Category: Brazil

Tchau, Tchau Brazil!

Tchau, Tchau Brazil!

On October 10th, we left Jundiai and our friends, the Simoes family, via Sao Paolo’s longstanding regional airport, Congonhas, for Campo Grande.  Campo Grande is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Matto Grosso do Sul and borders both Paraguay and Bolivia. We left bright and early and had a chatty driver who loved hearing about our adventures and kept us entertained pointing out sites along the route to the airport. Unfortunately, the last site he pointed out to us before we arrived at the airport was the site of a tragic passenger plane crash that killed 199 people in 2007. On the ‘bright side,’ he was telling us the whole story in Portuguese and the kids were still sleepy, so only Jim and I heard the story.

After an uneventful flight ;), we landed in Campo Grande and started our ‘few hours’ drive to the town of Bonito, an ecotourism hub and home to rivers and natural pools that are the clearest in all of Brazil. Every time we’ve asked drivers or guides for estimates of our drives or routes, we’ve noticed that the ranges are either very large, or very vague, and this time was no exception: when we asked how long the drive would be, we were told between 1 1/2 and 3 hours (but when we asked if it’d be about 2 hours, we were told no…)

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En route to Bonito we stopped for lunch and realized that the climate was quickly changing with the geography! It was easily 95 degrees with no breeze mid-morning, and though we were hot and wilting, we welcomed the change from the rainy weather of Ilha Grande and Paraty.

Bonito is called an “aquatic playground” and all of the activities center around being in, around, or on water, to the delight of the kids.  Sites to see include clear rivers, an abundance of waterfalls, beautiful cave formations with amazingly blue waters, and tons of wildlife.

While we were in Bonito, our first activity was a snorkel float down the Sucuri River. Putting on even midi wet suits in such hot weather was a drag, but as soon as we walked a short distance to the river to practice in the water (around 66 degrees) with our equipment, we were happy again. Since we’d also practiced with our snorkels in Fairfax, we had lots of fun and got to see dorado and black pacu among many other species of fish (with names that none of us can now remember…)

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In stark contrast to many waterways in Rio, the rivers and lakes surrounding Bonito are gorgeously clear and noticeably free of any trash. Many in Brazil consider Bonito a ‘model’ for how ecotourism should work-the mutually reinforcing forces of tourist revenue and environmental preservation: protect the environment so people will come, and if people come, there will be revenue to build up the local economy and to preserve the environment.

(Sean making bird calls (ha,ha) and demonstrating his inner jaguar. More than ever on this trip, we have realized that if Sean’s blood sugar gets too low, he does actually have an inner jaguar and it does NOT appreciate being hungry.)

Another adventure we had in Bonito was river rafting.  We inquired multiple times (and were reassured multiple times) that this trip was completely suitable for families, and we felt reassured when we showed up to see many other children suiting up for the trip. Nonetheless, a few minutes into our introduction and ‘safety training’ we were made aware that our ‘float’ actually had 4 waterfalls (not rapids, waterfalls!) After some additional Q&A, we decided to still go on the trip and were rewarded with a mostly tranquil float on the Rio Formoso, punctuated by 4 exciting (but small) waterfall drops.  In addition to seeing toucans, macaws, and monkeys, we also had our first anaconda sighting.

(This pic is our picture of their picture- there is one guy in a kayak who follows all the rafters the entire trip to take pictures like these to sell at the end of the trip. Yes, it looks scary, but the bottom of the “waterfall” is just below the frame of the photo).

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The next day we were off to the Rio de Peixe (river of fish) for an easy hike with waterfalls and natural pools formed by the river to swim in along the way. Highlights included two ziplines, a ‘cliff’ jump, suspension bridges and  ‘trampolines’ (aka diving boards) into the pools along the trail.

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This tour had a stop for a (huge) traditional Brazilian lunch, complete with time for a rest in a hammock afterward. While resting, members of the family that own the fazenda provided all the visitors with unpeeled banana pieces and the neighborhood Capuchin monkeys dropped in for snacks.

(Look closely and you’ll see in the last pic that the monkeys enjoy soda as well. Cute, but probably not great from the perspective of preserving wildlife in their natural environments…and no, it wasn’t ours)

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While in Bonito we were doing at least two tours per day, and so we skipped homeschool in favor of learning from the sights and sounds of the natural world around us. We had a great time in Bonito and it is definitely a place one could spend more than our 2 1/2 days. Our only disappointment was probably with the town itself, specifically the restaurants; it’s a straight up tourist town with the local economy completely revolving around tourism. Despite consulting our trusty Lonely Planet Brazil, the two restaurants we chose for dinner were pretty disappointing, with the local staff less welcoming than what we’d experienced elsewhere (and surprising for a tourist town). Even though we were in town during a Brazilian holiday and we were surrounded by other (Brazilian) tourists too, people we met in town were not very friendly despite our best efforts to communicate in Portuguese and to go with the flow. Nonetheless, it was a super fun family experience, and everyone left happy and exhausted from all our adventures in/on the local rivers.

After Bonito, we met up with a guide, Lajania, who would accompany us to the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a natural region that encompasses the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Roughly 80% of the Pantanal flood plains are submerged during the rainy seasons, which creates an environment that supports an amazingly diverse collection of plant and animal species. In the rainy season, the water levels in the Pantanal rise between 7-15ft (2-5 meters). An estimated 99% of the Pantanal is privately owned for ranching and agriculture, and there are arrangements between the private ranches and the tourism industry that balance the economic cycles of farming and raising cattle in a seasonal flood plain.

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Lajania traveled with us as our guide for 5 days and she was great! We all loved her, and it was so nice to have a third adult (we didn’t realize we’d been missing one, but wow, what a difference!) along for our various adventures and outings. Colin in particular really connected with her and on a few occasions, he would sit and talk to her for up to an hour while the rest of us were nearby doing other things. At the end of our 5 days with her, the kids asked if she could come with us on the rest of our trip, and Colin requested to give her a few extra hugs goodbye…she was amazing to work with and had such a great rapport with all us. We hope she’ll come visit us in CA someday (she’s lived in Alexandria, VA before) and also that we meet others as kind and fun as her again in our travels.

Our first stop in the Pantanal, was, of all places, the Fazenda San Francisco (San Francisco Farm). A few hours after arriving, we joined our first nighttime safari, and were fortunate enough to see barn owls, capybara, caiman, and ocelots!

(Clear glasses for all the bugs…and Colin being a joker!)

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We continued to join the nighttime safaris and by the end of our stay, we were fortunate to see many of the rarer of the Pantanal animal species, including the hyacinth macaw, the maned wolf, the marsh deer, and the giant anteater. We also saw more common capybaras, jacare caiman (a crocodile relative), the yellow anaconda (our second viewing), howler monkeys, bunnies, and toucans.

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Ever since we first told the kids of our plans to take this trip, Cecelia has been looking forward to going horseback-riding in the Pantanal (some might even say this activity was used as a bribery/bargaining chip while trying to convince her the trip would be fun). Well, true to our word, and much to her delight, we did get to go- and it only took her 5 minutes on the horse to turn and ask us “when we get home to Berkeley, can I please get a pony?”

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Our other activities at Fazenda San Francisco included a fishing excursion on which all the kids caught piranha (I caught a tuna somehow!) on bamboo poles using raw meat for bait, and then we got to watch the guides feed piranha to a caiman alongside our boat. During this trip, we witnessed the hardest rainstorm we’ve ever seen, including thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain (the boat had a cover!) which was promptly followed by clear skies and a double rainbow.

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Our fishing and horseback riding excursions happened to fall on my birthday and led up to our second to last night at Fazenda San Francisco. Despite agreements otherwise, my dear family surprised me with a wood-carved back scratcher and a birthday cake (made by the fazenda cooks on my behalf!) at the end of dinner in a crowded communal dining hall. After our family sang to me in English, the rest of the guests chimed in with the Portuguese version to help me ring in my 42nd year. It was a great day and already felt pretty perfect. The small, sweet celebration (albeit rule-breaking) was literally icing on the cake.

One of our final excursions for this part of the trip was a kayak ride in the same river with the hungry jacare caiman. I was less than thrilled to be getting even closer to them, but we enjoyed our paddle up and down the river, and saw many species of birds, and more caiman as well.

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Departing from Fazenda San Francisco, we headed to another ranch called Pousada Aguape closer to the town of Aquidauana which was a 2.5 hour drive, including 50km(!) on a very bumpy dirt road. In Aguape, we joined one nighttime safari and did one boat tour down the Aquidauana River during which we saw no fewer than 16 toucans (they always travel in pairs!), howler monkeys, and multiple types of macaws.

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Jim, Lajania, and Cecelia also had the opportunity for a short tour of the surrounding region by air. While flights in small planes are never high on my list of things I want my loved ones to do (nor that I want to do personally), the pilot has done the flight 1,000s of times and everyone enjoyed the flight and returned safe and sound. To help put me at ease, there was even a guy on the ground who drove his dirt-bike the length of the runway prior to takeoff to make sure all of the cattle were out of the way-standard operating procedure, of course.

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After our swimming, hiking, wildlife viewing adventures of Bonito and the Pantanal, it was time to say goodbye to Brazil. We departed Campo Grande and connected through Sao Paolo International Airport where a longstanding family wager was finally settled- would Sean lose his first tooth (loose for months now) in Brazil or Argentina? He lost it on a bagel and cream cheese at the airport in Sao Paolo, and the tooth fairy recognized the significance of the international loss with the bulk of his payment in Argentine pesos + 1 symbolic Brazilian Real.

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We arrived to Buenos Aires late Monday night, October 17th ready for a month in the city of Messi, Boca Juniors, and lots of sweet treats. (We have not been disappointed thus far on the last point especially- as far as we can tell, the minimum number of bakeries per block is 2.)

More to come soon from Buenos Aires!

Hasta Pronto

Sights in Rio & visit to Foz de Iguacu

Sights in Rio & visit to Foz de Iguacu

Like the famous Corcovado, the ascent of Morro da Urca and Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) is a top tourist attraction in Rio (and Brazil in general) and we took advantage of a clear day last week to take the cable cars to the top for amazing views of Rio in every direction. Each ascent only takes a few minutes and at the top, you’re 396M above the ocean atop a single granite stone.

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We stayed for the sunset (along with many other people!) and were rewarded with gorgeous views during and after. img_2454

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I had a mom moment of total anxiety and worry right before we started the ascent (because that’s my job!), and again when I saw this at the top (because I am certain that Colin and Sean easily fit through that space separating the platform from a tremendous drop to the sea):

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This is a classic example of things we’ve been talking to the kids about: edges are rougher around here and things are not quite as safe.  I could barely watch Colin walk out on to the viewing platform with Jim once I saw that space below the ‘guardrail.’ Needless to say, we watched them all like hawks, no one fell through any cracks, and we all enjoyed the spectacular views.

On our last day in Rio before a mini-trip to Iguacu Falls, we went back to the Paralympics to see two more events: wheelchair tennis and blind soccer. It happened to be 95 degrees that day, so the air-conditioned subway ride was welcome, even though the travel to the Olympic Center takes about 1.5 hours each way. Both events were beyond amazing to see!

We noted this sign as a solid example for why it’s been so hard for us to pick up much Portuguese (lots of prepositions, for one thing…):

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The tennis match was a women’s singles match between Japan and Norway, with Norway ultimately winning after many long rallies.  The play allows up to 2 bounces on each side and it’s unbelievable how quickly the players move around the court getting into position for each hit. (The stands are not empty! Everyone in attendance was squeezed into whatever shade they could find due to the high temps!)

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The soccer game was equally as impressive.  We saw the men’s teams from Turkey and Morocco play, and as with the Goalball we attended earlier in the games, there is a bell inside the ball that allows the athletes to play by hearing where the ball is.  The goalies are sighted and must stay in the very small goal box, and each team has one coach directly behind the opposing goal to help guide shots on goal by voice. (Video here).

After the Paralympics, we were off for a planned 5-day mini-trip to Foz de Iguacu (Iguazu Falls) on the border of Brazil and Argentina where Jim would be attending the Latin American Travel Mart conference. Iguazu Falls is one of the world’s biggest waterfalls and has three times the flow capacity as Niagara Falls. Depending which brochure, book, or website you believe, it has somewhere between 250-280 individual falls.

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iPhone pictures make it hard (for me) to do the falls justice, but the first few minutes of this video help a ton: (click here) Jim also got some great pics and once I have a chance to ‘borrow’ them from him, I’ll make sure they’re up on FB and Instagram.

We were lucky enough to spend three nights at a resort called Recanto Cataratas near the falls during Jim’s conference. The enormous pool, game room complete with air hockey ping pong and pool, and onsite bowling alley, not to mention the enormous buffet meals, kept the kids quite busy (and happy!) Of course, everywhere else we ever go for the rest of the trip (and maybe our lives…) will be compared to this first “fancy” hotel that they have ever experienced.

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Already, the next three (quite lovely) hotels did not measure up due to either 1) lack of air hockey, 2) no milkshakes included with breakfast, or 3) only outdoor pools instead of the choice of both indoor and outdoor. We also saw some signs with interesting translations:

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Of course, as parents, we’re still learning what so many other parents have learned before us: kids will rarely appreciate what we think they “should” about travel and new experiences, and will make their own decisions about what they like and don’t like (and they may even be quite verbal about it too!) One of our favorite quotes from a (slightly cranky) Sean when we first arrived at the falls: “So what, a bunch of waterfalls. Great.”

We’ve quickly learned that saying something like “you should be grateful to be having this experience” will do absolutely nothing to stop the kids from being tired, hungry, cranky or from fighting, if that’s what they are doing/feeling at the moment. I know this probably doesn’t sound like a newsflash to most parents reading this, but yet, when you think about taking your kids to see something unique or have a cool experience, you don’t necessary imagine the realistic details like low blood sugar or fighting over the window seat. (And to our own parents, yes, we remember maybe being bratty one or twice on family vacations when you were introducing us to new people and places and we apologize).  So much of the impact of travel cannot be understood or realized until long after the trip is over, so we’re best off leaving it to them to come up with what these experiences mean to them on their own time and in their own terms. (And in the meantime, we’ve found a local energy bar that fits in everyone’s pockets just in case).

In and around the falls area, we saw a ton of the local wildlife, including many coaties, which are related to raccoons and walk with tourists on the boardwalk surrounding the falls, and monkeys, some of which are so accustomed to tourists they know how to open sliding glass doors to find their snacks:

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Much to the kids’ delight, a group of monkeys did show up to this balcony in the morning and try to open the door. Unlike some of the other guests, we did not feed them!

A highlight was seeing wild toucans (always in 2s!) in the trees, and we also visited the Parque de Aves (Bird Park) which had healthy representation from the reptile family as well:

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After doing our planned visits to the falls on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides of the border, we packed up our bags and headed for the airport excited to return to our ‘home for now’ in Ipanema.  Unfortunately, we ran into a fun bureaucratic snafu at customs that meant 2 extra days in Argentina. Brazil had suspended it’s typical tourist visa requirements during the olympics, so since we had arrived during that time, we didn’t have (or need) visas to enter Brazil.  Where things went wonky were that we left Brazil for less than 24 hours to see and stay on the Argentine side, and that happened to be the same night as the closing ceremony for the Paralympics.  So…when we came back to customs, the visa requirement was back in effect and we couldn’t legally re-enter the country.

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Long story short, it is challenging to fill out a visa application online in Portuguese and even harder to come up with all the documentation that is required for a visa when you are on a 5-day vacation jaunt away from even your temporary home.  Needless to say, we scraped and scrambled, and got our visa applications submitted the next day for a return to Rio 2 days later than planned. We even made the most of the extra 2-day stay:

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In addition to seeing a sight as amazing as Iguacu Falls, what was great to realize about our trip and the delayed return was how much we were all looking forward to getting back to our home in Rio.  We have only been gone from the U.S. for a little over three weeks so far, but we’ve already made a home together here and after 6 nights in hotels and eating with strangers in buffets, we were ready to get back to our own little cozy abode in Ipanema.

And while we had prepared for a 5-day trip, and no one is really the worse for the wear, the extra two days did mean at least one casualty…in the form of very brown bananas in the fruit bowl, and when you return home to brown bananas, what else do you do but incorporate them into your homeschool curriculum and make banana bread in cooking class? Today, Jim and all three kids looked up a recipe, when to the market for the missing ingredients, and went to work:

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I couldn’t even get a pic before they dug in…and seconds and thirds were served after dinner!

We’re in Rio through the end of the month, then traveling through other parts of Brazil for 2 additional weeks before taking up residence in Buenos Aires for a month-long stay in Argentina.

Boa noite for now!

Adventure…and perspective

Adventure…and perspective

We’ve continued to fill our days with new adventures, exploring local parks, getting into pick-up soccer games with local kids, and trying customary treats- acai, empada, and anything marcuja (which everyone but Sean highly recommends).

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At Colin’s suggestion a few days ago, our ‘cooking class’ consisted of the entire family working together to make vegetable soup and garlic bread.  It was pretty entertaining, especially considering that our kitchen here is way smaller than our kitchen at home and for those who have seen our kitchen, you know that means pretty darn small. Nonetheless, it was delicious.  So much so that we promptly made garlic bread again the next night to go with the (less popular) frittata entree that I (unfairly?) chose to make without class input.

Yesterday the entire family road bikes 4.5 miles around Lagoa Rodrigo De Freitas in town (Colin got a ride in a jump seat with Jim), which was our longest family bike ride yet anywhere and gave us excited visions of future 2-wheeled journeys.

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Late last week, we ventured far afield of Ipanema to see a great match between two of Rio’s rival soccer clubs, Botofogo and Flumanense, and made friends with some of the local fans in the process.IMG_2377.JPG

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Wearing the home team colors (or close) went a long way toward being welcomed in the goal-line bleachers, with more than one stadium usher making sure we sat in a section appropriate for gringo tourists (i.e. not with the loucos, see above)

Rio has a relatively new subway system (built in the 1970’s), taxis a-plenty, and even Uber, so we’ve been able to cover a lot of ground in our explorations.  Getting around town invariably means getting outside of the more ‘touristy’ areas and seeing more of the typical neighborhoods, people, lifestyles, and situations.

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Starting with our ride from the airport when Sean asked “why are so many buildings here broken?” we have had the opportunity for lots of conversations about how there are many places in the world that do not look like where we live, and how lucky we are to have the safety, cleanliness, and resources that we have in the U.S. and specifically, in the Bay Area. It’s been an interesting balance as a parent to help them stay safe in a place with unfamiliar hazards, while trying to not create fear or dislike for things that are different than what we’re used to.

While thousands of people are relaxing on the beach each weekend, vendors, primarily men, women and children from the favelas (slums), walk up and down the beach selling snacks, beach games, and souvenirs for tiny profits. We’ve always tried to have open conversations with our kids about differences between families in terms of homes, backgrounds, beliefs, and money, but as they say, ‘an picture is worth a thousand words.’ Seeing these people working while we played definitely incited many questions, and hopefully this is a picture that will stick with them for more than one afternoon on the beach and influence them in positive ways.

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Traveling is a privilege; and it can be amazing, romantic, exciting, and life changing. Travel can also be hard, because change always is. While some edges are rougher here to be sure, we are surrounded by so much natural beauty, and we’ve already encountered so many friendly and welcoming people, it’s a great opportunity (though tough at times!) to open ourselves up to the change and try to be in the moment. I keep telling myself and the kids that instead of focusing on what we miss about home, we should focus on all the new things we can appreciate about here.  I’ll be the first to say that (especially traveling with all of us) this is sometimes easier said than done (but maybe we’ll get better at it with time?) Anyway, we’re all working on this in our own ways (whether we know it or not!)

The highlight of the past few days has by far been the opportunity to attend Paralympic events and we plan to see more on Tuesday.

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The first event we saw is unique to the Paralympics and is called Goalball.  Goalball players have visual impairments or are totally blind and rely on touch and hearing only to track a soccer-sized ball with a small bell inside of it as they try to score on opponents or defend their own goal.  Because they track the ball with sound, the official calls for quiet before the ball can be in play.  It’s hard to describe, but amazing and beautiful to see the coordination between teammates and how fluidly and naturally they move in response to sounds from the ball and from the other team.

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You can see live action here. We also had the good fortune of running into a few athletes from TeamUSA and they were kind enough to pose for a photo op:

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We also got to see a portion of the men’s Paralympic triathlon which was held off of Copacabana Beach.  As with many other events at the Paralympic games, there are different divisions for athletes with different types of impairments.  I’ve always been somewhat in awe of all the athletes in my life that regularly compete in Ironman competitions, run marathons, and run ultras (100Ks!), but I’ve honestly never been so in awe of athletes as I am of these competitors.

Paralympic triathletes start with a 750M open water swim (a challenge for most people in it’s own right- imagine jumping into an unfamiliar ocean to do this swim with a major visual impairment or without the use of all of your limbs).  Next, they complete a 20KM bike ride, on bikes modified to allow the athletes to power them, usually with only their arms.  Finally, the athletes run with a guide (in the case of visual impairment) or with one or more prosthetic devices to run the 5K.

Thinking about the challenges that each of these athletes most likely faces in their daily lives, that they have faced since they were born, and what they’re accomplishing in their training and competition is so humbling and inspiring.  Most of us will probably never face anything so difficult in our own lives. Of course we all face challenges; it’s not that the relative magnitude of what they’re doing diminishes what each of us faces and overcomes. For me, it’s that these athletes are an amazing example of what humans can accomplish when we’re determined and committed. It’s undoubtedly cliche, but the strength of the human spirit on display is a privilege to behold and we are grateful that we’ve had the opportunity.

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Next up this week we are going to have the opportunity to see 5 v. 5 soccer with visually impaired athletes, and sitting volleyball, before we take a 5-day trip to Iguazu Falls.

We’re having fun in our daily adventures, looking forward to what’s ahead, and trying to enjoy each moment (and sometimes just driving each other slightly batty, because that’s what families do, right?)

More to come soon…

Chau for now!

 

 

 

 

 

Getting the hang of (some) things

Getting the hang of (some) things

On Friday night, the entire family slept for 12 solid hours.  Thanks goodness. Feeling much more human, we exited our apartment in the Ipanema neighborhood around 1:30PM to the bright sun and bustle of the local Cariocas out for their Saturday errands and shopping. Around the corner, we discovered a ‘farmer’s market’ type of situation, with fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants, and to the kids’ delight (not), every part of a chicken you could imagine. Not quite ready for truly local shopping, we headed to our current favorite corner spot “Polis Sucos,” which is a juice bar (including “boosts”) that also happens to serve chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, and of course, filet mignon.

On our path to becoming more comfortable in the local ‘hood, some of the terrain we’ve covered in the past few days includes:

  • Buying groceries at the local grocery store (and trying to figure out how to keep the family (mostly Jim) nourished since peanut butter costs more per ounce than the aforementioned filet mignon)
  • Finding a good ‘local’ that has food we all like, shows the world cup qualifying matches, and serves all 4 local cerjevas (which, truth be told, as far as we can tell are the exact same beer in 4 different cans)
  • Purchased 2 soccer balls so that we can work on our moves before we start challenging the locals 😉
  • Walked the strip between Ipanema and Copacabana, soaking in the local customs and styles

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  • Got a sarong, because we were the ONLY people at the praia Ipanema with towels

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Today was our first day of homeschooling too! The first ever lessons of the Lutz-a Learning Academy, Inc. (a Delaware corporation) began this morning at 10AM local time. (Cecelia and Jim named our school). We planned to start earlier, but one of the instructors, (his name starts with a “J”;0), overslept.  In addition to reading, writing, science, and math, our daily instruction will include circle time, “phrase/word of the day,” yoga, cooking, music (we started shopping for percussion instruments for our samba band at the flea market yesterday), and of course, MANY field trips.

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Today’s ever-important phrase of the day was: Eu tenho que ir ao banheiro.  A good one for all of us to know.  For homework, we’re all going to practice using it at home and while we’re out and about this week.

Today’s field trip will be a bus ride (first one!) to the Rio botanical garden, giving us a good short tour of the surrounding area and introduction to ~6500 flora and fauna species 🙂

Of course, no one ever said it’d be all caipirinhas and rainbows…we’ve had a few stumbles this week and are sure to have some more.  Some of the coisas this week that have dampened our rainbows temporarily:

  • Basic things take more time when you don’t speak the language
  • Drinking water doesn’t come out of the taps-we’re getting used to planning ahead with water
  • You don’t put toilet paper in the toilet-it goes in the trash (we’re learning)
  • New food can be intimidating (and yucky when your parents make you try it)
  • We are not the best futebol players on the beach (but we’re going to work on it!)

Tchau for now!

Happy Labor Day 🙂