Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As Sweet As Sampa

"Why did I never back to Buenos Aires? Well, the air here smells so sweet"

That's one of the first things our local co-ordinator told us. Sao Paulo's six million cars emit fumes that smell like caramel due to the use of sugarcane ethanol as fuel. While this may evoke fantasies of a world where people burp rainbows and poop butterflies, Sao Paulo is no Never-Never Land. It's gritty. It's lurid. It's choked, jammed and piled up, layer upon layer. When people think Brazil, they think beach, Carnival and beautiful people. Sao Paulo, the world's third largest city and the largest city in the southern hemisphere, gives this image a run for its money. Its maze of streets and gray concrete, its oppressive crowds and its unbelievably fast pace, however, do not make this a city without soul by any means. This is one city that is alive.

After just a little more than a week in Brazil, I seem to have gotten a feel for Brazilian culture. What exactly is Brazilian culture, you ask? Funny: it is difficult not to draw up parallels with the US. Brazil, just like the US, is a country built on several waves of immigration. Interestingly enough, Sao Paulo is home to the largest Japanese and Lebanese communities outside of Japan and Lebanon respectively. When you ask, "What is Brazilian food like?", you are likely to receive an answer that strays away from staples such as feijoada and encompasses sushi, pizza and kebabs.

This diversity gives Sao Paulo an indescribable electricity. Whether you're chomping down on dumplings at the Sunday Street Fair in Liberdade or watching world whizz by on Avenida Paulista; whether you're sipping on coffee with the beau-monde at Rua Oscar Freire or ambling by the graffiti murals downtown, Sao Paulo is abuzz.

Notes on the vida brasileira:

1. The hardest cultural adjustment in Brazil? Toilet paper. In Brazil, toilet paper is not made to be dissolved in water and the water pipes are too narrow, so used toilet paper is discarded into wastepaper baskets rather than flushed down the toilet.

2. Caipirnhas, Brazil's national drink of lime juice, sugar and cachaca (sugarcane alcohol), are lethal. But caipiroskas, a bastardization that replaces cachaca with vodka, are much more to my taste. Especially with lychee or mango in them :P

3. It is absurd how much meat people eat here. They love their beef and sometimes, it's almost moo-ing.

4. Portuguese is a hard language to get your tongue around, but I'm getting there. In Brazilian Portuguese, 'Hi!' is 'Oi!' which is still difficult for me to wrap my head around (I still want to slap people for greeting me so 'rudely')

5. Passionfruit, guavas, pineapple and mango are as common here as apples, oranges and bananas anywhere else.

6. Sao Paulo is home to the Havaianas flagship store. Need I say more?

My home stay family is great. I share a room with a guy from my program in an apartment with my host mom and host brother (who is hardly ever around). My host mom is friendly and caring, but totally cool and hands-off, which allows us a lot of freedom. The apartment is in the upscale Jardim Paulista neighborhood, about a 15 minute bus-ride/45 minute walk from class, which is held at Mackenzie University (a private Presbyterian college). Class at IHP isn't really "class". Our days are filled with lectures and panels from experts in various fields and site visits. Most days run from 8:30AM to 5 or 6PM with an hour's allowance for lunch. There is very little sleep involved and very little rest. It's Go!Go!Go! all the time but somehow, this business is pleasant after a pretty lax summer. We've had lectures on race relations, immigration and Brazilian history so far -- all fascinating.

The stress of this program can be slightly debilitating and I found myself with an awful cold and ear infection last weekend. Thankfully a weekend in Rio cleared all of that up! (More on that later...)

Beijos do Brasil!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Put Your Hands Up For Detroit

Detroit is a city of overhaul. It is unlike any other city I have ever been to. The downtown area, rather than being a bustling hub of activity, is a deserted ghost town. All over the city (which is an expansive metropolitan area that could fit San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston in its parameters) there are abandoned houses in a state of disrepair. It is eerie. But over the past two weeks starting up IHP, I have learned there is hope yet for this city.

Two weeks ago, I started my semester abroad… in Detroit, Michigan. I am enrolled in a program entitled International Honors Program (IHP for short), Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning and Places. A group of 32 students and 4 faculty members travel to different cities across the globe to get a better understanding of how cities work. We are headed to Sao Paulo and Curitiba, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa and Hanoi, Vietnam. The 32 students represent a large number of colleges and nations. This semester, I get the honor of working, learning and traveling with students from Wesleyan, Sarah Lawrence, Carelton, Wellesley, Trinity, Davidson, Brown, Middlebury, University of Michigan, Macalester, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, University of California Berkeley, Skidmore, Harvard and Barnard who come from the US, India, Nepal, Peru, South Korea, the Virgin Islands, Bangladesh and Mexico.

It’s been a full and testing two weeks. I’ve met a model-turned-restaurateur, heard Jay-Z and Eminem shake the streets of downtown, bought ice cream from a vendor behind bulletproof plastic, visited a vacant lot-turned-art installation, heard Grace Lee Boggs talk about activism and eaten great Greek food. Most importantly, however, is that I’ve gotten a chance to really get to know the peers who I will be adventuring with for the next three and a half months. It’s off to Brazil tomorrow and I’m ready for the ride.