No Pecan Nuts to Brazil

Around Christmas 2018, I mailed a one-pound bag of pecans, harvested from local groves, to a Brazilian friend, since he didn't know what pecans are. His wife does, but she acknowledged they are rare and costly, certainly in the country's northeast. Surely they would enjoy a bag of pecans, I thought.

Mail to Brazil is slow, often a few weeks, but my friend says the Brazilian postal system is reliable, if slow. He says they have never lost or stolen anything. I expected delays because of Christmas and other seasonal holidays as well as a Brazilian postal workers' strike. But March came without the pecans showing up, so we gave up.

Around May 1st, almost a half year later, the pecans returned to me. They bag had been opened for inspection and a pamphlet inserted, written in Spanish, about what is prohibited entry into Brazil by Vigiagro, Vigilância Agropecuária Internacional. I had checked with the USPS about whether nuts could be sent to Brazil and got a definite maybe, so I decided, Why not? And now I know.

What I found particularly interesting is the forbidden items pamphlet in Spanish, not English, the international language of business. I find it odd that Brazil's Vigiagro has no English forms; however, since Brazil's neighbors and, probably, majority trading partners are nearly all Spanish-speaking, maybe there is no real reason for such forms in English.

Next time, like Ghostbusters, I'll know who to call.

Studying (Brazilian) Portuguese: Some Software and Sites

For a few years now, I have been studying Brazilian Portuguese since befriending a Brazilian visiting professor while I was completing my engineering degree. He is an electrical engineering professor in João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil, which I have visited once. The regional accent of Brazil's Northeast is sometimes called Nordestinês, spoken by Nordestinos, people who live in the northeast.

When reading Portuguese online, I usually am on my iPad and using the very nice iOS browser iCab. It has a Google Translate module that works very well.

Reading Portuguese online with Google Translate:

  • Jornal da Paraíba is a local newspaper that is well laid out with longish articles covering a range of topics.
  • FaceNewsJP has a more cluttered interface but many more articles on happening events, especially crimes and accidents, in João Pessoa.
  • BBC News | Brasil (in Portuguese) has lengthy articles on which I tend to give up then read in English.
  • O Globo is a major Brazilian media firm whose reporting tends to be conservative, according a Brazilian professor I had. Many of their articles are only for subscribers, but I find their RSS feed a good way to pick short articles of interest.

Listening to Portuguese online:

  • ReallyLearnPortuguese is a podcast that has fairly frequent interviews and conversations. If you become a paid member of the site, you gain access to their transcripts. They also have a good flash card collection through Quizlet and its iOS app. My membership has lapsed, because I'm not yet fluent enough and lack the time to benefit from it. Sadly, on 17 January, the owner of RLP passed away, so the site's future is now uncertain.
  • Rádios Brasil is an ad-supported app that lists streaming Brazilian radio stations, including a bunch from Paraíba.
  • Rádios do Brasil is a site with plenty of streaming Brazilian radio stations.

Online Study Tools for Portuguese:

  • Google Translate can help immensely. Its corpus is larger than that of any dictionary I have used.
  • Duolingo warrants special mention, since it is so comprehensive. The Duolingo app offers various drills arranged by theme or grammatical function. An optional flash card app, Tinycards, helps reinforce the drills. If you login to the site, you get the same drills as well as conversations in Brazilian Portuguese.
  • ReversoTranslation is a good bilingual dictionary, but I cannot recall the last time I used their translation tool.
  • Conjuguemos drills you on conjugating Portuguese (and other languages).
  • Conjuga-me is another tool for conjugating in Portuguese.

Software for Portuguese:

  • Duolingo offers various drills with a point system. Too many missed points, and you must either wait for points to return or do practice drills to recover points.
  • Tinycards is a flash card app that is especially bound to Duolingo's drills and conversations.
  • Quizlet is the app for the flash card website.

Brazilian Stay

My three weeks in Brazil were quite enjoyable!

The flight to São Paulo went well, although the pocketknife that cleared Chicago was confiscated in Tampa; I paid around $20 to mail it to myself. Brazilian immigration was very simple, with not much more than a quick Bem vindo ao Brasil! from a friendly young female official. I collected my bags and changed some money, which I don't recommend anyone to do as the conversion fee was ridiculous; use an ATM instead. I walked out the doors into the Brazilian public, saw a bus, some people eating at a stand in the airport, then made my way to drop my bags for the Brazilian domestic portion. Went through security, which was the same as what is done in the US, although people are more gregarious. Wandered down to my gate, got on the free airport WiFi to make a Skype call to my friend, and looked and listed to things around me. My months of Brazilian Portuguese from Duolingo proved quite inadequate when ordering food from Casa do Pão de Queijo. Fortunately a Brazilian-born man who was working as an HVAC in the US Northeast came to my aid and helped me complete my order. Departing São Paulo, I was impressed by its size but also its structure of seemingly orbital cities and townships. The flight to Recife was uneventful, but the window seat allowed a good look at Brazil as it flowed away far beneath me.

Recife's airport had been fairly recently renovated, and it showed: clean, bright, comfortable. While picking up my bags, a young man approached me with surveys questions for travelers to Pernambuco State. I answered him with my broken Portuguese then headed out through the doors. Eduardo, his wife Sandra, and their two children Thiago and Nicole, were waiting for me. I gave them the OK hand gesture, which some days later I was told is very rude in Brazil. Far better is to give the thumbs-up, which people do seemingly everywhere in Brazil for almost everything. It's a custom one quickly picks up.

They took me for a quick spin around the older coastal area of Recife, along a noxious canal where plenty of homeless people were resting, chatting, and hanging their clothes. Plenty of squeegee men. I had read that Recife is a magnet for people from the sertão, the semi-arid interior; however, it is not a city prosperous enough to accommodate everyone who flocks there. Then we went to a large fenced-in shopping mall to eat. I was surprised to find that paying for food weighed by the kilogram is common in Brazil.

Well fed, we headed up to João Pessoa. Traffic flowed well, but as we were leaving Recife, it was a bit unnerving at how frequently people would walk into fast-moving traffic, or dart out between concrete median dividers. The motorcycles wove dangerously among the cars, trucks, and jaywalkers, as they did in Bali. I was struck by how many Fiats I saw, both cars and trucks, since they were very rare in Japan and only recently reappearing in the US. Along a rural stretch of the interstate, we saw the burnt-out hulk of a semi that Eduardo had passed earlier on his way to fetch me. At that time, it had recently crashed, was on fire, and had people crawling all over it, taking what they could from the trailer. He said that it is legal to take perishable goods from a wreck like that, but not other things. We reached João Pessoa, the capital of Paraíba, without a problem.

After dropping my stuff in my room, they took me out to do some shopping at a home goods store, quite similar to Home Depot in the US. Then we went to Carrefour, a huge French grocery chain which I knew from my time in Japan. I enjoyed going through the aisles, seeing the various items for sale. Carrefour sells many things other than groceries. Thiago and Nicole wandered the aisles with me as I gawked at the things for sale. One thing that really struck me was how many Portuguese import items were available, especially olive oils and fish. Lusophone ties surely play a role, but I had never seen so many Portuguese products. The fresh produce section was especially interesting because of all the fruits, vegetables, and tubers that I had never seen before. Their Carrefour also had a nice cafe near the entrance, where we had some soup, pastries, and fruit juices. I became a pineapple-mint juice fan on the spot.

Over the next three weeks, Eduardo took me to his workplace, where I enjoyed visiting some of the offices and staff. We did plenty of shopping and had visits to doctors and hospitals, which I found quite interesting. I attended one Sunday Mass in Portuguese and plenty of family events where I was treated extremely well. In and around João Pessoa, we went to various beaches for pegar o jacaré (bodysurfing), sought Sepultura CDs in some music stores, ate at food trucks, bought daily necessities, withdrew money, bought alcohol and souvenirs, strolled about the city's central lake, visited the picturesque old city, and ate at various eateries. I visited his children's school, where they had to register for the resumption of classes. We also visited the Oscar Niemeyer's UFO-like Estação Ciência, Cultura e Artes and the nearby Cabo Branco lighthouse at Ponta do Seixas. In addition, there were plenty of trips for ice cream at Friburg and two or three trips to cash-only Peixe do Amor in Ponta das Seixas for delicious fish dishes. I got to see the Brazilian police stopping night traffic for DUI checks; Eduardo's wife was asked to blow Ito the breathalyzer. Sandra is an exceptional cook, so I got to sample plenty of Brazilian food popular in the northeast. I particularly liked pamonha, but I was surprised that my friend's family didn't drink more coffee. My attempts to pick up a São Braz T-shirt all failed.

Eduardo's family also took me on a trip up to Natal, where we stayed one night in a pension run by a friendly Italian. We visited one of Eduardo's friends, a jovial man, Alejandro, who lives in a delightfully Modernist home with walls and large sections of glass to let light in. We also spent two nights in Pipa, a beach town that is particularly popular with Argentines, so we heard lots of Spanish.

After returning from the trip, another friend of Eduardo's, Marcos, brought his family to stay as well for a few days. We drove to Cabedelo to take the ferry across the estuary and drive around some before returning to visit the old fort's ruins and see the start of a major road that goes to the Amazon.

On my last day, we got up early for the drive to Recife. It took some time to get my tickets printed and receive my boarding pass. It was a bit sad to leave Eduardo and his family, as they had treated me incredibly well. I waved them good-bye then passed through security to sit a while before boarding my flight to Rio, which mainly followed the coast and allowed me to see Brazil get greener and hillier the further south we flew. I spent a few hours in Rio's airport and used its WiFi, but the views from the airport were a bit dull. Enough time has passed that I cannot recall the franchise where I got my maté drink, but it was so tasty that I ended up having two while trying to burn up my remaining reais. Next time I will try to spend a bit of time in Rio instead of just flying through.

My trip to Brazil's Northeast was fantastic! In many ways, it was even better than being a trip in that I got to experience Brazilians being Brazilian, being with their families and living their lives. More traveling would have been nice, but going out and about with my friend's family was the best.

Arrival in Brazil

On Christmas Day, I flew out of O'Hare to reach Recife, Brazil, the following day. My friend Eduardo and his family were waiting for me. I spent three very pleasant weeks with them until flying out of Recife on January 14th for a grueling return trip of 28 hours total plus another 11 hours of waiting combined with a swell Amtrak ride from Chicago to Indianapolis.

My arrival in São Paulo, at Guarulhos International Airport, was uneventful. The immigration official, a coy young woman, asked me no questions. I got my bags and changed $100 at the exchange near the baggage carousel, which was a bad idea: The fees were high—R$60 conversion fee, I think—and the rate was around $1=R$2.5 instead of the current R$3.3. However, I finally had some Brazilian cash, which I had not been able to arrange beforehand in the US. I cleared customs without a problem then walked through the doors into São Paulo. There were people milling about, a large exit where buses and taxis were coming and going, and a couple small stands selling food.

Not sure where to go to put my luggage for it to continue its domestic journey, I wandered about, gawking at everything. Eventually I happened across an information booth, where a young woman amused by my feeble Portuguese told me in English she where to check my bags. After doing so, I queued for the domestic flights. After feeding my ticket through a wicket, I passed the airport employee and moved down a glass hallway for the passenger inspection, essentially the same as what the TSA does. The signs were fairly clear, so I walked to my gate through an airport that felt more like a bus station because of the somewhat monotonous grey concrete, all very public and functional in feel. There were nice eateries and stores along the way.

At my gate, there were very few people, so I connected to the airport's free WiFi to use Skype to call my friend in João Pessoa. He said his family would meet me at Recife's airport then we hung up. For the next couple of hours, I walked about my gate, watching and listening to passengers, watching the TV screens with their alternating headline news and ads, and occasionally reading my Portuguese materials. 

For breakfast, I bought dark coffee, unsweetened juice, and warm soft bread from the Casa do Pão de Queijo chain, which started in São Paulo, near my gate. The prices were high, what I expect in every international airport. The girl waiting on my was very charming, but she asked for meal options that I could not understand. Eventually a young man came up and translated. He was originally from Brazil but living in the US doing HVAC work in Connecticut. What a coincidence!

My flight to Recife was uneventful, but clouds obscured much of the Brazil passing beneath me. About 30 minutes from Recife, the clouds vanished and the Northeast spread inland. It looked rather hilly, largely brownish with yellow roads, not the red dirt roads of the tropics that I had expected. Then Recife began to appear, large areas of favelas one or two stories high. The city's core high rises gleamed white with the blue ocean beyond them.

Recife's airport had clearly been recently renovated. It was shiny and clean, plenty of glass and natural light. Everything moved well, and it took little time for my baggage to appear. While waiting for it, a young man approached me to ask about why I had arrived in Recife: He was doing research for the state tourism board. Then I gathered my stuff, walked through the opaque doors, and immediately found my friend's family waiting for me—superb! We were quickly out of the airport, in tropical sounds and smells, and on our way.

I gave them an OK sign, but it wasn't until some days later that Eduardo told me that the US gesture for OK is a rude gesture in Brazil. We shared a laugh about it.

To Pay the Duck

Since developing a friendship with a Brazilian EE professor, I have been spending time each day on Duolingo to learn a bit of Portuguese. I also read some Brazilian news and follow the ongoing protests for the removal of sitting president Dilma Rousseff. Today I encountered the expression to pay the duck, which is mentioned in this article.

Exactly how it's said in Brazilian Portuguese, I have yet to confirm, but perhaps it is pagar o pato.

Antônio Carlos Jobim - Stone Flower

Over the past couple of weeks, I have begun studying Brazilian Portuguese with the help of Duolingo, a nifty free foreign language study site and tool. The iOS application is quite good. My interest in Portuguese stems from a friend who is an electrical engineering professor in Brazil. We talk regularly on Skype, and I've begun taking more of an interest in things Brazilian. I pay more attention to the little news I get out of Brazil. A book I read over the winter break made a reference to the Brazilian movie City of God, which was grim but interesting.

Then there is this fellow, sadly no longer alive, who turned out some amazing bossa nova, a genre he helped popularize.