Monday, August 22, 2011

Power struggles

This week I thought I'd say a little bit about electricity.

Back in England when you want to use something electrical, you take one of these...

...and plug it into one of these.

And that, pretty much, is that. What comes out of the wall is a nice, powerful 240volts and everything you want to plug in is also rated for 240volts - except when you need a transformer - but these days transformers are so small they're usually just built into the plug itself and so there's still nothing to worry about.

Over here in São Paulo things are not quite so simple. As a broad rule, Brazil uses a 110v supply, though in a few states it's actually 127v. This is not that big a deal as anything that runs on 110v will also run perfectly well on 127v. But sometimes they don't use 110v or 127v but prefer to go with 220v - as is the case in Fortaleza in the state of Ceará up in the Northeast.

In São Paulo, needless to say, we have all three. Some buildings, like the newer hotels and apartment blocks, seem to run on 220v. Many of the older houses are 127v. In our house we have both and unless there's something obvious I'm missing, there seems to be no way of telling which is which apart from trial and error.

The lights run on 110v, or 127v, as do most of the standard sockets around the walls. In the kitchen, it's also 127v, except for the cooker which is 220v. But then there's a socket which runs directly off the cooker supply so that's probably 220v as well - except that when I try to run something rated at 220v off it it runs as if it's actually 110v. And the water heater for the sink is also 220v which, given the wiring, must mean the water filter and the fridge/freezer are also 220v.

The fuse box is no help, unless the different colours mean more than simply that was what the electrician could get his hands on at the time. Also, the last time anyone did anything in there it was our landlord's handyman and not a qualified electrician so who knows what's going on in there?

Anyway, having gone round the house and done my best to decide that it's safe to plug things in I come across my next problem, which is... actually trying to plug them in. Some plugs are round pin, some plugs are flat pin. Some have two round pins, some have three. Some have two flat pins and a round pin. Apparently, there is now a regulation stating that all new electrical devices must have the new design three pin plug and all new sockets must be designed to accomodate it.

Which is all very well, except that we're not about to rewire the entire house and, surprise surprise, the new plug doesn't fit into any of our existing sockets.

So we turn to the ever-reliable adaptor. Now we can plug an adaptor into the old socket so we can run our new appliances. Except that there aren't enough sockets so we need extension blocks. And some of them don't take the new plugs either so we need more adaptors. And the adaptors take up lots of space so we can't use all the sockets in the multi-blocks so we need to plug a different extension into the multi-block and that has a completely different type of plug so we need a different type of adaptor and the sockets on this new block are different from the sockets on the first block so the new plugs still don't fit. But once we have the adaptor to adapt the adaptor to the extension and run this into an adaptor for the socket, we're there and we can finally run all our electrical goods.

Except the ones that only run on 240v. For these we have two options. Either pack them away in the cupboard for the next four years and buy a local version, or else use a step-up/down transformer. We've actually ended up doing both and both have been a qualified success.

Thankfully these days, most electronic equipment is capable of running on anything between 110v and 240v so as far as the computers and phone chargers go, it's just a case of finding the right adaptors and off you go. The only difference I've noticed from back in England is that certain external devices that charge off the computer via a USB cable no longer do. Or not always anyway. The iPods and iPads still charge off the desktop computer but not off the laptop. The camera now won't charge off anything except the mains.

Not all the electronic stuff is the same however. The DVD player and the Wii only run at 240v so they need transforming. This is fine as they don't really draw that much power and the rather expensive and somewhat ugly transformers you can pick up out here will do the job no problem. So far I've bought three and one of them is still going strong after eight months - the other two fell victim to a combination of overwork and user incompetence. And this would be a good point to remind anyone reading this for hints before moving out here... READ THE INSTRUCTIONS VERY CAREFULLY - even if they're written in portuguese. They only plug in one way round. And if you start to get the melting plastic smell, it's probably a good idea to unplug.

Also, things with motors just don't transform well. And this is doubly true out here where the supply comes in at 60Hz, unlike 50Hz back in the UK. A lot of stuff can work perfectly well with the different frequency, but not motors. We did know this before coming out so had the sense to leave behind all our white goods (actually, all our white goods are silver or stainless steel because we're flash) but I hadn't really thought about all the small stuff that would also struggle to work properly out here - kettle, toaster, sandwich maker, popcorn maker, hair clippers, hair dryer, etc. In fact, it was while trying to impress some of David's friends with my popcorn making magic that I burn out the second of the transformers.

And then there's the TV. We also knew before coming out that the TV wouldn't work out here as it was PAL and the system in Brazil is NTSC and anyway, our nice landlord left us with not one but five televisions and a sixth would have just been showing off. But, it's not just the TV of course. It's the DVD player as well. And the Wii. They also run on the PAL system - and they're much more fussy when it comes to running at a different frequency. We spent six months playing black and white and flickering games on the Wii and only watching DVDs on the computer before I bought my magic box of miracles. I've written about this before (back in January's "Home again, home again" post) so I won't go into details here, but it really is a fabulous piece of kit - and it even runs on 110v, 127v and 240v!

As mentioned earlier, the other solution to all these problems is simply to buy locally and we probably would have done a lot more of this if things hadn't been so stupidly expensive over here. But they are, so we didn't. As it is we've ended up having to buy a few things we really couldn't do without and I would be doing the Brazilian manufacturing industry a disservice if I said they were all rubbish, but it would have been nice if some of them could perhaps have lasted a little longer before falling apart.

But anyway, 110v is just rubbish. Our newest kettle takes so long to boil I quite often forget I've actually put it on, and as the automatic off switch packed up shortly after we bought it, it has, on occasion, merrily boiled itself dry before I remember. Our hair clippers struggles to cope with giving me even a modest trim every three months or so, despite the fact that (apparently) I'm nowhere near as 'full on top' as I once was, but it just gives up the ghost completely when we put it anywhere near the children's abundant thatch. And as for the fan heater...

Still, I really shouldn't complain. So what if it takes me a little bit of scrabbling around on my hands and knees and a bucket-full of different adaptors to get my stuff connected? At least we actually have electricity, which millions of Brazilians still don't, and we haven't even had any power cuts for, oh, weeks now!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What I did on my holidays (Part 2 - England)

This is my parents' back garden. Their house is nestled deep in rural Northumberland and it's our base while we're in England. Newcastle is just a short train ride away and Hadrian's Wall is literally just up the road. In fact, the whole region is packed full of Roman ruins, medieval castles and other places of historic interest and I try to visit as many of them as possible whenever I'm up there. Helen, however, is strangely lacking in enthusiasm for piles of stones in the middle of nowhere and is more than happy to spend her time relaxing in the conservatory (pictured) with a book and a pot of tea while the would-be Romans are off exploring.

All the above photos were actually taken by David, who appears to be both a budding photographer and keen botanist. Having helped Grandma plant all her new plants and fill up the bird feeders, he went around and recorded his handiwork in great detail. Shown here are just some of the thirty or forty photos he took.

This is Langley Castle, a fabulous building originally built in the Fourteenth Century and still in excellent condition thanks to Nineteenth Century restoration. It's actually used as a hotel and restaurant and it's almost always our first trip out as they do a fantastic afternoon tea and the plate of biscuits that comes with your pot of coffee will be remembered for many years to come.

This is the tea room, complete with tapestries, suits of armour and enough atmosphere to repel a siege. The castle even has its own ghost, but sadly she declined our invitation to join us.

Her we are waiting for our biscuits and Granddad has taken the opportunity to find out if he really can see all the way through James' head.

As well as a ghost the castle even has its own collection of peacocks, some of whom have clearly learned to take afternoon tea as well.

This little patch of river, a couple of miles or so from the house, is known as The Meeting of the Waters, or simply the confluence, and it's where the North and South Tyne rivers meet before flowing on through Newcastle and out to sea. While we were in Northumberland, James rather impressively took to accompanying his granddad on his regular early morning walks and this was one of their favourite ports of call.

 Here he is giving me the evil ninja death stare.

And here he is going through some ninja moves and most definitely not attempting a Morris dance.

And so to the Roman stuff. Here we are at Housesteads, one of the many forts built along Hadrian's Wall and although not our favourite site it's certainly one of the most impressive. You can clearly make out entire rooms, many still with doorways and good-sized walls and as the entire site is on a hill, you can stand at the top and get a great view of the entire fort and really understand the layout.

 Here David is showing you the underfloor heating system.

And here James is getting ready to join the Roman army...

...and carry out some manoevers.

And here are the professionals showing how it's really done.

This is the wall itself, with a fabulously well-preserved milecastle in the foreground. We stopped off here to look for a particularly famous little spot known as the Sycamore Gap and ended up walking up and down hills for a lot longer than we'd expected.

But we found it in the end. It's a stunning enough site anyway, but became even more famous when it was used for one of the scenes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman.

And here it is in all its glory.

This is another one of my favourites - medieval this time, not Roman. Aydon Castle dates from the Thirteenth Century and although technically it's a fortified manor house not a castle, it still has walls and battlements and is one of the finest examples of its kind still in existence.

Boy, I'm really starting to sound like a guide book now. However, it is a great place to visit, especially for the kids who spent a full half an hour or more, running up and down and round and round pretending they were medieval ninjas or whatever until they finally realised they were hungry for ice cream. We did try locking them away in what appeared to be a strong room, but the lack of bars on the window proved our undoing.

 Here are the Lord and Lady of the manor...

 ...and here are the revolting peasants.

 And this is where you go to hide when it all becomes too much.

So we did all this, and more, and shopping as well. Not bad for little over a week really. No wonder I now feel like I need a holiday to recover. Still, the boys are back at school now so I have my days to myself and plenty of time for all my little projects. After such a long break I was wondering how I would feel coming back to São Paulo and the truth is I was pleasantly surprised by how much it now feels like home. One week back and it's as if I never left.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What I did on my holidays (Part 1 - Ireland)

When we were thinking of going back to Europe over Christmas, many people over here were quick to point out that Christmas and New Year in São Paulo were actually quite nice. The place is gloriously hot and sunny but as so many people have left town, it's really very peaceful and quiet. So we stayed and had two wonderful weeks lazing around, going swimming at the club every day and doing a fair bit of socialising at the same time. It was lovely.

When we were thinking of going back to Europe over the winter almost everyone we spoke to told us we should go for longer. Because there is really nothing to recommend São Paulo in the winter. At least in Europe the cold, miserable bit has Christmas to keep you busy and give the holiday some sense of purpose. Here there's nothing. And worse, it's nothing in a cold city, in a cold concrete house designed to keep you cold whenever possible. Louvered windows that are fixed open and no central heating may seem like brilliant ideas when it's 35 degrees, but not when it's down to single figures. Honestly, when I was thinking about living in Brazil I never thought my most treasured possession was going to be a hot-water bottle.

As it was, we didn't spend that much time here after all and we've just arrived back from three weeks 'up north', divided pretty much evenly between England and Ireland so that both sets of grandparents could be given their dose of rarely-seen grandchildren. For now I'll just stick to Ireland and the England bit can wait till next week.

Home in Ireland is a lovely little seaside town called Bray, about ten miles down the coast from Dublin. To compare it to Rio de Janeiro is perhaps stretching things slightly, but it does possess a nice long beach and is surrounded by mountains. And it even has its own version of Corcovado.

Corcovado! - if you look really carefully.
It's called Bray Head, and climbing up to the cross on top is one of the things we always have to do each time we're home. It takes about forty-five minutes at David's pace and we made it with remarkably little complaining, hardly any stopping to rest along the way and a fair bit of pretending we were the Fellowship of the Ring on our way to Mordor. OK, that last bit was really just me imagining that the other parties of walkers we encountered along the way were really bands of roving orcs while Helen followed behind, possibly wishing I looked a bit more like Aragorn and less like Gandalf.

The other thing we always have to do whenever we're in Bray over the summer is visit the funfair that sets up along the seafront. And when I say visit, what I actually mean is visit every day, sometimes twice, and stay for as long as it takes for two budding adrenalin junkies to work their way through all the money I have in both pockets. Still, I was happy enough to pay the money just so long as I didn't have to share the rides.

David's bus I could probably cope with, but not this...

And certainly not this!

The mad, barefoot woman who seems to be having so much fun here is Aunty Rachel, "The Woman Without Fear". For some bizarre reason she appears to like this kind of thing and as far as I'm concerned, she can look after the kids whenever she wants - especially if it's going to involve hanging upside down fifty feet up in the air.

But mostly what Bray is about is family time. James and David now have nine cousins - all on Helen's side - and they got to spend time with eight of them during this trip. The ninth, little Georgiou, only arrived midway through the week and will have to wait until next year before he's subjected to the doting attentions of the boys from Brazil.

As for Helen, she spent a lovely ten days dividing her time between her parents and a huge stack of old books from her childhood, pausing only to indulge in her favourite hobby of grabbing any passing babies and threatening to gobble up their delicious chubby cheeks. I should perhaps point out that she only did this within the confines of the house, where such actions are both acceptable and commonplace and not, for example, while out shopping.

Shopping was also on the agenda of course and the poor state of Ireland's economy was a huge boon to Helen's wardrobe - I never realised there were so many small boutiques in what is, in effect, three streets-worth of shops but I'm sure she visited them all and certainly left one or two of them a little short on stock. As for me, I contented myself with several trips to the cashpoint and far too many trips to the sweetie shop at the end of the road. Having gone without English chocolate for longer than is good for me, I felt the need to remind myself of exactly what Cadbury's Caramels tasted like. And Minstrels. And Crunchies. And... well, you get the idea.

Sadly, ten days didn't seem like nearly enough time for all the stuff we wanted to do and all the people we wanted to see, but we did at least manage to convince some of the adventurous aunties and uncles to come and pay us a visit over here - although for some reason they all said they'd prefer to meet us in Rio rather than come over to São Paulo. I wonder why?