Jaguar Camp

I stayed in Brazil an extra week after my contract, with my goal being to visit the Pantanal. This wetland area in the southwest of Brazil is a good place to see wildlife, especially jaguars.  I booked myself a 4-day stay at a Jaguar Camp, where we spent each morning and afternoon cruising the riverways looking for animals and birds.


We saw jaguars 3 of the 4 days I was there!  One jaguar attacked and killed a large caiman in front of our eyes (super exciting) and on my last day we watched another one stroll and swim along the river bank for over an hour and a half!



We also saw caiman, capybaras, giant river otters, a couple howler monkeys, some deer, a snake, some iguanas and other lizards, and tons of birds.  It was a fun trip.



On my last day in the area, I booked a day hike to visit Chapada dos Guimarães National Park to see several waterfalls and a cave.  It was refreshing and pretty and made my legs ache in a good way.



Such a great final adventure in Brazil!


Notes on Brazil

A somewhat random collection of observations I made during my past 5 months in northeastern Brazil:

  1. Greetings (kisses). I knew that Brazilians, like other Latin Americans, kiss for greetings.  And I got quite comfortable with that in Ecuador.  The problem is that in some parts of Brazil, people kiss on the cheek once.  In other parts, they kiss twice (once on each cheek).  And I’ve heard that in some parts, close friends kiss three times.  Because I never know how many kisses the other person expects, plus the fact that some Brazilians know I’m a foreigner and therefore go for a handshake rather than a kiss, I had a hard time navigating greetings here.
  2. Plastic and packaging. Things here seem sooooo over packaged to me.  Napkins at fast food places come wrapped in plastic (and sometimes the napkins themselves feel like they’re made of plastic!).  Silverware is often wrapped in plastic.  When I get pedicures, my FEET are wrapped in plastic.  There seems to be a concern for sanitization in all of these phenomena.  It just seems to wasteful though.
  3. Relatedly, no eating with hands. I’ve noticed that most people eat an ice cream cone with a small plastic spoon.  Also, pizza places will give you plastic gloves to eat your pizza (this made me laugh and laugh and laugh) if they don’t have knives and forks.  People have explained to me that Brazilians are averse to eating with their hands, because it’s not clean.fullsizerender
  4. Many restaurants have live music. There’s usually a small cover charge included included in your bill.  I will happily pay a couple dollars to listen to talented musicians while enjoying some food or drink.
  5. Farofa is ground cassava (manioc, yucca) flour that’s sautéed in oil/butter.  It is a ubiquitous garnish here. People put it on grilled meats, beans, salads… almost anything.  I find it similar to saw dust – dry and tasteless.  I do NOT understand it’s appeal.
  6. Thumbs up. Brazilians flash a thumbs up for EVERYTHING.  “I understand.”    “I’m happy to hear you like the food.”  “I can fulfill your request.”  “Thanks for stopping at the crosswalk to let me cross the street.”  “I’ll do what I can.”  (I feel like I’m going to return to the U.S. overusing the thumbs up now.)
  7. Post paying phone plans. My cell phone is post-paid at the end of the month, rather than pre-paid at the beginning of the month.  Whaaaaa?!?
  8. The heat. Teresina is the hottest city in Brazil, and I was here during the hottest part of the year (“bro,” which means September, October, and November).  People from the northeast of Brazil, and Teresina in particular, are really proud of surviving the heat, similar to how Minnesotans are proud of being cold-hardy.  Another parallel: people here will start their car to turn on the a/c and cool it down, just like we in the upper Midwest start our cars in the winter to warm them up!  Finally, I am amazed that people wear jeans here.  It’s 100 degrees.  EVERY.  DAY.   Someone explained to me that if they didn’t wear jeans because of the weather, they would never wear jeans.  (My response:  I choose never to wear jeans!)
  9. Left turns are rare. At many (most?) intersections, left turns aren’t allowed.  Drivers need to go around the block, or to a roundabout (common here) to get turned around.
  10. Restaurant service. Brazil does not have a service culture.  Some places charge a 10% service charge, but, by law, you don’t have to pay it.  As a result, service can be incredibly slow.  It’s also acceptable to whistle for a server (I just couldn’t bring myself to do this, even when the service was terribly negligent or slow).
  11. Self-service restaurants. Buffet restaurants are soooooo common here!  Some of them are by weight (that is, you load your plate with whatever you want and pay by the kilo).  Others are “sem balanca,” or all-you-can-eat.  In some of the non-weighed buffets, you can be charged a fine if you take food that you don’t eat (which I think is a marvelous way to cut down on food waste).
  12. Garbage collectors work at night.  In my neighborhood, garbage is collected around 11pm on Fridays.  I find this incredible.
  13. “Recycling.” On campus, there are recycling bins for plastics, glass, paper, etc.  I was told that these were installed to promote the idea of recycling, but the university actually does not have any recycling program.  My apartment building does not have recycling, so once a week or so I carry my plastic and glass bottles across the street to the mall, where they do have recycling bins.  However, I’ve noticed that they are often all filled with garbage, similar to the campus bins.  I have no idea if my efforts to recycle are worth it, but I feel bad if I don’t at least try.
  14. People hold stuff for you on the bus. City buses can get standing-room-only crowded.  If you’re carrying items, it’s even harder to grab a hand hold to maintain your balance while standing on a lurching bus.  I’ve seen several instances where someone sitting in a seat will offer to hold items for a standing passenger.  In fact, people have done this for me a couple times when I was standing.  It’s so nice!
  15. Priority lines. By law, pregnant or nursing women, elderly, disabled, and customers with small children can “cut” in line at banks, post offices, stores, etc.
  16. Brazilians don’t watch where they’re walking. I am constantly on the lookout for others because if I’m not paying attention, no one is.  So many possibilities for collisions here.
  17. Ham and cheese. Croissants, sandwiches, pizzas, pastries, hot pockets… I was not expecting this to be such a prevalent flavor combo here.
  18. Crime is a part of life in Brazil.  Robberies, muggings, hold-ups, house break-ins… they’re very common.  Some businesses (restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, clinics, etc.) lock their doors during working hours to deter thieves.  It’s consequently hard to tell if some places are open or not during the day.  Also, there are armed security guards at many businesses and on my university campus.  During the summer vacation or evening classes, when campus is more deserted, the English coordinator asks the security guards to more regularly patrol hallways where classes are being held.  There have also been English classes that were held up – the thief walked away with everyone’s cell phones.  This is a sad fact of life here in Brazil, and one that I am confident raises everybody’s stress levels on a daily basis.  I’m looking forward to being able to relax more back in the U.S.

Foz do Iguaçu

I took a weekend trip to the gigantic waterfalls that lie on the borders between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay:  Foz do Iguaçu (in Portuguese), or Iguazu/Iguassu Falls (in English).  On the Brazilian side I took my first-ever helicopter ride.


I figured this would be a pretty spectacular view to see from a helicopter.  It was!


Then I walked around the Brazilian side of the park, which is generally agreed to have better landscape views of the falls:


I also took a boat ride under one of the 275 waterfalls.  It was even better than a water park ride!

The next day I visited the Argentina side of the falls, which is awesome because you can get closer to some of the waterfalls – right out on top of one of them.


Seeing and hearing and feeling the power of so much water moving through one place, on either side of the border, was amazing.

Fascinating Planet

In the listening/speaking class I taught last year at the University of Minnesota, our textbook included a unit entitled “Fascinating Planet.”  That chapter featured national parks and protected areas around the world, including Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil.  I had never heard of this place, but it sounded pretty cool: acres and acres of dazzling white sand dunes, which become dotted with blue and green and turquoise lagoons during the rainy season.


A few months later, when I accepted an English Language Specialist position to work in northeastern Brazil for 5 months, I realized that I would be living about 7 hours from that national park.  A goal was born: visit Lençóis Maranhenses.


And I did!  After presenting at a conference in a nearby town, some friends and I drove to the national park, where we enjoyed hiking up and down the dunes and cooling off in several of the lagoons.

It really is a fascinating planet.

I’m about to move to Teresina, Brazil to spend 5 months training English teachers there through the State Department’s English Language Specialist program.  I like to set goals each time I move to a new country, so here’s the Brazilian version:

1.  Take forró dance lessons.  Forró is both a style of music and type of dance, especially popular in the Northeast of Brazil (where I’ll be) since it’s from that region.  I’ve looked up some videos and it reminds me a little of cumbia, which I can dance a bit.  I’m really excited to try it!  Here’s an example of some basic moves, and here’s one of more advanced dancers.

2.  Visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.  I first learned about this park in the listening and speaking class I taught this past year, as our textbook included a page about this natural area.  It’s 580 square miles of white sand dunes, which develop lagoons during the rainy season.  It looks spectacular, and is in the state next to where I’ll be living. Sounds like a weekend trip in the making!
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3.  See Iguaczu Falls.  They’re giant waterfalls on the border between Brazil and Argentina.  Eric’s going to need to renew his tourist visa sometime in August, so that seems like a good reason to cross the border into Argentina and back, enjoying some waterfall views at the same time.

4.  Visit The Pantanal.  This is a large tropical wetland in southwestern Brazil, and a great place to see wildlife since it’s a much more open landscape than rain forests.  Sign me up!

5.  Enjoy some beach time.  My city, Teresina, is not on the coast.  Sadly, it’s about 5 hours from the coast, but go to the coast I will.  How can you go to Brazil and not visit one of their famously awesome beaches?

6.  See Carol.  One of my friends from grad school is Brazilian, and now lives in Brasilia, so I hope we can meet up.  I haven’t seen her for 7 or 8 years!

7.  Try cashew fruit.  Cashew trees are native to Northeastern Brazil, and produce a fruit in addition to nuts.  Who knew?  I guess it makes a tasty juice, so I’m looking forward to trying it.

I’ve been in Japan a week so far for a faculty development project through the U of M.  This past Sunday was my first completely free day out on my own.  Given that I can’t really read anything in this country, and I can only say “hello,” “thank you,” and about 8 random food words in Japanese, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself.  But I had an awesome day!

First, through the kindness of strangers at the bus station, I got myself to Monkey Mountain, a park just outside of Beppu that is loaded with hundreds of free-ranging Japanese macaques.

Then I got myself back into town, and with the help of a tourist information center employee and a friendly bus driver, took ANOTHER bus to the Kannawa neighborhood of town to visit one of Beppu’s “hells.”  (Beppu has a LOT of geothermal activity just under its surface, so steam basically rises out of any available crack in the earth.  Consequently, there are thermal hot springs and geysers and steam kitchens all over the city, including some touristy themed hot springs.)  I chose to visit the “Demon Monk Hell” because the bubbling mud pools are supposed to look like little bald monk heads.  And yeah, they kind of do.


Honestly, I felt a little silly for spending $4 to visit what was basically some nicely-landscaped hot mud pits, but then I saw something that absolutely made my day: a black and gold lizard with a METALLIC TEAL AND BLUE TAIL!!!  Whaaaat?!?!


I was DELIGHTED to discover that such a creature exists in the world.  It’s black and GOLD!  With a METALLIC BLUE TAIL!!  Isn’t this amazing?  We live in a world where spectacular lizards like this dart around nicely-landscaped hot mud pits – incredible!

I strolled around and successfully found a new bamboo workshop that isn’t even in most of the tourist maps yet. I also got myself on a bus going back to downtown Beppu (granted, it took a long scenic route, but it still got me where I meant to go).  Then I walked to the mall for a late lunch and decided on a sushi place.  I walked in, indicated I’d like to eat, and got sat at a bar with an electronic menu.  That was it from the wait staff – I was on my own to figure out how to get some food.  I scrolled through pictures on the tablet (because I couldn’t read a single word) and hoped I was ordering stuff.  A few minutes later, someone brought me a tall glass of wine.  Success!


And then, the most wondrous thing happened: the food I ordered started to arrive in front of me… on a little electronic train!  SQUEEEEE!

Baby monkeys, bubbling mud pools, fantastical lizards, and sushi trains – what a great day!!!


On Roots and Wings

You may have noticed a significant drop in my posting frequency in the past year.  You may have also noticed that I’ve been living and working in Minnesota this past year.  Correlated events?  Yes.

I could use the excuse that relocating and adjusting to a new job has kept me busy.  But really, I’ve been doing that about once a year for the past several years, and still went on adventures and posted about them.  The difference now is that my life in Minnesota is much less exotic.  I walk around lakes instead of up volcanoes.  I shop at Target instead of markets full of exotic produce.  I pay for car insurance and utilities instead of snorkeling trips and hot air balloon tours.  None of this stuff seems particularly adventurous or post-worthy.

Sometimes life here is comforting.  But sometimes, it’s crushingly mundane.  Sometimes I look forward to really settling into a long-lasting community.  But sometimes, I feel trapped.  Sometimes I’m relieved I don’t have another move coming up in my immediate future.  But sometimes, I ache to know new places.

In a word, I’m torn.



My desire to put down roots and feel more connected has been growing in recent years.  Family health issues, my current employment, and the housing market all aligned in such a way that it made sense for me to buy a condo, which I did this summer.  So in many ways, I can now call Minneapolis home, more than any other place I’ve lived as an adult.

I also went to Guatemala this summer.  I feel like I blossom – realmente florezco –   in Latin America.  The more open, flirty and fun side of me comes out to play.  That version of Estephy gets lost in the daily grind of “real life” in the U.S.

So I decided something when I was in Guatemala.  Well, maybe not so much a decision as a quiet sense of knowing: I’m going to move abroad again.  I have to.  It’s in my spirit.  I don’t know where, and I don’t know when.  But I know it’s going to happen again… sometime.   I can feel it.

While I’ve been busy putting down roots, I’ve also ensured that those roots still have room to stretch.  My job at the U permits a year of leave.  My condo association allows for rentals.  And THAT, my friends, gives my wanderlust hope.