Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reflections in Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brasil

As 2013 draws to a close I cannot help but be in a reflective mood.  It has been a year of transitions.  The biggest transition for me was my retirement.  The other big and wonderful transition was welcoming our daughter-in-law into our family following our son’s wedding last year.  There were other transitions of course but these two were big and important.  They are good transitions.  But while welcoming our new daughter-in-law is wonderful, my retirement is a major shift from a lifetime of working.

Excepting three years in the mid-eighties when my husband and I and our two very young children lived back and forth between Brasil and Seattle, I worked my whole adult life – almost forty years.  That meant that with the exception of vacations, I went to an office and worked as a water resources engineer more than eight hours a day, five days a week for years. 

Now I don’t have an office to go to.  My job is at home.  I am the boss!  This is a rather nice situation but then again, what is my job?  I like to have a job or what I like to call a program.  Here is my program: writing; taking time to reflect and understand what is important in my life and in the world around me; connecting with family, old friends and new friends; learning Portuguese; staying healthy; cooking delicious food (and making sure I get enough exercise to maintain a healthy weight); and figuring out how to give back to the world.  I am adapting to retirement.

One of the things I realized about myself recently is that I don’t believe in hiding feelings.  I am a ridiculously sentimental person but I am not apologizing.  On the contrary I think deep feelings, feelings of love and forgiveness are crucial.  It seems that the older I get, the more important it is to simply say what it is that I feel – sometimes speaking up might be interpreted as being a bit in your face – too much information – my young relatives call it. 

But, as we age and loved ones die from natural and unnatural causes, life becomes short.  It is important to tell the people you love just that.  Just say I love you.  Be clear about how you feel.  If something matters to you, let others know.  In all likelihood they might share your feeling.  The worst thing that will happen is that the other person or persons won’t feel the same way.  But if that happens you are no worse off than before and at least you have been honest. 

I don’t mean to be corny.   I’m sure I could be accused of that.   Over the past few years both I and many people I care about have lost parents, spouses and even children due to accidents, illnesses and old age.  Once someone dies there is no time left to say what you feel.  So now is a good time.  It is in the spirit of the holiday season.  Speaking up is not only about affection.  It is about forgiveness too.  Often we have misunderstandings with people we love.  Sometimes someone who is important to you does something that hurts you or just doesn’t feel good.  Tell them why the action makes you unhappy, talk it through, but then forgive them and move on.  The recent death of Nelson Mandela is a reminder to all of us what incredible power forgiveness holds.

Catedral de VItória
This week Jeff and I visited the city of Vitória where Jeff has a project.  It is located on the northeastern coast of Brazil north of Rio de Janeiro.  Vitória is the capital city of the state of Espírito Santo.  Vitória and the surrounding metropolitan region have a population of about one million people.  The city is physically beautiful – set on green hills that fall to the Atlantic Ocean among a series of natural bays and harbors.  It is an old city with many historical buildings.  The Portuguese developed the area starting in 1535.  

The state of Espírito Santo is small and mountainous but quite prosperous.  Its economy depends heavily on industrial development including offshore petroleum, manufacture of iron and steel as well as forestry and agricultural products.  The agriculture and forestry industries thrive in the rich soil and humid climate – Espírito Santo produces coffee, many fruit (including the sweetest pineapples I have ever tasted), milk, eggs, eucalyptus trees for pulp and many other important agricultural products that feed Brazil and, via export, other nations.

Moqueca Capixaba with traditional side dishes
People from Espírito Santo are called capixabas… literally people with hair the color of corn silk.  The word derives from a native Indian language and began in response to the blond hair of the original Portuguese settlers.  Now the population is diverse and includes many people of Italian descent and descendants of African slaves.  As a seaport, Vitória boasts excellent seafood.  It is famous for its moqueca capixaba – a delicious seafood stew that, unlike its counterpart in Northeastern Brasil, does not use coconut milk.  It is cooked traditionally in a special clay pot that keeps its hot on the table and imparts a unique wonderful taste.

While in Vitória I attended a Feira do Verde or Green Festival put on by the state to celebrate and educate citizens about environmental protection and sustainability.  I felt right at home due to past work.  The state of Espírito Santo is very progressive in protecting and managing its water and land resources.  The keynote speech was all about using biosolids (a by-product of sewage treatment) as fertilizer for forest and agricultural products.  I chatted with many folks who had the same commitment to managing the natural resources that my colleagues in Seattle and King County have.  One highlight for me was listening to the Coral das Águas sing Christmas carols.  The choir is a group of talented men and women who work for the regional water utility – this is one thing King County doesn’t have!

We stayed on Camburi beach – a perfect half moon bordered by yellow sandy beaches.  Palm trees line the boardwalk that runs along the coast.  The water is very clean – clean enough to swim in and see your feet – due to the advanced water and industrial treatment required.  At one end of the beach, a pier extends out into the bay.  It is lined with broad leaf trees and ends in a citadel adorned with a statue of Yemanjá.  Yemanjá is an Afro-Brasileira deity for Candomblé worshippers.  Yemanjá is both the patron saint of fishermen, deciding the fate of those who enter the sea and a sort of Brazilian Aphrodite – the goddess of love.  I walked its length and saw, appropriately enough lovers sitting on the benches and rocks as well as fishermen. The boulevard that borders the beach is lined with bright Christmas decorations – yellow and white stars that light the night sky.  

On Sunday afternoon, Jeff and I ate lunch at one of the kiosks along the beach.  A resident samba band started playing soon after we arrived and kept the whole crowd enthralled.  They wore matching t-shirts and fedora hats!  The t-shirts said, in Portuguese, in rough translation “Anyone who doesn’t like samba, don’t go there.”   
These people had serious jeito.  Jeito is another word that doesn’t really have an exact English translation.  A laid back manner might be the closest.  But jeito is much more than style.  It speaks to the full feeling and mode of being that is the coolness of playing amazing music on the beach on a Sunday afternoon while the audience eats fresh shrimp and drinks icy cold beer.  That was Jeff and me. 

Midway through the show, the leader, who was a vivacious man and a versatile singer, told everyone that it was the birthday of an older lady who was sitting at a nearby table.  With that introduction and after her family saluted this lady – who, I may say, bowed to all of us graciously – the band broke into the most extraordinary version of Happy Birthday that I have every heard.  While the tune was traditional, the musicians riffed on the classic and played a samba version that went on for close to twenty minutes. 

At times the whole restaurant sang along and at other times the drummer, or one of the other musicians just took off into a samba riff.  At the end everyone clapped and cheered.  The birthday lady stood, grinning broadly and took another gracious bow.  I have no idea if the musicians are retired or still working their day jobs – some, including the leader, looked about my age but who knows.  Either way they were a group of people who were seriously enjoying making music on the beach.

At the end of the 2-hour set, friends of the band welcomed the musicians to a feast of homemade empadinhas (little savory pies), pasteis (fried turnovers) and other delicacies.  I told the banjo player it was the most amazing rendition of Happy Birthday that I had ever heard in my life.  He laughed and in true Brazilian fashion immediately hugged me!   As I have said, I am an effusive person and also very demonstrative in my affection.  I hugged him right back.  Maybe this is why I love living in Brasil!

We greatly enjoyed the rest of our 4-day visit to Vitória.  The town is very accessible and friendly.  It has a bike path that runs along most of the beaches.  We found a great gym that our hotel gave us vouchers for.  We went there twice and survived a dynamic hour-long spinning class and two intense weight training and abdominal (core strengthening) sessions.  As part of our commitment to healthy aging, Jeff and I try to do some sort of aerobic, flexibility and strength training exercises four to five times a week.  This is a major and time consuming commitment but well worth the effort.

On Camburi beach one afternoon I enjoyed watching kite surfers race across the water.  One of the surfers did a 360 aerial turn right in front of me.  I saw fishermen and fishing boats painted in bright colors.  I watched teenagers skate board on the boardwalk and play soccer (futebol) in the sand.  I sunbathed on the beach and swam in the ocean.  The weather was hot and the clear water was deliciously cooling.

Next week, although I am not ready to leave Brasil, I look forward to our return to the Pacific Northwest and seeing our family and friends for the holidays.
Fishing Boats in Vitória, ES, Brasil

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