Monday, March 31, 2008

A Weekend at the Lake

If all goes as planned, we will be receiving our car this week from the factory. And if that is the case, we just spent our last weekend with the rental car. We figured there was no better time than this weekend to go put some miles on a car that wasn't ours, so we made the 4 hour journey North from Belo Horizonte to Três Marias on Saturday morning. There is a big reservoir in our state, Minas Gerais, created by the Três Marias dam on the São Francisco River.

The lake itself is enormous! It covers 1,040 km² (256,989 acres). In comparison, for the Georgia folks at least, Lake Lanier covers 154 km² (38,000 acres). (These numbers are from Wikipedia.) The water was the clearest, cleanest freshwater we've ever seen! There are no large cities anywhere around the lake nor upstream on the river. (If you have Google Earth, fly to Três Marias, MG, Brasil and see how bright blue the lake is. It's amazing.) The entire weekend, I think we saw 4 boats in the water. It was the quietest, most peaceful place we've been in Brasil! We had gorgeous weather on Saturday and Sunday. And we saw more stars Saturday night than either of us can ever recall seeing. It was a quiet, clear, dark, and beautiful night!

The pousada we stayed in was excellent as well. The daily rate included breakfast, lunch, and supper, since it was way off the beaten path and there was nothing else around. It was right on the lake, and we had a 20 minute drive down a dirt road to get to it. We were in the middle of nowhere - and there was no place in Brasil we'd rather have been this weekend! The service was top notch too! We were waited on hand and foot the entire time we were there.

They had the option of staying in "apartments" a little further up the hill, or in "chales" right on the water. Or this time of year, um, IN the water. We chose the apartment.

We asked if the lake was just really high this year, but the owner told us, "Oh no, the chales flood every year." Hmmm, I think I would be inclined to raise them a little higher.

This next picture was from a series of pictures Eric took after discovering the "burst mode" on the camera. If anyone is interested in a flip book of the Brasilian flag waving in the wind, let me know... it does a real nice job of showing off the bright blue skies we had this weekend though.

An added recreation bonus at the pousada was this climbing wall. And I also get to present to you, for the very first time on the internet, my husband in his sunga. :)

We watched a beautiful sunset from the dock on Saturday night and I got a little picture happy. I'll just post a few of the 20+ that I took.

One of the things we were most excited about was getting to see the dam. For a little background information, from Wikipedia again:

The lake of Tres Marias began with the damming of the São Francisco River, formed by the construction of one of the largest earth dams in the world. The objectives were to control the flow of water of the river in the periodical floods and improve navegability; the use of hydroelectric power and the development of industry and irrigation. Begun in 1957, this great project was finished in January 1961, almost a world record in this type of construction.

The dam is 2,700 meters long with a base of 600 and a height of 75 meters. Its plant produces 396,000 KW of power. The lake, known as the "Sweet Sea of Minas", has 21 billion square meters of water, a surface area of 1,040 square kilometers (8.7 times greater than Guanabara Bay), and provides water to 8 municipalities.

The speed of construction was due to the commitment of President Juscelino Kibitschek, who also completed the bridge over the São Francisco river, the BR 040 highway, and the new federal capital. The construction of the dam was carried out in two shifts, using approximately 10,000 workers.

One of the world's largest earthen dams? Awesome! We were both looking forward to it. We went to go see it Sunday morning, but we were met by this:

Eric was certain we could drive in, (there were, after all, no signs saying entrance was prohibited) but that we would just need to stop and check in first. Turns out they don't allow visitors. But who would have thought that with the barrels, gates, tire-puncturing strips, and armed security guard? Oh how I do love my hubby's optimism! So we never actually got a good look at the dam. But we had one heck of a time relaxing around the pool and down at the dock at our pousada.

The only real eventful part of the trip was the drive, and that's coming up tomorrow! (Hint: have you ever seen pot holes the size of a small car?)

Friday, March 28, 2008

May I Please Hate This Rooster?

I try not to use the word hate too much. "Strongly dislike" is much nicer, right? But I don't think "strongly dislike" can adequately describe my abhorrence for all things Galo (Portuguese for rooster) this week.

On Monday night about 9:30, a car stopped on the street right in front of our building and proceeded to honk it's horn for a good 10 or 15 minutes straight. It was more than a smidgen annoying. But that was just the start of it. For the next several hours into the night the honking continued off in the distance, up and down our street, and right in front of our building. It was eventually joined with shouts and yells, and then we heard it: "Gaaaaaaloooooooo!" Futebol! We should have known it! What else gets Brasilians this excited? (Don't believe me? Go here and see/listen for yourself!)

We knew there wasn't a game Monday night though and we had never heard this much commotion before, so what on earth could possibly have the fans of the Atlético Mineiro soccer team so excited? Turns out the club turned 100 on Tuesday. Yep, that's all. The club has been around for 100 years, and for this reason all the Galo fans of the city felt it necessary to lay on their horns while driving up and down the city's streets and yelling at all hours of the night for 3 nights straight.

Now, I come from the glorious south and college football (especially if you cheer for a superb team, you know, like the Georgia Bulldogs) might as well be a religion. And game day in Athens is really a red and black sight to be seen. And when we beat some big SEC rival like Tennessee or Auburn, there tends to be a good bit of gleeful chaos for the next several hours. But seriously, this much hoopla for a team's anniversary?

Look Galo fans, I will kindly part with my sleep at night due to noisy madness if you've just won a big game or championship or something. But seriously, three nights of noise on account of a 100th anniversary?

And this, my friends, is why I am requesting permission to use the word hate here. I will probably get over it soon enough, just not this week. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some chicken I need to start cooking for supper.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Remembering Grandma Zieser

Spending the first years of married life half a world away has some perks, but there are other times when all we want is to be closer to the rest of our family and friends. This week in particular, there has been a lot more of the latter.

On our way back from Ilha Grande on Sunday, we received the news that Grandma Zieser had passed away Saturday night. The arrangements were planned for yesterday and today. Despite desperately wanting to be there, it just wasn’t feasible for us…and that is one of the hardest parts of being away.

Any time you lose a loved one, I think it makes you stop and think a little bit about your life, your priorities, and a whole host of other topics. And for some reason, right now for me, being married and enjoying and planning our life together, it makes me look at things even more differently than ever before. The thought of losing your spouse after 55 years of marriage (as Grandpa Zieser just did) is a tough reality to consider. And then your mind thinks about those people who get a heck of a lot less time together than that…and, well, that’s hard to think about too.

I am well aware and very much comforted by the fact that our life here on earth is temporary, and there is a heavenly home much greater then anything we can even fathom waiting for us after this. But as silly as it may be, there are an awful lot of things I want to get to do and experience with my husband before either of us leaves this little place. And when the two of us dream and plan for our future and all the things we want to accomplish/see/do, the 74 years that Grandma Zieser lived just doesn’t sound like nearly enough! I know that in the end none of those things really matter, but, right or wrong, the selfish human part of me wants it.

The other thought that has been on my mind this week are the memories of the past that Eric and I each have that I so wish we could have experienced together. For instance, I was blessed to have my Granny and Papa (my Dad’s paternal grandparents) in my life up into my college years. They both passed away before I ever met Eric, but I so wish he could have known them (especially in their slightly younger healthier years as I like to remember them.) I can try to tell him about how Papa could play the harmonica and sing like it’s nobody’s business and how Granny would put out the most amazing spread of good ol’ southern food (and we’re talking like so amazing that Paula Deen ain’t got nothin’ on my Granny!) Or how Papa had such a laid back personality and always insisted on a “big ol’ bear hug” from the great grandkids, and how Granny was such a sweet but quite bossy thing (which makes me able to blame that on heredity!)

And now I think about Grandma Zieser, who I’ve been blessed to have known for a couple of years. The sad thing though is that I never met the Grandma that Eric remembers and tells stories of. Grandma Zieser was already entering the latter stages of Alzheimer’s when I first met her. She and I had lots of good conversation in those first few months about everything from stories of her Dad who used to work-up everyone’s garden in town with his mule and plow to her asking all the time just where was I from with that heavy accent! I loved our visits together, but I knew that the next time I saw her, whether it was a few hours or a couple weeks later, she would hug my neck and then say, “now, I think we’ve met before...haven’t we?”

The Grandma I wish I could have known was the one Eric talks about who made the best ever homemade noodles, pea salad, apple dumplings, and sweet pickles. I wish I had memories of the Grandma that loved cooking dinner for all the family and never once ran short on food. (Eric’s Dad had 7 sisters and after everyone married and multiplied a bit, that is one BIG family, so I consider the meals quite a feat!) I want memories of the Grandma who was always correcting the Zieser men’s grammar (so I have someone to back me up when I’m correcting Eric!)

The memories I do have of Grandma Zieser are not at all bad though. In fact, one of my very favorite memories will always be our last visit to see her back at Christmas: She was unable to walk and had to be in a wheelchair, and when she spoke it was soft and we were barely able to understand her. But there were two things she said that we did understand from her that day. 1) She looked over at Grandpa for a minute and then told him, “you sure are older than I remember” (which got a good laugh from all of us). And my very favorite, 2) she stared across the room at Eric for a bit and then looked to me and said, nodding in Eric’s direction, “he sure is good looking, isn’t he.” I must give it to her, she certainly had good taste even towards the end!

So today as the rest of the family is attending Grandma Zieser’s funeral, we will be wishing that we were in Iowa to be with all of them. I will hang on to the memories I have of a sweet, wonderful lady, and Eric will no doubt be reflecting back on his lifetime of memories full of the Grandma that I really wish I had known. But what we all lost last week, Heaven gained, and with God’s good grace we will all meet again some wonderful day. And if there happens to be a kitchen in Heaven, I know the saints are sure eating good with Grandma there!

Ilha Grande: Day 3

We had the trip planned to maximize our time on the island. Since we were taking a bus and we wouldn't actually have to be driving, we decided to stick around the island on Sunday and take an overnight bus back to Belo Horizonte. That gave us most of the day to play some more.

We started off the day with a hike (because apparently I had already forgotten about Friday's experience.) We really wanted to hike over to the ruins of the old prison. (For much of the 20th century, the island was sort of the Alcatraz of Brasil. They had a maximum security prison on the island.) We weren't exactly sure how far it would be, so we decided just to set a time limit. We'd hike for 45 minutes, see where that got us and then come back. While it was 100% uphill the entire 45 minutes, the grade was much more manageable, it was a bit cooler (being in the morning), and I decided to return to my previous non-hike-hating self. After 45 minutes we arrived at a vista and had a nice view of Abraão. There was a guy selling homemade popsicles right there on the side of the trail and he told us we were about another half hour or so away from the old prison. But since we still wanted some beach time for the day, we kept our plans and hiked back. Next time we'll plan to definitely go see the prison though.

This guy scampered across the trail and up into a tree. We think it is a porcupine.
And because I'm a plant nerd, I'm totally obsessed with all the things I grew up knowing and planting as "annuals" that grow wild in Brasil. Here we have some 7+ foot tall Impatiens!
Upon returning from our morning hike, we decided to catch a boat over to Praia de Lopes Mendes. We had read and been told it was the most beautiful of all the beaches.
Every boat company on the island offers rides over to it, since it would be a quite strenuous hike. What the companies never mention though is that they actually drop you off on the opposite side of the island and you have to hike 20-30 minutes to get to Lopes Mendes. Now, it wasn't a bad hike and we enjoyed it a lot, but we were thinking about the people who didn't know that and maybe were unable to hike for whatever reason. That would be sort of not cool, you know?
Anyhoo, on our little 20 minute hike I experienced my first Brasil monkey sighting! It was a grand day for me. I really, really like monkeys! And there were a dozen or so along the trail enjoying saltine crackers the Brasilians were feeding them. Not bananas?!?

I wasn't quite prepared for the beauty that I was about to witness...

Oh my gosh, it was so incredible! We immediately started kicking ourselves for that little hike-to-a-beach incident from Friday. Why didn't we just hop a boat and come straight here!?!

The sand was powdery soft and squeaked when you walked barefooted on it. The beach was wide and flat and stretched on forever around the bay. There were no pesky motor boats hanging out in the water. The water was clean and clear and a beautiful shade of blue-green. It was shallow for a long way and waves plenty big for surfing were just a little further out. It was, basically, paradise!

The original uncropped picture of Eric is much better...but I'm not allowed to post pictures of him in his sunga. Which is fair enough...since he's barely even allowed to take a picture of me in my bikini! (Which is good evidence I am not Brasilian! All the women here are constantly striking Sports Illustrated supermodel poses for pictures! But in the sake of full disclosure, and before you fellas all go out buying plane tickets today, not everyone here looks like a supermodel - they are simply quite comfortable dressing and working it in front of the camera like one. Now go buy your ticket if you'd like; we'd love visitors. Just don't say I didn't tell the whole story! HA!)

After our afternoon at Lopes Mendes, we packed up our things and headed back for the mainland. Our boat left the island at 5:00, so it was good and dark by the time we arrived onshore. The boat ride back was pretty uneventful for the majority of the trip. Most everyone on board was looking a little sleepy and worn out from the long weekend. There was the group of 18-22 year old girls who felt the need to sing really loud the whole ride, but they didn't really bother us (despite just really hoping they didn't end up on our bus back to BH.) We watched a couple dolphins playing in the water and then just enjoyed the scenery.

When we got up to the docks in Angra Dos Reis though, things got a little more interesting. It was pretty busy and there were a lot of boats bringing people back to the mainland. There was one area where all the boats would pull up, drop off passengers, and then leave. There was one slightly smaller boat just hanging out though right where our captain wanted to pull up and unload us. He blew his horn a couple times and then one of the other crew members went to the front of the boat and yelled over to the other boat, asking him to move. Eventually, the smaller boat pulled away from the dock and our boat pulled up and started unloading. The smaller boat didn't go far though, and Eric and I were noticing that the only guy on the boat was looking a lot less than happy. As we watched him, he pulled his boat up right next to ours towards the back where the majority of the crew was hanging out. And that's where it got interesting!

The other boat's captain starting yelling a bunch of stuff to the crew of our boat which instigated a lot of yelling back from our crew. Things were getting a bit heated and Eric and I were really wishing we could understand everything they were saying. About four of the guys from our boat were now standing right near the edge of the boat and next thing we know, the other guy is jumping from his boat onto ours and starts throwing punches. A couple of our guys sort of threw the guy back on his own boat, but the one who had actually gotten punched in the face went over and picked up a 6' long metal pipe, started swinging, and was totally ready to beat the guy with it. It was a bit intense as half the guys wanted to beat up the other captain, half the guys were trying to hold them back and the idiot captain from the other boat (who is way outnumbered and being threatened with a 6' long metal pipe) keeps trying to jump back on our boat. A couple women jumped from the dock onto our boat and also start yelling at the other captain and then I thought they were going to fight our crew too. This all continued for at least 15 or 20 minutes that we were there. Oh, it was good stuff! The whole time all of it was going down, 2 other crew members were unloading everyone's luggage, helping people off the boat, and pretending there wasn't a sailor fight going down on the back of the vessel. After gawking and cheering our team on (okay, not really on that last part, but we did gawk A LOT) we decided we'd better start heading towards the bus station. I don't know how it ended, which is really quite disappointing. But on the upside, I get to play out my own endings in my mind which is probably a lot more fun anyway.

Now for a completely random item from our weekend:

Can someone please tell me what this is hanging from the tree? If you don't know, feel free to leave a comment with your best guess; we have all sorts of our own theories. (Justin, I'm counting on you to come through on this one for me though!)

And a note about accommodations:

We have this policy to never, ever stay in the cheapest place available. I am a big believer in you get what you pay for. I don't need the Hilton every night or anything, but middle of the road is usually the better bet in my opinion.

We had to put off booking our pousada until the last minute because there was some question as to whether or not Eric would be traveling for work around this time. Once we found out we would be able to go, all the mid-range pousadas were already booked up. Ilha Grande is especially bad about their rates going way up for holidays, and Easter was no exception. The rates were inflated 3-4 times normal prices for this time of year. So, this sort of kept us from wanting to drop the money on a normally already higher-priced room. After some debate, we finally decided to take our chances on the cheaper pousada. We reasoned that we wanted to spend our time out on the beach and in the rainforest anyway, so our room wouldn't matter much - we'd barely spend any time there.

Well, my theory turned out to be all wrong. We actually got a whole lot less than we paid for!

After having to roam around for a while to try and find someone to help us check-in, we finally came upon a half dressed and barely awake guy coming out of a room upstairs. He then led us to our room. Here was the front door...and it didn't get better once inside.

It seemed to be clean enough (if you could ignore the cobwebs and mold on the walls), but it was definitely lacking some maintenance and anything resembling a "special touch." So moral of the story: do not, under any circumstances stay at Pousada do Bicão on Ilha Grande. We scouted out some other places to stay for next time and we have some good suggestions now. If you would like them, just ask. But please don't repeat our mistake!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ilha Grande: Day 2

After clear, blue, fabulous, sunny skies on Friday, we woke up to a rather gloomy and overcast Saturday. Since it wasn't exactly beach weather, we decided to take a boat ride up to Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon in English) with stops also at Japariz and Freguesia de Santana.

This was the boat we took. After spending the day on board, we decided they really shouldn't be allowed to have boats with long pointy things coming out the front of them. After first trying to back away from the dock while still tied up to another boat that was docked and causing quite a ruckus, the captain later almost took out a couple other boats, a tree onshore, and a couple people standing on docks with the bow!

After about a forty minute ride to the North point of the island, we arrived at Lagoa Azul, along with about a gazillion other people. Although it was nice, in the future, we will only take the trip to Lagoa Azul on a non-holiday (and preferably when it is sunny!) The water wasn't nearly as pretty to look at being so overcast.

This is what it looks like on a nice day!But, just the same, we hopped out of the boat and did a little snorkeling. Between the cloudy sky, sixty-two boats, and gazillion people in the water, it wasn't really the best day for it. We still saw some pretty coral and awesome fish though.

I love this picture. My camera and my husband were working together well Saturday! (And wasn't he having a great hair day?)

Of course, nobody in the history of the world has ever looked cool while wearing a mask and snorkel. Eric wasn't too fond of the picture above, so I had to post one of me also looking a bit dorkish to make things fair. :)
After our time playing in the water, we stopped at Japariz to have some lunch. One of the most impressive parts of the boat ride was when a guy from the restaurant we were going to stop at came on board our ship to take our orders. (That way when we arrived, we wouldn't have to wait so long for our food.) It was during our ride to Lagoa Azul. This little tiny boat with a great big engine came right up beside our big boat. And then, in a MacGyver or Miami Vice sort of move, the guy jumps from his boat to ours all while moving at top speed. Impressive.

Anyway, after lunch we went up to Freguesia de Santana for about an hour. This was actually the first settlement on Ilha Grande, but today there is not too much there other than the church that was built in 1802.

We thought the rooster wind vane on top was a nice touch!

The beach on this part of the island was pretty narrow, but the water was clear and gorgeous.

See, he was just being extra photogenic that day!

Just trying to display how clear the water was here. I was in calf deep water, and yet you can still make out the perfectly manicured (or would it be pedicured?) pink toenails which match the color of my skirt almost exactly!

And these are just a few shots of the island we took while cruising back to Abraão.

This was an especially angry-looking crab we came across on the street while walking back to our pousada. He was none to happy when I took his picture either! (Seriously, look at his eyes, doesn't he look mad at the world?)

We went out to supper Saturday night and then did more walking/wandering around Abraão. (And we may have sneaked in some ice cream somewhere in the schedule too.)

These guys were especially entertaining to us: riding really tall unicycles on uneven ground while throwing around 6 lit torches. The people sitting at the tables near them were a little weary, but we enjoyed the show!

Up next is our final day, day 3. You won't want to miss it...that's when we visited the most beautiful of all the beaches and witnessed the sailor fight on our boat!