Greetings everyone! I have returned to the USA after almost 3 months in South America. It feels good to be able to see family and friends here again, but of course I am also a bit sad to be so far away from all of the wonderful people I met during the trip. Also, I have decided to move to the Washington, DC area and start a part-time masters program in statistics at Georgetown as of January 2011. Since my company has an office in Arlington, I will continue working full-time.

That said, I do have a few more stories I’d like to share from my time in Brazil. When I left off last time, I was in the Amazon. From Manaus, I took a plane to Rio de Janeiro. While there I stayed with my friend Leo’s family in a neighborhood called Humaitá. Leo, who once lived in Charlottesville and has a PhD in Philosophy, shared many fascinating insights into Brazilian history and architecture as we wandered around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, the Botanical Gardens, and of course the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Rio reminded me of Hong Kong in many ways. Both are cosmopolitan, semitropical coastal cities where steep, lushly forested mountains form a backdrop to skyscrapers and crowded beaches. One afternoon, Leo and I hiked up to a cable car station to watch the sunset from the top of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf), a giant vertical granite pillar jutting out of the shallow bay near the financial center. After stumbling back down the trail in the dark, we joined Nicole, an American W&L alumna who now lives in Brazil, and her husband Amod in the Lapa neighborhood to experience Rio’s legendary nightlife. It was just as impressive as one might imagine, with hundreds of people dancing in the streets (and it wasn’t even Carnival). On another occasion, Nicole and Amod took me to a street party in a favela near their home in the fast-growing suburb of Recreio dos Bandeirantes. While it is true that many favelas are basically slums and can be dangerous due to drug gangs, this one was relatively safe, and the people were quite friendly. It was amazing to see not only 20-somethings, but also older married couples and children dancing until late at night. While I admire the Carioca spirit of conviviality, I’m not sure I could survive trying to live there, because the constant excitement can be exhausting at times. So, when Leo needed to fly to Canada for academic business, I decided to explore some of the surrounding countryside on my own. Having the opportunity to visit a place as unique as Rio de Janeiro was certainly a dream come true for me, but Brazil is huge and diverse, and I am also glad I had the chance to see other aspects of the country, about which I will write soon.

While visiting my friend Raniere in Manaus, we decided to go to the cinema. I wanted to see “Wall Street” but it was only playing late at night, so we got in line for the wildly popular action movie “Tropa de Elite 2.” At first, when I saw the poster, I thought it was a dubbed American film because the star appeared to be Mark Ruffalo. This made me want to leave immediately, since I consider him a terrible actor. Nevertheless, we went into the theater and to my pleasant surprise, the movie was entirely in (not dubbed) Portuguese, and the actor in question was actually the talented Wagner Moura. The plot focuses on a corps of police officers wrestling with both external threats from Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favela gangsters as well as politically connected corruption in their own ranks.  Overall it was a pretty good movie even though I didn’t understand everything. It reminded me of Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affairs” (which Americans know as “The Departed”). Here are pictures of Mark Ruffalo and Wagner Moura. Can you tell which is which?

I am now in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after a long period of limited internet access. I will be visiting southeastern Brazil until early November. After my time on the north coast of Colombia, I flew down to Leticia, a small city right on the border with Brazil and Peru along the Amazon River (also known in those parts as the Rio Solimões). Here I stayed in a hostel on a guava, starfruit, and mango orchard owned by an eccentric, but helpful Colombian man named Gustavo who spoke fluent English… with a Flemish accent! Born in Bogotá, he had lived in Belgium for many years before retiring and starting the hostel. The only other guest was a French industrial artist who was trying to build a giant snake sculpture out of plastic bottles to promote recycling. Gustavo introduced me to a local farmer named Ferne who agreed to spend a day showing me around in the forest. The next morning I took a small bus literally to the end of the highway (there are no roads connecting Leticia to any other part of Colombia), where I joined Ferne, his mule, and his shotgun-toting neighbor. He assured me there was no danger of being kidnapped by guerrillas, because they prefer to hide in cloud forests at higher elevations rather than lowland rainforest since the former more effectively conceals smoke from campfires. After a brief snack of tucupi (bitter fish stew made with cassava) served by the neighbor´s wife (who I later learned was almost 25 years younger than him), we hiked about 2 hours to a small stream in the forest called “Tacana”. Using cane poles and chunks of a palm fruit for bait, we caught a few small sabalo fish, which looked like sardines. Due to it being the dry season, the level of the water was low and there were almost no mosquitoes around. This was a surprise to me because it had been raining so much in the other parts of Colombia I had just visited. They also showed me how to layer palm leaves to form a thatch hut. Returning to Leticia, I spent a few days shopping for a hammock and going through immigration, then boarded a riverboat called the Voyager III. In order to get on board, we first had to wait in a long line for several hours for the federal Brazilian police to inspect our luggage, and ensure we weren´t smuggling drugs. I was the only American on board, and there were only about 5 or 6 other foreigners, from Australia and Europe. The boat proceeded continuously for 4 days down the river to Manaus. During this time, I finished two 500-page novels (Zodiac by Neal Stephenson and The Firm by John Grisham), played about 50 games of Solitaire, and ate way too much rice and beans. I also got to chat with many of the other people on the boat, including an elderly Peruvian man from Iquitos, a Brazilian woman who was living in Palo Alto, California, and a large Haitian family on vacation. The Haitian guys were very friendly and taught me a game called “casino,” and I tried to teach them “hearts.” They explained that there are permanent Haitian communities in both Manaus and Tabatinga (a small Brazilian town near Leticia). Sleeping in a hammock every night was tolerable, but the boat was very crowded and they kept the deck lights on all night. I was glad when we finally reached Manaus (pop. 1.7 million). Here, my friend Raniere, who is a fish biologist and had spent a summer at Washington & Lee, hosted me for almost a week. I´m very grateful to him for showing me both typical aspects of family life, the city, and also the countryside nearby. We spent a few days on his sitio (farm), where I planted ajambo fruit tree (scientific name Syzygium). His two nephews had a good time laughing at my slow progress digging a deep hole in the blazing tropical sun. Overall, my impression of Amazonia is that it is vast. Anyone who has driven across Kansas or Nebraska knows how the great plains seem to go on forever. The Amazon is the same way, except it is mostly covered with trees. I say mostly because as you know deforestation is extensive and ongoing in many areas, and many of the forested areas I visited had been logged within the last 50 years. Furthermore, it is not uniformly an isolated wilderness- many people live there, and their hopes and dreams are sometimes shockingly familiar. In a testament to the ubiquity of American popular culture, one giggling teenage girl from a tiny village near the river asked me in Portuguese if I had ever read a book called Twilight, about a vampire and his lover. I just laughed and told her I had heard about it, but that I had no plans to read it. I guess Amazonian people really aren´t that different from Americans after all!

Brazil is a novel set in 1970s Brazil about a romance between Tristão, a poor, black boy from the favela, and Isabel, a (white) wealthy daughter of a government official. Their commitment to each other forces them to sacrifice everything and drives them across the convoluted landscape of a fast-changing society. Updike imagines Brazil as having one foot in the haunted colonial and indigenous past (in the Mato Grosso wilderness) and another in the mechanized, soulless bourgeois future (urban São Paulo).  I read it because I am traveling soon to Brazil, and I heard Updike was a good writer but had not previously read any of his works. The book was powerful in that it drew me into its world and I even had strange dreams induced by his magic realism style. However, I became frustrated because it seemed like the writer, who is a white male American, was making a lot of questionable (and offensive) generalizations about people and places distant from his own experience.

The central theme of the book is the implausibility of true love. The bond between the lovers is like the giant golden nugget Tristão uncovers from a mine in Goiás: its rarity makes it a beautiful, mesmerizing contrast to the dull, dirt-like regularity of the normal social matrix. Tristão and Isabel seem to have nothing in common, and almost all of the secondary characters question their devotion to one another, which after all is initially based merely on physical attraction. Isabel’s father, who is a jaded government official, tells her that “love is a dream, as all but the dreamers can see. It is the anesthetic nature employs to extract babies from us.” I appreciated the author’s ability to balance between skepticism and and admiration for romantic love, in its powers of both destruction and healing. While Updike’s apparent obsession with sexuality periodically overwhelms the narrative, he does suggest that it is but one of many ways the lovers express their affection. In fact, neither of the lovers are faithful in a physical sense, but that never seems to cast a doubt on the strength of their spiritual bond. This ambiguity makes the characters morally complex and therefore fascinating.

Updike’s ability to evoke an extremely wide range of emotions from the reader, from pity to joy, or from disgust to admiration, is a testament to his literary potency. For me, Brazil was like a mirror onto my soul that made me think about my own personal prejudices and actions in life. I realized I have some qualities of Tristão and Isabel, but also of many of the other characters who were cruel, greedy, or took advantage of others. This makes me think that who a person is really depends a lot on their social environment. When the reader finds himself immersed in such an unpredictable world that is almost, but not quite real, he cannot be too quick to assume he would not engage in the same beautiful or terrible actions, or accumulate the same fantastical superstitions as the characters of Brazil.

In conclusion, Brazil is simultaneously disturbing and empowering, tragic and triumphant. It is a fascinating, colorful story that reveals little about the actual country of Brazil, or Brazilian people. It instead illuminates the reader’s own inner contradictions of passion and corruptibility, which are universal to every human being regardless of race or nationality.

Starting in May, I will be taking a 6 month sabbatical from my job.  I will be in summer school at UVA until August (math and statistics), after which I will be traveling around South America until November. Here are some of the places I would like to visit:

  • Colombia- Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, and Leticia
  • Ecuador- Quito
  • Peru- Iquitos
  • Brazil- Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Sao Paolo

If you live in, have traveled to, or want to visit any of these locations, feel free to contact me. I definitely could use some advice as I make plans, which I will post here over the summer. I’m looking forward to visiting old friends, meeting new people, and learning more about this fascinating continent.