Saturday, August 13, 2005

Gringa in Brazil: Driving in Campinas

Driving in Campinas, Brazil can be ruthless. I told my Portuguese teacher, Fabianna how a car speeded by me on a one lane road, bent my mirror back, and didn’t even stop.

“That’s because drivers here are crazy!” Fabianna explained, “Once people get in their cars, they go from being polite, patient toucans to aggressive, rude piranhas “

“How have you survived this long without whip lash and only three totaled cars, Fabianna?”

“Well, the first thing I do is pray. I don’t listen to my car radio like most people, because I am too busy listening to my prayers, ‘Oh, God, please save me from this lunatic who keeps banging my bumper! God, please don’t let this truck going 40 km over the speed limit squish me like a bug! Lord Jesus, don’t let me discover, too late, that they’ve added a new radar, and dropped the speed limit by 30 km.’ “

Fabianna continued, “Debbie, if you should see me driving on the road, and making the sign of the cross, especially by Iguatemi Mall, it’s because I am thanking God for not getting sideswiped by a car or truck, blocked from my exit, or caught on radar for unintentionally, speeding or running a red light.”

“You pray, Fabianna?”

“Yes, absolutely! I have told the Mormons who have that huge temple overlooking the Iguatemi Mall, that they need to make a sign of the cross too. Praying isn’t good enough when you’re driving in Campinas.”

Fabianna explained to me that some days it’s cheaper to stay in her bathrobe, “If I go to work, and get a traffic ticket, my salary for the day isn’t enough to pay for the ticket. So, I was better off staying at home, and watching Oprah. I tried explaining this to my boss, but he still won’t give me a raise or pay my fines – unbelievable!”

“Have you ever tried to cross a street?” Fabianna asked.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Well, if you ever cross a street and a car is coming, they will speed up instead of slow down. They want to kill you! Some drivers think that they are Pelė on a soccer field, ready to pummel you down the street like a soccer ball, using their car.”

“Why do you suppose that is Fabianna?”

Fabianna’s theories as to why some drivers in Campinas drive so recklessly:

Ayrton Senna Grand Prix Race Car Fantasy Driver: when these drivers get behind the wheel, they transform into Ayrton Senna, the internationally famous Brazilian racecar driver. Senna died crashing into a cement wall. Many of these Senna wannabes can be seen speeding on Ayrton Senna highway near the airport in Campinas. Some are even sporting a racing suit, helmet, and Marlboro sponsor ads. Others are simply late for their flights.

Guerrilla Driving Academy Graduates: getting behind the wheel of a car turns these normally, laid back people into graduates of the high testosterone, Guerrilla Driving Academy. Graduates of this muito, macho academy know how to successfully cut off others in traffic, instantly slow down from 120 km to 40 km per hour for radar cameras(without getting rear ended), swerve to avoid hitting pedestrians(,while going 30 km or more over the speed limit), speed through stop signs during rush hour, ride bumpers without getting shot at, and make obscene gestures with two hands, using their lower appendages to steer and shift.

Police Shortage: when there is a cop in plain sight on the road, normally, merciless drivers demonstrate that they know how to be law abiding citizens, and aren’t too blind to read road signs. They flash their lights to warn other drivers that a cop is in their midst (like in the USA). It would be too embarrassing to be pulled over by a cop, especially if the cop didn’t take bribes. Plus, having to stop to have a ticket issued would take even more time then going the speed limit, and stopping at lights. Unfortunately, even with the lack of donut shops in Campinas, traffic and highway police are in short supply.

Radars Are Dumb Machines to Be Outsmarted: since a radar camera only monitors cars in certain places and at stop signs, the rest of the time it’s a free-for-all for reckless drivers, “No radar! No police! Yippee! I can drive like a maniac!” It’s like hiring a negligent nanny who knows where the nan-cams are hidden, “Wow! I can drink beer, nap, chat on the phone, throw parties, steal stuff, and have my lover in every room, but the nursery.”

Catcher-Uppers: these pent up drivers are making up for lost time being excruciatingly polite and patient when not in their cars, (waiting in line in banks and stores, being put on hold and forgotten, playing phone tag, shuffling papers, etc. without biting off someone’s ear or making a scene). These ruthless, rubber-burning drivers, bulldoze to their destination. But, as soon as they’ve re-parked their macho-mobiles, they are polite, patient, Stepford types again (even without sedation or a lobotomy), ready for more red tape and bureaucratic nightmares.

Fabianna’s theories got me thinking about why some people drive haphazardly in the US as well. When my Portuguese lesson was over, it was time for Fabianna and I to leave the language school. We both agreed to pray for each other driving home.

Copyright D. E. Finley 2005.

Gringa in Brazil: Lighting Up

After moving to Brazil, I’ve seen public service announcements on the backs of cigarette packs that make my stomach whirl like a seasick blender. Seeing disturbing photos of black lungs, an asthmatic child using an inhaler, a droopy, sexually dysfunctional cigarette, and a low birth weight baby in a jar don’t make me want to walk a mile or even get up off the sofa for a Camel cigarette. Maybe this is why I haven’t noticed as many smokers where I live in Campinas, Brazil.

Even though cigarette packages in the U.S. require one of the four Surgeon’s General’s warning labels, the small type with the warning is an after thought, compared to the huge, glamorous advertisement. And some of the U.S. warnings don’t seem that dangerous, especially to older kids considering smoking, which is when teens obsess at being cool and popular like celebrities Brad Pitt, the Olson twins, and Sponge Bob:

“SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces
Serious Risks to Your Health.” Yeah, and so does not eating Twinkies, not going to Pizza Hut, or not losing your virginity. Next!

“SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon
Monoxide.” Yeah, and I inhale carbon monoxide in traffic every day on the school bus.. Don’t we need carbon monoxide for plants? So, it’s gotta be okay. Or was that carbon dioxide?

“SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result
in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight.” Yeah, like I’m going to get (or get someone) pregnant at eleven.

“SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart
Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.” Okay, this one is pretty scary, but I can always quit if I get terminally ill. I won’t be smoking through no hole in my neck. And so what if I did? It would look kind of cool.

When I was a kid, my older relatives were my anti-smoking ad campaign. Sitting, hostage, in the back seat of the Chrysler vessel with the windows rolled up, while grandma smoked her high-tars and Grandpa smoked his cigars, inhaling the fumes, was no Chucky Cheese party. Christmas and birthdays, meant getting gifts that our older relatives purchased with cigarette carton box tops like koozies, Joe Camel footwear, Marlboro Man key chains, and cigarette logo ashtrays. I hear that they’re collector’s items now on eBay. Too bad Mom gave them to Goodwill every year.

When I’d visit my great Aunt Martha and Uncle Winston who were chain smokers, their house especially reeked of stale cigarette smoke that had seeped into the walls and carpets. When, they’d smile at me, I’d see their yellow, tar stained teeth. I’d hear them hacking and coughing up black phlegm, six rooms away. The butts in the ashtrays, wastebaskets, and dumpster outside weren’t a pretty sight or smell either.

Thanks to my older, smoking relatives, peer pressure in elementary and junior high school rolled off me like SPAM or a Jehovah’s Witness at my door. When I thought of lighting up a cigarette, I didn’t picture a gorgeous cowgirl, sexy model, or the cool kids in school. I pictured wrinkled Aunt Martha hacking away into a white, cotton hanky, then kissing me with her tobacco breath, and giving me a hug so that I’d get to inhale the stale, nicotine fumes from her beehive hairdo and free, Phillip Morris sweatshirt. Her bug spray scented perfume didn’t hide the smell either.

My older relatives, including Aunt Martha and Uncle Winston, all met the Grim Reaper after getting cancer or strokes, although they tried desperately to negotiate with Camel Cash and Marlboro Miles. I guess the Grim Reaper didn’t need any more koozies either.

When I spot an empty pack of cigarettes on the ground in Brazil, I hope that the message will get through to people to finally stop or never start smoking (and stop littering). A sure fire way would be to put the photos of their aged smoking relatives on the backs of Brazilian cigarette packages. And, if that didn’t work, they could always use pictures of my older relatives; may they rest in peace.

Copyright D. E. Finley 2005.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Gringa in Brazil: Gringa Goes Shopping at Carrefour

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but I have found the lines at Carrefour, (Brazil’s version of a Wal-mart super store) to be slow. Very, very slow, especially, compared to shopping in the US, unless you are shopping at the Albertson’s near my old house in Austin, Texas.

There is one advantage to shopping in Brazil though. They let the people with children, the elderly, and handicapped or “Idosos” skip to head of the line or go in a special line. My friend always makes sure to bring one of her toddlers shopping with her for this very reason. Since my husband and I have no children, and are in good health, I’ve been trying to get my eighty three year old Aunt Ruth to move in with us. Although in Brazil, her name would be pronounced “Hoochie”, which is her main reason for not wanting to come.

One day I was behind an elderly woman in line. She said that she was eighty, but, that when she first got in line she was only sixty, which is why she didn’t feel right about standing in the special line.

Even if only one or two people are in front of you at the Carrefour, it can take ages to check out. The cashier will usually need to do one if not several time consuming activities.

The price check. This buying hurdle occurs when an item isn’t priced. The price check requires the cashier to summons a store team member to roller skate (no jive - really true!) over to their register. If the price checker can safely reach the cashier without having to field customer inquiries, and without knocking over merchandise or customers, the process moves to stage two.

Stage two is the committee meeting between the cashier, the price checker, and the non-priced item. If the two employees are about the same age, often in their early twenties, this may progress to stage three. Otherwise, the employees skip to stage five.

Stage three includes a personal conversation between the two employees about how long they have been working at Carrefour, and whether they like their job or think it sucks. If the two employees are of the opposite sex and or attracted to each other, this may develop into stage four. Otherwise, the employees skip to stage five.

Stage four is when the mutual attraction intensifies and flirting begins. Non-bogus phone numbers and e-mail addresses are often exchanged. They may even plan an upcoming date at the mall.

Stage five is when the price checker pulls out his compass and map of the store or Never Lost Satellite system, and ventures out to track down the price.

Stage six is when the price checker returns to the cashier with the price. Both employees separate until the next business or social encounter.

After a price check is completed, this raises other potential, time delaying issues. Does the customer still wish to purchase the item? For instance, do they still want the box of ice cream bars that have turned into a puddle?

During one of my price check torments, I was in line behind a couple who had just gotten a price for a six-pack of beer. The couple had a long discussion as to whether or not they would still like to buy the six-pack. Although I don’t understand much Portuguese, since communication is 70% non-verbal, I could fill in the blanks.

“That beer has gone up two reales! You don’t need it and it’s not in our food budget. And, why do you want to buy those chips? ”

“Because, I like them.”

“No, it’s because you want to snack in front of the TV at night, instead of listen to me talk about my day. We aren’t buying them.”

So, that price check wasted an hour of my life, an hour that I could have been watching The O.C. (Orange County). But, on a positive note, the price check for the six-pack of beer resulted in a date between the young cashier and price checker. I hear they’re expecting a baby and are engaged to married.

Another frustrating checkout obstacle is investigating customer’s money to see if it’s counterfeit. A sweet looking older woman was trying to pay for her groceries with about twelve various bills to make up about $60. reales or twenty US dollars. The cashier had to examine each bill front, back, sideways, and standing on one leg. Then the cashier’s version of a lie detector test, was to stare her down like Hannibal the Barbarian. When the cashier’s findings were inconclusive, she repeated the process until it was time for her lunch break. Then, she took the woman’s cash and signed out of her register.

Another clog in the checkout process, is getting behind someone who is paying bills. Beware, that if there a short line with only a few people, it’s because the other customers have psychic capabilities and are avoiding that line at all costs. So are the shoppers who have learned how to sniff and detect the ink on bills from twenty feet away.

I got in line behind a woman who was not only paying her bills, she was also paying her sister’s and brother’s bills. She had seventeen siblings. I was so impressed by the sisterly love that she showed her family members that I asked to take her picture, (I keep a digital camera in my purse, since I still consider myself a tourist). We keep it in our photo album next to a picture of President Lula, the president of Brazil (large South American country South of Florida).

Another hold up in line can be caused by getting behind a new foreigner or estrangerio like myself who is shopping at Carrefour for the first time. I had been in Brazil for three days when I decided to take my first shopping expedition. I managed to drive myself to the store without setting the clutch on fire (it only smoked a lot).

It wasn’t until it was my turn in line that I learned that my fresh fruit and vegetables had to be weighed in the produce section. Then, it took me fifteen minutes to figure out if the cashier was asking me whether I wanted paper or plastic bags. That’s when I noticed that Carrefour only has plastic bags.

I didn’t know that I needed a pin to use my new Brazilian credit card. I did have a pin for my new debit card. But, I hadn’t figured out that when using a debit card at a store, you only enter 6 not 8 characters of your password. It was my next shopping trip that I learned they’d be asking additional questions in Portuguese that I couldn’t read. The machine requests the day, month, or year of your birthday. But, never all three. That way management feels that you’ll be less likely to expect a birthday present.

Now, my only option left was to pay with cash. I took out twenty various reale bills from my wallet, which had to be cleared as not being counterfeit. From the depths of my purse, I shoveled up and sorted through a fist full of Brazilian coins mixed with US coins from home, and euros from our vacation last summer to Holland (small European country East of New York). Leaving behind a few of the higher priced impulse items, I managed to scrounge enough money to pay for my groceries and get through the line. It’s nice that Brazilians are so patient.

Copyright D. E. Finley 2005.

Gringa in Brazil: Got Floss?

Compared to most Americans (excluding Los Angeles), most Brazilians work on their appearance more. Maybe it’s due to the warm climate year round and all the beaches, where bodies are more exposed. At least, in many parts of the US where the temperature drops during fall and winter, a person can hide their holiday and couch potato poundage in jeans and a loose fitting sweater - an impossible feat to achieve in a dental floss bikini or thong on Rio de Janeiro beach.

As well as aiming for the perfect body, it seems that many Brazilians also aim for perfect teeth. I’ve noticed that many Brazilian adults as well as teenagers have braces. Cashiers, parking lot attendants, waitresses, sales people, and other Brazilians not only smile often, they do so sporting metal and wire. Compared to many Americans who often spend their disposable income on alcohol, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, it seems like Brazilians must spend their disposal income on dental hygiene and cosmetics.

“Did you know that Brazil uses more dental floss, per capita, than any other country?” my husband informed me.

“For their teeth, swim wear, or in total?”

After my husband worked at his Brazil office for a few days, he noticed after having lunch in the cafeteria with his co-workers, that they would disappear into the restroom for about fifteen minutes every day. Curious, he followed them in. They were all brushing and flossing together at the sinks. Now, my husband brushes and flosses with them every day after lunch too (and after snacks). He also keeps an extra toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss in his desk drawer. He enjoys the additional camaraderie, which he wouldn’t necessarily experience on the greens or at happy hour.

When I had my first dental visit in Brazil, the dentist wanted to know why I wasn’t flossing three times a day. So, now I try to compromise and floss every night. Back in the US, I compromised with my dentist who wanted me to floss nightly, by flossing weekly.

As a kid, I used to think that my mother’s habit of flossing in the car was gross, especially, when food particles would flick onto the windshield. I guess here Mom would fit in a little better. She’d never be short on a place to buy dental floss. Some restrooms even have floss dispensers.

Even at the pet shop in the salon area, I have noticed the shelf that contains all of the pet’s, who are regulars, rubber thimble tooth brushes along with their toothpastes, labeled with their names. Every time, I walk by, I get a twinge of guilt thinking about our dogs’ yellow molars. I know that brushing their teeth every night with their favorite poultry flavored toothpaste isn’t enough. But, what are we to do when they bury their dental bones in our backyard and indoor garden? I haven’t found any doggy floss yet to buy - not that our dogs would sit still that long. Next week they have an appointment with a canine orthodontist for their overbites.

By living in Brazil on assignment, my family is learning more than we’d ever imagined about dental hygiene. Improved dental care is going to reduce our need for fillings, root canals, crowns, and dentures in our assisted living years. And, with all the money we’ll save, we’ll be able to come back to Brazil for a vacation. We’ll just need to keep fit enough to squeeze into our floss swimwear.

Copyright D. E. Finley 2005.
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