Monday, January 31, 2011

Frequently asked Questions about Brazil and Belo Horizonte

I'm sitting in the Tocumen Airport in Panama (a man, a plan, a canal--Panama!), on the last leg of my journey back from the States. While there, I was asked lots of questions that I did not have answer for! So, here are some of the frequently asked questions, and the answers that I have managed to find.

1. What is the population of Belo Horizonte? It's approximately 2.4 million in BH proper, and over 5 million in the Belo Horizonte Metropolitan area. It is indeed the 3rd largest city in Brasil, and as I like to say, the biggest city in Brasil that no one in the US knows about.

2. What's the elevation? What's the climate like? It's about 2800 feet above sea level. The climate is called "tropical savanna climate" and it borders on a "humid subtropical climate." All to say, it's pretty much the same temperature year round. It is dry in the winter (about March to about October), and it rains in the winter (December, January, early February).

3. What about favelas (slums)? Our neighborhood is home to one of the largest favelas in BH, with about 46,000 residents. There are medical clinics in the favela (5, according to one website), but as far as I can tell, there are no schools in the favela. I have never been the the favela, and from what I have gathered it is one of the safer favelas in our city.

4. How far are you from the equator? Our latitude is 19°55'S. I think we are about 2500 kilometers south of the equator, or 1553 miles south of the equator. We are not in the Amazon Rainforest. We are not near the Amazon river.

5. Do you speak Portuguese? Do your kids speak Portuguese? Well, I usually can get through my days without too many major problems. I can go to the grocery store, take the bus, make phone calls to schedule dentist appointments, and talk to teachers. It's hard for me to evaluate my children's ability (since my Portuguese is still pretty basic), but I would say that they are doing remarkably well. Sebastian has had sleepovers at a friends house where they only speak Portuguese, Beatrice plays with the 3 other little girls who live in our apartment building, and Dora corrects my mistakes. It makes so much more sense to expose younger kids to another language than high schoolers (i.e. we've got it backwards with language in the U.S.)

6. Do they still make Volkswagen Beetles (Fuscas) in Brazil? No, production stopped in 1996. The last Beetle ever made was in Puebla, Mexico in 2003.

7. And not frequently asked questions, but some of my favorite: What is the Catholic Church doing regarding family planning? Why don't Brazilians put screens on their windows to keep the bugs out? What is the octane level of gasoline in Brazil? What is being done to prepare for the Olympics/World Cup? What is President Dilma doing regarding economic development? . Either I don't know the answer to the questions, or I don't feel like I should answer them.

Alright--off to my gate, and back the reality of having to work hard to listen and understand, driving on bumpy roads, and loving on my kids and husband. Thank you to them for the gift of letting me take this trip!

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I decided to treat my parents to some Brazilian food while visiting Washington state. My friend Corinne (who many of you fellow expat bloggers know!) suggested that I make Moqueca. "What?" I sadly responded. Somehow I'd managed to live in Brazil for 10 months and not try Moqueca, a yummy type of fish stew with coconut milk, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, pepper and dende oil. I mentioned it to my husband, and he said, "oh yeah, that's what I ate when I spent the night on the Amazon..." I bought Dende Oil in BH, and then used this recipe and this one (the Baiana version) to create my Moqueca. I wish I could say this was my picture,

but I borrowed it from one of my favorite food blogs. If only my kids liked fish, I'd add this to my repertoire.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Almost homemade pão de queijo

I decided to bring some Brazilian treats home with me, and give my parents a "taste" of Brazil. I brought Cachaça to make Caiparinhas, Canastra cheese and guava paste to make "Romeu e Julieta", dende oil to make Moqueca, and a Vilma mix to make Pão de queijo.

I accidentally added the wrong amount of water the mix (darn those metric measurements, and written in Portuguese!), but thankfully I had 2 packets, and was able to make a double recipe. Yum. I'm usually not a pre-packaged mix kinda gal, but I have to say these were very good. And I think my parents liked them too!

To flush or not to flush

Hello from the US! Several people have asked me what the most challenging thing has been since being back in the States, and I must admit that it's flushing toilet paper. For 10 months, I've been "trashing" my toilet paper, rather than flushing. I knew before I moved to Brasil that trashing was the method of disposal, and I've spent time in Mexico, so it's not so strange to me. But why is it that we trash rather than flush? I've heard several theories:

1. Toilets and the sewage systems in the US are equipped with a small kind of garbage disposal at the end of the pipes that chops up the toilet paper and makes it able to break down more easily, and not cause a problem.
2. Toilet paper in Brasil (and Mexico) is made differently, and more difficult to break down.
3. The sewer system and the "pipes" are not quite the same quality as those in the US.

So, I've decided to do an informal pesquisa. Online I found this:

"Most treatment plants in the developing world function only partially / periodically; from your link: In Latin America about 15% of collected wastewater passes through treatment plants and that 15% claim is pretty optimistic. Moreover, given all the weird stuff people flush, TP is not in the slightest the biggest problem for treatment plants -- you wouldn't believe the things that come in through the pipes.

As suggested, it's at the consumer end, for what I think are three or four reasons. Water-flush toilets are surprisingly delicate creatures -- they need to be connected to drain pipes of specific sizes and laid at exact slopes (too flat and they clog; too steep and the liquids drain faster and the solids clog) and made from certain materials connected in specific ways; they need TP manufactured to specific tolerances (ever tried flushing a wad of paper towels?); and they need reliable and fairly pure water sources. In many houses in the developing world, several of those factors won't be there -- smaller outflow pipes, laid a bit too haphazardly and with too many bends; water supply that comes and goes; TP of uncertain origin; and so on.

But feces is water-soluble, so even a very imperfect system can tolerate poop being flushed down it; the less soluble TP (especially imperfect TP that might be too tough or too thick), feminine hygiene products, and other goodies will cause clogs where poop won't. Hence the trashcan next to the toilet and the signs saying "don't flush the paper!"

Of course, at some point that prohibition becomes cultural rather than simply practical, and even in houses with perfectly-functioning modern toilets that can take anything you throw at them, you will still see the TP bins.

And then I asked my dad, fount of much knowledge, and he says that it's because sewage pipes are not large enough to handle large amounts of waste that is not "natural" waste.

So all this to say, I would recommend NOT flushing while in Brasil. In our apartment, the toilet paper just swirls around the toilet bowl for 3 or 4 flushes, until it finally goes down. Yes, it's kinda gross to have a stinky trash can, but we change it pretty regularly, and either use plastic bags or clean with bleach to keep things clean. I don't think that many expats know about this little rule, because we've had lots of American expat visitors visit, and after doing their business, I find paper remaining in the toilet bowl. So here is your a friendly public service announcement from an American living in Brasil: Use the trash can!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


As most of you have probably heard from the news, it's been raining LOTS in Brazil. Thankfully, we are safe, and Belo Horizonte is a long way away from the horrible mudslides. My thoughts go out to all those who have suffered in this disaster.

And, we are grateful for sun. I used to live in the Pacific Northwest, and enjoyed the rain, and didn't think that grey weather really affected me all that much. Then we moved to Arizona. I remember waking up one morning in Tempe, and opening the blinds, and telling Matt, "looks like another nice day!" and feeling so good about it (despite the fact that it was super hot). And I realized that sunshine really did make a difference for me. The best part of sunny days here, is that we can play outside, and go swimming. Summer vacation (in my mind) is supposed to be the time when kids play outside, and spend hours by the pool. When it's raining like cats and dogs, it's hard to keep the kids (and parents happy). And honestly, there's not a whole heck of a lot to do indoors in Belo Horizonte this time of years. It's vacation, so the city has a very sleepy, slow pace, and several museums are closed. But here's to sunshine!

And I'm going to leave it! I'm taking a trip back to the states for the first time in 10 months to visit family. I'm SOOO looking forward to it. But before I leave, I'm stuffing myself with mangoes (mangoes for breakfast and Jim's yummy Mango Banana Sorbet. So you probably won't hear from me much more the month of January, but don't worry. I'll be gorging myself on Mexican Food and getting some quality time with my parents.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Things that go crash in the night

As I was going to sleep last night, I heard some strange crashing noise outside.  But thankfully I was tired enough to fall asleep pretty quickly.  But then in the middle of the night, I got woken up by a red headed 3 year old who had a bad dream.  After comforting her, I crawled back into bed, but I couldn't get back to sleep, because I kept hearing this really loud crashing/banging noise at random intervals.  I was starting to get really frustrated, and resorted to my middle of the night logic, and concluded that it had to be one of the following things:

1.  Someone throwing rocks at a metal fence, trying to get out their aggression at 3 am.
2.  Cars driving over a loose manhole or one of those metal things that covers road construction.  Even though I knew there had been no road construction and there are no manholes on the street behind our house.
3.  Construction workers banging away at random.  This may seem far fetched, but I had seen a man spraying the freshly laid concrete at the apartment being built two buildings down at 10 pm.

I finally got up, and stared out the window.  After a few minutes, I finally realized what was making this loud noise (not any of the above).  Any guesses? 

Falling mangoes. Yep, my favorite fruit kept me up last night. The school behind our house has a HUGE mango tree, and because of the wind and rain, the ripe ones were falling off the tree, crashing onto the tin roof of gym. Who woulda known?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Oh, I'm just so dang excited! If I'd been asked a year ago what I thought I would miss in while living in Brazil (I should give an English lesson on that sentence!), I would not have anticipated chips and salsa. I've been able to get my coffee (even a homemade vanilla latte every once in a while), my occasional carbonated beverage fix (no Diet Coke here, but Coke Zero kind of works), I make pancakes, I can get bubble gum, no Mike-N-Ikes (but I haven't really craved them). I didn't really realize how much I missed Butterfingers until I got one in my stocking at Christmas. And there were things I missed at the holidays, like eggnog and leftover pumpkin pie and Matt's creme brulee. But chips and salsa have been the thing I've missed most often, most frequently. I made some killer enchiladas today, and was hoping that we could find some Dorito Dippas to go with. We went to a party around Christmas at our friend Marcio's house, and he pulled them out right as we left. Matt went to Verde Mar, I looked at Mart Plus and Super Nosso and Carrefour, (the major supermercados) but no dice. Until tonight...

I made brownies (I see a theme here of making things...hmmm), and we had to go to the store for ice cream. I went to the corner Aruajo (drugstore kinda like CVS or Walgreens). And low and behold, in the check out line, were 4 bags of Dippas. I bought two bags for R$2.89 each. What a steal!

Matt and I are going to enjoy these tonight with some homemade guacamole and salsa. Matt bought some "mexican" peppers at the Mercado Central the other day, and was advised that they were the hottest. I cut one open today, and it tasted like a red pepper. Nice and sweet, but no spice. Today, during his search for Dippas, he found this pepper at Verde Mar:

It's called "Dedo-da-Moça" or Girl's Finger. I was sitting downstairs with some other parents, so I asked them, but they'd never heard of it. I had, from this blog. I told him that I thought it was good, but to take a taste to make sure. Heh heh, little did I know he took a chomp, and it burned! I should have taken a picture of the pepper he took a bite out of. I chopped up a few, added it with onion, tomato, lime juice and salt. No cilantro unfortunately--the market has been out for 2 days. (ah, Brazil!). Yum!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lychee and Jaca

Since Christmas, the stores here have had lots of lychee. I've had lychee flavored candy before (thanks Lee Lee's Market!), but I'd never ventured to try it.

Well, today I found it on sale at the market across the street for R$2.99, so I decided to give it a try. Sebastian had tried it before; his class studied "Frutas Raras" this past year, and he had the opportunity to try many things. They are pretty good: you peel the outside off, and eat the inside, that is kind of firm and jelly like. Very tasty! And since I'm on the subject of strange fruits, I'll mention the Jaca:

I first saw this while walking with Matt's parents at the Parque Municipal right before Christmas. We all had a "what the heck is that!" response, because they are so enormous and look so muppet-ish. Sebastian said, "that's a Jaca!" and told us that they had tried one in his class (he actually didn't try it, I guess he has his limits). A few days later, we went to the Mercado Central, and we saw them for sale. The vendor gave us a taste, and it was really delicious! We were planning on having friends over for dinner that night, so I decided to buy one. The vendor helped us pick out a good one. Unfortunately when we cut it open, it was horrible, seemingly both rotten and unripe at the same time. Bummer. A few days later we went for ice cream at the infamous São Domingos, an ice cream "parlor" that has been around since the 1930s. They make about 260 different flavors of their own ice cream, and I've heard that the fruits and ingredients are raised on the family farm. In our party of 7, we tried Mango, Mint, Chocolate Cherry, Jaboticaba, Coconut Creme, something else, and Jaca. I don't know if they used a bad Jaca for this ice cream, but it wasn't good. Double bummer. But I will certainly be going back to try some other ice cream. All to say, I'm waiting for my redeeming Jaca experience. There are many other "frutas raras" that I'm interested trying: mangaba, graviola, cupuaçu, and some others from this slide show.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Weekend at Pousada Cachoeira da Serra in Jaboticatubas

I decided today that there was too much car drama, so I'm going to focus on something positive: our wonderful weekend away when Matt's parents were here. Matt did all the work to prepare for this, and I have to admit I was nervous that the place we were going to stay wasn't going to be so nice. He rented a Doblo so all seven of us could travel together. Matt found a great deal on the rental at Via Facil, and I would highly recommend this company. There was a bit of drama when Matt couldn't find his US license, but thankfully he found it before I had to pay too much for the taxi ride (that's all I have to say about that story). I was responsible for getting directions to the Pousada, and let all the world know that I SHOULD NEVER BE IN CHARGE OF GETTING DIRECTIONS. EVER. I spent probably 45 minutes researching the map, writing down where to turn, and even looking at Google street view so I could help out. We ended up missing the turn off to the highway before we even left BH, and then once we got on the highway out of town, we took what I thought was the right turn down a road that looked like it was going to someone's farm. We stopped at a gas station, which was no help, and we were without a map. After getting back on the highway, somehow, by the grace of God, we found a sign for Jaboticatubas. And, miraculously, there were signs all the way there! We ended up driving through a very cute town called Santa Luzia. I had wanted to drive through the center, because I'd seen some nice pictures of the churches, but we missed it. Though we did have the thrilling experience of driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Finally, we made it to Jaboticatubas, which I must admit, isn't much. We then had to drive about 30 minutes on a dirt road to get to Pousada Cachoeira da Serra, which I would translate as "The Inn at Serra Waterfall". It was sooo beautiful, very green with lots of trees and rolling hills. But it was quite a drive, out into the middle of nowhere. But when we finally arrived, we realized it was worth it. It was beautifully landscaped, with ducks, turkeys, fireflies, croaking frogs at night, playgrounds, a waterfall within an easy 30 minute walk, swimming pools, foosball, a really cool tire zip line contraption that the kids spent hours on, great meals (all the meals were included in the package), and hammocks. We stayed in the yellow chalet, and it was very basic, but clean and spacious. It's not by any means a "top of the line" pousada, but very comfortable and affordable, very family friendly and peaceful and quiet. The only thing I would recommend is bringing drinks and snacks. You can order drinks from the bar, and there is a mini-bar in the rooms, but the options are limited and kind of pricey. The nice thing too is that we were able to reserve and communicate via email. We would definitely return. Enjoy the pictures!

We stopped on the drive to take this picture:

View of the big pool:

Our family at the waterfall:


Sebastian with a big bicho (critter)

Sebastian on the tire zip line contraption


The pool waterfall

The view from our Chalet

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

more car issues

Actually, the title of this should be, "more Shelley issues." Somehow, after the big adventures yesterday, I managed to not fully turn off the fusca. So Matt went downstairs to the garage this morning to go pick up some friends for a play date, and found a dead car. I'm still not sure how I did it, but we have a dead battery. And now, we will have the opportunity to spend probably at least a day trying to find jumper cables and someone willing to give it a jump, or my favorite, trying to find a new battery because I essentially killed the current one. Ugh.

On a brighter note, the friends did come over, and now they are making a mess of the apartment, but at least they are having fun. Off to make some crafts with the girls...

Monday, January 3, 2011

It's a good idea to drive with a full tank of gas

It's been pretty low key around here since grandma and grandpa left. I guess I needed some extra challenges this afternoon, and some where deep in the recesses of my noggin, I thought "wouldn't it be fun to drive around with almost no gas?" Maybe some flashback to Kramer driving past "E"

It's been raining for days. Not just an afternoon thunderstorm and sun the rest of the day, but a constant drizzle. We've been cooped up with the kids for 4 days, and it was time to get out, but unfortunately most museums (and parks!) are closed on Mondays. So to the mall we went! It was my first time driving with the kids, but I promised Matt that I would work on my driving and traffic is not nearly so bad during Feriados, so the mall it was. It didn't even cross my mind to check to make sure we had enough gas. But we made it there without any major glitches, found parking, and wandered around BH shopping looking at the display of Santa figures from around the world, reading books at the bookstore, and then getting things from my list at Carrefour. After 30 minutes in line with 3 kids (I kid you not), we headed back to the parking lot and started rolling down the road. I decided to take a "short-cut", and on the exit ramp the car died. I tried turning it over, but no dice. Called Matt, and of course he told me I should have filled it up.

Thankfully there were two BHTrans workers close to where I pulled off (there had been an accident earlier in the afternoon). They helped me push the car closer to their truck so it wouldn't get hit. Then they proceeded to help me flag a taxi, and they told the taxi driver to help me out. He drove me to two gas stations, looking for a container, and then helped me get the gas. He drove me back, and undercharged me--I only had R$10, and it cost more than that! The BHTrans workers helped me fill the car with gas from the gas "bag" (really, it was just a plastic bag that the attendants had filled with 4 liters of gas), and then proceeded to start the car for me. And all this only took about 45 minutes, even with three kids in tow.

I'm amazed at the kindness of strangers, the generosity that people have shown me, and the luck I had. Matt said, "it wasn't luck." And I'd have to agree. Someone was looking out for me. And I offer up a prayer of thanks, and hope that I remember to show the same kindness and generosity to next stranded stranger I encounter.