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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Return: Hey Canadian!
Part I

When I lived in Brazil, I had a varied group of friends, one of whom was Seu Leonildo, the elderly gentleman who manned the back entrance to my building. Seu Leonildo worked every second night from 7pm to 7am, opening and closing the garage door to the building every time someone came home or left. Prior to becoming the night doorman, he had worked for the building's property management company, in the accounting office. However, as pension plans in Brazil are notorious for being insufficient to allow a subsistence-based retirement, he took up his doorman duties post retirement in order to make ends meet and help his two daughters through their education. All-nighters are tough at any age. They are particularly tough when one has already reached an age when one should be at home enjoying a quiet life with one's family. In addition to having to work the graveyard shift, Seu Leonildo also had to commute back and forth to his home in Vitória de Santo Antão, a smallish city approximately 55km inland from Recife, a journey which took hours by bus each way.

Seu Leonildo was friendly with us right off the bat, a facilitating factor, I think was the fact that one of his daughter's names was also Karen. It was a instant conversation starting. Over the months, Seu Leonildo, along with some of the other doorman and women became my local confidants. They would tell me the news of the building and always keep a look out for me. They were some of the hardest to say goodbye to when I left. Old Leonildo, especially. The night before I left, he hugged me tight and hiccuped and sobbed his way through his goodbye. I was sure that he would pass out from a lack of oxygen. I wasn't sure if we would meet again.

Fast-forward to February 2009: The Return. In among the required and anticipated visits is a late night stop in at my old building. We call ahead to make sure that it is one of Seu Leonildo's nights and are surprised when one of the younger doormen is stationed at the backgate. He recognises me, smiles and we chat for a moment. He says that Leonildo now works the front door, a much better gig as far fewer people come in and out the front door than the back door. There is also a couch in the entrance lobby, but I'll leave it at that. We go around to the front, only to be greeted by a tearful Seu Leonildo who has been alerted by the backdoor guy. He lets us in and we hug and talk for ten minutes. He spends most of the time telling us that we must come visit him in Vitória and stay for one, two, three or even seven days with him and his family. Seeing that we are already more than half way through our twelve days in Recife, with a full schedule still ahead, we know that we cannot accept such an invitation. It is a important one though and we agree that we will go up for one day. We exchange phone numbers and promise to call and plan our trip inland....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Return: The Rules are Different in Brazil

In Brazil, the rules surrounding a lot of things are different: relationships, notions of time, how to get things done, respectable topics of conversation, clothing, how much beer is too much, how much sun is too much. In sum, lots! One activity that also has a different set of rules is the fact that one can scuba dive without any kind of certification or training. Really! It's called Baptism, and it involves 40 minutes in the pool learning to use the equipment and emergency procedures followed by a full-fledged dive! Well ... when in Rome, I say!

So during our two weeks in Recife, we made plans to go diving with one of our dive-mad friends. Since I left Brazil in 2007, Flávio had become a certified instructor. So it was easy. He could do the 40 minutes in the pool and then we could all head out for two dives (also in rule flexibility, Mark did his PADI theory course in Canada but never managed to complete the test dives due to allergies to neoprene.... In Brazil ... no problem, but I digress!).

First stop: the pool. Not bad, this whole thing seems easy enough:

Second stop: 24 meters under! Still not so bad, except for my poor ears!

Okay, I admit, I was a little nervous about the whole prospect. I mean, dive courses must exist for reasons other than just to employ people and make money. But Flávio convinced me that all was well, and indeed, it was. Quite enjoyable in fact. No turtles or sharks were spotted, but in among all the colourful fish was a ginormous manta ray that was quite worrisome. Being a nervous Nelly, I kept my distance. It all makes for a good story though!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Return: Last-Minute Luck

When I left Brazil a year and a half ago, everyone wanted to know when I would be back to visit. Not knowing exactly when I would get a chance to return, I picked Carnaval 2009 as a date that seemed as good as any. Far enough away that we will have had time to miss each other, but not too long that we will have all forgotten.

By mid-January 2009, we still hadn't done anything to action this plan (except for a clever heads-up vacation request for two weeks in February, made in June 2008 when we were asked to put our summer vacation requests into "the system"). By January 15th we hadn't moved on anything and I figured that the Plan was as good as gone. What were the chances of getting any kind of reasonable price on a ticket to Recife for lead up to Carnaval, bought a mere three weeks ahead of time?

Just to satisfy our lack of options, we hopped on expedia and did a quick ticket search. We entered our locations and dates, the timer twisted and turned, twist and turned, and we were informed that our round trip ticket from Ottawa to Recife and back - via three days in Rio no less - would cost a grand whopping total of $980 each - taxes in! Just to put this in perspective - I just bought a ticket for a trip to Saskatoon in April, and it cost EXACTLY the same price! Yup, a three hour trip to Saskatoon or a 17-hour trip to Recife and Rio.... Also in comparison, while I was living there, we never even managed to get a ticket to Sao Paulo for that price, let alone Recife (another three hours away) and Rio. It was too good to miss. We hopped on email and the phone, confirmed that all our friends would be around, verified that we could have the time off, and, after a grand total of 24 hours of contemplation, booked the tickets, clickety-click.

That was it, the grand adventure of The Return was about to begin!!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Return: Prologue

When I came home from Brazil a year and a half ago, I promised myself that my blog would not become one of those my life was so much better when I lived in [fill in country's name here] blogs. We've all seen the type, so nostalgic about the past that one isn't able to live in the present. And frankly, while there are a lot of things that I miss about Brazil (the people, the food, the music, the tremendous sense of culture and folklore, the commitment of the grassroots to bringing about change), there is a basket-full of things that I don't (the violence, the lack of personal security and extreme inequity between rich and poor to name a few). But yes, regardless of this promise, I feel that I need to post a story or two about ...

... The Return ...

A Story in I'm Not Sure How Many Parts, but at Least a Few

Stay tuned for tomorrow's installment

Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28, 2009: The Day I Quite Possibly Became an Adult

Well, after years of trying to hold on to my youth, it's possible that today was the day that I officially became an adult: I spent the exact equivalent of a mortgage payment on a vacuum cleaner. Yes! A vacuum cleaner. A small, circular canister on wheels with a hose that sucks up cat hair, dirt, dust and other rather disgusting particles from one's floors. A mortgage payment! On a vacuum cleaner! And no, it isn't gold-plated. Nor does it scoot itself around the house picking up after the cats (although apparently this does actually exist). It still needs to be led around and pointed in the general direction of the cat hair. To be fair, it does bear an uncanny resemblance to some kind of space machine or satellite which is about to launch itself into orbit. I've been thinking of calling NASA to see if they are missing any pieces of equipment, or, if not, if they like a new one!

No, but seriously folks. We threw the economic crisis to the wind yesterday (Obama said to, really he did) and bought a new Dyson vacuum cleaner. Boy is this thing powerful. Spent the day vacuuming all the floors (well, okay, Mark vacuumed, I cleaned the cat boxes and made the meals). Overall, we were impressed (with its power) and disgusted (by what had apparently been living in our carpets all this time - the canister is clear, so there's no hiding the grossness of it all).

A solid day of good clean fun. Again, all for the low price of one mortgage payment. I'm thinking of putting it in my will!

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Ever had nostalgia triggered by something that was never actually a part of your life?

Case in point: I'm in the middle of rural Mozambique, visiting a health training centre. It is early evening and I am spending a couple of hours working on my computer in one of the classrooms. At 6:30pm, the students, freshly laundered from their day in training and looking spiffy (one was in a cocktail dress while another was in plaid pyjamas!), traipse in and turn on the television. On tap are two Brazilian telenovelas - or soap operas - back to back, draped in as much Brazilian telenovelaness as possible. Let's just put this out in the open right away: during the three years that I lived in Brazil, I watched maybe five partial telenovela episodes. That's like 1.67 episodes per year. But here I am, in rural Mozambique with a bunch of Mozambican kids (well, young adults, I guess) riveted by the B-level drama playing out in front of me. And there I was, feeling highly nostalgic about something that I basically ignored while I had the chance!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Typo or Freudian Slip?

Last week, I wrote an email to a couple of colleagues informing them that I was just completing a document that I had been writing, but that due to my departure for the internetless wilds of Mozambique, I would have to delegate my final two pending documents to another colleague. When I reread my email upon my return to the land of the internet, I realised that it had gone something like this: In any case, that's what I was hoping to do and I lose my internest connection at 6am tomorrow.

Hmmmmm ... was that supposed to be my internet connection or my interest connection?? Let's just say that we have been preparing these documents for a loooooong time....

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How to Eat a Mango in 15 Easy Steps¹

A Guide for Small Children

1. Get stripped down to your skivvies.
2. Get a partially pealed child-sized mango from your mom.
3. Use your chubby little fingers to further peel it.
4. Lick the juice off of your fingers as you peel.
5. Start sucking on the pulp of the mango.
6. Get mango pulp all over your face.
7. Peel more skin and suck more pulp.
8. Wipe your juicy hands on your distended belly.
9. Drop the mango in the sand.
10. Pick it up and keep sucking on it.
11. Try to catch the drips as they run down your chin.
12. Shake your hands in the air to try and clean them off.
13. Get carried away by your mom and get hosed off.
14. Put your clothes back on.
15. Grin!

¹ Inspired from a day spent in rural Inhambane

Saturday, November 15, 2008

This Ain't Kansas Anymore

Yup, I'm feeling like I'm in Africa these days! These huts are the mainstay of rural Mozambique. A sight I loved was while driving through a Maputo shantytown/informal settlement: nestled in amongst the jumble of hastily constructed concrete and very square one-room houses, was one of these round huts with a thatched roof. I loved it! Someone who needed tradition more than anything else. Next time I pass, I'll try to get a photo.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Welcome to Mozambique Nosebleed

Thirty-six hours after leaving home on Friday, I arrived in Maputo, Mozambique and was welcomed with a nosebleed! Yes, while waiting for my luggage to come off the conveyor belt at the airport, my nose started to unsurreptitiously bleed! I was caught totally by surprise since in all my travels - and long-haul flights are the main reason why my carbon footprint is not in the saintlier than the saints category - I've never gotten a nosebleed from changes in air pressure. Fortunately two women standing next to me were extraordinary speedy in whipping out all kinds of tissues and clean wipes so that I could take care of myself without having to worry about hauling all my carry on luggage around trying to find the washroom while bleeding from the nose. In any case, things quickly got better, my nose acclimatised to its new environment, my bag arrived, my visa was procured and someone from the office picked me up. We headed to the hotel and all was well!

Tomorrow morning, I am off again, seven hours up the coast to the rural town of Massinga in the province of Inhambane. It's definitely off the grid....

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

No, I'm not getting married! I'm planning a reading list that will hopefully carry me through 40+ hours of flying, not including airport transfer times, during a three week trip to Mozambique which starts on Friday. I'm hoping that four books will be enough, but if not, the Johannesburg airport has a terrific library filled with regional fiction and non-fiction that is not easily attainable outside of Africa, so I *should* be okay. So, without further ado ...

The List:

Something Old: I've been reading my Portuguese copy of A Mulher que Escreveu a Biblia, or The Women who Wrote the Bible by Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar for quite some time now. The writing isn't difficult, but somehow the comparative ease of reading something in English keeps getting in the way and attracting me to other books. I'm determined to finish this one on this trip. Scliar is the author whose relatively unknown outside of Brazil book Max and the Cats was the "inspiration" for Yann Martel's Life of Pi which then went on to win the 2002 Man Booker award and much fame....

Something New: I picked up a copy of The Shadow of the Wind by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón at a book sale at work last week. Being described as “Gabriel Garcia Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges for a sprawling magic show” by the New York Times Book Review was enough for me to pick this one up.

Something Borrowed: Back in August I borrowed a copy of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working from friend Ysa. Written by Canadian Robert Calderisi, the book is an undiplomatic and frank look at why he thinks foreign aid in Africa often hasn't ended up making a difference. Fortunately, he labels Mozambique as one of the few countries that is doing the things right and should be on the donors' list for assistance, so I won't need to get myself in too much of a moral quagmire.

Something Blue: The last book on my list is The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. It's blue both because of the blue swash on the cover and because I suspect that there will also be some pretty blue moments in the text, like, oh, the twenty-seven years that Mandela spent in prison....

Overall, I think that I have a balanced list. Some fiction, some non-fiction. Some to relax with, and others to reflect upon.

May the reading begin!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Take that Google!

Turns out that Google doesn't know everything after all! The day after Google pinpointed the fact that summer had turned to fall, the temperature immediately plunged and the leaves turned fiery reds and yellows and start to tumble en masse from the neighbourhood trees.

So it was to my incredible glee that I saw that our early transition to winter - yes, winter, it's snowing out there - went unannounced by Google. Their ability to announce that would have made me right nervous.... (but not surprised).

On the downside, it means that fall only lasted a month. We haven't even finished raking!!

Monday, October 27, 2008

What Were They Thinking?

Thing No. 68

Okay, so it's happened to all of us. You move into a new place and you slowly (or quickly!) end up discovering a lot of things that i) weren't immediately apparent pre-signing on the dotted line; and ii) make you shake your head and think "whatever was it that they were thinking?"

Well, just this week, more than a year after moving into Chez Nous, I discovered Thing No. 68: Tucked away on a small section of wall in the downstairs hallway is one of the unique-est picture hanging instruments that I have ever seen. And I do mean ever. There on the wall, neatly painted the same white as said wall, is an upside down flat thumbtack that has been glued onto the wall with its needle part sticking out offering itself as a picture nail! I'se just can't believe it!

Of course, rather than dig it out and use a regular picture nail or hook, I had to try it out. So far, so good, the picture holds. Who knows, maybe this time, they were actually on to something....

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Kitchen Chairs of my Childhood Can Now be Found in a Funky Retro-Café

Growing up, we ate all of our meals around the kitchen table. We had a big eat-in kitchen with a round melamine table which had four matching chairs. Being the fifth family member, however, my chair was the desk chair from the desk in the playroom, but I digress.... My parents had bought the set in the sixties when they married and moved into their first apartment. Yes, we were the epitome of coolness back then!

Sometime in the late nineties, the round melamine table was replaced with an even older drop-leaf antique table. The chairs, however, remained. When I moved to Ottawa in '98, I dragged the table out of the basement and brought it with me. It has been with me ever since and currently resides in the centre of my eat-in kitchen.

The chairs, on the other hand, kicked around the new old kitchen table for a while, until that table made its way into the livingroom (leaves down), to fill in the gap where the piano - which had been moved to my brother's place - had resided. Another new old kitchen table - and chairs - were acquired for the kitchen. The old chairs ended up in the basement, tableless and alone.

Just under four years ago, the chairs were again given a new life. This time with a young family that had recently immigrated to Montreal and were setting up their first Canadian home. Currently in their forty-somethingth year, the chairs and table now live 8km from each other across the Ottawa river. Just the other day, we were wondering how long the chairs would/could last....

... Enter the newest and hippest café in my quickly gentrifying neighbourhood; Raw Sugar. After months (and months) of speculation, Raw Sugar finally opened its doors two weeks ago. A bit of a cross between Café Santropol in Montreal and Leave it to Beaver, Raw Sugar offers an eclectic mix of 50s and 60s tables, chairs and furnishings. Nothing matches and everything matches. Massive Formica tables are surrounded by a hodge-podge of retro kitchen chairs, including I might add, the Kitchen Chairs of My Childhood, nestled in among the orange vinyl and purple velour.

Who knew? And suddenly, we are once again the epitome of cool!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Life in the Rat Race

Yup, that's me! :-(