I’ve been in Brazil now for nearly 3 weeks, and in Maceió for nearly 2 weeks. I’ve had two weeks of Portuguese language classes, seen numerous rainstorms, and walked in or near the ocean pretty much every day I’ve been in Maceió. I’ve sampled a BJJ-inspired MMA class, a class in Capoeira, been to the center of the city and to a touristy beach outside of town. I’ve had all sorts of delicious and interesting food. I thought I’d update you all with a little bit of my thoughts and impressions about all that I’ve seen so far.
It’s been one heck of a long time since I seriously tried to learn a new language. Languages have always seeped into my brain with or without my permission, like water finding passage through cracks in the rocks. I always liked that about my brain – it’s one of the reasons I was so confident in my abilities to take on this challenge. But it’s been a long time since I’ve opened the floodgates, and the water pressure was never quite this high when I was taking French for an hour a day in high school. I certainly didn’t have to use French after my first day of class in order to explain what kinds of foods I liked or didn’t like, or to ask a cashier to repeat the amount of money I owed. I never had to know enough French after my first day to understand what someone was trying to tell me about when I would eat, and what, and how to get in and out of my house, and how to get to a new school the next day, and where to find a new roll of toilet paper.
As for French, having learned it all those years ago is mostly a big help. Having gone through the mental process of learning a new language, and one that has many similarities – especially in sentence construction – is a big help. But because it’s French, it also sometimes messes me up. And sometimes when I try to answer in Portuguese, instead the French wants to come out. Or sometimes Spanish. Obrigado, NOT gracias!! Muito, NOT muy!! From what I can tell, of the major Latin-based languages French is the least helpful in learning Portuguese. Spanish or Italian would make this MUCH easier.
But, there comes a time when you have to stop trying to put a language in terms of your own native language, and just let it be itself. I did that with French, and I think that experience and its similarity with Portuguese is far more of a help than a hindrance.
At this point I know enough Portuguese to get by. I can understand simple instructions, can make myself understood, and can generally clearly communicate what I’m thinking. Communicating feelings is a bit more advanced. However, I also know enough Portuguese (and according to several people, my accent is very clean) that other Brazilians think I can understand Portuguese at their normal speed of talking, which I most certainly can not. At all. Not yet. And they all…ALL…talk fast. Very, very fast. The only exceptions being the teachers at the school, they speak a teensy bit slower, and keep their sentences a teensy bit more simplified. That’s it. So when people are speaking normally, I can understand maybe one word out of four, while I can understand like 75% of simpler writing.
I’m drowning in Portuguese. Welp, I did say I would sink or swim, right? Time to get out my bubble-arms and start dog paddling!
It never gets below 70°F here, even at night. It sometimes gets super windy when it rains, and when it does rain it often comes down in sheets, but the air is always warm and thick and humid. It seems to rain more often at night then during the day, and the rains are surrounded by gorgeous blue skies and sunshine before and after. When the sun comes out, it starts pushing above 90°F. This is the end of winter. I freaking love the weather here so far.
And I managed to go almost two weeks without getting at all sunburnt, or wearing any shirts with sleeves. And once the sunburn is peeled off and gone, I shall start tanning in those hard to tan spots. I hope.
The sand here is marvelously soft. The water that I’ve seen is relatively clear – I haven’t really seen the crystal blue water yet, but I haven’t made it out to the natural pools yet either. It is truly beautiful, especially considering the weather. However, sections of the beaches in Maceió have tons of this seaweed stuff, which seems to always be mixed with quite a bit of refuse; bottles and plastic and….just junk. There are workers out there every day raking and cleaning it up, but every day there is more. Please recycle your plastic. Please use less plastic. The oceans will largely clean themselves eventually, if we quit putting so much crap in it. Seriously. Today I saw a rusted out CFL light bulb amongst all the other plastic bottle caps and plastic bottles and building materials and plastic bags and and and. Thanks for saving energy, but I don’t think the ocean is the proper disposal area.
The other beach I went to last weekend is called Paripueira. It’s a very lovely beach and seems to be better tended, but it is definitely a tourist trap. The kind of place where they charge you money to come in and spend more money. If you want to do anything more than sit on the beach, it’ll cost you. And the food will cost you. And there’s people on the beach trying to sell stuff to you. We spent $200 Reais – nearly $100 – on lunch for three people. They didn’t mention that at the school when I signed up for this trip! I guess I was expecting a more hands-off kind of beach, where you just walk in and set up your spot, then if you feel like eating out or shopping, there’s options, but it’s not expected. However, the part I disliked the most about this spot were the dogs. There’s sad looking stray dogs everywhere.
One in particular was skin and bones, probably sick, with lacerations near his tail and looking truly miserable. It kind of made me ill to see it. I bought some french fries to feed the dogs, however none of them seemed interested. I don’t think I’ll go back there.
But the Brazilian dog story isn’t all sadness. I see lots of pampered pooches here as well, and have met several people who’ve taken dogs off the street. Nor are the beaches so touristy and regimented. And they’re all of them, every one, gorgeous.
I’ve taken two classes so far. One is a basic MMA class taught by a guy named Tony, who trained with one of the Gracie brothers (The guys who invented Brazilian Jui-Jitsu). The other was a Capoeira class taught by a guy named Jair who comes to the language school to give private classes.
The MMA class was a fabulous workout. It kind of reminded me of Crossfit, with stations that would switch every minute; however one of the stations was with Tony himself, and he would have you punch targets or hold a car tire above your head while he hit your near the waist with the targets and you blocked them with your legs. Each station was pretty hard – one was even an ab roller, and we all know how much those suck! – and that was just one of the stations. My abs hurt for three days afterwards!
The capoeira class was the next day, and for all that it was far less intense than the MMA class, I finished it feeling pretty shaky and I sweated harder than I ever had in my life (although it may have been the weather, it was pretty hot and humid that day). Jair taught me the basic movement, called Jenga (no I don’t know if it’s related to the game), the four basic kicks and the four basic dodges, and of course cartwheels. I’m definitely going to do that again; and if my understanding of what he said was right, he offered to bring me to some local capoeira events on the back of his motorcycle. Speaking of motorcycles…
…it seems lots of people have them. Not a lot of big cruisery type bikes – nor a lot of rice burners either – but functional ones, or scooters. If they do have a car, it’s a little European economic style car, although not a lot of hybrids. People here are far freer with the car horn, but it’s more of a ‘hey I’m here, just FYI’ than a ‘get out tha fuckin way asshole’ manner. But driving…man. I’ve already seen one car accident, and I’m amazed I haven’t seen any pedestrians hit yet. I haven’t seen driving like this since I was in Spain and fearing for my life in a taxicab on the freeway. The driver there literally said that the traffic signs were more suggestions than laws. Ha! But then again, the cost of taking the bus here is about 30 cents cheaper than taking a taxi. And apparently the bus system has never published a schedule. You just go to a bus stop and wait, and hopefully one will come along in the next 30 minutes…makes a taxi drive seem almost worth it.
As far as my general impressions of Maceió go, I feel…conflicted. It’s a great little town, twice the size of Portland with about 1 million inhabitants. It’s got beautiful beaches, great little bars and restaurants, fabulous music; but there is also a lot of poverty here. A lot. More than I’m accustomed to, living in Portland. Even in the touristy, more well off areas like where I’m staying and the school is located, there is evidence of it around the corners and in the darker spots, the side streets. You can see it everywhere if you look. Maybe it’s my American sensibilities, I don’t know; but it makes it difficult at times to relax and enjoy myself. It makes me feel a bit guilty for what I have, and looking for ways to help that will not be just a meaningless, fruitless drop in an ocean of need.
It’s also unfortunately littered with trash. I mean everywhere. There’s trash everywhere, and very little of it actually in the trash bags that are also left out on the street all the time. From the ocean on, there isn’t a single place I’ve been that has not been littered. Definitely something a Portland eco-conscious resident would find a bit alarming. However, if you can overlook the trash, the area I live in is quite nice. There’s lots of attractive apartment buildings with interesting architecture and a bunch of new ones being built closer to the beach. Lots of rooms with a view!
They have really good sushi here.
No really. One of my fellow students is from Japan, and she agreed.
Buffet-type restaurants are really popular here. There are two, right next to each other, at the end of the block from my school. I’m trying desperately to not gain weight (see: Martial Arts, above), but until I started taking these martial arts classes and going for a run on the beach every few days, it was looking like a losing battle. I already mentioned (on the Facebooks) Feijoada, which is probably my favorite Brazilian dish I’ve had so far, but let me list out a few other notable things I’ve eaten:
- Corn and coconut milk cake
- A pancake made out of fried mashed bananas and cheese with cinnamon on top for breakfast (zomg noms)
- Cheese bread. Ah, cheese bread.
- Tapioca…things. Basically pancakes made out of cassava flour and folded over with stuff in it; the original has coconut, but it can have anything from fruit to cheese to chicken hearts
- Pastelarias – sort of like pastry shops – have all sorts of fried and baked goods like coxinha, which are teardrop-shaped bread things stuffed with shredded chicken, and all manner of pastéis, which are thin, flat flaky crust pastries filled with (usually) savory fillings, often cheese or chicken or ham. I finally found a pastelaria which sells a ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a pastel filled with guava jam and cheese that my sister in law told me about. I haven’t tried it yet, but I hope to this week!
Sururu – The local dish of the area, it’s like tiny little mussels in coconut milk over rice with a side of the sauce blended with some sort of thickener to pour over, and farofa (a toasted cassava root flour) sprinkled on top. The first version I ate also had shrimp (camarão) and a whole fillet of fish (peixe) on the bottom, while the second version made by my host had just the tiny little mussels in them. They’re about a half inch long on average. Tiiiiiny mussels….in my wine…wait no. Wrong food. Also, someone told me it’s the viagra of the Brazilian northeast. Heh.
- All sorts of doce, or sweets – I prefer the ones made with banana.
Frozen blended açai berries with banana and granola and puffed rice and honey. Oh, yeah.
When it comes to sweets, my brother was right: They use condensed milk a lot. Chances are if it looks like a cupcake or a truffle-like treat, expect that there’s condensed milk – doce de leite – in it, or that it’s pretty much entirely made of it. Very chewy, thick and sweet. It tends to make me long for something a bit more bread-like and less like eating a solid hunk of milky taffy made out of sweetened milk.
Also, that’s a starfruit tree in front of my school. Starfruit. Yum.
Also again – I like cachaça. I’ve had it straight, with honey, made with a mixture of clove and cinnamon, infused with pineapple or cherries. I like it all. I’ll be bringing some home with me. Just probably not the one in this next picture. I just don’t feel that crab flavored alcohol should be a thing, you see. Call me crazy. How did they even get it in the bottle?!
And caipirinhas? They’re Brazilian margaritas, they just use cachaca instead of tequila. And who doesn’t love margaritas? If you’re in the mood for something other than lime, you can get a caipifruta, which is just a caipirinha with other fruit in it.
I don’t know why I had the idea that Maceió would be cheap. Perhaps it was the fact that Brazilian Reais (hay-ice) are about .40 to the dollar. Perhaps it’s because of my image of South America. Perhaps it’s because of those nice people I met in the airport in São Paulo who told me it’s much cheaper than São Paulo (yikes!! SP must be crazy $$$$!!). It is most certainly not cheap. At least not near the beach, of course. It’s not exorbitant by any stretch, but I literally was looking at suntan lotion for R$40. $20 suntan lotion?! Come on! I pay on average $8-$12 for lunch, twice that for dinner. A beer goes for about $4-$6, although they’re about 24-32oz bottles. Not super spendy, but not the cheap I thought it would be. Certainly not cheap enough for the cash I brought to last me until I leave. Good thing I got a credit card with no foreign transaction fees!
In summary…well, I actually don’t really have a summarizing thought for this post. I’m getting lots of relaxation, meeting lots of really cool people both brazilian and foreign, getting totally overwhelmed but still doggedly pursing my portuguese, and enjoying the tropical weather immensely. I mean, how cool is it to be sitting at lunch with someone from Germany, Japan and Denmark and chatting in Portuguese with all of them? The litter and the poverty and stray dogs make me sad. As for being homesick…I think I’ll leave that to another post.
Stay tuned for my next post, where I show you all some of the…um…coisas muito interessantes I’ve come across so far. Like giant oyster phone booths and the most amazing shower attachment I’ve ever seen…