at the following marvelous view of Rio.

Hardly what I had imagined while reading tour books in my hot tub in Salem.

OK, I thought. There must be some lemonade to be made here. Just as I turned around, some of the clouds parted and I was able to get this shot. A few of my fundamentalist friends will probably find it a bit disconcerting. You can find out why in Revelation.

There is something about inclement weather that makes tourists look even more like tourists. This is the English-speaking group. I wondered how the Brazilians would look on a day like this. But most of them were wisely in their beds.

I thought I would throw in a photograph of the train station at the top of the mountain. I like the curves and the green and yellow Brazil motif. The photograph interests me.

On our way back to the ship, we were scheduled to stop at the beach. We did. We may as well gave stopped at Coney Island. No self-respecting carioca was going to be at the beach on a day like this. (The fellow with the cast on his arm is one of our table mates.)

The only locals at the beach appeared to be these workmen --

And this lone man striking what had to be one of the most melancholy sights of the day.

When I got back to my cabin, the rain stopped. There was no parting of clouds, but when I walked out onto my cabin balcony, this was the sight that greeted me.

Well, I did get to see the statue and the city -- if not together.

Next stop: Salvador.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

flying down to rio

Or at least São Paulo.

Most vacations begin with what is now one of the most dreaded of all experiences -- a long airplane ride. I seriously thought of skipping the first day and a half of my journey to Brazil. After all, what can I say that has not been said recently about air travel?

Cramped seats. No food. Long layovers. It is certainly not what I remember of flying when I was young -- when everyone dressed in their Sunday best. Of course, only a small percentage of the population could afford to fly -- and then only as an occasional luxury. But we go on remembering a past that existed -- for the most part -- only in yellowing magazine ads.

I will admit that I still enjoy one of the pleasures of long-range flying. A number of the airline club rooms still retain showers -- the Delta lounge in Atlanta being one of the nicest.

Flying is now little more than penance to be paid for a fun vacation.

The São Paulo airport is like most any other international airport. But it seems small for a city that advertises itself as the second largest city in the world. As we flew in, it was easy to imagine that the claim is correct. São Paulo literally spreads over hundreds of square miles.

But São Paulo was not the destination. It is inland and cruise ships have great difficulty on land. So, off we went on a two hour bus ride to the port city of Santos and our waiting ship.

Let me pause for a moment and give you a bit of overview -- because two facts are going to pop up recurringly in my tale of this two-week cruise. The first involves the passenger population. With the exception of two cruises, every cruise I have ever been on has had a majority population of Americans or Canadians. As a result, most cruises are about as exotic as a trip to Omaha or Calgary -- even if the ports are exotic. This cruise was different. At least 80% of the passengers were Brazilian or Portuguese -- and very few spoke English. Brazilian culture is not American/Canadian culture.

The second fact is that I had already met most of the Americans and Canadians on line through the Cruise Critic message board. Just as bloggers form communities, users of cruise message boards get to know one another up to a year before a cruise.

I knew I was in a new culture when the boarding process began. In Miami or Los Angeles, we all line up like northern European robots and wait our turns to board ships. The Brazilians see little need for this peculiar delay. (Those of us who have spent time in Mexico realize that the behavior is not limited to Brazil.) As a result, the line became three lines, then nine, then a scene resembling extras ion an Irwin Allen film. Later in the cruise, I asked one of my new Brazilian friends about the lack of forming lines. Her response was an engaging laugh. "Why line up when we are all going to end up in the same place?" I chuckled to myself because that was my response to why shove and push. It really is a matter of perspective.

But she was correct. We all got on board and were ensconced in our rooms for a quick nap.

On this trip, I was travelling with a friend from work, his wife, his sister, and her boyfriend. We headed to dinner to meet our dining mates from the cruise. It turned out, they were all travelling together, as well: a single woman from Maryland, her brother, his partner, and a retired work friend of hers. From the first night, we all hit it off. We were to be a very good trivia team.

Next stop: Rio de Janeiro.

education in the park

All my promises about posting about my vacation flew out the window for one very good reason -- it is April in Oregon and the sun is shining. So, I put my photographs away and headed out the door for an afternoon in the park with the dog. It is days like this that make me wonder why I would want to live anywhere else.

But it is days like this that also whet my appetite for travel and change. I ran into some neighbors and we started chatting about dogs. Somehow the topic turned to Mexico. It turns out that they have been spending their winters in Pátzcuaro for the past couple years. They like it so much that they have purchased property.

They helped confirmed most of what I have learned about Michoacán (a word I could not even begin to pronounce a few months ago). We are going to get together to compare more information.

So -- the walk was actually a nice break AND an opportunity to learn more about Mexico.

Now, I need to get back to getting future posts organized.

cruise with me

When Andee recruited me into the ranks of bloggers, I had no idea what a rich experience it would be. For two weeks in April, I was effectively out of touch with the blogs that I read on a daily basis. I felt like I had lost some of my closest friends. Not being able to post made me feel almost as lost.

I have tried to explain these feelings to my non-blogging friends. They just do not get it. This is truly a unique community.

For that reason, I am feeling a bit guilty about being back home for almost a week without posting anything substantive. I intend to spend a portion of the day putting together a summary of my trip -- starting later today. If you would like a preview, I posted a review on Cruise Critic earlier this week.

If any of you have any specific questions, let me know.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

home again

I am home. As a result of finishing up my travel laundry and having a full day at work, I have not yet had an opportunity to put any blog material together on my trip.

I had a great plan all mapped out. I took my iPaq and folding keyboard with me to keep an electronic travel journey. I was going to divide it into 14 installments of ready-made blog prose.

It turns out that it was a good idea I did not spend all the time to key in my meandering thoughts. Somewhere between Frankfurt and Portland, I lost my iPaq. I suspect it wanted to stay with the very fascinating TSA personnel in Denver, who decided they wanted to learn more about my possessions and me than any upstanding libertarian would allow.

So -- no ready prose. No presorted pictures. No two-week serial.

But later this week, I will reconstruct the trip -- even if this is not a cruise from (or in) Brazil site. Somehow, I will get it all back to Mexico.

To blatantly steal my good pal Juan Calypso's trademark closing: stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

teasing the waves

OK. I could not take it any more. I had to at least get some words on this blog.

The cruise is almost over. We sailed away from Tenerife this afternoon. It is easily one of my favorite islands.

Tomorrow we are in Madeira -- then Cadiz -- then Lisbon.

I have tales to tell and pictures to share. But not right now. These sea connections are slow -- and nearly as expensive as keeping Professor Jiggs in kibble.

For now, I will simply say that I miss publishing -- that I appreciate your comments over the past few days -- and I am enjoying these days in training for retirement.


Friday, April 04, 2008

sail away

My cruise is upon me. Off to Brazil, Span, and Portugal I go.
I thought I might be able to keep up my posts on the cruise. But the computers are too slow and the access price too high.

Putting all that aside, I will be on vacation -- and I do not need to add a checklist item to get in the way of my passive vegetation. I will keep a log, though -- one of those habits Andee taught me. Who knows, I just may see some interesting sights to share with you? Just like Wayne's new tell-all postings.

See you back here near the end of the month. More news to come,

Thursday, April 03, 2008

beyond the scopes of direct examination

My usual reading habit is to start a book and continue reading until I am done. That means I read most books in 2 or 3 days. As you know from my earlier posts in
evolving to mexico and in hot water with Clarence Darrow, I have been reading Edward L. Larson's Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion for the past three weeks. This has been a month of interruptions.

The book is not new. It was first published in 1997, and won a Pulitzer Prize. I picked up the book because I liked Professor Larson's most recent book: A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign.

Let me simply recommend the book. I realize I am treading on some very soft ground here. Blogs that deal with politics and religion have a tendency to attract a far more combative readership. However, Professor Larson does make some very interesting points. Let me share a few of them with you. If there is any interest, we can discuss them. Otherwise, we will simply follow the sage advice of Forrest Gump: "And that is all I'm going to say about that."

For those of you who would like a little refresher of the Scopes trial: in 1925, the Tennessee Legislature passed a law that forbade any state-funded educational institution in Tennessee to teach "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The popular myth, assisted by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, is that a young biology teacher named John Scopes stood up to the law and taught Darwin's evolutionary theory to his students. For his bravery, he was arrested, tried, and convicted in a trial where attorney, Clarence Darrow, destroyed the fundamentalist views of the prosecutor, former presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

Professor Larson puts the trial into its historical and context and explodes most of the myth, giving us a story that is far more interesting than the cartoon version most of us thought to be true.

  • The Scopes trial was a set-up. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised for a teacher to volunteer as a plaintiff. A local businessman met with the school board and convinced the town to find a volunteer to create such a show trial that visitors would come from all over -- and help the local economy.
  • Scopes was not a biology teacher. He was a math teacher and coach who substituted as a biology teacher. He was not even certain that he had taught evolution to any student in the few months before the trial was set up.
  • William Jennings Bryan supported antievolutionary laws, not because he thought science was factually wrong. He was concerned with the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the theory of evolution. His fear was that the theory would offer support to the forces of imperialism, militarism, and capitalism. After all, Bryan was a pacifist, progressive, reformer.
  • He also feared that any philosophy, such as evolution, that defined the world solely in material terms, would negate the very essence of faith. He could not reconcile the fact that parents could raise their children in one philosophy, and then have the philosophy undermined by mandatory public education.
  • Bryan's greatest fears, of course, came to pass with the rise of communism and fascism, both of which based their philosophical underpinnings on philosophical materialism, and frequently cited Darwin's theory in support of their social theories.
  • Being the populist he was, Bryan supported the right of the majority who paid taxes for public education should have the right to determine what is taught in schools, rather than elite scientists.
  • The ACLU, who paid for the defense, wanted the main defense to be academic freedom.
  • Clarence Darrow, who horned his way into the case, wanted to put all religion on trial by attacking fundamental Christianity.
  • Inherit the Wind was written as an allegory about McCarthyism, not about antievolution laws. The playwrights freely rewrote the historical record to fit their allegory. As a result, most Americans know the Scopes trial only through the play and the movie.
The book is a concise discussion of the cultural issues surrounding science, education, and religion in the early twentieth century, and the impact of that discussion on American society. Even after 80 years, Americans are as divided on this issue as they were then. Recent polls indicate that only 20% of the American public believes in evolution (not merely human evolution) without any divine intervention; 40% believe that evolution occurred, but with divine guidance; 40% believe in a strict reading of Genesis -- that God created the earth without an evolutionary process.

You can see now how Darrow, Bryan, and Scopes have managed to push me out of the rest of my life for the past three weeks.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

culture without air fare

The other day, Babs of Babsblog noted how con permiso seems to be a magic phrase in Mexico. Translated literally it simply means "with permission." But, when used, it almost always results in smiles and appreciation.

I told Babs that her posting reminded me of a similar experience in Barra de Navidad last December. One of the indigenous trinket merchants on the jetty walked by, nodded, and remarked that it was a slow day. Indeed, it was. The tourist rush had not yet started. There must have been no more than 8 or 10 people walking along the jetty. After he realized I was not in a buying mood, we sat down on a bench, and I tried conversing in my broken spanish.

He was very gracious adding certain words. He spoke no english. But we talked. And laughed. And enjoyed each other's company for about an hour. I lost track of time, and then noticed I had mere minutes to catch my bus.

I felt the same awkwardness everyone does when conversation is not coming to a natural end. Then I remembered. During a pause in the conversation, I started to rise and said: "¿Con permiso?" He looked a bit surprised and then beamed. In that moment, there were a lot of cultural dynamics at work. But they all came to rest on a common field of "Con permiso."

In Bab's blog, I wrote: "Those two words are as magic as 'open sesame.'" I am not certain it was the words that made the difference. I suspect it is a matter of attitude.

Last night, while walking the dog, I walked by a fellow who was reading a book by the light of a light outside of an office building. I have seen him there before, but I have literally avoided talking with him. For some reason, I stopped last night to ask him how what was reading. He invited me to sit down. He told me he was homeless. But I already knew that. But we talked about astronomy, the economy, hope. He was extremely interesting, and probably a little mentally ill. But we talked. And laughed. And enjoyed each other's company -- just like in Barra. When I got up to leave, he thanked me for stopping.

I have met several people who are heading to Mexico because they want to experience a different culture. There are plenty of cultures to enjoy wherever you find yourself. It is just a matter of slowing down, looking, and setting aside petty fears.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

dicksonian dues

One of my favorite bloggers is getting his due.

I doubt that there are many people who read this blog who do not recognize the name Michael Dickson. He has provided me with some very good advice as I start the final stages of my move to Mexico.

And now more people will learn about this Mexico Love Story: how he met and married Marta, who we all know, of course, as La Guapa Señora.

Read the story. But also visit Michael at: Tales of Zapata Street (Vol. III), Peeks at Mexico, Pearls of Zapata, La Vida Bougainvillea, and La Ciudad de México. Every one of them is a good read.

I guarantee you will be amazed, amused, engaged, outraged, and entertained. There are no spectators in a Dickson tale.

no foolin'

One simple warning. Believe nothing today. Trust no one.

We will be introduced to Lithuanian princesses attending local community colleges. Or reminded of the famous "first lady of Texas": Ima Hogg. Or shocked to discover that Madeline Albright is Brad Pitt's mother.

April Fool's Day is exactly like Wikipedia coming alive and living amongst us.

I just wonder which of our fellow bloggers will be the first to suck us into the undertow of wit and depravity?