Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Copa do Mundo

The World Cup is a big deal here.  Whenever Brazil plays a game, the whole country takes time off from life to watch.  Everyone dresses up in soccer jerseys, silly hats, flags and other costumes.  Here are some pics I took before the Brazil-Ivory Coast game last week, at my aunt's condo :)

The bar downstairs got converted into a viewing room.  My aunt and I went for a walk to show off our costumes to the other residents :)

I felt like such a superhero with my flag cape and studded bracelets :)

Sustainable Building: A Family Business

I came to Brazil prepared to learn a lot about sustainable building at work during my internship.  What I did not come prepared for was the amazing amout of interest, support and involvement in the field that my family here has shown.  In my earlier visits to Brazil, I'd never realized just how many of my aunts and uncles work in some part of the building industry.  I certainly had no way of knowing that nearly all of my cousins would end up studying in a building related field.  We have everything from architects, to engineers, to construction managers, to building inspectors, to building operation managers to interior designers in the family, and they're all interested in sustainable building. They're always asking about the work I do, for advice on making their buildings more sustainable, and telling me about all the cool projects they've been involved in, or about the issues they face in the Brazilian building industry.  It's fantastic that this is something I can share with them!

This past weekend, I went to visit some cousins in Sertãozinho, a small town in the interior of São Paulo state.  My uncle and cousin there have teamed up to start a small family side-business building low-income houses.  The central bank, where my uncle works, loans up to R$ 80 000 (just under CAD$ 50 000), on a low-interest, 20-year plan to allow low-income families to buy their own houses.  My uncle and cousin have gotten the process streamlined.  First, my uncle helps the family choose a lot.  My cousin, who is finishing up her architecture degree, works with the families to design their homes. Since she is not yet a certified arquitect, she gets her plans approved by a local architecture office where she is doing an internship.  Then she sends the plans to my uncle, who files for funding from the central bank.  My uncle also works part-time with a general contractor, overseeing the projects.  They try to keep construction costs as low as possible by reusing materials from other projects, or buying end-of-line products from manufacturers. The whole process takes between 4 and 6 months, and the average house, including the lot it sits on and interior finishes and appliances, ends up costing around R$ 100 000 (or about 60 000$ Canadian). 

After spending an evening looking over my cousin's shoulder while she worked on some plans, I accompanied my uncle to check out the progress on some of the projects currently underway.  The first house we stopped at was nearly done, only missing painting on the inside.  Unfortunately, since it was so close to done, the contractors locked it up so that the stuff inside wouldn't get stolen, so I couldn't get any pictures of the inside finishes.  Here it is from the front:

These houses don't have many windows, for safety and cost reasons.  Unfortunately, the lack of operable windows means there's very little climate control inside.  These houses are doubtless broiling hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter (they don't have any heating or air conditioning). 

Next, we stopped at a house that was about halfway built.  The structural walls were all up, and the roof was partway finished.  There were still no floors, paint, fixtures or appliances in the house.  Here's what it looked like from the outside.  As you can see, it's made of structural brick, the most common building material in Brazil

And here is a view from inside of what will be the kitchen.  This whole house had maaybe about 25-30 square meters of floor space, and was going to house a family of 6.  One funny thing about the design (which my cousin was furious about) was that the family insisted on having a walk-in closet in one of the rooms.  However, because the house was so small, the walk-in closet occupied nearly half of the larger bedroom.  It's funny what features people cling to when designing a house.

While visiting these houses, my uncle mentioned that a lot of the lower-income houses being built in Brazil today do not have solar hot water, which has been popular in Brazil for the past several decades, because the solar hot water systems, which cost maybe about R$ 1500 (800$ CAD) are too much of an initial investment. It's sad that such a widely available, easy-to-install, cost-saving technology is not available to those who need it the most. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Green Guilt

Sometimes, I feel like a hypocrite.  I care about the planet, and about the impact of my actions, I really do.  I think it's important that we start designing better, greener buildings, and retrofitting our existing building stock to improve efficiency.  It's why I went into civil engineering, why I volunteer with the green party, why I lead sustainability initiatives at school, and (part of) why I applied for this internship.

I'm happy that I'm here.  In the less than 2 months I've been here, I've learned more about green building certification processes and standards than I did in my first 3 years of school.  I've learned about some fantastic technologies and applications of green building principles, and I've spoken to some amazing, motivated people (including some people in my own family, who I had no idea were interested in green building).

In 3 years of operation, GBC Brasil has made some unbelievable progress in the country.  Seminars and MBA Programs in green building are offered all over the country.  The Olympics Committee and FIFA have agreed to extensive sustainability measures in their new structures.  The municipal government in Rio de Janeiro has imposed sustainability guidelines on all new public developments, which are based on the LEED system.  Our 1 Degree Less campaign for cool roofs has inspired a draft law in São Paulo.  There are now 16 certified buildings in Brazil.  That's a lot to be proud of.

But then I think about my own impact.  I flew 10 000 km away for this opportunity.  That's an awful lot of emissions.  Is the work I'm doing here actually going to offset that, or is this just a feel-good measure? I'm pushing papers, translating documents and attending meetings with energy companies who want to green their image.   For the past two weeks, I've been working on preparing for an international conference for which we will be bringing people in from the US, Canada and Europe.  Are these speakers going to bring something to the brazilian market that we couldn't find internally?  Couldn't we have them speak via videoconference? Are they going to learn something that they could not have learned in their own countries?  I've also helped map itineraries and book green building tours for my coworker's trips to Chicago, New York and Washington.  As interesting and revolutionary as a trip to Sidwell Friends School may be, is it worth the 10 000 km trip for 4-6 people?  Is seeing it really going to improve green building in Brazil enough to offset the trip?

And then there's the nature of the buildings we're certifying.  Almost all are new buildings.  Shiny, new developments adding more demand onto an already tapped-out system. Very few are retrofits.  Here in Brazil we're excitedly working on new green stadiums and hotels, so that people from all over the world can jet over to watch sports.  But not to worry, the hotel has low-flush toilets and bamboo floors!

I hate to be a cynic.  I really do believe that most people in this movement are well-intentioned.  However, I sometimes feel like we all just need a healthy dose of perspective.  Jetting around the world promoting green principles sure feels good, but we need to really start acting differently. 

Brazilian TV

Brazilian TV comes in three flavours:  telenovela, futebol (soccer) and really freaking weird

The first thing you learn about Brazil is that the whole country stops for novelas and futebol. 

If you are at a party, expect your hostess (and most of the other women and some of the men)  to suddenly vanish at 8 pm.  You'll find them gathered around the TV, watching the latest novela. Novelas are like soap operas except shorter, each novela lasts about 3 months.  They tend to feature lots of cheating wives and husbands and other family drama, with some background story and fluff.  The current novela is about an inheritance scam in Italy, so everyone speaks in Por-Talian.

There is also always some sort of soccer going on.  Brazil has several soccer clubs (Corinthians, Santos, Palmeiras, Fluminense, etc) that compete for various local and continental cups when the national team is not competing.  Brazilians are very dedicated to their teams, and bar brawls post-game are not uncommon.  However, the whole country gets together to chear for the national team:  when the Brazilian team plays, everyone gets the day off from work to watch. 

When there's no soccer or novelas to watch, Brazilian TV gets really weird.  For example, the main TV station, Globo, held a Pre-Soccer Special to pump things up on Sunday.  Two teams of 3 people each were made up from the show cast, to play a special game.  Here's how this game worked.  One person from the first team got suspended in a harness from the studio ceiling, and both their feet were shoved into a giant, metre-long soccer shoe.  They were then swung across the studio by their team-mates, to kick a giant balloon into a net on the other side of the studio.  The net was guarded by one of the players from the other team....who was dressed as a pineapple.  The pineapple was also suspended from the studio ceiling, and was swung side-to-side by his teammates.  The pineapple was spiky, so that if the ball hit him, it would explode.  This game was refereed by a very peppy tranvestive in hoop skirts, while a dozen women in sexy underwear danced in the background and blew kisses. The program described above is in no way unusual for Brazilian TV. 

I never fail to be astounded at what people will come up with for amusement

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cultural Differences

I've been in Brazil for just over a month and a half now.  I've been having a great time.  Work is great, the food is better,  it's great to see my extended family and meet new people.  My portuguese has improved a lot; for the first time in 18+ years, my default language is Portuguese, not English or French.  I've figured out the transit systems in São Paulo, and learned how cross streets with only minimal fear for my life.  I sometimes feel a little lonely, but everyone has been so welcoming that my loneliness is always short-lived.  I watched the first World Cup game at a coworkers house, with his parents, sisters, fiancée, son-in-law, dog and tiny kittycat.  The parties here are amazing, and my love for outlandish costumes and enthusiastic dancing is encouraged !  Even in the dead of the Brazilian winter, we have occasional 25 degree days, and the tropical foliage is absolutely beautiful. 

Quite frequently, I get asked by family or coworkers whether I'd consider moving here permanently.  Unfortunately for my dreams of eating fresh tropical fruit for breakfast every morning, the answer is always no.  The longer I stay here, the more I notice aspects of the culture that bug me.  I'm a little hesitant to post this here, since anyone can read this blog, but I need to get this off my chest.  Brazilian society is extremely racist, sexist, classist and homophobic.  In fact, the longer I stay here the more I realize that brazilians have no real respect for people in general, only status.  The whole toxic mix is liberally sprinkled with a healthy dose of catholic guilt.

The first thing I noticed when I got here was the sexism, and it's what's been bugging me the most, probably because it's the aspect which affects me the most.  It started out innocently enough;  men rushing around to open car doors for me, or standing at elevator doors with their arms stuck out to let me through.  At first I was bewildered. It all looked so silly. I actually had a coworker nearly crush my foot rushing to open a car door for me before I got to it.  Then I found it amusing.  Next, I started paying attention to the comments from people. I've received criticism on everything from my short hair to my unpierced ears and lack of makeup to my "boyish" tshirts.  Worse, I've had several people suggest that I should change my appearance so that my boyfriend will like me more.  Now, one thing I know for certain is that if I dyed my hair blonde (brazilians are convinced I'd look great as a blonde), wore heavy makeup, cleavagy tops, spike heels, dangly earrings, and got my nails transformed into bright pink talons, Jordan would be anything but impressed.  In fact, I figure he'd probably shake me up and demand to know where I hid his laid-back, tomboyish girlfriend, and demand that I return her immediately.

But if it were all limited to telling me how to alter my wardrobe and grooming habits, I wouldn't be bothered. People tell me how I should be less of a tomboy all the time, even in Canada (albeit to a much lesser degree).  However, the huge wealth disparity and objectifying culture has other side effects.  You might all have heard about Brazil being the plastic surgery capital of the world. That's not a joke.  Dinner parties regularly feature all the women sitting around a table poking at themselves and stretching their skin to demonstrate where their next surgery is going to be.  Boob jobs, nose jobs, eye lifts, ear tucks, lipo, collagen injections, face lifts.  You'd be hard pressed to find anyone in most gatherings who *hasn't* gotten any operations. Worse, this spills into younger age groups.  I have cousins as young as 11 who have gotten plastic surgery.  The adults don't see anything wrong with this, in fact, they think she should have gotten operated earlier. 

But for all this encouragement to modify their bodies, women in Brazil are given no real control over their bodies.  Abortion is illegal here. Thousands die in back-alley abortions.  Nonetheless, the average age of first birth is 21(contrast to about 27 in Canada).  Single-motherhood and divorce are also seen as shameful, leaving many women in very unpleasant situations.  Most Brazilians recognize that this is a problem, but the catholic guilt is so ingrained that 85% of the population still believes that abortion should remain illegal.  65% believe that it should remain a criminal offence, punishable by jail time for both the abortionist and the mother.

The classism also really gets to me.  Living in upperclass Brazil feels to me like living in a gilded cage.  My family's apartments and houses are all beautiful, as are my coworkers.  Hammocs are strung between palm trees, and there's always fresh tropical juices to sip, and beautiful pools and gardens.  Gardens are perfectly maintained, houses are always spotless, and delicious food appears like magic out of the kitchen, all made possible by cheap labour.  However, venturing out of this comfortable bubble is strongly discouraged.  The reason claimed is because of the danger of getting robbed or catching a stray bullet, but that risk is often overstated because rich brazilians don't like associating with the lower classes.  The first time I rode the interregional train, my supervisor at work nearly went catatonic, but couldn't express what the risk actually was.  I checked with my aunt, and she explained that it's mostly just prejudice, as the trains and stations are well-lit, guarded and full of people, but that because a lot of poor people ride the train it's not seen as a pleasant ride.  Reassured, I've started riding public transit more comfortably and venturing out into São Paulo on my own during the daytime.  Nonetheless, most of my time is spent carefully sheltered behind guards, 10 foot walls and locked doors. I miss skipping through Toronto streets at any hour of the day or night.  I miss not having to think about which are the dangerous areas, and at what time it stops being safe to ride the subway.

Then, there's the racism and homophobia.  A common greeting to a black person (or even a darker-skinned white or latino person) is "Oi, nego/nega", which translates to "Hey, nigger".  If you ask a Brazilian, they'll tell you it doesn't imply any hatred of black people,  but the fact remains that there's no equivalent for white people.  It's also quite common to refer to asian people as japinhas (Japs) and black people as pretinhos (blackies).  Again, race never gets mentioned for white people, despite white people being the minority in this country.  I can't really comment on how black people get treated apart from the othering comments, since I haven't experienced it, but I can't imagine that with so much casual racism, that there isn't a lot of more sinister comments, too.

Similarly,  homophobia is ridiculously rampant.  Canadians make gay jokes, but it doesn't even approach the level of the gay jokes, and offhand gay comments here.  And then there's the quite frankly bizarre questions I get? I've had several people very bluntly ask me, out of the blue "So, are there a lot of gay people in Canada, too?".  I'm always sort of stunned, and stammer something about "Erm, yeah, there's gay people everywhere in the world. Err, why?", which always gets answered with "It's not the same everywhere, there's gotta be more in Brazil.  We've got too many of *them* here", usually followed with a joke about the gayest state being Rio Grande do Sul (damned if I know why that one specifically is the gayest state, but everyone seems to be in agreement about it).  Most people leave it at that, but I've also heard a few too many people go on about how gay people are gross and make them want to puke. 

It's disturbing to me how accepted this all is here.  I miss the openness of Canadian culture.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Long weekend in Uberlândia

All dressed up in our Sunday best for my cousin's birthday :)

This past weekend was a long weekend here in Brazil because of Corpus Christi.  I'm not religious, but I took advantage of the 4-day-weekend to go visit my cousins in Uberlândia, in the interior of the country (about 600 km NW of São Paulo).

We left on Wednesday afternoon (I left work a little early to meet my aunt in São Paulo) and arrived late Wednesday night at my aunt's mother's house (she's my aunt by marriage, so I'd never met this branch of the family before, but they welcomed me right away).  By the time everyone arrived, there were about 40 of us, and I still can't remember everybody's name.

I spent about a third of my time with this new branch of the family, who hosted a *fantastic*  party for my cousin's birthday.  The party was "festa Junina" themed.  A festa junina (literally "June Party")  is a traditional brazilian party thrown to honour one of three saints who have saint days in June.  For a festa junina,  brazilians get all dressed up as hillbillies (plaid shirts, fluffy scrap dresses, blackened teeth, painted on freckles and straw hats),  eat traditional cakes, sweets, roasted corn and popcorn, dance to brazilian country and folk music, and set off fireworks.  My aunt's family sure knows how to party!

More pictures:

Showing off my dress. Beside me is Aunt Adila, my aunt's cousin, who went all out with her costume :)

Dancing waaayyy into the night.

I also made sure to spend lots of time with my cousins (the ones I knew before who are actually related to me :) ).  I was particularly excited to see my cousin Laize again.  Laize and I have known each other since we were babies, and we've always been close.  We're both studying civil engineering, and she's the one I called in a mad panic when I first got called in for the internship interview, so she could help me learn construction industry terms in Portuguese.

I was curious to see what civil engineering school was like in Brazil, so I asked Laize to take me to one of her classes.  She had only one class on Friday, Structural Analysis II.  We got to class a little bit early, and she introduced me to her professor as her Canadian cousin who's studying civil engineering over there. 

About halfway through the class (we were working on sample problems), the professor approached me, and asked which city and university I was at.  It turned out that she'd done some post-doctoral work at U of T, and knew several of my professors!  Her thesis supervisors had been Prof. Collins and Prof. Vecchio.  What a coincidence!  I went to only one class, and it turned out that the prof had not only been to Canada but worked with my profs!

Unfortunately, most of the labs were closed for the holiday weekend, so we didn't get to see too much of the university or meet any more of the staff.   Hopefully, I'll get to do that later on.  Laize is also hoping that she can get me to come speak at one of her classes about green building, which would be really cool.  It seems like the focus of civil engineering in Brazil (or at least at the University of Uberlândia) is more focused on the structural and geotechnical elements, and less on the municipal, transport and sustainability aspects.   Introducing a larger focus on environment and sustainability in the technical fields might be an important next step in greening the brazilian construction industry!

Before a night on the town with my cousins
Left to right: Me, Letícia, Laize and Diana