Sunday, August 31, 2008

Second semester begins

In August, I entered the second half of my research experience with plenty of work ahead of me. In my final 3 1/2 months I'll be busy with classes, interviews, readings, volunteer work, hosting out-of-town guests, and a Portuguese classes on the side.

But one of the things keeping me pretty stress-free in Uruguay is the wonderful "rambla" (waterfront promenade), where the Uruguayans and I go to unwind. Now that the days are longer and the cold isn't quite as bitter, the city seems to be coming out of its hibernation, and the rambla is starting to have a lively buzz, as you can see below. 

And after about 6 months in my current apartment I'm continuing to be charmed by the neighborhood I live in, Pocitos. Nowadays it is one of Montevideo's high-rent areas, but historically is was one of the neighborhoods where all swaths of Uruguay's large and dominant middle class could live (from the milkman to the doctor, according to some friendly octogenarian neighbors). Pocitos is dotted with gorgeous homes from the early 1900's that suggest obvious wealth (the fact that they have garages is one clue, given their age), but are modest in size and not overstated, compared to the palaces found in Buenos Aires.

I began to notice that one of the things many of the most beautiful homes had in common was a plaque reading "Bello y Reborati." After a little research I found out they were the city's most famous and prolific team of architects in the early 1900's, building dozens and dozens of homes that look like little Italian villas adapted to an urban setting. Here's an example below.

And one of the highlights of August was a visit from three of my good friends from Curitiba in Brazil. I hadn't seen them since São Paulo in May, and I am looking forward to spending a little more time with them next summer in Brazil. Here's a picture of Italo explaining viticulture to Osvaldo during a visit to Bouzá, one of Uruguay's best-known wineries.

The Brazilians had a great trip, but did not become huge fans of Uruguay's acidic Tannat wine or Montevideo's nightlife. The highlight of the trip was definitely the leisurely Saturday we spent in the Old City, where the weekly antiques fair was buzzing and where there was plenty of meat to be eaten at the Mercado del Puerto. Here's a picture of antique's fair, and the vintage car and bus in the background are kitschy enough they look like they should be for sale too. 

And the last few pictures are of a quick weekend trip I took with a friend to the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, right across the border from Uruguay. The state in the far south is somewhat similar to the "Wild West" of the US, populated late in the colonial game by rugged ranchers who created a thriving cattle industry. I've been very interesting in the state for a while now due to its progressive politics (participatory budgeting and same-sex civil unions) and its extraordinarily high per-capita rate of supermodels.

Here I am with Facundo and the statue of the Laçador -  a symbol of the rugged and independent "gaucho" spirit of Rio Grande do Sul. Nowadays, residents of the state are called "gauchos" due to this heritage.

Rio Grande do Sul stands out in Brazil for its remarkably high literacy rates and more equal distribution of wealth. In this sense, it resembles Uruguay in many ways (but also due to the ubiquitous consumption of maté in both places). But one difference is that Rio Grande do Sul was blessed with a much more stunning and varied landscape then Uruguay. Here's an example of of of the state's natural attractions, the Cascata do Caracol.

And last, here I am in the town of Gramado, in the mountains of Rio Grande do Sul, which proudly and perhaps flamboyantly shows off its Alpine heritage. Our visit coincided (and not coincidentally) with the town's annual Film Festival, described by many as Brazil's Sundance. We had a blast joining in among the star-struck Brazilians who were screaming alongside the red carpet at the festival's closing ceremony.

Celebrity sightings included the Barbara Borges, Leandra Leal, and Daniel de Oliveira (who inspired particularly loud and high-pitched screams by the teenage girls standing next to me).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sorrindo na Bahia

No matter how far the dollar slid and no matter how many testy consulate officials I had to sweet-talk, I was hell bent on a trip to the state of Bahia in Brazil from the beginning of my stint in the Southern Cone. Indeed, the visa process was a real hassle (and this in "reciprocity" for the money and hassle caused to Brazilians when applying for visas to the US), and the dollar has not ceased to amaze me with its impressive gravitational force. But in the end it was fated as I got my visa and recovered from pneumonia just in time for the trip.

Bahia is home to Salvador, described by many as the beating heart of Brazilian culture. Bahia and its emigrants have given birth to so much of what makes Brazil famous, including samba and the martial art-cum-dance called capoeira. As an aspiring student of capoeira, this was an important pilgrimage for me, and one I hope to repeat at many stages in my life. Here I am at Salvador's classic "money shot" in the Pelourinho, the historic district and site of the Portuguese Empire's original capital in the Americas.

I was lucky enough to have my favorite cousin join me for the trip, the one I and all of Denver affectionately call Primo. He flew all the way from Mexico City, and despite his nightmarish stories in air travel I know he had the time of his life. Here we are with two of my newest and bestest friends - Rodrigo (in the Mexican hat - a gift from his old beach buddy Primo), and Osvaldo. They are both Salvador natives and showed us a great time around the city. I really hope to see them soon, ideally in the Carnaval block party of pop star Daniela Mercury.

Salvador was as beautiful as I imagined, but no Primo adventure is complete without a an idyllic island getaway. So we decided to take a mid-week trip getaway to Morro de Sao Paulo. Although the island is entirely touristy, we was very pleased to find that almost all of these tourists were Brazilian. Here is a picture of the beach where we stayed. The gentlemen farthest to the left are playing capoeira, and I had a blast joining in with them.

Here's another picture of my capoeira friends at sunset, and probably my favorite shot I took on the trip.

One thing I can't get enough of whenever I am in Brazil is the fruits. Umbu, acerola, graviola, and caja were some of my favorites. It's a nice change of pace from Uruguay, where apples, oranges, peaches, blueberries are equally un-exotic fruits are all my pesos will get me. Here is Primo sampling some of the local flavor.

Perhaps the only thing preventing the trip from being a complete fantasy cruise was the fact that Brazil has gotten extremely pricey! As my Fulbright counterparts in Brazil and my credit card statement will attest, the Brazilian currency is kicking butt, and living comfortably in safe areas in the big cities is more expensive than many places in the US. A magazine I bought was almost US$10 (a domestic one), and a Big Mac costs the equivalent of over US$5.00 (making the real overvalued by a whopping 33%, according to the Big Mac Index).

But, without a doubt, the currency could skyrocket and Brazil would still be soooooo worth it. And the friendly folks at the Brazilian consulate in Montevideo could get me to do just about anything for the new visa I'll need this coming summer (so I hope they're not reading this).