3.30.2005

8th (and final) dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere

I was so good today, that I'm all packed and ready to leave for the airport an hour before we need to leave! How great is that?

There were a few important things that I had wanted to write about, but hadn't had time to include, so here they are.

I have not mentioned the economic situation in Brazil, which is fairly disasterous. This does not mean that I have not noticed it, or spoken to people about it. Chaim told me that Brazil has 180 million people, only 10 million of whom can afford to buy goods. I heard another number, which is even worse: only 3% of the population can afford to buy things in Brazil. Basically, there is no middle class here. You are either well-off, or you are dirt poor. There is no national health care here, or if it exists, it is very minimal (worse than Medicaid in the US, I think), so I have seen a lot of poor people here with severe disabilities. I actually don't know if it's caused by disease or by malnutrition, but a large percentage of the poor people I have seen on the street here are missing limbs (one or more), or have severe limps. Some of them are blind.

I felt guilty, for awhile, about taking a vacation in a country with so many obviously destitute people, but decided, in the end, that my buying or not buying things here, and my coming or not coming here, would not really affect these people. If anything, I guess it could only help them. But, as Chaim told me, really, all the money here goes to the rich people, who constantly get wealthier, while the poor stay poor.

I spoke with Chaim a lot about the problems in Brazil, and in South America in general. The real question is, "Why, in a country filled with so many natural resources, are so many people so desperately poor?" His basic take on the issue is that everyone is corrupt here, and has been since the country was founded. The Portuguese came and they stole all of the treasures of the country. Everyone after that, who has come to rule Brazil, including the current democracy, has been after only one thing: making as much money as possible off of Brazil. And this money is made off of some combination of the poor people and the vast natural resources here. Labor is incredibly cheap. Peggy told me that people can get a live-in-maid here for between $100-$200/month.

Anyway, that's that. It's very sad, and if I knew what to do about it, I would do it, but I guess that this is the situation in most of South America, and also in parts of Africa and the Arab world. Also, Asia, I assume. Sigh...

I also wanted to write about traveling alone, and traveling in general, and how wonderful it is (the alone part has both pluses and minuses: major plus is that I met a lot more interesting people than I would have otherwise!). But Chaim and Peggy want to feed me one last dose of wonderful, sweet, juicy fruit, so I have to go. Also, cheese. The kosher cheese that I got at the market here is wonderful. (It's not a "kosher brand," like Miller's or Migdal. It's regular cheese that a rabbi goes and supervises and makes sure is rennet-free. Yum!)

Love,
ALG

3.29.2005

7th dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere: odds and ends

Odds and ends...I'm back in Sao Paulo, with my cousins, and have a bit more time to write now.

I'm not sure my earlier description of the agutis that I saw on the Argentinian side of the Iguacu waterfalls did them justice. So, here it is... First I heard a rustling in the underbrush, and it sounded like a kind of large animal. I mean, larger than a bird or a lizard. I looked into the woods, and I saw a streak of brown fur run by. Then another! I saw them twice like that, but I couldn't see what they were at all, although I got a general sense of the size. Then they ran right across the path in front of me, and I realized that one was chasing the other! It was so funny! They were running in a circle, so I saw them cross the path one more time before they disappeared. It didn't even occur to me to try to take a picture, since the whole thing was so suprising, funny, and quick.

I'm kind of glad I didn't--one thing that I learned at the Iguacu waterfalls is that you really *can't* take it with you. What with the rain, and the enormity of the waterfalls, there was no way to even attempt to capture the grandeur of it all on film, so after awhile (of taking photos, before it rained), I contented myself with enjoying the experience itself. In many ways, of course, it was much better that way! Being there was so powerful... I said whatever appropriate brachot (blessings) I could remember to thank God for creating this wonderous world, and for endowing (at least some) people with the wisdom to both preserve it and provide access to it (for people like me, who prefer walking on metal walkways to scaling slippery boulders!), but I quickly ran out and began to compose my own. I don't think I mentioned this before, but when I was waiting for the bus back to Foz do Iguacu after my long, wet day in Argentina, it stopped raining and the sun came out a bit. I thought to myself, "These are perfect rainbow conditions!" I looked around, but didn't see one. Then, a minute later, I saw a HUGE one, stretching across the horizon, with a second, less bright rainbow outside it. It was truly awesome (in the not "awesome, dude!" sense), and the perfect end to a wonderful day!

(Grandmas, don't read this part: Then this tourist of unidentiable origen started weirding me out. He said he was from Morrocco but spent the past twenty years in Australia, but he didn't have an Australian accent at all and he didn't look like he was more than thirty. So I got away from him and spoke for awhile with a very nice woman from France, who spoke excellent English and was in Argentina on business--I think she said that she did marketing for Nestle.)

In more news on the wildlife front, I saw a rather large lizard at the botanical gardens yesterday. It looked like it was about a foot long, or maybe a foot and a half. It was at least ten feet away from me on the path, though, and when I walked quietly towards it, it quickly ran off into the woods. It was all green (or looked all green from that distance), without the brown spotiness of the smaller lizards that I saw all over Igazu. I don't know why, but when it was running, it looked very weird--like it was floating or hovering over the path. I think it lifted its right front and left rear legs at the same time or something. It ran in a kind of light, fluttering motion. So odd!

I also saw two kind of unusual (to my eye) birds at the botanical gardens. They were both the size and shape of a sparrow, I think. One was mostly white with black lines near its eyes, and was very cute. I saw those all over the place. I took a few photos, but don't know if they'll come out. The second was mostly brown, and was slightly larger (more sparrow-like than the white and black bird). It had a bright yellow chest and stomach, though. Like a robin, but instead of red, it was yellow. It was also smaller than a robin.

Re. the Tijuca nature preserve/forest. I had wanted to take this ecological, minimal-impact kind of hiking tour (2.5 hour hike inside the forest) with a group called "Rio Hiking," but they originally didn't think they were going to run a tour on Monday, the day I wanted to go. Instead, I signed up with a jeep tour (also called eco-something, but less hiking than the Rio Hiking people, which would have been my ideal). On Sunday night, the front-desk guy at the hotel said that Rio Hiking had called to say that they were running a group, but it was the same guy who had messed up my previous tour booking (for Sunday afternoon), so I decided to keep it the way it was, rather than risk not getting to go at all.

I'm glad that I did the one I did--I got to see some monkeys and a lot of plants and the tour leader was knowledgeable enough (she didn't know the names of some of the plants, or any of the rocks we saw, but otherwise, was very good--she asked if I was a biologist because I was asking so many questions!). Also, the Rio Hiking tour cost twice as much money and lasted 5 hours, whereas this one was only 3 hours. I was able to spend two hours at the botanical gardens, get off the bus far too early, and still have nearly an hour at the beach. So it probably worked out for the best in the end. Also, I realized on Monday morning that I was getting blisters in new places, and taking a 2.5 hour hike in sneakers (I left my hiking boots in Sao Paulo), would probably have been at least somewhat miserable.

I wanted to buy a book, in English, about the plants, animals, and birds of Brazil, but haven't been able to find one. I have a pretty good one about the plants, animals, and birds from the Igazu area, but that's it. I guess what I would want is one about the plants, etc. of the Atlantic forest region, which includes Rio (and the Tijuca forest, etc.).

So far, since I've been here, I've been asked three, "So, you're an American--can you answer this?" kinds of questions. Unfortunately, I only remember the first and the last one, not the middle one.

(1) The day I arrived, on Friday, 3/18, I was walking back from shul with Chaim, his friend Benny, Benny's friend Eliyahu, and Eliyahu's two kids. I attempted to strike up a conversation with Eliyahu's daughter, who looked like she was in the 7-9 year old range. I spoke Hebrew to her, which she seemed to understand, but she couldn't really speak back, and I hadn't picked up ANY Portuguese yet, so we had some difficulty communicating. I asked her how old she was, and she didn't know how to say the number in Hebrew, so she showed me with her fingers that she was 8. Then she asked me something which sounded like, "Yesh lach ben?" meaning, "Do you have a son?" and I thought maybe she was asking how old I was (you would say "ben kammah atah?" to a male, and maybe she didn't have her gendered Hebrew straight), so I told her I was 25, but that wasn't what she was asking, so then I said no, I didn't have a son, and she wasn't asking that either. So I don't know what she was asking. Anyway, she shyly asked her father something in Portuguese, and he turned to me, and I thought he said, "Halacht b'Pesach l'chayrut?" which means, "Did you go into freedom on Passover?" which made some sense in some philosophical realm, but not in this conversation. I was confused, so he said, "Statue of Liberty" and I realized he had asked, "Halacht b'pessel hachayrut?" So that was the little girl's burning question. I said that yes, I had, in fact, when I was eight years old. She was satisfied. Also, very sweet.

(2) I think the two women I met on the bus from Sao Paulo to Rio asked me some sort of interesting question about life in the United States, but I don't know what it was. If I remember, I will share. I don't think I told you about the bus ride--it was fantastic. My cousins convinced me to spend a bit more and take the first class bus, which has seats that FULLY recline, and also has a refrigerator with bottled water, and fresh coffee in it. Also, they had out a bag of food (including a container of mango juice!) and a magazine when you get on. And the seats each come equipped with a VERY nice pillow (better than my pillow at home, definitely put airplane pillows to shame), and a comfortable blanket. All plastic-wrapped and clean. And there are footrests. It was so comfortable that the 6 hour journey to Rio and the 5 hour journey back passed very quickly.

(3) A man I was sitting next to at the Purim seudah in Rio asked me a question on behalf of his brother, who was sitting at the same table. He asked if, in America, they have separate lines for old people and pregnant women. I was shocked, and said, "No." He said that they did in Brazil, and his brother had been sure they must have the same thing in America. I later understood what he meant. It is one of the few very smart things I have seen in Brazil. When you go to the post office here, or, for that matter, the Brazilian consulate in New York, you get a number and then you sit in a comfortable chair and wait for your number to come up on a screen. Then you get up and take care of whatever. If you're old or pregnant, you get a different kind of number, so you get called up earlier. Smart, no? It makes waiting on line at the post office downright pleasant! This man had a very, very cute daughter, who I found out was 4.5 years old. She didn't speak Hebrew or English though, only Portuguese, and we had a hard time communicating.

Something else funny. I was speaking (English) with the Argentinian people I met at the Corcovado (the ones who helped me find the bus to take to Sugarloaf Mountain). I was talking about my trip in general, and about Foz do Iguacu more specifically. The woman with whom I was speaking said that in Argentina, people say in reference to the different experiences of the waterfalls from the Argentinian side and the Brazilian side: "Argentina makes the show and Brazil puts out the chairs." I concurred.

By the way, when I say that I've "picked up some Portuguese," you might mistakenly be impressed with my language skills. Please, do not! I now understand most numbers from 1-10, I can ask where the bathroom is, for the bus back to a specific place, or how much something costs (but if it costs more than 10 reals, I am kind of lost, and they show me on their fingers!). I can ask for mango juice--just mango, no sugar added! I also know how to say cousin--primero.

One more funny thing about Portuguese, which I can't believe I haven't mentioned yet! They pronounce the letter D like a soft J--like the "s" in "pleasure." So Adina becomes "Adjina," kind of (like Adjeena). I have to say my name is "Adjeena" at the hotels and stuff, or they don't understand that I'm trying to say "Adina." It's quite odd. The word for health is "salud," like in Spanish, but they say "saludj." (Maybe they drop the L, too. I'm not sure. One of the mango-juice sellers asked me if I wanted a sucos do mango salud, which means that they add milk, vitamins, and other stuff--I said no.) An X is pronounced "sh." And "ao" is kind of like "on," except I think they pronounce it "ao." If I'm trying to understand a written word, I substitute "on" for the "ao" and it makes almost perfect sense. I think that there are other things, too. Portuguese looks something like Spanish, kind of, but to me, it sounds a lot like French and Russian. (I think that the Russian is because it has a lot of "tch" sounds in it--most T's are pronounced "tch.") Sometimes it sounds like an Asian language. It has a lot of diphthongs in it.

I think that's it for now. I am very tired (despite having slept for most of the 5 hour bus ride back to Sao Paulo today), and have a lot of (re)packing to do before I leave tomorrow night. Tomorrow, I am going to see Chaim and Peggy's store, Tennis Point (http://www.tennispoint.com.br/, my cousin Chaim/Jayme is the person on the right side in this photo: http://www.tennispoint.com.br/quemsomos.htm), and then we're going out to lunch at a glatt kosher restaurant, the finest in Sao Paulo, according to Chaim. He is also very proud of a place where they import good kosher chocolate from Belgium, so he's taking me there. Maybe in the afternoon, we will go to a park or I will take a nap and/or pack.

Love,
ALG

3.28.2005

6th dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere

This one will be shorter, I promise. I have about ten minutes until the eco-tour people pick me up for a drive through the Tijuca rainforest, and I have fun things to share.

First of all, a trivia question: How does papaya grow? On a tree, like a fruit, or on the ground, like a melon? I was assuming on a tree, but then this morning, it suddenly ocurred to me that it may grow on the ground, like a melon. I am embarrassed that I don't know. Either way, it is totally delicious, and I have been eating two slices every morning that I've been in a hotel in Brazil (six morning so far). I think it may be the first true rival of mango for my favorite fruit of all time. (Poor English, each time I learn a word in Portuguese I seem to forget a bit of English.) For some reason, I thought it was passionfruit for the first bunch of days that I ate it, but I was corrected this morning.

More about Brazilian food: Did I tell you about the national soda? It's called Guarana (accent on final A), and the first time I had it, it tasted very strange to me, and I couldn't tell if I liked it or not. Since then, it has grown on me, and in my current hotel, they serve "natural guarana," which is juice, and may imply that the soda is totally artificial. The soda reminds me of root beer, but is also fruity, and has a slightly sour taste. It's very good. It rivals Coca Cola here, so Coca Cola introduced their own brand of guarana soda, called "Kuat." But because it's Portuguese, you pronounce it "Kwatch." And when it's diet, it's called "Dietch Kwatch." But I've mostly only seen the regular, Brazilian brand of Guarana soda here (called simply "Guarana").

The tour came to pick me up, and now it's this evening...

The jeep tour through the Tijuca forest was fantastic. I saw (wild) monkeys, more coatis, lots of butterflies, flowers, and plants. I have two new favorite plants: umba-umba, which has whitish leaves and which the tour guide said has medicinal properties that cause wounds to close, and this other plant that the native tribes used to use to brush their teeth--it's very rough and funny feeling! I don't remember what it was called. I had hoped to do a more intensive, hiking tour, but that didn't work out for various reasons, and in the end, I'm glad I did this, since I am getting more blisters.

After that, the jeep dropped me off at the botanical gardens, where I spent far too much time and apparently got sunburned. (It was very shady--many tall trees--I'm not sure how I got such a bad sunburn. It's not bad by normal standards--i.e., doesn't hurt at all--but is very red for me.) It was very nice. I saw gorgeous orchids and other fantastic things, most of which were Brazilian (they also had Asian and African plants and trees there).

Something I learned in the botanical gardens: Brazil is the only country named after a tree! I think it's called the pau-brasil, and the Portuguese valued it for it's red insides, which they used to make red dye. Basically, they came and chopped almost all of them down. There are only two pau-brasils left in the entire Tijuca nature preserve, and several more in the botanical gardens. It's very sad. It's a nice looking tree!

After that, I intended to take a bus back to Ipanema, where my hotel is, and then head to the beach. But, typical of me, I got off the bus WAY too early, so I got an unintentional tour of Leblon (the next neighborhood over). It was fine, but I was tired after walking around the botanical gardens for a few hours.

So, the beach. I didn't get there until 4:40, but that was fine, since I was already sunburned. It was very fun. It was 29 degrees Celsius when I got there. (How do I always know the temperature? Every block here has a clock and outdoor thermometer, with an ad inside.) I played around in the water and lay in the sand. I also drank coconut water (like I had at the Hebraica club in Sao Paolo), but straight out of a coconut! Just like in the movies! I didn't stay for too long, though. For one thing, it began to get dark around 5:30-ish, and for another, I got bored pretty quickly. But I had fun playing in the surf for awhile--the water was a perfect temperature, the sand was small-grained, and the waves were very strong. I don't think I've had this much fun at the beach since I was a little kid. (Okay, so I've hardly been to the beach since I was a little kid.)

At the beach, I met some nice Americans who are going on a 33 day cruise around South America. How cool is that! But they spent $800 just go to to Foz do Iguacu, and I did it for, um, less than $200 (airfare, hotel, local buses to get around the area, and entrance fees for the parks). It's a good thing I don't have $600 to waste--their cruise trip sounds like fun!

I hung out at the beach until the sun started to go down, and then I left. I went back to my room to watch TV. I don't really have a TV at home, and normally go to the gym to watch TV, so this has been fun. They dub an awful lot here, and it's a tossup whether it's funnier to watch Homer Simpson speak Portuguese, or Donald Trump. Donald Trump was funnier, I think. I don't spend much time watching the dubbed stuff, since I don't understand it. I've been watching mostly bad movies and "Lei & Ordem." Also, I saw Friends tonight. I'm also watching a lot of the BBC. For some reason, they consider Brazil to be part of Asia--when they announce that there's going to be a show about "your part of the world," it's always about Asia!

Anyway, that's all for now.

Love,
ALG

3.27.2005

5th dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere

Hi everyone,

I'm still in Rio, and I had a fantastic day, even though things constantly keep getting a little bit messed up.

More details about Purim, first.

Purim started out pretty bad. I had tried to get in touch with the Hillel, but I couldn't get through (later I realized it was because I was dialing the Rio prefix from inside Rio, which you don't need to do--I've gotten so used to how things are in the US that it never occurred to me to leave off the Rio prefix when calling from within Rio!), and I was so tired after only sleeping 2 hours last night, that I took a nap. I thought I would just walk over there, planning to arrive by 6:30 pm, which was when I figured megilla reading would be. I decided to walk, because I found the street on the map and it didn't look far. It was far, and it started POURING when I was already a few blocks away from the hotel. Luckily, I had learned a little bit about Brazilian rain, so I had an umbrella on me. Anyway, I basically walked and walked and walked and I was wearing my leather sandals (black) because I stupidly didn't want to wear my heavy-duty Tevas on a chag, and it was so slippery, and I had to walk right through inches of water, and the cars driving by were splashing me, and it was totally terrible. (Don't worry, it was safe--a ritzy residential neighborhood, the most expensive place in Latin America to live. The Hillel director told me it was perfectly safe to walk alone in the area until around 9 or 10 pm. And I definitely didn't look like a wealthy tourist--what tourist in her right mind would be walking in the pouring rain?) I didn't get to Hillel until around 7 pm, after having left the hotel at 5:20-ish. When I got there, I was soaked and had mud and stuff all up my calves. Yucky, really yucky.

In any case, when I got there, I was told that megilla reading was at Bar Ilan, a K-12 Jewish day school in Rio that also contains two or three shuls (one is called "Bnei Akiva") and a meat cafeteria and parve bakery. It's not near the Hillel, so the people at Hillel got me a taxi, and I got there fine. The taxi driver was very nice--he even got out of the taxi and went to the door to make sure it was the right place before I paid him and got out. (Jewish things are totally unmarked in Brazil, like in Spain and other countries with problems of anti-Semitism.) I missed chapters 1-5.5 of the megilla, and even 5.5 to the end was pretty bad, since there was SO much talking, the mechitza was basically a mirror (from both sides, you saw your reflection--I think it was supposed to be a one-way mirror, but it totally didn't work), and the ba'al koreh was not very loud. Basically, that part of my Purim was not so nice. The only fun thing is that someone had brought drums into the shul, and when Haman's name was read, he banged out a very nice rhythm. Brazilians are VERY GOOD at making a lot of noise! (I mean, besides the talking, they also made cool noises around Haman's name, with various instruments and their voices.)

After that, it got very, very nice! I went over to an Israeli-looking woman (turned out she was from somewhere in the shtachim and was on shlichut to Rio from Bnei Akiva). I asked her all my questions in Hebrew--will there be another reading later, will there be a seudah tomorrow, etc., and we spoke for awhile. She complimented me on my Hebrew, as people often do. :) She told me to come to the Purim party, and it was SO much fun! She told me who the rabbi was, and I spoke to him also. He told me to come to the seudah on Purim day at noon.

In my continuing study of head-coverings of religious women in Brazil, at this congregation, everyone seemed to be either wearing a sheitel or not wearing anything on their head. I saw a very few hatted women, and I think that they might have all been Israeli. There was also quite a variety in sleeve length and general covered-ness. Although it tended towards the extremes, somewhat (elbows covered, skirts to ankles, vs. stringy tank tops and short skirts). I was, once again, somewhat out of place in my short sleeves and skirt-just-covering-knees. They were a lot less fancy/fashionable than in the Beit Chinuch shul in Sao Paolo, which was just fine with me. It seems that Rio:Boston as Sao Paulo:New York in many regards, such as wealth and fashion-consciousness of the Jewish community.

Anyway, about the party: The music was good, lots of people were dancing (most of the women dancing looked like they were actually girls, ages 13 to 18 or maybe 20 or so), and it was very festive and fun. There were lots of families and lots of young people, and some middle-aged people, and a handful of older folks. The dancing was really terrific. There was a high mechitza between the men and women (well, high by my standards) who were dancing, and the young girls I was dancing with really let loose in totally fun ways. Brazilians really know how to party. Lots of people were drinking beer, including one boy who looked like he was about 11 years old--he was showing off that he has somehow gotten beer when he wasn't supposed to. Lots of kids were dressed up, and some adults had on funny headbands or wigs or whatever. Anyway, it was great.

Then I went to hear a full kriyah at around 10 pm. The first half was fine, but during the second half, the girls behind me were chatting loudly. I had already kind of heard it before, so it was okay. After that, I sought out another Hebrew-speaking woman to help me call a taxi to take me back to the hotel, since I couldn't do that on my own. I found one pretty quickly, but she didn't have the number for a taxi, and I didn't have a cell phone, and I guess there's no pay phone there. (I later found out that there was--I guess she just didn't have a number--also, she later said that she didn't feel she could put me in a taxi alone, back to the hotel--no good reason why, she was just playing "Jewish mother"--she called me the next day at my hotel and chatted with me for a LONG time, telling me that her three children were all out of the house, and she missed having them around, and I should call if I needed anything...etc. It was very nice of her). She started to ask around, and then she decided to just drive me back to the hotel. But she couldn't figure out how to do that, or something, and all these people were talking about taxi numbers, and driving directions, and stuff quickly in Portuguese all around me. They were also discussing whether I was Israeli or American, and why I was in Brazil, and if I was married or not. (This has been a big question in every Jewish community I've encountered so far in Brazil, once it comes out that I am not, in fact, the 18 or 20 years old that I appear to be, but am, rather, 25. Am I married? Do I want to get married? etc.) I understand a fair amount of Portuguese, between my smattering of Spanish and a few words of real Portuguese that I've picked up. Then another woman, married to an Israeli, insisted on giving me her name and number and said I could call her and she would show me around, but she doesn't live in the area, exactly, so I wouldn't see her on Shabbat. Anyway, then this teenager had a number for a taxi, and so I was just going to do that (I was totally willing to take a taxi after my earlier disastrous excursion in the rain!), but there was some problem, and in the end, another teenage girl offered to take me back to the hotel. Really, she volunteered her parents to drive me back to the hotel.

They were very nice. It turned out that the teenage girl is getting married in a week or two in Sao Paulo. She looked *really* young, and her father said he was 47, but her mother looked like she was 40, tops. I later found out that she was 19, and was marrying a 20 year old. (When I met him later, he looked like he was barely shaving. The whole thing seemed weird to me. They met on a shidduch date.) She was one of the really good dancers at the party. They asked about my plans for Shabbat, and ended up inviting me to their house for Shabbat lunch, which was her Shabbat kallah.

Purim day was much calmer. It was still raining, but I walked to the shul, since I was going to be walking there on Shabbat morning (without a map), and wanted to make sure I could do it with a map first. It was not difficult at all, and took about 30 or 35 minutes. I arrived halfway through shacharit, and the morning megilla reading was much quieter, and then I spoke to the rabbi a bit, and gave him my card, and took care of matanot l'evyonim, machatsit hashekel, and mishloach manot (I went to the only kosher restaurant in town, bought some cookies and jelly beans, and gave them to a guy I had just met). The seudah was very, very nice. Twice as many people showed up as they expected, but it went smoothly. It consisted of rice, black beans and meat, and this powder-derived-from-a-root-vegetable thing that the Shprechers had served me. I still don't get the power thing, but I ate a bunch of it mixed in with the rice, beans, and meat, since there wasn't so much food for everyone.

In the afternoon, I went to a shoe store, where I bought the most comfortable semi-dressy dress shoes I have ever tried on in my entire life. They cost, um, $18.50. Yup. That's Brazil for you. Then I walked back to Ipanema, took a nap, and got ready for Shabbat.

Before Shabbat, I took a taxi to Hillel, where I was going to be eating Friday night dinner. I arrived there around 5:25 or so, with candle-lighting at 5:40. These two young guys were also coming before Shabbat, and they were going to walk me back to Ipanema after dinner. However, dinner wasn't scheduled to begin until 9 pm, so after they arrived, we decided to walk to Leblon, where there was a Chabad, for Friday night services. They promised that it was only 15 minutes away. I was pretty tired (from Thursday night and walking to and from Bar-Ilan on Friday morning), but was wearing Tevas, not black leather sandals, and it wasn't raining too hard, so decided to go. I didn't think it was really 15 minutes, figuring more like 25 or 30, but also assumed that they knew better than I, being from Rio.

It was about 50 minutes. When I got to Chabad, tired and very, very wet, I sat down and promptly fell asleep for all of Kabalat Shabbat. I woke up for Maariv, a little bit, but didn't feel so good. Just really, really tired I guess. Davening took forever and a day. They didn't start kabalat Shabbat until around 7 (candle-lighting was at 5:40), and there were at least three speeches throughout. It is geared towards not-so-religious people who come from work and then go out afterwards. They made kiddush in shul and then handed out what I thought was challah, but was actually "mezonot rolls." I didn't understand any of the speeches (all in Portuguese), and was totally exhausted.

Then we walked back to Hillel--the boys promised that they had a faster way back--which took exactly the same amount of time. By then, I was thoroughly exhausted and was starting to get blisters on my feet. I wasn't really in the right frame of mind to eat dinner with a bunch of American college students, which is what it was. They were so young. One was excited to hear that I was "from New York" because he was from New York and went to school in Seattle and really missed New Yorkers. He was less excited once he found out that I was not actually FROM New York, but rather, from Boston. He expressed both jealousy that I have traveled quite a bit (England, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, France, Israel) and said he wanted to travel a lot, and also said that he was thinking of transferring to school in New York because Seattle was just too "different" for him. Basically, I was tired and knew that I still had a one hour (at least) walk back to Ipanema from the Hillel. I was ready to leave Hillel almost as soon as I got there, but the boys I was with hung out until around midnight, while I sat on a couch, with my feet up, basically whimpering.

At some point during the copious walking on Friday night, I saw a very sad roadkill incident. What looked like an enormous rat (I am open to suggestions of it being something else--I actually kind of thought it looked like an opossum) ran into a busy street and was hit by a car. It survived the first hit, but then it sat, stunned, in the middle of the road, and I turned away before I saw it get totally squashed. So sad! Even if it was a rat! (I mean, it was the size of a small cat, or maybe a huge squirrel. One of the guys I was walking with said he had seen dogs that were smaller, and he didn't think it was a rat. The other guy, who works as a mashgiach, said he had seen rats that size before, and was sure it was a rat.)

Earlier in the vening, we heard what sounded like somebody being strangled, in the bushes near the lake we were walking around. Well, it sounded halfway between someone being strangled and a duck quacking. A very, very strange sound. One of the guys I was walking with said that it was not a duck, but another kind of aquatic bird. Later, I saw some sort of aquatic bird flying up out of the bushes, but I don't know what it was. I couldn't see it very well, but it didn't look like the aninga (?) or whatever it was that I saw at the Iguazu falls. Maybe it looked like a duck. I haven't seen ducks flying, close up, very often at all.

Shabbat morning was better, except that my feet still hurt, so I wore sneakers, and it was, of course, still raining. Also, from Shabbat morning through Saturday night, I had a massive allergy attack, which I later realized was caused by all the time spent in shul, with dust-filled upholstered chairs and books. I'm better now, but for
awhile there, I was almost totally incapacitated.

Shul was very nice, followed by a kiddush for the Shabbat kallah of Jennifer Guterman, the girl who had offered me a ride on Purim night. The kiddush, as every meal I've been to in Brazil, offered much red meat. I have had more red meat since I've come to Brazil than I think I've had in the previous two years, probably. And it's all very good. Even though they eat a LOT of it here. I mean, people were just taking slices of cold cuts and stuffing them into their mouths. It was a bit much for me.

I also had my only Purim 2005 hamentaschen at the kiddush. This Purim was notable in my life for two reasons (aside from the fact that I was in Brazil): I received not a single mishloach manot (as I expected--nobody there knew me), and I ate not a single hamentasch. The ones I had at kiddush were filled with something funny. I later found out that they were filled with guava jelly and peanuts. (It's not exactly guava jelly--it's this kind of sweet thing made out of guava that tastes like concentrated Fruit Roll-ups. I did not like it plain. People eat it with cheese here, to cut the sweetness, but it's still too much for me.) The girl who told me this said that they were usually filled just with guava. She said that poppyseeds are basically unheard of here, and that apricots are very expensive (after I explained that hamentaschen in North America were often filled with one of these two things).

Lunch was fun. I spoke with a lot of Jennifer Guterman's friends, all of whom ranged in age from 19 through 22. They were the girls that I had danced with on Purim night, at the Bnei Akiva party. I spoke Hebrew with some and English with others. It was very nice. Lunch was delicious! I had palmetto pie, as I had the previous Shabbat in Sao Paulo. I think it's kind of like potato or luckshin kugel is in the US. Ubiquitous. Also, of course, there was chulent, preceded by gefilte fish and other traditional Ashkenazi fare. I couldn't figure the family quite out, but it turns out that the mother's father is Moroccan, and the father of the family became a ba'al teshuva through Chabad. They had an interesting mix of Moroccan and chassidish customs. Dessert had three parts, but all of it was traditional Brazilian. There was something I had tasted a few times before, but not been able to identify. It turned out to be egg yolks and coconut. It tastes much better than it sounds. Peggy (cousin Chaim's wife) had told me that the Portuguese made a lot of desserts with egg yolks, because they had traditionally used the egg whites to starch their laundry (you know, to stiffen it).

I hobbled back to my hotel room in Ipanema, and took a long nap. My allergies were horrendous. After Shabbat, and a unique havdalah (used a halogen bulb for a candle, and this wonderful soap provided by the hotel for bsamim--I thought of trying to out to the grocery store in search of real candles and bsamim, but I could hardly walk, or see, and couldn't smell anything anyway!), I went to nightclub to see a traditional Brazilian show, featuring samba, merengue, capoeira, and a Carmen Miranda look-alike. It was totally fun and funny, and I met two nice Americans there. The costumes were amazing, as were the acrobatics.

This morning, I went to the "hippy fair" in Ipanema, where artists were selling jewelry and leather goods. The weather has finally cleared up. I was supposed to take a bus tour to Pao do Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) this afternoon, but the hotel screwed up. Instead, I took a taxi to the Corcovado (tall mountain with a Jesus statue on top and a terrific 360 degree view of Rio), where I met three nice people from Argentina, who helped me get a bus from there to the Pao do Acucar. I got there after dark, so the view from the top of that moutain was a different experience. I'm glad I went to both--I think that Corcovado was a better view, so I'm glad I got to see that during the day. At Pao do Acucar, I met a nice Brazilian guy who was traveling with a Japanese friend of his, and the Brazilian guy told me what I was looking at, which was good, because I probably wouldn't have known otherwise!

The last part of the evening was terrific. I got a bus from Pao do Acucar back to Ipanema, and then decided to go to the bank. On the way back from the bank, I saw a bookstore, and if you know me, you know that I cannot resist a bookstore. Even if all the books are in Portuguese and therefore unintelligible to me. So I went in, and there, I discovered a cute cafe in the back, where three guys were playing live music! It was heavenly. There was a cello, a guitar, and a set of drums. It was so nice. The weather was good (25, not raining!), and so I sat down to write some postcards and listen to the music. It was fantastic. I got some hot chocolate, which was not very good at all. I mean, it tasted like the Stop & Shop store-brand mix from a packet. Yuck. But the atmosphere more than made up for it, and it was the perfect end to a hectic day.

Tomorrow, I am taking a jeep trip through the Tijuca forest, then hopefully going to the Botanical Garden, before heading to the beach. (I haven't been yet), where I hope to drink out of a coconut with a straw. Just like in the movies!

Love,
ALG

3.25.2005

4th dispatch: Happy Purim! (from the Southern Hemisphere)

Hi everyone,

Candle-lighting is in ten minutes, and I'm at Hillel Rio de Janeiro, where I will be eating Friday night dinner. I don't have time to write a full update, but I just wanted to wish everyone a happy Purim (in its waning hours). My Purim was totally fantastic, even though it rained the whole time and I got VERY soaked again last night. Wow. It reall rains here.

On a related note, the showers here are all amazing. I haven't felt water pressure like that since...I don't know. I guess maybe before everyone started installing water-savers in the 1990s. The showers at the Shprechers, at the budget hotel in Foz do Iguacu, and at my currrent hotel in Rio de Janeiro (a very nice hotel in Ipanema, a ritzy, semi-residential neighborhood right near the beach), were all terrific. A good shower is very important when it can easily top 90 degrees and is very humid.

The good thing about all of this rain is that it has lowered the temperature considerably. It's been around 23 or 24 Celsius, which feels like somewhere in the 70s Fahrenheit. I think it's very nice, although every Brazilian with whom I have conversed about the weather has remarked on how chilly it is!

The Jewish community in Rio has been very friendly. I am eating Friday night dinner at Hillel with a bunch of American college students from Washington state, and I got invited to a family I just met for Shabbat lunch tomorrow.

Love,
ALG

3.24.2005

3rd dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere

There's so much that I want to write, and no time! It's nearly 2:30 am here, and I have to get up in three hours to catch a bus to Rio... My flights from Foz do Iguacu were delayed, so I didn't get back here, to my cousins' apartment, until around 11:30, and then I had to eat, unpack, and repack.

So this will just be a brief synopsis of what I've been up to since my last e-mail.

On Monday morning, I flew from Sao Paulo to Foz do Igauca (spelled many different ways, I may or may not be consistent...), via Curitiba. Interestingly enough, in Brazil, a "t" is pronounced "tch," so Curitiba is pronounced Curitchiba. Even more hilariously, the Internet here is called the "Internetch." Maybe that's only funny to me, and probably terribly un-culturally sensitive or something.

When I go to Foz do Iguacu, I went straight to Parque das Aves, a "bird park" near the Iguacu Falls, where they breed birds, including endangered species. I got the sense that they released the hatchlings back out into the wild, but I'm not 100% sure. The two salient features of my visit to Parque das Aves were: (1) I had no idea there were so many different kinds of cool-looking birds--many were gorgeous, some made funny sounds, and some looked like they were straight out of a Dr. Seuss book--I took special note of the bird that kills people by kicking them, and the male of the species incubates the eggs until they hatch! [ed. note: cassowary] (2) It was 35 degrees Celsius during my visit, and around 45% humidity, and there's no place to buy water until you get to the very end. That was terrible. If you ever go when it's very hot out, bring lots of water with you. I had a liter, but that wasn't enough.

On Monday night, I checked into my hotel, and was going to go to Paraguay, but it was too late. Instead, I went to the local supermarket to buy a BIG bottle of water (they only sold little bottles at the hotel). I also bought some Brazilian soda (I forget what it's called, it begins with a G, is kind of the color of cream soda, and tastes like an unidentifiable tropical fruit) [ed. note: Guarana]. Then I watched a terrible movie in my room--I forget what it was called.

On Tuesday, I went to the Argentinian side of the waterfalls. I spent around seven hours there--I could have spent nine or ten without a problem. It was fantastic in every way possible. Just a glorious day. I saw lots of interesting wildlife, including two agutis (rodent-like things) cavorting in the woods, an aninga (looks kind of like a weird goose), a huge lizard thing whose name I forget (not an iguana), a huge ant (I think it's a tiger ant--they're carnivores!), some black and yellow fish, and about a million green spotty lizards. I know the words "aguti" and "aninga" because I bought a book about the wildlife in Igazu today. I also some bamboo, which surprised me (the book said it was bamboo!) because I somehow thought that only grew in Asia. I saw many butterflies, too. Gorgeous shades of orange and red. Wow.

The waterfalls were fantastic also. They're enormous, powerful, and awe-inspiring. I took a boat ride that goes right to the bottom of the waterfalls and gets you soaking wet. I did that at the perfect time--when I was so hot and parched and gross that I almost couldn't stand it anymore. The water was really cold. After the boat ride, I took another boat to San Martin Island, which is an island surrounded by waterfalls on all sides--it's kind of hard to explain. The hiking there is supposed to be more rigorous than the rest of the park, and I was looking forward to the challenge. Then it started to POUR. Just pour. I was already wet, so I didn't really care, and it was kind of fun. It was slippery, though. I let a few people help me up and down rocks... Being wet was fun enough for the first two hours or so. (Riding back to Foz do Igauca on the bus in wet clothes--not so fun!) The rain was also good because it lowered the temperature by about ten or twelve degrees Celsius (a LOT!). Basically, everything about Tuesday was amazing. (AS, your emergency poncho kept my backpack mostly dry. Thanks!)

This morning, I took the bus across the border to Paraguay, just because I could, and besides, how many other times in my life will I get a chance to visit three countries in two days? There is no import tax in Paraguay, so Brazilians cross the border all the time to buy expensive things, and cheap things, too. I bought a leather purse for 30 reals, which is around $12. I don't really have one, and it was fun to speak with the shopkeeper in my broken Spanish (three years of Spanish at Maimonides, but that ended ten years ago, after tenth grade).

After my excursion to Paraguay, I went to the airport, locked up my stuff, and went to the Brazilian side of the falls. From that side, there's a lot less hiking, the people who work there aren't as nice, and, overall, it was a disappointment after the Argentinian side. I was told that would be the case, but I'm still glad I went.

I got kind of mad because there are some nice-looking trails in the Brazilian side of the park, but you can only see them if you pay money to go with a guide. I wanted to go alone, so I could go at my own pace (fast, but observant, quietly, and stopping to look at anything interesting). I don't really like hiking in large groups. The "free" hiking, near the waterfalls, only took about an hour, and then I had nothing to do, so rather than take the bus back to the entrance to the park, I walked along the paved road. That turned out to be fanstastic in its own way. I stopped and listened to the sounds of the rainforest several times (when cars weren't passing me!), and I saw at least five different kinds of wildflowers, three interesting fruit/nut things (one fruit was oval-shaped and the color of a persimmon, there was something that looked like an acorn but with a fleshy bright red top, and there was a round, green, soft nut thing), and I figured out what was making one of the distinctive chirrup-chirrup sounds I'd been hearing since I got to the area. There are these little (maybe 1 or 2 inches long?), wheat-colored grasshopper or cricket-like things. I'm embarrassed to say that I'm not sure I know the difference between those two noble insects. Anyway, it looks like that, and it makes an enormous sound. It blends right into the dead grass undernearth the greener grass.

On a somewhat related note, yesterday, I saw a butterly near some flowers, and the butterfly exactly matched the flowers! How cool is that? It was a pale yellow, and both the color and the shape of the wings/petals matched. The past few days have made me kind of want to be one of those scientists who goes into the rainforest and discovers new species, but then I remember that I hate bugs, and so I drop that idea. Maybe I will try to spend more time outdoors, away from the grit and grime of the city, when I return to New York.

Okay, I really have to go to sleep. I'll be in Rio from tomorrow through Tuesday morning, staying at a hotel one block from the beach! I've been in touch with the Hillel there, and hope to hang out there for Purim and Shabbat. The Hillel is kosher, which is not a foregone conclusion in Brazil.

Some general observations about Brazil before I go:

1. The sun is very, very bright here. I looked at an atlas and saw that New York has a latitude of 41 or something, Israel is around 30, and Sao Paulo is around 20 (south of the equator, though). It's really very striking. It's kind of like the bright light that represents heaven in movies and stuff. The light is just always very bright here.

2. Chocolate does not do too well in 35 degree Celsius weather. Especially in a black backpack.

Love,
ALG

3.23.2005

you were right!

Dear Sarah,

The natural bug spray is crap. I should have bought the most toxic thing possible. I have tons of bug bites on my legs and one on my right hand, AND I forgot to bring anti-itch cream with me. I am going back to Sao Paulo tonight to spend the night with my cousins, and will ask them how to say "anti-itch cream" in Portuguese.

Otherwise, I am having a fabulous time. Must go pack and check out of hotel.

Love,
ALG

3.20.2005

2nd dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere

Dear Family and Friends,

I like writing these updates, and I hope you like reading them. If you want to be taken off the list, please let me know, and I will! This is much more fun than writing everything down in my journal by hand... After I leave my cousins (Monday morning), I think there will be fewer updates. They have, I think, two computers for four people here, and they told me to go on the Internet as much as I wanted--not sure they knew how often that meant! I have a lot of down time in Sao Paulo, so there's time to write. You are hereby warned that this is a very long e-mail. I am a woman of words, as they say.

I also have another introductory note--a lot of this "edition" will be about Shabbat and my brief impressions of the Jewish community here. Also, some will be about my cousins. I thought about doing separate updates, but decided not to, and you can feel free to utterly ignore what doesn't make sense, or ask me about if after I return to the US.

When I last left you, I was changing into sandals. This was all after Peggy (Chaim's wife), Stefanie, and Natasha (their daughters, ages 19 and 17, both of whom study at a local university) came home and I met them. The whole family is SO nice. After they all came home, they made me a Brazilian lunch of rice and beans, which is pretty much what I eat anyway--I loved it! They also made this weird thing that tasted kind of like spinach--I think it's called "couve," which sounds like "koovah" or "kovah" or something. There's this powerdery stuff that they put on the rice and beans and couve (?)--it's made out of some kind of a large root vegetable, and has no particular taste. It sort of adds body to the food, I guess, but it just made mine taste kind of gritty--not in a bad way, it just didn't add anything special for me. They're pretty into healthy food. Peggy said she would be happy to make me brown rice, when I told her that I liked it. I gave her one of my rye crackers to try (part of the warehouse of kosher food I brought from the US), and she liked it and said that they can't get things like that in Brazil.

After writing the first dispatch, I went to the small kosher food store in their neighborhood, and I bought cheese, yogurt, and other stuff like that (Bisli, since it was there). Then, we went to this gourmet supermarket (maybe like Citarella in NY? not sure--like Fairway, the upstairs is all healthy foods). Maybe it's more like Bread & Circus in Boston, or I guess it's now Whole Foods. Spotlessly clean, beautifully arranged produce, etc. A lot of the food here seems to be either banana- or guava-flavored. For example, there were several kinds of banana cookies at the grocery store. There's also a lot of stuff made out of coconut. I may try to bring some guava jelly back to the States, if I decide that I like it. I don't think I know how guava tastes... Peggy bought me about 5 or 6 different kinds of fruit that I have never seen before in my life! We only bought Brazilian fruit--there were also a lot of imports from Peru, Columbia, etc., but she sniffed at those and said that they were "exotic" and "strange," so we didn't get them. (They may have been expensive--dividing by 2.6 is not my strong point!)

We bought cashew fruit! The fruit is bright red and soft, shaped kind of like a bell pepper or a square-ish apple, and it has a little cashew attached to the top, wrapped in a green pod! I had a taste feast for seudah shlishit yesterday afternoon, and the cashew fruit is very curious-tasting. They said it did something funny to your mouth, and both Peggy and Stefanie were trying to explain what they meant, but failed in their limited English, and what they meant is this: It leaves a funny, chalky aftertaste in your mouth. I really, really liked the jaka ("j" like the "s" in pleasure). It smells very sweet, and tastes kind of like banana--just sweet, but not too sweet. Delicate, aromatic. It has the texture of, maybe, um, a bell pepper? Kind of slippery. I also had fresh papaya, and funny fruit that looks like a grape tomato but has a big pit inside and is sour, and I also had raw sugar cane. Of all of those things, the jaka and cashew fruit were my favorite. At one point in the first day or so, I also had mango, which was the best mango I've had in my life, including in California, in Israel, etc. (In NY, mangos come shipped hard and green from Mexico and then slowly become soft, mushy, and sweet on the grocery store shelves.) This mango was firm, and sweet, and juicy. Not stringy at all. I also had fresh pineapple, also probably the best I've ever had. 100% sweet, not sour at all, juicy. Wow.

On Friday night, I went to a nearby shul with Chaim (who wore a black velvet kippa, which is funny if you know him, I think). It turned out to be Chabad. Everyone was very nice--I spoke Hebrew with a sheitel-wearing woman. I had to ask her if they said the additions for winter or summer in the amida--it only ocurred to me as I got to it that it was actually summer here, but winter everywhere halacha was written (at least until the past few hundred years). And I've never been in the Southern Hemisphere before, so I'd never thought about it. She looked at me like I was crazy when I asked, and said, "Of course, choref, like Yerushalayim." This particular woman shared my siddur for kedusha, because she didn't have her own siddur, because instead of davening, she was reading tehillim. Even though she was sitting in the shul during mincha (which was definitely after sunset, but I guess chasidut was created to break rules like that) and maariv.

Everyone at "Beis Menachem" was either wearing a sheitel and pretty Lubavitch-looking, or wearing slacks and pretty not-so-frum looking (based on my probably irrelevant American standards). Miriam, everyone except the rebbetzins was talking a lot, and loudly, like in Spain! They come to shul to socialize--I can respect that! It didn't really bother me--I think only one or two of the non-Chabad women could daven in Hebrew (the rest were reading the Portuguese side of the siddur). [Aside: It's funny that people complain so much about talking in shul in the US (I complain, too). I think that the US has the quietest shuls outside of Israel. (I wonder if that is because of the influence of the Christian church model of prayer, or because of the German influence--I assume that yekkes talk less in shul?) At least in the US, the talkers make an attempt at whispering--here, there was outright talking.]

Davening itself was interesting. I couldn't see through the trellis + fake leaf mechitza at all, but from listening, it seemed that one shaliach tzibur was a young Lubavitcher, one seemed to be a 90-year-old man from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and several loud congregants seemed mizrachi. They read all of Shema out loud, like in a mizrachi shul, and, in the 3rd paragraph, said "tzitzit" with a very strong TH at the end--"tzitziTH." There were other mizrachi influences as well. It was neat. The older rabbi (there are two there, and he isn't old at all, but the younger one looked like he was 30, tops) was American, but Chaim said that these Lubavitchers come to Brazil and learn Portuguese (how do you spell that?) like natives. Both rabbis spoke, and the mechitza was open when they spoke. When the younger one spoke, he studiously avoided looking at the women's section. His speech, which I gathered to be a synopsis of hilchot taanit esther and Purim, was rather "eh." The older rabbi was more dynamic and looked at the whole room when he spoke, which I liked better. Also, he gave more of a drash. I kind of got what he was talking about, but have no recollection now.

Chaim saw his friend Benny at Chabad, and he invited him back home for Friday night dinner. (Chaim knew Benny in Israel, and it was Benny's brother Jaques who helped get Chaim papers to live in Brazil.) After Benny made kiddush for us on the kosher wine that Chaim had bought specially for me ("sacramental" wine, it said on the bottle, and it was very, very sweet--Chaim told me that for me, he got only the best), the whole Shprecher family, plus Benny, ate Friday night dinner together, and then Stefanie and Natasha got dressed to go out. Benny is frummer than Chaim and family. I knew he was really frum because he walked up all 14 flights of stairs with me! (Peggy couldn't believe I would do such a thing, but I promised her that it was not a big deal because I'd had Shabbat lunch on the 17th floor just the week before in NY. Since I've been going to the gym, 14 or 17 flights isn't FUN, per se, but it isn't hard. It was harder when I walked up all 14 flights the next day, at around 3 pm, when it must have been around 85 degrees out, and their apartment isn't air-conditioned. I mean, they have wall units, but they weren't turned on and I wasn't going to.)

Friday night dinner was fun. I brought them a babka from New York (Green's, for those in the know), and they all LOVED it! Chaim told his kids, "This is a REAL Jewish cake." Benny first thought we got it at the local kosher store, and couldn't believe how good it was, but then I told him that it came from New York. It turns out that Chaim loves basically everything sweet, and Peggy and the two daughters love chocolate. People after my own heart! So it was a big hit, even though it was totally smooshed from the suitcase.

On Saturday, Chaim went to work, so Peggy walked me to "Beit Chinuch," a complex with two synagogues and a school for 800 students in k-12. It is very difficult to get into Beit Chinuch without someone like Chaim, who studies Gemara there twice a week, and whom the guards therefore know. They didn't know Peggy at all, and since the bomb in Argentina, Chaim told me that security has been very tight all over South America (in the Jewish communities). Peggy had to basically list the rabbi and everyone else she knew before they would let us in. If I had been there alone, I would not have been able to get in at all.

I couldn't see the men's section at all (trellis with gauzy fabric over it). In fact, I couldn't really hear much either, so except for Parshat Zachor, kedusha, and when I was davening, I people-watched. Like Chabad, there was a LOT of talking. But this was, overall, much frummer. Every woman there was wearing sleeves to halfway between elbow and wrist, and every woman over 18 or 19 (maybe 20) was wearing a sheitel. A very nice sheitel. I don't have much experience with sheitel-wearing women, but it seemed that these sheitel-wearing women were wearing brighter clothes, shorter skirts, thinner stockings, and lower necklines than in, say, New York or Jerusalem. That makes sense--if you are going to wear a sheitel in humid, 85 degree weather, you have to take something off, somewhere! Or maybe they were just more modern than American and Israeli sheitel-wearing women tend to be. What I'm trying to say is that they weren't frumpy. I noticed a lot of freckled red-heads, and strawberry blonds in the shul. Peggy also has that coloring. Her mother came from Austria, and I wondered if there was a large Austrian community in Sao Paulo and if they have more redheads than your typical Russian- and Polish-heavy New York or Boston Jewish community. There were not enough siddurim for the women, so one woman somehow signaled to her husband, who brought some over. There were a LOT of kids running around. Most were not in shul. I think maybe some more came in for parshat zachor. All the little boys, including the ones with long peyis/peot and velvet kippas, white button-down shirts, etc., were playing a rowdy game of soccer (futbol). It looked like fun.

The most astonishing thing about the shul was that people started leaving, en masse, long before services were over. Mostly women left after zachor. After kedusha of musaf, nearly the whole shul got up and walked out! I couldn't really hear what was going on, and was kind of confused. I thought, "Maybe they sped through the rest of chazarat hashatz and don't do aleynu, etc. here?" By the time I finally ascertained that shul was over, it was me, two other women, and barely a minyan of men. And the shul was BIG, and fairly full for Zachor. I went to kiddush, me and the rabbis, and when I got there, the room was FULL of people eating already! There were no chairs, cups, or food left at the women's table (separate seating kiddush, of course), and only enough room for the 10 last men at the men's table. I took someone else's seat and met a nice American woman who married a Brazilian man who imports cameras from the Far East, or maybe he manufactures them in Brazil.

Benny had said that he might be able to arrange lunch for me. Otherwise, I was going to go back to the Shprechers, where I had two challot, some wine, and new and interesting cheeses and fruit yet to try. He found a couple he knew, where the wife was American, and Benny and I went to lunch there. (Benny is a real mensch, and funny. He told me some amusing stories about Chaim and Peggy, and really likes to talk about how fabulous Australia is.) These people--Roberto and Malka--had an enormous, gorgeous apartment. Very swanky in a tasteful way. Everything was beautiful. (Mollie and Imma would have particularly liked it, I think.) Roberto imports (legal, for medicinal purposes) drugs into Brazil, which is apparently a good business. (Everyone I met in the Jewish community imports actual products into Brazil, or imports designs and then manufactures them in Brazil. Also, there are a number of bankers.) Malka was very nice. The wine was *fabulous*. I think it was from Chile. I had "palmetto pie," in addition to the usual chulent and potato kugel. I guess it as made out of palm, but I didn't really understand how they turn a palm tree into a delicious pie. For dessert, I had this papaya creamy thing (made out of soy, I guess). It was incredibly rich and tasted like heaven.

Our conversation during lunch was very interesting. I don't know how we got into this at ALL (this type of thing always seems to come up when I'm around), but it came out that I had studied Talmud for quite a few years (6 years in day school, one year in Israel, on-and-off during college). Someone asked me, I kid you not, "Don't you find, as a woman, that the Talmud is too abstract for your practical, women's brain?" Or maybe it was more like, "Jeez (but not that word), didn't you just hate learning Talmud because you're a woman and women are better at concrete things than abstract things?" And I said, "No, I actually loved studying Talmud, and found that it suited my brain just fine." The husband was kind of incredulous and he was going to bring something difficult from Nedarim to stump either me or my wife (that part was a bit unclear), and while he was gone, I explained to the wife (Malka) why studying mishna and Talmud was interesting, and how it helped one understand how we got from what is written in the Torah to what we observe today. She admitted that she had studied Talmud for a semester at Bar Ilan, but I was not to tell her husband-- he didn't know. She thought it was just fine to study Talmud. Someone else said, "But it's assur for women to learn Torah sheh baal peh" and I launched into my canned speech (haven't had to give this one since around 1998, when the poor yeshiva boy sharing my El Al flight back from Israel hardly knew what hit him). About how women used to be restricted to Yiddish translations of stories from the Bible, and how the Chafetz Chayim wrote a heter for beis yaakov permitting women to study things like Pirkei Avot, and Rashi, too, I suppose, and how many women learn Torah shebaal peh now, etc. They were interested. It was fun. We moved into an interesting discussion about the last aliya of parshat vayikra, which includes psukim that are directly (or nearly directly) quoted in bava metziah, and then Benny gave a very nice drash about Megillat Esther. It was good to be challenged. Very good. Downright fun, I daresay.

After that, I went back to the Shprechers' apartment, walked up 14 flights (the equivalent of 16 American flights, since there is a ground floor before the first floor and there is a 13th floor--apparently a lucky floor to live on in Brazil), and took a long, sweaty nap. God, it's hot here. Chaim warned me, before I came, that it would be the beginning of the fall and therefore "not so hot," and I, in turn, told him that New York was "not so cold" anymore... It turns out that Brazilians think 5 degrees Celsius is very cold, and this American, at least, thinks that 80 degrees
Fahrenheit is pretty hot.

I read some of my Portuguese phrase book, and then Shabbat was over. I went to an ice cream and cake store that had recently opened, and I put figs on my ice cream! That's a normal thing to do here, apparently. I saw some enormous fresh figs in the grocery store, by the way.

Then, Chaim and Peggy and I all went to a party of friends of theirs, in a huge, opulent apartment. They brought in 12 kitchen staff to cook and serve everything, and there was free-flowing wine, vodka, whisky, and this weird Brazilian soda that tastes like nothing I've had before in my life. Chaim told me that there were three heads of banks there. The whole thing was very interesting. Chaim seems very interested in having me try new things, have new experiences, etc., so I turned to Peggy to help me avoid eating, um, very non-kosher things. It was a totally surreal experience in every way possible. Bizarre. My first, and maybe only, interaction with the hopelessly rich. I didn't know anyone there except for Chaim and Peggy, and also Chaim's friend Jaques (Benny's brother) and his wife Ilana (I think). I spent a lot of time watching people. I don't know much from face lifts and other plastic surgery, so I spent some time studying people's faces and hands and picking out the ones who had had plastic surgery. There were many men wearing "chai" necklaces, and the hosts had four or five beautiful megilla cases, three etrog boxes, and maybe four bsamim cases, all ornate and in silver. And people were heaping milk and meat onto their plates. Together. I guess it's not so weird, but the combination of super-rich, treif Arab food, and super-identifying with Jews and Judaism was odd. Also, there was a scantily-clad young woman doing Arabic dances at the end. First, solo, then with men (one at a time), then with a bunch of women. Everyone looked like they were having a fabulous time, but I found the whole thing kind of bizarre and fairly distasteful. I don't think it was Peggy or Ilana's style, either, and they were being a little bit snarky, which was fun. It was an interesting experience overall.

This morning, we went to this huge Jewish club, called Hebraica. I didn't understand what it was before I got there, but I guess it's like a country club for Jews, in the middle of the city. Security was very strict. Inside, there were five swimming pools, two or three tennis courts, two soccer fields, an athletic club with aerobics classes, maybe ten restaurants (one was kosher, but if you ask for "kasher" at the Japanese restaurant, they won't give you anything without fins and scales), a walking track, an olympic gymnastics center, a volleyball court, a bank, a synagogue, a theater for shows, a movie theater, and several playgrounds. It kind of looks like a small, well-tended kibbutz for fitness freaks. There were sheiteled Jews there, with all manner of kippot and tzitzit in various stages of hanging out, but mostly just a LOT of non-identifiably-Jewish Jews. Maybe it was like a JCC on crack. In any case, it was gorgeous and Peggy and I walked around the track for about twenty minutes. While we were there, I had "coconut water," which is what comes out of a coconut when you impale it on a stake and poke a hole in the other end! It was amazingly refreshing, and a little bit sweet. Yum. Ater we left Hebraica, Peggy took me to a mall, because I was curious--it was nothing special, except that it was AIR-CONDITIONED! Which was fabulous. Not crazy air-conditioning, like you have a wear a jacket, but air-conditioned enough so that you don't need to constantly be guzzling water, as I have been. At the mall, I tasted coconut and dulce de leche ice cream. Peggy promised it would be good, and it was.

It was 32 degrees Celsius today--that's about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I was stupid and didn't put on sunscreen before leaving the house this morning, and after about 20 minutes at Hebraica, I realized that my skin was frying. I slathered on sunscreen from head to toe (especially toe--my feet hadn't seen the light of day since August or September). It was SPF 30, and Peggy told me she never wears anything less than SPFD 60!

Tomorrow morning, I'm flying to Foz do Iguacu. I was going to take the bus, but because a bridge fell down, the bus would have taken 16 hours each way. The flight is pretty cheap, and Peggy also made reservations for me at a budget hotel in town there. I'll be back in Sao Paulo for Wednesday night, and early Thursday morning I'm taking a bus to Rio.

Love,
ALG

3.18.2005

first dispatch from the Southern Hemisphere

Dear Family and Friends,

I have safely arrived in Brazil. It was a little crazy finishing up my annotated bibliography, packing, going to class in Queens (on St. Patrick`s day in NYC no less!), and making it to the airport, but it worked out fine. The flight was nice--I think I even slept for about 6 hours. I wanted to watch the movies on the little TV but was too tired. I sat next to some nice Russian ladies, who, when I asked where they were from (after hearing a foreign language and an accent but somehow not connecting it to Russian, which is weird), said, "We`re from here, from New York."

Anyway, I got here and cousin Chaim picked me up. They are going out of their way to make Shabbat and the kosher food situation nice for me. I have to sign off now because I have to go to the kosher food store before it closes (before Shabbat). But first, I have to change into SANDALS! Because it is humid and in the mid-70s here and it feels great! First impression of Brazil is that it is a lush, green place.

Love and Shabbat shalom,
ALG