Derry on the Uptick

*Still doing this on my phone. Formatting, etc. May be wonky.

Derry is a vibrant walled city with the old and new working side by side. Traffic and people weave through the gates; tourists and locals walk the top of the wall. Life is good here.

The walled city sits on an island hill that used to be surrounded by water entirely. Several centuries ago the river sort of sank a few feet. Hence ‘the Bogside’ neighborhood. And ‘the Waterside’. No longer an easily defensible island with a natural mote.

Derry is the only walled city in Europe whose walls were never breached by an enemy. And they were under seige here plenty. There is an actual Siege Museum to walk you thru the details, complete with armour and starvation descriptions aplenty to ensure you skip lunch. But not Guiness or a Savingnon Blanc. We’re not that disturbed.

Short version: Surprise! The English colonized Ireland in the 1500’s with their protestant Scottish cousins. They kicked the Irish Catholics off their land and formed plantations. ‘Plantations’. Now where have I heard that before? Hmm. This is known as ‘The Plantation of Ireland. It was systematic.

Lots of rebellions by the local native population took place so the English ringed the city in a wall with gates to allow commerce to flow. But also to maximize defense from local riff raff. Only Anglo-Scots were allowed to live inside. Other Catholic crown heads of Europe took umbrage over this and that – bada bing, bada boom – siege!

And like most sieges, it left a big impression on the population. The mayor of the town at the time said essentially ‘Hey, so I’ll pop out for milk. You guys stay here and guard the town during this ‘siege thing’. Promise I’ll be back.’ The milk got lost in the royal mail. (Insert Crying Over Spilt Milk reference here).

The town starved brutally during the siege so even today, every year, they take great pride in constructing effigies of this gentleman, then hanging and burning them. And I thought my family could hold a grudge. We got nothing on these people. There is even an effigy guide in the local Tower Museum to help the next generation make sure their effigy is the most accurate and humiliating as possible. Lest they forget.

The walls are the transit system here. Its a little over a mile all the way around. We are staying right on the wall so we just hop up and we are off where ever we need to go. No traffic to contend with and the views are lovely.

Just up the wall from us is The Cathedral of St. Columba. It’s the first Protestant cathedral built after the Reformation (Martin Luther starting the Protestant church). Its old. They wanted me to pay for a ‘photo license’ to take pictures of the inside so I don’t have any. Never been asked to do this in any church in the world, and I’m not starting now. It wasn’t as spectacular as our little church in Benimaclet, but it was nice enough.

In the vestibule, where you can take photos without a license, is the cannonball used by the Catholic army to shoot over the wall. It has a hole where they stuffed the terms of surrender. Heads up! Siege mail incoming!

The graveyard outside the cathedral peaked Jeff’s interest for walking thru and reading old tomb stones. It’s his favorite activity in small villages.

Here are a few photos of walking the wall and some of the sights from it.

We have discovered little Alleys and warrens in the city. Full of businesses run by women.

Derry is the poster child for the working woman, in my opinion. Shirt factories were in full swing here. 18,000 women worked in them in this area at one time in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was little work for men so the women were the breadwinners.

One of our elderly guides told us his mother worked in one. Another co-workers came to work 9 months pregnant and had her baby during her shift. The other women hid them and made sure to pick up the slack on her quota of collars for the day and such, or they would have fired her. The woman was back on the line the next day working. Without the baby. If she had taken a day off she would have lost her place. The women run businesses here today are a tribute to those women in those factories working 12 hour days to support their families.

We will miss ‘Womens Little Christmas’ on January 6th. Its when women, on one day a year, have traditionally left the housework and kids to the hubby and go out with their friends for one day. I love how the advert advises booking early to ‘avoid disappointment’. I think the women here have known disappointment for centuries.

We are off back to Dublin tomorrow to see a few of the last must-see sights before heading home to Spain, and seeing Em off back to school in the US. We’ve checked off so many things in our lists this holiday.

We picked up her prom dress and shoes here yesterday. I’m pretty sure no other girl will be wearing the same thing at her school. Whew! Prom dress shopping is too important to leave it to an online experience. And it’s a Mom/daughter milestone I didn’t want to miss. She’ll go back with all the things she needs for the next few months.

After one more cross country drive tomorrow. This marking on a Derry street pretty much sums up how that will go.

We will thoroughly enjoy the last few days in this beautiful country.

Derry: Two Sides One City

I’ve traveled to conflict zones over the course of my adult life. Some have been boiling over while I was there. Others quietly simmering.

Like in the Middle East, being stopped at checkpoints controlled by militia who stationed a 12 year old boy sitting on a bucket to ask why we want to travel a road, while clutching a machine gun. You’ll consider your life choices in moments like that.

There was the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea when we had one of our guys shot down on the North side of the border. Having to register with the embassy in case it all went pear shaped. With tensions running so high messages were perpetually flashing across the tv as warnings on how to evacuate the country.

Other places with long simmering conflicts like a divided Cyprus with the Turks and Greeks were not so scary. Just inconvenient.

But being here, what happened such a short time ago seems very real and is still very raw. I remember seeing stories on the news in the 70’s and 80’s, but the American press cared more about Middle East conflicts, where oil mattered above all else, to pay attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland. In the US, most people considered it a backwater – irrelevant.

As a refresher, back in the 60’s, as the rest of the world was fighting for civil rights – the Northern Irish Republicans (mostly Catholics) wanted their rights in Londonderry. They marched and protested peacefully. The British government cracked down hard, sending troops ‘for 3 months’ to crush the insurrection. They stayed for 38 years. It started here and Derry became ground zero for ‘The Troubles’- really a civil war.

Republicans wanted gerrymandering of elections that disenfranchised them to end, and elected officials to stop oppressing them. They wanted to be united with the rest of Ireland and govern themselves. The loyalist to the English crown liked things to stay as they were. But they were sorely outnumbered in Northern Ireland 2 to 1 then, and still are. There are just 2% of them left in the walled city of Londonderry and right outside the gate you can see their passion for their views today

They’ve painted the curbs in the colors of the British flag to show their Unionist support.

The Free Derry Museum tells the story of the time. Guided only by relatives of those killed in the conflict. It sits amongst a series of street murals done by ‘Free Derry Artists’ on buildings known as ‘The Peoples Gallery’ in an area called The Bogside, below the town wall where the Catholic slum used to reside. Where ‘Bloody Sunday’ occurred in Jan 1972 when British troops (by British PM David Cameron’s own admission) attacked unarmed peaceful protestors killing 28. The town went mad! The protest movement spread like wildfire across Ireland and the current incarnation of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was born.

Walking amongst the murals is eerie. Like a graveyard. So much happened here, so little time ago. The mural of the little school girl is particularly poignant. Annete McGavigan was sent to get bread by her Mam when she was shot in the head by a British soldier. The first child of over 100 that would die in the conflict. The mural shows the stones she had collected for a school project that were in her pocket. They say her Father came and stood in front of it every day until he passed recently. He talked to her picture to tell her about his day.

Added to this mural, after the Good Friday accords that stopped the conflict in the 90’s, is a destroyed weapon. And a Butterfly. Two brothers who lost their brother in Bloody Sunday asked for it to be added to symbolize rebirth.

The other murals depict scenes and people from the period. The final one is the dove in the shape of Ireland. Celebrating all colors, religions and people in peace.

The EU erected a Peace Bridge here too. To symbolize their commitment to supporting peace in NI. But now there is Brexit. If you know anything about the debacle that is Brexit, you know Northern Ireland is a sticking point. Free Movement from the North to the rest of Ireland is part of the Good Friday accords. Brexit has rattled the people here. They’ve seen and been through too much. They don’t want ‘The Troubles’ to return. But they won’t accept a hard border to the south.

We had heard in the south that the feelings here are still raw. And they are. Like most geopolitical conflicts in the world, we in the US are so far from them we struggle to relate. We just turn off the tv and say ‘Uch. I’m tired of seeing that.’ Its a luxury other people, and other countries, don’t have. And these ‘little regional conflicts’ have very real, very global consequences for us all – whether we like it or not.

If Derry teaches us anything its that violence, walls and oppression are temporary solutions and not long term strategies for peace. Dialog, listening and a willingness to change our views, as times change, are the only way forward.

After David Cameron stood on parliament in 2010 and read the government report on Bloody Sunday – profoundly apologizing for it and taking responsibility, Derry and Northern Ireland held its breath. Large screens had been set up in town squares throughout Ulster to view it. It was a national event. Afterwards the news cameras were trained on an old woman whose husband was the last person killed that Sunday, 40 years before. Amongst tear gas he had come out of a doorway to help a boy who was on the street, shot and crying for his Mom. They shot her husband thru the eye as he tried to help the boy.

They asked his elderly wife what she would do if she had David ‘bloody’ Cameron standing in front of her right then. She said she would invite him in for a cuppa tea. ‘Its enough now.’ She told them. And the collective breathed a sigh of relief.

One man told me he was spoiling for a fight that day. Waiting for the English to shirk responsibility, again. ‘But if she can forgive, then so can I.’ I find that old woman’s example profoundly moving.

There are other amazing sights to be seen here. I’ll post those at another time, but on a day like New Years Eve, when we typically reflect on things, this deserves it’s own. Its that important.

Northern Ireland

We are spending our last week in Ireland in Derry or Londonderry. Depending upon your political point of view. More on that in another post. So it was the moment to see the Giant’s Causeway.

This basalt rock phenomenon occurs on the Northern coast of Ireland. If you require a little courage before your visit you can stop in Bushmill for a wee dram before you get to the truly majestic scenery a couple miles down the road. I say ‘miles’ because here in Northern Ireland its miles not kilometers. There was no sign when we crossed from Ireland to the UK/Northern Ireland welcoming us to a new country, except the one telling us that now we were calculating speed signs in miles. But our car only had kilometers. So we were doing backwards calculations to figure out how not to speed or go too slow.

In Ireland there are speed signs every 10 meters – even the farmers driveway doubling as an Irish expressway. In Northern Ireland they tell you the speed once at the border with a hearty ‘Good Luck guessing it on the rest of these god-forsaken roads.’

We made our way to the Giant’s Causeway over hill and dale, but it was worth it. From Derry it’s an hour drive. I’d tell you the distance but it doesn’t matter. Distance here means nothing. Its time that matters. 28 kilometers can take you an hour as Google routes you through the parking lot of a welding workshop, only to find the one lane track you were on previously picks up on the other side. You think I’m kidding. Sadly, not. Jeff checked to see if there was a setting to stop this nonsense, but if we turned it off in the app we would never be able to leave the country.

The GC is part of The National Trust of the UK. The Trust was set up in the late 19th century to save historically significant buildings and locales. They do good work and The Giants Causeway is head and shoulders their biggest draw every year. Heading for 3/4 of a million visitors annually. After seeing this area there is no mystery as to why.

It’s set up well with minimal impact to the environment. The visitors center is tasteful and not an ‘Exit Thru the Giftshop’ type of experience. If you’re a member of The National Trust its free. For a family that’s about 100£ per year. A bargin when planning on seeing other culturally significant places throughout the UK.

We did the self guided tour with the head sets, but could have waited the 40 minutes for the guided tour that is also included in the ticket. It was awe inspiring.

The place was created by lava flows, chemical weathering, and time. The hexagonal rocks and pillars are otherworldly.

The walk down to see them is stunning.

The Irish legend goes something like this. There was a giant called Finn. He created Ireland and he was pissed at a Scottish giant who wanted to threaten his land. So he threw the hexagonal stones into the sea to scare his foe, who used them as a bridge or causeway to run across the sea from Scotland to fight Finn. Well, Finn saw him coming and was shocked by his size. He knew he was outmatched so he ran home to his wife, and cried like a baby.

She knew just what to do and wrapped Finn up, swaddling him like a baby and put him in bed. The other giant found his way to their cottage and asked the wife where her husband was so they could fight. She told him Finn was out. But he searched the cottage anyway and heard ‘the baby’ crying – it was Finn afraid to death. But the other giant thought ‘If this is the baby, then his father must be huge!’. So he ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway with his footsteps. There are similar basalt pillars on the Scottish side today to prove the story.

In fact, about 60k yrs ago, lava flowed and formed these pillars. It took 40k yrs for the pillars to interlock. Hexagons are some of the strongest and most frequently occurring shapes in nature. Think honeycombs and tortoise shells.

We walked up to the Giant’s Pipe Organ, said to be heard once a year at 6am on Christmas morn. Then headed up top, via nearly one million stairs straight up, to make our way back. Hoping not to drive to Derry in the dark. The views continued to amaze the whole way. You could easily spend an entire day there.


Well worth a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site. And a strong recommendation on the Bushmills. The town is adorable – you might consider staying there for a night. More importantly, you might need a break from driving out there from Derry. But this is wild Ireland at its most raw and beautiful. Not to be missed.

Holy Shit! Driving in Ireland

First off, renting a car at the Dublin airport mimicked buying a used car on Aurora Avenue in Seattle. It felt like we were haggling with a used car salesman for insurance, transmission and tire coverage. If he’d mentioned ‘clear coat’ I would have gone ballistic. We needed a shower after.

The swearing started directly after the airport, and our wake has been littered with profanity throughout the country ever since. Jeff has made up some new ones and I’m pretty sure ‘Kelli!!’ isn’t just my name any more.

And, as luck would have it, I was driving our automatic rental car and it stalled, almost permanently, in the middle if an Irish round about! We did a ‘Chinese fire drill’ like we used to do in high school; Jeff ran around and hopped in. He jiggled some stuff, a lot of grinding later – much honking from behind – and we moved it to the side of the road.

Here’s where I both bitch about and, well sort of, praise Hertz rental cars. They made us limp it to the West Ireland airport. So wrong. Again, there was prolific swearing during this procedure. Then they swiftly gave us another car. But the new one was a huge luxury car we didn’t ask for, and it was a manual transmission. I can’t drive a manual and me learning it in Ireland was highly discouraged by the rental car guy. Under normal circumstances the upgrade would be welcome. Even the stick. But we are in Ireland sooo yeah, NO!

The roads here – if not on an expressway or carriageway- are of three clear classifications.

  • Shit!
  • Oh Shit!!
  • Holy Shit!!!

Allow me to explain.

Shit! roads have a line down the middle of one variety or another. It’s never consistent. In theory, these roads are supposed to contain cars traveling opposite each other on either side of that painted divider. But not when you’re traveling in your gigantic car you never asked for or possibly wanted. Short of scraping our left side on the ancient stone walls, hedgerows and houses we whiz by, we count our lucky stars to survive them. But even in a Citroen C1 the lane would be inadequate.

Oh Shit!! roads are those that are 3/4 the width of Shit! roads but without the lovely line you were laughing at and mocking just 15 seconds and one turn ago. But now you miss that line, and the extra two feet of roadway with no shoulder. Now you’d sell everything you have for that line. But even if you could allow yourself a moment to scrape together all your worldly possessions, there would not be one place to turn out to hand them over. Just sheep fields, and the sheep are just looking at you with thinly veiled contempt.

The speed limit sign will say 80 on this stretch of tarmac- and your fellow travelers will strive to achieve it. On these roads I recommend only driving with one eye open – like a pirate. You’ll see death coming as you hold your breath and grimace, but from only one side of your body. The other side will be blissfully ignorant.

Holy Shit!!! roads are like snow flakes. Each one is unique and are never replicated in all of human history. These remarkbke gems are, however, not rare AT ALL in Ireland. So much so that Google maps thinks they’re normal roads and will route you down them with abandon, even when your rental car needs to get to the regional airport, post haste, to die. These one lane tracks with stone walls and hedgerows growing over the top will require you to put your mirrors in so as not to rip them off the car at the whole 30km per hour top speed youre traveling. But then this adds in a little Irish mischief. I mean, why not?! When your neighbor, or his cow, meet you on the Holy Shit!!! road, there is no turn out – just a wet bog on either side. You’re trapped unless you go back. What can you do?

But here is when the Irish do something that is only hinted at in literature and legend. Never speak this secret to anyone, but all Irish people are leprechauns. Don’t believe me? Then how do they always find themselves in my rearview mirror after meeting head on, on the Oh Shit!! and Holy Shit!!! roads? Its leprechaun magic. Plain and simple.

That and I’m pretty convinced that all these churches are to stop and pray for your life while driving. When cars were invented it must have filled more than a few pews.

‘Please God, it’s me Patrick Seamus Micheal O’Malley. I just got my driving license. Not driving that one horse trap anymore. So well…you know, I’m gonna a need fair bit of that leprechaun magic. Here’s a fiver for the collection plate.’

There are ZERO straight roads in Ireland. Google maps will make them appear straight but it’s a lie. They don’t exits. Just like pots of gold at the end of rainbows. When you get there, the promised straight road disappears to a narrowing winding deathtrap you’ll slalom through, like the alpine downhill outrunning an avalanche.

Reading signs has been interesting too. Yesterday, when we came upon a couple of head scratchers Jeff asked me what they meant.

‘How do I know?’ I asked him. Like I’d studied the Irish driving manual.

‘Uh, you just took the written test in Spain, and studied for it like the bar exam’

What was he thinking? ‘I only know Spanish road signs. Duh.’

‘These are signs valid in the entire EU. They’re symbols – not words’.

‘Well, I didn’t see that one in my book.’ I hate it when he’s right. ‘Just assume it’s a cliff and don’t go there.’

Now, I can’t drive here anymore, cause of the stick thing. Much to Jeff’s both angst and elation. He did a lot of shifting away from his side of the car, wincing, and ‘Oh my God’ing when I was driving. He would call out frequently ‘Did you see that?!? How did you not hit that?!?’ Quite a bit during my time behind the wheel. I know exactly what it is but I’ll never tell him. I have just enough Irish in me for some residual leprechaun magic. And, I find in most circumstances, a little leprechaun magic is all it usually takes.

Brazil – Not Candy-Coated

We are home at last. We’re both glad to be back in Spain. Not because we didn’t enjoy Brazil but because it’s truly home. Our language has changed now – and its a subtle thing. When in Sao Paolo we referred to ‘home’ and it wasn’t the US. It was El Compartemiento. And I almost ran from the tram the few blocks to our apartment. Of course, I was tired and wanted to put down my suitcase and get cleaned up after 24 hours of travel, door to door. But it was more than that. It was the familiar. The routines and being surrounded by the things that make a life all our own.

I missed hearing Spanish and being able to understand people when they spoke. Being in a Portuguese speaking country, I found out I know a lot more Spanish than I thought. And I pulled it out liberally to try to communicate. Since the rest of South America speak Spanish, many people could understand us. And some of the words are similar. Even my shy husband was speaking Spanish – something he’s always reluctant to do here since his is not perfect. But we had to go along to get along, and needs must. The people in Brazil are friendly but they don’t speak much English. A lot of smiles and some hugs from strangers, so we muddled through using what I called Pidgeon Spangluguese.

I’m the human version of a Golden Retriever. I smile when walking down any street in the world. Even in the US, I had a boss once that pointed that out to me. ‘You’re always smiling’ she told me – like it was an anomaly. I don’t know know why, but that’s just me, and it seems to mean when I travel that strangers talk to me and I meet a lot of people.

I have spent time in other areas of the world but my focus has been mostly Western Asia and Europe for my foreign travels – although I’ve been other places. But South America was never a priority. This was a big miss on my part. And this trip rounded out my perspective on many fronts.

First Impressions

Just a heads up – This will be a longer than normal post. I’m going to try to squeeze all our impressions – sights and sounds – of Sao Paolo – into one post. And there is a lot of ground to cover in a place that assaulted the senses from the moment we left the airport.

As I said a few days ago, Sao Paolo is HUGE. It’s the 11th largest city in the world. The others that are larger are mostly in China. Looking out the window of the Uber to the resort hotel where we stayed the first few nights, there were high rise apartments as far as the eye could see. But scattered amongst them were homemade cinder block buildings; some stacked or almost piled precariously on top of each other without windows or running water, or HVAC of any kind. And shanty-type buildings that would barely stand up to a strong wind.

So the visual disparity of the ‘Haves’ and Have-nots’ is front and center. We had been warned right from the start to be very, very careful when out and about. Brazil’s – and Sao Paolo’s – murder rate is through the roof as one of the top cities in the world, if there was an award for such things. We found it unsettling, but we heard it from so many locals that it made us a little paranoid, and in some sense, it kept us from fully enjoying our time there.

Note: While we saw a lot of things – some of it, I didn’t include in the photos and for this reason. I don’t feel like taking pictures of people living in poverty is the right thing to do. They’re not a tourist spectacle for my viewing, but are living their lives the best they can. They deserve respect and the dignity to do so.

I also didn’t take photos of people pulling carts (I did take a photo of a cart without it’s owner). Their work is honest work and I felt like it needed to be treated as such. Again, they’re not a tourist amusement.

More on the Haves and Have-Nots

I had been asked to speak at a gathering at the hotel where we initially stayed. We wanted to leave the hotel compound to go for a walk but the security guard at the gate at the end of the drive was having none of it. This we found curious since the area was filled with manicured lawns and homes and buildings of the wealthy. But upon further inspection, each building was surrounded by high walls – some with actual razor wire – and each of them had an armed security guard at the front gate, at a minimum. Some had guards stationed at intervals along the walls surrounding various compounds. All of them standing under umbrellas to protect them from the intense sun, looking menacing to those who might be inclined to breach the defenses.

They all had ear pieces – ala Secret Service – tipping you off that they had counter parts inside, and probably more than one. And the cameras patrolling the properties were fanned out to cover every corner. The message being ‘It may look nice here, but this is a dangerous place’. But we didn’t really understand why, in an area that sold Lamborginis, Range Rovers and MaClaren’s, and we saw them driving around the area, it seemed so unsafe. No one – and I do mean NO ONE – was walking on the street outside. So strange.

We changed hotels halfway through the trip because we wanted to be right in the city. It turned out to be a good move. Much more to see and do. We’re not ‘Lay by the pool’ kind of people when we travel. So the resort got boring pretty quickly.

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The homeless population is exploding in the city. They’re everywhere sleeping rough. Oddly, we encountered almost no pan handling, but more people willing to do the jobs no American would ever do. Selling candy to cars at stop lights, one industrious guy actually put the candy neatly bagged and signed on the side mirror – even containing a price.

But also recycling. We saw a lot of people pulling carts of card board, and one guy with coolers on his cart, stopping at each guard station to sell drinks and snacks on a route he clearly traversed every day. They knew him.

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The average wage in Brazil is under $700 US a month. But that’s not the whole story. It costs a lot to live there. Historically, the taxes in Brazil are quite high and public corruption – we heard this from everyone – has been rampant for decades. So the people of Brazil have been ripped off, essentially. Their roads, infrastructure and public services are broken. You can see it clearly.

Let’s face it, every person in the world wants the same thing. Security for their family. Education to allow the next generation to do better than the last. They want to know that the future is secure – as well as the present. They want to know that if they get sick, their family’s won’t suffer, and they want comfort in difficult times. We are not so different from the average Brazilian.

When people found out we were Americans, they always asked if we ‘Liked Donald Trump’ because in Brazil they see him as a strong leader. They feel their new president is a version of him and the average person is very happy about it. This made us curious. Why would the average person feel this way? So we spent a lot of time speaking to people to understand and this is what we found.

After years of paying taxes and having public officials embezzle the money, and rob the country of its resources, people are desperate for something new. They are so desperate that they’re willing to give up almost anything to get it. And it struck us. We in the US have problems with our country. But the wealth disparity in the US is nothing compared to what it is in Brazil – South America’s largest economy.

In the US, we have time to debate social issues and economic issues. We aren’t starving. But in Brazil, they are. It’s critical, and hope has faded as something they can’t hardly remember. So electing someone they think has a snowball’s chance in sub-tropical heat to turn things around – even though he says things and advocates for things liberal democracies find horrific – well, the average Brazilian doesn’t care about that stuff. They want to eat.

But desperate people, in desperate circumstances, will sacrifice anything and do anything to save themselves and those they love. It’s a timely reminder for me since yesterday was Armistice Day. My family always laughs at me for my obsession with history, especially the 20th century wars. But the treaty of Versailles, after WWI, is what decimated post-war Germany and punished them so harshly for starting the war. And it’s what created such inflation, and desperate poverty in Germany in the 1920’s, that it set up the perfect circumstances for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in the 1930’s. We’d do well to remember the lessons of history, because they’re repeating themselves in places like Brazil today. Hungry people will follow even the most despicable leaders if they’re handing out bread to feed their starving children. This is where aid and good foreign policy matters. Go to Brazil and you’ll understand.

Pollution

As a general rule, the air there is not too bad. Especially compared to say, London – whose air is regularly considered well above what is safe for humans to breathe on a regular basis. So there, they have the more western (non-developing) nations beat. But there is another side entirely.

On the way to the hotel from the airport, we drove across the two main rivers of Sao Paolo. The Tiete and Pinheiros rivers flow throughout the city. They were historically a source of fresh water and fish for the people of the region, but they’ve been so polluted with sewer and industrial waste that now they are dead rivers. Driving by them, the smell was sulfuric and it almost hurt to breathe in the fumes.

The banks of the rivers are lined with trash, as were some of the major thoroughfares we traversed. But I have seen worse in other countries. And for a population that size, I frankly would have expected more.

A View of Myself

In all this, it made me take a look at myself. And I wasn’t happy with what I saw. As I said before, I was asked to speak at a gathering at a luxury hotel. So I brought clothes that were appropriate for the occasion. The same as I would have if I had been asked to speak at something in NY or LA. But I wasn’t in NY or LA, I was in Sao Paolo. And after driving through the city and seeing what we saw. And then looking up some of the statistics on the country, I didn’t feel good in the clothes and accessories I had brought.

Among so much need, it felt obscene to be wearing shoes that could pay a family’s expenses for two months. Or carrying a handbag that would pay the salary of an average Paulista for 6 months. Looking in the mirror, before I headed out to give my talk didn’t make me proud. It made me want to cry.

It might sound a little dramatic. That’s OK to think that. I get it. I came from the luxury retail business. My job was to make rich people feel like opening their wallets and shelling out big bucks for name brands that they could proudly walk down the street with and show off to their friends. I bought into it too. But the absurdity of it and the hubris (my own) was right up in my face. When I was done with my obligation, I couldn’t wait to get out of that stuff, and I never wore it again or carried that handbag, on the trip. Thinking of it makes me sad sitting here.

Street Art

I was in London’s East End several years ago with my friend, Eric Olsen. Eric is a person who always makes me think differently. He has his MFA and his sensibilities have always challenged my own perspectives on things. Eric is a truly unique individual and it was in Brick Lane that he helped me see graffiti and street art in a new light.

Some truly world-class street artist display their work on the buildings of Brick Lane and the surrounding Tower Hamlets. It’s the first time I saw a Banksy in person. And Sao Paolo is festooned with amazing street art. Sorry Valencia, but these guys put you to shame. I’ll let the photos below speak for themselves. Some are sanctioned by the Prefeitura de Sao Paolo – others are more organic. Enjoy.

Ibirapuera Park

The ‘Central Park’ of South America is Ibirapuera Park and it’s in Sao Paolo. It’s a national treasure and it’s easy to see why. Complete with a large lake and a small creek, the park is lush and is safe during the day. You can rent bikes and there are runners galore. It’s a gathering place for festivals and is the host of the Afro Brazil Museum.

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The history of modern Brazil includes slavery – just like in the US. Captives from Africa were imported into the country to work on plantations and mines. They took care of colonial children and are one of the foundational populations that make Brazil what it is today. And in the faces of people on the street you can see their legacy, everywhere.

The photos below are from the museum celebrating the contribution of Africans to the life and culture of Brazil.

Unlike in the US, being brown in Brazil isn’t an historical stigma. It’s a point of pride. When people looked at me, they knew I was not from Brazil. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been called a ‘Gringa’. Certainly, to my face. I was warned by others that once they understood I wasn’t Brazilian, it would endanger my safety. But in the park, where I heard this, I didn’t feel unsafe. I just smiled. What else could I do? I am what I am – just like everyone else.

Cuckoo for Coconuts

Everywhere, especially the park, stands selling coconut milk drunk straight out of the shell, or blended with other tropical juices, are every 100 yards. Men deliver and replenish the coconuts to the stands on bicycles with large baskets piled with green coconuts, who looked to be owned by the same company.

The guy working there taps the coconut and, either drains it into a larger container with a funnel, or puts a straw in it and hands it out to the customer. I took a few pictures so you can see what it’s like. Its not touristic but a staple food and drink.

The photos below are more of the park and a few of the statues and artistic features on display. It’s a lush space amongst the urban sprawl.

I’ve been to big cities in Asia. The skyline from our second hotel, looking out over the vast expanse of the city-scape left me in awe. It’s not the most beautiful of skylines. It’s not easily identifiable like those of NY or Paris. But it gives you the sense of how large it is. I took some photos below so you can see what we saw when we woke up at sunrise and when we pondered what it might mean to live every day in such a large place.

Brazil is a true melting pot of cultures from around the world. SP has the largest Japanese population, second to Japan itself, in the world. Vancouver, Canada is a distant third. No one we spoke to knows why they found it such a hospitable place to resettle, but you can get amazing sushi in the city.

There is also a huge Italian segment of the cultural soup. And speaking of soup, I ate some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a place close to our hotel. And the building was pretty spectacular too.

Driving and Traffic

I’ll be taking my driving test here soon. But would I ever consider driving in Brazil? NEVER. Here, it’s the traffic circles that intimidate. But in general, people are polite and understand and obey the lines on the road. In Brazil, they don’t seem to be able to see lines. ‘3 lanes? No, I see 7.’ And motorcycles and food delivery services whip and weave between cars. I had to close my eyes in every taxi or Uber we took. Looking meant an upset stomach. Jeff just stopped saying ‘Did you see that?!’. Cause he never would have said anything else.

People on the Street

In Valencia – and in Europe in general, a lot of people smoke. But you don’t see it or get a sense of it in Brazil. In that way, it’s more like the US, but even more striking. You don’t smell it walking or get a whiff of it sitting in a cafe, anywhere. Not sure why but we both commented on it.

I did witness something disturbing that I’ll only briefly comment on. There was a bunch of people looking up at a building near a cafe where we were sitting. I told Jeff I wanted to go see what was going on so I walked the block and then looked up to what they were starting at. A woman was on a girder on an abandoned building. She was threatening to jump and the rescue workers were in full repelling gear trying to talk her down.

An older lady in a housekeeping uniform stood near me. I looked over at her when I realized what was going on. We both had tears in our eyes. Mothers recognize each other. It transcends culture, religion, language. She came over and hugged me. She spoke to me in Portuguese but I said I didn’t speak Portuguese – in my Spanglugues. So we just stood there for a bit. The police came over and told me in English what was going on – I guess I am an easily identifiable Gringa. I couldn’t stay there and watch what might not be a good outcome, but I sent up a silent prayer that she’d take the help they were offering. I could only imagine the despair she was feeling to get to that point, but she was someone’s daughter or mother or friend, and it broke my heart. I was happy to have the hug from the lady who offered it.

The final evening, before coming home, we were hungry for snacks. In Valencia, and in the US, grocery stores are open late. So out Jeff went at dusk to get us some water and something to munch on. He came back with nothing but a perspective on street life at 7pm.

First, the people at the front of the hotel, bellmen and concierge, asked him where he was going when he left. Jeff told them he was going to take a walk – and they didn’t look happy about it. If he had said that he was going to the store they would have told him it would be closed – as he was about to find out. But he didn’t.

He walked around the block to the store we knew was there but the woman was closing it and told him ‘no’ waving her hands. So much for snacks. But what really struck him is how the street had changed from day to almost night.

‘The trolls crawled out of their holes.’ He told me. ‘It’s scary out there right now.’ He said when he got back to the room.

All the residents were gone behind gates and there was a voo doo guy on the sidewalk who had set up his stuff complete with a skull with a fire burning in it. He was chanting something or other and Jeff didn’t stick around to find out what it was or to give him a chance to direct it his way.

He was freaked out at the guys who were coming over the wall from the green space that bordered the street. He quickly made his way back to the confines of the hotel. 7pm was the edge between safety and the things we were warned about – and it was just a block from the hotel.

Going home

When we left to come home, we both said we knew we’d be back. We haven’t scratched the surface of either the city or the country. I still feel like it eluded us while we were there, but not entirely. So much to explore and understand. Ate a proxima, Brasil.