Sunday, August 09, 2009

Morals: Looking Ahead When Leaving Religion Behind

Sociology 310: Religion in Society

According to reports from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life1, “more than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised, in favour of another religion or no religion at all. ...Those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation.” Significant numbers of people, myself included, while doing so for a variety of different reasons, are leaving religions which have played a role in their growth and development through childhood into adulthood, and are not replacing them with other religious affiliations. My religion had a huge impact on me my entire life. It influenced who I selected as friends, who and when I should marry, how many children I should have, and how I raised them. As I exited from the LDS religion, I had to reassess and re-evaluate a great number of church teaches which I had implemented in my life. With the data indicating that Christianity is the dominant religion of North America, I will examine one of the challenges that I and many others confront when leaving a heavily influential Christian religion.

There is an overarching and “legitimated knowledge”2 among North American societies that good morals stem from religion. In speculating where this assumption may have come from, Berger states, “... religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation”3. As people leave Christian churches, a common challenge is determining where they will get their morals from now that they are free to work beyond the framework of their religious background. While liberating for some, this prospect instilled a sense of fear in me because I had come to believe that morals and religion are synonymous. Sweden's example helped alleviate those fears. With the worlds highest proportional rate of “agnostic/atheist/non-believer in god” (46% - 85%)4 , one might assume Sweden would be home to a high crime and violence rate stemming from its lack of religiosity. However, this turns out not to be the case, as Sweden actually has a low crime rate5. By looking at the statistics for the Scandinavian region as a whole, one could reasonably argue that society does not require religion to be moralistic.

Taking this thought even further, a closer inspection of the religious moral codes revealed in the Holy Bible suggests that perhaps “Christian morals” are not all their adherents claim they are. There are the better known “love and serve your neighbour”, “do not lie, steal or commit adultery, ” commandments which are generally viewed as positive ways to lead a life. But in this same book lies sometimes contradictory and barbaric commandments which hardly resemble the kind of morals modern Christians would abide by. For example, in Leviticus 20:9, it states “For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death”. In Deuteronomy 22:23 – 24 it states, “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbours wife”. Clearly, the Bible calls for and authorizes morals that the Christian community has rejected, and society at large has criminalized.

Thus, “Christian” morals, as taken from the Bible, are to some degree, evaluated by practising Christians. Because of the sometimes archaic nature of Old Testament commandments in particular, Christians are forced to determine which morals make sense to them and will become applicable guidelines in their own lives, and which ones will be discarded. Because of the likelihood that a person leaving his or her religion has already made some of these choices while growing up in their religion, they will have some experience weighing, examining, evaluating and then accepting or rejecting certain morals. This same person, looking ahead, can use the same methodology in re-examining the Christian morals they previously adhered to. By evaluating what has been their moral code until now, while at the same time evaluating behaviours and ideas previously rejected or off-limits because of their Christian upbringing, they can examine what makes sense from their new perspective, determining, as they have already done, what is acceptable and what is not.

While rejecting their past religion, there is not necessarily a parallel need to reject all basic guidelines and morals from their Christian heritage. After evaluating my values, I did not experience a significant shift in moral behaviour. The morals that remained for me were the ones accepted by the majority of society, not just Christians. According to recent studies, this source of morality may have less to do with religion's divine inspiration, and more to do with an innate hardwiring of the brain. Professor Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, in his study of animal behaviour, believes there is ample evidence to suggest that due to brain structure, many different species of animals are governed by moral codes of conduct, much like humans6.These morals provide group cohesion that allows often aggressive and competitive animals to live together. The nuances of their morals will be different from group to group, but they are typically developed in each animal social group to help regulate their specific behaviours. Wolves and coyotes can display a sense of fairness; elephants and dolphins can show empathy both for members of their own herd but also for other species; monkeys and chimpanzees can both show tolerance and charity for weaker members, with chimpanzees having a sense of justice and punishment when necessary. When these normal, even instinctive characteristics, are put into the human context of religion, they become religious morals7. It should be noted that the influence of religion is not a factor for these animals when establishing group morals. They are simply using their physiological brains combined with a natural instinct to live, so they can work together and survive.

Dr. Bekoff's findings would support the theory of the evolution of man and his role in society. Primitive tribal members, under no influence of religion, needed to work together to increase the likelihood of survival, as well to ensure adequate food, shelter and protection. Because of the structured hard wiring of their brains, tribal members were able to coordinate how to cohesively live and work together, and further hone their morals to establish what was and wasn't acceptable behaviour in the tribe. Those who lived by that code were permitted to stay in the tribe and benefit from the protections that were offered from living as a group, while those who did not live by the code were usually evicted from the tribe, markedly decreasing their chances of survival by being alone. Berger appears to concur when he states, “The socially established nomos may thus be understood, perhaps in its most important aspects, as a shield against terror... The anthropological presupposition for this is a human craving for the meaning that appears to have the force of instinct... To be separated from society exposes the individual to a multiplicity of dangers with which he is unable to cope by himself, in the extreme case to the danger of imminent extinction”8. Physiology and evolution appear to have set the groundwork for the basic morals which govern society, that religion would later adopt and re-brand. This re-branding is referred to by Durkheim when he states, “If philosophy and the sciences were born of religion, it is because religion began by taking the place of the sciences and philosophy”9.

Individuals who leave behind their Christian religion and prepare to enter a more secular society, can take heart in knowing their morals are a part of their brain's physiological make up, refined by both the societal influence of their upbringing, as well as personal evaluations. With this knowledge, they won't need to search very far at all for a new moral compass. I learned I had one all along, I had just misidentified it's source.

- Heather McCue

1 “Statistics on Religion in America Report -- Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.” (Accessed July 19, 2009).

2 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.“The Sacred Canopy”, Peter L. Berger, pg. 26

3 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc. “The Sacred Canopy”, Peter L. Berger, pg. 27

4 Martin, Michael. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press.

5 “Sweden.” (Accessed July 19, 2009).

6Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2009. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. 1st ed. University Of Chicago Press.

7 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc. “Religion as a Cultural System”, Clifford Geertz, pg. 19

8 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.“The Sacred Canopy”, Peter L. Berger, pg. 24

9 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.“The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, by Emile Durkheim, pg. 9

Letter to the Editor

Since when has capitalism been allowed to define what “family” is? While Federal Government and legislators squabble over how to appropriately expand it's definition, some local businesses seem to have it all figured out. Though the exact numbers may vary slightly, family, so they say, is defined as two adults and two children. Full stop.

As inclusive as this is toward single parent families, as well as same-sex parent families, this definition discriminates against all families who have more than two children. Does a family suddenly stop being a “family” when they welcome a third child? A fourth? More? No, of course not. But they no longer qualify as “family” in the eyes of some local businesses which subscribe to this very narrow definition. Instead of making welcome the business of such families, they financially penalize them.

Recently, our family went to a local community swimming pool to enjoy an afternoon swim. We joined the throngs of other families lining up to pay admittance but when it got to be our turn and we asked for the Family Rate, we were denied. Though we are one family, we didn't fit their prescribed definition and were thus charged over and above the Family Rate. Why call something a “Family Rate” when it isn't meant to fit families? Call it a “group of four rate” if that's all it's intended for. But by definition, a family rate should be for “families”.

Some may reply that this is what we deserve for choosing to have more children, and we can simply either pay up or stop frequenting businesses that discriminate. I hope these same people choose to decline the tax-payer programs my children's dollars will generate for them in their older years. Yes, we could avoid businesses that discriminate against larger families with their “Family Rates”, which would mean no hotels, motels, swimming pools, amusement parks, skating rinks, etc. Fun, eh?

I urge local business to either more appropriately label their admittance fees, or make good on the labels they already use. Make “Family Rates” open to all families.


Heather McCue

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Birthing and Dying

There are many things in life that just seem to go together well - peanut butter and jelly, beaches and sand, birthdays and cake. These just feel like natural companions. Then there are other things in life which share absolutely nothing in common - spicy and sweet, the Rocky Mountains and the Sahara Desert, religion and atheism. Finally, there are other things in life that at first glance appear to have absolutely nothing in common but upon closer inspection, you learn they actually share more similarities than differences. It's this kind of discovery, stories of seeing the parallel in the perpendicular, that I want to share.

It had been just one month plus one day since I had given birth to my fourth child. The experience had been a difficult one for many reasons. It began with me going into labour several weeks after my 'due date' had come and gone. Neighbours, certain I must have had my baby by now, were beginning to drop by to meet our new arrival, figuring they had somehow missed the birth announcement. One neighbour in particular came by not just once, but twice, looking to cuddle our elusive infant. After her second visit, I broke down crying as I rubbed my swollen belly, more anxious now than ever to meet our baby. Still, it was out of my hands and all I could do was practice patience.

I did, of course, finally go into labour, and early one sunny morning, I found myself pacing the house, unable to sleep through the early contractions. Labour progressed and soon I found myself working hard to find comfort from the pain. The midwives arrived at our home and quietly began setting up their equipment while I sought solace in the warm water of our tub. As each contraction grew more and more intense, my efforts doubled as I went about the work of birthing. Soon I had that unmistakeable feeling that this little one was very close to being born. My hard work was almost done and sweet release was close at hand. Though I was exhausted beyond anything I had ever felt, I also learned I possessed more strength than I thought I had. At just the right time, unrushed, I surrendered to the powers that were bigger than life, and I pushed out my fourth child, my first daughter, my precious baby. My body grew quiet as I took in her face. She was perfect and I felt peace.

All this was freshly behind me now, as sat at the edge of my own mother's bed, holding my one-month old baby in one arm, and my mother's hand with the other. The aggressive leukemia had so thoroughly worked it's poison into every inch of my mother, leaving her too exhausted to open her eyes, swallow, or even breathe deeply. With her whole family gathered around her bedside, we spoke tender words to her throughout the entire night, letting her know she was fiercely loved and that her passing away would leave a deep hole in our hearts, but that she had our love and permission to 'go' now. Her body fought on despite our encouragement, so we patiently supported her as she went about the work of dying. At just the right time, unrushed, she surrendered to the powers that were bigger than life, and her body grew quiet. I took in her face and she looked perfect. Though I felt devastated, I also felt peace.

As I looked down, in one hand lay new life and in the other hand lay life ended. These are the two greatest opposites of life - the coming and the going, with as much time distancing the two as possible. But when you take a closer look, both of these transitions, the entrances and exits, can look very much the same. Both require patience, happening at their own time and pace, not to be rushed. Both require hard work, clearing the way to allow the body to do the work it innately knows how to do. The work of birth is not easy, and from what I can see, neither is the work of dying. Both require blood, sweat and tears, and eventually, at just the right time, both require a surrendering to that unknown, mysterious force that is bigger than life itself.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Back from Brazil

We're back from Brazil now. If it weren't for the pictures and written accounts documenting our time spent there, it could all seem like a wonderfully imagined experience to me now. Thankfully for us, it was real, and we will have each other and the continued friendships we made with many good people in Brazil, to remind us of everything that was amazing about our time there.

I'm often asked if I'm sad to be back, and what I will miss the most about Brazil. It's a complicated and possibly lengthy reply...

First of all, I'm very glad to be back home. Here is where my life is, as imperfect and chaotic as it is. All things familiar surround me here, and it feels peaceful to be among those comforts. I wandered down to the beach today with my dog, Maggie. As I looked around the sheltered cove, smelled the sea weed and moist air, and watched the half-hearted waves kiss the shoreline, I fell in love with my West Coast all over again. I've visited with family and friends since returning home and have deeply enjoyed, with a new enthusiasm, rekindling those relationships. Being back on Vancouver Island is really being where I belong. It's nice to see other places, some that may even rival the beauties found here, as well as meet new people, creating friendships that will span a lifetime. But here is where I belong... my roots that welcome me back when the adventures abroad end.

As much as I love it here though, there is much I will miss about Brazil. With such warm weather inviting you outside in the evenings, you see many people on the streets visiting with each other, creating impromptu parties as they share a beer and a fabulous story they've experienced that day. They seem to have mastered much better than we in North America, the art of being with people and enjoying sharing time, rather than being tucked away in your own house with the door closed and no time to spare a few words. Because of this social mindset, it's very common to see hands waving to each other as people go about their day, and car horns tooting a friendly “hello” when passing someone they know. They've taken the time to invest in the relationships of their community. I remember feeling like 'one of them' when we began to know more people in our little town and could start to participate in this greeting ritual when we stumbled across our new friends on the streets.

I will sincerely miss the attitudes that Brazilians seem to have about body image. One glance down any beach there and you will likely see every female body type wearing a bikini regardless of age or size, out enjoying the warm sunshine. There is almost more skin on the beach than there is sand. The heavier women don't hide behind bulky towels or cover-ups, but instead unabashedly join their more slender counterparts as they all soak up some sun and enjoy the warm waves. What's more, no one else on the beach bats an eye, either. There's no snickering or rude comments whispered as a larger woman wanders along the shoreline, dressed only in her bikini. What you end up with is women with good self-esteem (and good tans) who are accepted at face value by their society. How amazing is that?!

Where we were in Brazil, there was cheap booze (and plenty of it), scantily clad men and women, and often sexy Samba music playing in the background like a heartbeat of the city. There was every reason for Florianopolis to be a modern-day “Sodom and Gomorrah”. Interestingly enough, that was not our experience. With so much readily available and affordable liquor, people simply enjoyed a drink as they socialized, but never really to the point of being drunk, or even tipsy. It was merely a casual social component that had no taboo anchors attached to it. With casual drinking being nothing of a forbidden fruit, there seemed to be no irrational desire to abuse it. Interesting...

Some of the most beautiful people live in Florianopolis, and combine them with very little clothing, you'd think they'd be an over-sexed, promiscuous culture. Instead, what they appear to have is a society that seems very sexually at peace. Skin, and it's abundant appearance, isn't over-sexualized and taken out of context. Instead of one peek of female cleavage turning an interested male inside out, it becomes so commonplace that it really doesn't warrant attention.

Florianopolis has every reason to be 'sin city', but instead, it's a family friendly, warm social city that we deeply enjoyed being a part of.

There is much more I will miss about Brazil, and many more lessons learned which I hope to incorporate in my life back here in Victoria. But for now, in response to the question posed above, yes, I'm so glad to be back but yes, I'll miss so much about Brazil it hurts.

-Heather McCue

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 20th, 2009

We recently returned to Curitiba for a few days visit with Luciano. It was great seeing him again, and of course, the kids loved playing with Mel, his gentle but incredibly strong pit bull. While we were there, we were taken all around the city to various points of interest. The large park we visited one evening was bustling with all sorts of people out enjoying the evening air. The kids played on the monkey bars, that also doubled as a work-out station for those inclined. Walking over a little bridge we noticed an odd looking critter swimming in the river we were passing over. Watching more closely, we realized we were getting our first look at a ?. They are a creature that sort of look like a cross between a very small hippo, and a beaver. While the animal was cute and begged for a hug, we were informed that they were wild animals and to not get close to them.

He also took us to a large local craft fair the following day. About the time we thought we'd come near to the end of long line of tents selling all sorts of items, we were informed we weren't even half way done the first of two rows. It was an enormous market. We managed to pick up all sorts of trinkets that looked interesting, and a few others that we bought on impulse and have since regretted. Michael shook hands with a man performing as a statue. The man shifted his body position to give Michael a one-armed hug, and then of course froze there. Michael looked a bit alarmed at first, but eventually figured out how to wiggle his way out of that one. I'm pretty sure I'd have slapped the man, personally...

Luciano had planned to come with us on the next leg of our trip, to Foz do Iguazu. However, a last minute emergency at work required him to stay behind while we boarded the 9 hour bus ride. We hadn't done much planning for this trip, as Luciano was to be our go-to-guy, so we held our breath and hoped we'd be able to figure out how and where to go when we got there, without him.

It was a rather uneventful bus ride, and we landed in Foz after an all night trip. Not knowing the city, we hailed a taxi and made our way to the hotel that Luciano had booked for us. Even though we were there early, our rooms were ready and we were able to plunk down our backpacks and wash up a bit before heading out again. With only a few days to explore a city, you don't waste much time!

We climbed into the same taxi we had arrived by, and took off to the Itapu Dam for a tour. Though we were exhausted and admittedly, grumpy, it was quite a site to see. The amount of water it brings through is staggering, as is the electricity it generates for both Paraguay and Brazil. Thankfully, it was a bus tour so we didn't need to walk around too much. Though the warm sunshine coming through the bus window made it a challenge for me to stay awake for the driving portion of the tour.

After the tour was over, we made our way back to the hotel where I immediately collapsed onto the bed and passed out for a few hours. Rich, who apparently got more sleep the night before than I had, took all the kids who were interested on a walking adventure to find some groceries and a quick bite to eat.

By late afternoon, I was up on my feet again, and Rich suggested a quick jaunt into Paraguay might be fun. Everyone seemed keen on the idea so we called up our cab guy again and off we went across the Brazil/Paraguay border.

Entering Paraguay was quite interesting. I had assumed the bordering countries of Brazil would be more or less the same as Brazil, but I was wrong. Paraguay was a whole new crazy and chaotic world. Perhaps it was just the area of the city we were at, but the impression we got from the small piece of Paraguay we wandered around in, was that it was disorganized and somewhat desperate. Street vendors offered you their wares, but wouldn't take no for an answer. They then followed you around, offering you what sounded like different bargains (I speak even less Spanish than I do Portuguese), until they got tired of being ignored. There was barely any sidewalk to walk on as some of the more organized street vendors had set up shacks to display their wares, leaving a small sliver of walkway for you to pass by on. Of course they were offering all sorts of deals as you walked by, seeing we were not from around there. Even in the buildings that had established stores, they seemed desperate. Owners would beckon you to come into their store, hoping to sell you something, anything. Electronics are incredibly cheap in Paraguay, so I was struck by the idea of looking for a Garmin GPS watch. We asked a few places, but no one had one in stock, though they could set us up in a few days...

We looked for a place to have dinner, as it was getting to be that time of day, but every street looked as crazy and crowded as the next with no restaurants in sight. Police were trying to direct traffic through a traffic circle, a woman was trying to control some chickens she was keeping in a cardboard box, and we were getting pushed more and more into the street. Grasping each child's hand tightly, we crossed the street, located our ever vigilant taxi driver, hopped in, shut the doors, and headed straight back to our relatively orderly Brazil again. Paraguay was interesting to visit, but saying goodbye was easy.

The next day, we arranged to be picked up by our taxi driver in the morning, and to be taken across the border to Argentina to visit the Iguazu Falls from that side. We knew the day would be costly, what with the cab ride and the fees to get into the park, etc. But we hadn't anticipated it being as costly it became... It turns out the Brazilian officials take very seriously the 90 day tourist visa we had. Knowing we were going to be in Brazil for more than that period of time, we were told we'd need to leave the country before the 90 days were up, and simply apply for another 90 day visa. Very straight forward... However, it requires us remembering to leave the country BEFORE the 90 days are up, and by this time we were hitting upon approx. the 105th day. As we tried to leave Brazil for the day, the officials noticed the date discrepancy in our passports, and called us on it. Though the penalty could have been much worse (ie: uh... jail time!), it ended up costing us about $500 Canadian and a bit of time watching them play with paperwork. Not a great way to start the day but in the end, we got through the Argentine border and arrived at the falls.

Our cab driver joined us for the day as we hiked around the park taking in different viewpoints of the immense and breathtaking falls. One part of the Argentine hike takes you right up to the edge of “Devil's Throat”, the main and biggest waterfall of the area. Standing on the walkway beside such a water wonder, the mist was quite thick but a welcome wetness given how hot it was that day. The roar of the water crashing and tumbling over the cliffs edge was deafening but soothing all at the same time. The park was thick with butterflies, and the kids took turns luring them to land on their hands. After taking in Devil's Throat, we hiked around some of the smaller, lower falls and along the way were kept entertained by the little Caitu's that live in the park. These are creatures that look like a cross between a ring-tailed racoon and a long-snouted anteater. They are scavenger animals and at one point, we caught one with it's butt sticking out of a garbage can, rifling around for an empty potato chip bag.

There is a little train that takes you to some of the farther points of the park, and the soundtrack they had playing for you was from the movie, “The Mission”, which was filmed at that park location. We also heard more English spoken on the train than we had heard in a very long time. You can always tell when you're at a large tourist attraction...

After a long afternoon of walking around in the hot sun, it was time to head back to our hotel to put our feet up again. The kids were anxious to try out the weight room, as well as go swimming in the big pool. The weight room adventure didn't last long though... Matthew managed to get himself bucked off the treadmill, and Emily almost followed suit but I was right beside her and grabbed her arm to keep her upright. Jillian melted down when she couldn't reach the pedals of the exercise bike and there was only one weight training apparatus which caused all sorts of uproar, so it was a bust experience. To the pool, we went.

The next morning we took things a little more easy, letting the kids sleep in a bit and have a lazy start. By noon, we were ready to take on the Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls, so again, we called up our taxi driver and off we went.

We had purchased some boat tour adventure tickets from the service desk at the hotel, which were expensive enough that we assumed also included park entrance fee's. Sadly, we were mistaken. Add to it the fact that, though the park took care of all our transportation needs, our taxi driver felt we needed him to accompany us again, this was beginning to look like another expensive day... But we were there for a once in a lifetime adventure, so we tried to push the cost aspect aside so we could focus on the experience at hand.

We went on a little safari to begin with which consisted of a open-air wagon being pulled by an electric jeep. Our tour guide did her spiel in Portuguese first, followed by English at each scheduled stop. We learned about some poisonous caterpillars that live on the trees. If you touch them you can get pretty sick, so we were told not to touch the trees. We also learned about various sorts of flora and fauna facts that were mostly quite interesting. She caught some of the waning kids attention when she mentioned that there are wild dogs in the forest, and hey, can you smell that?... I think one is near... Apparently they do live there, but I couldn't smell one at the time.

Eventually we ended up a boat dock where we suited up in life jackets, stowed away our electronic possessions in water tight containers, and jumped into a zodiac style boat. We cast off and began our journey against the river's flow, heading towards the large waterfalls. We stopped a few times as we got close to the falls, so we could take photos from a very unique perspective in the river. But we knew it was time to put the camera away when our videographer, who accompanied us on the trip, put his camera in a waterproof contraption, and put on his rain gear from head to toe.

As we got closer to the falls, our boat driver had to navigate the rapids, timing our accent up some of the narrow passages at the right time. I couldn't help but notice how much faith we were putting into our driver to get us both there and back safely, despite moving the wrong way over such angry waters...

We couldn't get right up to the Devil's Throat, as the river water levels were low enough that too many rocks were sticking up close to the water surface which would be a problem for our boat. Instead, he took us to a smaller waterfall, and proceeded to get us right into the falling water, drenching everyone in the boat. To ensure everyone had equal soaking, he went into the falls several times at several angles, getting everyone soaked to the bone. Rich panicked at one point when his eye glasses were ripped off his face by the force of the water. I took a quick glance by our feet and found them floating lazily in the bottom of our boat. I scooped them up before they floated under someone's foot, and Rich was careful to hold them in his hands until the dunkings were done.

We had hoped the tour would also take us to the Argentina waterfall side, however it was not to be. And with that, we began the careful journey of navigating our way back to the boat dock.

The following day was our final day in Foz, with a bus scheduled to take us back that evening around 7:30PM. We stuck around the hotel until we had to check out (luckily they could keep our backpacks behind the service desk until the evening time) and we then proceeded to wander around the touristy streets to do some shopping and get our last dose of Foz.

Matthew managed to find some wonderful rocks that he always enjoys collecting, including a rock decorated knife sheath, complete w/ knife. What kind of parent lets their son purchase a knife, I know... Rich and the other boys managed to purchase several soccer jerseys both for themselves as well as for friends/family. We still had time to kill, so four of the five kids got spontaneous hair cuts, and when we were shopped out and trimmed up, we took in one last sight... The Three Frontiers. It's a place where you can stand on Brazilian soil and look across the river to see both Argentina and Paraguay. A nice way to end our day in Foz.

We weren't particularly thrilled about the 13 hour bus ride back to Florianopolis, especially on the low budget bus we were booked in for. But we hoped we'd be asleep for most of the trip as it was a red-eye ride. No sooner had we begun to nod off after heading out, when we were stopped by the Federal Police for a road check. The driver flipped on the interior lights and the Police boarded our bus. Starting at the back, they eyed everyone up, asking to look inside a few people's bags and see documentation for newly purchased and still in the box items. It seems that the cheap electronics in Paraguay is a huge draw for some people to purchase a bunch of items, and then flip them for a profit (and without paying the proper taxes) in Brazil. Between that and a small drug bust earlier in the evening at their road check, they were out get the bad guys. All in all, it was a pretty quiet and respectful check. Their guns were visible but holstered, and they asked people directly but politely for their co-operation. When they were satisfied all was in order on our bus, they let us go on our way. The lights dimmed again and we all managed to step aboard the sleep-train once more, when lightening struck twice and we were stopped yet again for another road check, only this time by the Military Police... a group of officers more renowned for being bribable cowboys than law enforcers. Three officers boarded our bus after not only unholstering their guns, but cocking them at the ready, as well. They posted one man at the back, one in the middle and one in the front and systematically went through every single persons bag and/or purse. To finish it off, they had most of the adult males stand up in the middle of the aisle with their hands clasped behind their heads, and they did an extremely thorough frisking from top to bottom. Rich's eyes almost bulged out a bit when they hit the lower-mid-region... Oh, how I wish I had a camera close by when this happened! Not surprisingly, they found nothing of interest and allowed us to head on our way again. By this time we were wide awake and eager to see what the next stop may bring.

Thankfully, it was a quiet rest of the ride, minus some flowing bodily fluids from a fellow passenger, but thankfully from no one in our family.

We're back in Florianopolis for the remaining week we have in Brazil, now. We're madly trying to find homes for the two adopted street dogs we took in while we've been here. We have literally gone door to door on our street asking people if they are interested in taking them in. We have some leads, but nothing in cement yet. This issue was made even more complex by the surprising find Rich and I made on a walk last evening. We were wandering down a narrow dirt road, when we looked over and saw four little puppy faces looking at us. They were all huddled quietly together, looking bewildered. We wrapped three of them in my jacket and Rich took the remaining one, and we took them to our house. Our neighbour works with dogs as a groomer, and knew enough to put together some electrolyte water, as there were very dehydrated dogs. She also gave us some puppy kibble to mash up w/ some cream. She figured the abandoned pups are about 1 month old, give or take. So, now we're keeping them here, reliving our puppy days with Maggie, but magnified four times. Vera, the neighbour, figures she knows of one person who will take one, and of a pet store who will take in stray puppies if you get there early on Saturday morning. We'll de-worm them tonight and keep plumping them up until they head out. I haven't lost my faith in humanity quite yet, but I sure wish there was an effective way to pound responsible dog ownership into people. Dogs don't ask a lot from you. A warm place to sleep, some food to keep the hunger pains at bay, some clean water, and an occasional pat on the head. How hard is that to give? And if you don't feel you have it in you, consider that before you get a dog in the first place. I understand life happens and occasionally you have to find a new home for a dog, but there has to be a way to go about doing that without resorting to abandonment, which is the most popular option here, it would seem.

As an aside, we've taken up Brazilian Jui-Jitsu lately and have been enjoying kicking each others butts in class. If I could summarize this martial arts, I'd say it's like very strategic wrestling. No punching or hitting really... the goal is to 'strangle' your opponent or otherwise incapacitate them. Supposedly it's a great martial art to know if you're a woman, as it relies less on strength/weight, as it does technical manoeuvres to trap your opponent.

- Heather

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 28, 2009

Being in Rio has been a mixture of beautiful sights, warm sunshine, sandy beaches and quaint markets. Despite being spoiled living in Victoria, BC, they aren't lying when they talk about the incomparable beauty of Rio. It's a palette of vibrant green mountains, soft brown beach lines, deep blue skies, and mosaic sidewalks. It's been a wonderful place to visit and we've very much enjoyed our week here, but Rio is also a very large city that seems to have more than it's fair share of crime and violence, making me feel on edge whenever we were out and about, which was a lot of the time. There are aggressive vendors, scary neighbourhoods that pop up when you least expect it, and the constant reminder ringing in your ears to carry only the necessary cash/valuables... enough to appease a robber, but not enough that you'd lose your shirt. All the tourist books we read and friends we talked to warned us of the crime problems that plague Rio. My fears have been unnaturally fed further since picking up a Brazilian novel called, “Elite Squad” by Luiz Eduardo Soares, Andre Batista, and Rodrigo Pimentel. It's a book that shares some of the 'adventures' of the BOCE police squad as they've dealt exclusively with crimes in the favelas. Not peaceful reading... But in spite of all these fears and warnings, we have not had a single problem with crime during our stay, and have not even seen any crime outside of the TV news.

When we first arrived off the airplane, we hopped a bus and located the little bachelor suite in Ipanema, which we were lucky enough to borrow from Livia, Chris's girlfriend, who was coming to Florianopolis for a visit. A bit of a house swap... We got some groceries and scouted around the neighbourhood a bit, but didn't do anything too exotic that first day.

The following day we decided to make our way to the Christ Redeemer statue, despite some low cloud which threatened to hamper visibility. At the base of the mountain, we hummed and hawed about whether we should go up to the top, as the spy-cam at the ticket booth showed a pretty fogged-in Christ Redeemer. A woman approached us and told us she would be happy to take us up the mountain in her tour van for less than what the 'official' train would cost us, plus she would show us some other sites as we ascended the mountain. With another look at the spy-cam, we could see that the clouds were intermittent, masking the enormous statue one moment and letting it go the next. We figured that after making such an effort to bus our way across town to the mountain base, combined with the likelihood that we'd be up the mountain long enough to catch good glimpses in between cloud cover of both the city below and the statue above, we would take the chance and go up the mountain.

We wound our way up and around, learning a bit about some of the smaller sites we would have missed had we taken the train. Our first stop was on a mountain peak beside the
 Redeemer statue. From here we could see tremendous views of Rio, stretching out in all directions. It was also interesting to see the neighbouring peak and statue from a close but not immediate perspective. There was a sign posted asking us to not feed the monkeys. We would have happily obliged had we seen any monkeys, however we were told they often take to the hidden trees once the day starts heating up. Too bad, as that would have been exciting to see wild monkeys.

The next stop was the highest point a car could take us before needing to transfer to the 'official' tour van. From here, they regularly shuttle people up to the statue and back down to their original tour van or cab, to make arrivals more organized and mountain top travel less congested.

After that short shuttle, we found ourselves climbing the dozens of stairs required to get to the base of the Christ Redeemer statue. There are elevators, but the line up for them was pretty lengthy, so we opted for some exercise. It was all quite mystical taking in such an enormous work of art as clouds both hid and revealed it's magnitude. The overwhelming effort it would have taken to hoist up piece by piece, assemble and then erect the stone is mind boggling. It really does deserve the title of being one of the modern wonders of the world. The kids thought it was quite something, though I suspect they couldn't completely comprehend the entirety of what it was they were looking at. Quite frankly, I'm not sure I could, either. It's something that defies words, amazes the senses, and begs for some alone, quiet reflection time which cannot happen in a crowd of people or when you're trying to not lose your children in all the movement.
The next day we took in a favela tour. A favela is another word for the shanty towns that line the hills in and around Rio. It's interesting how homes
 overlooking the city with ocean views are highly valued in North America and cost a great deal, but here in Rio, because of slave history and later, tradition, many of the 5-star ocean view neighbourhoods that overlook the city are favelas, put together into rather crude communities, and most run by one of three powerful drug lords. The tour was done very tastefully, setting out to eliminate myths, confirm realities, fund favela schools with tour fees, and patronize local handicraft makers, so we ethically felt good about signing up for this kind of tour. We also wanted to help the kids see how things are for other people in the world- to want less and share more. Unfortunately, there had been some very recent violent activity between some feuding drug lords, so one of the favelas was unavailable to tour. The police were there searching for some king-pins, and had all the entrances and exits closed off. Later than night, we saw there had been several killings there that day. Instead, we visited another smaller favela, one not tangled up in that particular brawl. We toured the school that our fee's helped fund, we saw the deep and almost underground neighbourhoods people had developed within the community, we briefly wandered around their main street and observed the regular life that carried on, and along the way heard many of the stories and facts that the tour guide had to share. 

Jillian was quite bored by the end, but perked up when the tour guide shared stories about kids. Sadly, they weren't happy stories. One that particularly sticks out is the concept of 'fire cracker boys'. The drug lords hire young boys to be look-outs for either police activity entering the favela or for the arrival of their drugs. When either approach the favela boundary, the kids are to light off fire crackers as a signal to their bosses. Some shifts require kids being awake all night, while others require attentiveness all day, despite distractions that would be quite impossible for a 10 year old to resist. If, or when, the young child falls asleep or become distracted, letting something important slip by them, those boys are either tremendously beaten or killed. The kids on the “night” shift often need to use drugs to help keep them awake, sparking other more complicated problems and getting the kids more deeply involved in a future with the drug world. She also shared stories of some of the positive things the drug lords have done for their communities (ie: improving water conditions, offering some monetary compensation for loss of life, etc.), however she was quick to point out that these men are
n't 'good' men, but simply men who will sometimes do good things when it's convenient for them. A very complicated life, and one I am profoundly grateful to not have to be a part of. I hope our kids learned how lucky they are to lead a free, safe life in quiet Victoria. Their worries consist of whether they'll remember to do laundry in time to have a spare pair of clean underwear, or if they'll enjoy the warm meal prepared for their dinner. A distant life from that of a fire cracker boy...

We have greatly enjoyed the beaches around Rio, in between site seeing. Both the Ipanema and the Copacabana beaches are lovely and bustling. The surf is fairly strong, so we had to be vigilant to not let the kids get out too deep for fear they'd get sucked out, but they have learned from their previous scares so it wasn't difficult to remind them to keep close to the edge (though Matthew continues to straddle the 'safety' fence by regularly going to the outer limits of where he should...). There is never a vendor too far away who is eager to sell you towels, bikinis, shrimp kebobs, cold beverages, sweet treats, sarongs, earrings, henna tattoos, soccer jerseys, etc. I can't count the number of times we had to say, “Nao, obrigata”. However, it was nice to be catered to, even if we rarely purchased anything. Beach life is easy to get used to, and these beaches are some of the best around.

Another day we decided we would enjoy visiting the Sugar Loaf, which is a large, tall rock formation that is in the shape of how they used to ship sugar loaves.
When you arrive, you take a cable car several hundred feet up to the first of two look-outs. The cable car is made of glass, so you have a tremendous (and scary!) view of the mountain you're ascending, as well as the land you're leaving behind. At the first look-out, you can wander around a large walking area, getting a view of the city from every angle. It was there that they offered helicopter tours for those interested (or wealthy enough). We watched several helicopters land and take-off. Some of the kids were sad they couldn't 'support' that portion of the tourist industry, however, after Emily getting motion sick on the bus the previous day (and puking in her hat... ewww...), I'm not sure the steep down dive they did shortly after take off would have been wise, even if we were willing to fork out several hundred dollars to do it. It was here, also, that Jillian came upon a retired couple from Washington state who were finishing up a 3-week cruise before flying home later that day. They were missing their grandchildren, and Jillian was more than happy to stand in as a proxy, lapping up their love and attention, which spilled over to the other kids once the rest of us caught up with our five year-old leader. They were a nice couple who were very patient with all our kids, making them feel special and loved. We always love running into people like that.

The next cable car takes you to the mountain summit, which, from a distance doesn't appear to be able to hold much more than a few people at it's peak. However, once you're there, you see that it holds not only many people, but also several look-out tiers, a few gift shops, and a snack bar. We got to see some amazing views of Rio from atop, and 'get the lay of the land' so-do-speak... We also ran into a local teenage school group who had been studying some English, but were out for a field trip that day. They immediately took to the kids, especially Jillian, and tried to practice some of their English words. It was fun watching our shyer children get swept into a spontaneous social interaction with peers. Outwardly, 4/5's of our children did not appear very 'outgoing' but because I know them, I could see the efforts they made in participating in a conversation with someone when there is a language barrier. The school teenagers took photos of each other posing with several of our children. It took some encouragement for our two older boys to look interested when surrounded by slightly older and very pretty girls wanting their pictures taken with the “Canadians”. It was great to see such bright, happy, positive teenagers who, it turned out, don't come from a 'good' part of town. These were kids who seemed to be replacing what would be very easy to fall into for a future life, for something different, something better.

The descent down the mountain was equally thrilling, and I was grateful to touch solid ground again upon our arrival. My stomach does icky things when I see great drops so closeby, especially when my kids are involved. I felt a perceivable stress release once we stepped out of the cable car and away from sharp cliffs and moving objects that suspended us in mid-air. A great place to visit – an even greater place to get down from... Oh, and we did, finally, see some wild monkeys at the look-out in between the two cable car rides. There was no sign asking us not to feed them, so perhaps they got tired of stingy tourists at the Christ Redeemer site, and traded it in for some lovin' at the Sugar Loaf?

One night we visited a market down by the Copacabana beach. It was three long lines of individual tents set up by local vendors, selling everything from lingerie to drums to gems, and everything else in between. The prices were usually quite reasonable, and the kids were able to find some treasures they wanted to purchase with the birthday 'advance' they received from their Grandma and Grandpa McCue. We ran out of bills before the kids had settled up, so we plan to hit the “Hippie Market” Sunday afternoon. I would take the unique handicraft markets any day over the large, overpriced shopping malls here. Granted some of the shopping malls have free wifi and air conditioning, but still, I love the meatiness of a bustling market place where you can get a good deal, you can support local talent, and come out with some very lovely treasures.

Tonight, Rich has taken the kids to a club soccer game in Maracana Stadium. I elected to stay home with Jillian, as the game didn't start until 8:30PM, meaning it would likely end around 11:00PM, and after subway rides and metro buses, they wouldn't be home until around midnight. Jillian wouldn't last that long, and honestly, I was eager for some quiet time to myself after spending a week all together in a small bachelor suite. After a Curious George movie, several “Guess Who” games, and some hair do'ing, Jillian is now asleep and I will anxiously await the return of my soccer fans. Until then, though, I will do what I do best, which is worry about them coming home safely... Rich here, adding my $.02 to Heather's blog... It was a great game. They have a section of the 90,000 seat stadium set aside for families and the elderly, and even offered a “child find” service where you can register your children and have a identity bracelet put on them in case they get lost in the stadium. Given my track record of losing our children, I knew Heather would be relieved with this service, so we took advantage of it. The game ended with Flumanense winning 2-1 over Botafogo, and about 35,000 fans watching the game. There was much singing and chanting during the game, which continued on the way out of the stadium, all the way to the metro station, and then onto the train for almost the entire way home, complete with a percussion 'section' that banged on the roof of our cart to the rhythm of the song. It was a wonderful experience!


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 23, 2009

It's March 23rd! Happy Birthday to me!! ;o)

It's been an extended party, beginning a few nights ago with a celebration with our neighbour, Chris, and his mom, Margaret, who also shares a mid-March birthday. They came over so Rich and Chris could make delicious pizza's for everyone. Following dinner, Margaret and I both opened up gifts. Rich and the kids gave me a cloth wrap that doubles as a beach blanket and a cover up, as well as a bracelet and an IOU for a dress. Ryan had thoughtfully picked up three large chocolate bars... he knows me well... Chris gave me a little fishing boat souvenir that also holds photos, and in the photo holder he placed a postcard of an absolutely beautiful beach he wanted to take us to the following day. He also gave me a magnet that I've seen in many stores and have wanted to pick up, but hadn't yet. It's a rather round woman sunbathing on a beach towel... Something to remind me of the beaches in Brazil! Margaret gave me some beautiful dangly earrings made out of coconut, and a necklace made out of Brazilian seeds. It was very thoughtful of everyone and I enjoyed both the company and the kindness extended.

Early the next morning, we all piled into Chris's car to head out to the beach. Literally, we piled in, as he has a five seat compact car and there was eight of us. Because it was a hatch back, we put two kids into the 'trunk', three along the back bench, two in the front passenger bucket seat, and of course, one driver (safety first!). About an hour later, we arrived at the base of the trail where we were to begin our 45 minute hike over a mountain to the beach. After a few photo opportunities, we started up the jungle trail, but no sooner had we begun, when swarms and SWARMS of mosquitos descended on us. I've never seen so many hungry mosquitos in my life! To help reduce bites, we swatted our body constantly and moved quickly through the trail, but with a five-year old in tow, we couldn't make optimal 'out run the mosquito' speed. Chris being the helpful gentleman that he is, picked her up and tried to make time carrying her through the harder climbing spots. That helped us get up the mountain in a more timely fashion, and to the peak clearing where there was enough of a breeze to keep the mosquitos at bay for a time. That is when we met up with a stray dog who, evidently, had been longing for love. And not the 'pat on the head' kind of love... the reproductive kind. The dog mistook Michael's leg as a long lost lover and tried to mount it. Poor Michael did not appreciate the attention and tried to shoo him away. Instead, we had a companion for the majority of our hike, though thankfully, the humping ceased.

After a long hike, we made it over the mountain and ended up at a most breath taking beach. The kind of beach that you can only get to by boat or via a long hike, so it weeds a lot of the crowds out (though evidently not the surfers who were spending the weekend camping and surfing). It was a strong beach and we didn't wade out too far. But it was amazing to just be there amongst such natural beauty. A small group of us did some scouting around and found a quiet little lagoon not too far off. With no waves or tidal pulls, it was a no-brainer where we should do our swimming. Jillian appreciated being able to swim and do handstands, etc. with no fears of being knocked down or swept away. After about an hour of playing, it was time to head out as Chris had to work that afternoon. It was about the hottest time of the day by now, so we broke into a good sweat before we had even reached a ¼ of the hike up. And when we weren't in the scorching heat, we were in the shade of the jungle being swarmed by those jumbo mosquitos. A bit of a love/hate relationship with the elements... But all in all, a wonderful experience. Chris even took one for the team when he slipped hiking down the trail while holding Jillian in his arms. In order to not squish her as he fell, he did some fancy footwork and managed to land somewhat on his feet, after bouncing off a few other rocks first. A bit of a flesh wound for him, but overall, his ninja moves spared both of them much injury.

The following day we began our trek to Rio de Janeiro. It began with a bus ride to Curitiba, where we could get a cheaper flight to Rio than we could from Florianopolis. It was only a four hour bus ride, so after purposely booking seats at the front of the bus to help avoid motion sickness for a few of us (no names used to protect the innocent), we began the first leg of our trip. It was surprising when, at one of our pit stops, we were asked to give up our primo seats for some further back in the bus. Rich translated for me that someone was coming onto the bus who could really use the front seats. I was a bit ticked off, as we had sweet seats and were all together in a little pod. But most of my irritation melted away as two paraplegics were carried onto the bus and placed in the seats Ryan and Jillian gave up. I would take motion sickness over no use of my legs anytime. They only rode the bus for a short portion of the trip before getting off, so it really was no inconvenience. I was so busy concentrating on the tail gating bus driver we had that I barely even realize upon our arrival in Curitiba that no one had vomited the entire trip! Yeah for us for keeping our bodily fluids to ourselves!

We were picked up and then spent the evening at Luciano's house – the incredibly kind man who took care of us when we were in Sao Paulo when we first arrived in Brazil. He had BBQ'ed an amazing meal, made a mousse for dessert followed by a birthday cake, and imported some of his english speaking friends for us to get to know. It was a good night and the kids especially enjoyed his dog, “Mel”. Mel is a big bear of a dog, who also happens to be a pitbull. I tend to shy away from pitbulls, but by the time I left, I was giving Mel ear-noogy's and belly rubs. She was an enormous dog and you could see how powerful she was simply by looking at her, but especially when she jumped up on you. I will never own a pitbull, but if I did, I would hope for one like Mel.

After a good night sleep and a very tasty breakfast, we were on our way to the airport for our Rio flight. As we were checking in at the ticket booth, Rich realized he had brought along his Leatherman knife in his carry-on backpack by mistake. He didn't want to lose it so he made the quick decision to check Jillian's backpack and put his Leatherman in it, as you can take knives in checked luggage. Phew... crisis averted. Sadly, Ryan didn't realize he, too, had made the same mistake until we were going through security. After x-raying his backpack a few times, they asked him to remove the knife from his bag. They then asked him if was prepared to abandon it. With few other options, he reluctantly agreed. Sad lessons in life... What was odd though, was my bag made it through security carrying a razor blade... Hmmm....

And here we are now, hanging out it Rio. Let the games begin!

- Heather

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 19th, 2009

There's been some interesting 'critter' news around here, lately.

The other morning, when George (the gardener) was trimming the hedges around the pool yard, he discovered a small bee's nest built within the branches. Considering the close proximity it was to where the kids play in the pool, George felt it was best to exterminate his discovery. After getting all the kids inside and closing the windows, he started to eye up the nest more closely. Rich went out to see if he could help... because what's better than watching one guy get stung when you can watch two... ;o)

They discussed various approaches they could take, finally settling on the most exciting... I mean effective method of elimination... fire. They fashioned a torch by using a broom stick and newspaper doused in alcohol, and with a quick touch of a lit match, the torch was set. Rich stood by with a water hose in the event the entire hedge caught fire while George carefully weaved the flaming stick through the hedge branches until reaching the bee's nest. Within a few moments, the nest was aflame. We were expecting a swarm of angry bee's to start darting around at any second, but oddly, there were really only a few. How anticlimactic for those of us watching from the safe side of the window. Rich used a bit of water to ensure the fire was out, and George reached in to pull out what was left of the nest. It was an interesting honeycomb type of nest, with little spaces where baby bee's were waiting to hatch. I suppose a nature lesson is better than a trip to ER for excessive bee stings.

We have found several geckos around the house for which we've been grateful as they eat mosquito's which have also been unusually abundant here lately. They are fairly fast critters that can be difficult to catch, despite the kids best efforts. However, Michael was successful the other day, but not without it's costs. As I was closing a window for the night, something dropped down from the window sill and landed on my hand. Not one to let unexpected critters linger long on my body, I quickly shook my hand. Whatever had landed on my hand then fell to my foot, which reacted in kind, sending the unidentified critter across the floor. When it landed, we all moved in for a closer look. It was a gecko (sorry, Buddy!), who seemed no worse for wear, if not a bit stunned, after doubling as a hacky-sack. Michael decided that while the gecko was getting his marbles set straight again, this was his big chance to finally catch one. He leapt forward to cup it in his hands, but it darted away, and then stopped a few feet away. Not wanting to use the same failed approach twice, this time Michael thought it would be good if he could just pin the gecko down by the tail. He leapt forward again, and this time successfully pinned the tail down with his fingers. Michael's moment of victory evaporated quickly as the gecko decided it would be better to part with his tail than his life, and tore away (literally) from the catch. Michael was quick enough to stop the escape and cupped the gecko with his hand (apparently having their tails ripped off can slow them down a bit), but all eyes were on the abandoned tail still twitching and writhing around on the tile floor. The kids now know a bit more about regeneration, but we're still not sure how a gecko tail can move like that when there's no gecko attached to it any longer.

Later than night, I was tucking the younger kids into bed. There is a large bean bag chair in their bedroom which seemed a bit in the way that night, so I picked it up to move it more tightly into the corner. As I adjusted it, I noticed a lot of movement on the bottom of the bag. It caught my eye enough to warrant a closer look. As I drew closer to the action, I realized I had stumbled upon a large ant colony that had very recently sought cover in the bedroom. With their location being disturbed, they scrambled every which way, many of them grabbing their pupae's. In horror, I threw open the window and chucked the bean bag chair outside. I yelled for Rich and together we wiped up as many ants as we could find. Ryan went outside to knock as many ants off the bean bag as he could, and we then found a new home for the item in the garage. We all felt a bit wriggly after that find.

On some of our comings and goings on our street, we've seen some interesting critter finds. We watched a horse get branded a few days ago. The man had a blow torch going nearby, and would heat up the brand until it was bright red hot, and then slap the horse a bit in the area he was to brand, followed closely by the hot brand itself. The horse flinched a bit for the first one, but upon subsequent ones (they apparently need to brand the same spot a few times to get it deep enough...), he seemed to be very stoic about it all. After watching a few “sizzles”, we started to feel a bit nauseous so we decided to move on and continue our walk home. Before we got too far, the horse was set free in a pasture near where we were walking. He ran all around but got close enough we could see his new tattoo. It looked like the branders had poured water over the area, as it was wet looking now, and the horse seemed understandably a bit unsettled. We all decided if we were horses, we'd prefer an ear tag over being branded.

Another time, Rich and I were walking down our road at sunset. Our trusty canine companion, Lucy, had come along to escort us safely. She is not a small dog, but not very big, either... maybe weighing in at around 30 lbs. As we made our way along the road, from off to the side, an owl screeched loudly at us all and then made a swooping dive at Lucy. Lucy fended the owl off, and set about to continue her trot, when for a second time, there was another loud screech followed by a taloned dive. By this time I was fearful we were under attack. I didn't think Lucy could be picked up by these fairly small owls, but I also wasn't 100% sure she couldn't. The owls kept a close eye on us for a while, but we kept waving our arms and making enough noise that I think they decided to move on to another prey. We were glad it was Lucy who came along with us and not To-to, as To-to is a whopping 10 lbs. soaking wet... perfect owl bait material.

That's most of the critter news for now.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009

We've had some really warm days lately, interspersed with some cooler ones. Unfortunately our timing isn't always great when we plan our activities to work with the weather.

Last week, we took a bus ride out to visit Morro de Cruz, which is a local mountain that, when you're at it's peak, provides you with an amazing view of the entire city and beyond. It was a breathtaking spot tarnished only by the fact that we could barely stand out in the sun but for a few minutes. One of the kids placed their face up to a mounted pair of binoculars to see the sites close up but pretty much burned a tattoo of the binocular eye rims on their face. We managed to pick the hottest day of the year to go to the top of a mountain. Whoops...

On a cooler day, we headed to Barra de Lagoa for some beach time. It was perfect weather that didn't leave you hiding in the shade of an umbrella. We enjoyed the calmer waves and warm water. Some of the kids took some more surfing lessons. But slowly yet steadily, dark clouds made their way down the hills towards us. No one else on the beach seemed to be packing up and leaving, so I figured they knew something we didn't. Maybe the clouds would bypass us somehow? Unfortunately not. Just as a premature dusk settled in, the heavens opened up and released the kind of rain that drenches you in moments. Thunder and lightening flashed and clapped all around and the lifeguards quickly whistled all the swimmers and surfers out of the water. Most of them came out, but there were a few die-hard surfers who refused to leave. After sufficient warning had been laid out, the lifeguard ran for shelter to let nature take it's course. We did a quick pack up and ran for shelter nearby. After several minutes of waiting with no let up in rain, we realized we were just going to have to get soaked going to the bus stop. So off we tramped, to huddle with the dozens of other beach goers in the tiny bus stop shelter. We thought that was cramped, but it was nothing compared to the body sandwich we enjoyed once we got onto the bus. I'll never complain about a 'full' bus in Canada, again! Literally, no one could move. It was wall to wall bodies which isn't too bad if you're surrounded by sweet smelling dry bodies, but no... we were all soaked, smelly and sandy bodies holding onto whatever bolted down handle we could reach. What made it fun despite all this was the singing performance by some of the beach vendors who had also caught the bus. It was some kind of light hearted choir that completely changed my mood. It served as a good reminder to relax and not let little things get you grumpy.

Matthew has turned into a Capoeira king. Several of the kids are continuing on with lessons, but Matthew seems to have a particular talent in this area. He can regularly be found asking Jillian to stand still as he kicks one leg over Jillian's head, clearing it by a few millimeters... So far so good...

We're preparing to take one of our stray dogs to get spayed next week. We made a trip to the municipal animal shelter who will do the operation for free, and got all the paper work in order. While we were there, we visited the kennels FILLED with dogs. There were easily 50 dogs in just the area we could see, and who knows how many more where we couldn't. And these were just the few lucky dogs who had been picked up as strays. There were all sorts of breeds, but mostly they were a mixture of several breeds together. Of course you'll never have that many dogs all getting along, so there were regular squirmishes between dogs as they established who was the boss. We saw one older female dog who particularly broke our hearts. She was pretty much skin and bone, was deaf, and had lost almost all her teeth. Someone told us that her owners had used her simply for breeding, over and over again, and then when she couldn't get pregnant anymore, they tossed her out on the street.

We found out the municipal animal shelter has opportunities for people to come and help out on Saturdays, so for the remainder of our time here, we will be spending our Saturdays there. It feels a bit 'less' to be helping out animals when there are people in the world who need food and shelter, but at the same time, you serve where you are in the capacity that is required. This is the best way to help out where we are. And truthfully, I can't help but want to do what I can for these lovely dogs who have been so betrayed by their humans.

On a positive note, Rich is getting much closer to having most of the critical work done that he needs to do while we're here. He's been working hard to finish this project for so long, breaking to play when he could. The rest of us have limped our way along with our weak language skills as we've gone out without him, hoping to cross paths with an English speaker to help us out with buses, directions, and such. As fun as it is to be lost and confused, we're all excited to have Rich join us more often soon...


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

March 4th, 2009

In the past, I've referred to the three dogs that we regularly find hanging around our front yard gate. Limpy (aka: To-to) the smallest of the three, was taken to the groomer a week ago to be cleaned up from top to bottom (and inside out), and has since been allowed to come into the yard. Here, she peacefully hangs out, free from the ongoing stresses that come from being a street dog. She has now come to expect regular feedings, shade from the heat, cover from the rain, and protection from the several of other stray dogs that roam nearby. She is showing her age, but not to an extreme. I guess we are an unexpected part of Limpy's retirement plan.

She did seem a bit lonely being apart from her trio pack. When we would spend the entire day away from the house, we were told she cried a large part of the time. So it seemed like a good idea to clean up her bigger buddies and invite them into the yard, as well.

Blondie (aka: Lucy) patiently awaited her grooming appointment, which wasn't able to be booked until the following week. However, Spotty suddenly seemed to disappear one day. Being street dogs, we weren't too worried, as they are free to come and go as the wind takes them. But it was a bit unusual because Spotty wasn't one to venture far from our gate.

The date of the grooming appointment came and Blondie had to go solo. She received a good cleaning, much like Limpy, and was then welcomed into the yard where she has been enjoying a reunion with her buddy. I walked the neighbourhood looking for Spotty, calling for her, knowing full well she neither knew our name for her, or the English commands I was demanding. It just seemed like the thing you do when you're missing a dog.

I couldn't find a sign of her anywhere, so we actively hoped that either she had found a new 'forever' home, or was on an extended adventure, bound to return shortly.

Well, this morning, as Rich and the balance of the kids were walking the street over to their Capeiora class, they found Spotty. Only, Spotty wasn't moving. In fact, she wasn't even breathing. It looked like she had laid down for a rest under the shade of a large green tree along the side of the road, and fell into a very deep sleep... one that cannot be awoken from. Some of the kids ran back home to let Jillian, Ryan and I know what had happened. In disbelief, we threw on our sandals and walked to where our little friend was laying motionless.

Sure enough, Spotty's eyes had a vacant emptiness about them, and the flies were beginning to swarm her quiet body. She couldn't have been lying there for very long – possibly from the day before at most. We gathered around her, wondering what had caused her to pass away, wishing she had come home sooner so she could have been able to come into the safety of our yard, and remembering her wagging tail and happy eyes.

Rich headed up to the Capeiro class to collect a wheel barrow and some gloves so we could pick her up and move her to a place where she could be buried, while Ryan went to get a shovel from our home. When Rich returned, he brought back one of the other students from class, to help out. With tender care, Rich picked up Spotty from her sheltered spot, and placed her into the wheel barrow. The other student took a moment to close his eyes and pause before carefully picked up the wheel barrow handles and together, we all made our way to where Ryan had been digging. As this gentleman pushed Spotty in the wheel barrow, he sang a most interesting and haunting song. I had no idea what words he was speaking, but the tune seemed like the perfect sound to respect the sadness we were all feeling.

Another student just arriving for class also joined our procession, and soon we approached Ryan and the deep hole he had been working on.

Rich, again, gingerly picked up Spotty and laid her into the hole. Anyone who wanted to was given a chance to say goodbye to Spotty. Jillian, Emily and I were crying, the gentleman was still singing his enchanting song, and when it was time, Ryan began to slowly fill the hole that now contained our Spotty.

Once she was appropriately buried, we started to make our way out of the park and back to the street. The gentleman who had been so helpful, kissed a sobbing Jillian on the head and placed a necklace he had been wearing around Jillian's neck. It was his way of showing the gift that Spotty was to her. Jillian was most grateful. The girls weren't interested in their Capeiroa class any longer, so Rich took the other kids to class while I took the girls home. We found several flowers we wanted to leave at Spotty's grave, Emily made a grave marker that simply said, “Spotty”, Jillian scooped up a small handful of kibble to spread over Spotty's grave, and I collected a bunch of rocks to decorate.

We headed back to the place where Spotty lay, and with our treasures and decorations, went about the business of grieving. When we were done, Spotty's place looked perfect, and the girls felt a bit better about Spotty's death.

We visited the site once more to show the others what we had done while they were at class. They seemed to agree Spotty had been buried well. It was a tremendously sad thing to lose Spotty, even though she wasn't 'ours'. But we took consolation in knowing she was no longer going to have to live the life of a street dog. She was at peace now.

In talking with Chris, our neighbour, it sounds like one way that people help 'control' the stray dog population is by leaving out poison for the dogs to consume. We do not know if this is what happened to Spotty, but a water container was found right by her body. Perhaps someone had put something into the water with the intent to eliminate her. The water container was dumped just in case. Or perhaps she had some disease that claimed her during the night. Or..... The list goes on. In the end, it doesn't really matter. Spotty has no worries now. Food, love, shelter... all requirements she doesn't need to seek out any longer. Now, she just rests.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25, 2009

Well, we made a valiant attempt to celebrate Carnaval with the rest of the citizens of Rio Vermelho, but somehow it just never worked out...

We were told Carnaval ran on Saturday night and again on Monday night. We had big plans to enjoy the Saturday night festivities, but the stomach flu overrode those plans. While I sat on the couch and listened to the heartbeat of the Samba drum from off in the distance, I hoped I didn't come down with the same bug that seemed to have beset so many of the family.

Sunday was quiet with no scheduled Carnaval activities that we knew of. Instead, we took the kids on the 5-hour mini-cruise that Rich and I had enjoyed for our anniversary the previous week. The kids seemed to enjoy the entire day, dipping in and out of the ocean, reluctantly dancing on the boat deck, and seeing new sites. Upon our return to dock, we remained at Canasveiras Beach to enjoy the calm warm water for the evening. Rich was able to get in a beach soccer game and was reminded of the level of difficulty that comes from playing on sand. We could hear some faint Samba drums in the background, but their whereabouts eluded us.

Monday arrived and we ensured we were ready for the Carnaval party, complete with masks, bug spray, etc. We had asked a few people what would be happening that night and we were assured there would be a parade starting sometime around 8:30PM. We made our way to the main road for about that time, but couldn't spot any sign of an impending parade. We asked about a half dozen different people about what was happening that night and where, and received about a half dozen different replies. “No, there's no parade tonight.” “Yes, the parade starts here.” “Yes, the parade starts way up there and doesn't make it down to here.” “There's no parade but a party at the church yard.” and so on... We were beginning to think no one knew anything for sure, despite their insistence. After walking several kilometers in search for the silent parade, we finally gave up. Emily was still a bit weak after suffering from the stomach flu, and Jillian was simply exhausted from the walking combined with the time of night. We caught a bus back to our road and wandered home, sad we couldn't find the Carnaval in our little town.

On Tuesday, we took a bus to the main downtown area on the Island to do some sight seeing and some shopping. All around us there were signs of the previous nights' party... litter, empty bottles, people sleeping on benches, quiet grand stands, deserted food booths, etc. This appeared to have been more party than we had been looking for, but it would have been fun to observe in any case. We also learned that today was an official holiday, so none of the shops were open, and the buses did not run very frequently. We decided since there were no places to shop at, and no regular buses to take us to the sights we wanted to see, that we may as well head back home. We were striking out all over the place...

That night we settled in at home with a movie and some ice cream... something to drown our sorrows in. After tucking the kids into bed, we could faintly make out the deep tones of a Samba drum in the distance. Not interested in yet another fruitless quest to find the Carnaval festivities, we enjoyed the sounds from inside the living room again. To think we were so close to a once in a life time (for us) event, but just not quite able to make it... Part of me wished we were in Rio de Janeiro so we could REALLY take in Carnaval. The parades on TV showed thousands of people in amazing costumes dancing around in the streets. But with a young family, it didn't seem like a good idea. I guess when you choose to live in a quiet town, you choose to live the quiet life. I'm okay with that, too.

- Heather

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16, 2009

An exciting weekend around here.

On Friday, Rich and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary by taking a 5-hour mini cruise around the ocean to a few little Islands nearby. The ship was manned by a pirate and his female slave/fellow pirate (she switched in between these roles). As we embarked with several other mostly Argentine passengers, they cranked up the music and began the 5 hour party! There was music, dancing, acting, swimming, touring, visiting, etc. For reasons we can only conclude are from pity votes, Rich and I won a dance contest which we only entered under duress from the female pirate. I have inhibitions about dancing on a raised boat deck dressed only in a bikini... especially belly dancing (yes, I did shake what my momma' gave me... LOL).

The first of the three stops we made was to a quiet coved beach, for lunch. The water was warm and greeny-blue. There are often dolphins there, but the party must have scared them off... The next stop was at a historic island where there were forts and old buildings. It was beautiful, though Rich had to translate all the information the tour guide was sharing and that meant we both missed out on much of the information... Our final stop was not an actual 'stop', but we anchored down in a beautiful area nearby an island, and were told we had about 15 minutes to jump off the boat and swim around. Rich managed to get thrown off the boat by the head pirate, while I took a more cautious entry point from the rear of the boat, off a ladder. We swam around the bath-tub temperature waters, admiring the nearby island and hoping for a glimpse of a monkey. As we headed back to dock, they stepped up the party even more with louder music and bigger dances. By this time, everyone was 100% wrapped up in the mood and even those who had been reluctant to previously, were dancing around the deck. All in all, it was an unforgettable anniversary date and we loved our day together. The kids all survived at home with no major injuries, so that was nice to come home to.

Saturday, to end off our anniversary, Rich had me booked in at a salon for hair highlights, a manicure and a pedicure. I was pampered and poked for a good long time. Sadly, I got really warm at one point, and while she was cutting some cuticles on my fingers, I began to feel unwell. I started to get pale and I knew if something didn't change soon, I was either going to pass out or puke, neither of which were attractive options. Rich had thankfully stuck around to help translate, so I told him in earnest that I needed some help. They got the fan on me and took a break from the pampering, and before long I was as good as new. I was a bit embarrassed as I felt they must have thought I was some Canadian wimp who can't even stomach a manicure. But thankfully, they were very understanding and the rest of the morning went without a hitch.

Saturday evening, we had the opportunity to go to a Capeiora show of sorts. A bunch of more advanced students arrived at the local studio we've been taking classes at, grab some musical instruments, formed a circle, and created a beat for the two Capeiora dancers/martial arts in the middle to do their 'thang'. It was amazing to watch their body control and movements as they smoothly pushed, kicked and swung themselves around the small circle. We will not even begin to get that good while we're here, but it was nice to see how it's supposed to look, after watching our own choppy moves for a few weeks. The event was later in the evening, and we eventually left when both Emily and Jillian fell asleep on the floor beside me. Luckily we only had to carry them one street over.

On Sunday, it was a hot, beautiful day, so we headed off to the Ingleses in the late afternoon for a swim and some night life. The kids loved the calmer waters and even Jillian learned how to tread water a bit, as well as jump up with the slower waves to avoid the waves rolling right over her head. There was a parade of party boats out in the deeper water, complete with fireworks, dancing and music. As the sun began to set, we packed up off the beach and headed a street over to grab some dinner. Carnival is coming up next weekend, so there is a party mood all over the Island. We caught up with a band practising for carnival and followed along with the beat that was pounding through the pavement. We grabbed some ice cream, watched people for a bit, and then headed home on the 7:30pm bus. It was an awesome night. We can't wait until Carnival!

We now know how to extract be bicho de pe from feet. Emily learned her big toe was a bit sore and came to me to have a look. It looked like a callous/blister with a dark centre... something I wasn't familiar with. We called our wonderful neighbour, Kevin, who was both familiar with how bicho de pe's look like, as well as how to get them out. He came over shortly and confirmed that Emily did, in fact, have this little flea burrowed into her big toe, near her toe nail. He graciously set about extracting it, complete with the several dozen eggs that had been laid inside the skin. Emily was as brave as she could be. There were a few tears, but all in all, she did a good job of allowing Kevin to get the problem looked after. I would go into the details of how to get a bicho de pe out, but I'm afraid I'll make the weaker readers feel ill. Let it be known, though, that it involves cutting, squeezing and digging... 'nough said. We know this is very common here, and we are prepared to have it happen again, but we're REALLY hoping it's something we can avoid if possible. Everyone will be wearing flip-flops routinely outside from now on.

Today is going to be a quieter day. We're needing some quiet time after a busy weekend, plus I'm getting over a head cold. Rich took four of the five kids to our Capeoira class this morning (I bowed out due to a sinus headache), and we're looking forward to bathing a stray dog today, in hopes of pretty-ing her up so she can find a good forever home.

- Heather