La Niña Barro in Uruguay

After our brief stint in my hometown of Santana do Livramento, we took LNB to Uruguay, to participate in Muestra Perimetral, an international showcase of theatre in the towns of Las Piedras and Ciudad de la Costa, near Montevideo.

perimetral2015

We were there in winter and for those who always picture South America as a year-round warm continent, you should not underestimate the southern Uruguayan climate. Temperatures were below freezing for the week we were there and our accommodation had no heating and limited hot water. I do recommend checking out the festival – we had a fantastic time overall and made so many interesting connections, but if you do, bear that in mind and bring extra layers and warm blankets.

To me, one of the most exciting things of taking part in that festival was hearing the different kinds of Spanish spoken around the breakfast table. There were participants from Spain (my girls, obviously), Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico (there were Brazilians too, but I was only counting the native speakers of Spanish there) and the linguistic range was so rich! It was not just the accent, but huge differences in idiomatic expressions and slang words, or simply everyday colloquial language, a real feast. One of my fondest memories was when one of my Spanish performers was struggling to explain the meaning of something to an Argentinian actor and I intervened to help them, as those are two variations of Spanish I am very familiar with. The Argentinian actor then felt the need to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that they were both native speakers of the same language, but they needed a Scottish-dwelling Brazilian to ‘translate’ for them. It really was fascinating stuff.

It was also very touching to share our work with all these colleagues and with the community in both towns where we performed. There are always people who cry a bit at the end  of the piece, but in Ciudad de la Costa I saw a girl sobbing uncontrollably, which made me wonder what buttons we might have pushed. Again, like with the reactions we got in Livramento, it’s when I see these things that I am reminded of why I do this. And I confess to choking up a little when I introduced the show and thanked the wonderful people at Teatro Acuarela and La Sala for giving me that opportunity to show my work in my homeland. That made an Argentinian playwright wind me up, saying I managed to show I was human after all. This is a guy who had known me for 3 days and already realised that I have a complicated relationship with my own emotions. Bloody writers.

It was a great and intense week, sharing our work and lives with other creatives from various backgrounds in a remote area of the world. Friendships were formed and we hope to see some of those people again and potentially collaborate in the future.

I travelled back to Montevideo with Eli and Alex, and from there they followed on to Buenos Aires, Bolivia (in a somewhat eventful journey), and Spain. I got my bus back from Montevideo to Rivera, where cruel reality awaited. The envelope sent from the UK Consulate lay on my bed, unopened. It was 5am when I got in and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I left it until the morning. The envelope contained my passport and other original documents and a letter informing me that my Tier 4 Student Visa application had been rejected. But you’ll have to wait for my next blog post to find out how I handled that.

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La Niña Barro in Riveramento

After crowdfunding through the 24-Hour Trilingual Poetry Marathon, we managed to fund our mini tour of La Niña Barro to Brazil and Uruguay. As a thank you to the community of my hometowns of Rivera and Santana do Livramento, we did one free performance of the show at the old Livramento railway station, no longer used.

The railway station building dates from 1910 and is a gorgeous example of the architecture of that period. The station was an important link along the international railway connecting Sao Paulo to Montevideo and Buenos Aires between 1943 and 1954, but as a result of the Brazilian railway crisis in the 1980s, the station was one of many being deactivated.  The derelict building was restored in 2012 and re-opened as a cultural centre, hosting films, exhibitions, and music gigs, but it had to be closed again at the end of 2014 due to water damage. The roof was being re-done while we were there and the top floor wasn’t the safest space to be with a large group of people, but the council agreed to let us use the main hall for the performance.

They were also kind enough to let us rehearse at the station during the week and lend us lights and ladders. Throughout the week, in-between rehearsals, we were going to TV and radio interviews on both sides of the border to promote the show. I got increasingly excited and anxious as the week progressed, as this was going to be the first time my family and my birthplace saw a piece that I directed. I mean, we had done Fronteiras Explorers two years before, but that was a different kind of project.

The day of the performance arrived and we were good to go. I was really unsure what to expect… we had a list of confirmed guests put together via facebook, but I wasn’t convinced everyone would turn up. It was a rather chilly night and we didn’t have a foyer/waiting area, so we closed all doors and as Alex and Eli used the last half an hour before the show to get ready and focus, I went outside to wait for the audience. The first person to arrive, very early for our relaxed standards, was this sweet elderly man. He travelled there by taxi and I helped him get out of the cab when I noticed he had a zimmer frame. He was alone and I couldn’t possibly leave him outside waiting in the cold, so I explained that the house was not open just yet, but he was welcome to sit in the security guard’s office near the heater. Other people began to arrive in their own cars, and following the true tradition of the border, when instructed to wait until we could let them in, remained in their cars drinking their mate and chatting to their friends. A nice long queue began to form, and before long, it was clear that we would have a full house.

We opened the doors to an audience of around 80 people, some of whom had to stand in the back or sides, as we didn’t have enough seats. We did not turn anyone down at the doors, but once we closed them and started the performance, there was a handful of latecomers that could not come in. If I had known that the event would be so popular, I would have considered doing two nights.

The number of people attending wasn’t my only pleasant surprise. The reaction was actually incredibly positive. I wasn’t sure how this audience of non-theatregoers would receive a piece which had been censored in Edinburgh and was very different from everything they were used to. I heard complete silence during the piece and saw many tearful eyes at the end. We offered a post-show discussion and were there for another hour. It was so refreshing to have a mature audience (I reckon the average age was later 30s to mid 40s) of regular punters – apart from a couple of arts teachers and local theatremakers, the majority of the people there were not involved in the industry. There was a blind woman who was very touched by the performance, as well as a lovely girl with Down’s Syndrome who told us during the post-show discussion how much she’d enjoyed it. My siblings and my mother were there and were also moved. But the one unforgettable comment, of all the comments and questions we had, was of that sweet elderly man who’d arrived before everyone else and stayed until the very end. He approached me and said he had followed the 24-hour poetry marathon on the radio, as he did not leave the house much due to his mobility problems. When he heard that we had managed to bring the show, though, he said he knew he simply could not miss it and found a way of getting down to the station to watch it.

These are the moments that will always serve as anchors for me to keep doing what I do. It is hard, it is incredibly frustrating at times, but then something like this happens and it suddenly makes everything worthwhile. Thank you Riveramento for this experience.

 

Studying in the UK – part 02

I flew to Sao Paulo the day before my interview.

Getting to the place where I needed to hand in the documents was fairly easy from where I was staying. UK visa applications are not handled by the British Consulate directly anymore, but by a third-party contractor, which I am sure is one of the reasons why the process is longer and more expensive now (incidentally: there seem to be a lot of people making a good deal of money out of this whole thing, like legal firms and other companies and freelancers offering specialised visa application services). This company is located in a highly posh business area of Sao Paulo called ‘Brooklin Paulista’, on the ‘United Nations Avenue’, adjacent to a designer furniture shopping centre (I don’t know why I find all of this kinda funny).

I checked in at the reception desk on the ground floor, but I wasn’t allowed to go to the office until my specific appointment time, so as I was about 20 minutes early, I went for a wander around the shopping centre to see things I will never buy. When the time came, I went back to reception and was given a visitor’s pass and allowed to go up in the lift to the 18th floor, where the VSF Visa Application Centre is. There were two offices there, one processing visas for Canada, and the other, for the UK. I walked into the latter, where a nice lady at the door in security uniform asked to check my appointment confirmation and then instructed me to take my documents out of my bag and leave bag, phone, and all other personal belongings in a locker (at least this one was free, unlike the ones across the street from the US Consulate). Following that, I was ushered to a bright, smaller room with two attendants sitting behind bank clerk-like desks and a line of chairs. I was told to sit down and wait for my name to be called.

I stood up and went to the attendant who’d called my name and gave her my documents – a hard copy of the application form I’d completed online, a copy of my CAS statement, a letter from my bank manager confirming I had the funds to support myself for the first year and its translation, and my passport. She asked me whether I had booked my flights yet and I replied that I hadn’t. Then she asked me when I was meant to start my course, I said induction was scheduled for the 21st September (exactly a month after this day). She scribbled some things down, ticked some boxes, and asked me to take a seat again and wait to be called for the interview.

About 10 minutes later, she emerged from behind her desk and asked me to follow her into an even smaller room with a desktop computer set up with headphones and a mic on a small table. The attendant left the room and I sat down, put the headphones on and said hello to the lady on the screen, speaking to me from one of the Home Office cubicles in Sheffield. She introduced herself and explained that this would be a short interview, then asked me to confirm that I was in good physical and mental health and fully aware that my answers would be recorded. I did so, and without a smile or any small talk, she began the interview. She asked me to confirm the name of my intended place of study and when I said the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, she looked puzzled. Cue her faffing about for a couple of minutes, presumably trying to find information about the place, asking where in the UK this ‘conservatory’ was. I wondered if whenever they get someone who isn’t aiming for London, they get confused. She eventually found it on her list and proceeded to ask me why I’d chosen this course. I began: “well, I attended Open Days at other…” and then she interrupted me, saying she didn’t need my life story, just straightforward answers. Taken aback by the sudden rudeness, I replied that I wanted to pursue an academic career and develop my practice further. Her next question was whether I had considered other places of study, which made me a little bit angry and I started my answer with, “as I tried to tell you 30 seconds ago, yes… I attended Open Days at other universities”. I don’t think she liked that. It might have been stupid to give her backchat, but come on…

The interview went on for another few minutes with more roundabout questions such as how this course would benefit me and why it had to be this one. She concluded the chat and asked me to leave the room. I sat outside again, with a terrible feeling that I’d fucked it up. Clerk girl came back and ushered me into another small room, where she took a picture of me and my fingerprints. She explained that everything would be sent to the UK Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, where all South American applications were now processed, and I would be getting emails informing me of the progress of mine. After that, I was done. I collected my belongings from the locker and left.

I was feeling tired and discouraged, but on the way back to my friends’ flat and to Porto Alegre later on the same day, I tried to not think too much about it and focus on La Niña Barro, which was going to a festival in Uruguay in a few weeks’ time and I would only get the visa decision after that.

 

 

 

Studying in the UK, the Tier 4 Saga – Part 1

Quite often, I get asked about the procedure of applying to study in the UK by non-EU friends who are considering doing the same, so here’s a post about that. First of all, bear in mind that it’s quite a long process, you’ll need to plan almost a year in advance, particularly if you’re thinking of trying for a scholarship too. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but back in 2006 when I applied for the first time to do my undergrad, the visa part was really quick – I posted all my documents to Rio on a Wednesday and got my passport with the visa back on the Saturday after that. The timeline of events was roughly the following:

  • February 2005 – began looking for drama courses in Scotland, found out about the (then) RSAMD, requested information pack
  • April 2005 – received prospectus, decided to apply even though the only option was Acting. Signed up for a video audition
  • June 2005 – sent application with shit DVD audition
  • August 2005 – got rejection letter
  • September 2005 – realised there were other courses and other universities to consider. Found about about UCAS (all by independent googling)
  • November 2005 – applied through UCAS to five universities: Queen Margaret University, University of Glasgow, Strathclyde University (all in Scotland), Aberystwyth University (Wales), and one in England that I can’t remember for the life of me
  • January 2006 – got unconditional offers from all 5 unis
  • February 2006 – after much deliberation between Aberystwyth and QMU, accepted the latter (big mistake, but that’s another story)
  • July 2006 – applied for visa, booked flights
  • August 2006 – moved to Edinburgh
  • September 2006 – started course

So you see, that spanned over a year, and this was when things were simpler with the Home Office and not taking scholarship applications into account.

Now, I’ll be honest with you – the way things are turning ugly in the UK with its increasingly xenophobic policies, I do not recommend studying there at present. I have told some Brazilian friends to consider other European countries instead, particularly because most of them are interested in postgraduate courses, and you can find find those taught in English across Europe. In addition, some countries (like Germany) offer free postgraduate courses, whereas in the UK you are looking at forking out around £15,000 per year as an international student, and considering they have banned things like the Post-Study Work Visa, it really isn’t worth it for newcomers. The only reason I insisted was because I had already had a life and a professional trajectory in the UK. If I were assessing the possibility now, I would choose elsewhere to go.

But let’s say you are as stubborn as I am and want to go ahead with this idea – here’s my latest timeline:

  • November 2014 – while on a tourist visa in Scotland, decided to do a postgraduate course. Attended an Open Day at Edinburgh University/Edinburgh College of Art. Didn’t like the options offered by either. Googled other universities, decided to get over my rejection trauma and write to the RSAMD, now RCS, again. Asked to meet with the Drama PhD coordinator.
  • January 2015 – applied for PhD at the RCS and MSc at Glasgow Uni (these applications were done directly to the respective institutions through their website, UCAS only handles undergraduate applications),went back to Brazil
  • February 2015 – received unconditional offer from Glasgow
  • March 2015 – invited to skype interview for the RCS
  • April 2015 – accepted offer from Glasgow just to be sure, had skype interview with PhD panel at the RCS
  • May 2015 – received unconditional offer from RCS and institutional research studentship, deferred offer from Glasgow
  • August 2015 – applied for Tier 4 Student Visa

Now here’s the catch. As you know if you have been following this blog, I couldn’t apply for the visa sooner as I desired, so this was already a bit tight. And unlike the glorious days of 2006 when everything was simpler, now the procedure is much longer and more twisted. So, after paying a deposit of £1,000, I was finally sent my Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) by the RCS, halfway through August. You won’t receive this any sooner than 3 months prior to your course starts and then you have to use it within 6 months. I was obviously in a hurry, so I logged on to the UK visa application website as soon as I had it to fill out my lengthy application (seriously, I had to list ALL the countries I’ve visited for the past 10 years, with dates – thank fuck for saving my old passports and keeping track of bookings on gmail), pay for the visa application (USD 515.00), plus the new NHS health surcharge (USD 840.00). Once that was all done, I had to book my appointment to hand in the documents and attend an interview in Sao Paulo and book my flights (another R$ 870.00, plus money to spend on local transport and food in SP – thankfully, I have excellent friends there in whose couch I could crash). I sent the application on the 13th August and booked my interview for the 21st (so this stage alone took longer than my first visa application).

Like I said above, if you really want to do this, bear in mind that it is a long and rather expensive process. So much so that there are loads of businesses making a mint out of handling applications and selling guidance – the whole UK visa application thing has become quite a lucrative enterprise across many levels, considering you don’t even deal with the UK consulate anymore, it’s all done through a third party, which I’m sure is partially responsible for the added bureaucracy and hike in fees.

Scholarship-wise, most institutions will have some programme to offer (like mine), but you might want to consider your own country’s government (CAPES, in Brazil’s case, for example, which you are unlikely to get at PhD level without a track record of academic work done in Brazil) or the British Council’s Chevening programme (which applies to restricted fields of study and is only available for Masters level). Generally speaking, though, you will have to have been offered a place at your chosen university before applying for a scholarship, so plan accordingly.

I shall update you on how the rest of my application process went on another post, but I hope these tips have been helpful. There are loads of other websites with information on studying abroad, you just need to take some time to read through them and have a clear idea of what you want.

 

No place I’d rather be

Back in 2005, when I started planning my escape to Scotland, my first plan was to go to Glasgow and study at the (then) RSAMD. My first attempt was neutralised by a rejection letter after a terrible audition tape – bitter as it may sound, I didn’t fancy myself as an actor anyway and only applied to that because it was the only course I had knowledge of at the time. The good thing about being rejected was that it prompted me to expand my research to Edinburgh, which led me to a course that sounded more like what I was after (and turned out to be pretty shit, but that’s another story). I also found out I was allowed to apply to up to 6 courses through UCAS and spread my wings across Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberystwyth and somewhere in England that I can’t remember. Second time round, I get unconditional offers from all of them. I quickly dismissed most of those, giving myself a couple of weeks to decide between Aberystwyth and Queen Margaret University, and although the Welsh course sounded more convincing, I accepted QMU’s offer because of Edinburgh. I had never been to Edinburgh before in my life, I didn’t know anyone who had lived or been there, but I had a good feeling about this place. Also, I’d read about this Edinburgh Fringe Festival thing, “largest performing arts festival in the world”, and for someone wishing to pursue a career in theatre, it just sounded like it was the right place to be.

I arrived in Edinburgh for the first time on 31st August, 2006, just in time for the fireworks concert. I did not experience the Fringe until the following year, when I was invited to be stage crew for a couple of my lecturers’ show. I was there for the first 10 days of the festival only, as I had booked a trip to Brazil to attend a cousin’s wedding, but it was enough to give me a good taste of what the Fringe actually was and I promised to myself I’d be there for the whole thing next year. In 2008, I got a flyering job with a company producing mostly Irish comedy shows. That was the year I decided that, no matter where I were living or working, I absolutely HAD TO be in Edinburgh every August and enter this magic interdimensional portal that opens in the city every summer. Cue 5 consecutive years of mad parties, indulging in theatre from all over the world, A LOT of hard work and stress, fringe flings, ridiculous amounts of fun, the best show I’ve seen and been part of ever, very little or no sleep at all, and wonderful memories which will get re-told endlessly until the day I die. And then September 2012 came and, as you know if you have been following this blog or if you actually know me in real life, I was forced to leave the UK and was subsequently refused an Exceptional Talent visa to come back.

When the Fringe programme was out in 2013 and I was in Brazil, I had a huge breakdown. It was the first and only time in my life that I needed to be given tranquilisers. For a week, I felt I could do nothing but sit and watch TV, from early morning to bedtime. I avoided the internet for a few days, as I couldn’t bear my friends’ updates about the Fringe that year. Then, I realised there was nothing preventing me from just coming to visit as a tourist. My best friend from home would get married in Portugal in September that year, and I was one of her bridesmaids, so I’d be travelling to Europe anyway. May as well go a month earlier and experience the Fringe as a mere audience member for the first time (I wrote about that here), and that was actually quite nice. With re-invigorated stubbornness, I returned to Brazil after that, applied for the Exceptional Promise visa and was refused again, but I had such a great idea for a show. Determined to not back down, I started working on La Niña Barro with Eli, Alex, and Marta over skype and email and boom – we had a show in the 2014 Fringe. We had our problems with it, but it felt good to be back in the game.

Fast forward to the Fringe 2015. I wasn’t planning to put on a show of mine, but I offered my services to a couple of theatre companies I know and was very excited to be invited to work with both during their Edinburgh run. Only problem: the new student visa I was about to request would only be valid from 30 days before the start of my course, or the end of August. But I had a cunning plan. If I could get my new visa before August, I would travel to the UK and enter under a Visitor Entertainer stamp to work during the Fringe, then come September hop across the water to Spain/Portugal to check on my girls for a few days and return to the UK once the validity of the student visa started. I wrote to the Home Office asking if this would be acceptable, and they confirmed I would be ok to do that. Sorted. But this is me and nothing would be easy, right?

Right. So, due to a much more complex and unnecessarily roundabout system now, my student visa application was delayed (I will write about this part of the saga on another post), making me miss the Fringe for the first time in 9 years! I can’t even begin to tell you the level of rage and frustration I achieved when I realised this was happening. It wasn’t a sad meltdown like the one I had in 2013, it was an angry one this time. Although the companies I had committed to had been warned that this might happen, it was still embarrassing to have to tell them they couldn’t count on me to help with the run. This is what this immigration policy does, ultimately: it generates angst, frustration, shame, stress, self-doubt. If I hadn’t already received an offer and confirmation of a research studentship at the RCS, this would have been the point of throwing in the towel.

I felt the need to vent about this and wrote a long email that sat in my drafts folder for about a week, as I didn’t even know who to send it to. Eventually, I fired it in all sorts of directions: politicians, journalists, arts organisations, bloggers, education councils… I received two replies agreeing that yes, it was terrible. There, there. That was it. Powerlessness wins.

There is no definite conclusion to this post. I am writing this 8 months after the events and it still makes me bitter. I can only cling on to the ridiculous glimmer of hope and optimism that I don’t know why I still have deep inside that things will change for the better eventually.

 

The 24-Hour Trilingual Poetry Marathon

It’s June 2015. On my way back from Sao Paulo to Porto Alegre, I get two pieces of good news:

  1. I have been accepted on the Drama PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, studentship included, and
  2. La Niña Barro has been invited to perform at Perimetral, a showcase of international theatre in Uruguay.

I will write about the PhD on a different post, this one is to focus on item 2 above.

After an eventful opening at Edinburgh Fringe 2014, we have been trying to get the show to as many places as possible, and this was a great opportunity for a wee South American gig. Only problem was, the festival would cover accommodation and food, but not the flights. We wouldn’t receive a fee for the performance either, so we needed to find the cash to offset the travel expenses. Think quick, what can be done?

Our timescale was very tight – only a couple of months to raise the money. This means that we wouldn’t be able to apply for any sort of public funding, in Scotland, Spain, or Brazil. My first idea was to try and find a private sponsor. I feverishly wrote to as many organisations with links to Spain as I could think of in southern Brazil and in Uruguay and finally got a reply from one – the Basque Association of Rio Grande do Sul. I was invited to one of their board members’ office and had a lovely long chat with her about the project. She seemed open and excited about it, but she said the Association itself could not afford to sponsor us. To her credit, she fired some emails around to other friends seeking help, but unfortunately, we didn’t get anywhere with that. Two weeks lost and back to the drawing board.

In the meantime, this idea was brewing in my mind. I have certain reservations when it comes to crowdfunding for theatre, but I was getting desperate and therefore becoming more likely to go against my own principles. It was the only thing we could do at that stage, so I decided to risk an Indiegogo campaign to help us fund the project. We needed to offer something extra to make the campaign appealing, though, and I decided to run with my idea of sitting in a cafe for 24 consecutive hours reading poems in the three languages I can speak. The rationale behind this was simple: I’m good with languages and poetry and at staying awake.

Cue a mad dash to find a venue, find someone to stream it online, promote it like mad, and curate enough poems in Portuguese, English, and Spanish to last me one whole day, which was much harder than I thought. I was so happy to see all the support this stupid idea got from friends all over the world, from my family, and from local businesses in my hometown of Santana do Livramento, where I decided to do it. Lovely folk at Costa Café agreed to host me and stay open overnight for the event, and local newspaper A Plateia provided an excellent streaming service and helped me with the PR.

It was a massive challenge, but so worth it. I was never alone during my marathon – there were no customers in the cafe between 3am and 5.30am, but the staff were there and there were enough people watching and interacting online, via facebook, email, and whatsapp. I had well over 1,000 poems in my selection, but I was flooded with requests, which just made it better. I had a handful of poems written for me, too, and some really emotional moments, including special dedications to dear people who passed away (like my dad and a couple of uncles, and my Brazilian literature teacher), and this sweet old lad who presented me with a book of poems that had been gifted to him by his Latin teacher when he was at school in the 50s. There were also funny moments, like the young girl who was incredibly taken with the whole thing and decided to just stand next to me for a good half hour or so, and the “cursed session”, which started roughly at 2am and went on for a couple of hours, with horror and erotic poetry.

I didn’t feel sleepy at any point and my throat/voice were ok – I had been preparing for it for a few weeks, through a vocal and physical exercise routine and reducing my intake of gluten and dairy. I only had two coffees and one energy drink during the event, but I drank LOADS of water. The only thing I didn’t expect was an incredibly sore tongue! All in all, it was such a great experience, which still resonated for days in the community after it ended, and I am grateful for that.

We kept the Indiegogo campaign going for a few more weeks after the event and managed to raise the money we needed, thanks to our very generous families and friends. Finally, I’ll leave you here with some interesting stats:

* Accesses to the A Plateia WebTV live broadcast: 126,000

* Poems read: 426 (233 PT, 109 EN, 80 ES, 3 IT, 1 Tupi)

* Poets read: 238 (170 M, 60 F, 8 Anon.)

* Most popular poets: PT – Vinicius de Moraes/Florbela Espanca ** ES – Pablo Neruda/Gabriela Mistral ** EN – William Shakespeare/Sylvia Plath

24hcafeepoesia

 

A wee break in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo is huge. It contains 4 times the population of Scotland in its metropolitan area. I had been there a few times visiting relatives before, but they stay just outside the city, so I hadn’t actually seen Sao Paulo until I visited my friend Leandro in 2012. He lived in the city centre then, and gave me a detailed guided tour of Paulista Avenue and its surroundings – on which he had written his MA dissertation, so I did get a five-star tour indeed.

As per my previous post on applying for a US visa in Brazil, you have to choose a consulate to attend an interview. You can pick from Rio, SP, Brasilia, or Recife. Brasilia and Recife are further away from my native south, and therefore, more expensive. I then opted for SP because it was the closest of them all and friendlier than Rio, in my experience.

Leandro doen’t stay there anymore, and my relatives, as I said above, don’t actually live in Sao Paulo, so I got in touch with a friend who had offered his couch a couple of times before (word of warning: don’t invite me to your house if you don’t mean it, because I WILL turn up eventually!) and decided to take a wee break to enjoy Sao Paulo for a week.

I was staying near the neighbourhood known as Vila Madalena, one of the coolest (albeit hipster-tastic) parts of town, so I took the opportunity to explore it on foot.

Vila Madalena can be quite pricey, but if you’re feeling lush, I do recommend eating at Lá da Venda, a charming retro grocer’s and restaurant with a delicious menu of typical Brazilian food and gorgeous coffee. In fact, if you are a coffee lover, Vila Madalena is packed with the stuff – I also had a coffee stop at Livraria da Vila (a brilliant bookshop) and bought a bag at the Coffee Lab (the funkiest cafe I’ve ever been to) to take home.

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Your own filter coffee served at the table at Lá da Venda

Now, if you’re a bit broke and just fancy a wander, it’s worth getting down to Vila Madalena to see Beco do Batman – an impromptu graffiti gallery outdoors. It’s pretty straightforward to find and you can easily spend a couple of hours there looking at the graffiti made by local artists.

Apart from Vila Madalena, I also went to MASP – Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Again, if you’re travelling on a budget, it’s free on Tuesdays and on Thursday evenings. There will surely be long queues, but they move fairly quickly. You’ll probably have to brave hordes of people taking selfies with the pieces, but once you get past that, it’s worth it, particularly their collection of Brazilian modernist art (I fucking love that shit!).

I was lucky to be in Sao Paulo when the LGBT Pride parade happened – one of the largest in the world, it gathered around 20,000 people this year and it was bloody FABULOUS! Homosexuality is not a crime in Brazil and same-sex marriage is legal, but it’s also one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against homosexual and transgender people (with 13.29 LGBT people suffering some form of violence per day in the country, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Federal Secretary of Human Rights, available here in full in Portuguese). It was great, then, to be able to witness a day of celebration, which was also marked by intense political protests.

The one thing that left me a bit disappointed was, ironically, the theatre. I took a tour around the Municipal Theatre (an opera house, rather than a theatre), which was stunning, but didn’t attend any shows there. I went round Rooselvelt Square, where the fringe-y theatre types live, but nothing in their programme that week caught my attention. I watched one play that had been highly recommended to me, A Alma Imoral, which was good, but not mind-blowing. I was more impressed by one very simple, yet highly effective, street show by Catalan performer Joan Català, who was participating of the SESC International Circus Festival. What left me a bit disheartened was that I was looking for something that I knew I would not be able to find in the UK or in Europe, something more rooted and unique, but I realised with some sadness that about 80% of what gets put on Brazilian stages are adaptations of European or North American classics. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of new writing in Brazil, and devised theatre seems to be constrained within academic walls.

Other than that, my week in Sao Paulo was excellent. It’s not usually considered a tourist destination (or at least not as popular as Rio and the northeast), but it’s such a great place for a city break. There is loads on offer, and although it is generally more expensive than other Brazilian cities, it’s easy enough to adjust your plans to your budget. The public transport system is rather civilised (compared to the experience in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, for example) and I felt safer walking around there than I do in the south these days.

So there you have it. If you’re planning a trip to Brazil, do consider including Sao Paulo on your itinerary.

 

A USA Visa in Three Acts

ACT I
scene i

Santana do Livramento. A large living room, Flav sits at the laptop and types.

Typetypetypetypenotaterroristnevertraffickedhumanoranimalswholeorinpiecesnotacriminalneverbeenneversupportednevernevernocheckallthenoboxescheckcheckchektypetypetypesignsubmit.

I do wonder if anyone ever answers ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I mean… you’re kinda fucked either way, aren’t you? If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you say so, they’re not going to let you in their country. If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you deny it, they’ll find out you’ve lied and they’re not going to let you in their country.

scene ii

Same. A few days later.

Currency exchange rate win – US dollar down – thumbs up for cheaper fee! Book appointment – they say Brasilia is never busy, but I don’t have free accommodation there. It would be cool to go to Belo Horizonte for the first time (remember that time when I wrote a BH travel guide without having ever set foot in the place? Lol), but again, no free couch. Rio or Sao Paulo, then? Not been to Sao Paulo in a while (remember that friend I keep promising to visit there?), aye, go on then. Booked. Flights. Booked. Ouch.

Facebooks friend in SP.

O hai, remember how I said I would come visit at some point? So how about this date? Yeah, I mean 31st May, June doesn’t have 31 days. Yeah, already booked flights. Oh… crap. Chile, huh? That’s… awesome. Love Chile. Beautiful country. New girlfriend? Oh, fab. In Chile? On the 31st May? Excellent. Ach, well. (surely there will be hostels in SP) Flatmate? Ok. Sorry… but thanks!

ACT II

scene i

Porto Alegre. Big glass building on busy avenue surrounded by corporatey-businessy-type buildings. USA flag, motherfucking bald eagle staring down at you.

No queues at all. Really nice, polite people. Open bag, lemme see, rummage, rummage, that’s great thank you, on you go. Metal detector, no beeps. That’s lovely, thank you, on to the first desk, please. Appointment? Yes, everything seems to be ok, would you like your passport posted back to you or to collect here? Collection is quicker and you can do it on Sundays. Postal services not guaranteed. Collection it is. Thank you, please take a seat and they will call you shortly. Shortly. Please, look into the camera – click – thank you for your soul. Please, fingers on the pad – BRIGHT LIGHT – thank you for your identity forever. Sticker on passport, appointment in Sao Paulo confirmed. Kthxbye.

ACT III

scene i

Sao Paulo. Paulista Avenue, outside the Art Museum, phone in hand, confused look, wandering back and forth to the back of the Museum esplanade.

How the fuck am I supposed to get down there to get the bus? Flying?

scene ii

Gets off the bus, follows the various signs indicating ‘American Consulate? Park here’, ‘American Consulate? Take passport photos here’, ‘American Consulate? Have a coffee before you go in here’. Finds American Consulate. Takes a while to find the entrance.

DOOR LADY: Good morning, do you have an appointment?

FLAV: Yes, I do. Here’s the confirmation. Hands sheet with printed bar code over.

DOOR LADY: Great, thanks. You are not allowed to go in with any weapons, lighters, or electronic equipment, including mp3 players and your phone.

FLAV: Can I just turn my phone off?

DOOR LADY: No, you’re not allowed to go in with your phone on you.

FLAV: Ok. Do you have lockers?

DOOR LADY: No, sorry.

FLAV: Right… I can’t go back home and re-schedule this, so what do I do?

DOOR LADY: There are lockers outside that you can rent.

FLAV: Fine. Where can I find them?

DOOR LADY: Sorry, can’t tell you.

FLAV: Fantastic. Turns around in despair and sees the parade of ‘American Consulate? Rent a locker space here’ signs across the street. Chooses one of the garage spaces, places phone inside a mini locker and pays R$ 10 to the girl at the makeshift table with a card machine.

scene iii

FLAV: I’m back. No phone.

DOOR LADY: Lovely. Scans bar code on paper. In you go.

SECOND DOOR MAN: Can I have a look in your bag, please? Ok. Go ahead.

THIRD DOOR LADY: Do you have an appointment? Scans bar code on paper. Thank you, please join the yellow line.

Stands in the yellow line for 45 minutes.

FIRST DESK LADY: Can I have your passport, please? Any other passports? Thank you, please join the security line.

Stands in the security line for 20 minutes.

SECURITY MAN: No jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no phones, no lighters, no jackets, no jewellery, all papers in the plastic folder, no phones, no weapons, no jackets, no belts, no mp3 players, no lighters, papers in the plastic folder, nothing in pockets, no jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no lighters, no weapons, no jackets… ad infinitum

X-Ray. Metal Detector. Clear. Go.

scene iv

A bunker in the back garden of the American Consulate SP.

SECOND DESK LADY: Can I see your passport, please? That’s great, thank you. Please join line number 8.

Stands in line number 8 for 10 minutes, eavesdropping on people’s interviews.

LINE LADY: Please go to window number 3.

WINDOW MAN: (in Portuguese with an American accent) Bom dia! Mão direita aqui, por favor. Sim, direita. Obrigado. Qual é o motivo da visita aos Estados Unidos? Oh, do you have an invitation letter or something? Boston? February? What kind of conference? Art? But the computer says you’re a translator. Hm, ok. What type of art? Theater? What type of theater? Hahaha. Present a paper on what? Oh, that makes sense! How long did it take you to pick up a Scottish accent? I can’t understand it sometimes. Married? Ok. Well, good luck. Your request has been approved and here’s some more information. It will take about 10 days for your passport to be returned.

scene v

Three days later.Still in Sao Paulo. Email pops up on screen.

Your passport is ready for collection in Porto Alegre.

Collect passport with visa a week later. Celebrate. 

THE END

A Trial Run of Curitiba

I had been to Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, only once before, roughly 12 years ago. Back then, I was at uni in Porto Alegre, studying to become an EFL teacher, and the reason of my visit to Curitiba was a TEFL convention. I didn’t remember much about it, as I was only there for a weekend and spent most of my time at the convention, but the few memories I had were of the good kind. I started paying attention to the city again in the past few years for a number of reasons: a couple of my cousins moved there, their official twitter account is absolutely hilarious (Portuguese speakers only, soz), and they have the largest and oldest theatre festival in Brazil, Fringe included. In addition, it’s famous for having a colder climate than the rest of Brazil year-round and for having a decent public transport system. It sounded like a good place to live in if I ever decided to move back to Brazil, so I thought I would give it a trial run. I got a job as a venue manager at the Fringe and went to Curitiba for a month.

I stayed with one of my cousins for the first week and couchsurfed the rest of the time. I was in charge of Solar do Barão, a gorgeous listed building that houses the Museum of Photography, Museum of Engravings, and a comic books library year-round. This 19th-century manor house was the family home of Ildefonso Pereira Correia, Baron of Serro Azul, whose intriguing story I learned from the staff and some audience members while I worked there. A yerba mate lord back in his day, the Baron once saved the city of Curitiba from being pillaged by rowdy gauchos (my ancestors), but entered a complicated political tangle that got him assassinated on a train en route to Rio. After his death, the Baroness moved next door and donated the manor to the Army. It was used as a barracks until about 30 years ago, when it was passed on to the Curitiba Cultural Foundation.

As cool as the story of the venue is, it has its problems as a place to host fringe theatre shows. Having to create a performance space where there isn’t one wasn’t the issue – building the truss and putting the dance floor down was the easiest part. The hard work included shifting a baby grand piano (which allegedly belonged to the Baron and no one is allowed to touch) and accommodating pieces that involved liquids being spilled on stage. The venue regulations stated that the use of liquids, food, and fire was strictly prohibited, due to the risk of damaging the historical structure. Also, with no accessibility, no trained first aiders anywhere to be seen, no emergency lights, and only one possible exit down a wooden staircase, the venue was a death trap.

DSCF5773

We took a group of 20 blind people and one wheelchair user up and down these.

Thankfully, we didn’t have any emergency situations, but I was kept on my toes throughout the full run. I was also fortunate to be working with a tiny, but very good and attentive team.

What of the result of my experiment? Well, it’s unfair to compare this with the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s unfair to compare anything with the Edinburgh Fringe. Some negative aspects of the festival were the relative dullness (it was way quieter than I expected), unclear relationship with performers (a few of the ones we worked with didn’t seem to understand what a ‘fringe’ was), difficulties with the venue (they have an interesting festival-funded venues system, but it’s full of restrictions), and the ‘Ticketless Movement’, which seemed like a good idea at first, but annoyed me to no end, and could be used in a more productive way. On the plus side, I met lots of interesting people and got a dose of some good acting. As for my expectations regarding the city, it was all lies. I think it rained only once in the whole month I was there, temperatures stayed between 30 and 35°C, and getting a seat on a bus is just impossible (well, having enough room to breathe on buses was a laborious task). It has its perks: it’s pretty, it’s clean, and it’s cheap, but I have stopped considering it as a possible base. I would definitely like to go back to visit, though, and potentially to participate in the festival again.

Couchsurfing

About a week after I came back to Brazil, I journeyed back to my hometown of Santana do Livramento, on the border with Uruguay. My mum and my sister were going to Rio on holiday and I agreed to house and pet-sit. I was quite looking forward to having the house, the dogs and the cats to myself – it would feel like a much needed break. I’ve been freelancing as a translator since I left Scotland in 2012 and although I’ve travelled a fair bit during this time, my life has been so erratic that it’s easy to forget to simply have time off every so often.

Staying at home in Livramento in the summer now doesn’t have the same feel as it did when I was younger, though. Most of my old friends have moved away and the entertainment options are very limited. I tried to organise a group reading of a play, the South American version of a project run by my Edinburgh peers, but no one turned up. It would be a long month, even though it was February.

Then it occurred to me: my couchsurfing profile had been on the “I can’t offer you a couch” mode for a while – what if I turned it back on? I switched it to “yes, I have a couch for you”, thinking no one would request to stay there. People who can locate Livramento on the map are generally just coming from Porto Alegre or other parts of my home state to buy cheap booze, cosmetics and clothes in the Uruguayan duty free shops – not really the couchsurfing type. To my surprise, I received a request a couple of days after that, from an Australian dude.

This poor lad had probably met someone with a wicked sense of humour while visiting Buenos Aires, for this person recommended Rivera/Livramento for a fabulous Carnaval experience. You see… my border isn’t exactly famous for its Carnaval festivities. In fact, we were not even going to have a street party this year. You can imagine why, exciting as it was, his request confused me. I told him he would be welcome, but tried to warn him that he’d be underwhelmed.

It wasn’t a complete disaster after all – Freg was an awesome guy, really easy to chat to, involved with art, theatre and politics. As it happens, Rivera had a bit of action to offer and we managed to see some of their street party with samba and candombe groups. I shipped him away to Rio to see the real thing after a few days, and he drew me this lovely thank you card, showing a pair of candomberos and a funny numbat eating a golden butterfly:

380

Transculturalism at its best

Then the requests kept coming in. I never thought Livramento would be this popular. One of the many things I like about couchsurfing is that it attracts the artsy community. So after my Aussie friend Freg, I hosted a pair of lovely Uruguayan backpackers: Alicia, who was just getting started with her travels, and Kobe, a tango dancer and excellent baker. They only stayed for one day, but had great chat.

A few days later and already into March, I got a beautiful birthday present: couchsurfers Rodrigo and Gabriela (no, not those ones), two talented filmmakers based in Curitiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraná. I remember the moment I spotted Gabriela’s big smile outside and (cheesy at this may sound) knew we would become good friends. Again, the time they spent in Livramento was very short, but the hilarity was immense. Rodrigo and Gabriela overlapped with Cristóbal, my last couchsurfer of the season. A music producer hailing from Chile, Cristóbal had been travelling around South America collecting data about each country’s folk music for his Latiendo America project. He’d been to Argentina and Uruguay and decided to enter Brazil through Livramento. I helped him contact local musicians and took him to a radio station to be interviewed about the project, it was all rather cool. He moved on, travelling across Brazil all the way up north and as I type this, he’s on his way to Paraguay.

Some people are a bit suspicious of couchsurfing, but I’ve only had good experiences with it, both hosting people and being hosted by them. I have made new friends, learned about their countries and others they had visited, and have encountered a handful of interesting journeys and projects. In spite of the surprising popularity when I switched my couch back to available, the practice is still not widespread in Brazil. My friends from Curitiba have recently worked on a documentary about their own experience, which might help people trust couchsurfing a bit more over here.

I left Livramento after that month and went back to being in a different place every couple of weeks, so I’ve turned the availability of my couch off until I have a more permanent base again. If you’ve considered using it at some point but weren’t too sure, go for it. It’s a great way of making new connections and expanding horizons.

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