Friday, September 7, 2012
It's been an eventful few months, not without its share of hardships. I'll tell you what, though, I am very happy to be in Brazil! In the last few weeks leading up to my July vacation break, I made it my mission to get to know this city I'm living in.
Belém is not a city that makes a good first impression. It's rough around the edges, with stark inequality and lack of adequate services for thousands of its residents. It's dirty, disorganized, and fairly dangerous. But, hey, it's home! Here, at one extreme of the Amazon Basin, I've come to enjoy this 19th-century rubber capital turned backwater Brazilian urban sprawl.
Looking at pictures of Belém from the turn of the century, it makes me sad to see how far this city has fallen. Cobble-stone streets lined with boutiques and business offices had streetcars running down the middle. Portuguese-tiled store fronts and houses made what is now the Cidade Velha reminiscent of Lisbon's port district. The latest and greatest of European architecture and engineering brought iron constructions, opera houses, and canal systems to the city. Had the rubber bubble not burst, like so many other single product economies of its kind, Belém would have been on its way to becoming the Venice of Latin America.
Alas, it wasn't to be. The thousands who flocked here to make their fortune either left, or stayed to scratch out a living in a ruined economy. Over the years the lack of money took its toll. Belém was largely ignored by the various Brazilian governments throughout the 20th century and fell into disrepair. Most of the old architectural treasures now lay rotting in the humidity and harsh sunlight. The old commercial district still exists, but the majority of the once beautiful facades are unrecognizable, or perhaps just barely, and most of the merchandise sold there is cheap Chinese knockoffs. And it’s fairly obvious that the city’s waste management, water, and power distribution is not up to spec.
Those are the qualities of Belém you would notice if you came for a long weekend and didn’t know what to look for. The excitement and treasures are hard to find, but with the right guide, or enough time of stumbling around on your own, you would fine it’s a pretty neat place to live. Taking a walk here can yield some interesting finds. My fellow ETA Jamila and I set out to see what there was to see, and we’ve come across some great stuff. There are tons of little stores tucked away in the surrounding neighborhoods, selling everything from religious items and Amazonian potions, to toys, gifts, quality (but overpriced) apparel, cupcakes and candy. Brazilians are big on open-air markets, and several can be found within walking distance of us.
Some forward-thinking urban planner from the last century had the good sense to make plazas an important part of the original city’s layout. My favorite is Praça Batista Campos, which has a very Japanese feel to it, with tons of little parabolic bridges over koi ponds and artificial streams. The large gazebo, where you can usually find some capoeira or other dance performance happening, always has an egret or other water bird perched on top.
Then there are the hundreds and hundreds of barzinhos and bakeries all over the city, where old men sit all day sipping ice-cold Brahma beer and eating salgados. I was a regular at one of these for a while, but there are only so many variations on salty, deep-fried snacks that I can handle in the middle of the day. I’m more of a salty snack past midnight kinda guy, so I save these delicacies for the less choosey moods I find myself in at 2AM.
That’s my segue into nightlife. Brazilians pretty much know how to party wherever they are, and the state of Pará is no exception. There is no lack of clubs or bars, of varying qualities and genres, in this sweltering city. I don’t think that even with nine months I will have the time (or the money or endurance of liver) to discover all the ways to enjoy a Saturday evening in Belém. Sertanejo, forró, reggae, brega, techno-brega, funk; these are just a few of the most popular genres of music and their accompanying dances and parties that you can find in Belém, not to mention rock and all the top North American hits that play constantly.
Besides the drunk food of the early morning, Belém has some quality local and imported cuisine. There are lots of great restaurants and reasonably priced lanchonetes all over the place to settle an apetite. I’ll go into the details of food in Belém in one of my next posts, but rest assured, I certainly haven’t been going hungry.
In short, Belém has turned out to be a really interesting place to live. I certainly am not experiencing Brazil from the perspective of someone living in Rio or São Paulo, but I’m glad of where I am. In fact, traveling to those places and many other Brazilian cities has made me want to come back to Belém and get to know it as best I can. Despite some of the negative aspects, the city is growing again. There’s an excitement here, a pride I can see in the faces of the Paraenses whom I’m coming to know so well. I’m proud too; proud to have been placed in a city with such a kind people and interesting culture. I’m proud of bringing my own culture and experiences here and sharing them with in such a different place from any I’ve been before. And I’m proud that I can share this with all of you!
Keep reading! More to follow!
Friday, July 27, 2012
Thursday, June 7, 2012
This is going to be a pretty long post, so I apologize in advance to your eyes. I will be posting more before I leave Copenhagen on my experience with research, the Danish university system, and interactions with both Danes and other internationals. But I wanted to post part of a summary/reflection that I recently wrote for the Danish Fulbright Commission about my time in Copenhagen. It touches on what I've been doing here, the importance of the Fulbright program, and my thoughts on how Americans are perceived abroad. It jumps around a bit, but that's because I didn't want to post the entire document.
Funding for the Fulbright program is severely threatened in the United States; in fact, the majority of my funding this year has come from the Danish side. That's quite sad, considering that Fulbright is an American-founded program.
I spent my first few months familiarizing myself with more
of the history behind development process: the different groups that are involved,
the relations between them, and how those groups function. Three of the courses
I took this year- Nature Perception, Conflict Management, and Environmental
Impact Assessment- were particularly helpful in giving direction to my
research; In fact, I don’t think that I would have made several contacts
without these classes. I was also able to visit two park pilot sites with one
of my professors, which was a good introduction to planning similar trips on my
My advisor and I eventually decided to work on researching
and compiling an update on the national park process. 2009 was the last year that
part of her study had been published in English, and there were several key developments
during 2011-2012. We accomplished this by speaking with key people at the three
existing parks, the four potential pilot sites, and involved organizations.
The Danish national park system is not a “system” in a
cohesive management sense. The Danish Nature Agency and the Ministry of the
Environment are involved in the formation and management of the parks through
the park boards, but there is heavy coordination by the municipalities. The
emphasis placed upon agreement and cohesion in decision-making was surprising
to me, even though I had read about this approach before coming to Denmark.
This also lends itself to the high level of involvement that
Danish citizens are able to have in nature governance. I spoke with a man a
couple of weeks ago who actually split off from the Danish Society for Nature
Conservation (DSNC) to form his own interest group, “Nature and Society.” He
felt that DSNC was demonizing the agricultural community, and took action in
the hopes of improving the dialogue with farmers surrounding the pilot site
I will still be collecting data until mid-June, but in the
meantime, I’m almost done with writing a general article about what I’ve
learned while in Copenhagen. Most of the article focuses on recent developments
concerning the pilot projects, but also includes some information about the
creation of the three existing parks. The U.S. government is in the process of
adapting how the general public is included in future land management
decisions, such as the creation of nature areas and green spaces. I find the
Danish emphasis in nature management on what I have termed “functional
preservation” fascinating, and I’m looking forward to further examining how
this can be utilized in the U.S. during my time in graduate school.
I was also really impressed with the youth outreach program
created by National Park Vadehavet. I passed along their strategy and contact
information to my boss from my internship last summer.
The Danes are a wonderful people, but they can be extremely hard
to get to know, at least as a non-Dane. Most of my interaction with the Danes
was in a student context, through group work and discussion in my classes at
the University of Copenhagen. I feel that this was a good way to facilitate
deeper friendships, as we were required to spend a lot of time together. It was
much easier to branch out into going for coffee or a beer after working on a
project together – since most of my efforts to befriend Danes I do not see on a
regular basis crashed and burned. The few Danish friends I do have really
surprised me at times with how considerate and sincere they can be in their
desire to know more about my life and perception of Denmark.
I’ve already written about why the Fulbright program is more
than academic tourism, but I’d like to now return to that criticism. By definition, a tourist is merely a visitor.
In contrast, I live here in Copenhagen. Of course, I am only part of the
student community in Copenhagen, but that would also be true if I were living
in the United States. The point here is that I am part of a community; in a way
I could never hope to be if I was simply a tourist.
Additionally, there is truly no better way to understand
your own country than by living abroad. The perspective I have gained during my
year in Copenhagen has allowed me to examine the qualities that make America a
great country, as well as its flaws. The same is especially true of my ability
to reflect upon Copenhagen, a city that I had a tendency to overly romanticize
after my phenomenal DIS study abroad experience in 2009. ‘The bikes! The free
health care! The windmills!”
In making the transition from a long-term visitor to a
resident, I found Jante’s Law and the trend toward encouraging conformity in
Danish society to be frustrating at times. However, I really admire the Danish
emphasis on having a healthy balance between work and one’s home life. The
Danes have a lifestyle perspective that I wish more Americans would try to
emulate – I think we’d be much happier for doing so.
My discussions with both my Danish friends and my
international friends have made me realize that Americans have a pretty bad
reputation abroad. Our international policy and exported American pop culture
and media is mostly responsible for this negative perception. The average
American (although one of the great things I think I could argue is that, in
reality, there isn’t an average American) is confused with what is seen in
movies, TV shows and music videos.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve met any Europeans who actively hate
America; it’s more of a “Well, what can you expect from them?” feeling. In
fact, the basis behind the Fulbright program surprised many international students
I met – they couldn’t believe that the U.S. government would feel it important
for Americans to learn from Europeans and vice-versa. Several of my friends here expressed surprise
when they got to know me better. Apparently, I don’t fit with their stereotypical
image of an American.
Getting to know me has allowed them to put a face to the
United States and Americans in general. I’m glad that I can help better America’s
image abroad in a small way, but I’m sad that most of what we seem to be
successfully exporting as a nation are only the close-minded, negative aspects
of our country, despite the good that we do. This goes both ways, though. Many Europeans
seem to think that they have Americans all figured out, but many Americans also
believe that there is nothing new left to discover about the “Old World.”
Getting the chance to interact with people from other countries
on a number of different levels has given me a perspective with a value I can’t
begin to quantify.
A perspective that has impacted my value system, my
self-perception, and the way I view America and its place in the world. I wish
more Americans had the opportunity to have a similar experience.
Something mentioned during our Fulbright wrap-up session was
the perception that the Fulbright program is only for the privileged and elite.
The reality of the Fulbright program, at least in my case, couldn’t be further
from the truth. Both my mother and father were the first generation in their
families to attend college. I attended
college with the help of a scholarship and a large amount of financial aid. Without
the Fulbright grant, it is highly unlikely that I would have been able to
conduct research and take courses abroad for such an extended period of time.
It is true that the process for being awarded a Fulbright grant
is competitive, and at times, frustratingly difficult. But it is possible, and
the thing I love most about the Fulbright program is that a perfect GPA and
immaculate academic history are not prerequisites – what you need most is a
great idea and passion for your project and country of choice.
Know what else doesn't help? It's 10:30 PM, and the sun has still not set. I had heard before coming to Copenhagen to expect roughly 18 hours of sunlight daily in the springtime, but I hadn't really understood what that meant for my body clock...pure madness! The sun is fully risen by 4 AM, and because I live in a crappy student apartment, my also crappy blinds don't do very much to block the sunlight. Nej tak. I usually awake from a dead sleep, panic for a few moments thinking that I've slept through my alarm, then attempt to fall back asleep after stuffing two pillows over my head. This usually works until the Danish teenagers next store start blasting Rihanna while getting ready for school.
On the weekends, I usually don't sleep at all when it's dark outside. Europeans party on an entirely different level than Americans, and well, when in Rome...
The city-wide festival Distortion took place last Wednesday through Saturday, and it did not disappoint! Begun in 1998, Distortion has not only grown to a crowd of over 130,000 people, but is notorious for its excellent DJ selection, street parties, and crazy anything-goes atmosphere. The idea is that the street parties and after parties are held in a different neighborhood of the city each day, in order to keep the festival fresh and exciting as the week progresses. And before you ask, yes, there is no open container law in Denmark. I can walk down the street sipping a bottle of wine at 11 AM if I so choose - although in Copenhagen, drinking a Carlsberg would be more socially acceptable. Don't want to get the stink eye from the Danes!
The first day of Distortion was held in the historic city center, with at least ten music stations scattered around the area. One especially great moment was turning a corner and stumbling upon a random Avicii dance party. Seeing a bunch of drunk people climbing every historical monument, stoplight, and light pole within reach was also pretty great, especially when a few had to be brought down by the fire department. I would make some comment about staying classy, but when so many festival goers were already rocking full animal costumes or simply a pair of tight-whiteys, I must conclude that dignity took a nosedive after the first few beers.
The party then moved to Norrebro and Vesterbro, respectively, with the final party held at Refshaleoen, a warehouse complex across the water from the Little Mermaid (past the Opera House, for those of you who have been to CPH). Arriving there was overwhelming, but in an entirely great way. There were several different stages, each featuring a different type of music and with its own rotating set list. Strobe lights and the sound of bass filled the air - along with confetti from a raver bus that had been hoisted in the air, acting as a very large disco ball. What else....a helicopter, fireworks, and men peeing everywhere! Oh yes, guys in Copenhagen feel that just about everywhere is their own personal public toilet. I don't think that the festival planners helped at all by placing the outdoor urinals right by the ticket office, so if you happened to glance over at the wrong moment...you get my drift.
Many thanks to the Danish man who felt it was his duty to hoist me upon his shoulders for one song, because "It was too good for me not to get the full experience!" This ties into my one big complaint about Distortion: If I were taller, it would have been more enjoyable. I had an amazing time, but I don't think I've ever been stepped upon or elbowed before so much in my life! The Danes are extremely aggressive when it comes to moving through crowds - maybe it's the Viking blood?- and I had the bump on my head to prove it for a week. After watching the sunrise over Nordhavn, I began the 6 km walk home mentally exhilarated, but physically exhausted. I was pretty much held together by alcohol and a series of power naps by the end of Distortion.
Note: I know some of you must be thinking that I shouldn't mention alcohol in this blog, and HEY, wait a minute, didn't you have class or work to do during that week? Legitimate questions, I admit.
Distortion begins around 4 PM, so if you plan well, you can definitely get all of your assignments/research tasks done in the morning. As for alcohol, drinking is very much part of the Danish lifestyle and culture. I don't drink everyday, but I would be missing out on a large part of the social interaction within Copenhagen if I didn't take part.
Finally, the EuroCup championship begins tomorrow, and football (soccer) fever has taken over all of my international friends! I used to think that Americans were the most enthusiastic sport fans, but we've got nothing on Europeans, especially the Dutch. Several Dutch people live in my building - one of them in my apartment - and they have decided to turn Store Kongensgade 97 into a little piece of the Netherlands. I came home today to every single window in the building covered in Nederland stickers, and orange tape covering the stairway. We live in a six-floor building; this was not a simple feat!
With respect to them, I leave you with this video. The main gist? 'The Dutch are nice people, at least until it comes to football...'
Thursday, May 3, 2012
In fact, the weather here can be a polemic topic to bring up. Just the other night I was at a birthday party, and I got caught in the middle of a disagreement. The point of contention was the lack of fluctuation in the weather here.
"I like how you can always tell what's coming. It makes planning your day or week easier."
"What?! (complete with look of disgust) That's something that I HATE about here."
These were two natives Paraenses speaking, by the way. It seems people are split about even on weather ;) or not the climate is to their liking. Honestly, though, does ANYONE like sweating their skin off every time they step out the front door, or suffering from varying degrees of dehydration throughout the day?
And then there's the rain... Here's another custom they have, at least in the "summer" when the rains are more predictably in the afternoon: "When should we meet?" "Oh, I don't know. How about before/after the rain?" With weather like that, who needs a watch? And of course every self-respecting and self-preserving Belenense will at all times carry his umbrella with him. I don't blame 'em. I've been caught a few times without one, and it is no picnic.
It seems though that Paraenses have evolved somehow to adapt to the daily weather phenomena here. I swear they have hypersensitivity to barometric pressures or something, because you can ask anyone if they think it will rain soon, and they'll give you a pretty accurate timing. As for the heat, it is rare to see someone sweating here. I mean, yeah, a bead here or there on the forehead, which is quickly whisked away by the ever-present handkerchief. But NOBODY sweats like me. I'll be on the bus, having only walked a city block to get the stop, a breeze from the window will be blowing in my face, and yet my hair is virtually matted with sweat, my neck and back are dripping, and I'm wearing only shorts and a cotton T-shirt! Meanwhile, the 60-year-old man in front of me has on a three-piece suit and his skin isn't even shiny! And don't even get me started on the gym, which doesn't have AC. If I just walk in I'm sweating, and yet the people who have been there for 40 minutes pumping iron are just starting to perspire. Has the world gone mad?!
Anyway, it's funny to see how weather affects culture. Southern Brazilians tell me all the time that "things are different up here in Pará. Slower, more laid-back." The culprit? 90 degree temperatures and 88% humidity... in the winter. Who wants to do anything in that? It's no wonder that any structure with 4 walls and roof has air conditioning blasting 24/7.
This isn't to say that it's all bad though. There's something to be said for the ability to know exactly what will happen everyday. It's like being in Groundhog Day! And I would usually rather be too hot than too cold, given the choice. The idea of coming back to the US in the dead of winter does not excite me... All in all, I can say that this is one person who's swiftly taking on a few Paraense customs. If it's Sunday, you'll most likely find me tirando uma soneca in a bed or hammock, cold guaraná or água de coco at my side, and with nothing but the sound of pounding rain to put me to sleep.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
As many of you may already know, I was a Spanish major in college. As some of you may know, Spanish and Portuguese are arguably the two most similar and mutually intelligible of the Romance languages. But the differences are plenty, lemme tellya. I took a couple of classes last year in "Portuguese for Spanish Speakers" more or less for fun, just to give it a try. At the time it was a less-than-attractive tongue, at least to my ear (I see an opportunity for a joke here). However, with my good friend Juste's encouragement, I stuck with. Of course, we had one of the most interesting and witty professors at Gettysburg teaching us the ins and out of a new language, which made it fun. What followed, however, were nine months of waiting around, not using Portuguese at all, save for some lessons on Livemocha.com, before I was finally plopped down in Brazil. I was not prepared, to say the least.
For anyone who thinks just speaking Spanish in Brazil will get you by, it won't, especially not for any length of time in the north or northeast of the country. Portunhol (Portugués-Espanhol hybrid) will only get you so far. Very few people up here speak or have access to Spanish. You're more likely to find people studying German and French than Spanish, from my experience. That blew my mind.
The accent here is radically different from what I was exposed to. As a comparison, I'd say my situation is equivalent to someone learning Australian English and then studying abroad in the rural south of the United States. Apples and oranges. More than anything though, it's fun! Miscommunication is usually just frustrating or funny, and rarely life-threatening. So as with many cultural differences that one must deal with when going abroad, I just smile and endure the silly, awkward, hilarious, or strange language exchanges I experience. No matter what, I come out learning something each time. For the ability to speak a new language and have the potential to communicate with millions more people, all the troubles along the way aren't really troubles at all.
Monday, April 9, 2012
Spring has spring in the Cope! For a couple of months there, I had truly forgotten what the sunshine looks like, and become as white as Gollum to boot! You can’t quite call it warm yet in Scandinavia, and yet there is this general sense of exciement and energy that’s taken over the city. A couple hours of sunlight and suddenly everyone flocks to the parks, the harbor; really, any open space will do. There is no open container law in Denmark, so it’s pretty common to see someone heading down the street casually carrying (or biking with) a six-pack…or two.
Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and if I had forgotten, I’m sure the church bells at Marmokirken down the street would have reminded me, as they rang for twenty minutes straight. It wouldn’t be Easter without candy and surprises, so I decided to hide chocolate eggs around my flatmates' bedrooms. Highlights of the morning include one flatmate asking if “anyone has lost an egg?” and another inquiring if he had to hide the egg again after discovering it under his pillow.
I celebrated by meeting another Fulbright scholar for brunch at the best little café we’ve discovered outside of the city., where she surprised me with not ONE but TWO Reese’s PB Eggs! Peanut butter isn’t typically used in candy here in Northern Europe, with marzipan (sweet almond paste) preferred instead. Since Europe invented Nutella I can’t fault them too much, but I would trade 30 marzipan eggs for one PB egg!
Then it was off to a friend’s apartment in Norrebro, where we gorged ourselves on chocolate bunnies and raspberry sparkling wine, which helped set the mood to paint Easter eggs. I have the art skills of a 10 year old, so my flowers came out a bit …interpretive, but Martina wisely stuck to painting polka dots, which you can never go wrong with. We decided on a stroll by the lakes to admire the sunshine, and it was one of the best afternoons I’ve had yet in Copenhagen.
Oh, I also saw the Hunger Games movie! Luckily, my sole American friend, Kristen, is also obsessed with the books and insisted on going to see the movie adaptation ASAP. My roommates were not so easily convinced, questioning, “Why is it called the Hunger Games, who would want to play that game?” Our seats were located next to two Danish men in their thirties, whose reasons for being at the movie screening still escape me. Their sole goal seemed to be drinking as much beer as possible before the end of the film. Their timing for opening said beer cans was impeccable – in the middle of a particular moving scene, the only thing you could hear besides Katniss’ sobbing was the hiss of beer tabs opening. Stay classy, stay classy.
I actually have a lot of updates to give about my classes, research, and plans for next year - so after finals this week, I'll try and do another post. Happy Påske, everyone!