Tag Archives: bahia

Take me home, Northeast Roads

Our English Immersion Camp at the Ilha do Tesouro was a grand success! We want to share two special items: first, a heart-warming video of our campers singing “Northeast Roads” (a version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” that we invented at camp); and second, some inspiring quotations from our camp evaluations.

The goal of our camp, ultimately, was to provide something that doesn’t exist in the sertão of Brazil: a full immersion experience in English. Our students were challenged to speak English the entire weekend; each one had a bracelet that could be taken away by another camper or teacher if the student were heard speaking Portuguese. (Needless to say, many bracelets were lost and gained again.) We are thrilled that many of our evaluations point to the importance of this immersion experience, as well as other benefits of the camp: motivation to study, learning new vocabulary, and good new friends.

“I would recommend this camp because there isn’t this kind of experience around here, and it’s really important if you want to learn English.”

“I know myself better. Now I know what I have to do to improve.”

“It couldn’t be better, I learned so many expressions I didn’t know yet. I spoke 90% in English and as I wanted to do a trip to the USA but I don’t have enough money, it was an exchange program in Sobradinho!”

“My English was automatic, even when I forgot that I should speak English, my mind was ready to speak.”

“I am only a beginner in English and this camp was very stimulating for me. I will definitely study with more motivation now.”

“I would definitely recommend the camp because it is an incredible opportunity to meet new people, improve my English, and develop various skills!”

“It is an opportunity to learn English while having fun.”

“This experience helped me a lot because it made me practice my English, which I had left to the side for a long time.”

“It was a great experience, aside from being an opportunity to grow intellectually, the camp transformed unknown people into good friends.”

Up next: a special Treasure Island fairy tale (nonfiction!)

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Happy São Jõao!

São Jõao, aka the June fesival, in Brazil – bonfires, lots of corn and corn-related foods, homemade liquors and tons of forró music and dancing (check out the news clip below at minute 2:20 for a demonstration by yours truly!) and even a type of square dance called quadrilha!  Think Brazilian Carnaval …for the country folks.

The northeastern tradition, celebrating the nativity of John the Baptist, draws from the european midsummer… although here in the Northeast the festival marks the beginning of winter (and when I say winter in the NE of Brazil think springtime weather in DC) and the end of the rainy season.  In the semi-arid climate of the interior, a little rain is cause for thanks and celebration indeed.  If you´d like to see where I was last year during this time and some examples of the quadrilhas, check out this short clip:

São Jõao is one of my favorite holidays of all time.  It unites the warm, happy people of the Northeast  and celebrates the culture of their region: a region often marginalized and discriminated against, despite its being what I think is the richest and most unique area in the country.  A lá Brazilian, we now have two weeks of vacation, to make the end of São Jõao a little less painful.

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Poor, Ugly, Uneducated?

Last month I took about a week to travel to Curitiba, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, and then to Foz do Iguaçu, in the same state on the border with Argentina and Paraguay. Accompanied by three other lovely ladies from the Fulbright ETA program, I relished the chance to see a bit of southern Brazil and reflect on my time thus far in the Northeast.

(One of my travel companions, Christina, has a blog about her experiences in São José do Rio Preto. She posted a fantastic three-part summary of our trip: Londrina and Curitiba, Puerto Iguazú, and Foz do Iguaçu.)

It was a week full of new sights, laughter, more rain than I’ve seen in three months, and a new stamp in my passport (hello, Argentina!), but for now what I want to talk about is the very real divide that exists between the north and south in Brazil. I was surprised, even at times shocked, by the strength of the stereotypes that exist between the regions.

To give you a quick idea, here is one of the first interactions I had with Curitibano (person from Curitiba).

Me: “I’m living in Petrolina.”

Him: “Where?”

Me: “Pernambuco.”

Him: “Oh, I’m sorry.”

In the course of just two days in Curitiba, I heard a number of variations on the following topics: Petrolina is an ugly city; Northeasterners are ugly and lazy and illiterate; the Northeast is sucking up all the money that the southern states generate.

Shocked by these first interactions, Cynthia (the ETA in Curitiba) and I decided to bring up the topic with her students in a more structured setting. In her conversation class, we asked the students about regional stereotypes in Brazil. To my relief, their opinions were nuanced, sophisticated, and intelligent: they recognized the stereotypes, explored why they existed, and recognized that in spite of the stereotypes, they didn’t actually know very much about the Northeast.

Encouraged by the success of this conversation class in Curitiba, I returned to Petrolina wanting to ask my students some of the same questions. Using a presentation that Cynthia had made about US stereotypes, I talked briefly about the preconceptions that Americans have about each other—for example, fast-talking New Yorkers, pot-smoking Californians and the concept of the “flyover states” in the middle of the country. Then I turned the question around to the students: what about Brazilian regional stereotypes?

Our conversation followed a similar vein as the class in Curitiba. My students recognized stereotypes that they had about other states in Brazil: people from the South are unfriendly and rich (and white—the issue of race deserves a whole new blog post); people from Rio are beautiful and spend their time partying and on the beach. (And what about the North and Center-West? Talk about “flyover states.”) They admitted that these stereotypes are unfair and often inaccurate generalizations. Yet even though some of the stereotypes about the southern regions are negative, the fact remains that the Southern and Southeastern lifestyles tend to be more admired—as just one example of many, virtually all news anchors on TV are light-skinned and have Rio or São Paulo accents.

Perhaps most interestingly, my students are also very aware of the stereotypes that exist about them, “nordestinos,” and expressed a kind of quiet frustration that they could be so prejudged when the experience of life here is so positive compared to the devastating image that the stereotypes paint.

I think I will inevitably keep having—and should keep bringing up—these kinds of conversations. Brazil is a huge country, and naturally regional rivalries and preconceptions exist just as they do in the United States. Now that I have some direct experience with this regionalism, I see it more clearly in the country’s politics: for example, the recent debate over a bill that would relax standards of forest protection in the Amazon, which President Dilma recently partially vetoed (the New York Times has been giving this topic significant coverage: start here and here). It’s fascinating to learn these ground-level politics by living them—particularly in a region that bears some of the worst stereotypes in the country.

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Brazil– Where Leisure Time is Productive

 One of the first things I learned in Brazil is that as a Fulbright Scholar and an American, my job is to represent not only myself, but also my country, my language, and my people.  As such, in everything we do, Chelsea and I are always working.  We travel, we work; we dance, we work; we go to the bank, we work; we eat, we work; and so on.  We have “official” teaching jobs here, which often do require a lot of work in the traditional sense, but we also spend a good amount of time doing, as some might say in the US, “nothing.”  While at first this bothered us, we have come to understand that even our leisure time here can be productive.

In Curaça, from left to right- Me, Tony, Tio, Maick and Chelsea

This weekend we were invited to the home of Maick Menezes, one of my students (and top Rugby players), who is going to live and labor for the next 18 months in New Jersey for a US-Brazilan import-export mango company.  Hopping on a bus headed to Curaça, in the state of Bahia the only directions we had were “Maick´s house,” and so we got slightly lost.  But all along the way people stopped to talk to us, ask where we were from and what our country is like, and then help us find our destination.  We get lost, we are working.

We backtracked to Irrigation Project 1 Curaça, where we were met by Maick´s cousin, Tom Tõem (Tony).  En route to the Project, traveling the best way to travel (three deep on the back of a motorcycle), we stopped for sweet agua de coco and to take pictures with a group of gentleman admirers who had never met Americans.  We drink coconut water, we are working.

Fresh green delicious cocos!

We were the last to arrive at Maick´s house, where we were met by 20 more of my students from the IF-Sertão Pernambucano. We drank our cerveja bem gelada,  really cold beer (in Brazil the quality of beer is measured by how cold it is—the colder the better), and everyone sat around saying all the words in English they knew.  We drink beer; we are working.

The project had a party that evening, with some 300 people from the surrounding areas of the interior of Bahia (the state where Curaça is located).  We danced forró  and pagodão, and represented our country.  We party, we are working.

Here in Brasil, our lesiure time is productive.

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Friendship and Hospitality, Brazilian Style

I had spent barely a day in Petrolina before Cara knocked on my door bright and early to whisk me away on a weekend trip to Pilar, Bahia, where we’d been invited to stay for the weekend. Pilar is the hometown of Ana Paula, the viticulture professor at the Instituto Federal – Zona Rural. As I said, I had quite literally just arrived in Petrolina. I barely knew Cara, let alone Ana Paula, let alone her entire family. Yet, as I was learning very quickly in Brazil, these things mattered very little.

We arrived in Pilar, a heat-baked small town laid out grid-fashion in the Bahian Sertão, just in time for lunch. Ana Paula’s mother gave me a couple kisses and hugs and handed me a plate, barely acknowledging that I still fumbled with fluency in Portuguese greetings. Bahian cooking is a miracle in transforming bland base ingredients into delicious and sustaining meals—beans, rice, and manioc flour (farofa) mutate into feijoada and pirão and vatapa.

Our first meal in Pilar: bode (goat) and pirão.

Something in Pilar made that verbal expression of hospitality, “make yourself at home,” which Brazilians translate into fica a vontade (do as you please), a reality. After initial greetings, the formalities that often remain when visiting the home of a friend—especially an aquaintance—disappeared. Rather than a polite investigation of my career goals or current occupation, dinner conversation was a banter about this and that as if we were all old friends. Writing teachers often advise us to “show rather than tell,” and just the same way, in Pilar I felt that the family got to know me through experiencing my presence rather than asking me to explain it.

We spent Sunday enjoying a "churrasco" (barbecue) with the family.

That first night, Cara and Ana Paula—the two people who were my closest links to the family—went to bed early. Our friend Rafaela and I were still awake, and Ana Paula’s brother asked us if we’d like to go out on the main street with him and two of the younger kids in the family. The lovely evening we spent chatting together amongst the other Pilar inhabitants showed me something that has been proven again and again during my time here so far: in the Northeast of Brazil, hospitality comes first, and details come later.

These kinds of encounters happen relatively frequently, and I think the reason why it still catches me off guard is because I am accustomed to such unreserved hospitality being something generally reserved for friends. Here, the order is almost reversed: hospitality is what invites the possibility for friendship.

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