05 October 2011

Week 60: TDY to Rio: Along Copacobana Beach

After work the second day, I decided to walk back to my hotel on Copacobana Beach from the Consulate. The cab took about ten minutes, and I noticed a very nice walking and biking trail, so I figured I could probably make it in about an hour on foot.

Just up the road from the Consulate, I saw a group of demonstrators outside of a bank. The public bank employees had started a national strike and were protesting outside of a private bank office. All the banks closed for about four weeks due to the strike.

After observing the demonstration for a few minutes, I continued on my walk, crossing over bridge over the highway. The Museum of Modern Art was just on the other side and a giant spider sculpture.

My walk also took me past the WWII Memorial and several very cool trees and plants.

I was very impressed by the beauty and cleanliness of the beaches I walked past. Along the way I noticed these large lids covering very large garbage cans, so I stopped and took some photos.

After I took a couple of photos of these large garbage containers embedded in the beach, one of the garbage collectors stopped to ask me why I was taking pictures of the cans. He thought maybe I had seen something wrong, or was doing report of some sort. I assured him that I found the cans interesting since I had never seen that kind of disposal unit before. He told me that his boss had seen them in France and brought them here. He also showed me how they work. Very big and deep cans. Truck removes the liner.

I saw several groups of children playing soccer, groups of men playing volleyball, and even some foot volley. That is amazing. There was even a large crew shooting a scene for a film or television show.

I did manage to walk back to hotel this afternoon at least partway. I followed the trail through the park and got to the Porcão churrascaria at the end of the park. I had brought my camera to take pictures. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast so the light wasn't as good as yesterday evening.

After about an hour of walking, it got dark and the trail ended, so I got a cab to bring me to the Copacobana each. Even after my walk, the cab ride still cost me R$20.

Tonight I got several photos of some of things I thought were interesting, like garbage cans and restrooms.

I had two more interesting conversations with street vendors later. I was looking for souvenirs to bring home. I bought batik shawls for the girls (made in Indonesia with Brazilian designs). I purchased those from two different vendors. The second guy had a shawl of the same pattern but better quality of s shawl I had purchased earlier. He did a straight trade with me for the better one.

I tried to find a T-shirt for Sam, but there was nothing his size. I stopped and talked to one T-shirt vendor and explained how the shirts they offered were mostly for woman because that is what sells. He then explained the sizing codes. Tank tops are one size because they stretch. Young girls wear them loose while their moms wear them skin tight.

As his grandkids packed up their wares, he got off on a tangent and explained to me why Muslims were ruining the world, Arab countries should be realigned, and oil reserves should be put in the control of Western nations. He only agreed with President Obama on th issue of not forming a separate Palestinian state. He repeated everything several times to make sur I understood his argument, and I think I got most of it. I even learned some swear words from him.

My last stop was with an artisan named Paulo from Pernambuco and his friend Tati from Rio. They both live on the street. He makes hats and bowls out of palm fronds. She paints idyllic scenes on white ceramic tiles while you watch. I just wanted one of his birds, and Paulo insisted that I watch Tati paint a tile. She was good, but I didn't want a tile. During this time we talked about music, culture and religion, and Tati and I helped Paulo learn a couple of English words for selling his goods. It was a fun evening. I net some nice folks.

The corn on the cob was tough and dry. Old corn. Feed corn. yuck.

Seeing them at the breakfat buffet reminded me of what the T-shirt had told me last night about American arrogance. He said Americans strut up to vendors and ask in English " How much is it" and he says "Quanto custo?" I think he was pleased or impressed to hear me speaking Portuguese.

Week 60: TDY to Rio: U.S. Citizen Services

My other objective in visiting Rio was visit with the U.S. Citizen Services unit, also known as ACS (American Citizen Services). I have been serving as the ACS officer in Brasília for about four months. Rio has a high number of U.S. citizens passing through as tourists or living in that area, so they see more cases and wider range of ACS sevices than we generally get in Brasília.

Most often, the ACS services we do are routine: renewing or replacing passports, registering the births of children born to U.S. citizens abroad, registering deaths, and notary services. We also respond to emergencies like hospitalizations, contacting relatives, and responding to disasters. The most common emergency is a lost or stolen passport. As a comparison, Rio averages about one emergency passport per day, while Brasília does one every couple of weeks. Consular officers can also approve repatriation loans to help destitute Americans return to the United States and assist with the distribution of Social Security benefits to retirees. Consular officers also visit jails and prisons to check on incarcerated Americans. Not all of these types of cases were seen this week, but there were two types of services that I had not yet done.

One was a case of a man wanting to renounce his citizenship. Renunciation of citizenship is a serious matter, especially if giving up U.S. citizenship would leave a person stateless or without a country of citizenship. In this case, the man said that his US citizenship was preventing him from opening a foreign currency exchange account in a Swiss bank, that recent changes in US banking laws made it impossible for him to do business, and that he was against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also complained about having to pay a significant fee to renounce citizenship.

Renouncing citizenship in this way is a two step process. At the consulate, the client states his reasons for abandiming citizenship during an intitial interview, and then returns at a later date after some reflection on his choice with the filled out paperwork and formally renounces citizenship in ceremony involving an oath. The paperwork is then sent to Washington, D.C., for review and a final decision at the State Department.

In this case, it became clear that he was prepared to argue his point and took a defensive stance. In the end, it's his choice as long as seems to be of a sound mind. (My colleagues told me about a regular visitor they get who wants to give up his citizenship so that the government would turn the chip off that was embedded in his head.) I also talked to him about how his choice would effect his children. I actually don't understand why someone would want to give their citizenship, especially after I have met with so many people who have made so many sacrifies in order to get American citizenship for themselves and their children.

On another day after a lunch, I went with the ACS officer and one of consular clerks to do a welfare and whereabouts visit for a child who had been taken by her mom from the U.S. without the dad's permission. They had not seen him since 2008, and this was the first meeting with a consular officer.

International abductions are complicated and emotional affairs, not only for the families involved, but also since the laws of different countries and international treaties. Cases can take years to come to a resolution, and even then may not result in a "happy" ending.

Anyway, it was an interesting visit. In these cases, consular officers are observers and do not advocate for the left-behind parent in the U.S, we are checking on the child. This time, we met at the mom's lawyer's office, and talked with them about school and home life. The girl seemed to be doing well, living happily with her mother, though she spoke about playing with her favorite dolls which were gifts from her father many years ago.

I don't have that much experience with these types of cases, but the few that have worked with involved a Brazilian woman that married an American man, and somewhere along the way they decide that they can't live together anymore, the husband gets a joint custody agreement that includes restrictions on travel for the child, and mom really wants to go back and live with her family, but won't go without the child, so she takes the child with her. Since she has broken U.S. law, she can't return with the child to the U.S., and Brazil favors mothers in custody cases, so she stays hidden in Brazil. It can be very traumatic and rarely has a clear or clean resolution. I don't know why the parents couldn't resolve their differences well enough to allow the child to visit dad (or mom).

Week 60: TDY Trip to Rio de Janeiro: Immigration Visas

It's the end of the fiscal year, so our sections were using funds to do exchanges and temporary duty assignments within the mission. These exchanges help to foster innovation and establish uniform practices through the sharing of ideas. I was fortunate to go, and I arrived Tuesday morning in Rio de Janeiro for a three day assignment with the U.S. citizen's services (ACS) and immigrant visas (IV) units to observe and learn about services that we don't do as often in Brasília. In this article, I will focus on some of experiences with IV work.

The consulate building in Rio is the oldest of the four U.S. mission structures in Brazil. It was the original embassy chancery before Brazil moved it's federal government to Brasília 50 years ago. Rio is a beautiful city, and I could understand why so many Brazilian government leaders were not enthusiastic about the move to the interior wastelands.

Visa interviews for Brazilians moving to the U.S. to live as legal permanent residents are only done in Rio, and all the interviews are all done by one consular officer. Every day, Rio has 20 to 30 appointments. This is one of the reasons why the immigration process takes a long time. Considering how long people wait to get appointments, it was surprising that there were six no-shows on the first day I was there.

Most immigration visas are given to family members of citizens, though are a limited number given for professional workers, refugees, and some other special categories. While in Rio, I was able to speak with people who were to be reunited with their parents, cildren and/or spouses. I also got to observe interviews for the fiancé visas, a type of non-immgrant visa that turns into a immigrant status after the marriage in the U.S.

We use the interviews to confirm the relationship, check that all the documents are complete, and make certain that there no ineligibilties exist that prevent the beneficiary from receiving a visa.

The consulate receives large packets from the U.S. that are full of paperwork and documents. Often, the first chance a consular officer gets to look at the packet is just before the interview. Prior to the interview, the applicants meet with a visa clerk to have their fingerprints taken and to check that they have all the required documents, like the police background checks, financial records, and medical exam.

Lack of documents is the primary reason for a delay in getting the visa For example, the first couple we saw was fairly routine. They met while doing studies in Spain, but she did not turn in a police background check report from her time in Spain, so the case was put on hold. Another case failed to get the medical exam done before coming for the interview. Another group was delayed because the sponsor did not send updated financial records showing the ability to support another household member.

Confirming possible ineligibilities is another reason for the interview, and why petitions get delayed or denied. We had several cases where the beneficiary had overstayed or been in the U.S. without the right kind of visa, i.e. was an illegal immigrant. Depending on the type if ineligibilty, they are able to petition for a waiver. This easily adds another five to eight months to the case, and may not be granted if there is no hardship shown. For example, the father of the five-year-old U.S. citizen child we saw is likely to have his request approved, but the woman who said she is married to an U.S. citizen but hasn't been in contact with that man in five years probably won't. The waiver also involves an additional significant monetary and time costs for the applicant.

It was a very interesting couple of days for me, and I gained useful experience and knowledge as well as several more stories.

03 October 2011

Week 58 & 38: Going to the Notary

We went to the notary office to have a travel authorization document notarized that would give our daughter permission to stay in a hotel in the charge of other adults while on a school trip. This was my second trip to the notary, and I found it to be a pretty interesting cultural experience. Having authenticated documents is very important for the Brazilian way of doing business and legal matters.

Every day in my job, I have people pushing to me documents that have purple stamps and holographic seals that verify their authenticity. These are declarations of custody, employment, education, school enrollment, authorizations to travel, certified copies, etc. Each document is presented to demonstrate their ties to Brazil. In fact, recognizing real stamps from inkjet prints are one of the skills a consular gains to identify fraudulent documents. The other problem is knowing whether or not these documents are as authentic as the seals, signatures and stamps would have one believe. What does someone need to present to prove the authenticity of a document here? How much can someone pay to make any document "real"? I figured that a trip to the notary would also be a good career development trip. What I learned was that a cartório in Brazil is quite different from going to a notary in the U.S. 

On my trip to the cartório on 27 April 2011, I wrote a few paragraphs intending to post them sooner. I took photos on my trip in September. The two experiences were similar. Here is my account: 

Cartório de Registro

Today I am sitting at the notary office waiting in line to have a permission to travel document authenticated so that my daughter can go on a school field trip to Cristalina next week. I take a number at the desk near the entrance. There are currently 60 people ahead of me in line. The number sign is beeping and calling the next person about every three seconds. There is a line of counters in front of the far two walls of the office from me. Behind the counters are the workers. Clients are standing at the counters, passing documents to the seated officials. I took a seat in the central waiting area with about 100 other people.

Fortunately, it's a pleasant day, and the fans are working to keep the temperature down. As with most things in Brazil, the hardest part was finding the actual location. I was unable to find an address on the Internet, and a colleague who had been here before gave vague directions ("Off the W-3 near block 503 or 504 in Asa Sul").

Rebecca dropped me off at the corner where we saw a 2º c
artório. I knew that that was name for the official documents offices, but I did know what the numbers meant. It turned out that this cartório was the place to get official copies of civil records, like birth, marriage and death certificates. The receptionist instructed me that to get a document notarized, I needed to go to the 1º cartório, and she directed me down the street to Bloco 505. I got the general idea that I would find the notary office behind the building on the corner

When I got to the building on the corner, paper signs taped to fhe windows of told customers that the office had moved to the back of the building and down the stairs to the basement. I continued walking and encountered a mass of people holding official papers waiting for official stamps and seals. I wonder how many of these people are going to be at my window in the coming weeks asking for visas? At the very least, this experience will give me some experience of being on the other side of the desk, looking at the government official, sitting in the crowd of clients waiting to be served, hoping that I won't miss the moment my number is called. 30 more to go.

I still don't know how much this service will cost. The pricing sign on the wall has numbers and services, but I really don't know what I am asking for in Portuguese. Will I pay R$2.50 or R$5.00? At the consulate, we charge US$50 to notarized a document. Since everyone here seems to be eager to have paper signed, it can't be that expensive. At least I'm not requesting certification of a sale, because those fees are 10% to 30% of the value of the sale. There is a cashier booth on the left side of the room. When does someone pay for the service?

Just 10 left. The line is moving very quickly. This seems to be a very efficient process. My wife is not here yet since she had to make a trip to the school to pick up the younger kids.
Can a father really give permissions for his daughter to travel without the mom being present? I guess I'll find out soon. 

It is my turn. My entire wait here has been less than 30 minutes. At the counter, the official asks to see my identity documents to register me with their system. I then present the form, which I sign, and then the clerk puts a stamp next to my signature stating that he compared it to my identity documents, and inserts the edge of the paper into a large electronic stamping machine that places a dated stamp on the paper. He then passes the paper to a man sitting at a desk behind the counter whose job it is to initial the seals. He is the notary. I am  then am told to go and pay the fee of R$2.50 and return with the receipt and pick up my document. 

Here's a photo with the personal information blocked out: 

Since that day, I have actually met a couple of notaries and owners of cartórios during visa interviews. It's an interesting line and work, and can be quite lucrative. (We had a cartório owner present income tax documents claiming millions of reais in income. Brazilians have a tendency to under-report, so he definitely was making a nice living.)  Having authenticated documents is key to conducting business here, and the only way a person can have an authenticated document is to go to the official cartório offices in their neighborhoods. I also now know that even if the stamps may be real, the information on the document can be easily fabricated and not necessarily verified. I was able to give permission for my daughter to travel without even presenting evidence that I was her father or even a custodial guardian. An interesting experience, and definitely one that a person should do to see what Brazilians face in their lives. 

17 September 2011

Week 57: Brasília Burning

On Wednesday afternoon, we went to the church for a baptism. On the way, we noticed several large plumes of smoke rising from the near horizon. And those pillars of smoke got larger as we approached the building. The photos here were taken from the parking lot.

The scrub brush fields near the church were on fire. We could see large flames reaching up into the trees and also a line of flames expanding. A very large area had already burned leaving a huge expanse of blackened earth. This is an area that is part of the Botanical Gardens of Brasília, and the fires burned a very large portion of the Gardens.

In the left side of this photo, there are the outlines of two men fighting the fires. The had very long poles with a flap of rubber and were using them smother flames. They looked like they were using giant fly swatters. I have never seen a tool like that used in fire control before. I didn't have my good camera with me so I was unable to get a close-up shot. We could also see stream of water being sprayed on flames that were consuming trees close to the school that is next to our church building.

About an hour and a half later, all that was left were a few smoldering patches near us, but there were clearly more fires burning in the distance.

On the way home from work Thursday evening, I could see a ring of fire along the ridge surrounding Lago Sul. It was an impressive sight, and I wish that I had had my camera with me.

Early Friday morning, Rebecca woke up because she was having difficulty breathing, a not uncommon occurrence due to her allergies, but then she realized that smoke had infiltrated the house, she got up to go through the house shutting windows and turning on fans. Our house and clothing smelled like we were on a campout.

I teach a religion class for high school kids before school, and all the seminary kids reported heavy smoke in their homes as well. Coincidentally, the topic of that morning's class was Sodom and Gomorrah, and the smoke and fires represented well the effects of fire and brimstone.

Other members of the Embassy had posted on facebook that CO alarms had gone off in some homes, and some families had gone to the Embassy to escape the smoke. The main part of Brasília is on the side of the lake opposite the location of the fires and up a higher so the smoke was not as intense there. A Brazilian friend that has lived in Lago Sul for 40 years said that he had ever seen smoke like this before.

I decided to take my camera with me to work and get some photos of the dense smoke. I could see that the smoke was even worse towards the neighborhoods closer to the JK bridge at the other end of the lake. I crossed over the middle bridge and stopped and took some photos from the ridge looking back towards Lago Sul.

The local news reported that well over one hundred fires were burning in the area. Though the total number of fires was less than last year, this was more than there had been at any one time. It has been very dry for several weeks, around 5% humidity, and it does not take much to start a fire. Some of them had started as controlled burns, others were the results of carelessness, like throwing cigarettes out a car window or from fireworks from various Independence Day parties. Even a ray of the sun passing through a broken piece of glass can get a fire going. The cooling of the air at night causes an inversion trapping the smoke near the ground and concentrating it in the low areas near the lake. When the sun rises, the air warms and the smoke rises and dissipates in the atmosphere.

By late Friday afternoon, the Embassy authorized voluntary evacuation to the higher areas of Brasília and approved hotel reimbursements. We chose to stay at home since we were busy preparing for birthday parties and half the kids were scattered at various locations about town. By the time we got everyone back together, it was late and we were tired, so we didn't want to bother with trying to find a hotel room and moving the entire family across town. With all the AC units running all day, the smoke seemed to have cleared from the bedrooms enough that we were able to sleep well.

Location:Brasília, Brazil

12 September 2011

Week 56: Our New Post--Jakarta

This week I received word on my new assignment, a job in the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. We are very excited about this assignment, and we will be arriving there about this time next year, hopefully not too many days after the beginning of the next school year.

The bidding process to get this job was a little harrowing for us since we really wanted to be sure to get posted somewhere that had a high quality school that would be able to serve the needs of all of our children. I also wanted to get a job that would give me a different kind of Foreign Service experience, and hopefully prepare me to bid for mission-wide leadership positions in the future. In addition, since one of our children has Asperger's syndrome, we had to have a response from the school that stated that could accommodate him.

For most entry-level officers looking towards their second tour, bidding involves being given a selection of posts and then narrowing down that list to a ranked number of choices where they would be willing to serve. For the late summer bidding group, we started with a list of about 254 positions put together by career development officers (CDOs). This is a group of FSOs whose have the job of actually making the assignments and filling positions. For most of the people in my group, they had to create a ranked list of 30 jobs that met the criteria available to that officer, mostly based on timing, such as, expected date of departure from current job, expected date of arrival at the new post, timing of training in between and home leave. Since my family has a child with special needs, we were required to do some extra work to put a list together, therefore we were told to only create a list of 15 positions.

The other critical factor used in making job assignments for ELOs is "equity". In other words, people who were currently serving in "high" equity posts, such as living in areas of the world considered very difficult or  dangerous, were given priority over those with "low" equity. Brasília is considered a low equity post.

In putting together a bid list, we were also asked to write a bidding strategy and briefly describe the primary goals and concerns one took into consideration when putting that list together. For example, if someone had not yet served the required consular tour, then all of the bids must be on consular positions. Or if the needed language requirement had not yet been met, then language designated positions were needed. For me, the primary strategy was to find positions in a different area or with different types of consular work, and with a good high school program with AP courses. Not all posts have high schools, and many international schools only have IB (international baccalaureate) programs. The problem with IB is that to graduate with an IB diploma, the student must do the last two years consecutively at the same school, and my oldest son is doing his Junior year now.

Rebecca really enjoys figuring out these types of logic puzzles, so she got right to work creating our bid list. Based on timing issues, the list got quickly narrowed down to 60 positions. By eliminating Western Hemisphere jobs, the list narrowed again to about 30. When we began looking closely at schools, we ended up with a list of about 20 that looked like they would be able to provide the needed services. We then got to work searching for contact information and sending out e-mails to schools. It took several more hours of researching and contacting schools before we came up with a final list of 15, which we were instructed to submit with the high equity group. We felt that we had put together a well-thought-out list representing different types of jobs in various regions of the world, from those considered "easy" to difficult.

Then I got a message from my CDO stating that he was leaving for his new job, and I would be getting a temporary CDO during the bid process. I immediately contacted my new CDO, and waited for a reply, which didn't come until after the high equity assignments were given. An updated list of positions was posted, and we discovered that only four of our original list remained. Of that list, only one of the schools had responded to our e-mails. Even our back-up posts had been assigned. We were devastated thinking that all our work had been for naught.

Then we sat back down at looked at the remaining posts. I decided to resend e-mails to different persons than the designated primary contact. We also took a closer look at what it would mean to go to a language designated post and determined that we really could not do six months to a year in DC learning another language at this time. It really is challenging to find temporary, furnished housing for eight people, enroll kids in schools, and quite possibly have to live apart for a period of time. This narrowed our list down to three posts.

Then the day before the final list was due, one those posts was removed from the list. We were down to Chennai, India, and Jakarta. I wrote a longer description on why Jakarta would work best (no language training, good school, different kind of job), and sent the final list to my CDO and hoped that the list was sufficient.

My friends have asked, "so what posts were available?" The original list was quite varied with posts in nearly every part of the world. The U.S. has embassies and/or consulates in nearly every country in the world, and there are positions for service in the USA as well. Capitol cities and many major business centers have U.S. representation, and that was what was on the list. My original list had Paris, London, Brussels, Seoul and Rome, and also Chennai, Jakarta, Harare, Nairobi, and Dhaka. We also considered but didn't end up including New Delhi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Stockholm. Others we just couldn't consider due to timing or school issues: Pretoria, Jerusalem, Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Ulaanbatur, Kathmandu, Kingston, Accra, Tijuana, Buenos Aires, Praia, etc. In other words, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer is expected to be worldwide available, and the possibilities of service are vast and challenging. I think that this will be an interesting career.

Week 23: Road Trip to Salvador Bahia, Day 5: Salvador

We were awakened just before dawn by spray coming in the windows, thunder and drips from the ceiling onto our bed. An unexpected storm was raging outside, churning the sea and blowing water into the house. I moved through the house closing windows, but it was too late to prevent the floors from becoming flooded. The windows were also warped from the years of being near the ocean, so that didn't help keep the rain out either. The storm also blew out the power. 

We were glad that the gardener, Ronaldo, came in early to check  on us, and then get around to matter of getting the power back on, which didn't happen until the next day. It turned out that a main switch out by the road caught on fire and needed to be replaced. The challenge for Ronaldo was to find the part and then get the public utility workers to come to the home and install the part. 

While Ronaldo worked on the house, we went to the old city of Salvador, the area called the Pelorinho. This was the square used by slave handlers to publicly whip and punish disobedient slaves. Here there are several museums, churches, restaurants and shops. It's also a good place to go to see a capoeira demonstration or hear some live music. We hired a guide, our home owner's nephew, Noah, to help use find our way around for the day. This was the only day this week that we didn't get lost. 

Igreja de Ordem Terceiro de Sao Domingo

There are at least three large 18th century and 19th century churches positioned at the corners of the Pelorinho. The first one we visited was the Church of the Third Dominican Order. This church had elaborate paintings and sculptures depicting various stories from the scriptures and the lives of the saints. In true Portuguese tradition, they preferred the bloody stories and show them in all their graphic details.

 These old churches also often have a museums of religious art. The ceiling in this church has an expansive painting. One our favorite pieces was this diorama with a giant Christ child and various scenes of from Christian history.

African Museum at the Medical School

A short walk from the church is the oldest medical school in Brazil, and this school also has a museum dedicated to the African history in Brazil. Brazil was the largest importer of African slaves, and their influence is very strong on Brazilian culture, especially in Salvador. At this museum, we learned a lot about Condomblé, a religion with African roots that worships various gods representing various natural phenomena and personalities called Orixás.

The museum also had on display art and handicrafts from Africa.

One of the most interesting rooms contained relief wood carvings of the Orixás. The carvings are exquisite and quite fun to see.

The main square of the Pelorinho

At the suggestion of our guide, we ate lunch at the Bahia Café and Hotel that was conveniently situated on the way to our next stop: the public elevator and the market. The food was tasty and featured a variety of local stews and fish dishes, as well as sandwiches that were palatable for the younger members of our family. Prices were decent, and the portions were large enough that most dishes could be divided between two or three people. My oldest son finished off a large, breaded and deep-fried fish on his own. This was definitely the best seafood we've had since coming to Brazil.

This little hollow full of street cats in the center of the Praça de Sé was one of the kids' favorite spots. There were at least fifteen cats of various sizes and colors feasting on leftovers people had left on the steps.

A view of the lower old city.

Mercado Modelo

A urinating demon (Orixú) and beverage dispenser.
The Mercado Modelo is the location of the main shopping area for tourists to find jewelry, pottery, musical instruments, artwork, local snacks, crafts and Brazilian souvenirs. This market was once a the main slave market for Brazil. The basement area was where slaves were held and was under renovation to become a museum at the time we visited. There are three levels filled to capacity with hundreds of shops and few restaurants, most selling variations of the same things that one can find at most Brazilian souvenir stands.

All the shopkeepers are willing to bargain and will often come down to about half the original asking price. They demonstrate the prices by typing the numbers into calculators.

This is also an area where tourists are advised to put cameras and other visible valuables away due to the chance of theft, especially when passing through the areas around the outside of the market.

Igreja de São Francisco

Our last stop before heading home was the church of São Francisco. This church is a great display of the riches during the golden period of Brazil's colonial days. The courtyard has two levels of walls adorned with white and blue tiles. The scenes depict stories of virtues and vices. These tiles were made in Portugal and then imported to Salvador.

The chapel is very ornate and nearly every carved piece is covered in gold leaf. It is a dazzling sight. One of my daughters said that even if the lights were out, the room would still glow due to the amount of gold.

A street leading up to the Pelorinho.
After visiting the chapel, I took a turn that led me out of the building and back to the square. I then waited to be joined by the rest of the family who had managed to find their way to the crypt before coming out. While waiting, a small VW Gol pulled up from the side street and parked. A couple of men got out and then opened the hatchback and pulled three men out, each them had their hands strapped behind their backs by zip ties. It seems that the three had been arrested for robbery by the plain clothes policemen. 

We made it back home just after dark. A large toad that was feeding on flies greeted us in the carport. Unfortunately, the power was not yet restored to the house. They had been extremely busy responding to various service calls throughout the city. We managed to

30 August 2011

Week 23: Road Trip to Salvador: Praia do Forte

For our second full day in Salvador we went to Praia do Forte, an old fishing village that has been transformed into a resort town specializing in eco-tourism. Our friends said that this was a "must see" location. We chose to not stay overnight in this town because of the cost. As we were recovering from nasty sunburns from our previous day on the beach, we thought it would be best to explore some other types of sites on this day.

Castelo Garcia D'Avila

Praia do Forte got its name from this castle built on a ridge above the ocean. It's one of the original colonial structures in Brazil and was inhabited until the early 20th century. It is the oldest of the large colonial buildings in South America. It was surprisingly difficult to find. There were no clear directional signs pointing to the winding road just off the main boulevard to the village. There were very few visitors at the ruins the day we came.

The castle ruins are well-preserved, and the proprietors have installed stairs and platforms so that visitor's could go up to the upper levels. They have also re-built the chapel. One of my favorite details was the colonial era graffiti written on the walls.


The view from the castle was quite stunning, and it helped that it was an absolutely beautiful day. It was the middle of the dry season on this part of the coast. This location was clearly chosen for it's strategic vantage point. It would not have been easy to haul all of the stone and other building materials up to the top of this hill. Nearby the ruins of the main hall were the remains of footings from other structures, probably stables and various utility buildings.

The path to the castle goes through an amphitheater that encircles this amazing fig tree. Brazil has some pretty incredible trees, and they make great back drops for family photos. 
The visitor's center had a model of the castle and some artifacts found during archaeological digs on the site. It also has a cafe and eating area for special occasions and a gift shop selling trinkets and paintings made by local artists.

Reserva Ecológica da Sapiranga
A short drive down the hill and under the main highway from the castle is the Sapriranga Ecological Reserve that is managed by the same foundation that does the castle. As with most reserves in Brazil, visitors are required to hire a guide in order to see the park. The guides typically are members of the families that live in the park and help to keep it preserved. This reserve also includes a small visitor's center with specimens collected in the park.

Our tour lasted just under two hours. We hiked from the visitor's center to the river and back. It was a little late in the day to see much wildlife, but along the way we saw a three-toed sloth, a green lizard, some very pretty butterflies, cool funnel web spiders, and lots of ants. I even got a glimpse of a ghost shrimp. Our guide also pointed out many neat trees and told us about some of the medicinal, food and other products made from the trees.

Sapiranga River
Praia do Forte Village
After a morning of hiking through a forest and exploring a castle, we were pretty hungry, so we drove back into the village to find a place to eat. Even though we were there during the heavy tourist season, most of the restaurants that open for lunch had closed and were preparing for dinner. In these resort towns, one of the wait staff will stand outside the restaurant with a menu and invite people to eat there. We were pretty hungry, so we stopped at the first one that looked open and said that it served Bahian dishes. They also had pretty, pink balloon center pieces on the tables. Like Brasilia, restaurant food in Praia do Forte was expensive, costing about R$25 and up per person. I enjoyed a nice plate of fresh fish. Abby and I shared some coconut water as well.

After lunch, we went to look at the nick-nack and art shops in town. A large black woman waved me over and grabbed my hand. She asked me if I spoke Portuguese and then started to compliment me and my family. Then she asked for some money. We had learned that it was common for people to ask for money in Salvador, but I had not expected to be grab and held ransom like that. I also wasn't feeling well due something I had eaten the day before, so I declined and wiggle loose from her grasp.

Souvenirs in Praia do Forte ran the full range in price and quality, and many of the items had an African influence since this is the part of Brazil where the African slaves were originally brought. This being a resort town, it kind of felt like walking through the main street of Disneyland with all of its shops and restaurants. There were even kids dressed in spooky costumes and scary masks running around and shaking rattles to earn a bit of money.

We finished our day at the beach and wharf at the end of the commercial district. The fishermen had pulled in their nets for the day, and a few families were enjoying the evening on the beach. The bars were setting up tables and chairs for the evening clientele as well. As a treat, we a found a self-serve, by the kilo ice cream shop. Brazilian ice cream comes in every flavor of tropical fruit and chocolate and lots of toppings. Generally, the ice cream at shops is made on location in small batches and is quite tasty. Mass-produced ice cream sold in the supermarkets is disappointing.