Monday, March 4, 2013

Brazil: Week One

One week ago today, I arrived in South America for the first time.  I was worried that my flight from Boston was going to be cancelled or delayed from the snowstorm going on, but luckily it took off just fine through some heavy wet snow.  Boarding the connecting flight from Miami to São Paulo, it seemed as though I was the only gringo on the entire flight.  While on aboard but still at the gate, the woman a seat or two over from me was adjusting the air vent above her seat and asked me something about my air vent, which was right next to hers, in Portuguese, to which I had no idea what she said.  Then she turned to people sitting behind me and said something in Portuguese which I was able to kind of understand as something like "Great, of all the people on the plane, I'm sitting next to the only one that doesn't speak any Portuguese!" and they had a good laugh until I, feeling embarrassed, interrupted and said "Falo um pouco! (I speak a little!)"  I felt much better after I had a little bit of conversation in Portuguese with them and they said I spoke well.  Then after an in-flight vegetarian dinner at 2am somewhere over the Caribbean, I was able to get a couple of hours of low-quality plane sleep.

There is nothing like being incredibly exhausted for your first steps in a new country, yet that's how it usually seems to happen for me.  It's the fight against trying to observe everything and notice all the differences between what is new and what you are used to, and the need to just collapse your body and drop your eyelids.  When I made it to the hotel, I was very hot, sticky, sweaty and ready for a nap.

People nearly getting hit by the train in São Paulo
The Fulbright Orientation in São Paulo for all of the U.S. Student Fulbright Fellows doing study and research in Brazil was for 3 full days and a good mix of necessary information about the grant, living in Brazil and issues related to our research projects, and learning and seeing the city of São Paulo.  It was definitely a good way to ease the transition to living in Brazil, meet and make friends with some of the other fellows, and learn from and about them.  I realized I was one of the very few, perhaps only 3 or 4 of us out of about 29 fellows, that hadn't lived in Brazil before, and most of them had a lot of good advice about living here and what to expect.

I feel that maybe by starting off in São Paulo, I may have gotten a bit of a false impression of Brazil.  Brazil is a huge country and the culture varies greatly by region, perhaps even more so that the US, and probably unlike the rest of the country São Paulo is a huge, sprawling, very cosmopolitan (it's impossible to tell just by looking at someone whether they are a foreigner or not, because there are so many immigrants and different ethnicities represented), very modern, and very crowded (it has some of the worst traffic in the world, plus all the public transportation is overcrowded and people sprint to get seats in the train cars).  

Notice how nearly everyone is
beyond the yellow 'do not cross' line!
My Brazilian debut, playing on a open piano
 in the train station in São Paulo.
"So that it can continue to be good to our ears, let's be good to it.
Take care of your piano."
Now I've made it to Rio, where I have my academic affiliation with the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO), which is not to be confused with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) which is much larger, but part of it is located right next to UNIRIO, which makes things even more confusing.  I spent the first two days, which were very rainy and overcast (not the sunny Rio that I'd always seen on TV) trying to figure out some housing for the next month in what is a very expensive city.  Luckily, I'm very relieved that I've found a place, thanks to my contact at the university.  He told me he had a music student there who had an open room and I should contact her.  Her's was the first apartment I looked at, and I really liked it: in a safe neighborhood, close to buses and the metro, and pretty close to the university.  She lives this quiet apartment with her parents, one of which is a professional flute player in two orchestras in the city, and they are really nice people.  The only caveat is that it's a bit pricey, but I'm a frugal guy in other areas and I know that Rio is an expensive place to live, so I'm sure that I'll be able to save more money on rent later on in the year in the other cities after about a month or so of being here. 

The view from just outside my apartment:
Corcovado mountain and Christ the Redeemer at the top,
Botafogo Beach at the bottom.
I've become a lot more confident with my Portuguese, especially in understanding when people talk to me; it's amazing what just a week of practice can do!  And I must be blending in alright as a carioca (a native of Rio), because at the grocery store today an old lady decided to ask me if I knew the difference between these two different cartons of eggs.  They looked the same but one was more expensive than the other.  This being only my first time in a Brazilian grocery store, all I could think of to say was "As quantidades são iguais? (Is there the same amount in each?)"  Beyond that, I couldn't help, but was tickled that she asked.

The view from Botafogo beach.  I live in one of those building in the middle.
Right now I'm just taking some time to settle in and get used to Rio before beginning the work on my project with the El Sistema programs of Brazil.  The sense of time in Brazil is very different from the US: things are much more laid back and elongated, people are expected to be at least a half-hour late to informal meetings, and an expected 5-minute conversation could turn into 3 hours of chatting, so I'm not trying to rush anything now but just take it easy.  I'm trying to get some of these bureaucratic things out of the way right now (registering with the Federal Police, obtaining a CPF number, etc.) and hope to meet with the head of the graduate music program at UNIRIO later this week to get acquainted with things there and figure out how the university can help with my project.  Plus, I've got to check out the beach soon (it was 95 degrees out today)!

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