segunda-feira, 5 de janeiro de 2009

Exactly a year

You know how it is: you make the jump to an exotic, tropical country. You start blogging about your experiences. And then... you get caught up with actually living where you are. And the blog slides into oblivion.

I'm guilty as charged.

It's been a year since I've fed Kermit. A pretty full year. And you know, I was just going to let it evaporate. Just another blog started with good intentions but with insufficient determination to see it through.

But then, for the first time in a year, I opened my email box and saw a pile of messages from people who had actually been reading my initial missives. Gratifying stuff to know that blogging is not all about whistling in the dark.

And so I reckon I'll give it another whirl.

Kermit's back, at least for now. Let's see what I can do with this thing. Having the word "vlog" in the title of this page seemed to predestine me for posting videos, but I've fallen well behind there. The fact is, Brazil isn't really a place where you want to be brandishing a camera when you go out. So moving pix proved to be an impossible ambition. Also vlog seems more and more démodé now, don't you think? I'm stuck with it though, for now (even if I am considering migrating to a new blog title with a different slant).

So what did the past year bring? Travel was a big component. I've been off to Peru and Argentina and northeastern Brazil. And Paris. And Australia. Also a few romantic ups and downs, but they've settled into a glide path with a beautiful Brazilian gal who, as it turns out, lived just around the corner from me right from the start.

Right now, it's a rainy day in Rio which means I was sufficiently stuck indoors to rediscover my site. And to post this up.

A belated Champagne toast for 2009.

sábado, 19 de janeiro de 2008

Sampa's Passion for Fashion

Where does sexy end and vulgarity start? That’s a fuzzy border familiar to Brazilian girls, especially the ones here in Sao Paulo. There are three places on this planet you can see women dressed as walking, talking living dolls apparently dressed by (lecherous male) artistic directors for Maxim or GQ or one of those men’s magazines which make you think “women just don’t look like that in real life.” Well, in Beirut, in Moscow and, dear reader, here in Sao Paulo, they most certainly do look like that. Fashion and fetish, sexiness and spectacular overstatement are rife – with the bonus that they are so many incarnations of samba swinging so cool and swaying so gentle.

There is an odd dimension to male-female relations here that I am only slowly becoming aware of, one of Latin femininity mixed with the urban sophistication of great capitals. In Europe or the United States, the political movements to empower women have created a justifiably laudable even playing field in many areas, notably in the workplace. But in the social arenas where flirting or the simple superficial physical appreciation of those around you is an option, that we’re-all-the-same mentality has come up distressingly short. Brazil’s softer sex has much to teach its sisters in many other countries. Sure, the women here may take the plastic surgery and the weekly (daily?) trips to the hairdresser’s to extremes. And that obsession with high heels obviously demands a certain sacrifice. But the injection of a bit of aesthetic fantasy into the humdrum of everyday of life works a treat here. It’s a joy merely to go to the supermarket, given the catwalk parades along the dairy aisle.

Genetically speaking, the Brazilian men obviously come from the same pool as the women. Beauty here is not as segregated as it is in Moscow, for instance. But it’s the women who dress up (a lot of the men probably want to become clotheshorses, too, but obviously bow to the greater wisdom of not making themselves ostentatious targets for the ever-present armed robbers; thus t-shirts and jeans pretty much make up their casual attire). And when the women – OK, the wealthier women – trot out their party threads, it’s as if a Jay-Z music video clip has come to life. They’ve obviously been doing it since they were little girls, because there’s no self-conscious pulling of dresses or tottering on the heels that you see when girls in other countries try for a glam party look. Here, they glide like goddesses through the room.

Naturally enough, there’s a fashion industry commensurate with the obsession for short, shiny clothes. Brazil is teeming with labels, a few of which are starting to become known, mainly in NYC. And this week was the week when the top 40 of them got to show off their winter collections, in the Sao Paulo Fashion Week.

Now, fashion shows are hardly representative of what the woman in the street wears. At least that’s the maxim in Paris and NYC and London (Milan being a slight exception, at times). But in Sao Paulo, what you see up on the catwalk is not that far off the mark. For the women. (The men’s wear is purely an imaginary jaunt, I’m guessing – unless the numerous gay clubs here have a door policy that encourages some pretty bizarre choices of outfit.)

On that note, here’s a sample of what was showing at this year’s Fashion Show.

For the record: yes, the women on the catwalk do look like the “average” women in the clubs around town. Only being models they’re not allowed to smile at work.

segunda-feira, 14 de janeiro de 2008


Portuguese is a delightful language.

When I close my eyes, slip my sandals off and hoist my ears to the conversations going on around me I imagine being in a comfy barrel surrounded by drunk mosquitoes. It’s all jjjjj and zzzz and waves rolling into each other of vowels that couldn’t care less where one word stops and another begins, a melty-cheese of a language that belongs in a cartoon world of languorous ducks swimming backstroke while blowing kisses. I don’t understand a word, but it soothes.

Speaking Spanish does not help. Or at least that’s what I’ve come to believe from my not-so-unique vantage point of not really speaking Spanish. Sure, you can muddle your way through a page of text while remembering those Berlitz tape conjugations used for a trip to that Mexican Club Med sometime in the late 1990s. But literate functionality is of little help when you need to order a drink, get cable TV installed -- or insinuate to a pushy driver that it would be redeemable on his part if he took his self-regarding ways to a parthonegenic state impossible for all animals except earthworms and, it appears, sharks. You simply cannot ask a Brazilian to wait while the conversation is scribbled out on whatever parchment is at hand. Even preparing yourself – Pillow Book-style – won’t cover all eventualities.

And throwing Spanish around can be risky. Just try reciting the alphabet and watch the Brazilians sidle away when you hit Q. And the incompatibility of Portuguese using ‘no’ to mean ‘in the’ whereas Spanish-speakers instinctively take it to mean, well, ‘no’ (one wonders why?), creates all sorts of opportunities for misapprehension. Particularly if you’re on a date.

Naõ, there are too many pitfalls in relying on Portuñol. The only way forward is immersion into the language. Dive straight on in and join those punchdrunk mosquitoes and wacky ducks.

It was in that spirit I bought a ticket to the movie “Elite Squad”. Sorry: “Tropa de Elite” (pronounced TRO-pah jay Ee-Lychee – if you don’t speak Portuguese and someone’s recommended the film to you, you could be forgiven for figuring it’s a mystical tale about eating way too many Asian fruits. It’s not, trust me.) The film is apparently a riveting exposé of community relations as employed by those civil servants beloved the world over: police officers. Acts of kindness are legion in the script. And the warmth of human natures just kind of shines through, sparking up the screen. Er, or maybe those illuminations were from the canon explosions of the arsenal of high-calibre weapons wielded by the flak-jacketed cops.

In any case, that celluloid assault did wonders for my grasp of the language of Brazil. I didn’t catch all of it, or even most of it. But I now feel much better qualified to engage in conversation with law enforcement officers or proponents of the country’s unofficial economy. Bring ‘em on. It would be kinda like Quentin Tarantino addressing the UN. Only with even more cocaine influence.

Of course, the path to language mastery is long, and I’m not even at the first petrol station. In the meantime, my tactic is to repeat the four magic words that make it sound, simultaneously, that I am both fluent and hip:

“Otimo.” “Legal.” “Belleza.” "Bacana."

With those four words, doors have opened, taxi drivers have launched into soliloquies about their families and barmen have been prompt with my order. I’ve participated in whole conversations where my sole contributions have been repeated offerings of "otimo" and "legal". I’m not sure, but I think I even navigated my way through the opening of a bank account by smiling and effusively offering that the manager was "belleza". Which he certainly wasn't.

Once I get to the stage of stringing sentences together, I'm sure I'll be able to find some creative ways to get myself into trouble (with the escape policy of blaming any offence on my poor grasp of the lingo).

In the meantime though, it's drunken mosquitoes in my ear and an otimo smile on my lips.

sábado, 15 de dezembro de 2007


As a regular caipirinha drinker with a small collection of Gilberto Gil tracks in my iTunes library and some colourful t-shirts, I figured I was part-way prepared to move to São Paulo from Paris. Hell, if the job came up, I was clearly qualified to be an advisor on Brazilian stuff to the Bush White House. Overqualified, even, given that I once went out with a Brazilian girl and with her help I could more or less point out her country on a world map without resorting to Google Earth.

OK, so I couldn’t point out São Paulo on that map. And back then, adapting my very limited Thai linguistic experience to Latin America’s biggest country, I thought you said “obrigado” to guys and “obrigada” to girls. And, come to think of it, I knew of no other Brazilian movie other than “City of God”. Oh, and as a gringo hailing from a country that most definitely wasn’t the US, I felt hurt being labeled a “gringo”.

So, all in all, it was with a great deal of excitement and ignorance that I packed my bags and skipped across the ocean to what all the guide books comfortingly referred to one of the great homicide capitals of the planet. (I laugh in the description of danger, of course – especially when it’s in a book featuring prominent pictures of such dire perils as lithesome beauties wearing little more than fake diamonds and dental floss.)

That was two months ago.

Now, while I’m not a hardened Paulistano able to shake my booty in a samba contest, I have been able to sit back and take stock of the large pile of misconceptions that I had foolishly packed along with my Indiana Jones hat and bullwhip.

Here they are:

1. There are no palm trees in Sao Paulo, and the beach is a long way away. I still get calls from friends and colleagues who think they can detect a slight whiff of coconut tanning oil and surf crashing when I speak to them down the line. They are, of course, misconstruing the rain and gridlocked traffic in the background. Understandable, perhaps, given that their poor little ears are frostbitten in the French winter that I am not experiencing.

2. Every Brazilian woman is not a cousin of Gisele Bündchen waiting to ravish passing gringos. My Parisian exes were convinced that matrimony in the form of a seductive siren of unbelievable proportions enhanced by surgery was to fall upon me as quickly and stealthily as an Amazon python, or a scalper at a Corinthians game. It took me a couple of weeks to be introduced to the places where such sublime examples of femininity hang out, but my imaginings that they lurked behind every tree and desk were greatly overstated. Well, a little bit overstated. They still obviously come from a different planet where Barbarella babies are mixed with Jennifer Lopez genes. But they are not everywhere. And they do not jump gringos willy-nilly. For the very good reason that their male counterparts come from the same DNA soup and have better pecs and tans than even Calvin Klein dares to exhibit in his ads. And Brazilian men, having been inured since childhood, don’t drool.

3. Sao Paulo is not cheap. Sure, you can laugh as you knock back four-dollar cocktails and one-dollar beers (not recommended, though, as an open windpipe at this point could require medical attention). But I’ve come to believe the prices of cars have been set by Greenpeace, mobile phone roaming tariffs are intended to double up as telephone numbers in themselves, and apartment rentals must include subscriptions to daily masseuses, cooks, drivers and gardeners who somehow lost their way to my particular address. Some residents take their helicopter to work.

4. Life is not easy. Life is a four-letter word (in Portuguese, too) that requires three trips to the Federal Police office with authenticated copies of the origins of each of the letters co-signed by a translator who looked up their symboligical representations in a special tome held in another office on the other side of town that requires two forms of ID and 250 reais to access before being confirmed that, yes, it actually exists as an entry in the dictionary. Said dictionary may only be consulted once you have found a guarantor and a bank line of credit opened in your mother’s maiden name. Repeat for all other words in the sentence.

5. Sao Paulo is not Brazil. What it is, is Bladerunner-goes-to-Beirut. Times 10. Make that times 100. 1,000? I’ve heard rumours that somewhere, beyond the diesel-filled rainbow at the end of the city’s limits, there is a lush tropical paradise of pristine beaches, verdant jungles and third-world prices. Only it requires driving for several days to get there. OK, so I’ve only just arrived. I will be getting out there. Once I work out which way is south and get a GPS.

So much for the misconceptions. Delightfully, there was something that held up from my long list of expectations. And that’s the gentleness and solicitude of the Brazilians. I swear, this is the first metropolis I’ve ever been in where a hefty proportion of its inhabitants take the time to talk, to get to know you and, if you need it, to help. So far, my attempts to communicate are limited to 20 words in Portuguese and Mr Bean impressions. But the Brazilians are unfailingly ready to step forward. I haven’t been here long, but I know for this alone, I’m going to be loving life here.

quinta-feira, 13 de dezembro de 2007

Andean dislocation

Now Peru. Getting tired of hotels, and looking forward to getting back to what I'm slowly starting to consider home: São Paulo.

Here, one of the things I notice is the aggressivity of the drivers. Peruvians generally seem a little more passive than their Brazilian and Venezuelan counterparts. There's less eye contact, and their city is lower-rise and seemingly less freewheeling. But they most certainly are Latin when it comes to driving.

Whereas the Brazilians have a sense of kingly entitlement behind the wheel, and the Venezuelans are just intent on sucking up as much of their ultracheap petrol as they can, the Peruvians seem to have a chip on their shoulders that weighs them down all the way to the accelerator. Like anywhere, you just have to calibrate to how much machismo to show when you drive. Here, it's an 8 on the scale. Similar to the way the Syrians careen around, looking to rub bumper bars and creating lanes when they feel like it.

Another similarity between the three countries is the way people walk. On the sidewalks, they're not aggressive as when they drive. But they are supremely unaware of other pedestrians and are quite capable of sauntering along in a zig-zag fashion at whatever pace they've set themselves. And they seem delightfully surprised when they discover someone at their shoulder trying to step past them.

Or maybe I still have lingering Western impatience in my system. When I walk, I tend to zip along in a straight line, stepping around obstacles and crazy people when necessary, but it's motion with a goal. I realise I have to take in the wandering pace of the New World and relax into the oblivion of putting one foot in front of the other. Not there yet though.

sábado, 1 de dezembro de 2007

Hot air

Caracas. It's been about eight years since I've been here, coincidentally the same amount of time Hugo Chavez has been Venezuela's president. I remembered him on television back then as a charismatic guy babbling on in between the telenovelas. This time, his babble has gotten longer and, dare I say it, a little more desperate. He still breaks out into song, is hugely entertaining with his theatrical gestures and the way he rolls his Rs, but the anti-US tirade is getting a little tired. It's like he's exhausted his bag of tricks and has nothing left.

This time around, I'm spending almost all my time working. But I do manage to get in time some evenings to take in what is probably the city's best bar: the 360 on top of the Altamira Suites hotel. The number refers to the uninterrupted view of Caracas from the rooftop of the hotel, unhindered by anything but a safety rail as you sit around on deck chairs and get (so-so) Mojitos or (OK) whiskey served. A wealthy hang-out, but somehow grungy foreigners like me in cargo pants manage to be accepted.

The society here is odd. Buying anything (nail clippers for instance) at the pharmacy requires them keying in a mobile or passport number into their computer. God knows why. And the insecurity that I felt the first time has worsened. The taxi driver from the airport strongly recommended all bags going into the trunk of the car, away from prying eyes. But after chatting -- or, more accurately, listening -- to Venezuelans of several walks of life, I've come to the conclusion: Chavez is not an exception. They all like to talk. I mean, Brazilians can go on and on and on (especially in planes for some reason), but the Venezuelans have them beat. A Venezuelan girlfriend I had a while back was of the same breed -- when I met her I didn't speak Spanish, but she still managed to fill hours with talk as I sat and daydreamed.

Talk isn't just cheap here. It's patriotic.

quinta-feira, 22 de novembro de 2007


This month is flying by. Where to start? I feel like it's been an express train ride through some very different landscapes. If I don't get some of this down, the next bout of adventure will just sweep it all away.

OK, so the blur goes something like this:

- First of all a chopper ride over São Paulo. Followed by some pistol shooting (I'm better than I thought; nicely grouped in the carboard target -- a good performance, though there was a lingering distaste that the whole experience was an imagined blasting away at a human being). Then I got to see a car shot up by a much more expert gunmen, the type that swagger around. Luckily not a criminal experience, at least not directly: it was a controlled display by an armoured car company, of which I hope to post some video sometime. The bullets smacked into the windshield but didn't go through.

- Then came a dawn flight out to some country town that is home to all these farmer millionaires. The local airport was basically a garage for shiny new little choppers that these agri-rich dudes use to get around. All I got to see was a factory where biofuel is made from sugarcane. I never realised how big that is in Brazil. Almost all the cars on the road can take sugar alcohol, petrol, or both. Hmmm. I remember when the down-and-outs used to sniff petrol from cars. Now I guess they just dunk donuts in them in Brazil.....

- On to the Amazon after that. Not the way I wanted to do it (ie. backpack, weeks to get around, sidle up to the locals). This was a tourist ride up a river, a quick look at a sort of jungle area, back to the five-star hotel

then back to Sao Paulo on a Brazilian air force flight. As I said, a blur.

- Quick trip to a nearby beach -- my first in Brazil. Crooooowded. But kind of fun. People as friendly as I'd been led to believe, apart from the rip-off taxi driver. Got sunburnt, of course. Still can't believe my once-Aussie tan has whitened to European chalk over all these years.

- Back in Sampa and it's been a lot of paperwork and hassle, but also exciting. This week saw Black Consciousness Day... a celebration of Brazil's black roots laid down during its days of African slavery. Gotta love the black Osama bin Laden.

- Finally I moved into an apartment last night. It's clean, spacious and pretty well situated. Best of all, it had a monkey scampering around in the street out front. But apparently that's an illegal act for simians, so the police came today to arrest him. At least it looked like that's what they planned to do. Despite the fleet of motorbikes, the long ladder and the studied air of reflection on the faces of the armed and flak-jacketed officers standing around under the palm trees, I kind of suspect the critter will be around my place for a while.

- Today was my umpteenth trip back to the Federal Police for a bunch of paperwork even Brazilians didn't know existed. A last attack on bureaucracy before I catch a flight to Venezuela, where I'll be back in a hotel for the next two weeks. Actually, make that three weeks -- I just found out I'll be ducking down to Peru straight afterwards.

Time management takes on a new interpretation down here. I'd been expecting a bit of a slower pace. Instead I barely have time to log on and update this thing. Here's hoping I get a bit more leeway soon.