Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Corruption Culture, No One's Corrupt

In Brazil, there is an overwhelming mindset that corruption is rampant and ingrained in society all the way from the lowest government offices to include the DETRAN (DMV) up to the president. (And, uh, if you're not paying attention, Brazil's president is currently involved in an impeachment trial.) But - no one here is corrupt. It's everyone else, but it's not me. Brazilians often stupefy me with this "it's not me/my problem" attitude. And another blogger's post about issues in Brazil has me itching to get some things off my chest. I shared this story with Brazusa:
"Here’s a small story about Brazil that is a great example of “the Brazil problem.” My city paid some million reais to renovate the local lake. They dredged it, cleaned all the garbage, installed a new paved walking path and biking lane, new LED lampposts, re-stocked it with fish, new workout area, trash cans every 50 feet. Within a week of its reopening it was trashed again. The fish are gone – picked off by fishermen with 10 poles at a time (no exaggeration). Trashcans were burned and are now useless. Swings were stolen from the small playground. Garbage is absolutely everywhere. In the water, on the ground, everywhere. For a few weeks I would take my kids to walk around the lake with grocery store bags and pick up garbage. (Trying to set an example because the litter mentality is one of my biggest issues with Brazilians….) The reaction was always the same, “Wow, that’s really great that you’re taking care of the lake and helping to keep it nice. More people should do that.” Spoken in the same moment that the person throws a picole wrapper on the ground. “One, they may actually agree with your [criticism of Brazil as a foreigner], or two, they won’t give a flying fuck and continue with their life as scheduled.” Unfortunately my experience has been that life continues as normal whether they agree or disagree. It’s infuriating."
I'm not actually going to go into the long and engulfing discussion of corruption in Brazil. I want to talk instead about the attitude behind it with the analogy of the litter culture. The litter everywhere is a terrible eyesore and is a major factor in mosquito breeding, but it's not my responsibility to throw my garbage in a trash can. Hell, we have government workers who will sweep up the streets every couple of months, right? Now, I'm sure my high-and-mighty American education that included relentless chants of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!" plays a part in my abhorrence of watching garbage casually thrown on the ground, but I want to reach out and shake someone when I see this spectacle. I want to yell at them, "Don't you understand? You're a part of the problem! You can't depend on someone else cleaning your mess." It's not even a difficult problem to solve. 

But this attitude is so ingrained, innate, fixed into Brazilian culture, that it would take a massive elementary level educational movement to change. Brazil is incredibly beautiful. I mean it's ethereal and divine on levels you can't imagine. I have literally been moved to tears by its beauty. Brazil has the natural resources, population, scenery, and physical institutions* to become a powerhouse. But the corruption - and more importantly, as I'm hammering about, is the complacent "someone else" attitude. Corruption means the profits and taxes which should be reintroduced to the country to strengthen infrastructure, e.i. those physical institutions including schools and clinics but also the police force and transportation systems, are never reintroduced. Or at least, they are reintroduced at such a reduced rate that it's harmful (because as "1st world" countries continuously improve these systems, not improving is the same as falling behind). 

So when I become so infuriated at this attitude about littering, it's not merely because it's disgusting and unhealthy. It's because this nonchalant attitude about a simple, solvable issue illustrates how difficult it is to overturn the widespread Brazilian corruption. Brazilians can't be bothered to throw a candy wrapper in the garbage. How can they be bothered to unweave the corruption that keeps them poor and uneducated?

*By physical institutions, I mean that schools and clinics - at least in my city - are abundant in each neighborhood. But physical presence means little without the people and resources to effectively operate them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


When we first moved here, my husband told me he had a lot of memories of walking around the business district with his father and being treated to picolé. Picolé is one of the things I'm really going to miss when we move back to the States. At any time I can walk out my door and find a vendor on our block. They're pretty low calorie (slightly less than a can of Coke), and since my kids have trouble putting on weight, it's the perfect snack for them. Picolé is a popsicle and it's one of my favorite things about Brazil. I know that sounds silly, but stick with me. We're in a desert state and it is hot hot HOT nine out of twelve months of the year. And our three month "winter" has us in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day. One time in the middle of the night I saw the temperature drop to 59F. Anyway, picolé is sold by vendors who walk around the city with two wheeled coolers full of the stuff. Cartons of ice cream are actually pretty expensive, but picolé is anywhere from R$1 to R$3, making it incredibly affordable. I'm sure our kids will also reminisce about picolé, because we buy it almost every day. It's a cheap e delicioso way to cool off: win-win. 

Picolé comes in a million strange and yummy flavors including: jabuticaba, lime, coconut, grape, pineapple, caju (the cashew fruit), strawberry, passion fruit, tangerine, orange, cherry, kiwi, mango, chocolate, guava, brigadeiro, yellow corn (you read that right), avocado, etc etc. The family favorite is a flavor called "flocos." Flocos means flakes, which is appropriate, since it's vanilla ice cream with flakes of chocolate. Our favorite brand is Da Fruit but most vendors carry generic picolé. The cheaper versions have tiny specks of chocolate, but Da Milk has large chunks which makes it the winner for this chocolate loving family. 

There are also "Mexican style" popsicles here - referred to as Paleta - that are very popular. Paleta means palette in English, so I'm not sure if there is a different connotation in Portuguese. My guess is that they were shooting for palate (as in sense of taste) or they were referring to the fact that paleta flavors are gourmet (which accounts for the R$8 price tag). Either way, there is a brand called Nu Paleta that we are very into. Our two favorite flavors are Nutella and brigadeiro. Both have a chocolate ice cream exterior with a gooey chocolately filling. And the brigadeiro flavor has sprinkles on the outside - as the brigadeiro dessert traditionally has. Paleta is sold in ice cream stores and at mall kiosks - you won't find vendors walking around with it in their coolers. Because it's so expensive, we order paleta only as a special treat. (A hamburger is R$6.50 for comparison). But if I could afford the calories or the price tag, I'd have one every day.

If you're not sure how hot it is - look at that hair! 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Would You Like Aluminum With That?

Have you heard about the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history? Probably not. On November 5th, 2015 (two months after we arrived), a mining dam in Mariana, Brazil, collapsed. Yikes, right? Just wait.. The entire village of Bento Reodrigues was completely flattened by the onslaught of muddy, mineral-laden waste water. 19 people died in the floor. 60 million cubic meters of iron waste reached the Atlantic in 17 days. The water flowed through the Rio Doce (our water supply), contaminating it so badly with arsenic, mercury, and aluminum that the water company, SAAE (Serviço Autônomo de Água e Esgoto), turned off the water supply to the city for weeks.

I remember when it first happened, my brother-in-law came home and told us to grab as much water as we could, because the mud was coming. We hadn't heard anything on the news, but word of mouth seems to be how most information travels here anyway (I always have to find out about school holidays from other moms - there's never notice from the school). As more people got the word, bottles, plastic barrels, and water tanks were flying off shelves. The huge store at the bottom of my mother-in-law's neighborhood completely sold out of their stock twice over. The lines were incredible. Farley grabbed a bunch of barrels and delivered them to friends and neighbors. We used every empty soda and water jug we could find to fill with water before the mud hit our supply. I went to the grocery story and bought tons of 5 liter jugs of water. I went day after day, grabbing whatever was on the shelf. At that point, we didn't know when we would have drinkable water again. We actually felt incredibly lucky that we were able to stock up on water. Many Brazilians live paycheck to paycheck without any expendable cash; I honestly don't know how they obtained water during this time. I also remember that I had just stopped breastfeeding Alessandra and I felt so, so terribly sad for the breastfeeding mothers in the city. Water intake is the key to maintaining milk supply and I wondered how many babies were going to be hungry.

Samarco, the company that owned and operated the mine, took two months to assist our city (and I'm sure the other cities along the Rio Doce). In January, we began to receive free water from Samarco. It was doled out by giant trucks staffed by the military and volunteers. Security was needed at each site because the lines were so long and people were so desperate. It was also during Brazil's summer which was averaging 100-105F daily. At one point, Farley was volunteering with the hand outs and he heard the Samarco employees discussing the need to video tape the fights so that they could prove to the Brazilian government that it was too dangerous for them to deliver water. Nothing made my Justice Crusader heart more angry. They poisoned the fucking water supply and now they wanted to use the anger and frustration of their victims as an excuse to not help? It should be pointed out that a lot of the donated water came from other Brazilians and from Brazilian celebrities. Even Pearl Jam donated the proceeds of a Brazilian concert to the mining victims. 

A few months later, SAAE in Governador Valadares reported that the water was safe for consumption. The same water company that found 8 of its employees under arrest for over 150 crimes including embezzlement of over R$1,000,000,000, bribery, and bidding fraud. Eventually 26 city employees (including 13 councilmen) were removed from their positions. And that's just a fraction of the extensive, nervous-system like web of corruption that was uncovered during Operacao Mar de Lama (Sea of Mud). I called bullshit on the announcement and thankfully Farley was in full agreement. 

A report that came out yesterday from the news source Diario de Rio Doce noted, "degenerative and neurological diseases in the long term, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, neurobehavioral disorders, including encephalopathy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and dialysis dementia...are some of the diseases that the population is in danger of getting drinking water from the Rio Doce, even [after being] treated by SAAE. The report of the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais (MPMG), based on samples collected at 13 sites in Valadares, including public schools, residential condominiums and hospitals, shows that in 11 of them the aluminum level is above the allowed and that the metal present the raw water is not eliminated during treatment....In one of the most complete scientific studies on the subject, it was found that, from higher than or equal to 0.1 mg/L aluminum in the produced water for public supply, the risk of dementia and cognitive decline increases." Prosecutor Leonardo Faria Diniz points out, "the amount permitted by the Ministry of Health is 020 mg/L; the first measuring points in [the] city, it was revealed that the Metal this amount would be from 064 mg/L. And even being held in the backwash SAAE tanks, the new test showed the presence of 037 mg/L."

With this information, my neighbor and I asked the school's principal how the school would continue to cook lunch for the students with public water. She replied that they haven't gotten any information from the city that the water is dangerous and they don't have the option of cooking with mineral water. Last year when the disaster struck, the schools were closed until mineral water was provided to them. Maicon has always taken a bottle of mineral water to school every day, as we don't allow him to drink from the fountains. But with this comprehensive report and the city's blind eye to it, we may have to take Maicon out of school. I'll miss the peace and quiet at home, but I don't think it's worth the risk of him eating lunch that was prepared with toxic water every day.

Our never-ending water supply

Enjoying the Rio Doce days before the disaster

Before the disaster, the water was blue and clean. Now it's brown and cloudy.

Lines to buy water jugs

Our jugs

One of the water distribution sites. I wasn't sure if I should take pictures of the military, so I took these as coyly as I could.

The lines would go for blocks and blocks

This line extended into a different neighborhood, it was so long.

Bring your umbrella because it's hot as hell and you'll be in line for hours

That's 104F, folks. Try waiting in that for hours.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

South of Vitoria

"The cool kids"
A beautiful old church overlooking the ocean

The gigantic cross was in front of the church

Offerings at the cross

View from the church

View of the cross from below

Someone's house has an amazing view of the ocean

Did you know Taylor Swift advertises with small middle-of-nowhere salons? 
At a small fishing beach

The young captain of the boat with the roof had never met an American 

Why don't we live here?

A Jackfruit tree

Known in Brazil as jaca  

Stock photo of jaca - people eat the flesh off the seeds and spit the seeds out. Personally, I don't like the taste.

At a small lake

Mr. De Melo and the youngest expat enjoying the lake view

This post is a mix of things and places we visited last year all around the state of Espírito Santo. The towns were so small and featured only a few streets all parallel or perpendicular to the shore. I couldn't tell where one town ended and the next began. We visited a small fishing town that had a gorgeous old church on the top of a large hill. After viewing the church, we headed down to the rocky coastline at the bottom of the hill to take some pictures. The kids climbed all over the giant rocks and there was a nice breeze. Like the Convento de Penha, it was so picturesque that I couldn't believe it was real life.

We drove further along the coast and got ice cream by the bay where small wooden fishing boats were docked. I saw Taylor Swift on a salon poster and started laughing about how odd it was to find an American celebrity in really, the middle of nowhere, in South America. Some of our crew went for a swim, but I wanted to talk to the fisherman. I spotted a teenager who was very shy and kept covering his eyes with his hat. My in-laws asked him, "Have you ever met an American? Now's your chance!" I started to talk to him and he had a huge smile; he was really sweet but could barely talk to me. I wanted to give him a hug and take a picture with him, but I didn't want to embarrass him any further.

We headed out again to visit one of the properties our host owned near a gorgeous, tranquil lake. The house had a giant jack fruit tree which the kids swarmed around. The renter was an old man who was some type of military veteran; an officer of some sort. I told him that I was previously a Sergeant in the US Air Force and we started swapping military stories. I saluted him when we left and he really got a kick out of it giving me an emphatic salute in return. Our host said that the old man was crazy. I told him anyone who serves in the military is at least slightly crazy.