#1 An American in Brazil
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
A Dream Thirty Years in the Making
Bem-vindo! Welcome to my blog! It documents my journey to and adventures in Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar. For most of my life, I have been fascinated with Brazil. As a jazz musician, my passion for Brazil began with the music, the bossa novas that all jazz musicians learn as part of our study. This led me to the original Portuguese lyrics, which I discovered were often more profound than the English translations, not to mention that the sounds of the language charmed me endlessly. I continued studying Brazilian music and began learning Portuguese, investing many hours of daily study with the goal of being fluent.
On Paulista Avenue, Sao Paolo's main thoroughfare
Getting to Brazil
The idea of going to Brazil really started to come together a few years ago. I'm a professor of music at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. In 2019, some of my colleagues made a presentation about Fulbright, the State Department's international exchange program. Through a grant, Fulbright sends professors, researchers, scientists, artists, and students around the world to further international relations. Fulbright would be my ticket to Brazil! It's a competitive program, and you have to develop a compelling project and make a case why you should be selected for this opportunity. My project would be a visiting professor teaching jazz and electric guitar at a Brazilian university.
I needed a letter of invitation. Through Brazilian friends living in the U.S., I made a contact, Dr. Raphael Ferreira, professor of saxophone and improvisation at the Federal University of Uberlandia (Universidade Federal de Uberlandia, or UFU, as it will henceforth be known) in the city of Uberlandia, state of Minas Gerais. Raphael wrote me a wonderful letter of invitation. With it in hand, I set to work on my grant application. I worked on it every day for three months in the summer of 2020. It ended up being fifty pages, including various essays, portfolios of my work, course syllabi, and many other required documents. It was a ton of work. I finished and submitted it in September 2020.
Then began the waiting. Grants are notorious for long periods of waiting to hear an answer. Fulbright did not disappoint. Fulbright has two commissions that review applications. The first commission is based in the U.S. If the U.S. commission likes your application, they approve it and send it on to the second commission, the "country commission." At this stage, you are considered a semifinalist. I was notified at the end of December that I had passed the first round and was a semifinalist. It took three months to get to this point.
It is difficult to get statistics from the Fulbright Scholar program, as it's officially known, but piecing together information from various unofficial sources, I have inferred that the U.S. commission forwards roughly double the number of applicants for which there are available spots. For the grant I was applying for, there were about 30 spots throughout Brazil, so I presume 60 applications were forwarded to the Brazil commission. Getting past the country commission is definitely the harder part.
As a semifinalist, I waited four months, to the end of April, when I received the news that the Brazil commission had selected me as a finalist to accomplish my project as a visiting professor at UFU. But the waiting wasn't over yet. My grant was supposed to start in August of 2021, but with Covid raging, Fulbright's Brazil program had shut down. As cases started to subside in the fall of 2021, I finally heard on the last day of October that my grant was a go. But still more waiting was to come. The program wouldn't re-open until March 2022. UFU was on break until May of 2022, so I decided to arrive in April of 2022 to give myself a month to acclimate before the semester started in May. From the time I began working on my application to the time I arrived in Brazil in April 2022, nearly two years had passed. But hey, I had been waiting practically my whole life to get to Brazil, so what was another couple years?
A Family Affair
Not only did I arrive in Brazil in April 2022, but my whole family arrived with me, my wife and our three teenagers. When I was a young man dreaming of traveling to Brazil, I was single and never pictured anyone coming with me, but during an online informational session sponsored by Fulbright, a former Fulbrighter said, "Fulbright is something best done with your family." She talked about the wonderful experiences she and her family had had in their host country. That really stuck with me. So I made it a goal to take my family with me. It certainly wouldn't be cheap. Though Fulbright offers a substantial amount to the grantee (which is what I am known as now that I'm in country), it often isn't enough to support a family. So we saved over the course of two years. Remember those economic stimulus payments in 2020 and 2021? I socked those away in a money market account, and they essentially funded my family.
At the airport in Orlando, waiting to board our flight to Campinas, Sao Paulo
We Made It
And so now, here we are, an American family living in Brazil. We've been here just over three weeks. Uberlandia is a wonderful city. It's located in the "interior" of Brazil, meaning that it's not part of a major metropolitan area like Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. It's almost nine hours to the coast, so the image of Brazil as an endless array of beaches is shattered here in Uberlandia. Also shattered is the egregiously mistaken image that many Americans have of Brazil as a perennial jungle. Yes, Brazil is home to the Amazon, but that is only one area of Brazil, in the north, thousands of miles away. We live in the southeast region, the most populous, characterized by large urban centers.
Even so, the classification of Uberlandia as being in the interior is somewhat odd to me, because Uberlandia has a population of 750,000 people. It is the second largest city in the state of Minas Gerais, which is the fourth largest of twenty six Brazilian states, in a country that is the fifth largest in the world! But by Brazilian standards, Uberlandia is not considered a "large" city. What is considered a large city? Sao Paulo, which is the fourth largest city in the world. It has a population of 12 million people. It's about 6.5 hours by car from Uberlandia. We just returned from a vacation to Sao Paulo a couple of days ago. More on this in a little bit.
Our state is Minas Gerais, the fourth largest of the twenty six Brazilian states. You can see Uberlandia, the second largest city in Minas Gerais, in the western part of the state.
Life in Brazil
As Uberlandia is not part of a major metropolitan area, the city rarely has tourists, and the people are definitely not accustomed to a midwestern American family living among them. I've been studying Portuguese intensely for three years. Even so, it's not enough to understand the "Mineiro" accent here in Uberlandia, with people talking at their native pace, swallowing their consonants, sometimes wearing masks, and the noise of a city in the background. As my Brazilian conversation partner Fernando said, I'm playing at "level hard" now, the real Brazil, far removed from the highly-controlled environment of a Zoom conversation. As a result, there are endless comical moments of us trying to navigate our way in supermarkets, drug stores, restaurants, and even in our apartment building, like trying to avoid the cleaning lady who just throws a bucket of water down the ramp that leads from the lobby to the front door of the apartment building. This is a typical way to clean the floor, because our maid does the same thing. But the friendly Brazilian people tolerate our faux-pas, and we eventually find our way.
Life here in Brazil has its similarities to life in the U.S., but there are certainly major differences. In Decatur, Illinois, we live in a 3000 sq. ft. home in a quiet city of 70,000 people. In Brazil, we live in an 1100 sq. ft. apartment on the fourth floor of a condominium in a lively city of nearly a million people. We park our rented Jeep Renegade in a little tiny space in the attached garage, sandwiched between other cars. It's an adventure just getting in and out of our parking space each day. For a massive country, the small size of things in Brazil is shocking. Drinking glasses, tissue boxes, cereal, parking spaces, you name it, it's small.
An unexpected juxtaposition of cultures. The "Statue of Liberty" in front of the Havan department store in Uberlandia. Inspired by U.S. capitalism, most Havans throughout Brazil have a Statue of Liberty.
Driving in Brazil is an experience. It's hard to know sometimes what the rules of the road are. Stop signs and traffic lights seem optional, especially for motorcyclists, who are found here in abundance. They create a hazardous situation by riding between cars on the painted lines that mark lanes. Expect a motorcycle to suddenly sneak up alongside you at every turn. We were told that there is one motorcycle-related death in Uberlandia per day. I believe it. On the other hand, there is not much speeding in Brazil. That's because there are a ton of speed cameras and at every crosswalk and traffic light a gynormous speed bump. I can't think of a single city in the U.S. where this is the case, but in Brazil, it's commonplace. Considering the sheer number of speed bumps here, they must have had a real speeding problem at one time.
The food in Brazil is incredible. It just tastes so fresh. It's hard to describe. Food doesn't taste like this in the U.S. I remember biting into a banana a couple of days after we arrived and literally saying out loud, "Wow. This is a really good banana." I never think to myself in the U.S. that a banana tastes particularly good, but I regularly find myself marveling at the freshness of food.
As I mentioned, we returned from a vacation to Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is a state to the southwest of Uberlandia. Its capital is Sao Paulo, or as Brazilians say it, "Sao Paulo capital," pronounced cah-pee-tau. Often, when people are referring to Sao Paulo, what they really mean is the city of Sao Paulo. It's like when people say "New York," they're often talking about New York City, and in fact, Sao Paulo and New York City share many qualities. Sao Paulo is like the New York City of the southern hemisphere.
Sao Paulo is the fourth largest city in the world and was founded in 1554 by Jesuit priests from Portugal. By the way, that's why they speak Portuguese in Brazil, because the country was a Portuguese colony for centuries. The Portuguese royal family even made Rio de Janeiro its temporary home base when it fled from Napoleon's invasion of Portugal in the 1700s.
Sao Paulo is like Uberlandia on steroids. It dwarfs not only Uberlandia but all but three cities in the world in terms of population and size. It is truly gargantuan. And as hard as it is to believe, the traffic patterns are even worse in Sao Paulo. There are more motorcycles. Lanes suddenly shift or disappear. Poof! As a result, great globs of cars and motorcycles careen around a sharp corner in a free-for-all, and you just pray you make it through in one piece. After having driven in New York City hundreds of times, I thought for sure I had experienced the worst, but nothing could have prepared me for Sao Paulo. I never needed to go to the Amazon for an edge-of-your-seat adventure. Just making it out of Sao Paulo and living to tell the tale was enough.
Patio do Colegio, the Jesuit church where the city of Sao Paulo was founded in 1554
Sao Paulo has great food, interesting history, and a rich cultural life with some of the largest collections of western art in the world. It's also the financial center for not only Brazil but for all of South America. In this sense, it is very much like New York City... just much bigger.
On Highway Aranguera, which connects the states of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo. Notice that cars ("veiculos leves") can drive 110kmh, about 70mph, but trucks ("veiculos pesados") have to drive 90 kmh, about 55 mph.
Sao Paulo is much closer to the coast, about 1.5 hours. So we took advantage of this and made our way to the "praia," the beach of Pitangueiras in the city of Guaruja. It was a holiday weekend, Tiradentes, celebrating a Brazilian martyr. In 1792, Tiradentes was hanged and his body was quartered and displayed in pieces in the areas where he used to protest to show the people what happens when you oppose the government. His martyrdom eventually became a symbol of freedom. But I think the modern-day translation of Tiradentes must be "big crowds," because I've never seen so many people on a beach. It was an endless sea of umbrellas, cart vendors, and "tangas," the ubiquitous thong all Brazilian women wear on the beach. We Americans in our conservative beachwear must have been a sight. Then there was the actual sea, the relatively calm, blueish-green water of the Atlantic Ocean, with its soft white sand and tiny islands dotting the landscape. It was surreal to imagine that this was the same ocean I grew up swimming in on the Jersey Shore, 6,000 miles north.
On Pitangueiras Beach in Guaruja, Sao Paulo
To rent an umbrella on the beach, you agree to buy drinks or snacks from one of the services you encounter as you step onto the sand. They bring over an umbrella, or five, in our case. They made sure our fair American skin was well-protected! They also protected our American naivete. For example, my wife's bag was sitting on the sand under a chair, but one of the workers said we should elevate and secure it, or someone would take it. Another worker told me to remove the medic alert chain I wear around my neck. I tried to tell him it had no value, but he said it didn't matter, someone would try to take it anyway, so off it came.
This advice aligns with a lot of advice we received from Brazilians in the U.S. and in Brazil-- be aware of your surroundings and don't make yourself a target. I admit, some of the stories I heard about getting mugged in Brazil scared me, but with some common sense, you can avoid it, like don't walk around in crowded areas with your cell phone in your hand, or someone on a bicycle will swoop in and snatch it. That's what had happened to our tour guide in Sao Paulo. While we were driving through the city, she actually pointed out the thief who took her phone, which just seems entirely unjust that she knows this and has no recourse. The high unemployment rate in Brazil drives many people to crime, and the high crime rate, among other things, means the police rarely follow up on petty thefts. It's a vicious cycle that's part of the culture.
We got to visit my conversation partner, Fernando, who lives in the city of Riberao Pires, Sao Paulo, just over an hour from Sao Paulo capital. Fernando's whole family was there: Fernando's wife Eliana and son Artur, Fernando's parents, and Fernando's sister and her husband and two kids. Fernando told me they had never hosted a foreigner before.
They prepared a delicious "churrasco" (barbecue) full of traditional Brazilian dishes: boiled mandioca, a root; feijoada, a rustic meat and beans dish; queijo (cheese), Mineiro style; pudim, a dessert prepared with condensed milk, milk, and sugar; farofa, ground up mandioca; rice, grilled pork, oranges, pineapple, lemonade, and soft drinks, including Guarana, a Brazilian favorite made from an indigenous fruit. The mandioca was picked that morning from Fernando’s garden and the lemons for the lemonade from Fernando’s parents’ garden.
At the home of my friend Fernando's parents, preparing for a feast of traditional Brazilian food
It was a veritable feast, and Fernando and his family were incredibly generous and hospitable. After lunch, we went to Fernando's house, where I got to see the room he's been talking with me from for the past two years. It turns out that all of Fernando's family, both on his and his wife's side, live within minutes of each other, and they regularly get together. Family is very important in Brazil and provides a strong support network. We felt humbled and grateful to have shared such a special experience with Fernando and his family.
Pudim, a traditional Brazilian dessert
With Fernando in his parents' garden. He's holding a mandioca root, which was the basis for several dishes we ate at his parents' house that day.
I'll begin teaching classes at UFU next week. UFU is a comprehensive research university with 30,000 students. About 200 of those students are in the school of music. I've been corresponding with a number of them through WhatsApp, a texting app. The high cost of cell service in Brazil makes WhatsApp very attractive, and all Brazilians use it to communicate with each other. If you're not on WhatsApp, you're missing everything. I'm looking forward to finally meeting and working with my students. It will be a challenge to teach entire classes in Portuguese, and I'm both nervous and excited, but that's what I'm here to do.
I've also been doing some other teaching-- English. Learning English is often a gateway to greater opportunities for Brazilians, and it's a goal for many of them. Through our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my wife, Shaunna, and I have been teaching English classes. Our church has a very well-organized curriculum that we use. It's been nice for Shaunna and I to do something together and for us to be able to serve the Brazilian people, even in a small way.
Teaching an English class
South of the Equator
The weather here is beautiful. As we live in the southern hemisphere, the month of April is fall, and it's the dry season in Uberlandia, so the days are sunny with low humidity. It's starting to cool down a little, which means it's only in the mid-80's in the daytime. Brazilian homes rarely have central air, as is the case with our apartment, so we keep the windows open, which lets in the cool air. It also lets in the occasional flying cockroach. It is, after all, a tropical climate, and this kind of thing happens. But it's really not all that much different than when we lived in Texas, which had its fair share of flying cockroaches. In addition, keeping the window opens lets in the sounds of the city, and we often fall asleep at night to the buzz of motorcycles whizzing-- and sometimes screeching to a halt-- down the road.
On the balcony of our apartment in Uberlandia
Some people have told me what we're doing is crazy. They're probably right. Who just up and moves their family to South America for five months? I look around and often can't believe we live here now. Yet it's a chance for critical growth, a life-changing experience that I think will benefit us. It's only been three weeks, but we've already done so much and met so many wonderful people that I can see being friends for life. This blog is here to document at least a small part of all that. There will be much more to come, and I'll keep you updated on what's happening here in Brazil. Ate mais!