Thursday, April 29, 2010

Off to the Amazon!

Tomorrow (or should I rather say in a few hours??) I'm heading to the Amazon!

What I like the most in this sentence is the reactions I get, which vary from horror to a strong travel bug itch. So let me explain myself a bit (based on most common questions asked by others) - Note: number of question marks below represent the level of exasperation and/or quizzical looks the person asking the questions has:

Q: Why to the Amazon?
A: Because that's where my research is. Besides, I always had a fascination about the forest, the people living there and a reality that seems light-years away from what we'd call "normal".

Q: What are you going to do there???
A: I used to work with communities that sell forest products besides timber (and therefore called Non Timber Forest Products) and am now working with more of an "environmental services approach" (i.e. anything that is good that comes from the environment, from fresh water to fruits to carbon sequestration).

Q: Where are you going?????
A: This time I will stay in Belém. It is a state capital with 1.4 million people... (so far from the village people usually associate with the Amazon). I lived there for a year and since 2006 have been spending a few months a year over there for work.

Q: If you managed to get out of there, why would you go back?????????
A: I don't know, but I really really like Belém. I think it has to do with the fact that I left after 1 year (which means that I had just settled in but had not gotten tired of it yet) and that I made great friends there. Never in my life did I have as many female single friends in one place. I usually have more guy friends but in Belém they are scarce (it's said that bars in Belém have 7 girls for each guy... tough market!!) but this was no impediment to go out and have fun. Most of my friends have now moved elsewhere but staying there for a while each year allows me to meet new people through the old ones and keep a nice group going. For example, I emailed people today that I am arriving tomorrow and they already organized to meet at a bar after work... sweet!

This is the view I had from the apartment I used to live in:

Pretty big city huh? And this is the view you see when arriving by plane:
Yup, that's the city in the peninsula in the middle, surrounded by water and beyond that, forest. From this broader perspective it is easier to remember that I will, indeed, be in the middle of the Amazon.

How about you? Been to places you really like that other people could just not understand why going or even living there? Tell your story!

And for those interested in the geography, here is the map:

View Larger Map

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Motivation... such a fleeting thing

I just defended my PhD in January... and when I thought I was done the really boring part started: revisions.

It is amazing how motivation just flies away as soon as there is something boring to do... at least this is the case for me. Procrastinating is sooooooooo nice! Despite the good intentions that hover around on Monday morning I usually start getting stuff down around Wednesday (unless... there is a deadline! See below). And I love multitasking, which makes it even more fun to have 12 internet tabs open at the same time and word in the background... (This usually drives A. mad :D). Let's just say that there is a chance of 1 in 13 that I will have the word document open at any given time...

This comic explains everything:
(by the way, PhD comics was a constant source of realism and laughter - and procrastination - during grad school, well worth reading)

But my current case is even worse... I've been staring at different bits and parts of my dissertation for the last 3 years and I feel like I cannot make myself read the !@#%$^%& draft once more. But having a perfectionist as an advisor means that there are always changes to make, something to add, some new model to estimate, some new article that just came out and needs to be included in the literature review... And this is how I find myself at the end of April, 3 days from the deadline to hand in the final manuscript and still rushing against time to get it done.

That's when a more benign version of motivation kicks in: deadline syndrome. I admit it, I work better under stress. Not rarely would I have things to do in grad school that were due a month later and would just travel somewhere exotic,  for 10 days and then cram the rest of the days with lots of work. It always worked! I mean, whatever I handed in was far from perfect and could always use at least a few more hours of work, but it was good enough.

Searching for motivation in Morrocco...

I think research aims at explaining what goes on in the world from different perspectives and therefore, almost by definition, it will never be complete. Therefore, how can your paper be perfect? It won't! I think research is mostly a bunch of building blocks that make little sense by themselves. During undergrad in Brazil we used to say that it takes 80% of the effort to go from a B to an A, and 15% to go from C to B. A+? That was a whole other 90% on top of the A (Note: Brazilian grades a less inflated than in the US. Getting an A here is huge). So you can kill yourself studying to get an A+ or lead a more fulfilling life with an A in school and some fun on the side.

And then comes the part I really like about research... it goes with you wherever you want. I can work in Brazil or in the US as long as I have the cherished data and a laptop with internet connection. And this is precisely what will happen next semester, I'll be working for a university in Norway, while A. will be studying in Paris. So I'm hoping to spend most of my time in Paris... :D

Does anyone else operate like this? Or is it just me? According to A. I'm a pretty extreme case...

Ideal office pic to relax a little :P

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ah, the beach... and long distance relationships.

So I've been living in Rio for about 40 days now... And in the meanwhile A. is in the US, finishing up his job there. It will be a total of 2 months of long distance before we meet again.... In writing this doesn't even sounds like much, but it is a lot!

Well, some would say I should be used to it. Ever since we started dating A. and I have had 3 months apart each year. Mostly me coming back to Brazil to do research during the university Summer break in the US. Those months were never easy though... but I think I've started seeing patterns to the LDR thing:

1st month: awful! Having been living with A. for almost 3 years now, the first month of LDR is terrible, you miss the having someone around you, having a listener at any given time, having a friend you can call to go out without even having to reach for the phone. Phone and skype conversations in this period are long and not necessarily fulfilling.

2nd month: you get used to it. Life in the other place starts kicking back in, you meet new people (or contact old ones), and start figuring things out. In this phase A. always asks: "Are you in Brazil mode yet?". That means that I get more of an accent in English and start wanting to explain things with Portuguese adjectives. Conversations with A. in this period are more matter-of-fact, about things you do or did not do, about new people you meet, about places you went. This is the phase when I allow myself to think about what we can do together after we meet again.

3rd month: bordering indifference. In this phase it is a struggle to keep things going at a certain interest level. You know you will meet each other in less than a month and therefore you don't feel like talking all that much (especially since catching up in person is so much easier and nicer). Getting used to being without each other means friends take over some space and suddenly there is more to do. In this phase, even though we talk every day, it is not uncommon to call A. and hear him say: I'll be going out with X. in about 5 min (happens with me too).

After considering these phases, last year A. and I decided that we would try to keep it at 45 days long distance max. So in the middle of my Summer research months he came down to Brazil for a week (well, actually less considering he missed his flight and arrived almost 2 days later, but that's another story). This time A. cannot leave the US due to visa restrictions and I cannot make it back in less than 2 months, so it will have to do. At least I'm hoping we won't reach phase 3 this time :D

So, since I'm in phase 2 right now, what did I do this past weekend? Tired of sitting at home and being too close to work to ignore it (and not having much more interesting stuff to do), I packed a bag on Friday and took a bus to the town of Buzios, 3 hours away. Staying at a hostel and meeting new people, going to the beach and walking around definitely was a good idea. I'm glad I went!! The pics here are some of what I saw there.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Decisions and their consequences

A. and I were talking today about how slim the chance of us meeting was...

I grew up in Brazil, did my MS in th USA, went back to Brazil, went back to the USA for a PhD in Raleigh, NC, with the intention of only staying for 3 semesters, finish the coursework and then go back to my job in the Brazilian Amazon (where I had just bought an apartment and would be doing my research anyway).

A. grew up in Hyderabad, India, almost went to the National Defence Academy in India (did not go due to a last minute decision before taking the train), finished college in India, worked there, went to the USA for his MS, worked in Dallas, Detroit, Edenton (NC) and then moved to Raleigh.

And when I moved to Raleigh I decided to go out on my first weekend there. And guess who I meet? That's right, A. He had just moved to the area 6 months before, fleeing the small town life in Edenton. We were friends for 6 months first, with the latter part of those 6 months being filled with "what ifs" by me and by A. wondering if we'd ever work. Four years after first meeting we're getting married! So I guess it does work out.

But details aside, it always amazes me how decisions that seem small at the time they are made can have huge implications on the rest of your life. My Dad used to worry about me going abroad again for my PhD, thinking that chances of meeting someone for the long term were big, and chances that this person would be Brazilian were slim. Not that he preferred Brazilians, but that would make it much easier for me to live "next door", so to speak. I always dismissed his concern and was always sure I'd go back to Brazil. But he was right... the decision I took lightly (thinking only professionally and not necessarily personally) did allow me to meet A., and we still have no clue where (if??) we'll settle down. This is obviously not bad, but it does carry consequences... let's just say that the fastest way to get from India to Brazil takes 26 hours and about US$3000 per person.

Sometimes you don't even realize big decisions are being made... but that's the beauty of it.
What life changing, yet small, decisions have changed your life?

Recipe day

Ok... so today I don't feel all that inspired to write about life... but how about making it sweeter?
So here goes a recipe that I really like, very simple yet amazing.

This is a traditional Brazilian dish usually served as dessert (together with some paneer-like cheese called "queijo minas" for the region it originated from). Traditionally it would be cooked in big copper pots over the wood stove, in huge batches. Nowadays I eat is as a jam on bread (as "banana butter") and cook it when I buy too many bananas and then they ripen all at once.

4 large bananas
juice of 1 lime (or lemon)
1 tablespoon of sugar

Peel the bananas, break them into pieces (about 2-3cm) and put them into a bot (if it has a thick bottom, better). Add the lime juice and the sugar. Cook covered on the stove for about 10 minutes. Take the lid off and as the water evaporates, turn the mixture with a wooden spoon. By now the bananas will have fallen apart and all that's left is a paste. As the paste dries it will stick to the bottom of the pan, keep turning often (don't worry, if it burns a little it will just add some caramel color and taste to it). Once it is dark brown turn off the stove and let it sit to cool.
That's it!! Ready to enjoy!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bus musings

What type of place and situation is more propitious to thinking about life?
For me the answer is easy: long bus rides!

In Brazil buses are the main form of transport between cities (alternatives being the car and the airplane) and the one most widely used by the population at large. Intercity buses here are also quite comfortable and come in different categories: conventional, semi-sleeper and sleeper. Most probably the bus will have an AC turned on max (meaning a sweater is a must have) and might even have stewardesses (if it is really fancy). Buses go everywhere in Brazil and even abroad. You can catch a bus from Oiapoque to Chui (which will take more than a week):

View Larger Map
Or take a bus from São Paulo to Santiago in Chile or even to the town next door. Tonight I'm taking a bus from Rio de Janeiro to Piracicaba, arriving there early morning.

So what does this have to do with pondering about life??
Well, I love sitting up high by the window in the bus, seeing the world fly by. It gives life a sort of "passing" feel, as everything is temporary and fluid. Then the daydreaming begins, when I ponder about my current life, past, and future. I make plans, "what ifs", then deconstruct and reconstruct them in different ways. Everything seems possible, even if fleeting, and the world opens up to immense possibilities.

Traveling at night also has its advantages as the darkness gives a sense of privacy to the workings of the mind. Seeing the stars outside the window shining constantly contrasts with the shadows scurrying by. Just like that, I start wondering about things that have been around in my life for a while, people that have stayed longer that at first expected, people that reappeared and still shine around me. Then all the people that came and went, some seemingly too soon, others knowingly at the right time.

And when I realize I fell asleep, hours went by and soon it is time to arrive and go on with life.

Friday, April 16, 2010


(Starting with a deep deep breath...)
To be quite honest, I never thought much about weddings. The only thing I envisioned was doing something small, for few people, outside during the day, informal...
But, as the world likes to twist things up, I ended up with 3 (but potentially 5) weddings! I mean, I know girls that would have killed to get one! And they look at me when I complain about wedding hassles as if I should be burning in hell... the world is truly unfair.... :D

So here we go:
Wedding 1: in the US, sometime in May. I'm going back to NC for a week, for graduation, dismantling our apartment, selling my car, good bye parties, graduation parties and... marriage! Now, VERY few people know about this event. Mainly we don't want to advertise and want it as small as possible since there are 2 other big weddings for people to attend (but since many of our friends live in the US and won't be able to attend....). The main reason to get married there is the easiness of the process: no paperwork, show up at the courthouse, pay the fee, sign the contract and it's done!

Wedding 2: Ok, so A. and I are still considering whether this is worth the hassle. This would be the legal marriage in Brazil. The up side is that once it is accomplished we are recognized as married in Brazil and do not need to validate documents from abroad (like the US papers). However, we need to submit a request for permission to marry 30 days ahead of time and get a ton of paperwork ready (especially since A. is not Brazilian)...

Wedding 3: Big fat Brazilian wedding. To get an idea, the day after I told my mom that we'd be getting married she called me and asked if I had a guest list ready... because she had made one with 200 people and wanted to compare it with mine. I had none. So despite my visions of something small out in the open during the day... we just kept the "open and during the day" part and are now complying with the lists of requirements necessary.

Wedding 4: This is the most likely to be dropped. Legal wedding in India. This requires even more paperwork than the Brazilian legal marriage and might not help much (especially if we have the US papers) in requesting my PIO card.

Wedding 5: This one will be in Tirupati in South India at 7am. Very traditional, following all the requirements set by A.'s mom. I have no say at all in this one but to a large extent it makes things easier. As A. said... it would be great if you were just a puppet for 10 days. Guess that indicates the level of free will I'm entitled to. This might (or not) be followed by a reception later (to be determined by family politics).

Talking to a professor a while back she recommended: "as long as you can view through an anthropologists' eyes, will no doubt be very entertaining.". My mom didn't like the idea of us taking our wedding as an anthropological experiment, but I like it.

And if I make it out alive I'll be greatful!!!

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Ok, so I was going to write more in the "About me" section but since things get complicated quite fast I figured a post is needed. So...

Whom am I? :D
Leaving aside the depth of the question and focusing more on superficialities, I'm Brazilian, but also hold a German passport. I finished my PhD in environmental economics in the USA and currently live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As you read in the previous post I'm still readapting but also oh-so-happy to be back. Beaches, coconut water, friends and family... what else could you want?

Who else?
When I moved to North Carolina for grad school the firs guy I met was A... who after 6 months of friendship turned into boyfriend and is soon going to become husband. A. is from South India. As a good tamilian he likes sambar (a traditional Tamilian dish made of dal and spices). This is where the name of this blog comes from.
Despite stark differences between Brazilian and Indian cultures (food and clothing come quickly to mind) we agree that they somehow complement each other. Also, while we were both out of our comfort zone, living in a third country, things were somewhat easier. Now A. is coming to Brazil for 45 days and his experience here will determine how much more time he wants to stay in the future.

What next?
Well, in June we're getting married in Brazil (big fat Brazilian wedding) then getting married in India (very traditional wedding) in July and finally moving to Europe in August. So there is a lot ahead... hope you enjoy the ride as much as we will!

Welcome to Rio!

So here I am, living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I've been here for 1 month and have 2 more to go and I am enjoying it very much. Having grown up in the state next door (São Paulo) and just moving here after almost 4 years abroad I say it is very nice to be back home.

Here are more fantastic views of the city!

It is amazing how comfortable you feel when you are in a place where you exactly know how things operate. I know not to expect the express mail package to arrive on the day it was supposed to. I know where I can haggle and where not. I know where to go to get the things I need (to the corner store for groceries packed into a space smaller than a normal mall store in the US, to the booth set up on the next street to make copies of keys, to the flower shop to find dirt for plants....). I understand all cursing, jokes, laughter, slang and implied meanings (Brazilians are very fond of these) as well as indirect comments (when people don't want to argue with you). It is truly liberating when things feel "normal". :D

However, having lived in the USA for a while also makes me see things that most Brazilians don't want to see: the homeless teenager sleeping on the floor, the way that getting things done always depends on someone that knows someone, the lack of long term planning (and consequential mud slides from the last rains), corrupt politicians and how they seem to always be reelected, and the blissful ignorance about the world at large.

Of course beaches, coconut water, friends and family visiting often make up for all of this! And the best of all is the time off... Brazilians are very fond of weekends, holidays, evenings, long lunches, and any other time they can get  off (meaning no work allowed). After 3.5 years as a grad student in the US I admit I love the feeling of not being expected to and not thinking that I should be working. It is amazing!!