Friday, May 28, 2010

Multicultural food?

Food is a big issue for A. Although he is very flexible to adapting anywhere, food is a THE drawback that keeps me from writing that he completely adapts anywhere.

While living in the US, live was relatively easy... Lot's of Indian restaurants, fast food, grocery stores, etc. About 90% of the time we ate out we'd go to one of the already mapped out Indian places. The other 5% were Middle Eastern and the other 5% were Subway/Quizno's. Not much variation but since I like Indian food a lot, I was also fine with it. Did I miss trying something else? Sure, sometime homesickness and adventure seeking popped it, but usually the hassle of finding something veg on the menu and having A. eat about a third of the usual while mentioning that the food could have more of this or that is not worth it.

But then, I do like to cook. So I usually cook A.'s desi food and sometimes something different for me. Salads, pasta with tomato sauce, bread with cheese and tomatoes are all comfort foods for me, and variations there off keep me happy. Having friends over? Wanting to cook something different? Sure, no problem, as long as there is a coconut rice aside. So this is how we've survived...

A funny side story... A. and I moved in together after 6 months of dating (the latter 3 of which I spent doing research in Brazil). While in Brazil, A. asked if I wanted to move in. Considering that I had moved out of my apartment and left my boxes at his before traveling, that was an easy option, but I did not want to jump too fast. Eventually I got back and the unpacking process started... One condition on A.'s side: no corpses (aka meat) in the house. I was fine with that. Years later A. told me that he actually thought that we would never work out living together (even though we were good friends even before we started dating) and that he wanted to prove that in a fast way. So he expected us to move in, fight, kill each other, realize this would not work and move out/on without wasting much time to figure this out. "Why date for some years and then move in together and only then realize that there is no way you can live in the same apartment?" was his theory. Well, theory was proved wrong and we've been living together for almost 3 years. :o)

And then came trips abroad... Mexico was relatively easy (veg options and spicy food - adding that A. eats chicken every now and then) but Brazil was a whole different story. First of all, Brazilians and spices do not get along. I mean, we do use onions, garlic, cumin, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, thyme, etc but anyone familiar with Indian cooking will know these are nothing compared to a potent masala or podi. And also the amount of spices used is much smaller, to give you an idea, spices are sold in 30g packages here (and are quite expensive compared to the US). Second, Brazilians have a VERY low tolerance for chillies. Meaning that no food comes with chillies in it, but you might be able to get a mild (by desi standards) chilly sauce on the side. Third: Brazilians are BIG carnivores. This can mean seafood, chicken or beef, but you have to have one of those in your plate to consider it a meal. Yes, there are some vegetarian restaurants in larger towns and cities, but usually even there you run into "meat imitations" as A. calls them. This would be cooking that tries to make veg taste and look like meat (e.g. soy meatloaf) rather than giving the veggies their own show. Result: Brazilian food has no taste according to A.

So now we live in Brazil. First measure was to stack up on Indian spices and dal. 15lbs in the luggage was just that. And after a somewhat failed attempt at going local, we figured out that cooking/eating at home is the best option. It helps that I live right next to work and have an hour off for lunch, which allows me to prepare some rice with aloo curry or the like quite easily.

And then the story comes round circle... Yesterday I was making lunch and A. called saying he was late. Since I had cooked a lot, I suggested he invite his Portuguese classmates over for lunch. Considering the bean salad and carrot rice I made were spicy, I put together a last minute pasta with pesto in time for their arrival. And was I glad for this! Although not even I thought the carrot rice was spicy, the Brazilian teacher and the European classmates were sweating and drinking water like crazy... It was quite funny to watch! Guess they would have a hard time in India!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Indian and the speedo

Background info: Brazilians wear speedos on the beach. There is no age or body shape restriction. Young guys lately do seem to prefer shorts, but they usually have their speedos underneath the short.

So 2 years ago my mother sent me a Christmas package to the USA and in it was a speedo she got for A. She had gotten each of my brothers one and didn't think much about throwing one more in for A. When I saw the speedo in the box I was left wondering what to do... I knew A. would not be excited about the gift (to say the least) but if I did not give it to him, next time my mom spoke with him and asked how he liked his gift my story would be uncovered. So I decided to go ahead and hand it over. The look of bewilderment in A.'s face was priceless... He looked at it, asked what it was for (swimming) and then asked: "Why did your mom give me an underwear to wear in public??". Needless to say, the speedo was quickly tucked in somewhere, never to be found again.

And here we come to the present day, in Rio de Janeiro. Home of more speedos than anywhere else (even in Brazil). A. got here a week ago and started Portuguese classes 2 days ago... And yesterday he gets home and asked: "Hey, can we get a speedo for me? You know, I was in class, after class everyone just went to the beach and everyone went swimming but I couldn't because I was wearing jeans..." I must admit I laughed a lot!! For now, A.'s idea is to use the speedo as a fast drying underwear under shorts, so he can just hop in the water with shorts on and have them dry by the time he leaves the beach. So last night we went to the mall and got him 2 speedos, which he will try out soon. :D

Friday, May 21, 2010

New routine

So A. and I are now officially living in Rio de Janeiro. And although I have not lived here long myself (just moved  here in march) A.'s comments and reactions to Rio are quite amusing to a Brazilian. Also, being around him and looking more like a traditional tourist than he does also makes people mistake me for the tourist sometimes... So I thought I'd share a few short stories:

Yesterday, as we were walking down a street in Ipanema, suddenly A. crouches in the middle of the crowd and says a loud: "Wow!". It just happened that a street pigeon was flying over quite close to his head and he thought the bird might bump into him. I explained that pigeons don't usually bump into you, they just change directions at the last minute. It was hilarious!!

It wasn't as extreme... but A. was surely ready to duck! :D

We walked some extra blocks just to have lunch at what I consider one of the best places to grab a bite in Rio: lot's of fresh salads, lot's of veggie options and a nice ambiance... So I wanted to take A. there. We got the food and I must admit, A's reaction was nothing compared to my enthusiasm about the place. He said: "It's ok". Well, I understand all the limitations that Indians feel when eating food that is not cooked with at least 10 spices, but... my hopes were still high that he'd like the place. He promised to try again, but for now I'm planning on sticking to home cooking (with the 15 lbs of spices and dal I brought from the US).

As we got to the language school where A. will take Portuguese classes he chatted with the front desk people about the classes, etc in English. Then a woman turned to me:
"What about you, aren't you taking classes?"
"No, I'm not"
"Oh, how come? You should!"
"I'm Brazilian..."
This was followed by a short "ow" and a look of partial disbelief...

As I went back to work (yes, I'm working still, while A. has time off) A. wandered off to make a notarized copy of his passport (so he does not need to walk around with the original one). And on the way he found a museum open that I always thought was permanently closed since I never saw it open... So he's already getting to know more of the city than me.

Any interesting anecdotes of when you've been in a different country?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Graduation, wedding #1 and parties!

Hello, hello!

Sorry for the hiatus. I spent the last 10 days on a quick trip back to Raleigh, NC for lot's of reasons which I will post irregardless of ordering...

a) Dismantling the apartment A. and I lived in in Raleigh. We were quite over optimistic about this... 1 week? Sure, no problem! Well, after several parties and other social events we ended up having a day and a half to divide stuff into 4 piles: what goes to Brazil; what goes to Norway/France; what goes to friends and what goes to trash. I ended up spending 2 hours at the post office just to ship boxes off to different destinations and then still had a friend keep our bikes with her until we decide what to do with it.

b) Parties! We had good bye party for A.'s office mates at a nice Indian restaurant on Wednesday, then a grill at a friend's on Thurs, our friends threw a bachelor/bachelorette party for us on Friday and we slept only 2 hours until it was time to go to graduation on Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon we hosted a big barbeque for all our friends as a good bye party. Then Sunday I went to a friend's birthday grill while A. had another bachelor party organized by his office mates.

c) We got married! Yup, had time to squeeze in a court-house wedding on Monday morning just in time so we can get the document in the US (where it is virtually bureaucracy free if compared to Brazil or India).

d) Graduation! Got my PhD diploma in my hand now... boy does that feel good!

And after this whole list of events we flew back to Rio de Janeiro together! So here we are now, tired and still catching up on sleep... but happy!

Now it makes more sense why I haven't been able to post anything, but I promise this will improve. :P

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Today I spent the day in Brasília for some meetings. And since I was on my way South from Belém to Rio it was good timing.

Since this city has quite an interesting (and very recent) history I decided to write some about it.

The city is roughly located in the middle of Brazil. Until the 1950s there was no sign of a city or even a town there... until the then president decided to move the Brazilian capital from Rio de Janeiro to a more "central" location. After pinpointing the new capital location on a map the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the entire city, from the location of shops and residential apartment buildings to the whole infrastructure needed for the national government. The city plan is also the form of an airplane, as can be seen from the sky:

The airplane nose is where the president's office, senate, justice department, foreign affairs, etc sit. The airplane body is the main avenue, with a conference center and TV antenna. The wings are where the shops and residential areas are located. So one might ask... where did all the money necessary for such a humongous task come from? Well... the decade before Brazil started it's social security program... and since no one was retiring yet there was only money coming in and no pension payments as of yet. Great deal for contractors who got to conduct a project at a scale almost incomparable. Not so good for an entire country that is still payment these fancies...
The senate.

Brasilia is quite an interesting place to visit though. Lot's of modern 1950s buildings that are now patrimony and cannot be changed. There are also the interesting points of visiting a capital. And since my brother lives there I get to meet family as well. Living in Brasilia is a love-hate relationship he tells me. Public servants in the 1960s had to get huge benefits to be convinced to leave the beaches of Rio for the arid savanna and a nostalgia for Rio is quite apparent. For a younger generation Brasília is a land of opportunity, lot's of jobs, lot's of people in the same situation. But the city also suffers from being VERY stuck up: they think they are the best and seem to feed this feeling with the fact that all embassies, consulates and big international deals are home. But to be quite honest Brasilia is not self-sufficient, over 80% of its population live off taxes paid by other Brazilians.

As I said, as interesting story... even if a bit crazy. ;o)
The cathedral

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Monsoon, bureaucracy and people

This post is about Brazil, more especifically Belém, but from travels around the globe I think it applies to many (most???) developing countries as well.

As I write this I´m in line to do a medical exam necessary to quit my old job here. I've been waiting for almost 2 hours.... The place I´m at is a clinic that specializes in labor medicine. Anyone that is hired, fired, quits, changes job functions within the same firm or just needs a leave  has to come here for an "examination". The "examination" is meant to check if your physical and mental capacities are still similar to when you entered. It consists of an interview with a doctor who asks you what your job is and whether you think you can handle it. She takes your blood pressure and... that's it! At the end you get a letter saying that you are apt to do the job.

Now, can anyone tell me in what ways this makes the system more efficient? I know it is means to safe guard the employer from lawsuits regarding work conditions but I certainly don't s see how 2 questions can assess anything. As I see it this just creates one more level of bureaucracy (and, of course, the people that live off it) and helps explain why 50% of the Brazilian economy is informal. In Brazil a formal employee costs twice as much to the employer than she earns, the rest being taxes paid by the employer.

So now it's time to go to the "people" part of this post. People here already know how the system operatyes, they know they will wait for hours. So what do they do about it? They bring more people to sit in line with them and then they can entertain each other. So in line are entire families, mothers with 2-3 kids, sometimes a baby crying. Then there are couples of boyfriend/girlfriend, grandams that sit in line while the grandchild (who will do the examination) runs out for errands...

And then, without further notice the sky collapses into thunder and huge raindrops flood the street. Windows are hastely closed to keep everything from getting wet and in exchange air gets stuffier by the minute. But the rain also reminds me that there is no use in hurrying the process and even if I was called by the doctor now I'd have to wait for the rain to pass to be able to get to the nearest bus stop...

Ah, Brazil...