from Sandy Needham

Monday, September 18, 2006

Brazil Dispatch 2

September 18, 2006
Hello again -

We have been slowly-but-surely making our way around the city, the beaches northwest and southeast of Fortaleza, car dealerships, government offices and, at last, we are getting a bank account so that all may proceed.

Our initial scouting to the beaches southeast of Fortaleza resulted in finding some beautiful houses for sale at mostly affordable prices, but Newton thought the hour and fifteen minute drive too far away from the city. We then looked at nearer towns in both directions and became discouraged over the sharp contrasts of elegant houses inside walls and garbage everywhere outside the walls. The little beach towns in which Europeans and wealthy Brazilians build these huge vacation houses are very poor, usually quite ugly, and offer little in the way of grocery stores and restaurants. Newton was not fond of the beaches themselves, either. We decided the initial trade-off of being a little further from the city was the best option, so we went back to the southern points we had seen earlier, and continue to look for the right house there. The place we like most - Morro Branco - is not immune to garbage and bad roads and a typical little town, but the beach is astoundingly beautiful and the neighborhood of houses very nice. We've looked the whole weekend, and, so far, have many to choose from, none of them clearly the best choice! We have to do a spread sheet and see if a decision emerges.

In the meantime, we see many sharp contrasts in this burgeoning place. It is the poor Northeast of Brazil - even poorer than other parts - and yet is a growing city of 2 million with tourists and residents from all over Europe (most are Portuguese and Italians). We encounter cows on the highway returning from a fabulous Italian dinner, or we get stuck in rush hour traffic alongside a donkey cart! Usually one to love a mix, I sometimes have to remind myself that if everything were too pristine, I'd hate it! For me the issue is always visual, and this does not require luxury, just less garbage and the relentless writing on walls. This does not refer to the graffiti, which is often there, as well, but to the habit of using exterior walls to advertise and explain everything. It is particularly intense right now because Brazil has a presidential election coming up in October. Instead of the modest placards we know, entire walls around houses are hugely painted with candidates' names. (We expect Lula will be re-elected. Despite all the corruption in his party, he finally doing something for the poor here.) All of this is alongside the turquoise Atlantic, breathtaking with a completely uninterrupted horizon - no rocks or islands. We find the same contrasts regarding sound, or noise in many cases. The ocean sound is just my favorite; there was live samba - not too loud - last night earlier at the barraca across the street (this are what you call the beach restaurants, pronounced 'bahaka'), which stays open past six on Thursdays for live music till 3:30 am. We tend to close up the window and turn on the AC as these occasions proceed into the night - never low volume samba after 10 pm. There are the ubiquitous TV screens in so many places, as is common in the US now, too, but the VOLUME is often unbearable. We actually found a gorgeous, chic Japanese restaurant with a huge flat screen on the wall playing music videos, but could not eat there because the volume hurt the ears. Luckily, our hotel plays very soft jazz at breakfast and has a TV going only in the lobby.
Speaking of the barraca across the street, called Crocobeach, we spent most of Brazilian Independence Day there last week. It was teeming with people in all sections, and we were amazed at the efficiency of the operation. Granted, having dozens of employees with the cheap labor here helps, but the organization of the place is just unbelievable. We had amazing grilled shrimp, always very cold beer, good service the whole time, then after a rest, went back for dinner. The beach area had been completely cleaned up after the hundreds of people hanging out there all day. Everyone was in the covered area in the front - also hundreds of people. We actually couldn't find a place to sit down, but spotted an extra plastic table from the beach section sitting around. We found 2 free chairs and reduced the waiters' traffic area to a mere fraction of its former self. Brazilians usually face this space impediment without the least objection: as long as they can squeeze through, they consider it all fine (more later on this idea when I discuss driving here). The music was actually not too loud and included a sort of rock violin that was beautiful. We had more shrimp! There is no dance floor, but soon the place looked like one huge dance floor, with hundreds of people dancing beside their tables, and no tables visible anymore. We do love the spectacle! The next morning when I looked out our window, there was one guy left sweeping up the last small trace of garbage by the curb. This is not one of the places with the garbage problem! We just had to ask our waiter the next time we went to Crocobeach how many bottles of beer they sold on Independence Day (these are tall bottles in styrofoam holders that you pour into small glasses). He said they sold 2,400 bottles that day! This does not include the soda, caipirinhas (the national drink) or other cocktails, bottles of scotch, or mineral water - to give you an idea of the numbers they were serving so efficiently.

OK, about the driving. I have never been amused driving in Brazil; just call me a chicken - not to be confused with the drivers who pass on two-lane highways with insufficient space and actually play 'chicken' with the oncoming car. The particular feature around here in the city that keeps me ready to jump in my shotgun seat is the tendency of vehicles and pedestrians to plow ahead from the side streets or the curb into the oncoming traffic. Pedestrians not only prefer the street, but tend to step a little further into your path as you approach. The guy on the bike or the motorcycle waiting by the curb has his foot out so far into the street, I'm just sure we're going to run over his toes. Now if there is room to swerve left slightly and make room - OK - but the streets are narrow, the bus drivers are wild, and there is rarely space to move over at all. Drivers come full speed at the side streets, stopping only when their noses are in your path and they see they can't go right now. I am always squirming to the left in my seat, hoping to save my right side. On the highway, besides the 'chicken' players, you get swerving bicycles which are invisible at dusk, and the inevitable driver who, on four-lane roads, loves to hug that center line (we call them ‘straddlers’) just when you thought it was safe to pass. One such pick-up truck we followed was filled with furniture and 9 people in the back, two of whom were just sitting on a sofa as if in a living room! The corollary to all of this: dogs and cats likewise move into the path of your car in the road if they move at all. Luckily, Newton knows how to drive here, and I'm counting on a personal lack of velocity to make driving possible for myself here eventually.

I was speaking with the woman at the hotel front desk, who said she has a daughter in kindergarten. I told her I just stopped working at a little school after many years, and just adored the children. At that moment, Newton came up and started talking with her, and the clock, which I had never noticed, struck one with the sound of a bird call. It was exactly like the clocks in the second grade and the 5th/6th/7th grade classrooms at Blue Rock School, where different birds are represented at each hour and chirp according to type. I was overwhelmed with emotion and teared right up, knowing that exactly at noon in NY - that moment - I would have been taking a grade for their lunch story, the best part of my job there. I expect, now that I am not crazy with pressures, I will find all the emotions that have been on hold while I left my life in Nyack behind.

The only reasonable thing to do during this move is to feel gratitude for the opportunity to "be sure" of very little!

So, this is too long, but I'll end with a list of what we love and what we don't here:

-Plastic bags that get stuck in the weeds in vacant lots
-Streets on which you cannot get to the other side because, even if you go around the block, there is a barrier down the middle
-Waiters made to wear costumes (safari outfits, 'cowboy' hats and kerchiefs) - embarrassing for everyone
-Afternoon strong wind at the beach - they say worst in August and September
-Two different musics blasting at once
-Children used for begging at stop lights with a fake, pathetic look on their faces (that goes back to normal when the light changes)
-Bad evening soap operas on TV (perhaps responsible for the previous item?)

-Temperatures between 75 and 85
-VERY cold beer
-The friendly, helpful people
-Beer that tastes great, but doesn't fill you up
-The turquoise ocean and almost-white sand
-Beer that doesn't make you drunk
-Good food everywhere - not expensive
-Beer that doesn't make you gain weight
-A huge blue, blue sky without any clouds

More later!


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