Thursday, November 18, 2010

Black Gold, but no Texas Tea

Millions of my readers are probably wondering what happened to me, not having blogged for over a week. The plain and simple truth is that we've just been having too much fun! So, while I apologize for not keeping everyone informed like I had originally intended, I should have known not to embark upon such a demanding task. I've tried to keep journals at various times in my life and have never lasted more than a couple of weeks. Again, sorry; but let me now fill you in on today's adventures in Ouro Preto ("Black Gold"), a beautiful and quaint town in Brazil's state of Minas Gerais.

We arrived here last evening, having rented a compact car at Belo Horizontes and driven two and a half hours through gorgeous (pardon the pun), verdant mountains to the Hotel Luxor. It was a little late to take pictures, so we went down to the hotel's restaurant and each had delicious meals. Robin had Frango ao Vinho Branco and a dessert of Sorvete Simples (of course), while I had a Salada de Palmito, the Lombinho de Porco a Miniera, and a regional specialty dessert called Doce de Leite com Queijo Minas. All the food was very good, the service was great, and dining room had a pleasing ambience with its stone walls over two feet thick!

Ouro Preto is a small 300 year-old mining town that is based in a valley but has houses and churches that sprawl up the surrounding mountains. From our window, we can see four ancient churches and hundreds of houses on cobblestone streets. This morning, we went out to explore this beautiful town, but we probably should have explored more about what we were getting ourselves into before we journeyed forth.

Some of you may be familiar with the hills of San Fransisco. Multiply those hills by ten and you'll have an idea of the steep inclines we have here! I had read that there was a lot of walking to do, and we had been told (the night prior to our trip) that there were a lot of hills. Understatement! You would almost need to have trained for an Iron Man event to tour this city of uneven stone steps and cobblestone walkways. Not surprisingly, the four and five-inch heels we saw women wearing in Santa Catarina are non-existent here. Driving is not something I'd recommend either, unless you have a more powerful car than our 1.0 litre Fiat. In fact, after trying to drive around this afternoon, we decided to take a cab to dinner tonight. The twelve reals was worth less stress. I'd prefer to be beamed out of here tomorrow when we leave, but the technology isn't here yet.

Having said that, the museums and churches here are exquisite, with elaborate sculptures, carvings, and paintings contained within more rustic exteriors. We were not expecting to find such treasures within. Many of the stone and wood carvings were performed by a crippled man named Antônio Francisco Lisboa, an architect and artist with the nickname "Aleijadinho" (Little Cripple). Awesome stuff here.

Most of the shops here cater to tourists and sell the same products, much of it imported from China and Indonesia. One business of note, though, is the gem trade. Because Ouro Preto was a mining town several legitimate jewelers sell beautiful jewelry and handicrafts made with indigenous imperial topaz, tourmaline, ruby and emerald, plus many more "gemmas". Robin really enjoyed seeing all of that. I prefered the stickers, coffee mugs, and t-shirts that said stuff like "I (heart) Ouro Preto" and "My Parents Went to Ouro Preto and All I Got Was This Stupid T-shirt". Just kidding about the last part, but I'm sure you could find them if you looked!

We had some fun here, too. While in the Museu de Ciencia e Tecnica, we were accosted by about twenty twelve year-olds who were on a field trip. One of them heard Robin and I talking and, like bees to the slaughter, we soon were surrounded by wannabe English speakers. After several minutes of exchanging names and nicknames like "Nickito", "Chicken Face" and "Big Head", their teacher (or the museum director, we're not sure) led them out of the room. Each time they saw us they would yell something in English, usually something challenging like "hi" or "goodbye".

This evening, we ate at what was supposedly the best, yet inexpensive restaurant in Minas Gerais, according to the latest Fodor's guide. I'd have to agree that it was probably the best place around, what with the presentation and quality of the food, great service and genuine cloth napkins (something you don't find too often in Brasil). The only problem is that it was R$200! The glass of wine that Robin and I split (two glasses - as if...) was R$18 alone. Andre, our waiter who spoke fairly logical English, spoke with us from time to time and, after dinner, gave me permission to play the grand piano there in the restaurant. The hotel owner dimmed the lights and sat and listened along with others in the lobby and out on the sidewalk. Andre also gave us a tour of the hotel which was fabulous. If you ever wish to visit this part of the world, I highly recommend staying at the Hotel Solar do Rosario. Just remember to wear hiking boots.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Culture, Society & Politics, but I Ain't no Fala Back Girl

Okay, the title is a little odd, right? "Fala" means speak. I had to learn that so I could tell people that "Fala nao Portuguese" (I don't speaka da language). Surprisingly, though, because of the many socio-political similarities between Brasil and the U.S., because God is the same up north as He is down south, and because music unites everybody, language is a minor point. Still, I want to learn Portuguese because it sounds cool (and it would make it easier for the next trip!).

We've talked politics (go figure) quite a bit in the short time that we've been here, and we've also learned quite a bit about Brasilian society, particularly in the southern region. One thing I've noticed in the few countries that I've learned about, namely the U.S., Italy, Vietnam, and Korea, is that there is basic north-south contentiousness. Brasil is no different, except that they don't have racial prejudice because of their population diversity from the beginning. That's a hard concept to accept, isn't it?

Mario, a southerner, says that the northerners are uneducated, poor, and lazy; that each generation stays in a pattern of poverty because, in their view, 1) that's the way it has always been and always will be for them, and 2) why change when the government provides enough with which to get by? Does this sound familiar?

The recent presidential election was an interesting one. The woman who won was promoted heavily by the outgoing president, who promised more of the same government programs and handouts. She had no higher education or valid work experience. She won because of the northern vote. You may say, "The northerners can't be that bad--at least they voted!" Well, here in Brasil, voting is mandatory. If you don't vote, they penalize you with a fine. For the U.S., I'd suggest that we penalize ignorant voters with fines!

Ironically, the underdog candidate was a woman from the north who pulled herself up by the bootstraps, who pursued an education with much difficulty and who worked hard to eventually become a fairly conservative state senator. She just didn't have the experience or the big push from the outgoing leftist party. Mario actually voted for yet another candidate who had conservative views and much more experience in government. He and Lucianne were disappointed in the election because they know that Socialism is a failed system. Mario pointed out that France is a mess, as is China who seems to want Communism for control and Capitalism for the wealth. It went unsaid that America is a mess for some of the same reasons....The running joke here now is that you don't have to be educated or to have done much to become president. Does THAT sound familiar?

Brasilians sleep later and stay up later than we do in the States. Our friends go to bed around midnight to 1 a.m. and rise at around 8 or 9 a.m. No meals are skipped here! Fruit and bread, sweet pastries, juice, soda, and coffee are offered in the morning. Lunch (lanch) is a big meal, often what we would normally eat for dinner: chicken, rice, steak, churrasco, salad, etc. Yesterday, Lucianne prepared a wonderful baked salmon with melted cheese along with rice and salad. We ate that at around 3 p.m. At 11 p.m., we stopped in at Blues & Burgers, a hamburger joint owned by a Texan named Gil. The food was good and Gil was quite hospitable. Then we went home to watch a video of our performance with a band at Mario's church--this was accompanied by ice cream and a super sweet strawberry dessert that Lucianne also made.

Saturday night was pizza night with home-made tuna and cheese, and three- cheese pizzas. The dessert that night is worth a special mention: Chocolate pizza. This she made with regular old mozzarella and milk chocolate. I highly recommend it, probably for any meal!

I mentioned that we played with a band at church. Mario telephoned his drummer and bassist buddies and Robin, Mario, and I had the opportunity to play two praise and worship songs, Let it Rise
and Shout to the Lord
. We only practiced Let it Rise twice just before the service, but it turned out great and the congregation loved it. Mario's pastor/older brother gave a good sermon and we were welcomed by just about everyone as we stood at the door, shook hands, and wished them "bom noite" (good night). Their church service is much like our contemporary one, but it is held at night. More services are held on Sunday evening than on sunday morning--quite the opposite in the U.S. They have the ubiquitous projection system and screen, sound system with sound man, an offering, sermon, welcome time, and even announcements (something I wish we wouldn't do during services). Paranagua has about fifty churches that are open at night. As we drove home, we saw many churches where the people spilled out onto the streets! Though evident, Baptist is not the largest denomination. Catholicism, Presbyterian and Lutheran are the largest denominations.

We met Mario's mom, Mariquinha, who is 91 and a cancer survivor. She's a sweet little woman with a big smile. Hard of hearing, people have to get close to her and talk very loudly. She went through chemotherapy, is regaining her hair, and is in pretty good health now. Uncle Jose is going to be 100 in January. He is pastor emeritus at a baptist church and became a pastor because of the Lord working through American missionaries who visited him 70+ years ago. He's alert and in good health. We also met the winner of the fastest talker award: Mario's sister, Sorah. She was fascinated that we caught our own crabs to eat, but that's because crab harvesting here is way different. It involves digging through mud and actually working for them. I'm so glad that our crabs in the U.S. come to us!

Soon, we'll be on to Foz do Iguacu...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Day 1.5 em Brasil

Because we pretty much had no concrete itinerary, we decided to plan a little more and make some plane reservations for other side trips for later in our stay. After two hours of talking, internet searching and cost-comparing, we went to use our charge card and found out that the airline wouldn't accept international cards. Lucienne spent even more time on the telephone and the computer on our behalf, staying up another hour past everyone else (sometime after midnight!).

Friday, November 5, 2010

Brasil: Our First Day Below the Equator

My grandmother used to be into "fitness", having owned one of those contraptions that was comprised of a motor and a large cloth belt that you slipped around your waist and, once you turned it on, it shook and shimmied you, presumably, until you lost all of those pounds and inches. In actuality what it did was to re-arrange your organs and while allowing you to keep your fat.

So, what does that have to do with our trip? Well, our first plane ride from Norfolk to Miami was just like that old fitness machine--jossling us around and seeming to re-arrange our internal organs! While Robin didn't have a problem with reading, my eyes bounced off the page like the infamous bouncing ball that we used to follow while singing with songs on teevee. The good news is that the next two airplane rides were fine. I had told Brian that I would sleep on the overnight flight, but, as he predicted, I didn't. We watched 30Rock and Office re-runs in between tossing and quasi-turning in our narrow seats.

At the Curitiba airport, our friends, Mario and Lucienne, greeted us with big smiles and bigger hugs. We went on to enjoy lunch at their favorite churrascuria. For those who don't know what that is, it's a sort of buffet where you can fill your plate with all sorts of veggies and prepared dishes. Several waiters come round to your table with various types and cuts of meats and you can take as much or as little as you please. There's a little sign on the table that you can display with a "SIM" (yes) or a "NAO" (no) to tell them whether you're still interested. Today, the sign wasn't working, but boy, that food was delicious!

We're just resting for the balance of the day, preparing ourselves for tomorrows adventures!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dear Mr. "President"

March 29, 2010

Dear Mr. President:

Over the past several years, it has been stated clearly by you and by those with whom you have associated that you have an entirely different idea of what the Unites States is and what it should be. It would be convenient for you yet false, though, to believe that you were elected because of these statements. Truly, your election to power was a combination of both a modern telling of the Emperor’s New Clothes and a hatred developed and encouraged by the media left embraced by the lost. But there is no point in listing facts or figures here, for you believe something so contrary to the ideology of most Americans that it would be like debating God’s grace with an atheist.

The socialistic ideals that you and the majority of members in Congress espouse are going to be your downfall when you and they are up for re-election. You’ve engaged in open bribery and, at the same time, chicanery when it comes to accomplishing your goals of destroying our country’s very existence. You are responsible for growing the size of an already-intrusive federal government. You have granted more power to the Department of the Treasury and to the non-governmental Federal Reserve Corporation where you have no explicit or implicit right; you have illegally expanded your administration, upsetting the balance of powers by hiring people for positions that are not approved by either the Legislative or Judicial branches; you have promoted Leftist/Socialist people to positions of authority in most government departments, and you have discounted or excluded valid policy options as proposed by the minority party. Perhaps your most egregious violation above all else, however, is that you have ignored the U.S. Constitution and you have ignored us – the electorate.

If it were up to the people you could be impeached for these offenses, but, despite it being up to us, we no longer have representation as evidenced by the new reich. Congress and you have thrown the Constitution out with the bathwater, so an impeachment can never be without a take-over of the House and Senate by people who will properly act on our behalf.

I understand, now, what your book title, The Audacity of Hope means. It is the working title of your offensive political agenda and your impudent style as leader of an ever-weakening world power. Despite your agenda and the reckless actions of Congress, our economy is an abysmal failure with steadily high unemployment and a currency value that is at a record low. The people have no faith in investments either on the stock market, in real estate, or in the value of the dollar. We are bracing ourselves for a worsening situation because of your record-breaking debt creation through various obscene government spending plans like health care reform and troubled asset relief.

Mr. President, this you will be unable to ignore: We, the citizenry, understand your motives and, in the long run, we will shut down the Obama-style totalitarianism that you are racing to create. Even if it is not accomplished this year, it will be so by 2012 through the legitimate election of conservative people who believe in the solidity of our Constitution and in those Godly principles on which it is firmly based.



Saturday, March 6, 2010

Email to teachers @MHS regarding budget cuts

Excerpts from an email sent to Mathews High School teachers dated March 5, 2010 sent by David Malechek, principal of MHS are as follows:

Budget News. Here is a recap of the Budget Meeting held at MHS yesterday:

o Latest projection from the state is a $1.2 million cut in revenue for Mathews County

o Dr. Holleran did not propose a budget, but rather presented two scenarios to help the School Board realize the impact of cuts on the School Division (I am only including the impact on Mathews High School; all schools and staff will be affected equally):

1. RIF 2-3 teacher assistant positions; RIF part-time position; RIF 3 full-time teaching positions
(RIF means reduction in force.)

2. Move to a 150 day calendar. Savings from moving to a shortened work-week would result in considerable savings in fuel and labor costs: RIF 2-3 teacher assistants; RIF one part-time position; explore options of teachers working ½ time (teachers salary and number of work days would not be affected; school day would be extended by 30 minutes; Mathews High School would have to move to a 7-period day in order to get the minimum number of hours required by the state)

o The School Board voted unanimously to reject any cuts and asked Dr. Holleran to propose a budget funded in full at 2009-2010 levels plus to include a step increase for teachers.

o What this means: After a budget per the School Board’s request is rendered by Dr. Holleran and approved by the School Board, we will have to see what action the Mathews County Board of Supervisors will take. The Board of Supervisors may accept the budget in full (which would result in a tax increase), fund the budge in part, or reject the budget altogether and instruct the School Board to present a budget with cuts of up to $1.2 million. It will be May until we have any final results on what cuts, if any, will take place.

So, its business as usual as far as the school board and Dr. Holleran are concerned. NO administrative positions will be cut according to his ‘proposal’. Do you mean to tell me the Superintendant of schools did not even propose a budget at this meeting, only cutting teachers?
And your school board voted to reject cuts and increase pay for teachers. What’s up with that? Keeping your head in the sand does not make the problem go away or make the money magically appear!

The solution? Pass the buck to the Board of Supervisors. Make them look like the bad guy. Well, maybe it’s time for the BOS to make the budget cuts for the school board since they seem incapable of recognizing the fact that there is a budget shortfall.
I recommend the BOS eliminate the positions of Assistant Superintendant, Assistant principals in all three schools, and the issue of county vehicles to school administrators. There will be no need to cut vital teacher positions or raise taxes if we cut the fat from the top.

In another side note, please read the following from Harvey Morgan regarding our localities having more say in how their funds (your tax $) are distributed:

To minimize the impact on public education of scarce tax dollars, the House plan proposes giving local school division’s significantly greater flexibility in allocating funds provided to them by the state. Under the House plan, portions of direct state aid will be distributed as a block grant and state mandates relaxed, easing the restrictions inherent in the existing Standards of Quality. Recognizing that responding to challenging economic times prohibits a “one-size-fits-all” approach, the House gives local schools the ability to make the most of available funds, allowing them to determine where best to dedicate available resources without state direction. The House also lowers for local governing boards the amount of local required retirement spending.

So when you hear “our hands are tied” or “the state directs where our funds are to be spent” you will know that this is not true.

I am appalled by the ‘politics’ involved when it comes to education. It’s not about educating the children, it’s about money. Don’t be fooled, there is a lot of money involved. Why, Dr. Holleran alone makes close to $100,000 per year. (That is public information).

Everything I touch is taxed. I’m drained. There is no more you can squeeze out of my dollar. I cannot support more taxes. And I know I’m not alone on this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Backdoor Taxes to Hit Middle Class

Please note: This Reuters article was ordered to be pulled by the White House earlier today, I think for obvious reasons. I've provided it here so that the reader can benefit from the info. It is yet another reason why we need the FairTax! -RT

Backdoor Taxes to Hit Middle Class
By Terri Cullen – Mon Feb 1, 4:09 pm ET

Millions of middle-class households already may be facing higher taxes in 2010 because Congress has failed to extend tax breaks that expired on January 1, most notably a “patch” that limited the impact of the alternative minimum tax. The AMT, initially designed to prevent the very rich from avoiding income taxes, was never indexed for inflation. Now the tax is affecting millions of middle-income households, but lawmakers have been reluctant to repeal it because it has become a key source of revenue.

Without annual legislation to renew the patch this year, the AMT could affect an estimated 25 million taxpayers with incomes as low as $33,750 (or $45,000 for joint filers). Even if the patch is extended to last year’s levels, the tax will hit American families that can hardly be considered wealthy—the AMT exemption for 2009 was $46,700 for singles and $70,950 for married couples filing jointly.

Middle-class families also will find fewer tax breaks available to them in 2010 if other popular tax provisions are allowed to expire. Among them:

* Taxpayers who itemize will lose the option to deduct state sales-tax payments instead of state and local income taxes;

* The $250 teacher tax credit for classroom supplies;

* The tax deduction for up to $4,000 of college tuition and expenses;

* Individuals who don’t itemize will no longer be able to increase their standard deduction by up to $1,000 for property taxes paid;

* The first $2,400 of unemployment benefits are taxable, in 2009 that amount was tax-free.