#14 Land of dinosaurs and... Guaraná
Updated: Aug 7, 2022
August is the month in which we will leave Brazil. We have a little less than four weeks left here. This final stretch brings with it mixed emotions. It's similar to when our family left West Point. I served in the West Point Band for ten years, and our kids spent a good chunk of their lives there. As we neared our final weeks, Shaunna and I took many walks together around the beautiful grounds of West Point and made a list of things we'd miss… and wouldn’t miss about West Point. It was, after all, a job, and sometimes it was less than ideal.
Without even being conscious of it, our list-making engaged us in a type of psychological exercise to help us cope with the many emotions we were feeling and to prepare to transition to the next phase of life. In this sense, leaving Brazil is similar. Living in a foreign country is a significant life experience. You pass through a wide range of cultural and personal moments. It takes time (as in years) to process them and to transition back to life in your home country. We have begun to repeat our exercise of listing things we’ll miss (and won't miss, though the list is small) about Brazil. I think it will be similarly helpful.
I worked on two documents this week that brought a lot of this to the forefront. The first is my annual contract for Millikin University. I was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure just before we left for Brazil. This appears in the contract for the first time. I had to print it out at the Secretaria, the administrative office that oversees the Institute of the Arts at UFU. I signed it, took a photo of it, and emailed the photo to our human resources office back at Millikin. Signing my U.S. university contract in the administrative office of my Brazilian university made my two worlds collide in an unexpected way. It highlighted the imminence of our departure and the fact that I am simultaneously living in Brazil while preparing to return to the U.S.
The other document was my Fulbright survey. A condition of my grant is that I complete a final questionnaire about my experience as a Fulbrighter. This is no small task. It took several hours to answer what I estimate was about a hundred questions, but answering them gave me time to reflect on our experiences in Brazil. In fact, we worked on the long answers as a family. Here's an example:
"Q: How, if at all, do you think your identity shaped your Fulbright experience?
A: Our clothing, fair skin, and hair has made us stand out— we are obviously American. We regularly get stares in stores and restaurants. Most people, however, seem interested in us and some come right up to us and ask to talk in English with us or offer to help us with a problem. One friendly group of college-age students at the mall approached us in the food court and told us it was their dream to have an American dollar bill (we didn’t have one to give them, or we would have)."
I saved these long answers in a separate document, because they capture many of our thoughts and feelings about the cultural differences we’ve encountered— language, housing, driving, shopping, and so on, a good time capsule of our stay. They're also another sign that our time in Brazil is coming to a close.
But it ain’t over yet. We’re still here, living the day-to-day of Brazil, and this past week brought some wonderful moments.
The semester at UFU is coming to a close. The last couple of weeks of the semester always include major events. One of these major events was the end-of-semester recital for my music ensembles and guitar students. The guitar students performed one piece each, and the two music ensembles performed sets of four songs each. They did great, truly. As I stood in the back of the hall to listen, I was in awe of what was happening. Three months earlier, we knew nothing of each other. On the one hand, here I was, an unknown American professor coming into a Brazilian university. On the other hand, here was a group of Brazilian students, completely unknown to me. There were some definite bumps along the way— illness, schedule conflicts, language barriers, cultural differences— but over time, I think we learned to adapt to each other and work well together. No longer were these just an unknown group of students to me. They were individual people with personalities, feelings, and lives, and I felt like I got to know *them.*
With my 8am ensemble at their semester-end performance
In multiple cases, I performed with my students in university concerts and in gigs around town. Performing together always creates a special bond among musicians, and this was no exception. Off the bandstand, there was no shortage of culture exchange. We traded idiomatic expressions. We shared recordings that were important to us. We asked questions on every topic under the sun, eager to learn about each other’s worlds. My students wanted to know what life for a musician is like in the U.S., what my American students are like, how much you make on a gig in the U.S., how jazz is seen by the public, and so many other questions that I couldn’t possibly remember them all. I had many similar questions, though many of them were answered as I taught and performed in Brazil. I lived the answers.
Some students wondered if I would return to the U.S. and forget about them. No. Way. My Brazilian students are now my friends, people I look forward to staying in touch with and follow their lives and careers. In addition, the idea is to return to Brazil in the spring of 2023 and bring my Millikin students with me to perform and participate in cultural events. Like any good Fulbrighter, my goal is to extend the cultural exchange. This is only the beginning.
(Incidentally, taking a group of college students to a foreign country is expensive. Really expensive. I'm slowly starting the process to raise funds. If you or anyone you know is interested in contributing to an enriching and life-changing international experience for a deserving group of college students, let me know 😊).
The other feeling I had as I stood in the back of the hall to listen to my Brazilian students perform was pride. My student ensembles in the U.S. work hard over the semester to learn and perform a full set of music. It's no easy task. Well, my Brazilian students worked no less hard, but they had the distinct disadvantage of having a teacher who didn’t speak their native language to guide them in the way they probably would have preferred. And yet, they overcame and performed music that, in many cases, was unfamiliar to them. My area of specialty, jazz, is not a native Brazilian style. It's uniquely American, and this is primarily what I was bringing to UFU. So, in addition to the ensembles learning music from two classic Brazilian albums, "Elis & Tom" by Elis Regina and Tom Jobim, and "Construcão" by Chico Buarque, each student ensemble and guitar student was required to learn a fair amount of jazz repertoire and be able to perform it. The ensembles had to learn music from perhaps what is regarded as the most classic of classic jazz albums, "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis. The guitar students studied standards like Autumn Leaves, A Night In Tunisia, Satin Doll, and All The Things You Are. The students embraced this task. They asked questions. They filmed me demonstrating things. They practiced at home. They scheduled extra rehearsals. They made tons of notes. I know, because sometimes I would walk over to help them with something and see scribbles all over their music.
Not every student made it to the end of the semester. A percentage dropped out. Some students faced serious life challenges, like family issues and health problems. This was particularly true with what we in the U.S. call “non-traditional” students, those who are older and returning to school, but this wasn’t always the case. Some students were younger. Either way, most got in touch with me to explain what was happening. Others simply stopped coming with no explanation. From what my UFU colleagues tell me, this is not unusual. In fact, they warned me at the start of the semester that retention could be an issue, so I didn’t take it personally. Of the students that hung in there— the vast majority— they worked hard and made it happen.
In addition to the great music, another thing I really loved about the students’ performances was the audience. Brazilian audiences are fantastic. They come out in large numbers and cheer enthusiastically. This concert fell right in line. The auditorium was packed. It was standing room only, and there were tons of people standing in the back, right to the end, applauding wildly for each number. It was a festive atmosphere. It made the concert feel special, like it was the most important thing in the world at that moment, something everyone wanted to be a part of. I think this has to do with the warmth of the Brazilian people. They’re very social. They like to go out. They like to be with each other. They appreciate effort, and they show it.
A great and representative shot, courtesy of my UFU colleague Daniel Lovisi, that exemplifies
the fantastic audiences here in Brazil
Later in the week, we had over for dinner the only other Americans we’ve met in Brazil, Dylan and Fred, who are Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, ETAs (see my last post) at UFU. Over something you can’t get here in Uberlândia, Mexican food, we commiserated about our time in Brazil. We arrived one day apart day in Uberlândia, so we’ve been living this parallel life as Americans in Brazil, though Dylan and Fred’s responsibilities as Fulbright ETAs are very different than my responsibilities as a Fulbright Scholar. In the most diplomatic way I can say this, they face more uncertainties, but they seem to be getting by. It was unusual to have a conversation in English that lasted for several hours with people outside our family, another subtle preparation for a return to the U.S.
With the only other Americans, Dylan and Fred, we've met in four months in Brazil, enjoying some
Mexican food, something as scarce in Uberlândia as we Americans are.
Speaking of English, Shaunna and I continue to teach our English class at our church. We’ve taught it for seventeen weeks now. Similar to my classes at UFU, the student population has dwindled, which we were also warned about. I think some people believe that merely coming to an English class taught by native speakers will magically imbue them with the ability to speak English. When this doesn't happen, they give up. It doesn't work like this. The key to language learning is repetition. You get very little repetition in a once-a-week class. The majority of the repetition comes from practicing the material outside of class. It’s like anything else-- musical instrument, sports, etc. Again, some students dropped out because of personal issues like time conflicts, but I think many were not able or willing to devote the time necessary outside of class to improve, so when they’d come to class, they’d fall behind and get discouraged. Learning a language is no cakewalk. Having done it for the past three years, I can attest that it requires a lot of effort to make even minimal progress. So, again, no hard feelings for the students who stopped coming. I hope they find motivation at another point in their lives to learn English, because it's a gateway to greater opportunities for many Brazilians.
For the group of students that have stayed with us, they are diligent in attending each week, and we enjoy having them. This past week was especially fun. The lesson was about preparing food and how to say phrases involving food preparation. As part of the lesson, students made and brought with them their favorite foods, showed the food to the class, and recounted in English how they prepared it. And then the easy part— we ate it! One more delicious meal to add to the many we’ve had here in Brazil.
One of our English class students, Jade, with the tasty treat she made, roquinho
Shaunna and our English class students with their culinary creations
The week closed out with a visit to the Museu dos Dinossauros (The Dinosaur Museum) in Uberaba, a ninety-minute drive from Uberlândia. We’d heard so much about this place before we even arrived in Brazil. It was worth the drive. It turns out that Uberaba is known as the “Land of Brazil’s Dinosaurs,” because of its large collection of fossils from primarily the Upper Cretaceous period (100 to 65 million years ago). I grew up taking school trips to the Museum of National History in New York City to see the massive dinosaurs there, so it was cool to see dinosaurs from a completely different part of the world and epoch here in Brazil.
The largest dinosaur in Brazil, at least that's what the sign said
The museum is actually in Peirópolis, what seems to be a village within the city limits of Uberaba. Peirópolis was a former limestone producer with a railway to São Paolo. After fossil excavations began in the 1940’s, the deactivated railway station was converted into one of the buildings that houses part of the museum’s collection, which you can see in the thumbnail below. There are also other buildings standing from the old limestone factory period. They give the grounds a rustic and historic feel. It’s a cool addition to what is already a cool place— a dinosaur museum and an active paleontological site in which you can see a work in progress in one of the museum’s rooms.
A 360 view of the Dinosaur Museum in Uberaba
Look closely. Big dinos make great shade on a hot day.
We had a picnic lunch in the museum’s gardens and shared our meal with some of the many stray but friendly dogs (see video above) that inhabit Peirópolis. After lunch, we headed out to see a local waterfall. Minas Gerais is home to many waterfalls. They are usually found off the beaten path in the middle of the woods, spoking off from a dirt road that runs through farmland. We were on just such a road when we began to feel like we might have missed the waterfall, so we stopped to ask a farm worker for directions. He told us that during the dry season (now) there is no waterfall because there is no rain. Silly Americans, trying to visit a waterfall in the dry season! But he mentioned a different waterfall in a city about twenty minutes away that is always flowing, so we did an about face and hopped on the highway toward it. Many twisty turns later through the Brazilian outback, we still hadn’t found the waterfall, which was a bummer, but we did encounter some National Geographic-like scenery in the rugged and open beauty of Minas Gerais. I made a little compilation video of some of these images. (Don’t worry. We’ll get out again and find a waterfall.)
Oh, the things you'll see in search of a waterfall
After a good but long day, Shaunna was kind enough to prepare a delicious chicken dinner, using farofa to make the breading. It was complemented with a sampling of Minas Gerais’s famous cheeses and equally famous fresh fruits. We had Brazilian soft drinks, most notably Guaraná Mineiro. Now, Guaraná Antartica is the standard, and Brazilians across the country drink it. While it’s a little tricky, it is possible to locate some Guaraná Antartica in the U.S. It is, however, impossible to find Guaraná Mineiro in anyplace but here in the Triângulo Mineiro region of the state of Minas Gerais. Even in other parts of Minas Gerais, you won’t find Guaraná Mineiro, never mind in the rest of the country or in a foreign country. There is no distribution outside the Triângulo Mineiro. It is only produced here, purely a regional soft drink. For this reason, Guaraná Mineiro is a source of local pride. To give you an idea, in class the other day, I was finishing up a bottle of Guaraná Mineiro, and I announced to my students that I would miss it when we return to the U.S. A rousing cheer broke out! The students loved that I had grown fond of their beloved beverage.
The one the only Guaraná Mineiro, flanked by fresh oranges and Minas cheese, a Minas Gerais meal if there ever was one.
As I mentioned in a previous post, we’ve lived through some of the most perfect weather I’ve ever experienced, but it’s changing. We’re getting some clouds dotting the blue Brazilian sky, and the forecast for next week calls for a couple of cloudy days and even a chance of rain. The intense heat and rainy season will start in earnest just about the time we leave, which means our stay here was just at the right time, for which we’re grateful. Pois é.