#4 Ups and Downs

Updated: 5 days ago

It was a week of unexpected twists and turns, some up, some down. Let’s start with the downs and get them out of the way.


This week, Uberlandia experienced its coldest day in May in almost twenty-five years. I came across a Brazilian weather report that said that for many people, this is the coldest day of their lives. Remember, it's fall in Brazil right now. What was this cold weather? The high on Wednesday was 60, and the low was 40, hardly cold by Illinois standards. But we just happened to be here for this historic event— without the proper clothes. I was told by several Brazilians that the temperatures wouldn’t dip below 60, so I packed virtually no cold-weather clothes. Our unheated tiled-floor apartment built for a tropical climate grew quite chilly, especially at night. Practically our whole family got sick. This made for a couple of tough days. But it will be in the mid-70’s by the weekend, and by next week it will be back in the 80’s. So the “cold snap” we got was just that, a quick jolt of “cold” weather, and then it’s back to being a tropical climate again… the way we like it.


I asked some students what they thought of the cold weather. One student said he loved it. The “cold” weather can be refreshing to people who experience “an eternal summer,” as one of my Brazilian friends put it. Another student said he preferred the heat. We were intrigued to see how bundled up some Brazilians were, with thick coats and hats. They're not accustomed to this weather, and it indeed must feel quite cold to them. One of my colleagues asked me how I was enjoying the weather. I said it reminded me a little of the U.S. She replied that although the weather was cold, the sun was shining and it was a happy, joyous sun, reflective of the joyousness of Brazil. I agree.

It may not look like it, but this is the coldest day in May in Uberlandia in 25 years, a high of 60 and low of 40.


In a sad story, a baby in our church congregation here in Uberlândia died this past week. As I understand it, here’s what happened. There are public hospitals, paid for by tax dollars. They are free but often crowded, with fewer doctors, long waits, and sometimes in need of revitalization. Then there are private hospitals. They have more doctors, shorter wait times, and more comfortable waiting conditions, but you pay out of pocket. Apparently, there’s a shortage of pediatric doctors in the area. Other specialties pay more, so pediatric schools are having a hard time attracting candidates. The result is that when a couple of overworked doctors wait on many sick children, things get missed. The baby had been seen by multiple doctors for what they thought was a cold, but it seems like they misdiagnosed it. The baby’s condition worsened, which left the underlying condition undiagnosed, and the baby passed away.


This event left me quite shaken. I feel awful for this family that lost their baby, something no parents should have to experience. I can’t imagine what they’re going through, the range of emotions they must be feeling. They relied on the system they paid into to take care of them, but it didn’t. They probably had no choice but to use a public hospital which resulted in the unthinkable. It also makes me concerned for my own children— would we be able to afford a private hospital if an emergency arose? I was told the answer was yes, but I certainly don’t want to put this theory to the test. These types of statistics— with real stories and people behind them that we actually know— are a commentary on what some Brazilians have told me holds back their beautiful country from further developing.


Now for the ups. My work at UFU moves forward. It’s rewarding to watch the students dig into the music I’ve prepared for them. With the instrumentation of my music ensembles in place, I started writing arrangements. My approach is to mix two overarching styles— American jazz and Brazilian jazz. I’ve selected three classic albums from which I’m drawing the music, and each group is performing a little bit from each album. Some of the students are familiar with the American jazz albums, while others have never heard of them, which is not surprising. What is surprising is that several of the students are not familiar with the Brazilian albums. This is interesting to me, because I view these albums as part of the fabric of Brazilian culture, music that everyone must surely know, right? Not exactly. One student, who plays professionally in local venues in the pop styles of the region like sertanejo and axé, told me he did not know the albums or artists I was introducing. He said my theory that most Brazilians know this music is off.


As I think about it, it makes sense, because many classic American jazz albums from the 1950’s and 1960’s are unfamiliar to teenagers in 2022, though they certainly know Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish. The Brazilian music I’m bringing in comes from a category of music called Musica Popular Brasileira, or Brazilian Popular Music, often abbreviated as MPB. Many of the songs and artists from MPB are classics, known to older generations but not as much to younger generations. It feels strange to me as a foreigner to introduce Brazilians to their own music, but I’m happy to make the introductions. It's also interesting that I'm more attracted to Brazil's older music than it's current offerings, though, with a few exceptions, this is essentially how I feel about music in the U.S.

Pratica de Conjunto 8am working on new music


We’ve been getting out and doing a lot of walking. One rationale is that it’s good for our health, and as I experience my fifth decade of life, the need to exercise becomes increasingly vital. The other rationale is that we’re here for a limited time, and I want to experience the real Brazil. We could watch TV or hang out in our apartment anywhere, but we can’t walk the streets of Uberlandia, feel the tropical breeze on our faces, or bask in the Brazilian sun anywhere. Before the cold set in, we got out to Parque do Sabiá (Sabiá Park). The sabiá is a native Brazilian bird. It has a very distinctive song. In fact, Tom Jobim— probably the most famous MPB artist and most well-known outside Brazil, he wrote “The Girl From Ipanema”— and Chico Buarque, whose music is sublime, co-wrote a song called “Song of the Sabiá.” It tells the story of longing to return to Brazil from exile during the long dictatorship, which sometimes persecuted Brazilian artists, seen as enemies of the state. The sabiá is used as a metaphor for the feeling of being back in Brazil, a “there’s no place like home” type of sentiment. The familiar refrain says, “I’ll go back. I know now that I’ll go back, where I can hear the song of the sabiá.” I choke up just thinking about this haunting music with its layers of emotional depth.


Here’s a version to check out, sung by Tom Jobim himself. The flute in the introduction mimics the sabiá. At the end of the recording, you can hear an actual sabiá warbling its distinctive call. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEeHmdArdtE


Well, we got to hear some real live sabiás this week as we walked the two-and-a-half-mile trail around Parque do Sabiá, with its lush Brazilian foliage. There were also other birds singing their happy song. Check out the video to experience a little of what we heard and saw. Definitely an up.

Brazilian fauna and the joyous chirping of native birds. Listen to them go!


I’m returning to the theme of food in Brazil, something I’ve talked about previously. We’ve really enjoyed the culinary varieties we get to try here, but, of course, there are several American foods we can’t get here. And I wouldn’t expect to. Brazilian cuisine developed in a wholly different way than American cuisine, though American culture has a huge influence on Brazil-- McDonald’s and Burger King are standard here.


Other foods haven't caught on as much. I’m a cereal guy. I need to start my day with a bowl of crappy kids cereal. Now there is cereal here in Brazil, and it might even look like the cereal we have in the U.S., but it does not taste like it. We tried Froot Loops this week. The box looks exactly the same, with Toucan Sam on the front. I’m not sure what it tastes like, but it does not taste like Froot Loops. Frosted Flakes are called “Sucrilhos,” and they’re a respectable if not slightly hardened version of the American variety. Cheerios only comes in a honey flavor. Not honey-nut, but honey. It really has a strong honey taste, which leaves you surprised if you’re not expecting it.

Brazil's version of American cereals with interesting results


In another view of the differences in food, our son celebrated his "half-birthday" this week. His sister is a skilled baker and made him some cupcakes to celebrate. I guess the cocoa was not exactly "right," because it left the cupcakes tasting… different. You can see the underwhelmed look on his face in the photo.

Cupcakes that didn't come out quite right


Peanut butter is another American staple that hasn’t really caught on in Brazil. We bought a jar our first week at the Bahamas Mix, a kind of Sam’s Club, but it was very unlike American peanut butter. It was literally just peanut paste with no sugar added. It’s the sugar that makes peanut butter so tasty, and without the sugar, you really notice the difference as you peel it off the roof of your mouth. Shaunna was particularly missing peanut butter, since airport security in Chicago took it from us before we ever left the U.S. Apparently, you can’t bring jars of peanut butter that size on a plane in your carry-on.


But our fortune changed this week when the missionaries from our church introduced us to a Brazilian snack called “paçoca.” It’s basically a powdered peanut butter chunk, and if you’re not careful, it’ll crumble all over you. But it does really have that yummy taste of peanut butter. So what did Shaunna do the next day? She went out and bought a whole canister of it. So now she has that peanut butter flavor she’s been missing so much. Another "up" in the bag… or in the can(ister).


Paçoca, the taste of peanut butter in a powdery chunk


Paçoca is not perfect, because it doesn’t have the creamy texture of peanut butter, but that’s all right, because we’re not here to replicate our experience in the U.S. We have the rest of our lives for that. We'll take the ups with the downs, as we soak in this wonderful culture and the enriching differences it has to offer.

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