Good bye Meu Amor, Brasil

Sao Paulo Street

Sao Paulo Street

I have been saying good bye for a while now, little by little, ever since I found out months ago that Carlos and I would be leaving Brazil for the US.  In the beginning, I had periodic thoughtful moments like “OK, take a long last look at this beach because it will be the last Brazilian beach you’ll see for a long time.”  Then it became less something I did once in a while and started to become more frequent, entering my life like a new job.  Soon I was saying good bye to certain roads I traveled a lot, to cities, to the country club where we went often and which I cherish deeply.  Then these thoughts got closer to home, creeping in slowly like some plague, taking over my much of my life as I started to have to say goodbye to jobs, to friends, to family, to things in my home that cannot come with me.

Tonight I will say good bye to this apartment and tomorrow this country. I sit now tearfully packing for a trip that will take me back to the half of the world where I came from; the half that I left to come here a bit over two sweet years ago.  The half that I left behind not knowing for sure if or when I would return and in what condition.  Now is the time for good byes again, only this time they are for Brazil and everything it has brought to me as a gift, as a friend I didn’t know I had before I came but now one I can never forget.

In a rush to fill suit cases with most of my life’s material contents again I started to think about how saying good bye is an important time.  It is a time for reflection on all that was.  It is a time for appreciation for everything given.  It is a time for looking back and feeling good at everything that you went through to get here, from beginning to end. It has encompassed my favorite and my worst moments in life.  Its bitter, too bitter to want to feel directly over and over, but because of this sadness we get to experience the happiness of what it feels like to come home.  We get to taste the fruit of our accomplishments and at the same time turn over to a new chapter in our life and begin to start to write all over again.  What has been written for me is an absence of the belief that I can not do this. I can say goodbye, I have done it now several times and each time the feeling is the same and each time so is the result.  You have to give, you have to let go, you have to trust, you have to let yourself wander…you have to live.  I have done all of this and more here during my time in Brazil.

stream at clubI have learned a new language, new customs.  I got married and have come to know & love a whole new wonderful family, that of my husband’s; now mine too.   I have mastered a new city and a challenging one at that.  I tried a thousand kinds of new foods and drinks and I even acted in play (in Portuguese)! I put the trust that I needed to come to Brazil in the first place into every other step I took here and I did a lot. As I look back, I find that I am happy and surprised with myself.

I’m happy about the good brasileiro friends I have made here and without whom I wouldn’t even be writing this.  For those are the people who counted when times grew difficult and I wonder if I would have made it without them.   Though they may not realize it, my friends here pulled me up by my bootstraps and carried me to a place where I felt like I was a part of this country, not just another stranger within its vast boundaries.  They gave me countless moments of joy and fountains of things to look forward to. I know the saying goes, “There is no place like home.” but I have seen now that real friendship IS home .

Thank you.  Thank you to everybody I met here.  There is no one I am not happy to have encountered.  I find it funny because, although I can appreciate the duality of a balanced system…my world here has really been nothing but good, good and more good.

And what do I do with it?

PACK IT!  I will pack up these feelings of gratefulness, of plenitude and I will bring them home, back to Minnesota and then on over to New York City, which is where my husband and I will go next and start the whole process all over again.  So as my next chapter begins there let me close this one by saying.

I love you with all my heart, Brazil…O meu coracao esta cheio hoje.  Cheio de felicidade e gratidao por tudo que voce meu deu, Brasil.  Obrigada o meu amigo. Te amo.

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Months of Memories

Istanbul

Hello Stranger.  Yes, it has been a while, I know, but I have a good excuse or two or three.  Let me tell you all about them.

This past June as I sat wondering if it was too early to start planning a trip home to see the folks (it had only been 4 months since I was last there) that trusty voice popped into my head and said “Wait!”  So I did.  And something else happened instead.

I went to Turkey!

Pause for backtracking:  In early July I celebrated my 2nd birthday in Brazil.  Last year on this day, Carlos took me to a beautiful garden within the country club we belong to and proposed to me.  *sheepish grin*  This year he and I planned one of those famous Brazilian churrascos (barbecues) at our apartment here in Sao Paulo.  Friends and family came, I made my American version of specialty Brazilian dishes (and found out that Brazilians like them done their way better, oops) and I gave my first speech in Portuguese, which was kind of terrible but from the heart. While there, two of my friends invited me to join them on a short trip to a well known beach town called Ubatuba.

 

My beautiful Brazilian pals, Simone and Renata

It was actually a birthday wish come true.  I had said to Carlos a week before my big day that what I really wanted was to see the ocean again.  I have to not think about the fact that I live less than an hour from the sea and can easily count on both hand the amount of times I have been there so far.  And so it was that two of my newest girl friends, Renata and Simone and their four sons combined took off for 4 days of beachy paradise.

Every time I see the ocean something primal emerges from my core.  I feel a reckoning occur, emptying from me any stress, negativity or fear that I have been holding onto. It’s as if the constant pull of the waves washes those things back out to sea the way a powerful current sucks the sand out from under your feet as you stand at tide’s edge.  I feel new again.  During those few days, falling asleep to the sound of constant breaking waves, waking up to the yellow sun hanging over a turquoise expanse as far as I could see, even repetitiously sliding down the smooth rock face of a natural water slide into an ice cold pool of river water with the boys (who, btw, bestowed the honored name “Tia Ursula,” or Aunt Ursula, upon me) I felt one thing most.  I felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I am here.  The beauty of the land and it’s people match so closely and I moved into a space of deeper appreciation for both of these things.

Carlos and I at dinner in Istanbul

Not wasting any time, one week after my return from the beach my husband and I took off for Istanbul.  I was warned of this land of enchantment.  Everyone I know who has visited was spell-bound by it.  I can honestly admit that now I too have been completely overtaken.

Carlos had to present a couple of papers on spine related research at a congress which takes place once a year in some city around the world, outside of the U.S.  This is because they talk about techniques and instrumentation that the FDA has not approved yet…putting the U.S. at a slight disadvantage in my opinion but back to the story.  While booking the flights we chose the cheapest option, a Turkish Airlines direct flight from Sao Paulo to Istanbul.  I will now admit that my sheltered small town mind went a little into panic mode at the thought of 13 hours in some small, rickety, ancient aircraft that probably been retired by our military and passed down through several hands before being “refurbished” by the Turks.  Boy, was I wrong!  It ended up being, hands down, the best overseas flight I have ever taken.  Not only was the plane new and fancy, even in coach, but also the food was…Turkish, so it was EXCELLENT!  Oh and there was free wine and everyone got one of those over-night packets with all those handy knickknacks like socks, ear plugs, toothbrush and even lip balm.  Of course we kept one of those intact and brought it home, like any good tightwad would do.

Arriving in Istanbul we had been told to expect a driver waiting for us at baggage claim.  No one was there.  So upon asking we were instructed that drivers wait on the other side of customs.  So I am imagining some lone dude lazily leaning up against a pillar holding a sign with our name on it.  Boy, was I wrong again!  As the custom doors open I see a thousand frenzied men thrusting their arms into open view and calling out, some with three and four signs all with different names on them and my jaw hits the floor.  After the shock, Carlos and I methodically pace up and down in front of all them looking at each of the hundreds of signs until I spot “Castro.” Our man now leads us out into the hectic heat and energy of the streets straight to a sleek black Mercedes.  I act natural as I turn around and come back a step from the mini van I thought the man was walking towards.  How Cool!  I must say, I love that the thought of riding in a Mercedes gets me giddy and I would prefer to not ever have one so it could never become mundane.

Mosaic of Jesus and John the Baptist, inside Hagia Sophia

Driving into town I took immediate notice of the huge brick wall that runs much of the length of the city; it’s crumbling structure a testimony to its age and a visitor’s first example of Istanbul’s ancient heritage.  For anyone, Istanbul’s breathtaking architecture is an absolute must-see at least once in a lifetime.  However, for the art historian, as I like to imagine I am somewhat because my university degree tells me so, Istanbul is a treasure trove of priceless artifacts from every age and culture in the last 2,000 years.  It’s a city wide museum where people live and work; where you are actually allowed to get up close and touch some of the worlds most ancient and beautiful hand-crafted objects and they won’t even kick you out!  Istanbul comes complete with tourists from around the globe making it by far the most culturally diverse place I have been.  A place where old meets new and where east blends peacefully with west, no questions asked as we, citizens of the world, wait patiently in line with full burkas or mini skirts to see the Hagia Sophia; united in anticipation under the hot sun.

Ground level inside the Hagia Sophia. Notice how low the lamps are as compared to the height of the ceiling.

The Hagia Sophia, easily one of highlights of my trip, is one of the oldest standing Christian churches.  It was originally built in 360 AD but like all good historic buildings it was destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times.  The current structure was built in 530 AD (still incomprehensibly old) and is the embodiment of what Byzantine architecture had to offer with an expansive center dome, plenty of sweeping arches and massive walls and pillars to hold up the what was the largest building in the world at the time.  Any way, I could really nerd out on you right now with more terminology but don’t worry I won’t.  I will mention that the

Taken from 2nd floor gallery; exact place where Holy Roman Empress Theodora would stand to watch mass.

interior has some of the most spectacular Christian mosaics in the world.  These were covered over for centuries as the Muslims took over what was then the city of Constantinople and converted the cathedral into a mosque.  But covering over of the these images actually preserved them for us today.  Funny how things work out like that.  So now the place is a world heritage museum and an homage to all those who graced it with their presence over the millenia.  Byzantine Emperors and Ottoman Sultans came to worship daily within these walls and the very places they would sit are etched into the marbled floors.  Being here was a fulfillment of a dream for me and I shall not soon forget it.

Life of Mary. Inside Chora Chapel

Also worth mentioning is another little Byzantine church called Chora Chapel  which has the most impressive display of  Christian mosaics and frescos I have ever seen, these dating back to the 1300’s.  Spec-ta-cu-lar!

Another must-see is the ancient Basilica Cistern (500AD) built directly under the old city just a few steps from the Hagia Sophia.  This place looks unalarming as you walk into a small building to buy the ticket and descend the stairs into the underground chamber used formerly to store water  for the residents of Constantinople.  However, as you enter the darkness the first thing that catches you is through your nose.  The smell reminded me of my grandma’s basement times 100.  Imagine one-thousand five-hundred years of mildew.  The next thing to hit you is the view.  Imagine an underground room as large as a football field and as high as three story building with hundreds of huge Roman columns the size of large oak tree trunks running from floor to ceiling in perfect rows .  It’s completely dark except for the dimmed lights that shine up the length of a few rows of columns and it’s completely silent except for the sound of drips that fall from the condensation on the ceiling to hit the perfectly still lake of shallow water that completely covers the floor.  This place is a scene from some depiction of Hades both terrifying and romantic; sacred and goosepimpling like an ancient temple dedicated to some dark god.  It even comes complete with the mystery of two huge Medusa heads used for some unknown purpose as the bases for some columns at the far back of the room. The place is full of mysterious possibilities and if not for real than your mind cannot help but create them while you are there.

Smoking at our favorite Hookah bar The Gulhane Sur Cafe….you know what they say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

We saw several famously beautiful mosques.  The detail of the decoration inside of these sacred places is truly unfathomable.  We saw famous palaces where the Sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire for many generations and we relaxed by sipping Turkish tea and smoking nargilehs pipes (hookah).  I even accidentally bumped into an old Whirling Dervish monastery.  For those that may not know, The Whirling Dervishes are a sect of Sufism, (a branch of Islam that promotes a more personal connection with God).  Their famous spinning dance is actually a deeply ritualized meditation designed to cause union with the divine.  The dance is a perfect symbol of Istanbul since the sacred prevails in this city.

The people in Istanbul seemed undoubtably connected to their faith and seemed (at least on the surface) completely comfortable with the faiths of others.  It serves well as an example for understanding amongst the world population.  For me, it was an unearthly experience to hear the somberly beautiful Call to Prayer, singing out from every mosque at the designated hour, 5 times a day, beckoning its people to pause, reflect and pray.  I felt so honored to be there in those moments, to see groups of families coming together in parks and squares to break the fast of Ramadan every day at sun down.  To me there is no better connection, than that of person to person and that given as an offering of love,  to God.

Returning home I felt an immediate need to promise myself that I would return someday, when the time is right.

Candomblé dancers in Salvador

In August Carlos had one more congress to attend, and for me of course, one more reason to travel.  This time it was to another state in Brazil called Bahia, which is famous for its spectacular beaches and the hang loose spirit of the people . The trip was pure fun.  My Portuguese had a run for its money as I spent most of the days hanging with the other wives, gossiping, shopping and giving advice just like women in every other part of the globe.  Carlos and I took one day out to go to the nearby city of Salvador.  It has a lovely European flavor to its brightly colored architecture as well as its own flavor of food, and flavor of spirituality. Salvador was well known for its slave trading years.  Many of the descendants of the slaves still practice a mix of Christian and African faiths.  These often incorporate drums, dance, plants and animals. One in particular called Candomblé is quite popular and easily recognizable from its customary women’s clothing; white dresses that exaggeratedly balloon out at the bottom and a large white head covering.  Carlos and I  were lucky enough to stumble upon one of their performances.  This city was, in some ways, like visiting a whole other country.  It reminded me that I have so much left to see and experience here in Brazil.

So Let the adventure continue….

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Home for Expatriates

With honest hopes of writing something funny about my everyday experiences living in Brazil something deeper and denser has been lurking its way to the surface from inside of me and wants to explore its existence in words.  What it means to live abroad.

For those of you who have not been counting I have officially been living in Brazil for fourteen months and three days.  During this time a lot of dreams have come true and I find myself living a reality that I never would have envisioned just a couple of years ago.  I’ve gotten married, started teaching English, become involved in organizations that have inspired me, traveled, began learning a new language (which I’m still working on, naturally) and met new heart-warming people whom I could not imagine my life without right now.  However, to do this I had to leave all I knew: my home, all of my friends, all of my family, my callings, my passions and my places all stayed behind me.  Anyone who has ever made the choice to live thousands of miles from home with no sure return date has left a huge part of themselves behind as well.  It’s no wonder that the early explorers only drew in crewmen who were typically ex-convicts or other social misfits.  It was a damn sight harder to find an average joe who wanted to risk his life and possibly never see his family again for the glory of a famous expedition.  I pose the question: Can the mind really grasp the concept of leaving for good or does it just distract the magnitude of the decision with smaller more immediate tasks on one’s way out the door?

Starting new isn’t a piece of cake.  It takes guts, strength and I am finding out patience and a willingness to let yourself mold into a new you.  This new you is a blend of the old you plus the other person you become as your mind slowly unravels the mysteries of the new language, new culture and new collective consciousness of the people you now live amongst.  In my experience, having lived abroad for an extended amount of time twice, you DO change.  Where once you were outgoing, you may become surprisingly shy, where once you may have been talkative you may become more observant instead.  None of this should be seen as negative but rather part of the transition to understanding the new world around you. It’s more of a result of being split from the place you understand most like a splinter from a rock and now you need to find a new existence as an individual.   The adjustment of living permanently abroad is not a fast one, rather a measured ascension of learning levels each requiring acclimation and integration driven at your own pace.

My pace seems to fluctuate like the Minnesota River I grew up next to.  During some periods I am whizzing like a healthy current pushing myself down stream, adjusting with happiness and gratitude.  During other periods there is a drought and little progress is made towards my goal.  But then, that calls into question my goal.   I am not sure that a goal of feeling perfectly fitted is ever going to come for any expat.  Perhaps it’s not in our best interest anyway.  When it’s all said and done home is not simply where you live but where your blood binds you to the places, the faces and to the land.  For me, its good to have a home here in Brazil but I know where my Homeland will always be.

“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island…”  How often does one living abroad think of home?  Speaking from my point of view a year into it, might be only 10-50 times a day.  Of course I just pulled that number out from nowhere but I do know some days it’s a little and other days it’s still a lot.  I catch myself wondering if the heavenly scented lilacs are blooming yet.  I wonder if my nephews are out riding the tube across the lake while my brother, who would be driving the boat, carefully plots how to throw them off into the water.  I wonder who is having a barbecue, who is drinking a beer around a campfire and if mom and dad have started planting the garden yet.  These are precious sights into the summers of my home in Minnesota that have been popping into my mind lately.   On the flip side, I also feel afraid that after a few years all my close friendships will wane; my young nephews won’t really know who I am anymore; that the tight bonds that attach me to home will be cut bit by bit and I’ll feel too loose, like a marionette with out her strings to guide her.

I take all these emotions and mix them up with the freedom and fortune of moving to a brand new place both physically and mentally.  I can not complain about the life Brazil has given to me so far.  I  also know that letting go is a crucial part of life in general.  I am working on allowing what is occurring NOW to just keep occuring…this method has always served me well in the past.  But full acceptance can seem an arduous find, especially if you are looking for replacements for all those missing relationships.

“How are you?” “I’m good, how are you?”  “Good!”  “Oh, good!.” I have noticed in my own experience and in the first hand testimonies of other expats that finding true close friendships isn’t as easy as one might hope (at least for the first year or two).  Firstly, you have your own personal adjustments you are dealing with and secondly, if you don’t speak the language, it’s hard for a relationship to get past surface exchanges like the one at the beginning of this paragraph. It says nothing about the people you are meeting in your new country, who are often very kind and genuinely delighted to meet you.  I’m not exactly sure what the blockage is made up of but I suppose it is a combination of meeting people who already have a well established friend and family support system around them and, in my case, not having the courage to force a deep personal relationship down another person’s throat even though , during weak moments, you might feel desperate enough.  This is why, in many cases, foreigners just hang out with each other.  This is true.  Although I haven’t connected with any yet, there are organized expat societies in every major city around the world.  Perhaps it’s because we simply need people who need us.

When people ask me if I like Brazil I answer with a positive  “Yes, I do!” because I can feel its true.  That even though a part of my heart does ache the other part of it is ready for more; more of everything I have experienced so far here and whatever else I have yet coming to me.  There are wonderful things going on around us constantly and it benefits everyone who notices this, so I’ve put effort into stopping to smell the roses often.  It’s something I learned on one of those acclimation levels I refered to earlier; that I can know and balance both feelings of sadness and happiness at once, almost as if I’m bi-locating myself.  But in reality, I’m still working on achieving the peace of this balance or I wouldn’t have written this post.  It will come; at my own pace.

So as I sign off from this blog post about my expat adventures remember too that an adventure isn’t just an external event.  It is just as well an internal story with its own highlights and hard times.  And hopefully, we’ll continue to root for our protagonist, who ever he or she may be, all the way to the “Happy Ending.”

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The Honeymooners

My Family

Only the luckiest of people get to have two honeymoons in six months.  Then again, only the unluckiest of people have to go through the stress of two weddings in 6 months too.  In truth, I can’t say that I really planned an actual wedding in Brazil.  After all, back in September, Carlos and I completed the most non-stress wedding one could muster by simply walking into a courthouse and walking back out an hour later Mr. and Mrs. Castro.  We later celebrated with lunch.  But still, it was a wedding, complete with a white dress and the frayed edges of my nerves to go with it.  Fast forward 5 months later and there I was, AGAIN, clad in a gleaming white dress, nervously staring at my soon-to-be husband (or husband of 5 previous months, however you want to look at it).  Except this time it was taking place on my turf, in front of a large audience, inside a swanky night club turned event hall for the evening, located in good ole’ down town Mankato Minnesota and this time…it felt for real.

Up the aisle

As all women who haven’t actually planned their own wedding are eager to boast, I likewise pledged to myself and the world that I wouldn’t become one of “those” brides.  You know, the ones that freak out about pointless things like center pieces, wedding colors, seating charts and hair pieces   No sir, not me.

And then it happened.

Honestly, everything was going great until I found myself four figures over budget.  That’s when I had to start making some real decisions.  It’s funny how those decisions can go from something as vitally  important as “what should my wedding vows be?” to the most inconsequential crap such as “Hmm, should I put green and yellow jelly beans on the tables.”  And I actually stayed awake at one night for that one.

Carlos and his parents (notice the Brazilian flag in C's pocket)

Still, anyone who knows me well also knows I usually pull myself together just in time to ‘git er done’ so everything just sort of fell into place.  I was even able to add a little Brazilian flair.  With a little help from family and friends I made 200 Brigedeiros!  Not an easy task.  These are traditional Brazilian candies frequently served at weddings.   Each guest got at least one with little Brazilian toothpick flag stuck in the center….BTW this was a much better idea than the green and yellow jelly beans!  I used real orchids, a common Brazilian flower, for the bouquet and center pieces and I had the DJ play a nice set of well-known Brazilian tunes.  Not that many noticed because they played during the time everyone was hungrily lining up for the 11 cakes of varying shapes and flavors that my uncle’s restaurant provided for the wedding.

Yes, the wedding was everything I had imagined it would be but the best part of the story started a week earlier when Carlos and his parents arrived in Minnesota.  With everything else on my mind one thing stuck out.  How will Mr and Mrs. Castro fair in their first meeting with my parents.  After all, they didn’t speak English and anyone who knows my dad knows he speaks too much English.  I knew Carlos would have his work cut out for him being he was the only person in probably a 100 mile radius that spoke both English and Portuguese fluently.

On the first night of Edna and Pedro’s arrival, my parents invited them over for the first official meeting.  When I went to the hotel to pick them up I happily announced that it was snowing, something neither Edna nor Pedro had ever witnessed.  There was excitement in the air as they looked out the windows at the thick shower of white flakes.  But the second they stepped out side, their enjoyment turned a little sour.  It wasn’t one of those light fluffy snowfalls on a perfectly calm night.  Rather it was one of those heavy wet snowfalls that pecks you from the side then forms a thick slush as it hits the ground.  By the time we stopped at Target to pick up a few things any remaining shine had worn off and the Castros had me dropping them off and picking them up at the door so as to avoid any dealing with this “snow stuff”.

When we finally arrived at my parents house my dad went right to work breaking the ice as only a German knows how, by offering them both beers.  Pedro happily accepted and we all sat down to eat.  Any fears of awkward silences were quelled by my father’s constant recounting of one story after another and just as I thought, poor Carlos struggled to keep up.  The Castro’s returned with questions and stories of their own.  I could tell Carlos was tiring when his translations of my father’s sentences into Portuguese were 4 words to my dad’s 20.

The best part of the night was when my mom stuck in a cd of fifties and sixties music and Edna’s face lit up with familiarity and adoration of the very same music she herself grew up with and loved.  Before too long my mother, Edna and I could all be heard singing Earth Angel and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, residing in our own little girly world while the men rambled about history and other curious facts. Amazing how music bonds beyond time, culture and language.  It touches us so personally and yet when another person shares that love with us it’s as if that person understands a deep part of ourselves, even though we are in essence strangers.

Edna and my nephews arm wrestling...she's tough!

Meeting the rest of the my family piece by piece as they all slowly came into town for the wedding went similarly.  Words being spoken but smiles and laughter really doing the trick.  I’m afraid my nephews and niece were the real charmers; climbing up onto the couch showing Edna and Pedro books and games with detailed explanations in English, receiving emphatic responses in Portuguese. In all I couldn’t have asked for anything better than to see everyone in my new and old family gathered one room enjoying themselves and each other.  I won’t forget it.

Overlooking San Francisco Bay

Before long the wedding was done and the dreaded good-byes had been tearfully said.  Now was time for the honeymoon and this time it was with Edna and Pedro in tow.  First stop was San Francisco, where I found my new favorite big city lying in wait for me to discover.  We met several Brazilian vacationers there.  In fact, once I was busy in my role as secondary translator helping to check Edna and Pedro into our hotel that first day; diligently listening to the hotel clerk and smartly repeating everything he said in my sorely lacking Portuguese.  I did this for 15 minutes until in a side conversation he came out with the fact that he was Brazilian.  “Gee, Thanks Buddy!” I thought as I subsequently turned red in the face.  The rest of the time in SF was filled with clam chowder from the Fishermen’s Warf and weaving our rental mini van through the city streets, cruising the uncrowded Bus and Taxi Only lanes without realizing it.  No wonder we got such odd looks from the people we passed at the bus stops.  This city reminded me why I love the U.S. again.  Seeing all those people out walking, even on a chilly night, in a city that sweats a flavor and style so strong it compels you to venture time and time again into its streets to soak it all in.

Castello di Amorosa

Next stop was a drive to beautiful Napa Valley where we toured a life-size replica of a medieval Tuscan castle which was in actuality a working winery of some acclaim.  We then stayed at a fancy hotel that night in Napa City where the shower was as big as my bedroom here in Sao Paulo.  I, being fascinated by stylish bathroom fixtures, took two showers and an uncomfortably hot bath, just to savory everything to the max.

Tree Hugger...(look at the enormity of it)

Next day we drove our little van down to Santa Cruz and also visited one of my bucket list sites….The Redwood Forest at Big Basin State Park.  Home to some of the worlds largest and oldest living trees.  Some of these trees date back around 2,000 years.  While walking around there I had to stop myself several times and just give my waking mind the space to contemplate what I was seeing and feeling.  Carlos and I took the time to sanctify our marriage with a kiss inside the bosom of a tree they call “Mother” because it is the largest of them within the park.  By the way, it wasn’t tight inside either…the room inside the tree spans 12 feet (4 meters) across.

Carlos poking his head out of the Mother Tree

Later we got lost inside Santa Cruz because of a disagreement over how to handle the directions to the hotel.  The disagreement consisting mainly of my directions which I received over the telephone from the hotel clerk in Santa Cruz and Carlos’s distrust of people’s personal directions, preferring to follow Google maps.  Problem was he didn’t have internet so we drove up and down the city trying to find a Starbucks so he could download the directions….which ended up being the same as the ones I received from the hotel clerk. Hehehehe.   In situation like that it was especially helpful to have Carlos’s parents along to diffuse the situation with their light comments on the beauty of the architecture and such.  Every honeymoon should have parents in the back seat for exactly these moments, right?

"Friends" got a new cast member....Hey! It's Carlos!!

Next stop was a trip to Los Angeles.  There we had a fabulous tour of the Warner Brother’s studio, where we got to see wonderful sites like the Batmobile in the repair shop…seriously.  And to Carlos’s fantastic delight, we got to walk into a prefect replica of the coffee shop from the hit show Friends.  It was the best to see his face light up as a piece of his all time favorite show came to life right in front of him.  After a few days in LA we headed to our last stop before leaving the country, Atlanta Georgia.  Why Atlanta you might ask.  For no other reason than it was a layover that we decided to extend.

We were actually impressed with the city of Atlanta.  It was much cleaner and far more beautiful than I had imagined.  We toured the Coca-cola museum and CNN (my life line to what’s happening at home in the US while I live abroad) and spent our last day shopping for last-minute goods to fill the rest of our suitcases.

Saying goodbye to the United States after a 5 week trip wasn’t that difficult since I had done it little by little since I had left Minnesota.  However, this time coming back was a bit harder.  A splitting headache coupled with a sleepless night on the plane left me feeling intolerant and impatient when we arrived.  The taxis refused to take us to Sao Paulo for less than 80 or 90 dollars because we had too much luggage, they complained.  So we wound our way home by bus and his brother’s car.  After I got home I sadly unpacked several broken wedding presents and rushed to water plants that were nearly brown from dehydration.  I worried secretly to myself “Was my honeymoon with Brazil done too?” and if so what would that mean.  It took about 36 hours of sleep and relaxation after our long exhausting trip and I came to this realization while driving in the car in the midst of the usual traffic, smiling as I felt the atmosphere around me like I did in the redwood forest.  The sun, the sky, the paint-chipped walls next to crooked sidewalks speckled with chatting neighbors.  Everything.  I had loved it all along for what it is….Brazil.  And I’m glad to be back.

YAY!!!

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Rain and other weather related activity

The rains

There are few things the average Minnesotan loves to talk more about than the Almighty Weather.  In fact, I can’t think of a topic that is used more often in polite conversation among us.  Weather is the first thing my dad brings up on the phone, whether here or there.  It’s hard for foreigners in Minnesota to understand out fascination with the weather and I guess it’s difficult to explain.  We even get attached to our news channel weathermen.  I still miss Paul Douglas!  Carlos put it to me like this.  “When I first moved to Minnesota I didn’t know why everyone was interested in the weather.  When the news came on, people there got very quiet during the weather forecast segment because they wanted to actually listen.  In Brazil that was the part where everyone began to talk to each other.  But then after a while I understood why.  The weather changes so much you need to know what to expect.  Like, what you will need to wear or if you need to get up extra early to warm up you car’s engine and wipe off the snow.  In Brazil the weather isn’t talked about much because it doesn’t change that much.”

Carlos, me and some friends at the country club.

Well here I am in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer.  The day is bright and the clouds are large and puffy.  I’m still waiting for it to rain today as it does most everyday during in the summer months.  There are such differences between the summer in Minnesota and the summer (in my experience so far) in Sao Paulo.  In MN, the big thunderstorms that pull through especially in May and June are cause for alarm.  With them comes a variety of terrifying weather related activity including hail, flash flooding, straight line winds, and the dreaded TORNADO.  Did I miss any?  In Brazil, there have been rumors of tornados.  Some, including Carlos’s father swear that indeed tornados have been visited upon this land but in my opinion it’s all a bit like Bigfoot, many a testimonial and few a proof.  Hehehe.   A couple of weeks ago I was spent the entire week at the country club by myself.  It was a very tranquil and fun filled experience except for one thing…

Back in MN, if a tornado is eminently headed in your direction, the sirens go off and you move to the basement.  Or if you are like me, my dad and many other adventurous Minnesotan’s, you head for the back door to get a good look at the object of your probable death before it kills you 😛   Well low and behold if on the first day of my stay at the club, a tornado siren goes off…and it was indeed raining!  Now, we don’t have a basement in the little house there but I did go out the back door like a good girl to check it out.  Nothing.  As the days went by and the sirens went off everyday around noon, I realized it was a lunch break signal for the workers scattered around the area.  Since you can take the girl out of MN but not  take the MN out of the girl…I felt the overwhelming urge to hit the deck every time it went off.  This was cause for much laughter amongst my Brazilian friends who have no idea the fear and awe growing up with tornado sirens has instilled in me.  I may even need therapy some day 😉

In Brazil, weather fears are caught up in floods and landslides.  People, when it rains here it absolutely pours.  I swear the raindrops  are on steroids.  I watched a storm bust in across the city from my apt just 4 days ago.  With in minutes an inch of water covered every surface and the intensity had only just begun.  The street just down from my window turned into a actual river flowing into small lake at one end.  It got to a point where the buildings on the next block were only slightly darkened shapes against the thick sweeping curtains of rain continuing to fall on an already soaked ground.  Funny thing is that night on the news photographs of Ashton Kutscher, who was visiting Sao Paulo for who knows what reason, were shown with him standing in a surfing position in the middle of some street, water gushing hard up against his ankles.  The other funny thing is that the group of guys who were playing soccer on the field right below my window never actually stopped playing during the storm’s fury.  I guess that tells you the intensity of a Brazilian thunderstorm pales in comparison to the intensity of a Brazilian futebol game.

I want to mention one comparison between Brazilian drivers and Minnesota drivers.  You know how we drive pretty confidently in the snow.  Even during actual snow fall, our traffic may slow but if we aren’t having a full blown blizzard, we can still get from A to B without too much hubbub.  Whereas such a disturbance down in the southern half of the US all but closes the entire city.   Well Brazilian drivers are just as bold and agile during those hard rains I was describing.  Carlos and I were on a major highway just out side of Sao Paulo when such a circumstance blew up.  It was one of those patches of rain you can see coming because the entire landscape ahead of you turns white and every car coming at you has it lights on and windshield wipers blaring.  When the  giant raindrops started to hit the surface of the car more rapidly than the wiper could keep up I figured I would start to see more cars pulled over to wait out the storm or at least slowed down to just a crawl whilst diligently following the man’s tail lights ahead of you.  You know, like WE do it!  Nope.  The only guys taking a break were the ones on motorcycles who stopped underneath bridges as driving any further would have been impossible.  Instead we all kept cruising at a slightly slower but plenty healthy speed.  Just goes to show we are all experts of our own experience.

Other than the rain, there is only one other thing to worry your little head here. Deadly landslides appear on the news just about every other night, although I haven’t seen any with my own eyes yet.  You can picture a Brazilian landscape in your mind with the often very steep hill sides and on those hill sides small poorly built houses stacked practically right on top of one another.  With such water saturation as there already is in the soil, it doesn’t take much to bring the house down, so to speak.  Sadly, there are usually tragic consequences to this occurrence.  I’m sure there are many people who live with a constant fear that their house might be the next.  Sounds a little like tornado terror with a twist!

In 7 days I will be leaving this hot zone and climbing to cooler heights as I head north for my second visit home in a little less than 1 year.  Obviously I was not thinking clearly when I booked my travel for early February.  I love the feeling of the temperature being the same outside as it is in.  Right now my windows are wide open and I am walking around barefoot in shorts and T-shirt.  This time next week I will be huddled up in layers of long underwear, sweatshirts, thick jackets, hats, gloves and boots.  Assuming my mom remembers to bring all of these items to pick me up at the airport because I sure as heck don’t have them here.  I don’t even think those things are sold in Sao Paulo.

Coming home will be an adventure.  I will have two weeks with which to solve all pre-wedding ceremony issues and then Carlos and his parents will join me in MN (and yes, they are worried about the weather too).  Then we will have a small wedding celebration with some family and friends and shortly thereafter we will be off to CA for a one week honeymoon/vacation.  Carlos’s parents don’t speak English and no one in my family or in the surrounding area where I live speaks Portuguese so this ought to be real interesting.  Carlos will have to play the official sworn public translator for everyone for about 2 weeks straight which I am sure he will not tire of in the least 😉

A shopping street downtown

He and I just bought our rings yesterday here in Sao Paulo.  There is an street downtown that is know for selling and buying jewelry, especially gold.   We went there and were immediately lured into a tall decrepit building by a guy hired for this exact task.  He lead us into a rickety elevator and up we went 10 floors to a small, white, stale room filled with customers waiting to look at a single counter display of rings.  The place didn’t sit well with me at first but here the deals are good because you order the rings and then they make it for you not vice versa.  We found the ones we wanted on a different somewhat more accommodating level within the building and walked away completely satisfied with ourselves.  It may not have been Tiffany’s as Carlos was first suggesting but to be honest, I just couldn’t pay those prices for a brand name, there’s just too much of my mother in me.

On that note I return back to my day and the setting sun in a blue sky.  Still no rain yet as would of course be the case just to make its point upon my blog “See, it doesn’t rain everyday!”  Then the rain will come just as I am about to leave the apt for my English classes tomorrow just to make its point “See, I only do this so that you Minnesotans don’t forget how important the weather is!” Yes, how could I forget?

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Tis the season????

It would be hard for me to imagine a stranger holiday season than mine has been so far. With no Thanksgiving to kick me off into the spirit of things I’ve had no trigger to compel me into feeling particularly festive.  Suddenly out of nowhere there were lighted palm trees and building decorated with large red bows and bells.  Of course moving into the summer season hasn’t helped at all since it’s easily 80 or more degrees in the sun.  It’s just not Christmas time to me with out frosted windows and red runny noses coupled with the warmth of fires and hot cider. Mmmmm hot cider.  I digress.

I think whats finally starting to wake me up to the holiday spirit is, unfortunately, the sudden night sweats brought on by not having done the christmas shopping yet and time weaseling itself away from me.  Interesting thing is, to Brazilians this all normal.  I was helping to wrap fake christmas presents for a decorative set up recently at the Pro-Vida country club when a few volunteers broke into spontaneous caroling “We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” This English song was for my benefit because they do have their own carols in Portuguese.  I must admit it did succeed in putting a smile on my face and placing that familiar Christmas warmth in my heart.  I guess that I’m getting a little excited after all but I do miss the holidays in Minnesota.

Carlos explaining the x-lif surgery on TV

On to what has been new and fun.  Shortly after my last post, Carlos had the momentous occasion to appear on a live TV show, something akin to Good Morning America called Manha Maior (basically Big Morning).  He was interviewed by a way too sexy talk show host who asked him questions about the health of our spines and about a particular surgery called the XLIF (Extreme Lateral Interbody Fusion).   Developed by Carlos’s boss, the XLIF is a minimally invasive surgical procedure to remove and replace bad discs by going through the side of the torso jus under the ribs rather than reaching the spine through the front or back of the body.  I stayed at home to watch and record the event.  Plus my nervous energy would have driven him nuts.  He did a great job though, answering all the questions like an experienced pro, and not running off with the sexy host so all was well.  He got to be a TV star for a day.

Beyond that experience, we have had the opportunity to do some traveling around Brazil in the last couple of months.  Seeing more of Brazil is constant goal of mine. I feel I live in such a vast and varied land which I have only seen 5% of.

Park in Carmo do Rio Claro

One of the trips I took was with Carlos and his brother Renato to visit their father who was spending time in his home town.  Carmo do Rio Claro is in the state of Minas Gerais in the interior of Brazil, about a 5 hour drive north east of Sao Paulo.  This was a wonderful experience for me.  Not only did I get to see plenty of the country side of Brazil, the town itself is wonderfully tiny.  In fact the population is around 15,000. It’s just slightly bigger than New Ulm, my hometown.  Because of this alone, I automatically liked the place.  It has sweet, clean, cobblestone streets with plenty of parks dotting the city landscape.  Also in most any direction you look, you can actually see

Me, & Carlos's brotherRenato and father Pedro

the country side in the distance; this is a luxury coming from Sao Paulo.  One of my favorite parts of this visit was seeing large numbers of actual completely free and wild green PARROTS!  You can see them circling in pairs or groups over the city.  You can hear their loud squawks while sipping coffee in the kitchen.   They even regularly land in the large mango and palm trees just in the back of Carlos’s grandparent’s home.  If you can’t tell by my overly descriptive sightings of these animals….I was terribly exuberant about it.

A shop where homemade liquor is sold

Of course the other thing I was most equally excited about was the inexpensive hand-woven crafts and other decorative goods made by local artists.  I knew I had been saving up for something living in a tremendously expensive city, not buying a thing unless I absolutely needed it.  This place was it, with gift shops up and down the street ready to welcome me.  Though because I am “rich American”, I always keep my mouth shut when we go into a shop and let Carlos do talking at first so that they don’t automatically inflate the prices.  Just to stop and give you an example of this problem, I was by myself at the street market yesterday and a fruit vendor tried to overcharge me a full 50 reis (30 dollars) more for the fruit he was selling me, more than tripling the actual price.  Twice I had to pull my money from his hand and take him through the fruit I was buying counting out loud in broken Portuguese how much everything cost according to the signs.  He still got away with overcharging me near 5 dollars but that was my lesson learned for not having just walked away and left the produce there.   Then in utter shame and frustration I went and cried to the movie vendor about it, which in itself was just as humiliating, ugh.

Anyway back to pleasant thoughts about Carmo. Like I said, shops there were cheap and the good were wonderful so I bought blankets, pillows, place settings, rugs and other nicknacks enough to decimate the space in the car for our suitcases. Carlos, practically had to threaten going home with out me in order to get me to leave but to my credit I was thinking of gifts for others plus his brother went about as nuts as I did.  Secretly, I can’t wait to go back. *rubbing hands together maniacally*

More recently Carlos and I took another trip to a fairly large city (600,000 people) in northern Sao Paulo state called Ribeirao Preto, about 4 hours north by car. I am woman so I measure distance in travel time, not kilometers 🙂   Carlos had a convention there to attend so I was going along for the sake of going.  The problem was when we decided to finally book a hotel room, there were absolutely none to be found.  Turns out there were two big medical conventions in town and everything was sold out.  Well we instead booked a room at a cute bed and breakfast we saw advertised on the internet in a town just 20 kilometers away. I was thrilled.

We arrived at dusk at the address of the bed and breakfast to find a rusty garage door in a wall that aligned the empty gravel street we were on and zero signage to tell you that indeed this place existed.  When Carlos opened the door we saw nothing like what the internet displayed.  It was unkept, unappealing and unwelcoming not to mention unattended.  No one came to ask who we were.  We decided in that moment to abandon ship and find a hotel somewhere else in the little town next to Ribeirao Preto.  So we searched from hotel to hotel…..nothing.  Turns out they too had a convention in town (hockey of all things) and had no rooms either.  At this point I was perfectly desperate and ready to cry.  It was almost midnight and we were 4 hours from home with no place to go.  We drove back to Ribeirao Preto just to take the risk that maybe something would give.  While driving into town I saw the sign HOTEL in the distance so we checked it out.  Sure enough, they had a room.  The only reason why was that it was such a brand new hotel they hadn’t had a chance to advertise themselves yet.  YAY!  By 1am we were saftely and exhaustedly in bed, bellies filled with takeout pizza.

Next day I was free to roam the streets of this new city, blending in as best I could with my pasty skin, blond head and constant lost expressions flashing across my falsely serene face.  This city is actually know for a few things.  One is the beer, which I will get to in a bit.  The other is for its heat!  In this city was one of the first times where I can actually say I felt slightly uncomfortable from the high temps here in Brazil.  To give you some perspective, each day I shadow hop my way around Sao Paulo to avoid prolonged exposure to the powerful sun.   Even though it might be hot in the sun, I have always marveled at how reasonable the temps are if you’re not standing directly in it.  Ribeirao Preto was more or less just hot.  This didn’t bother me so much walking around the city, until I got lost.  I’ll get to that in a bit too.


I don’t know if it was a sign from God or what but turns out that the big mall in Ribeirao Preto is called Shopping Santa Ursula.  I think I already pointed out in an earlier post that the word for Mall here in Brazil is actually Shopping.  Which is totally confusing for an American because that’s exactly what you’re suppose to do at the MALL.  So anyway, I decided destiny wanted me to shop:)  Afterwards I tried following my foot steps the 8 or so blocks back to the hotel except, I got distracted by things like the Gum Tree (I officially appointed this title)  where, apparently, everyone in the city puts their gum when through with it.  After walking for much longer than I figured I should have been, I realized I was lost.  I was trying to take small peeks at the map I had downloaded onto my IPod but I didn’t want to attract any more notice to me than my frenzied energy was already putting out so it took a while to pinpoint my location.  Meanwhile cars with shirtless young men were deliberately driving by slowly making cat calls and older men sitting at tables in sidewalk cafes were taking long unabashed looks at me from head to toe.  This behavior is more common in smaller cities and rural parts of the country (just as in other latin culture counties) not so much in big cities like Sao Paulo, which is why, in that situation, I was a bit frightened by this normally harmless conduct.  Up until that point, I hadn’t been exposed to it here.  I did finally make it back to the hotel by dark but not without a few sweaty bouts of nervousness (and heat, like I said).

Carlos and his friend at Penguin Bar drinking the famous chopp beer

Later that night Carlos and I and an old friend of Carlos’s  went to the famous Pinguim Bar where they serve what is considered the Best Beer in Brazil!  Actually it’s not considered beer but rather chopp, a different type of beer that isn’t pasteurized and has a very mild taste.  Many beers here are actually chopps.  Pinguim beer itself apparently runs through meters of ice chilled piping before it’s poured directly into your glass which somehow adds to the flavor.  The bar itself is antique looking and cozy.  The food was great.  I will also admit that….it was indeed the best beer I have had so far in Brazil.  They have it right!

Next day we drove to the local out doors zoological gardens where I saw my first wild tamarin monkeys.  These tiny little monkeys, native to Brazil and other South American countries, are possibly the cuuutest creatures I have witnessed next to lop eared bunnies and koala bears.   Their bodies are about 1 foot long with faces the size of a silver dollar and long stripped tails.  They make sweet high pitch squeaks for sounds and quick snappy movements.  Carlos was feeding them small chunks of a banana I fortunately left in my purse.  Unfortunately I can’t place the video we took of that on this blog but I encourage you to look them up on Google if you get the urge.

Renato and me before the performance began

More recently Carlos’s family and I saw a performance at the Pro-Vida country club where his parents have a small house.  The club itself has several thousand members but on this day for the musical performance, the club was open for anyone involved in the organization that wanted to attend.  On the hugh grass amphitheater, we squeezed 15,000 people in front of the stage, which itself was built large enough to have accommodated a world famous rock-band, with two large screens on either end for close-ups.  Looking around me as I sat there on the grass amongst a sea of heads writhing under a glowing full moon, I was reminded of how this was a population of people larger than the actual town I grew up in and we were all gathered on this one hillside.  It felt at once intimidating and enormous but also inclusive and warm.  So far being a member here has given me a kind of home community, a place where many people know your name and where everyone waves and greets you as you walk by.  The feeling I had was both arcane and peaceful.  One of belonging and still not knowing quite where I fit yet.  And that’s okay.  I know I fit perfectly in the warm embrace of Carlos’s arms, which is where I will pass the holidays this year amongst my new family and friends.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone.  May you see where you perfectly fit as well.

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Deus é Brasileiro

Deus é Brasileiro (God is Brazilian). This is a common saying I learned from my now husband Carlos on our recent little honeymoon to one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the privilege of visiting, right here in Brazil.  This saying is unmistakably indicative of why the Brazilian people are very happy to call this land home, and also very proud, in fact, to be Brazilian.  The beautiful plentiful land, abundant with every kind of tropical plant and animal life and a very beautiful warm people to boot.   To say God is a Brazilian here is to give credit to a creator who blessed this land with all of the above so much so that he must certainly live here himself.

Whether or not God truly lives here full time or merely vacations on one of the fabulous beaches once a year, Brazil most definitely offers some scenery bordering on ‘heavenly’ as I found out this past month.  Before I go into that let me start from where I last left off…..oh yeah, getting married.

Carlos and I emerged into a beautiful white chapel filled with a glowing light and people dressed to the nines, while the music of a small symphony complete with a sparkling soprano soloist chimed out Ave Maria from the choir loft above our heads.  Afterward the multitudes were entertained with fine dinning and music at one of the most luxurious event halls in the city.  It was a night to remember for all of us who were there.  My wedding you ask? Nope, it was the wedding of one of Carlos’s collogues the weekend before ours.  Hehe gotcha!  However, I bring this up to make the point that though the civil marriage ceremony Carlos and I had was in every way different from the large glamourous affairs that often take place here, it was in every way sweetly and perfectly our own.  I wouldn’t change it. ( I must quickly point out here that a larger more glamourous affair will take place sometime next year in Minnesota…that is if I can get my behind in gear and attempt to start planning it)

We got ready for the brief ceremony, me in my little summery white eyelet dress with a matching bolero that I had hurriedly purchased the day before but was somehow miraculously happy with, while Carlos put on his suit.  His parents (our witnesses) met us at our apt and we four took the short trip to the little neighborhood cartorio, similar to a court house I guess, with out an actual court.  Here we all waited with a funny combination of nervous giggles and tapping feet for the judge to show for our appointment at 11am.  While I was waiting all gussied up, a lady who had been eyeing me from the a few feet away walked up to me and said (in Portuguese) “Are you getting married today?” Then I, in my impeccably white dress with all the trimmings, replied “Sim!” (yes!) with a spreading smile across my now blushing face.  She cheerily congratulated me and went about her business.  At that exact moment I really started to feel like a bride.  When the Judge arrived practically on time, a rare occurrence in Brazil, we four filed into a little sunlit room complete with a desk, a persian carpet and one large Brazilian flag in the corner.  I was very jittery for a couple reasons, the obvious one being what was about to happen, the other being I was explicitly instucted to NOT speak English nor could anyone speak English to me while in front of the judge.  It is a strict policy in order to insure that no one enters into this contract without being fully aware of what was going on.  You must know enough Portuguese to understand what is said during the ceremony.  So as the judge and his office assistant stood in front of us and started to read off the required statements I grabbed Carlos’s hand and just squeezed as I stood by his side.  I tried to really listen to every word and soak the fleeting present moment in completely while Edna, Carlos’s mom, captured every move with a picture every 20 seconds or so.  Shortly after the Judge began to speak he was already reading off vows to which Carlos and I both responded “Sim” at the correct moments.  This was the only word that I had to speak and soon, after signing the certificate, it was finished.  The embarrassing part began now because suddenly everyone was trying to tell me to do things like “hand over your purse so we can take a picture” or “kiss the groom” but in my airy state of mind the Portuguese commands were hitting a mental road block right in front of the judge who is suppose to think I have a good command of the language.  I knew they were telling me to do things so I just guessed at what those things were, like ‘Oh, you want me to hold the camera.’ and was wrong about four times before I finally guessed right. Oops.*blushing again*

Other than those little off moments everything was wonderfully sweet.  Carlos and I were on cloud nine together.  After the civil ceremony was over we ate with family at a delicious Arabic restaurant.  This type of ethnic food I’ve grown enormous appreciation for since moving to Brazil.  The closest thing to it that I had eaten up in the States were gyros and hummus.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts Carlos’s mother’s family is Arabic, Syrian to be exact.  To me it was a great finish to the afternoon to celebrate in the atmosphere of this rich heritage that I am now associated with through marriage to Carlos.  His mother joked that she wishes I would have taken Carlos’s full name which would make me Ursula Clara Abdalla Castro.  But as it stands in the documents at the court house here in Sao Paulo, my full name is officially Ursula Clara Christ Castro.  It’s a lot of C’s I know but women here do not drop their last names so I just try not to spit too much when having to say the whole thing.

A day later Carlos and I embarked on a little honeymoon to Paraty, Brazil.  Paraty is known for its historical sites in a wonderfully preserved area of old houses, shops and churches built by some of the first Portuguese settlers.  It sits right on the south Atlantic Ocean and is located about four hours northeast of Sao Paulo in the state of Rio de Janeiro.  Carlos chose to go there because he had never been yet and because I had mentioned once that I had read about an area of paradisiacal beaches I would love to see called Trindade which is just a few kilometers from Paraty.  Along the beautiful drive to Paraty we stopped at an enchanting little waterfall so I could frolic in the water like a 4 year old but as Carlos watched me, a man approached him and asked if we were going to continue on the road to Paraty, to which he replied ‘Yes.’  The man then went on to explain to Carlos that shortly after this point the road turns to, I think the man’s exact words were, ‘9 km of pure hell’ before you reach the city.  “Tah! 9 km!” Carlos and I rejected the idea together in the car afterwards, “That’s nothing.”  “What is hell by his standards anyway?”  “Yeah, probably just bumpy.”  “I’m sure he is exaggerating.”  Folks, if a local Brazilian takes the time to walk up to you and warn you of impending danger….please advise.  By the way, DON”T always trust that Google maps will lead you down the best path, it doesn’t care a bit about your safety concerns and will be completely unresponsible for your possible death 🙂 A few miles after the waterfall and after we had utterly convinced ourselves all would be perfectly well…the pavement stopped and a dirt road continued.  This was exactly at the point where Sao Paulo State ended and Rio De Janeiro State began.  We laughed “Oh this is what he meant.”  Then about a 100 yards in the fog began to encroach.  We were heading into thick jungle at a downward slope in order to reach sea level and Paraty.  Not long after that the road became less of a road and more of a partially dry river bed.  As you might expect with river beds there was a healthy combination of rocks the size of my torso jutting dangerously from the ground as well as areas of drop off close to 2 feet down.  Now remember this is NOT a river bed…it’s a road!  We actually passed two or three cars attempting to go up and my imagination is unable to summon the picture of their success.  It was, simply put, the most atrociously god-awful road I have ever in my life driven on, or even seen for that matter. The 9 kilometers took us near two hours!!  In the beginning Carlos and I were communicating phrases like “Okay, now drive on that side of the road.” “Watch out for that rock”  and “Wow I can’t believe how foggy it is.”  As time ticked by and thoughts turned darker “Man, anyone could break down here and no one could tow you out or help really.” “This is like one of those horror flicks where the honeymooning couple goes down the wrong road and mentally defective inbreds come out and capture them to eat for supper.”  Yep, after that last comment, by the way, Carlos asked me to stop saying those kind of things anymore.  I agreed.  It got seriously scary and we got progressively quiet as the tension really set in.  When we checked our GPS after an hour hoping we were almost through, our hopes sunk to see we had half way to go and from the twists and turns ahead on the map, we knew it would probably get worse.  If we had not had four-wheel drive I don’t think we could have made it.  At one point we passed over a “bridge.”  It was a 3 inch think cement slab  with zero railings laid over a gap in the land that went mostly straight down on my side.  I panicked so terribly I clawed at the dash board to hold on to something and pressed my jaw tightly shut then went completely still while we rode over it.  Much of the time on this road I was forgetting to breathe due to hysteria but Carlos held himself together and kept driving bit by bit.  Suddenly just as quick as it all began the road turned back to pavement again and Carlos and I were literally Out of the Woods!  I could have kissed the black top.

Shortly after arriving in Paraty, a man on a bicycle convinced us to stay at one of the local Pousada’s (similar to a bed and breakfast) that he worked for.  Paraty doesn’t really have hotels, only these  mostly small privately owned Inns but they are wonderful and not very expensive.  We followed the man on bike through part of the old town to our destination.  As we drove over the cobble stone streets common to most old districts both Carlos and I quickly started experiencing flash backs to the nighmarish road we just exited.  Thankfully it wasn’t long before we came to the Imperial Inn where we spent the next few nights in comfort.

We set off for Trindade after leaving our bags at the Pousada and found the beautiful, twisty and quite hidden road that leads to this amazing area by the sea.  My first glance at the beach from high up the road was love at first sight.  I swear it was straight out of that imaginary place you are supposed to go in your mind when you want to feel relaxation and peace.  The ocean was a deep azul and the beach a creamy white.  In the bays giant boulders not quite big enough to be islands of their own right stood out in defiance of the large white swells crashing against their front sides every few seconds causing mighty splashes that rose yards into the air. In order to get to most of the beaches you pass through the lovely little village of Trindade.  It’s considered a hippie hang out with many of the young people wearing tie dyed clothes and not making an attempt to disguise the fact they are smoking marijuana.  Its a cute and peaceful little village where the main mood seems to be “Hey, lets chill.”  The beaches at Tridade are not huge but still big and separated by chunks of thick luscious forest.  The water is close up to where people sit and drink at the tables provided by the local beach bars and, at the time of year we were visiting, the temperature of the ocean was quite nippy.  But the sand was silken and and the strong waves gushing and crashing against the beach provided entertainment to a Minnesotan like me for hours.  We watched the sun set behind the mountains and headed back to Paraty with perma-grin from having spent time in such an amazing place.

In Paraty we walked through the old town visiting shops and ate at a sweet little restaurant that served delicious Moqueca which is a baked stew which, in this case, had sea food ingredients and put on the table simmering hot in a personal size cauldron with a side of rice.  Over the next few days we basically repeated ourselves.  We spent ample time in Trindade exploring each of its beaches which are connected by narrow, steep paths through the surrounding tropical forest.  This was great for me because if there is one thing that I like to do it’s climb stuff.  Carlos could vouch for me here.  Every time I went missing from his view I would usually reappear nearby on the top of some huge boulder smiling down on him.  The forest too was right out of story books.  You can imagine the flora.  Leaves the size of a 42′ flat screen TVs and trees with enormous undulating trunks and spindly vines hanging in every direction. It was an wonderful experience.  On the top of one path, shortly before our destination which was a large natural tide pool, we came across a small bar with walls made out of glass bottles and clay which gave off a stained glass appearance.  The owner said he came here 15 years ago from the south of Brazil on a short vacation and never went back.  I have to admit, I was already having the same thoughts.

After our visit to the natural pool we opted for the boat ride back across the bay to the first beach rather than climb our way back through the way we came.  I wasn’t hot on the idea because it was seriously windy and the boat was a little open tin fishing vessel and did I mention the ocean both attracts and terrifies me.  Just an hour earlier I had watched one of these boat cross the bay and with every wave it appeared the little boat had been swallowed by sea.  Well, I’m always up for a challenge so we climbed in with four other people and tied some old orange life jackets around our torsos then the boat guy started for the open sea.  Okay, in reality the bay isn’t huge so the trip only took maybe 15 minutes but it was the 2nd time during this honeymoon thingy that I was scared for my life.  The waves were indeed large and intimidating just as I had noticed earlier but this time I was in the middle of them.  Each swell, towering well above us, came at us from the side.  The scary ones that looked as if they were about to cap and roll in on our heads the driver had to quickly veer the vessel straight into just in time to avoid us tipping.  Now had we of tipped yes, I am sure I would have survived but my precious ipod touch, my life line to the world, would not have and that in itself left me shaking.  We arrived on the other shore wet and with a few injured passengers because as some of us exited the boat a large wave rushed in knocking the boat into body parts and causing an unexpected ruckus.  Still at the end of the day Carlos and I kept recounting what a cool place Trindade is and telling each other what a fun time we had.  The only thing to really suffer was my skin, which I had stupidly forgot to slather with sunscreen. Without noticing it, I let myself become a lobster, or shrimp as Carlos liked to call me, over the course of the day and paid for it the rest of the week….well worth the price though.

On our final day we took an exquisite 4 hour boat tour around some of the thousands of island off the coast of Paraty.   The large wooden schooner held about 20 of us, many of whom were also on honeymoon.  We laid comfortably around admiring the fabulous imagery that constantly set before us.  The boat crew served lunch and also stopped at 4 small islands giving everyone a chance to swim in the turquoise water, if you could handle the chill, or walk around the pristine beaches.  I, unfortunately, didn’t enjoy the sunny weather as much as other because of my already deep fried skin but I couldn’t resist the whole time.  The four year old frolicker in me burst out and had me daring the surf and climbing large rocks again for a bit.  Too fun!!

Too fun is what best fits my conclusion of that weekend.  A month later I still look back and ponder “Geez was it that wonderful?” It was.  It was as if God Himself had blessed the whole thing with just the right amount of  awe, adventure, laughter and love.  Maybe it’s because He really is a Brazilian and lives right there in Trindade or Paraty watching over those happy people on those perfect beaches.  Or maybe He just feels bad for those way-ward tourists who get deceived into taking that 9km road through hell before reaching heaven.

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The Night Before

Well, it is the night before the day I get married and I am so entirely out of focus right now that somehow I figured the best use of my time is to sit down and write.   This is an interesting choice considering it takes a lot of what I do not have right now, which is ultimately FOCUS.  Where to begin when you have a mind that feels like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Marriage I am realizing is an amazing thing the concept which seems so simple.  You are in love and you plan to stay that way and so you typically have a little (or big) ceremony to show everyone and God that this is how it is between the two of you.  Good, like I said sounds very simple.  Yet, why is it that brides and grooms-to-be all over the world right now are flipping out.  If I have it right they are running around the house in their underwear trying to get 50 things done and yet not fully accomplishing one……cause that is what I am doing.

Even though Carlos and I have been saying over and over again to ourselves and everyone else “This is just a Marriage, the Wedding will be this winter in Minnesota!!” we can both feel each other’s anticipation building thickly the way the humidity steadily increases on a hot July morning. Every time we look each other in the eye for longer than 2.5 seconds you can see the thought flicker across our faces, “Holy S#%t, we’re getting married!” No matter how much Carlos and I played it down, because after all, we are only having a civil ceremony in a small courthouse which has the ambiance of a Kmart, it’s STILL special, and nerve-wrecking, and wonderful and a really big deal!

I have to admit that not having anyone from my family or friends from back home here to go through this with me hasn’t been easy.  That’s what happens when you choose to get hitched 5,000 miles from home with 3 weeks notice ;(  But I am dealing with it fine.  I dragged Carlos’s sweet mother Edna with me today on a little shopping spree to find just the right dress.  Nothing too fancy which would scream “BRIDE HERE” and nothing to casual which wouldn’t say anything at all.  Luck being with us, we ran right into the dress with in 5 minutes of walking into the mall.  The first dress I tried on I bought!  Then somehow luck left because it took another 60 minutes to find the accessories.  I am about to try it all on and skype call my mom to show how it all looks.  Hopefully the sight will pluck some unconscious motherly-guilt strings and she breaks down and hops the first plane out to Sao Paulo to be here in time for the ceremony.  Just kidding mom. (I think)

Somehow tonight me and Carlos will both pull ourselves together separately and then join at the hip tomorrow in front of the Brazilian Judge.  There at 11:00am I will be crossing my fingers and listening intently to understand every Portuguese word the judge says, lest I screw up and he decides I need to come back another day with a professional translator, as is procedure for foreigners who don’t have proper mastery of the language.  This would be very bad because as I said in the last post I only have a couple weeks to file for permanent residence here which I cannot do with out a marriage certificate.

So here is to Miss Ursula Christ who will no longer go by that name in a few more hours.  And here is to Carlos Abdalla Castro who might be quietly fantasizing about running away tonight but whom I know will stay because he loves me and I love him.  And here is to everyone who ever ran around their house like the Mad-Hatter in underwear the night before they were to be married.  God bless us all.

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Here Goes Everything

Back to Brazil from a long time away.  I spent nearly a full month back in the good old US of A visiting everyone and anyone I could manage to squeeze into my sights and arms for a bit.  One thing funny I notice about me is…I am not afraid to go places, rather I am afraid to leave.  I dislike making plans, packing drives me nuts (especially when it come to choosing shoes!!), and of course I hate to say good-bye.  I think that last part is what the issue really comes down to for me.  Apparently I have not picked up very well on the Buddhist practice of non-attachment because saying good-bye to people and places for any extended amount of time actually gives me mild anxiety and often makes my heart ache.  So admittedly, before I actually left for the US…. I didn’t really want to go.  Naturally as with all things Ursula, I adjusted quickly and after saying my unhappy goodbyes to Carlos and Brazil, I arrived in the United States radiant with joy.

My nephew Paul holding me hostage

I spent the first few days of my journey in Denver, CO with my sister Heidi and her family.  Having a sister like Heidi is why everyone should have a sister, in my opinion.  Growing up, she was a great source of clothing I could steal, wear to school, then put back in the closet before she got home.  Now we are awesome pals and she actually just gives me her clothes after she is through with them which generally takes about 6 months, it’s great!  I also got to visit with one of my oldest friends, Nora, who lives in Denver too.  Nora, who is living with cancer, is one of the strongest and most courageous people I know.  Time spent with her is an invitation to new and old memories with shots of laughter and tears in between.   I value her perspective immensely.  In the end, the few days I spent in Denver may have been enough to get shot 500 times by the lego-made automatic weapons of my two nephews but never enough to feel like I was ready to leave.

Marianne's new toy

From there I flew to Minnesota and sank into the arms of my parents whom I didn’t realize I missed so much until I heard my dad’s notorious whistle across Humphrey Terminal in Minneapolis.  It’s the same whistle he used to call us kids home for dinner, like herding hungry farm animals in from the range and it still works to gain our attention every time.  Being back home was a blurry blast.  I managed to see most everyone I could muster sometimes meeting with 3 or 4  friends a day.  I played with all my BFF Marianne’s new roller toys, I hung out at a lake with family and did some hard-core tubing with my brother Robert and his 3 children.  

My growing nephews and me

To my horror, being gone so long has allowed time for my nephews to grow nearly as tall as me!! I was forced to dunk my oldest nephew Noah in the water a few times so that he could remember who is boss.  This might not be an easy thing to do next time I come home 😦

As close as I got to Ms. Liberty

From Minnesota I flew to NYC and met up with Carlos to spend a week there sightseeing and taking a PRO-VIDA class (see earlier posts for what Pro-Vida is).  Carlos and I always have a good time traveling together.  We did things like take the Staten Island Ferry (because I thought that was where the Statue of Liberty was located…its not), get yelled at by a NY cop for standing/blocking the sidewalk behind the Good Morning America broadcast and get yelled at for being customers standing on the wrong side of a rope

Brooklyn Bridge

 while waiting for pizza at the famous Grimaldes Pizza joint in Brooklyn.  I also walked across the Brooklyn Bridge reliving the moment in my head where Miranda and her husband Steve rejoin their relationship in the center of this bridge in the first Sex and the City Movie;)  

At the Pro-Vida course I met some wonderful people I hope to keep in touch with and I also learned quite a bit more considering the first course I took in Sao Paulo was in Portuguese.  I am also glad we went two weeks ago and not this week, considering the forecast as of today.

With Friends at the Pro-Vida course

 
 
A little engagment party
A little engagement party

One thing I learned when I was in MN: When in doubt about who to celebrate your engagement with when in a foreign country, go home and your loving friends will throw you a party or two.   I want to say a Big Thank You to all of my friends and family back home for everything you did to celebrate with me.  I felt so loved.  Another important thing I learned about good friendships is that no matter how long you are apart, you can pickup where you left off and for that I am so grateful.  In some ways it was as if I had never left.  Another thanks is also due for everyone who listened diligently and supportively to all my wedding related worries.  unfortunately, this is where the stress began.

One night while I was laying in my bed in New Ulm I made the fairly-helpful mistake of looking up online all the ins and outs of what an American Citizen needs to get married in Brazil.  I spent hours reading nightmarish accounts of stressed out foreigners trying to make sense of the documents needed that have to be stamped, translated, filled out, dropped off, picked up and filed away with the various proper authorities all over the city then wait out a 30day period before legally marrying. The problem for me was that I would have to accomplish this plus, with marriage certificate in hand, begin registering for my permanent residence status here in Brazil all within the amount of time I have left on my tourists visa which, when I arrived back here nearly two weeks ago, was less than two months.  The permanent residence issue is the most important.  In reality it will take almost two years to get but once I actually register for it, I can stay and work in Brazil and not be handcuffed, interrogated and dragged out of the country for being an illegal alien.  Slight exaggeration perhaps but hey, you don’t mess with the law in a foreign country.

The good thing about looking into all of that stressful stuff was that I knew enough to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate and then send it to the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago to be authenticated and legalized while I was home.  Getting that first step done is always good.  The second step is to hand everything over to your wonderful Brazilian man whom you then feed and encourage and soon everything happily comes together.  Okay that is not entirely true, I did what I could in dealings with the American Embassy and collecting/carrying around all the right documents but Carlos spent hours driving back and forth to places and did 90% of the communicating, not to mention spent a good deal of money. 

 For as laid back as the Brazilian culture appears to be, their bureaucracy is a surprisingly different story.  However, looking back at on all the stories I read about what a terrible process it was for other people, I must say I think they’re paperwork wimps.  It really wasn’t that bad just time and money consuming.  The orderly little German in me actually enjoyed it a little.  I can say that now because…… today was the day!!  We handed everything in at the local courthouse and the date for the civil wedding is set.  Ready, drum roll everyone…….(OMG, I can’t believe it, I said I never would get married now here I am, holy s*#t! )  September 15th!!

On this day my name as it has stood firm for my whole entire life as Ursula Christ will now be Ursula Christ Castro (in Brazil you don’t drop the maiden name).  I am kinda happy I will keep Christ because, as you know, I hate to say goodbye to things.  Carlos’s mom was joking that I should take on Carlo’s full name which includes his mom’s maiden name, Abdalla.  This would make me Ursula Christ Abdalla Castro.  In case you didn’t catch it that puts God in my name twice plus a famous dictator.  Cool.  I teased with Carlos that the extra holiness would make me completely unstoppable, add in the political aspect and definitely I should run for president!

A further plan for a grander wedding ceremony will be located somewhere in Minnesota this winter hopefully.  More information to come on that.  Meanwhile Carlos is still addicted to CNN and his Vikings Pj pants and I am still busy battling my body for control.  After I got the stomach problem figured out my skin decided to become hyper sensitive and develop red welts wherever I itch, that and my hair has been steadily abandoning ship since like June.  We’ve concluded it’s mostly stress and/or allergy related.  Ah well,  I suppose the body also needs time to adjust to the change of location and life, not just the mind.  I wait patently for mine to decided it likes it here in Brazil as much as I do.

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The Big ? and more.

A walk through the park

On a bright warm morning in the calm of a small garden dedicated to one of my most favorite women, Joan of Arc, surrounded by tall trees and curling leaves shuffling around with the mild wind, Carlos bent down on one knee and with ring in hand asked me to marry him.  With a twinkle in my eye I delightfully responded, Yes!  One of the things I love about him is his willingness to try to do things right by me, even if that means proposing in the fashion of North American custom which requires a bit more….shall we say, flair.

Brazilian men don’t go down on one knee and don’t typically buy any kind of diamond ring for an engagement.  The way I have heard, it is not as noteworthy a moment here as the way Americans tend to view it.  You see “the big question” asked on countless movies and TV shows.  Men go to great lengths to make it something special for their women, to make it something to remember forever.  And we do.

For me it all meant something, every last part.  The walk there, the fact that Carlos insisted on taking a photograph of me in front of the Joan of Arc memorial, almost as if I would soon be forever changed as an “engaged woman” even though I didn’t know it yet.  Then, after I said Yes, we sat on the park bench alone enjoying the private moment reflecting on our past, remaining aware of the sweetness of the present moment and naturally contemplating our future together.  This day was not only my birthday but  was also almost exactly one year to the day that we met last summer while I was celebrating my birthday then.  I couldn’t escape the stupefying thought that one year earlier I simply had no idea of all that was about to befall me and again thinking about all that would happen in between this next birthday.  Call it good, bad, chance, fate, blessings or faith, we all have at it every year and with no idea what to seriously expect from life, all we can do is watch the world come at us and receive without holding on or letting go.

Kristen and Me at the botanical gardens

One of the other wonderful things that happened this last month is my old friend Kristen came to visit me for a week here in Sao Paulo!  Let me just say a few things quickly.  If it  wasn’t for Kristen: I would not have started to force myself to learn how the bus system works and I wouldn’t have gotten on the wrong bus which brought us to the old central part of town that I always wanted to explore but never had had the courage to go it alone.  If it wasn’t for Kristen: I wouldn’t have discovered the giant SGI Buddhist complex just 6 blocks from my house (she belongs to SGI in LA where she lives and practices Buddhism daily) and I wouldn’t have found out that Sao Paulo had a Safari Trail where you can hand feed ostriches or a Botanical Gardens.  If it wasn’t for Kristen: I would

Trying all the new Brazilian food. She liked the coffee best!

Giant Avocados!

never have figured out the many uses of fresh parsley for cooking or known she was such a good cook.  Also, If it wasn’t for Kristen: Carlos and I wouldn’t have watched the animated film Rio, which basically tells the story of Carlos and I except that it has parrots and takes place in Rio de Janerio, other than that though it’s darn close!  You gotta see it to believe it.  I loved watching her experience the same things that I just experienced for the first time a few months back.  For example, the disbelieving look on her face when she first saw the size of Brazilian Avocados. Kristen’s visit was also valuable to me because, as always it was so wonderful to have a piece of my old home inside my new one.

Taking the steps towards the future

It’s been a wild ride lately with lots of new discoveries awaiting me ever corner here.  Life is getting easier now that I can maneuver using the cities transit system and even have a SP Transit Card to use for speedy entrance to buses and subways.  I even began teaching English to people. Oh yeah, I am making it happen.  Carlos and I managed two dinner parties in 8 days in our apt.  One with Indian food and the other with Mexican (which by the way is hard to find here and super expensive….15 dollars for a pack of torillas, for real).  Since I found some cans of Cambells soup, my next dinner party is going to serve MN Hot-dish! Feel free to send me some Hot-dish recipes.  I have also met a few Americans here, one is a 50-60 something retired military man from CA and reminds me of my dad 🙂  He’s been here for 20 years!  All I can say to that is man, his Portuguese must be great and that I hope mine continues to improve immensely.  I can notice the strides I have made with the language and I remain patient with myself, quietly celebrating when I use the past tense correctly.  It does make it hard to connect with people here though when the extent of your conversation is “How do you like Brazil? It’s good, I like it a lot.” Yes, I can manage a bit more than that but it often feels like real substance is still missing.  Happily though, I am understanding much more and can actually catch a few jokes here and there, laughing now because something said was funny and not simply because I didn’t want to be the only one at the table with a straight face.

All the way

Noticing my sweet sparkly ring I remember now that I will be leaving my sweetheart to fend for himself for two weeks in about two days as I make the trip back to the US for a visit.  I will be in Denver and then Minnesota for two weeks then I will meet up with Carlos in New York City where I will attend another class by PRO-VIDA (if you don’t know what this is read back about two posts), this time it will be presented in English.  We will be staying for the week at Carlo’s friend’s apt situated close to Central Park and from there it’s back HOME……to Brazil and wedding plans :0

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