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.

28 August 2011

Week 55: A Couple of Thoughts About Being a Diplomat

I had a couple of experiences this past week that I would like to share about being diplomat. I think that especially in light of the current budget debates in the U.S. and the fact there are congress people in key international relations committee positions that want to eliminate funding for U.S. diplomacy, it is good to share some stories on what diplomats do.

Last weekend, the duty officer received a called from distraught mother in the U.S. (The duty officer is the embassy or consulate employee that is "on call" to receive and handle emergency calls outside of normal operating hours, i.e. nights, holidays and weekends). The mother had not heard from her daughter for two weeks. Her daughter had moved to Brazilian with her husband and one-year-old son about six months, and it was their habit to call home about once a day. Obviously, the mother was very worried about the welfare of her daughter and decided to call the Embassy to get some help. The duty officer attempted to contact the daughter without success, and then passed the case to the U.S. citizens services unit on Monday.

The daughter and her family live in a small town several of hours away from the embassy, so we couldn't just drive to their home and knock on the door. When trying to call the phone number, we confirmed that the number had been disconnected. We then called the local police and thankfully discovered that no report had been filed on the daughter, but we still had not made contact with her. After thinking about this a bit and telling the mother that we were still trying, I asked if we could have the local police drive by the home. Addresses are not always reliable in Brazil, so maybe the local police would know the neighborhood. The police replied that they had planned on going near that neighborhood that afternoon, and they would check on the daughter.

About an hour later, we got a call from the daughter explaining that she had recently moved and had forgotten to tell her mom. I got permission to pass the new telephone information on to Mom. Mom responded with great gladness, and started crying since she was so happy to hear that her daughter was okay. I told her that it was just to be able to deliver good news. I don't know who else the mom would have been able to go to for help if she had not had the resources of the U.S. representation in Brazil.

I was also able to attend a reception hosted by some Brazilian lawyers and government officials who had participated in a U.S. sponsored visitors program. This event was to report on their activities and thank the U.S. Embassy for their support. I don't think the Embassy provided direct financial support for this trip, but did help them to make contacts, set up a visitation schedule and schedule visa interviews for the participants.

While visiting the U.S., they were taken to observe and learn about consumer protections and the way the U.S. judicial system works. They were very impressed by the small claims courts systems, mediation, the variety in the types of courts, and the transparency of the judicial process. Then they were discussing the various ways that they could push to enact reforms in the Brazilian judicial system, especially in relation to consumer protections. It was really quite exciting to see how enthusiastic they were to attempt to tackle some of Brazil's problems because they were able to witness something that functioned well, especially in relation to what they experience here.

Again, by attending the event, I didn't do much to change Brazilian judicial policy, but I showed that the U.S. government was still interested in encouraging them to bring protections and transparency to their own courts systems. If such changes can happen from within, then it would make it better and easier for Americans to conduct business, resolve family disputes and other legal matters in Brazil. U.S. diplomacy and exchange is what helped to bring this discussion about in the first place.

Diplomacy is slow and requires building relationships. It takes money, patience and time. The little successes that I see here in Brazil are the result of many years of investment of money and manpower. In my view, the only way to lasting peace is to continue to build friendships through diplomacy rather than through military intervention. It probably costs less and makes for stronger ties and fewer grudges.

Week 55: Dry Season Surprises

It's another beautiful and sunny day in Brasilia. We have now been without a rain shower since June when we a morning's worth after a volcano eruption in the Andes, and everything is very dry. What is surprising to me is how many flowers there are still blooming. There are many trees in bloom and well-adapted some plants are to the dryness. We do have a lake nearby, so the water table is not too deep so that might explain how so many plants thrive here.

While watering the garden, I found this spiky-leafed plant. When I got a closer look, I saw the spider in the flower. Absolutely beautiful.

Last night at a friend's home, I met my son's AP biology teacher. He and his family just moved here from a small town in Illinois. During our discussion about living in Brazil, I was reminded about how much I like life sciences when his wife said that the main reason they came to Brazil was to see new ecosystems. I then mentioned that my backyard was a great place to observe the wildlife of Brazil, especially ants.

Here's a good view of the back of our house and the backyard. It's dry, dry dry. I am looking forward to the rains, which should be here in about 30 to 40 days.

Week 54: The Stray Cats

Around Week 40: Since May, our family has been joined by a small family of stray cats. The mother cat is a Siamese mix and is very friendly and loves nothing more than to come into the house and hang out. When she first appeared at our front door, she was pregnant and apparently trying to find a place to have her kittens. We thought if we ignored her, she would go away, but she stayed. The kids decided to call her "Sagwa" after the Chinese Siamese cat from the PBS series by Amy Tan.

We soon decided that if we were going to have cat, we might as well give her some food. She was already helping herself to the garbage, so leaving some chicken scraps in bowl might prevent us from having to clean up after her scavenging. She disappeared for a couple days at the end of May, and the next time I saw her that first week of June, she was skinny. 

Week 47: For about four weeks, we saw no evidence of the kittens. Then one day near the end of June at the back door, we encountered a weak, barely moving, black kitten and her mother. Thinking we should prepare a comfortable litter for them, we set out a basket with towel an set the kitten inside.  Then maybe we could nurse this little one back to health. Sagwa nursed the baby, but that was the last time that we saw this kitten.

Week 48: About a week later, another little cat showed up at the back door. Rebecca thinks that Sagwa was attempting to acclimatize her kittens to people. I think they just wanted to get inside to spend the night in a warmer place. By the way, they have managed to get in and hide under beds long enough to be unnoticed for several hours. It's a big house with lots of rooms. 

This little guy was definitely more spirited than his sister, stronger, and absolutely wants nothing to do with people. After a short chase through across the garage and driveway, I managed to corner him against wall and a bush. A couple days later, he appeared again, and after a chase, we caught him under one of the pool rafts. Throughout the chases, Sagwa mostly remained calm. She likes to be close to people and to have her fur stroked.

When the little cat finds an opportunity to dart away, he always dives through a hole under the fence. On the other side, we discovered an abandoned dog house where they have been living.

Our family has been debating on what name to call this cat. In honor of his spirit, I like to call him "Skeeter" or "Scrappy." My oldest daughter wants to call him "Sterling," a name that no one else really likes because it's too refined. The older boys tease her by calling the cat "Harry" after the beloved Harry Potter.

We aren't sure how many kittens Sagwa had, but only this one remains. Our gardener says that he saw three.

Week 50: Strange howling noises, much like those of a human child moaning and crying out, awoke me in the middle of the night. Remembering what I learned during biology class and from watching the Nature and National Geographic specials, I figured that Sagwa was getting started on the next batch of kittens. Though I had been thinking about taking her in to a veterinarian for a while, I had not actually been brave enough to test my Portuguese over the phone or the time to actually visit with one. The urgency of not wanting to have even more cats to care got me to finally go.

I spoke with a veterinarian a few days later, the one that has a clinic closest to us. Here in Brasilia, nearly every pet shop also has a veterinary clinic, and there is a pet shop or veterinary clinic in most of the shopping centers near our home. They deliver and pick up the animals, and sell most pet medicines over-the-counter. Rebecca and I just walked in on a Saturday morning and managed to get some time with the veterinarian between appointments, and she spoke some English. She gave us a quote of about R$600 per cat for spaying and neutering, and suggested that we bring the cats in to do some blood tests. This was a lot of money to spend to treat a couple of strays.

We also learned that there are several endemic diseases here that will kill cats, and the other babies may have been sick from birth. I bought a topical de-worming medicine, and then got some instructions on how to try and "tame" the little wildcat using canned tuna. 

Week 51: A couple of weeks later, the little cat came into our home, and I managed to corner it in a bathroom and apply the medicine. When I let it go, he ran away and disappeared. I couldn't find him under the beds of any of the rooms, so I thought he had gone out the back door which I had left open. The next morning, the kids heard some mewing from the closet. The little guy had jumped up to a higher shelf to hide and ended up being trapped in there overnight. 

 Week 54: Rebecca started working as a mailroom clerk at the Embassy this summer, and through her job, she gets to meet nearly everyone that works there. One day, she was talking to one of the health clinic nurses, and found out that this nurse does volunteer work for a stray animal rescue and placement group. They spoke about our cats, and the next day, Isabel was at our home with her gear ready to catch the cats and take them to the clinic for the necessary surgeries. Since they are a non-profit group, the cost would be about one-third of the price quoted to me at the private clinic. I ended up giving an extra R$70 as a donation for their efforts. 

Sagwa willingly went into her carrier, but the feisty kitten remained elusive. Isabel set the trap, and we waited. He actually sat and watched for several minutes, then went and inspected the cage. He went in, but never put enough pressure on the trigger plate to release the door. I don't think he was hungry enough. We even tried to put his mother out next to the other cage, and that lured him out, but by now he had no interest in the food. After about an hour of trying, we decided that we'll have to try this another day. 

Isabel brought Sagwa back home the next day, tired and groggy. A large bare patch of fur exposed an incision painted white with antibiotic and glue prepared especially for stray cats. She stayed overnight in the utility room. I was to give some pain reliever and antibiotics once a day with her food. I don't know if she actually ate all of it herself, but the food was always gone, and she seems to be doing fine now.

The next night, the first that we let her back outside, Rebecca and I heard that strange, eery and human-like crooning of a cat. I was thinking that we had had Sagwa's uterus removed just in time. Looking out the window, it was hard to tell if the female cat was Sagwa, so I went outside with a cup of water. I didn't want Sagwa to get hurt if it was her. Turns out that two different cats were using our driveway as a trysting point, and the consequent spray of water spoiled their romantic activities.

A couple of nights ago, I sat near the food dish and pet Sagwa. The kitten eventually approached the food and then ran off, even though I was very close to the food. I was surprised he came so close, considering that the night before when I cornered him in my room, he was frightened enough to defecate. Every day, those two cats attempt to get in the house, and often manage to get inside. Sagwa can pull the screen door open at the back door, and with six kids, and five doors to the outside, they have plenty of opportunities to do so.

23 August 2011

Week 23: Road Trip to Salvador Bahia, Day 3: Arembepe

We found a home to rent from an American through the website Vacation Rentals By Owner, and website run by Homeway.com. The home was located on a beautiful, practically private beach in a gate community, and we were very pleased with the location and the price. With our family of eight, it is often hard to find suitable, let alone affordable rooms, at a hotel, and we have found some nice places in good locations through these websites.

After two long days of travel, we decided to stay put and enjoy the beach. The only thing we really had to do that day is do some grocery shopping. The thing we should have done was put on more sunscreen before spending hours out in the sun.

One of the reasons we decided to visit Salvador at this time of the years was to be able to see the baby sea turtles. January is in the middle of the hatching season, and at several locations along the beach we saw PVC poles marking the locations of nests. Every night, we looked out over our beach to see any hatchlings making their way to the ocean, but never saw them.

A few minutes after we started playing in the sand and catching little crabs and searching for shells, when Abby came running up saying she found a turtle. Of course, I didn't believe her because it was the wrong time of the day, and it just couldn't happen. Well, the little turtle she found must have been late out of the nest and had been injured by a bird. We cleaned it up, made sure that everyone got to hold it, and then we took down to the water and let the waves take it out to sea.

That afternoon, we went to Arembepe, a small beach town just a few minutes drive from our house. There we went grocery shopping and visited the Projeto Tamar facility and visitor's center. Projeto Tamar has locations all along the Brazilian coast tracking and preserving sea turtle nesting sites and feeding areas.

For us, it was interesting seeing the exhibits and comparing the various sizes and types of sea turtles. The highlight of the visit was definitely the hatchlings. Every evening during the hatching season, the workers at the Projeto Tamar stations release a batch of hatchlings that were rescued from a nest. These turtles had not made it out with the rest of their siblings during the night. The rescue and public education efforts of Projeto Tamar have led to an increase in the numbers of nests and numbers of turtles going to sea over the last 25 or so years.

We returned that evening for the releasing of that days hatchlings. Those little guys make a direct line towards the ocean. They are determined and struggled through obstacles like human footprints. It's amazing that something as big as a sea turtle can start out so small.

We also observed them opening a nest. The remaining turtles and eggs were counted. The ones that survived were then released to crawl down to the ocean. Later in the week, we visited the larger Projeto Tamar facility in Praia de Forte, but we preferred the more intimate and personal environment and smaller crowds at the Arembepe station.