Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Safe as houses.

Security is big business out here. A lot of people spend a lot of money on making sure they and their possessions are as safe as possible. Bullet-proof cars, alarms, cameras, motion sensors, electric fences, bars, railings, locks, walls... the list goes on. In a previous post I detailed the various security systems we have here in what is, in truth, a very modest house for this area but there are some truly enormous mansions around us, bristling with cameras and fences and some even boasting their own permanent on-site security guards. Sadly, we're not in that league so we have to make do with the street guards.

I first came across the concept of street guards back in England. We were trying to decide whether we should be looking for a house or an apartment to live in and the issue of security was high on our list of concerns. Apartment blocks out here are all gated, with a doorman on duty around the clock and so are obviously more secure than a house. Unfortunately, there just aren't many apartment blocks within walking distance of the school and as that was our top priority, we found the decision made for us. A house it was going to be. But not to worry, we were told, as all the streets in the area we would be living in were patrolled by guards from private security firms. All we had to do is pay a monthly fee and that would be our security taken care of.

Now, when I think of security guards I imagine something like this.

These are the guys who stand guard outside the local shopping centre. You can't actually see his gun because it's on the other side of him, but they all carry them and I'm sure they know how to use them. A couple of these guys patrolling the street at night is going to be a fairly good deterrent for any but the most dedicated of electric fence dodgers. Sadly, this is not what we get. What we get is the brave lads of the Vigilância Noturna Particular de São Paulo. These guys don't need guns, or body armour, or a fancy uniform... or training... or even the physique of a mildly competent athlete. It seems to be that you qualify for guard duty as long as you're male and of a reasonable age - and one or two of the guys near us are clearly way over-qualified on that score.

The street guard's base is his box. You see them dotted around all over the place, but especially at junctions, and this is where everything happens. There is space inside for one person to sit, with a shelf for storing the few items the guard will need - some magazines, a portable water filter and container, somewhere to write invoices. Sometimes, that's all you'll get, but on occasion the guards will have made a real effort, especially if their clients are generous. I've seen boxes with carpet, a nice swivel chair, somewhere to hang your jacket, and there's even one box I pass every day going to and from school that has its own power supply and a small television set up in the corner. Now and then I see one or other of the guards sitting watching TV, but more often, two of them have squeezed in together and are busy playing FIFA 2010 on a Playstation.

But no toilet facilities. I can only imagine that one of the nearby houses allows them access to their maid's quarters or something, because these guys work long, long hours. On our street we have José, Miguel and Cristiano although there are at least two others I see regularly who must be cover of some sort. They're already there when I walk the boys to school at seven o'clock in the morning, and they're still there when I put out the rubbish at nine at night. I can only assume they're there for most of the night as well as that's presumably the whole point of Vigilância Noturna.

And our boys are in pretty good shape too. I'm not sure how well they would do against a gang of dedicated burglars, but they can certainly nip up and down the road on their old bicycle quick enough when they have to. No sitting around playing computer footie on our street! And whenever they see us heading home, they will always wander down and stand around while we let ourselves in just for a bit of extra reassurance (or possibly to prove to us that they are actually doing something for their money).

But a good street guard is so much more than a walking anti-theft device. They're always around, so they can take delivery of items that are too big for the letterbox. They can pass on messages and, although we haven't tried this one yet, I'm sure they would run errands for us if we needed them to. When we first arrived at the house, it was José who had the keys and let us in and our landlord was clearly happy enough with this arrangement. And as I detailed in the previous post, they will even help park you car for you. Who could possibly ask for more?

Finally, and slightly off topic, I want to tell you about two more home security systems I've come across and which are widely used in our area. The first is kind of obvious really.

Yes, the good old guard dog. This guy is the scariest one I could find and he seems to delight in running backwards and forwards along the length of his property every time I pass by, barking madly from the moment he sees me until I'm away round the corner. Fortunately, there is a fence between us because as loud as he is, I'm quite sure his bark is still nowhere near as bad as his bite. But he's the exception. Most of the dogs whose noses I see poking out through gates and fences are nothing like as fearsome. They're bored, lazy or pathetically old or small. They can generally bark a good bark if they put their mind to it, which they like to do in unison at about two in the morning, but I'm not sure they're much of a deterrent.

And then there's this.

I've no idea what it's called, and I don't know if it's unique to Brazil or as common as anything back in England as well, but I've certainly never seen it before. Which is no surprise really as no one in their right mind would have anything to do with it. It's really just a tangle of thick ugly stems covered in vicious spiky thorns with the occasional handful of pathetic petals dotted about so you can tell it's actually a plant and not some variety of barbed wire. People use it as a hedge along the front of their property so that even if you were stupid enough to want to climb up the wall and risk the electric fence, you can't get anywhere near it without slicing yourself to pieces first.

Here you can see a fully-developed hedge. It sprawls menacingly over six foot of a seven foot-wide pavement and as no one seems to be doing anything to keep it in check, I'm quite sure it will be forcing us to walk on the road soon enough... which is, I have to admit, a pretty good way of keeping people off their walls.

Sometimes, I really miss front gardens.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Double Busy

Half Term. And for me, the joy at not having to be up at six o'clock every morning stayed with me until, oh, Wednesday afternoon or so, by which time the constant nagging of two stir-crazy children had tipped the pleasure scales enough to make me wonder whether a week's holiday was just too long. I can't blame the children too much though, they've had fairly limited input from their parents for much of this week as it's been mild chaos here for the past few days.

We began last Saturday with the setting up of our home office. We have a garden room at the end of our long driveway and for various practical and financial reasons, Helen has decided to abandon her unnecessarily distant and over-cluttered office for the much more cosy and accessible home variety. Saturday was the day of the move, and as is usually the case out here, we began the day with a wait, abandoning our usual Saturday morning trip to Emporio Santa Maria so we could be here when the furniture van arrived mid-morning. It arrived mid-afternoon.

The first order of business was something I'd been dreading for a while and that was to move our car out of the way. It was the first time I'd sat in it since we got it, the first time I'd driven for four months and the first time I'd driven an automatic at all. Still, even I could cope with driving it out onto the road and parking it, although there was a lot of juddering and growling involved. Sadly, a couple of hours later once all the furniture was in, I had to put it back where it came from. Now, for most of you, this would probably have been no problem. After all, reversing round a 90 degree corner, up a ramp and into a narrow entrance between two huge walls is the kind of stuff you do all the time - and some of you, I know, can even do it with a 40 ft trailer attached.

Sadly, I can't. Not effortlessly anyway. After about five minutes, I'd made it up the ramp at least and had attracted an audience in the process. Behind me I had Helen, the boys and Angela, our cleaner. In front was Miguel, one of our street guards, and his weekend assistant. And if I'd been hopeless before, adding performance anxiety to the mix really made things much, much worse.


It had to happen sooner or later. Fortunately, it was only the huge and conveniently-placed plant pot and not the side of the house. There were squeals of delight from behind me, and knowing shakes of the head from in front. So, back down the ramp, straighten up, try again... and again... and again. Then the advice started. "You're too close. Go the other way. Turn the wheel the other way. You need to straighten up. MIND THE WALL!" Then Miguel wandered over, leant in through the window and started turning the steering wheel for me, motioning with a nod of the head that everything was fine now. "NO IT ISN'T!" from behind. So, back out, back in, back out, back in. And finally I was there, safe and sound without so much as a single chunk of plaster out of either wall and nothing more than a scratched bumper on the car.

Humility is such a wonderful thing. I thanked Miguel for his help and with a happy smile thought of the immense joy I'd brought to so many people on what would otherwise have been a typically dull Saturday afternoon.

So after all that excitement, what better way to come back down to earth than to spend the rest of the weekend moving furniture and unpacking boxes. To be honest, after the initial placing of desks and bookshelves there wasn't much for me to do so I went back to letting the kids make fun of my parking skills while Helen got to wade her way through several years' worth of old books and magazines which no longer had a home and which probably should have been put out to pasture a long time ago anyway.

By Sunday evening, it was actually looking quite cosy. The only thing missing was a phone line and an internet connection but these would, apparently, be easy enough to arrange and sure enough, one week later, we're already halfway there, having had five visits from three men from two different companies in the space of four days. All of which, of course, involved at least one of us having to stay in the house and prevented the kids from being taken to anywhere more interesting than the supermarket.

And then, on Thursday, I was ill again. This time it was what I'll just describe as digestive issues, but it kept me in bed for the whole day and enabled Helen to get in some interesting conversational portuguese practice with not one, but two, different pharmacists. Yes, I'm better now - thanks for the concern - but I can no longer wear my shorts without a belt. It's a somewhat extreme form of dieting, but some consolation I suppose.

But the week was saved by Tuesday which was Dia das Crianças, or Children's day. It's a bit like Mother's Day but much more of a big deal. It's a public holiday for a start and although schools and banks and offices are closed, toy shops and restaurants aren't. As there wasn't too much Helen could do on a public holiday, we decided to have a family day and although it began with a reasonably long walk, the kids didn't object as there were treats promised along the way.

We began by heading off to my favourite juice bar for some açaí and fresh grape juice. By chance, there was a little jungle-themed adventure area which had been set up for kids right beside it, so Helen and I got to sit in the sunshine and enjoy some civilised conversation while David ran wild with some soft toy animals and James, being far too grown up for such childish games, made a few paper aeroplanes.

For lunch we went to the cafe next to Helen's old office so she could let James have a try of the "fatty salty sandwich" (melted ham and cheese) she would be saying farewell to from now on. David, suspicious as always, joined me for some pão de queijo.

After that we were obliged to make good on our promise of toys. Buying toys out here is tough. Everything your children are likely to have heard of will have been imported, and everything imported has had to go through this strange process which trebles its price and no matter how hard I try, I just can't bring myself to spend £250 on a Lego set, even if it is based on The Prince of Persia. Still, it was Dia das Crianças and there's only so many times you can say "no, not that one, find a cheaper one" to a desperate child, so we gave in and forked out and came away with a handful of characters from Thomas the Tank Engine and and an impressive collection of Gormiti (a group of elemental warriors whose powers include the ability to suck money out of your wallet, to materialise underneath bare feet on staircases and a mind-control power which seems to compel children to sing their praises incessantly until their parents' brains turn to jelly).

But when all's said and done, we survived the week and even enjoyed bits of it along the way - especially those bits which didn't involve a toilet. And this weekend brings with it out three-monthaversary. Yes, it really has been three whole months since we said goodbye to Cambridge and began our new adventure out here. Most days it seems like much, much longer, but we can certainly give ourselves a collective pat on the back for all the things we've achieved so far. Helen has been nothing short of a human dynamo, the kids have been amazing in adapting to their new life and I have... well, I've kept us all fed and watered and made sure we all get up on time.

And I get to be the one to tell you all about it, which is perfect.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

These are a few of my favourite things... eat and drink out here in Brazil.

If you ever visit a country that has endured long periods of poverty in its past (and let's face it, most countries have) be wary of sampling that ubiquitous dish which is accompanied by the phrase, local delicacy or worse still, national dish. It will almost certainly involve the least aesthetically pleasing organs from the local beast of burden served up on a bed of congealed carbohydrate of indeterminate origin. In Brazil it's called feijoada and is a stew of beef and pork products and beans, commonly served with rice. I have no intention of going anywhere near it.

But then I have no intention of going anywhere near a lot of things. Partly because our kitchenware and crockery are still in a container in the nearby port of Santos, and partly because I'm a fairly lazy chef at the best of times, our diet out here has been somewhat straightforward and monotonous for the past three months. We eat a lot of pizza, a lot of scrambled eggs and a lot of rice-and-prawn-mush. Which is sad really, seeing as how one of the major attractions of São Paulo is supposed to be the huge variety of international food on offer here. If you want it, local delicacies included, there's bound to be a restaurant serving it out there somewhere.

But we don't eat out. Well Helen does, very often, and in some of the nicest and poshest places around, but that's because she has to go and meet people in these sorts of places for work and I'm sure it's nowhere near as nice when you're having to interview people between mouthfulls. But as a family, we generally don't bother eating out because it's just too much grief. Firstly, I'm a teetotal vegetarian - not ideal in a land of wine and beef. Added to this is the fact that I have the most unadventurous palette imaginable. I've seen rare steaks with more life in them than my taste buds. As for the children, David is very much of the "What is it? Don't like it!" school of dining and will happily eat anything at all as long as it's bread. James, on the other hand, is like Helen. He really will eat anything, especially if you have to drain the blood from it first, or if you can still see the suckers on the tentacles. Sadly, he only enjoys going to places he can actually see from the house and for him, a walk of more than five minutes is really not worth the food at the end of it.

Even if we never eat out though, I have managed to add a few local items to my limited diet. First off is watermelon. It's certainly not unique to Brazil, but it's as cheap as anything and available all year round. I buy a quarter of a watermelon every couple of days and we have it for breakfast every morning. Yum.

Pão de queijo (pan dje kay-joo) or cheese bread is my standard lunch. 200g is a modest helping, so I tend to go for 300g and shovel it in. If you're lucky and get it at the right time, it's deliciously warm and light and fluffy. When it's cold it gets a bit chewier but it's still fabulous. You can get it pretty much anywhere and although I tend to buy it in the local supermarket for convenience, most cafés do it better. Surprisingly, the best I've tasted so far was at a tiny food counter at the local headquarters of the Federal Police while I was waiting for my paperwork to be processed. Possibly it wasn't actually as good as I remember, but by the time I got to eat it, I'd been there so long anything short of the paperwork itself would have tasted great. Anyway, here's a photo of the supermarket variety, artfully displayed on a plastic plate as our proper plates are sitting in a container... you get the idea.

And of course you need something to wash it down with. In Brazil, the soft drink of choice is Guarana, a mild-flavoured fizzy drink which contains enough caffeine to make coffee seem like a nice bedtime drink. Apparently, Brazilians drink more of it than they do Coke which perhaps explains why no one seems to put their children to bed until well after ten o'clock at night, even when they have to be up at six the following morning. I try not to drink too much of it these days as I think it gives me palpitations (see earlier blog for details) but it's way too nice to give up altogether.

But for me the clear winner among the local newcomers has to be this...

It's called açaí na tigela com banana batida (acai in a bowl with mashed banana) which is my preferred variation, although you can also have it with chopped banana instead, or strawberry, or mango. It's basically frozen berries blended into a pulp and mixed with your fruit of choice. It's like really rich, smooth, ice cream but is full of fruity goodness instead of dairy badness. We discovered it on our trip out here last November and the best place we've found to buy it is a little juice bar right next to the hotel we stayed in. It's a bit of a walk from the house, but well worth the effort and I sometimes go out of my way to go and have a bowl for my lunch. And best of all, it's a big hit with the boys as well. James loves it because it's like having a dessert for your main course and David loves it because even if it isn't bread, at least it's purple.

So, my diet now encompasses all the essential food groups...

...except Marmite!