Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I think I just won a battle, Brazilian style! I am a master arguer, and my arguing skills are getting better in Portuguese!

Here's the drama, for your enjoyment:

We live in an apartment complex, as most of you know. Most of you also know that, here in Brazil, there is an extra bill called the condomínio bill, akin to HOA dues but that is also required of renters (who are essentially paying it for the owner).  Check out this helpful blog post that explains this bill in English.

Anyway, in our apartment complex, each apartment has a different owner. The owners have a sort of union. They vote to change things in the apartment complex. Sometimes, these changes affect the amount of the condomínio bill. The owners here are super smart and organized. They have an electronic mailing list (I'm on it); they send out flyers reminding people of rules that are frequently broken; they put up signs around the buildings if people are doing annoying stuff, or if there's going to be a union meeting. It's impressive!

Well, I learned from their mailings that they voted to install a better security system in the apartment complex. This installation will raise our condomínio bill substantially for the next 6 months. At first I panicked, but then someone on the mailing list wrote that this difference in the bill is the responsibility of owners, not of renters, since owners have the right to vote on these changes and renters don't. (The other reason is that this change will improve the quality of the building, therefore improving the value (read: sale price) of the apartment.)

So I had to get in touch with the owner of our apartment. The problem is that the owner is this young, flighty guy. To give you an idea, he moved out of this apartment and moved to a beach in the Northeast to try to open a "surfing hotel". He bought the apartment from the first owner and lived in it for a year. In that time, he never bothered to register himself as the new owner of the apartment: that means the condomínio people still have only the contact information of the original owner.

I had to call the leasing office that wrote up our contract with the owner, because they had his contact information. Getting someone to help me was a hassle reminiscent of the cell phone drama I wrote about last week, but an agent from the leasing office finally called me back today. She told me that she called the owner, but that he doesn't want to pay the difference in the bill. His arguments were weak at best. The agent reported that he'd said things like "I didn't know about any meeting to vote" and "they're going to benefit from security, too" and "our lease says that they are responsible for the condomínio bill, and this is part of the condomínio bill!"

Oh ho ho. This guy doesn't know who he is trying to argue with. I can talk anyone into a corner. This is a talent that I pride myself in. More than one lawyer has told me that I should be a lawyer. So. I helpfully informed the leasing agent that this charge is outside of the normal condomínio bill and is therefore not what was meant by "the condmínio bill" in the contract, and that he needs to respect a certain amount of good faith in that definition; furthermore, it is not my problem if he chose not to vote or to inform himself of his right to vote at the owner's union meetings. He had the right to deny the charge -- I did not, and a rental agreement is not a representative democracy.

I explained to her that he lived here for a year, and that even I, a foreigner renting an apartment, have been unable to miss all the information about the union meetings and changes after living here for only a few months. So his excuse that he didn't know about the meeting is moot. The fact that he never even bothered to register himself as the new owner reflects his disinterest in being involved in decision-making in the complex, but that doesn't mean he is free of responsibility. I made an analogy between his argument and a cop pulling you over. If you tell the cop, "I didn't know it was illegal to do that!" The cop will say that it was your responsibility to know both your rights and your responsibilities.

Luckily, the agent was on my side, and seemed to be sympathizing. So I suggested that we don't give the owner an option in this situation -- this is not a favor we are asking him. She could simply inform him that this charge would be deducted from the rent we'll be paying over the next 6 months -- they're the ones who send us the bill for the rent, not him. He doesn't get to choose whether or not he would pay. She said she would call and explain it all to him, and that she would call me back.

Well, lucky for me, I have my awesome genius friend Bianca. She was online when I was having this conversation. After I hung up with the agent, I told her about the argument. Quick-thinking Bianca found a government link to a law that explains that this type of charge is, in fact, the owner's responsibility, and it's not allowed to be passed on to the renter. The government law even lists "security systems" as an example of something that the renter can't be charged for! It's right there, in the law, people! It's annoying that the leasing agency didn't bother to look into this, and it's annoying that the owner is a cheap, dishonest bastard at worst and an uninformed proprietor at best, but it's a good thing I have people like Bianca in my life to make up for all this incompetence.

If, by chance, you are having this same problem or similar problems, here's the link to the government site:

Well. Obviously, I called the leasing office lady back and asked informed her about the law. She asked me to email her the link. She said she would pass it on to the owner so that she could call him tomorrow and confirm that he would pay. I didn't like her language choice with the word "confirm," but we'll see how it goes tomorrow. Either way, I've got the law on my side, so he can only resist so much!

Suck it, douchebag! You've been schooled!!!!

If he tries to argue some more, I'm gonna sic the mother-in-law on him. The apartment is technically rented in her name, and she is a superawesome Brazilian arguement-winning machine when it comes to businesses trying to rip her off. She'll know just what to say to everyone to put the owner in his place and save us a bunch of money.

Please, share your similar stories! I love a great tale of justice.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How to Save Money in Brazil

How to Save Money in Brazil 
(Short Answer Below)

1. Sign up for a cool phone line service called Livre -- the phone has land line rates but can be carried around like a cell phone within city limits.

2. Receive your cell-phone-like landline the day you sign up.

3. Drop your phone numerous times over the course of two years.

4. Decide to replace your phone.

5. Go to the store in the mall, only to be informed that they don't sell the actual phones -- only their sales kiosk at another place in the mall can sell them.

6. Cross the mall and go to the kiosk, only to have it be closed. Perhaps the single employee is at lunch?

7. Go back to the mall another day.

8. Find an employee at the kiosk. Tell him you are interested in replacing your phone. You don't need to change anything with your account or your line -- you just want a new device to replace the old one.

9. Listen patiently as the employee tells you that you can't buy a cell-phone-style phone, only a cordless phone that plugs into the wall and stays in your house. Remind him that the whole point of the Livre service is to be livre -- free -- to use your phone around town. Ask if he's sure he can't sell your a cell-phone-style phone. He will say he is, and then he will say, "well, you can probably use this cordless phone around town, I imagine." Sigh a lot and walk away.

10. While in another mall, notice another kiosk from the same company. Stop and ask the employee about switching your phone. Try not to grind your teeth as this employee explains that, in order to switch your device (not to change anything in your account), you need to fill out a personal information form and bring it back with certified copies of your ID documents and proof of address. Ask the employee if he's sure, since the company already has all of your information on file. He will say he's sure. For laughs, ask the employee if you can bring in a copy of your bill FROM HIS COMPANY to prove your address. Chuckle to yourself as he says, "that sounds fine."

11. Try not to laugh out loud when the employee asks to see your phone and says, "why do you want to replace this one? I've never even seen it before. It's cool! I mean, it seems good enough." Explain to him that he has never seen it before because it's so old. Refrain from asking whether he receives commission or suggesting that perhaps he should reconsider a job in sales. Take the personal information form and leave, frustrated.

12. When you get your bill in the mail the next month, read the little sales flyers that come in the envelope, and notice that the company says you can switch out your old phone for a new one at a discounted price if you buy the new phone online. Try not to get your hopes up.

13. Go onto the website on the flyer. Ignore the pictures of all the different phones on the flyer -- there's actually only one for sale.

14. Fill out the pages and pages of personal information on the website, including your account number, your ID numbers, and your mother's full name, just to replace a cell phone without changing anything else in your account.

15. Click "pay with barcode" so you can print out a barcode that you can scan at an ATM in order to avoid paying with a credit card online. Go ahead and let yourself feel some good feelings at the thought of the convenient barcode system. Shrug off the thought that it would be far easier if you could use your debit card as a Visa credit card online, or if you could add the charge to your next bill, and focus on the positive side of the barcode sytem.

16. Wait for the page to load. Wait some more.

17. Sigh audibly as you receive a message saying "error in processing your request". Click ten more times like a rat on cocaine, hoping a window with a printable barcode will decide to appear.

18.  Click on the "Chat Live with a Customer Service Rep" button on the website. Nod approvingly at the fact that the company has a live customer service chat system.

19. Type in all of your personal information in order to sign into the chat. Briefly explain your problem to "Flavia No.0485096460". Wait so Flavia No.0485096460 can transfer you to the appropriate representative.

20. Even though the chat window says, "Eduardo No. 93759937597 has entered the room," do not assume that Eduardo can read what you already typed out to Flavia. When he asks you what the problem seems to be, save yourself some time -- copy and paste.

21. Be patient as Eduardo asks you for all of the same data that you gave to sign into the chat, as well as all the stuff from the pages and pages of personal information on the sales website, including your account number, your ID numbers, and your mother's full name. It's not worth reminding Eduardo that you already put all that into the system, or asking Eduardo how he's going to get the barcode to you, since he's clearly just doing what you did.

22. Try not to type a series of profanities when Eduardo No. 93759937597 tells you that their system is "offline" (fancy that, a telecommunications company with an unreliable computer system or internet connection), and that you'll have to sign into the chat again in an hour and give the agent all of your information again. Ask Eduardo if the system's offline status would explain why you weren't able to buy the phone from the sales page. He will say "I don't know."  Sign out of the chat without bothering to say thank you as a tiny act of vengeful rebellion.

23. Give the company 2 hours to put the system "back online," just to be safe.

24. Try to open their website and to go through the process again. Click on the "exchange device" button. Watch the screen say "just a moment" and then freeze, over and over. Go ahead and try clicking on other things, only to have your browser say "waiting for [company's website].com" forever and ever.

25. Give up and stick to your broken phone with the distorted sound until you can muster up the patience to beg the company to take your money again.

So, in summary: The answer to the question of how to save money in Brazil is simply to try to spend money in Brazil. You can try all kinds of creative ways to give your money to a company, but they probably won't be interested in taking it from you. Before you know it, your piggy bank will be overflowing!

Monday, August 13, 2012

VIP Banking is the Way to Gogh

Guess what? I've found the solution to solving the annoyances of a Brazilian bank account. Well, Alexandre found it, and I jumped on the bandwagon.

That's right! It's a Caught Being Good entry!

The Bank Alexandre and I use here has a special VIP banking department, akin to the high roller tables in Las Vegas, I think. American banks might have this too; I'd always been too poor to know for sure. Anyway, the special VIP banking department here is called "Van Gough Gogh Banking". (Thank you so much to Andrew for "politely" questioning my intelligence in the comments because I spelled that wrong!) Not sure why -- maybe famous artists are considered chique?

For clients enrolled in this Van Gogh banking, there are special employees who only work with them; there are special areas to wait (and there's hardly ever anyone in line); there are even special customer service phone numbers. In order to be treated with these luxuries, you basically have to be rich. I'm not sure what the exact rules are (the website won't tell you -- they make you bring a proof of income in to a branch to see if your salary's high enough), but I'm almost positive that we wouldn't normally qualify.

I think the bank's logic comes down to four words: Weed. Out. The. Masses. Treat the rich people at the bank the way they'd be treated at a first-world bank (for example, don't make them wait 3 hours just to fix some problem that you probably caused in the first place), and they'll leave all their money with you. Isn't that amazing?

Anyway anyway. One of the branches here in town did something pretty clever. They went to the medical residents at Alexandre's hospital and offered them the chance to enroll in this VIP "Van Gogh Banking" program. It's basically like, "OK, we know you guys aren't rich now....but you will be in a few years, and by then, you'll be tried and true customers!"

Alexandre took them up on their offer, since we already had accounts at this bank anyway. He went in and met with "his account manager" -- possessive adjective style! The woman told him all his options with the fancy Van Gogh account, including credit cards and the first-rate service I just mentioned. He liked what he heard, so we went back together to make the change. We didn't even have to make an appointment -- we just showed up, waited 5 minutes for the lady to finish with a previous client, and then we went into her office.

We told her everything we wanted to do, and asked if she could help us with it.

*Transfer our accounts (Alexandre's checking and my piddly savings) from Caipirópolis? Yes. (The branches love to pass the buck with this: the people in Caipirópolis said we need to do it in Springfieldee, and the people in Springfieldee said we needed to do it back in Caipirópolis)

*Open a joint checking account with joint checks and international credit cards? Yes. Alexandre's legal working status combined with our marriage certificate can carry the both of us.

*Fix some little problems and take away some "mystery charges" that Alexandre had been getting on his account? Yes.

*Make it so that our debit cards aren't automatically canceled if they are suspected of fraud, but instead temporarily placed on hold until we can call and verify? Yes.

*Send stuff in the mail since our apartment complex has a trustworthy mail system, instead of making us physically go to the bank to get stuff? Yes.

These changes, once suspected to be miraculous in caliber, obviously required a lot of paperwork. But I'd brought everything I could think of that we might need, and our account manager (see how I did that?) met me halfway. She was on the ball!

"Here, just sign here, here, here, and here.  I'll fill out all the data -- I've got it here in the computer. You don't need to write your address 20 times."  Efficiency for the win! You all know how much I love efficiency, how I fantasize about Dilma hiring me as the Minster of Efficiency and giving me a magic wand to go around and fix stuff with.  I think this calls for a Caught Being Good Award, Ms. Account Manager:

The Q&A and the signing (get it? Because we're like celebrities!) took all of 15 minutes, and then today, about 10 days later, we got our new stuff in the mail! My first Brazilian checks, my first Brazilian credit card, plus the cute couple milestone of a joint bank account with checks with both of our names. :)

If you are able to get one of these Van Gogh accounts, I highly recommend it. (You may have to be willing to risk the shame of taking your or your partner's paystubs to the bank, only to have them reject you, but I think it's worth it!) If you're not able to get one....sorry! Sucks to be you. Something to shoot for, right? :)

Congrats, Fancy Van Gogh banking! It'd be better if the bank treated all of their customers with this level of respect, but for now, I'll take what I can get, and I'll feel grateful and lucky that I got this much.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Washer-Dryer Combo: The Cure for Homesickness

This is the story.

A couple of months ago, our washing machine started "playing up," as my grandmother would say.

(That's British English for "behaving badly.")

No, that's not my old machine. It's this person's old machine. But I thought I'd pull a Rachel and post a funny picture, especially because my machine's problem wasn't really picture worthy.  It was just staying like this:

And we had to wait for the water to drain out and then manually change the machine to the next stage of the wash cycle and then wait again. One load of laundry took the whole day.
(This guy who took the picture gave some tips, but they were of no use to us.)

So we called a guy. After only 4 phone call exchanges and 2 reschedulings, the technicians came.

I was teaching when they finally showed up, so they told Alexandre our machine would cost 500 reais to fix, and they couldn't even guarantee that it would go back to normal because it had some other little problems that could possibly need fixing soon after. So Alexandre told them, "thanks but no thanks," except probably in a much more polite way because it's physically impossible for him to be rude to people.  

Unfortunately, we had no better solution. Simple new machines cost at least 1,000 reais, and we didn't want to spend that money, either. Also, Brazil lacks the cultural gem that is The Laundromat. 

So "we" (read: I) just kept washing clothes slowly, re-washing things that sat for too long, waiting days for things to dry because they hadn't gone through the spin cycle without any water, washing things by hand, washing heavy things at the in-laws' house, and basically hoping our machine would like, magically fix itself. 

Then, thanks to the wonders of the Internets, I got wind of a fellow American in town who was planning to move back to the US. She was selling off a relatively new washer-dryer combo (a 2-in-one machine) for less than the price of a new, simple washing machine!

I showed Alexandre. He liked the idea. We got the details about the machine from the woman. The specs looked good on the product's website. It would just BARELY fit in our little laundry room, but it would be doable. 

It was a go! We were getting a new machine AND a dryer!! A DRYER, people.

So today, Alexandre and a family friend with a truck went to pick up the machine. I didn't even get to meet the other American family because I couldn't fit in the car, but that's OK. I was much more interested in their machine than I was in them! :X

Alexandre's parents said they wanted our old machine and would try to find someone to fix it for cheaper, or would donate it to someone who would rather have a broken machine than no machine, or they would save it for a rainy day. (Hmm... I wonder where Alexandre gets his pack-rat nature from! Just kidding. I don't.) So Alexandre and truck friend took out the old machine and brought in the new one! It was great. I didn't have to do anything laborious. I only had to clean the laundry room floor. Ah, gender roles. 

I proceeded to spend the afternoon watching the clothes tumble around in our beautiful new washer. 

When the wash cycle finished, the machine played a happily little congratulatory song! What a pleasant surprise. It matched my sentiments exactly. 

I then turned on the dryer feature. It took 2 hours, even on the "light" setting. The time issue and the electricity bill mean that we'll only be using the dryer for very heavy things and in winter, but it's such a relief to have the option and to know I won't have moldy towels anymore.

When the drying cycle finished, the machine played another happy song! Here, I've made a video for you:


I excitedly opened the machine door. The smell of warm fabric softener wafted over me. I pulled out the pile of hot clothes and almost cried. I'd totally forgotten what a wonderful, comforting feeling a load of warm and dry laundry can give you! The English expression "folding the clothes" came back to me, because that's what I had to do. I seriously just sat on the couch hugging the warm clothes and smiling by myself for like 2 minutes like a big dork. It was glorious.

I knew the dryer would be fun, but I didn't realize how sweetly soothing and familiar it would be, how much it would remind me of home. Such a simple thing, those dryer-dried clothes. But they're really going to change my experience here. 

Anytime I'm feeling homesick, I can do a load of laundry instead of, ya know, making 5,000 calories worth of brownies or something.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Pantanal Trip Part 3: The Safari

I know, I'm so behind on these posts. Do you guys even care about my trip anymore? Good thing my blog is as much for me as it is for you. :)

Our next activity on our Pantanal trip was a "safari," i.e, a drive around the land surrounding the pousada to look for wild animals. The pousada had the perfect "safari" vehicle:

Like the river boat ride, which inspired songs from Pocahontas, this safari truck inspired us to sing the Indiana Jones theme song (my sister should be happy to know that I was able to remember the tune before Bianca was). The problem was that it stayed stuck in our heads for the next two days. Whoops.

We started out on our safari trip late in the afternoon. It was Bianca and I, an older couple, and a woman with her two young children. The idea was that we'd drive around until sunset and then look for nocturnal animals (namely, jaguars!). As I had on every other activity, I pestered the guides about our chances of seeing a mot-mot, but they told me it would be unlikely in that kind of terrain. Sigh.

That was OK, though. We got to see a lot of other things!

Soon after leaving the farm, we encountered a lobo-guará, aka a maned wolf:

And we came upon a wild pig and some of her piglets (BABY PIIIIIGGGSS):

I was actually recording a video when we came around the corner and saw the litter, and so there's a very embarrassing video of me squealing louder than the pigs and saying "baby pigs oh my gooddddd!" but it's just too obnoxious for me to post. (I have a feeling, however, that those of you who know me in person can easily imagine it.)

We saw a couple of giant anteaters, and I got to say "zot zot zot!": 

We also saw quite a few armadillos, but those are hard to get pictures of!

The guides had told us that, because of the relatively low rain levels this year, it was unlikely that we would see jabirus, which are the giant Pantanal storks known as the tuiuiu in Portuguese. Luckily, the guides were wrong! We found a marsh with a tuiuiu couple hanging out! 

the horse can give you perspective on how big they are!

They had some friends hanging out with them, like other horses that probably belonged to one of the farmers in the area:

And some southern screamers:

I was trying to get a picture of myself with the jabiru behind me.  I was so excited!

As the sun set, we drove around, enjoying the views and killing time until the nocturnal animals started to come out.

The sun finally set enough for the guides to bust out a spotlight that ran on the truck's battery. Then they drove us into the middle of some tall trees and grass and turned off all the lights and the truck's engine! The said they were listening for which animals were around, but it was terrifying. At one point, some animal made a noise. Bianca and I were convinced it was a jaguar, and we grabbed onto each other in fear. But the guides insisted it was just a wild boar. 

I wasn't really into the idea of the night safari after that, but happily, we got to see the one nocturnal animal I was looking forward to:

The potoo, commonly known as a mãe da lua or urutau in Portuguese!

I stumbled upon this bird in my bird book before my trip and marked it as one I hoped to see. It's just so funny and small and ugly! It makes me laugh every time I see pictures of it. Even the name is funny! I couldn't believe our luck in the potoo being the ONLY animal that we saw on our night safari.

It was great to see all of that wildlife. After hours in that truck, however, I was ready to be back at the hotel room, with a hot dinner and a hot shower.

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