Monday, July 30, 2012


We interrupt these (delayed) vacation posts for a(nother) rant on Brazilian education.

There are actually a ton of posts I've wanted to write lately, but I just haven't had time to get caught up on the vacation stuff, let alone my other musings (I have a feeling the vacations posts will soon fall by the wayside). But I had a depressing experience on Friday and I wanted to tell you all about it.

I call my experience, "The Brazilian Small-Town Teenager: A Case Study."

On Friday, I went back to Caipirópolis to go to a bridal shower and then to a baby shower. When I got on the bus, there was no one next to me, but a teenage girl got on at the next stop. She was crying pretty heavily. At first I was worried about her, so when she struck up a conversation (about nothing related to her crying, which was a little awkward), I felt bad for her and made small talk in case she wanted to talk about whatever was making her cry (NB: I hate small talk).

This was a mistake. It turns out she had only been crying because she was sad to say goodbye to her family, and the amount of crying was perhaps disproportionate to the gravity of the event. I should've just pretended that I didn't speak Portuguese, or I should've been rude and ignored her from the get-go. The girl didn't stop talking for the ENTIRE bus ride (almost 6 hours!).  Even when I pulled out my Kindle and started giving her curt answers, she didn't catch on.

But I learned a lot about this girl and her town during our extensive conversation, and let me tell you -- it was information I would have just rather not had. I like to think that the world is a good place, that there's hope for the future and for the next generation, and this girl really sucked some of that optimism out of me.  (And now I'll pass this information on to you, dear reader. How nice of me.)

The girl was from a town just outside of Caipirópolis. She was 14 or 15 (in her first year of high school, she told me) but looked about 19 or 20. She told me she'd been visiting her aunt and her cousin and was now going home to go back to school. She informed me that she hated school. Teenagers all over the world say that; I wasn't too fazed. She also made a comment about how the last bus driver she'd had was a lesbian, and how lesbians are "gross". (I saw a connection between the two comments -- hating school and judging gay people, I mean.) I asked her why she thought lesbians were gross. Her answer was, "because they are!" I asked, "but why?" again, and she couldn't give me an answer, and I told her so. But she just wasn't getting it. She quickly changed the topic.

At first, I was pleasantly surprised that this girl didn't ask me where I was from. I thought at first that my accent from her region must really be spot on, though I don't pronounce a lot of words the way she does -- for example, I don't pronounce brava as "braba," nor do I switch my [r]s and [l]s to result in words like "plobema" and "vortar". I also use plural nouns, and not just plural articles (so I say things like as casas and not "as casa"). I know I'm a linguist and I'm not supposed to make descriptivist prescriptivist judgments (thanks, Erin), but these changes are directly correlated with illiteracy, and I think I'm allowed to judge people who say they don't like school but who still haven't learned how to read or speak correctly. The girl also used the expression ninguém merece! every 5 seconds. This literally translates to "no one deserves that!" but it functions like "it/that sucks!" or "what a drag!" in English. (Really showing my Southern California-ness here, I know.) That expression is annoyingly common in Caipriópolis, and this girl was even more extreme in her usage of it.

It's so hot on this bus! Ninguém merece!
This drive is taking forever! Ninguém merece!

But then she said, "Ugh, but school, you know? Ninguém merece!"
I said, "na verdade, todo o mundo merece!" (Actually, everyone deserves it!) I was pretty proud of my wit there, but the girl just stared at me blankly, which was her response to about 80% of what I said during the trip.

She proceeded to tell me the kicker of our conversation. A real shocker of a story. Apparently, in her town, there were 2 types of public schools: state-run K-12 schools and city-run K-12 schools. (I've heard of this in a few Brazilian cities -- from what I understand, cities implement their own schools to supplement the poorly-invested-in state public schools.) Anyway, because the state public schools didn't have any money, they tried cutting corners by canceling schools on Wednesdays and extending vacation times from 2 weeks to 4 weeks.

Now, what we, hopeful, optimistic citizens would EXPECT to see would be protests from state school parents, or a mass exodus of state school kids to the city-run school. But guess what happened instead. Did you guess? I'll go ahead and tell you: the parents from the city-run schools complained that it "wasn't fair" that their kids had to go to school more than the kids from the state-run schools. They complained and complained (and probably used ninguém merece a lot) until the city-run school reduced its hours to meet the state school schedule.

Just take that in for a minute.

Now if that information doesn't totally depress you, I don't know what will. Every book and study I've read about poverty and social action programs and all that has found that improvements to infrastructure and social assistance are most productive at the city level. But here's an example of a city government honestly trying to provide something for its community, and the citizens just flat-out rejecting it out of pure laziness. There's no other explanation I can think of. I was so, so sad when the girl told me that. The only way I can recuperate any optimism would be to think that maybe she was wrong, or that I misunderstood her. But I don't think either of those things are likely to be true.

Later into the conversation, I realized that she hadn't asked me where I was from because she honestly couldn't grasp the concept of another country, or someone being from one. I don't know if she even registered the mistakes I was making in Portuguese. At one point, she asked if I'd preferred living in Caiprópolis or Crappy Beach Town, and I explained that I was from the US, so at first Caipriópolis felt small and crappy but then once I left it, I appreciated it. Again, more blank stares about the US comment.
A few minutes later, she said, "You're from the United States? means your family doesn't live here?"
"Yes," I replied.

Then she was telling me a story about some party she'd gone to, and that she'd met a little girl who was "durka." I thought it was a word I didn't know.
"Durka?" I asked "What does durka mean?"
The girl had apparently heard the word for the first time at that party, and didn't really know what it meant. She struggled to answer me. "Well, um... you know....she wasn't exactly Brazilian, like me. She didn't have 'the Brazilian way about her.'"

I thought for a moment.
"Turka?" I asked. Turka is the feminine form of the adjective "Turkish." "Was she from Turkey?"
The girl shrugged. "That must have been it. I don't know."


I'm just gonna go ahead and state the obvious here: maybe if the girl spent more time at the school her city tried to give her, she wouldn't be functionally retarded.

But yeah. I hope the girl is an extreme example of "The Brazilian Small-Town Teenager" and not an average.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the weekend was filled with dead fish conversations with other small-town women ("so how do you know the bride?" "Oh, I'm her friend") and equally asinine comments from people at the parties, such as the following:

- Why are plane tickets so expensive? All you do is sit there!
- My baby is 2 and isn't talking yet, but it's fine. Every baby is different!
- Everyone who comes to this city gets the flu. Why, I saw a woman on the news who said she'd been here for 2 weeks and she got the flu!

I just cringed and tried to nod politely at the first comments (no reason to try to teach people about economics or developmental milestones), but there was one exceptionally ignorant woman who really did me in. There was a woman at one of the parties who was a math professor at a local university. When she mentioned it at the table, a woman of about 50 said:

"Oh my god! Why do you teach math?! Math is impossible! Math is for men's brains."

"No it's not." I said rudely. I'd been kind of quiet, so the women looked over at me.
"Men's and women's brains are the same. The only reason women think they can't learn math is because other people tell them that it's something only men should study. Maybe if women didn't tell other women that math was too hard for them, then they'd be better at it, don't you think?"

As always, I got blank cow-eyed stares from the person in question, but at least the math teacher was smiling. (She also diplomatically responded to the older woman with "well, there ARE more men in the department than women.")

I can barely tolerate regular stupidity, but women putting down women is where I draw the line. There was also a teenage girl at the table, and I wanted her to hear a counter-argument to that woman's statement.

It was really nice to see a few of my friends and to celebrate the upcoming wedding and the upcoming baby, but all in all, it was kind of a frustrating weekend, and I lost a little faith in humanity and felt kind of old and isolated.

I'll leave you with some Joanna, in case this post made you feel the way I did. She always helps me out:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Pantanal Trip Part 2: Crocodiles and a Terrifying Hike

OK, where did we leave off? Oh right, the horseback riding and the hyacinth macaws. :D

After a delicious lunch and a post-horseback break, Bianca and I joined an older couple on an afternoon boat ride activity on the River Aquidauana. An employee from the pousada took us out to the bank of the river, a mile away.  The boat ride was entitled "caiman ride," meaning we were going to look for caimans (alligators). Bianca has a bit of an alligator phobia, but she was so strong and still accepted going on the boat ride. (For what it's worth, I would've never gone on any kind of "mothwatching" activity! I was proud of her!)

On our way down to the water, I asked the guide if we'd be going in a big boat.
"Yes," he said.
I soon learned that our definitions of "big" were drastically different.

The other issue of the ride was the mosquitoes. Luckily, I'd been taking vitamin B for a week before the trip, and I'd been applying repellent as if my life depended on it (because... it did! I have the yellow fever vaccine, but there's still malaria and dengue to worry about!). So they were everywhere, but I finished the boat ride relatively unscathed.

The guide gave us our lifejackets and called his son out of a little riverside building to join us, and off we went for our alligator sightings! Eep!

What a good sport Bianca was
The sights of the vast river in general were gorgeous. I felt like I was inside a Paul Bowels novel / Conrad's Heart of Darkness / Disney's Pocahontas, all at the same time. Bianca and I kept a bilingual round of Just Around the Riverbend going during much of the ride, probably to the chagrin of our fellow boat travelers.

But all jokes aside, it really was breathtaking:

The guide was nice to turn off the little motorboat's motor once in a while so we could just enjoy the silence of the water and let the current guide us along.

Eventually, of course, we did see some caimans. Eep!

Can you see it there on the sand? Luckily we were relatively far away, so my picture is kind of blurry.

This one came into the water! I was convinced it was headed right for us.

At one point, the guide stopped the boat at a tiny little island ("island" is probably not the right word -- a sand bank, maybe? A tiny hill of sand in the middle of the river). I thought this to be an unnecessary risk, and I'm sure Bianca agreed. 

"hurry up and take the picture before the alligators smell us!"
So the river was beautiful, but I think I would've enjoyed it in a bigger (read: more alligator-proof) boat. But Darwin would've been proud of us, I think.

Oh, we got to see a relatively rare chestnut-eared aracari, aka araçari, in the toucan family. That was exciting:

Our Pantanal adventures continued the next day. In the morning, Bianca and I got up early to go on what the pousada referred to as an "ecological walk" on their itinerary. Sounds pleasant enough, right?

Our guide was an indigenous man and he needed to carry a machete. Still sound pleasant?
I told myself that his pack carried a first-aid kit and not his lunch and a can of beer

This "ecological walk" turned out to be a treacherous hike in the middle of the mato, or the thick, rainforest-like brush that makes up most of the country's untouched terrain. There was no trail, it was just wherever the guide felt like we should turn at the moment. We were completely dependent on him for our safety! He essentially followed the river, but I think I would consider the thick brush at the side of a riverbank to be one of the most dangerous places to walk unprotected! Hello! Alligators! Jaguar?! 

At one point, we noticed a strange smell. 

"Do you guys smell that?" the guide asked.
"A dead animal?" Bianca asked.
"A dead wild boar," the guide explained.
"Why is it dead?" I asked naively.
"Because a jaguar killed it," the guide explained simply.

"WHY ARE WE HIKING HERE?!?!" I whispered to Bianca urgently, in English. She assured me that CVC wouldn't send us on any life-threatening outings, but I had my doubts.

To make matters worse, my vitamin B and positive thinking were no match for the mosquitoes in this mato. It is possibly difficult for some of you to imagine how many mosquitoes were there, but you can try. Imagine a cloud of gnats, and then replace the gnats with mosquitoes, and multiply it by 10, and add in that incessant, ominous buzzing you hear late at night when a single annoying mosquito is circling your bed, and then multiply that by 100. I was walking around with my repellent bottle open and waving it around my head in a vain attempt to scare some of them off. (I also held on to the faint hope that I could perhaps squeeze it into a jaguar's eye should one charge at me during the excursion.)

"Was that an onça?!"

We luckily avoided any jaguar encounters, but that doesn't mean I didn't start running in shaking adrenaline fear a couple times at the sound of a leaf breaking under someone's foot or a great kiskadee suddenly flying out of a tree. 

The hike was pretty and all......

But I think I could've done without it.  

On a happier note, I got to see the rare crimson-crested woodpecker (aka pica-pau-de-topete vermelho):

the little white spot on its head shows it's the rare one

And on the way back, we saw some caracaras (cárcaras in Portuguese):

sauntering away with his lunch

whaddayou lookin' at?

Well, they were everywhere, but we got to see a baby one:
"Tee hee! I'm soon going to develop the strength to take down a newborn calf!"
After the slightly terrifying walk, we got to enjoy lunch, and I got a nice picture of a red and green macaw on a wall at the pousada:

But more on those beauties later! I'll leave you at this point in the adventure for now. :)

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Pantanal Trip: Getting there, Horseback Riding, and Hyacinth Macaws

I'm sorry! I'm so behind in my trip posts! I've been itching to tell you all about the trip, but I've been really busy since I got back.

OK, here it goes -- the first two days!

We flew from Sao Paulo directly to Bonito. Bonito is a city in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. It's famous for eco-tourism. Most people fly into Campo Grande, but Bonito actually has its own tiny airport, and our travel agent was able to get us a direct flight (we spent the second half of our trip in Bonito).

After we got our bags and everything, we went to the agent holding up a sign with CVC written on it -- that was the name of the travel agency (probably the most common travel agency in the country; I've had great trips every time I've used them!). We thought we were going to get on a bus with everyone else, but we were apparently the only ones going out to the Pantanal proper! The agent introduced us to a driver who was waiting for us with a little sedan. "It's only about 3 and a half hours!" he informed us. I was so nice as to let Bianca go in the front seat to make the small talk. :P

Bonito itself is already a relatively small town, and we were going 3 and a half hours away from it! We drove through miles and miles of farmland and cerrado, and passed a couple of tiny towns, probably more like villages than official cities.

On the way, I saw black-hooded parakeets, turkey vultures, whistling herons, and chaco chachalacas, just to name a few. Oh, and we saw our first giant anteater (aka tamanduá), as I showed you in my first post. Unfortunately, I didn't get a lot of great bird pictures, during this drive or during the trip. I quickly learned that --wouldn't you know it?-- taking pictures of wild animals is hard. They're not like the little birds at the local lake that are used to having humans around. I also saw many of the birds through the awesome fancy binoculars that Alexandre bought me for my birthday/Brazilian Valentine's Day (9 days apart, so I only ever get one present :P). But of course, I'll share the good pictures I did manage to get.

We got to our pousada at sunset. The word pousada sometimes translates to "inn" or "bed and breakfast", but in this case, this place was a family farm that the family also opened up to tourists. The grandmother of the family met us at the door and led us to our room. We were 75km away from the closest town, and it required a dirt road to get there for 40km of that trek! There were no stores, no restaurants, no stoplights, and best of all, no fireworks. :) We went to bed early and quickly got settled into the farm life schedule!

If you read the last post, you know just how wonderful the first morning was, with all of the birds that I saw at sunrise! Here are some of the pictures:

chaco chachalaca, aka aracuã-do-pantanal

chalk-browed mockingbird, aka sabiá-do-campo

crested oropendola, aka japu

grayish saltator aka sabiá-gongá

grey-crested cacholote aka casaca-de-couro-do-pantanal

plumbeous ibis, aka maçarico-real

red-crested cardinal, aka cardeal (these ones are rare in the region!)
yellow-billed cardinal (aka cavalaria)

toco toucan aka tucano

turquoise-fronted amazon aka papagaio verdadeiro

So many! Isn't that amazing?! The biodiversity!

Our first morning activity was a horseback ride around the property. Have you ever ridden a horse? I hadn't.  Well, I think I did once for a few minutes when I was a kid. This was some serious stuff -- at least for my legs and back. But Bianca especially loved it. 

the view of the world from atop a horse


I wore the best horse-riding shirt I had! Pretty apt, I thought
The ride was slow and easygoing and quiet. I can't remember the last time I was in such a quiet place! Those of us from the farm were the only people around, for miles and miles and miles.

Let me take this moment to talk up the pousada. As you can see, the name is Fazenda Piqui, but they call the hotel part the Pousada Pequi. If you like the type of trip I'm describing in this post, then this pousada is the perfect place to go. I don't know the exact prices because we paid for a package, but the entire package for the week was accessible for me on a teacher's salary, and we went to Bonito, too. You pay a flat daily rate for your room, the activities (2 per day, and they're flexible about making it possible for you to do what you want to do) and all of your meals. The food was DELICIOUS. Fresh fish from the river (I even at the fish, it was that good!), fresh milk from the cow, fresh fruit from the trees. The family runs an organized, honest business. (For example, they keep some emergency products on hand, like batteries and repellent, and they don't overcharge you for them. They also let one of the guests use their computer to talk to her husband on Skype because he was sick.) Their schedules for visitors are also a nice balance of planned activities and open resting time. I felt so relaxed and rested, even though we did so much stuff. 

If you want to make a reservation, you can call or email them, and they have the computer there at the farm (oh yeah, they have internet! It's slow, but much more than I expected to have, considering the location). You can email them at or call them at (67) 9934-5781 / 3245-0949. (I'd write to them in Portuguese -- I don't think they speak much English.)  

Also, here's their website:

I told them I was going to rave about them in my blog, so you can mention me if you want (but I doubt they'll remember me). FYI, if you go only to Pousada Pequi and not to Bonito, it's better to fly into Campo Grande. You can pay them to arrange for a driver to pick you up from the airport and drive you to their farm. The closest town to the pousada is called Aquidauana. Try saying that out loud! But yes, that's my little promotional speech!

Anyway, back to the horse ride. The cowboys rode us out to where the cattle were. My super awesomely awesome bird book (Port and Eng) had informed me that hyacinth macaws (arara azul) like to stay close to herds of cattle, so I was keeping my eye out. (I had seen two that morning through the binoculars, but none up close so far.)

Luckily, just a few minutes after we got to the cows, there they were!!! 


they totally saw me! They are so curious!

Even Bianca, who didn't care much about birds before this trip (but was a good sport and really got into the birdwatching with me during the vacation), couldn't help but be quietly in awe because of them:

They're so jolly and so graceful at the same time! Such great, happy birds.

The macaw sighting totally made my day (though the day had already been off to a great start, with the morning bird show and all). After the cowboys checked on the cows, we rode the horses back to the ranch. My back was killing me, but there was joy, there.

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