Erik M. Spr 08

 I thought you might be interested in knowing about my experience so far in São Paulo, Brazil. On January 4, about 60 other students from U.S. universities and I arrived in Brazil to begin a semester of study. This semester, organized by CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), began with a month-long intensive language and culture period, which included Portuguese language and Brazilian culture classes and various cultural activities to introduce us to Brazil. During the week of February 4-8, we had no classes as the Brazilians celebrated Carneval and some, but not all, had vacation days. After these five weeks, 37 of the students headed to Salvador, Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, where they will spend the rest of the semester.

Before I describe some of the other aspects of the experience, I’d like to talk about my host family. My hosts include a mother in her late thirties, Virginia, and her 18-year-old son, Frederico. My host mom is separated, but I am not sure if she and her (former?) husband are divorced. She and Frede have an interesting relationship that sometimes seems to match what it actually is, that between a mother and her teenage son, and at other times seems more like a brother-sister relationship. What I mean by this is that, for example, at times she will call him to do something and he won’t respond. However, at other times, such as when they are watching a program on television at night, they will share a laugh, and just to be funny, he might give her a playful shove, initiating a friendly pillow fight between the two. The two of them have been very helpful to me: my host mother helped me with directions to a couple meeting places in the city for activities we had at the beginning of the semester, and if there is a problem with my computer, Frede is the guy from whom to ask help. These are only a couple of examples, and I could name more; of course, by providing a home (and my host mom washing my clothes each week and providing breakfast and dinner each day), they are doing more than I could ask.

The cultural activities we have had have included visits to a samba school (in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, samba schools compete in a parade each year during Carnaval); to the historical center of São Paulo; to a few museums (an Afro-Brazilian museum; Pinacoteca, a Brazilian art museum; and a Portuguese language museum); and to Parati, a town in Rio de Janeiro. At the samba school of Mocidade Alegre, we got to witness (and participate in) the enthusiasm of paulistanos as they danced the samba and sang the same song about 20 straight times. A couple of the themes that have come up in regard to Brazilian culture have been the question of race (in Brazil, there is great racial diversity and, while some would say racial harmony exists, discrimination, even if not widely discussed, influences the jobs people have, not to mention how each individual thinks and how people of different races treat each other) and that of tradition vs. progress. Another aspect of the culture, exemplified somewhat by Carnaval, is that of the combination (syncretism) between the Catholic and African religions and cultures in general. On one hand, people have an outwardly passionate way of expressing themselves, which I think comes from their African influence (think of the samba dance in Carnaval), but there is also the humility and, at times, seriousness that comes from their Catholic roots (Carnaval comes right before Lent). By the way, I did not attend the São Paulo parade (I waited too long to buy tickets), but I did visit a small town in São Paulo with some other students to see their Carnaval festivities.

Two cultural differences that I see in Brazil are that Brazilians are more affectionate and that the concept of time is much more loose. It is the custom between two females and between a female and male to kiss on the cheek when they see each other. As this is a custom, one may ask whether it is truly a sign of more affection or just a formality. I think it is true that to some extent it is simply a formality, but also I think that it reflects more affection. Also, just by carrying out this custom, I think Brazilians promote more affection in their society. As for the concept of time, when an activity is to start at 2:00, for example, it probably won’t start, or shows signs of starting, until about 2:15. I think that the American values of punctuality and structure in schedules can be good, but I also think that sometimes they result in drawing the focus away from the purpose of the activity and instead onto the schedule. The Brazilian laxness in regard to time can frustrate me at times, but I think it also reflects a greater appreciation for the present moment because often the reason that Brazilians begin or arrive at a scheduled activity late is that they are thoroughly enjoying what they are doing so that starting such an activity on the dot is not that important.

As for the language experience, as all of you know, I am not a very talkative person, so imagine what I am like when I don’t know how to speak the language! At the same time, even though I don’t speak that much, I do want to learn so have communicated with my family (usually my host mom) to practice. The people of São Paulo (to speak generally) are friendly, but there is the hustle and bustle of getting things done that I guess goes along with living in a city, so they may not always appear to care about the presence of people they don’t know (whether Brazilian or foreign). Also, even though São Paulo feels full of life, poverty makes life very difficult for many people, so the experience of people who have to do the same thing day in and day out is probably different from that of a visitor.

Well, in case you are still interested in hearing about what has gone on in São Paulo this semester (for many of you, school has already ended), here are some updates. The date of the first blog entry was April 11, so the weekend following that entry would be a good place to start. From April 11 to 13, the study abroad group visited Rio de Janeiro. Earlier in the semester, there had been a trip, put together by CIEE (the study abroad organization), to Parati, in the state of Rio, but this trip in April was to the city of Rio.

The morning of arrival, we visited some historical churches, guided by a professor in Rio who grew up in São Paulo and from whom CIEE had asked assistance. They had, in my opinion, excessive amounts of gold (there are probably others with very little gold, so this comment is based only on the churches that we visited). This amount of gold probably reflects the desire of those involved in the construction to make a place of worship perfect, so I can’t really judge, and I shouldn’t, anyway. After going to these churches, we visited the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), where some people still go to study or research but to which others go simply to see. After this morning of mostly academic focus- especially considering the insight that the Rio professor gave us-, we had some time to relax on the beach, if we so pleased. I think it was on that first day that I remember a number of vendors approaching of group of six to eight of us lying or sitting down on the sand. One vendor was trying to sell us a couple of beach-related paintings he had made; another, a couple of unusual-looking bottles, the purpose of which I don’t remember; one, “flowers” that he formed from the stalks of some plant (sorry, I know little about plants); and another, caipirinhas, the ingredients of which he carried in a mini-cooler. There was also a guy who had either tattooed or written with ink on the fingers of his hands, “Show Man”, and who made weird noises using either his hand or not- I can’t remember. I can’t remember, either, whether he sold something; he may have actually been one the guys already mentioned. Needless to say, we attracted some attention because of the fact that we were from the U.S. and able, perhaps, to afford their products. In any case, they were friendly and seemed to enjoy their jobs.

The next day, most the group visited Niterói, a town adjacent to Rio that, too, has some nice beaches. In Niterói, we visited the MAC (o Museu de Arte Contemporânea), designed by the Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. It basically looks like a UFO with a curvy ramp leading from the ground to its entrance (maybe this was redundant, as this might be one of the characteristics of a UFO). They did not have any exhibitions at the time of our visit, but it was still cool to see the inside even without art. Niemeyer designed this museum (and maybe others, as well) with curves to reflect the curve of the Brazilian woman and the idea that life in Brazil is by no means linear.

Later that day, we went to Pão de Açúcar, or Sugar Loaf, a granite mountain without vegetation and with a view overlooking the city. I really enjoyed the beauty of the view, but considering that the natural beauty of the scene was the main attraction of the experience, I thought that were too many food and souvenir vendors. That night, as CIEE arranged, the majority of the group went to a samba-MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) show with singer Rosa Passos and two or three other musicians (they were very good, but I don’t know their names) in the group. I thought the show was great, and I think most the Brazilian audience felt similarly- they called the group back for two encores. The next day, we had free time to go to the beach or to do whatever (responsibly), and that day was the first that I entered the water. The waves were strong and chucked me several meters on a couple occasions. Of course, I’m no experienced beach dude and am very light, so the fact that the waves threw me is not evidence that they were very good, but I think that the others had similar opinions. To conclude the trip, we visited Corcovado mountain, riding to the peak on a train car. I had not realized, seeing the Christ statue from a distance, how large it actually was.

By this time, you’d probably like to hear about other aspects of the experience in Brazil and not only about the time in Rio. One activity that a few of us took part in was the Virada Cultural, a 24-hour event in the center of São Paulo in which there were a number of music performances of many types. There was hardly room to move in certain areas. At the end of the night, a friend and I walked around and, after talking about the idea of stopping at just one more performance, heard some drums playing. We found some drummers hardly visible by a large crowd surrounding them; they marched with the crowd down a couple streets to the rhythms of the drums, stopping every now and then and just playing. This was a fun way to end the night.

As I also mentioned in the first blog entry, another activity that CIEE would be organizing was a trip to a São Paulo- Atlético Nacional (Colombia) Copa Libertadores soccer game. This tournament brings together the top teams throughout Latin America from the previous year (actually, it consists of teams from ten of the South American countries plus, in the past 10 or so years, three from Mexico, given their competitiveness). As the chants of the “torcedores” (fans) filled the stadium, chants in which some of us tried to participate, we watched São Paulo win 1-0 on a first-half header by Alex Silva. I personally liked the game a lot and thought both teams played well. However, maybe due to the fact that São Paulo needed to win to assure a spot in the next round, the team played somewhat defensively in the second half so as not to risk giving up a goal. There were opportunities, but the approach was more conservative, preventing the amount of flair that one might expect to see from a Brazilian team.

Still in the soccer fever, a few of us from the program went to another soccer game the next week, this time to see a Copa do Brasil game between Corinthians and Goiás (the host family of one of the guys in the program is corintiana- meaning they root for Corinthians- and he, who quickly turned corintiano, invited anyone who was interested to go with him, his host brother, and a couple of his host brothers’ friends). A guy named Wyatt and I traveled to the stadium and met him there. This tournament is played between 64 teams throughout Brazil, and the winner gets to play in the Copa Libertadores the following year. Each round consists of two games between each pair, one at each team’s home, with aggregate score determining the winner. As such, smaller teams have a better chance of winning this tournament than finishing in the top in the national league standings. (Note: in São Paulo, there are three much-supported professional soccer clubs- Palmeiras, Corinthians, and São Paulo- that have traditionally all competed in the first division of the Brazilian national league. Following last year’s Campeonato Brasileiro, Corinthians was relegated to the second division after a 17th-place finish in Série A (out of 20), so Corinthians fans this year are ever excited to do well in any competition. “Eu nunca vou te abandonar”- “I will never abandon you”- is the common phrase that they have used to express their conviction that, regardless of last year’s finish, they will continue to support the team.) This game, as Rodrigo, the guy in the program who invited us, had promised, had a more active atmosphere than that of the São Paulo game from the previous week- not to say that the S.P. fans were not into it, but we witnessed a larger, more energetic crowd and a more aggressive game. In the first half, Corinthians scored goals one after another, four in the first 45 minutes and injury time. Throughout the half, and especially after the goals, the Corinthians fans were ecstatic- I’m not sure whether they were more excited after the first goal or the fourth, but in any case, they were loving it. Neither team scored in the second half, but it was all good, as Corinthians advanced to the next stage of the cup. Rodrigo went home with his host brother, but Wyatt and I boarded a bus to get home. The bus was packed with Corinthians fans, and they were pounding on any part of the bus possible to express their excitement.

To continue along the lines of the soccer discussion, there has been the opportunity to play pick-up soccer at the PUC court (“quadra”). Guys, and girls, on certain days, get together there to play informally, although they take it seriously. I do not play there every week, but I have participated sometimes, and it has been a lot of fun. I like the fact that they are there because they love to play, and official organization is not needed. Because there are often more than 10 people, sufficient for the desired 5 on each team, they typically play the games to 2 to give others, on different teams, a chance to play. They play by the basic rules of the game; to this extent, there is some regulation, but the focus is not on organization.

About a week and a half ago, the group visited a favela called Heliópolis, in the eastern part of the city, guided by a lady who I believe lives there and whose job it is (among other things) to give tours to visitors. Unlike the stereotypical favela in my mind- that of dirt roads-, Heliópolis has concrete roads, but as for the conditions of living, I don’t know that they were great. We did not enter into any houses, so I can’t talk about the living situation with much insight. Based on the outside appearance, however, they looked pretty poor. As far as the social aspect of the favela was concerned, for the most part, from what we saw, there wasn’t a lot going on perhaps because most of the residents were either at work or at school. We did see occasional faces looking out from the buildings and a few people in the streets, but it was pretty quiet. While there, we visited a radio station which broadcasts within the favela, and the man giving the show interviewed three of the program students toward the end of the 9-10 hour. Then, he talked to us about how he got started with the radio, what kind of music is played, etc. At the end of our visit, we stopped in a school and entered a classroom of seventh graders who were finishing up their morning of classes. As I mentioned in the first blog entry, in most public schools in Brazil, students attend for only half the day due to an insufficient number of professors, resources, etc. In the afternoon, another group of students would be coming, and at night, another. The lady serving as our guide told us that they were in the process of constructing a technical school next to this other school, but I can’t remember the significance of this fact beyond the idea of having more space. Also, either our culture professor from the program or the same lady said that there was the idea (either in that favela, or as a more general plan in Brazil), based on a model implemented in Portugal, of removing the walls separating the classrooms in the school to make the learning process more united and cooperative.

On the topic of schools, I would like to mention that there has been the opportunity, through a organization affiliated with PUC, to get involved in the community. The activities that they set up range from playing with kids to teaching classes. I went to the office to ask about the opportunity to help and said that I would like to teach. I mentioned that I studied math, and the coordinator of the community activities asked me, to know how I would teach math, to explain for him what a fraction was. Perhaps as a result of the language barrier and maybe, too, because of my inability at times to be simple in expressing an idea, I failed to convince him that I would make a good math teacher for the group of students he was thinking. He assigned me to teach an English class, however. One of the sites at which this organization sets up classes is a community library, and at this library, known as the “Biblioteca dos Garis”- the Street Cleaners Library- adults (I think only the street cleaners) can take literacy classes or other subject classes (some of them do not know how to read and write, while others do). On Fridays, though not on every Friday, because of the holidays (“feriados”), I go to this community library to give an English class for two male adults. I hope they’ve learned at least something (I say this in criticism of my teaching, not of their ability to learn). In general, this community library serves as a space where community members who don’t have access to reading material can go during the day to read and relax. It also seems to be the clock-out /meeting place of the street cleaners at the end of the work day. It’s a good thing that people have made efforts to provide such materials to those who don’t have the money, or perhaps the initial interest, to buy them.

This past Thursday, on Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday celebrating the Holy Eucharist, a friend from the program, two Brazilian friends, and I went to a service at the university priest’s home church, and after the service, there was a procession down a street by the church, with members of the church and of the community reuniting at a meeting area at the end. In the first blog entry, I did not mention anything about the experience that I have had going to church here in Brazil because some of you might not be interested in this topic, but I would like to talk about it because it has been important and some of you may want to know about it. The first month of the semester, I did not go to church, not taking the initiative the find one and not getting up at decent hour on Sundays to do so. In the beginning of February, a friend named Gustavo from the program invited me to go with him to a service at a Catholic church he had been attending since the beginning of the semester. Since then, having been told in during the first month of the semester by another guy from the program- Wyatt, in fact- that some students from the program were getting together about once a week to chat about their faith. I joined around the time that the official PUC semester started, and on Sundays, we have gotten together to chat for about an hour-and-a-half before going to a Baptist church close to PUC. These meetings have been great to build close friendships and to keep one another accountable during our time in Brazil. The people at the church have been very kind and welcoming, and after a service one Sunday, a guy about my age invited us to come to their youth group meetings on Saturday evenings. In addition to these meetings, there was a day trip to the house (perhaps extra house) of the parents of one the girls in the group. There was a lot of time to relax, go in the pool, or play volleyball and soccer, and there was also a fun organized group activity emphasizing teamwork and unity in Christ. The regular meetings, too, have been cool; the youth pastor has, on a few occasions, begun them with an activity that, apparently unrelated to anything important, he finds a way of relating to issues in our daily lives, issues which, after the activities, we have discussed. The Brazilians in the group are really fun and personable, and the youth pastor makes me laugh a lot- often because he bursts out laughing at something that someone has said. Overall, this aspect of the experience has been very meaningful. Of course, spirituality is not something that is limited to church, so I do not intend to box it in, but this community has been important in the experience. Feel free to ask me if you are interested in hearing more about it.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog entry, or at least some of it. I didn’t mention the academic experience or the experience with my host family in this entry because they haven’t changed much, although that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been significant. In fact, they form the main parts of my experience, and perhaps for this reason I didn’t bring them up (although they are “special” to the extent that they are important, they are “ordinary” in the sense that they are aspects of daily life.) I will say that the PUC students I have met have been great, and I am glad they have been so receptive to forming friendships. There are things that I would like to improve in both of these areas- academics and host family. For example, I could be more intimate with my host family, and I could be more conscientious as a student, but I guess that to learn, there must be things upon which to improve. Not to say that these are the only things with which I struggle.

Thank you for your attentiveness, and I hope all of you have are having good springs. Manteremos contato. Tchau-tchau.


     As it has been a long time since the last time corresponding with all of you, I would like to make this blog entry complete.  Given that the email that I sent earlier in the semester related experiences up to and including Carnaval, I think I would like to start by describing the academic experience at PUC-SP (Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo), where classes started the Monday after Carnaval ended.  The class schedule here includes two program classes that all the students in the study abroad program take- Portuguese and Brazilian Culture- and two or three, depending on the number of credits of each and on each student’s specific requirements, classes at the university.  Thus, the first two have no Brazilians other than the professors, and the latter two or three have, primarily, Brazilians.

     I do not want to bore you with the uninteresting elements of the academic experience, but I will sum up the program classes by saying that Portuguese class intends to provide us with the opportunity to develop a more refined knowledge of Portuguese normative grammar (to help us become more effective readers, writers, and speakers) and to develop an awareness of some colloquial applications, not necessarily normatively correct, used in speech (the awareness of which also can help us to communicate better and help us to understand the culture a little better in some circumstances); the main purpose of Brazilian Culture class is that we understand culture better (obviously) through reading and discussion of history, economics, immigration, race, soccer, education, etc. 

     The classes at the university have been the more interesting part of the academic experience for me, even though I truly like being with the other American students in the program.  One of the classes is on Brazilian education and its challenges, and the professor likes to promote discussion.  Although at the beginning of the semester I did not understand a lot of what was said, I am understanding more, and it seems as though many of the questions raised in the class with respect to education in Brazil could be asked with respect to education in the U.S.  Of course, having different political/social and economic situations leads to some different issues, but foundationally, at least, there seems to be some similarity.  In Brazil, as a result of a lack of professors (and possibly other factors, too), only ensino fundamental (up to and including 9th grade, I believe) is mandatory, and while high school is free (in the sense that high school is free in the U.S.), if everyone were to decide to attend high school there would not be enough professors for this to be possible.   For this same reason, in ensino fundamental, in most schools, the school day for students lasts only half the day.

     In addition to making me aware of some issues regarding education in Brazil, this class has provided the opportunity to meet many Brazilians.  Partly because of their culture and partly because they are language majors, they are very outgoing and have been very welcoming.  The mentality toward one’s classes, though it is difficult to generalize, as the level of seriousness varies from student to student (not to mention that I have met only certain students) I have found to be much more relaxed than at Dickinson.  While the students seem to value their education, they do not discuss constantly what they need to complete for classes and seem to take it more as it goes.  Of course, a balance is needed, and I am not suggesting that a college student should neglect his studies.    

     The students in this class are also studying English and have invited me a couple of times to attend their English classes.  Also, a few of them have talked with me in English.  For one of their classes, they had to respond to questions on a American movie they had watched, and one of the girls who had a little less background in the language than the others asked me if I could help her with the worksheet.  I thought that it would be a good idea, in addition to discussing how to write the answers in English, also to talk about the responses in English, and she thought a different person (not literally) was speaking to her when I began to speak in English (I thought this was funny).

     The other class at PUC I am taking is an economics course on investments in infrastructure in Brazil- their importance and how the government goes about deciding which ones to make.  I have had some difficulty in this class, as the combination of not having taken an economics class before and the lectures being in Portuguese sometimes leaves me lost as to what has been said.

     About a week and a half ago, our study abroad group went for a day trip to Aparecida do Norte, a city in the northeast of the state of São Paulo, where in the 1700’s three fishermen were ordered to find fish in the Paraíba River because the governor would be visiting.  Instead, they found a statue of a Nossa Senhora de Conceição (Our Lady of the Conception who Appeared).  Its dark brown color has resulted in that many people believe she was intended to represent a black Virgin, a characteristic of great implications on her level of importance in Brazil.  In Aparecida, a Basilica constructed in 1955 holds the statue (another basilica held it formerly).  I was impressed by how seriously the people there take their relationship with the Virgin Mary, but I was also struck by how commercialized the place seems to have become.  It seems like a city surviving on the marketing of its historical connection to the finding of the aforementioned statue.

     Another activity that we did as a study abroad group was watch a ballet at the Teatro Municipal.  I had never seen a ballet before, and entering with some preconception of what it was to be like, I did not witness what I was expecting going into it.  In this performance, whose story I did not understand, the place of action changed with every scene, and the audience accompanied the actors in their transition to each subsequent scene.

     Another activity that is coming up is a Copa Libertadores soccer game between São Paulo and Atlético Nacional from Colombia.  Also, as a group we will be heading Rio this weekend.  

     Well, I said I wanted to make this blog entry complete, and clearly I did not do so.  However, I would like to be in more frequent contact with all of you while here in Brazil, and if you have any recommendations on what aspects of the experience to discuss, I would be more than happy to hear them.   Boa noite!

Next Page »