Monday, October 1, 2012

First Night in Floripa

Florianópolis is the capital city of the state of Santa Catarina, located in the south of Brazil.  "Floripa," as it is commonly referred, is well-known for it's other capital claim: Surf Capital of Brazil.  That distinction is just one of the many reasons my girlfriend Lilian and I chose this island city to be our first home together.  It also features the highest quality of life for a capital city in Brazil (according to the United Nations), 42 beaches, and a milder climate than other areas of the country (which is helpful in easing a Canadian like myself into the blistering temperatures of South America).  Not a bad choice, eh?

We landed at Hercílio Luz International airport on a Saturday evening, carrying everything we had to start our new life together on our backs.  Our first few nights were to be spent CouchSurfing with a thirty-something, computer programming, Brazilian-Dutchman named Conrado.  After setting our bags down in his living room, we were treated to a delicious pasta dinner, prepared by a third couchsurfer named Iris, from Switzerland.  After dinner, Conrado took the three of us to a neighbourhood house party.

It was a rather organized affair.  A couple of ladies greeted us at the gate to collect the R$10 cover charge for men (about five bucks), and R$5 for ladies.  With our wrists stamped, we entered the backyard and scoped out the scene.  There was a bar set up on the right side of the lawn, tended by a few of the party organizers.  They were offering a selection of local cervejas (beers) for R$2-4, and caipirinhas, the national drink of Brazil for R$4.  I ordered a cerveja for myself, one for our host, and a strawberry caipirinha for Lilian.

By 11:00pm the party had evolved into a full-on carnival.  Drinks were being passed around, and the scent of marijuana filled the air.  White lights strung through the trees illuminated the 100+ people carousing in the yard below.  Inside the house, a live band featuring guitars, percussion, and Brazilian instruments such as the cavaquinho entertained the guests with a selection of samba standards.  Couples performed intricate samba dances both inside and on the lawn as scores of voices accompanied the band on every song.  Children were climbing trees and weaving through the crowd, laughing and playing tag.  A small circle formed around a skillful fire-spinner.  At one point in the evening I had to just step back and absorb the beautiful chaos that was around me.

Everyone we met welcomed us to Florianópolis with open arms.  Often literally.  Brazilians are an affectionate people and I received many, many hugs that night.  Most of the people we talked to were not originally from Floripa, but had relocated from other parts of Brazil.  Each had their own motivation for moving to the Island of Magic, but they all shared a common sentiment about their adopted home: there's nowhere else they would rather live.  When we expressed that we intended to stay for six months to a year we were repeatedly warned with a smile, "just wait; you won't want to leave."

Lilian and I were keenly interested in obtaining as much information about the city as we could, but everyone was just as excited to learn about us.  Every time we mentioned that we were looking for an apartment, or work, or a cheap place to buy a bicycle, someone would inevitably offer their assistance, or at least offer us the phone number of a friend that could help.  We were stunned by the kindness.  Lilian admitted to me that Brazilians usually don't go out of their way to help a complete stranger.  I was starting to get the feeling that perhaps this island really is magical after all.

Although it wasn't designed to be, it felt almost as if it were a "Welcome to Floripa" party just for us.  I know we won't be here forever, but for now, it's already starting to feel like home.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Cup of Joe

Cigarettes.  McDonald’s hamburgers.  Coffee.

I pride myself in being open to new experiences and trying new things... but those are three things that I’ve never tried in my entire life.

However, earlier this month I visited a coffee plantation in Brazil and decided it was time to cross one of those items off the list.  No, it wasn’t the cigarettes.  Never.

Located just outside of Araguari, Minas Gerais, eight hours north of São Paulo, the coffee farm I visited belongs to José Montini and Marta Marques.  They are uncle and aunt (or “Tio” and “Tia” in Portuguese) of my girlfriend, Lilian.  We traveled there with Li’s parents to spend a holiday weekend in the countryside.

Their plantation is named "Santo Antonio," after the local church in Araguari.  Rows upon rows of coffee plants standing nearly 3-metres tall, as far as I could see.  The arabica beans are grown, harvested, and roasted by José, Marta, and their two sons, Bruno and Gabriel.  Bruno, 16, is old enough to take an active role in the family business, spending long days in the fields with his father, operating all sorts of heavy-machinery that I wouldn't even know how to activate.  Gabriel is only 11, but very eager to help out wherever he can.  He often tries to sneak his way into performing some of the more "adult" tasks before his parents reel him in and suggest something a little more appropriate.  Feeding the pets and farm animals, or climbing the trees to retrieve coconuts fall nicely under Gabriel's list of responsibilities.

We pulled up to the house and were greeted by a big, slobbering dog named Valente.  Then Tia Marta appeared from the farmhouse, followed by young Gabriel.  Finally, José and Bruno arrived from the fields.  José, or "Tio Zé" as he is called, shook my hand with all the force you would expect from a man who's life is dedicated to hard, honest labour.  His skin was battered red from the sun, and his clothes were covered in a thorough layer of dirt.  He spoke with great enthusiasm, at a volume as if he was always standing next to a running tractor.  I liked him immediately.

Zé quickly retrieved a bottle of "51" from the house.  Cachaça.  A Brazilian liquor made from fermented sugar cane juice.  It wasn't yet noon and he was offering me a "pinga."  Lilian informed me that it probably wasn't the first of the day for her uncle. He is famous for drinking from sun up to sun down without ever getting drunk. I assume he sweats out the alcohol before it even has a chance to take effect. We shared a couple of beverages while the family did a little catching up, then it was time to head to the fields for a tour. 

Bruno operates the equipment while Tio Zé explains some of the finer points to Li's father.  
Gabriel looks on. 

Salt of the earth.

Getting a closer look.

Here, Tio Zé is demonstrating... I have no idea, to be honest.

Valente came along for the tour.

Young coffee beans.

Lilian and I stop to pose among the rows of coffee plants.

Mmmm, smells like... dirt... and sticks.

Back at the house, Tia Marta prepared coffee for all.  The beans she used were harvested in May of this year.  After harvesting, the beans are spread out over a large, uncovered area to dry in the sun.  Thirty hours of drying time is required.  Normally, this process takes about three days under the relentless Brazilian sun, but due to an unseasonable amount of rain in June it took a remarkable forty days for this crop to dry.

I was presented with a miniature cup and saucer containing the dark-brown liquid I've heard so much about, but whose flavour has remained a mystery to me these twenty-eight years.

Everyone stood around and watched in suspense as I examined it, wafted the rich aroma towards my face, and took a deep breath...
My first cup of coffee.  Ever.

The flavour was bold, but not overpowering.  Tia Marta, as you would expect, knows how to brew the perfect cup.  I admit, I liked it more than I thought I would and I can understand why coffee is such a popular beverage, especially in the morning.  Even in the mid-afternoon I could feel the wakefulness effect coffee is so famous for.  The experience of seeing first-hand how coffee is produced in such a natural, antiquated way was enlightening.  I'll never forget my first cup.  It was worth the wait.

After lunch, Tio Zé and Bruno returned to the fields despite the fact that it was a holiday Friday in Brazil.  Brazilians work incredibly hard (a normal work-week for them is much longer than the 40-hours we're accustomed to in North America), so when a holiday comes around it is time to rejoice and relax.  I asked why the Montinis were still tending to their crop, instead of taking the day off.  Good weather was the answer.  If the weather is good enough to work, they work.  

The Marques-Montini family: José, Gabriel, Marta, and Bruno.

At least, they get to enjoy the fruits of their labour.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Puck the World

Brazil is a tropical nation with a long, deep-rooted history in athletics.  Home to countless world champions and record-holders in numerous sports from football to sailing to Formula One.  Birthplace of capoeira, footvolley and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  The most successful country in the history of international volleyball.  A land of legendary names like Gracie, Senna, Ronaldo and Pelé.  Where “The Beautiful Game” is not a game but a way of life.

The subject of sport in Brazil often conjures up images of (barely) bikini-clad beach volleyball players, or the fancy footwork of a man in yellow on a grassy field of green.  Rarely, if ever, do we associate this land that lies south of the Equator with events contested in temperatures that lie south of 0°C.  However, as a cold-blooded, syrup-sucking, hockey-loving Canadian I always look for a way to “keep my head up and my stick on the ice” while travelling abroad.  Although my expectations of finding a place to play some puck were about as high as the record snowfall for Rio de Janeiro, when I moved to Brazil a few weeks ago I brought a hockey stick along, just in case.

Astonishingly, and to my extreme excitement, I learned that ice hockey does exist in Brazil!  A tournament was being held in São Paulo only three days after I touched down at Guarulhos International Airport.  Great Rocket’s ghost!  I had to be involved.  I just had to!  I did some research and located the phone number for the director of the Brazilian Ice Hockey Association, and tournament organizer, Alexandre Capelle.  Not only did Capelle invite me to play in the tournament, but he was so excited at the prospect of having a real Canadian on the ice, he offered to track down some equipment for me to use!

I arrived at the Eldorado shopping mall on a Saturday morning at 7am.  The early morning drive to the rink recalled those days when I was a youngster playing house-league hockey in Ontario, Canada.  Symbolic of the popularity of hockey in Brazil, the São Paulo ice surface was located in the basement of the shopping centre, two-storeys underground, with a lovely view of parking level G2.  It was a modest arena, to say the least.  No bleachers for the fans, no concession stand selling hot dogs and hot chocolate, no change-rooms for the competitors!  Behind a makeshift partition, I noticed a few players strapping on their gear in a narrow hallway.  Some of the gents had a full set of equipment while others protected themselves with just a few random pieces.  Dedicated as this group may be, the reality in Brazil is that you cannot simply go down to the local sporting goods store and pick up a new pair of hip/thigh pads, so the rule seemed to be, “use what you’ve got.”  No truer was this sentiment than when I noticed players taping on their socks with book-binding tape in the absence of actual clear hockey tape.

Checking out the Brazilian "rink."

Capelle, who also runs his own hockey school in São Paulo, managed to find a spare helmet, shin pads, and gloves for me to use.  As for skates?  My only option was a pair of plastic-shell skates that the rink rents out to the public.  Two sizes too small, two fastening clips instead of laces, and the skate-blades were about as sharp as a Kardashian-- but I couldn’t have been happier!  After I suited up, Coach Capelle tossed me a turquoise jersey that determined who my teammates would be.

The ice surface, designed for a small group to skate in circles recreationally, measured only 26x12 metres, or roughly one-fifth the size of a North American rink.  End-to-end required only three or four strides.  Due to the decreased size of the playing surface, as well as the number of available participants, the games consisted of two fifteen-minute halves (rather than three twenty-minute periods) and were contested 3-on-3 with a man in net.  The goaltenders, fortunately for them, were all fully-equipped, which, unfortunately for everyone else, made the half-sized nets behind them virtually disappear.

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect from this ragtag group.  A bunch of benders and pylons for all I knew.  Surprisingly, I was impressed with the skill level right from the opening puck-drop.  These guys could play!  Sure, there were a few fellas who tipped the scales further towards enthusiasm than skating ability, and at least one that was playing hockey on ice for the first time in his life, but the top players would not have looked out of place in most rec leagues back home.  In fact, many of them had spent time in Canada or the USA developing their skills. When you consider the (often, very) late start that these boys get, it’s all the more impressive.  One of my teammates, Rodolfo Leão, 30, only began skating on ice about a year ago.  “I played in-line for the first time at age twenty-eight,” says Leão, “shortly after that I took my first in-line skating lessons.  When I was twenty-nine I skated on ice for the first time, and soon after I started to train and play ice hockey.”

So, how does a Brazilian man, nearing thirty, become involved in a traditionally arctic sport to begin with?  For Leão, video games opened the door.  “For a long time, I just played hockey games on the computer.  Later, I started watching games online.”

After a while, simulated games and passive spectatorship just weren’t enough.

“The speed and skill of the games always greatly impressed me.  Tired of only imagining what it would be like to play, I decided to try it myself.” 

Since that revelation, Rodolfo has spent time training with an in-line hockey team in San Bernardo, just outside of São Paulo, but he’s always on the lookout for opportunities to test his growing abilities on ice, such as the small tournament at Eldorado.

Including Leão and myself, there were five skaters on my team, so we played on-the-fly.  With such a small ice-surface, and perhaps due in part to the young “hockey-sense” of the Brazilians, there wasn’t a lot of positional play.  It was a pretty wild affair.  When I jumped off the ice after my first shift, to my surprise, I was already sucking a little wind-- but boy did it feel good!  In the first game I earned four assists, including a highlight-reel pass:  I was taken down and sliding into the corner head first, but somehow managed to swipe the puck in front of the net, while rolling, with my stick over my head.  It was somewhat reminiscent of Alexander Ovechkin’s most famous goal versus the Phoenix Coyotes, and met with strong helmet slaps from my teammates.  We won the match and shook hands with the opposing team at centre-ice, just like we do back home.

In total, my team went 3-0 over two days and I recorded one goal and nine assists (I was always more of a set-up man).  I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to play “Canada’s Game” here, where “The Beautiful Game” reigns supreme.  And despite less-than-perfect conditions concerning the equipment and facility it was a thrilling experience to be on the ice in Brazil, playing a competitive game of hockey.  Leão, like everyone else who came out to play that weekend, hopes that hockey will continue to grow in popularity so that more opportunities to play will arise.  “I hope that the games continue and are more frequent, and larger rinks are available for at least a few months of the year.”

A modest dream.  

A full-sized hockey rink is a major goal for Coach Capelle and his association, and would go a long way in building the game’s popularity on a national level.  I truly hope that dream is realized, and I’d love to be there for the opening face-off when it is.

Ice hockey in Brazil.  September 1st, 2012

Back row: Rodolfo Leão, Alexandre Capelle, Jozef "Mojo" Kuracina, Bruno Branco, João Vasconcellos.
Front row: Bruno Dondi