Sunday, January 30, 2005


wsf 5: things i like about the forum

Well, it really does have a big mass of worldwide humanity. This was driven home just a moment ago when I poked my head into a tent in which soothing classical-ish music was playing. Inside the participants were doing what appeared to be a trust/healing type exercise. They had broken into pairs and one of the pair closed their eyes while the other, with an arm around the waist, slowly led the first around the tent. And it was suddenly beautiful: slanting afternoon sun, cheesy music, and pairs of people of all colors and sizes, old and young, men and women, doing a waltz infinitely slow. And I was really happy to be here, speaking with people from all over the world in whatever language works best, good people with their hearts in the right places. The diversity here makes a Benneton ad look like a convocation of the KKK. It's not token -- it's deep. This sounds trite, but this appears to be is a happy, peaceful, world community, at least for a week.

I'm also happy that, as an American, I haven't met with any personal animosity. Sure everyone hates the United States, but they don't hate me, even when I speak up in some small way in favor of the US, which I feel compelled to do from time to time. The Minas Gerias kids have a running joke that I'm a "spy of Bush," but it's all in good fun. When confronted with an American, and even an American who speaks against some of the anti-American notions going around, have continued to be friendly, respectful, and eager to engage in conversation. In fact, the only person who has been genuinely hostile toward me because of my nationality since I've been in Brazil was a Chilean trumpet player I met in Salvador. Everyone else, and everyone here, has been great.

Lastly, I was bitching to a Canadian about all the rhetoric of "dialogue" and "exchange of views" while actual dissenting views (such as my own) seem nowhere in sight. And he made the point that that's not really what they mean or what they want. He said I should imagine it's like the Republican National Convention, but for the worldwide far left. When they saw they want to promote the exchange of ideas, they mean between places and cultures, but within the ideology. This conference is not to debate issues, but to feel solidarity across world-wide gaps. Participants want to share experiences, ideas, find common ground, and feel part of a truly global movement. Though I have serious reservations about the conscensus here, I do now feel I understand the place a little better, and I do enjoy this sense of intercontinental solidarity. Went to a talk on forest rights and heard speakers talking about similar struggles in India, Indonesia, and here in the Amazon. It's somehow wonderful to see two people from native populations at opposite ends of the globe talk about their experiences and get up and shake hands.


wsf 4: forum vogue

I've always had a good dose of scorn for those who wear Che Guevara t-shirts. Fidel Castro is rather a more important figure in Latin American communism, but do you seeing anyone wearing his gnarly face on their baseball cap, boxer shorts, or baby-tee? (Well, I did see a Fidel t-shirt on sale for the first time here, but no one was buying.) No, you don't. People don't like Che for any real ideological reason. They like him because he's hot. They like him because he wrote The Motorcycle Diaries. He's Karl Marx and Jack Kerouac and James Dean all in one. Needless to say, there's a lot of Che here: his mug stares out off of keychains, paintings, mugs themselves, and the t-shirt of every third dredlocked 17-year-old. I even saw a guy with a Che tattoo on his chest. This is communist vogue, nothing more.

I have a feeling a good number of the Forum's young people come for style more than politics. It's hip to be communist, or anarchist. It's hip to hate the US.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


wsf 3: wishful thinking

Two problems, briefly treated, one serious.

The first problem is that someone decided that there would be compost and recycling bins everywhere, but not normal old trash bins. The problem with this is that everyone, lacking regular trash bins, simply throws all their regular trash in the compost and recycling. The result of course is that the recycling can't be recycled, nor the compost composted. By succumbing to wishful thinking, namely that everyone would somehow produce waste in the earth-friendly proportions mandated by the wastebaskets, the planners have ensured that virtually nothing will be composted or recycled.

The second problem is more serious. According to an English-speaking acquaintance who was here two years ago and is back now, the translation two years ago was stellar. Everything was done simultaneously by radio in several languages. But this year, according to on translator I spoke with, they wanted to democratize the translation process. Instead of hiring a cadre of professionals, they left it to bi- and tri-lingual volunteers to do the job. And while there are certainly many good translators here, the overall effect has been horrendous. Translation is often of extremely poor quality, and many workshops go without them altogether. Every single English-speaking-only attendee I have spoken with has complained about it, and some have questioned the utility of coming at all to a conference they cannot really understand. Furthermore, seeing this problem I thought I'd at least volunteer myself, but was told by the office they already had enough (obviously not true). Organization is not the strong suit here.

They did send me to work at an information desk which, in addition to not making great use of my English skills (almost all my interactions were in Portuguese) was also derailed because I didn't know any of the information anyone needed. However, I made some friends and it was still really fun.


wsf 2: how i got here

I don't know how actual bloggers do it. It seems basically impossible to both do things and blog about them. I guess bloggers don't tend to do things. I'm hopelessly behind on things to say and this place closes in 20 minutes, but I'll do what I can.

This isn't even about the forum but it's a story I want to tell. I wanted to travel from Belo Horizonte south towards Porto Alegre, but because these places are so far from one another (like 36 hours) I could only get a ticket to São Paulo (8 hours). This was bad though, because I knew that getting a SP-PA bus was going to be a bitch, what with everyone in that city of 17 million coming down for the show. I had visions of being stranded. But on one of my bus's many stops we pulled alongside a delegation of charter buses filled with hip-looking 20-somethings in matching t-shirts. These kids were going to the forum, it was all too obvious. I envied them greatly -- a sure ride and good company. And then I had a rash idea. Why not try to talk myself onto their bus?

I just started asking, and after a few tries found one particular group who was into the idea of having a strange gringo aboard. So right before my own bus left the rest area I pulled my bags off and was smuggled aboard the new bus (they didn't want the driver to see me with my backpack). Within an hour the wine was flowing, the rock and roll was rocking, and I had a gaggle of new friends. Three hours later I was drunk and had a new girlfriend. This continued for the next 30 hours or so. I'm pretty sure I caught the right bus.

They were college students from the state of Minas Gerais ("General Mines"), all members of Lula's worker's party (which makes them hardline conservatives in the context of the Forum). I have acquired a lot of Minas Gerias pride in the last few days, and can now sing the song: Minas Gerais / A gente conhece / Não esquece jamais / Mina Gerais. Trans: Minas Gerais / People get to know it / And forget it no more / Minas Gerais. I'm currently camped with the gaggle of them. More soon.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


world social forum, dose 1: setting the scene

So I'm here at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. There are a lot of things to say, so this is going to come in many installments. First off, some background on the Forum and myself.

The World Social Forum is an annual gathering of human rights groups, environmental groups, "social justice" groups, farming and land-rights groups, anti-war groups, and assorted leftists: radicals, communists, hippies, and anarchists. The 3rd forum and this, the 5th forum, have been held in Porto Alegre, due in large part to the leftist (and outgoing) local government here. The WSF (or FSM if you speak Spanish or Portuguese) is quite heavy on anti-globalization and anti-American rhetoric. Most people who attend are South American, with healthy doses of Europeans and East Asians, a smattering of North Americans, a few South Asians, and trace numbers of Africans and Middle Easterners. There are hundreds of mini-conferences spread over a period of six days, as well as a march, concerts, films, parties, and the sprawling and fetid Acampamento Juventude, where many of the Forum's younger members are staying, myself included.

A couple years back I had spotless credentials to attend an event like the Forum. I was both activist and radical, and harbored fairly strong anti-American and anti-corporate feelings . When 9/11 happened (we still haven't found the right verb for that -- "happened"?) I worked my ass off to help organize the first anti-war rally at Harvard, which about a thousand people attended on 9/20.

But since then I've shifted. I don't think my core beliefs or goals have changed at all, but I've done a lot of reading and thinking in the last few years about economics and foreign affairs. And I now believe that the leftist conscensus that has emerged, at least the one on display at the Forum, would be a disaster if it were ever put into effect. Widening rifts have emerged between me and the average Forum-attendee. With caveats, I am pro-capitalism, pro-globalization, and pro-Israel. I even don't mind GMOs. While I still think that launching the Iraq war was probably a bad idea, if we ever defeat Iraq's lingering terrorists I do believe we will leave the country better than we found it. And Afganistan is looking more and more like a success. Though I roundly hate Bush's domestic stances (especially re homosexuality and the environment), and I could never vote for the man, I certainly don't see him as the Hitler-figure so much of the world seems to have gobbled up. In short, though I still want the same things of ever (liberté, egalité, fraternité!) and still feel like exactly the same person as always, new information and knowledge have made me more conservative.

So why then am I at the Forum? There are a few possible explanations.
  1. I want to give far-leftists one last shot at convincing me they don't have their heads up their asses.
  2. I want to see close-up the current state of the left.
  3. I can still look and act the part and secretly get off at being a neoliberal spy.
  4. It's a big party and I want to get laid.

Any and all of these are true. I've got to run off and be a volunteer right now (more on that later), but there is much more to come, should I ever get enough computer time to write it. Also photos, if only I could upload them somehow.


lowly insect my ass...

I'm a little offended that neo-neocon got Lowly Insect status by dint of my two links, while I myself still languish as a Crunchy Crustacean because for some reason TTLB doesn't recognize my 5, count them, 5 unique inbound links, one of which I might add is from tenuously famous people. I guess the way to blogging superstardom is to start an unread shadow blog with links only to yourself.

UPDATE: Yay! Now I'm a Slimy Mollusc. I guess that's, um, better.

Monday, January 24, 2005



Lately I've been committing the capital sin of blogging: not posting anything. My excuse: I've been having a life. There seems to be an essential conflict between doing things and writing about them. I'm trying to work out a balance.

Right now I'm in Belo Horizonte, a city in the interior, where I'm visiting a friend. Soon I'll be traveling south to Porto Alegre, where I'll attend the World Social Forum. And after that it's back up to Salvador for the week of Carnaval.

So if you're someone who reads this blog, sorry. I'll try to get back on the wagon soon.

Friday, January 21, 2005


como uma onda... the name of a popular soap opera here. But forget that: instead read neo-neocon's new essay on the tsunami, natural disasters in general, and collective memory.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005



I recently got back from four days in the Chapada Diamantina. This is a mountainous wooded region about 7 hours inland from Salvador, with soaring bluffs and mesas, waterfalls galore, and a lot of tourists into natural foods and spiritual energy and healing and aliens and smoking maconha. It's a bit like Sedona.

My trip started with me waking up at exactly the time my bus was supposed to leave the station. Awesome, thought I. I was traveling with my friends Michelle and Mariel, and was just making peace with the fact I was going to have to find another bus and travel alone, when Márcia suggested a solution that definitely wouldn't work in the US. Take a taxi to a nearby point on the highway that she knew the bus would pass, and call Michelle and have her get the bus driver to stop and pick me up. So before I knew it I was in a cab racing down the highway. We raced and raced, but in the end we missed the bus by a minute! I was again reconciling myself with the fact I'd missed my bus when the taxi driver, who dreams of days like this, says he thinks he can catch the bus. I politely decline, of course. (Parents please skip to paragraph below.) But then again, I've already gone this far. What the hell. I call Michelle again and she somehow convinces the now unamused driver to pull over. We speed like crazy and get there a minute later. I climb on the bus, to the glares of all.

The upshot of all this is that I forgot to bring several key items, among them my camera. So no pictures. You would have seen a lot of waterfalls and jutting rocks, and a cavern or two. I jumped off a lot of rocks into deep swimming holes, went snorkeling in a grotto filled with bats, and even went on a zip line. It was fun. This dude took some pictures, so you can look at them. I climbed one of the big mesas, named Morro do Pai Inácio after a slave who, the story goes, slept with the wife of the French consul and then fled here. The authorities came to get him but, nearly surrounded, he delivered a stirring speech about how he'd prefer death to captivity and with that tossed himself over the edge. Here the storyteller's friend, who had been acting the part of Inácio, ran to the edge and tossed himself off. Everyone gave a little gasp. Turns out there's a hidden ledge just below, and Inácio, thought dead, thereby escaped capture. Except that the story is apocrophal. Too bad.

But the real thing I want to write about is the hippie commune I visited, Campina. I find it somewhat remarkable that they have a website and an email address -- they don't even have a phone. About a month ago I met a woman named Nadine who has lived in Campina for the 14 years of its existence and was in Salvador on business. She told me a little about the place, and I filed it in the back of my mind. I remembered it was in the Chapada, but not where. I also didn't remember its name. But with Michelle and Mariel returning home to Salvador I decided to stay and find it, and began asking around. After eliminating other nearby communes from the running (Roda and Lothlorien) I zeroed in on Campina, near the town of Capão. I spent a night in Capão, where I had a brief and fairly chaste romance with a young mother, and set out the next morning for Campina. Campina proved elusive. (Parents please skip to another post.) After some hitchhiking I ended up being left along a stretch of deserted dirt road, with a rough trail leading off it. I walked for a couple miles, careful to take good account of where I had been, and finally found a man working near a group of houses. This wasn't Campina, but it was a ways over there, he said. You have to cross a river, and some barbed wire, and another river, and some other stuff, and it was really hard to tell because this guy had quite the regional accent. Feeling I'd already come all this way I kept going, and crossed a whole bunch of things, and then reached an area with a network of trails. It was not at all clear where to go. Here's where my behavior gets sketchy. I started kind of wandering up and down these trails looking for signs of life. (In my defense, the brush was low here and I kept the houses I had come from in view most of the time. I was careful, sort of.) I started despairing. What the hell was I going here, wandering alone through these mountain in the hot sun, my water running low, in search of a bunch of hippies? I never did quite answer that question, but I did think of the novel I recently read, O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, which is essentially a self-help book about following your dreams, but because it was in Portguese held my attention. Anyway, one of the trite lessons that book teaches is that people are tested right before they achieve their goals. So with that in mind I took like twenty more steps and saw... corn. And hand-painted signs explaining that it was corn. I was in Campina!

Serendipidously the first person I ran into was Nadine, who greated me like an old friend and led me around by the hand introducing me to people. There was Tassa, another founder, and Brunão, and herbal healing specialist from Portugal, and her four children, and so on. I never did see the whole place or meet all the people -- it just went on. More houses and tents, more gardens. According to Nadine there are 15 permanent residents, 10 children, and a variable number of long-term visitors from Brazil and abroad. Campina is centered around the eating lodge, which is the only building with electricity (car-battery supplied). I wish I had pictures for you, but I don't. Gotta actually write this time. All the food is cooked on the wood stove or in the clay oven, which is about the size and shape of an small igloo. The food itself is mostly things from the gardens. There are fruit trees everywhere, and Nadine soon sat me down to a plate of 3 papayas, which I devoured. Unlike most of Brazil you can drink the tap water at Campina, which comes from a nearby stream. At mealtime, comunity members are called in from the fields with a large conch-shell horn. There are dogs and chickens and kids all over, and a monkey named Mica who lives in a tree near the lodge. Nadine invited me to stay a week, and, having commitments in Salvador, I agreed at least to stay the night.

I must say I was impressed by the place. As most readers of this blog probably know, being as they are exclusively close personal friends of mine, I lived in a co-operative for three years and on an organic farm for 6 months. I have a large soft spot for places like this. I've never been much for anything smacking of spiritualism or mysticism (which this had in spades; the night I was there Nadine was busy in a ceremony with a local shaman) but natural food and community and beautiful wilderness really hit me where it counts. I perused this album they had of photos from the annual "Encontro" of Brazilian Alternative Communities, which appears to be a yearly meeting where all the people from places like this get together and have a big party: baking bread, dancing in circles, bathing naked in streams, and conducting strange healing rituals. On the whole the picture was of a healthy, lively, vibrant community of communities. They really seemed to be living the dream.

But of course, not all was well in Campina. It never is. Nadine told me about how she and one of the other community members, Luis Miguel, could never get along. They'd lived together 14 years and learned to tolerate each other, but there was always tension. For instance, there was a large group of visitors coming in a few days and Luis had decreed that they weren't taking any other visitors until after the group had passed. He had already turned away a couple of hikers, but Nadine wanted me to stay and so declared me a "personal guest", thus bypassing Luis' decree. I didn't see much of Luis, but something was definitely up. Also, where was the father of Nadine's children? Turns out he's in Capão, running a pizza shop. He left the community, for reasons unspecified. And it was clear that much of the work was falling to a few people: from what I could see Nadine, who was a flurry of farming and sewing and cooking the whole time I was there, and Tassa, who is one of those quiet guys who, while you aren't looking, goes and constructs a whole new irrigation system.

Communes and co-operatives are interesting because they are designed exploit one economic dynamic, increasing returns to scale (i.e. cooking dinner for 40 is much less than 40 times as hard as cooking for one), while leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to another, the tragedy of the commons (i.e. freeloading). (Note that the original Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, had a strange Mathusian population-control element that I think is quite misguided. But I believe the basic idea is correct that people who engage in a commons--in this case Campina--get all the benefits of shirking but only suffer a fraction of the costs, and this, predictably, leads to shirking.) Anyway, a commune's best defense against shirking is the close personal bonds that come from small size and shared experience. Yet the smaller the commune is, the less the returns to scale and less self-sufficient it can be. Campina buys many things from outside: grain, candles, soap, matches, and so on, and they sometimes make crafts to sell for money outside the community. This risks bringing the community even farther from its ideal of the self-sufficient island, turning it into a psuedo-firm.

The larger a community is the higher the quality of life it can achieve self-sufficiently. Theoretically a single person can be self-sufficient, but at the level of a hermit: living in a shack or cave, eating berries, hunting, and subsistence farming. A place like Campina provides a higher quality of life: greater variety of foods, textiles, better housing, but still they cannot reach their desired level qulity of life (which includes things like candles and soap) without trade. A community that could achieve this self-sufficiently, say a small town, would be hopelessly too large for the type of social bonds that permit communal living without large-scale shirking. So people within the town revert to specialization and trade--in a word, capitalism--in order to avoid a tragedy of the commons. And this of course brings with it a loss of communal feeling, the possibility of polarization into rich and poor, and all the familiar problems. Theoretically, I see no reason why a network of Campina-sized communities, each providing most of their own needs but also acting as pseudo-firms by producing specialized commodities for trade, couldn't persist successfully. Yet we don't tend to see that. Nothing about capitalism forbids it, but people don't tend to do it. I don't know why.

That night I slept in a small house without light, in a room where one wall was a hung quilt, a room in which Nadine said she and her family had lived for 4 years. On my way from the lodge to the house the path was very dark, and I suddenly realized that I couldn't see a light anywhere on any of the surrounding hills. I waited a while for my eyes to adjust, then I looked up into the moonless sky and saw the black silouette of a great tree, the Milky Way like a glowing gash behind it, and the stars thick and teeming, tumbling over one another into view. Then I turned slowly, and went into the house.


read reihan

I've added another link in my friends' blogs section. It's to a group blog, and a conservative one at that (watch out, you commies!). My friend Reihan is an irresistably funny writer, a sharp thinker, and a mensch to boot. Plus he put up a link to my blog, and in the vicious quid pro quo of today's blogosphere, I have virtually no choice but to respond in kind. So read Reihan. Think of him as the Bengali hip-hop Margaret Thatcher.

Also, I can't resist putting in yet another plug for my friend Jamie's blog. He's lived in Japan 2+ years now, and writes the sort of perceptive social commentary, leavened with humor, that I would wish to write about Brazil if only I had the slightest clue how shit works here.

UPDATE: Just one example of what's in store.


more ridiculous praise for the arcade fire

Pitchfork Media, the pseudo-official arbiter of indie cool, just named Funeral the number #1 album of the year.

Also, NPR just did a piece.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


photo leftovers

I had some extra photos that seemed good enough to post, so here a bunch of them together. Two themes can be discerned. The first is the zoo. I went to the zoo a couple weeks ago, in the hopes of seeing the flamingo. I had gone to the zoo once before and seen the animals, but none impressed me like the flamingo, and I wanted to see it again and take a picture. Have you ever seen a live flamingo? I hadn't. We're all familiar with the lawn ornaments, but they just don't prepare you. Imagine a six-foot-tall stick, eight inches wide and the color of fine-spun cotton candy. It's baby-breath pink and otherworldly. And it walks around and does things. While I watched it, the elegant flamingo walked straight into the large sign with information on its gestation and natural range. I guess it was having trouble with its range.

And maybe that was the problem. See, when I went back there were men cleaning the enclosure. Turns out: flamingo died! No one could tell me how. So no flamingo pictures. But I tell you, if you ever get the chance, see yourself a flamingo.

Other dead animals included the giraffe. They seem to be having some troubles at the Salvador zoo. They're also understaffed. While there I watched three surly college students climb, unmolested by staff, into the enclosure of the hippos, an animal I was taught was actually the most dangerous in the world. This didn't seem to burden them as they marched right up and started sticking their hands in its mouth. I was chomping my own fingers, ready to see geysers of blood at any moment, but nothing happened.

The other major group is more pictures of people with those damn face cards. For some reason I continue to think they are really, really funny.


some intrepid 20-somethings climb in the pen with the hippos


this is what happens when a zoo is understaffed


the giraffe died two years ago, but they haven't given up


salvador's famous deer 'n' duck exhibit


food for the leopards. the man next to me commented that there are many people on the street who do not eat this well.


workers clean the dead flamingo's enclosure


world's largest rodents


brazil's favorite pasttimes, soccer and drag, together at last






the funny thing is márcia sort of looks like this anyway


me and márcia


i don't remember this guy's name

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


how to get money from harvard

I recently applied to grad school at Harvard, and in the financial aid section they ask a bunch of questions to find out if you qualify for "special" funding. Presumably these are special pots of money earmarked by their donors for people fitting particular descriptions. The questions starte getting strange, so I figured I'd share. Here are some of the things that might get you money from Harvard:

Citizen or native of:

A permanent or long-term resident of:

A graduate of:

A member of:

Planning a career in:

A lineal or collateral descendent of:

Harvard class of:

[who's alive from these classes and still applying to grad school? -ed.]

Please indicate if you have a family surname of:

If yes, please give exact relationship . Be prepared to provide documentation.

An employee of Godfrey L. Cabot, Inc. or any associated companies.

Monday, January 03, 2005



Another friend compromises her privacy and dignity.

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