The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Beth Geglia’s calling to make films on Central American human rights stories

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Beth Geglia (photo supplied by Beth and used with her permission)

Since the Displaced Nation began billing itself as a “home for international creatives,” we have covered plenty of fiction writers, memoirists, and foodies, as well as a few entrepreneurs (I contributed to the latter with an interview with Alison McGowan about her tourism-related business in Brazil).

But there are also expats whose creativity is expressed in political activism: they work for the causes within (and across) the countries they visit.

Today I talk to one such activist, Beth Geglia, an American who, having dedicated her life to human rights issues in Central America, has now developed filmmaking skills and released a feature-length documentary on the resilience displayed by an extraordinary group of Afro-Hondurans.

* * *

Buenas, Beth, and thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start by having you tell us a bit about yourself. What first awakened your interest in human rights?
I got involved in high school, after the September 11th attacks. I was adamantly against war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and participated in student walk-outs, teach-ins—all the big mobilizations. Next I volunteered with the Indigenous People’s Council of Oaxaca in Mexico and the Movement of Worker-Occupied Factories in Argentina, which got me working on issues of economic justice and alternative economies as part of the student fair trade movement.

Guatemala has figured large in your life. What led you there in the first place?
As a student activist, I worked closely with a local fair trade coffee-roasting cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, called Just Coffee. They sent me to Guatemala to do work with a coffee cooperative of former revolutionary combatants and returned refugees from the country’s internal conflict, known as Santa Anita La Unión. Later we organized a delegation of student activists from Wisconsin to meet with Guatemalan producer cooperatives, and I went back a few times.

Making a life in Guatemala

I understand you ended up living in Guatemala?
I became overwhelmed with the history of Guatemala, the U.S.’s interventionist role there, and the movements to restore the memory of the violence that had taken place. I felt I was learning and changing an incredible amount, so I moved there ten days after graduating college. I stayed for two years.

I assume you speak Spanish, but were there any moments when you felt displaced, in the sense of being alienated from your surroundings?
Yes, I spoke Spanish so language was not much of an issue. However, many communities in Guatemala speak their indigenous languages, none of which I was able to learn. There were definitely moments of struggle, but I wouldn’t necessarily relate them to feelings of displacement. After all, I was working with communities who were trying to defend their rights against gold mining and other resource extraction companies—it was they who were facing displacement. Some had been forcibly displaced, while others were threatened with displacement from environmental destruction, militarization, and loss of land. The communities were still healing from the violence of the internal conflict, and some people were experiencing the threat of being locked up or assassinated. Seeing this kind of suffering close up was the hardest, most painful part of my experience. Then there’s always the challenge of understanding your role as a foreigner: what’s appropriate, what’s helpful—fully aware of the privilege of being there by choice and able to leave.

I usually tell people that living in Guatemala was the hardest thing I ever did—and, at the same time, the most important and dearest to my heart. It truly transformed me.

So, for the most part, living in war-torn Guatemala felt right to you?
Things make sense to me whenever I am surrounded by good people doing good work. The people I lived and worked with in Guatemala City, for example, are still some of the people I most respect. Cooking meals with them, hanging out on the roof or patio with a few chelas (beers)—these things really felt like home.

Practicing the filmmaking craft

At what point did you decide to become a filmmaker?
It wasn’t until I moved back to the United States and quit my job with a human rights organization a year later that I began to study documentary filmmaking. Video and film are one of the most useful tools for helping people who are struggling to get their voices heard. It’s an important skill.

RevolutionaryMedicine_poster

Poster for the film screening at Columbia School of Social Work

You have just now released a documentary, Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garífuna Hospital, a collaboration with journalist Jesse Freeston. The film is set in Honduras and tells the story of the Garífuna people and the community hospital that they built. Can you fill us in a little more?
Sure. Garífuna history has been rife with forced displacement and resistance, from the slave trade to expulsion by the British from the island of St. Vincent. Most Garífunas in Honduras live on the northern coast, on lands their people have occupied for 216 years. They continue to face many pressures, such as a lucrative foreign tourism industry, the expansion of African palm production by the country’s largest landowners, resource extraction, and foreign investors wanting to build charter cities. In addition, they face ongoing discrimination and neglect from the state, which has failed to provide them with medical services. This film is about the community coming together to build their own hospital, while fighting for their human right to health care. It’s a story about self-organization and persistence, but also about a different model of medicine having to do with community survival. According to this model, improving the health of the community is a first step in addressing structural and political issues in need of change.

It really is the “first” Garífuna Hospital?
Yes. It’s the first hospital to exist in the Garífuna’s territory.

“For the health of our people…”

How did the making of the film come about?
I was still in Guatemala when the military coup in Honduras happened in June of 2009. The people around me were remembering Guatemala’s internal conflict, which lasted 36 years and amounted to genocide: it been sparked by a CIA-orchestrated coup. Everyone was feeling the weight of that history, and there was a sense of urgency around what Honduras could suffer as a result of the coup. Upon returning to the U.S., I got involved in local activism that was exposing the DC-based lobbyists who’d been hired by Honduras’s interim coup government to essentially whitewash the coup and restore normal relations with international institutions and the Organization of American States.

That’s when I met Dr. Luther Castillo, one of the founding doctors of the First Garífuna Hospital. He was on a speaking tour denouncing the political violence and repression taking place in Honduras. I took up his invitation to come visit the hospital.

Jesse Freeston and I knew each other from DC. He had been working as a journalist in Honduras and other parts of Central America for a few years and had also gotten to know the story of the Hospital and what Garífuna communities were working to create.

It was great working with Jesse. He had years of documentary experience under his belt and in fact is now finishing up a feature-length film called Resistencia, about land-occupying farmers in the Aguán Valley of Honduras. It should be released in the spring. I think we made a good team, and I learned a lot from the collaboration.

When was the film released, and what has been the reaction amongst the Garífuna people?
We started screening the film in August. Jesse took it down the West coast of the U.S. and I went to screen it in Honduras. The Garífuna community of Ciriboya reacted very positively. You know when you make a film, you can’t cover nearly everything you’d like to, but I think the doctors in particular felt it presented a balanced version of their story. They’re now using it to raise awareness and educate others. Actually, the most gratifying thing was to see the reaction of medical students who attend the public university in the capital city, Tegucigalpa. They were so excited, they ended up organizing their own screening of the film and have entered into a longer-term relationship with the Garífuna Hospital.

What about in the United States?
In the U.S. we’ve screened for lots of different audiences, including activists, organized medical professionals, social work students, med students, and youth. We’ve worked with the Garífuna Health and Education Support Institute in New York to reach Garífuna diaspora audiences, mainly in the Bronx, and the response has been phenomenal. It’s been exciting to help connect diaspora communities with what’s going on back in their homeland. Generally, people seem to come away feeling proud and/or inspired to act. I think the best compliment we received was: “This is a great organizing tool.”

If our readers are interested in watching the film how can they go about it?
Very soon anyone will be able to order a copy of the documentary online. Until then, I suggest you follow our Facebook page to find out about screenings and distribution. You are also welcome to contact Jesse and me directly by email: me@jessefreeston.com or bgeglia@gmail.com.

What further hopes do you have for the film?
Besides the documentary being used as an educational and network-building tool—that’s why we’ve been focusing on community-based and university screenings—we hope it will give ideas to people who are working on related projects. Particularly in the U.S. I would like for it to make people think about our own health care system and what might be possible.

Having already lived in Guatemala, did making the film help you to connect with Central America in any new ways?
I learned a ton about a part of Central America I knew very little about. One thing that continuously inspired me was the resilience of communities—in particular, their ability to construct alternatives that challenge our assumptions of how society can be organized. Also, the idea of doctors playing the role of protagonist in the process wasn’t something I’d anticipated. Now I’m learning that there is a long history of health workers playing a central role in social movements, to which I’d been largely oblivious.

What are your plans for the future, both with the film and your activism?
I’m actually back in school now in DC, studying for a Ph.D. in Public Anthropology. It’s an interesting program because it leaves room to use documentary film as opposed to simply writing academic papers that will have little reach. The program promotes activism as well as embedded and participatory research, so I feel it’s a good home for me. I don’t have much free time, but when I do, I like to volunteer with a local documentary project called Lessons from the ’60s. It’s an oral history project organized by a group of older activists who want to document memories of the movements that took place in DC in the 1960s and ’70s before they are lost forever. Preserving historical memory was one of the reasons I wanted to do documentary film, so it’s great to be able to participate in this kind of a project in my hometown.

10 Questions for Beth Geglia

Finally, we’d like to ask a series of questions that we’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, on the prison system in California (being in school means I only read non-fiction).
2. Favorite literary genre: Science fiction.
3. Reading habits on a plane: It’s actually really hard for me to stay awake on planes! I’m usually passed out, and when I’m awake I listen to music to calm my nerves because I’m scared of flying.
4. The one book you’d require Barack Obama to read, and why? Am I allowed to say Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillaging of a Continent? Maybe The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
5. Favorite books as a child: I was a huge fan of Roald Dahl books when I was a kid. The Witches was my favorite one. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia.
6. Favorite heroine: Itzá in The Inhabited Woman, by Giaconda Belli.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Audre Lorde.
8. Your reading habits: Since I’m in school, I read all the time and I skim a lot. Coffee in hand is usually a necessity.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: The Inhabited Woman, by Giaconda Belli.
10. The book you plan to read next: Pathologies of Power, by Paul Farmer.

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Readers, did you find Beth’s story as inspiring as I did? Be sure to check out her documentary if you get a chance. And feel free to leave further questions or comments for her below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some species of Halloween confection by Anthony Windram.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Beth Geglia; poster for the film screening at Columbia School of Social Work.

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After 6 years, this expat still finds his adopted home utterly enchanting

Michael in CuritibaLand CollageMany of us “international creatives” are attracted to the world’s major cities. Take me, for instance. I live in, and write about, São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, and in the Southern Hemisphere. Today I’m happy to introduce a fellow expat who has ventured out as far as Curitiba, the largest city in Brazil’s South Region. B. Michael Rubin has a creative job, and he also finds Curitiba, a forerunner of the eco-city, a source of daily enchantment.

—Andy Martin

My first night in Curitiba, I awoke at 3:00 a.m., jet lagged after too many hours of solo travel with a ridiculous amount of luggage. I got up and drank some water, and it was then I noticed birds singing outside my window. I wondered if all expats were greeted by nocturnal serenades.

In the morning, surprisingly, it seemed the same birds were still singing. I could hear their melodious songs even though my apartment was on the tenth floor, making them a flock of super-birds.

The conclusion of an American on his first expat experience: the birds here are so happy they can’t stop singing; they must think they’re in paradise.

Adam and Eve discovered that paradise can be transitory, but after six years I have no desire to leave the lovely city of Curitiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraná.

Through the Curitiban looking glass

As every expat ascertains, adjusting to a new world is not easy; it’s a challenge simply to be polite in a foreign culture. I’ve learned to say “Excuse me” when I enter someone’s home, and that it’s acceptable to kiss a woman I’m meeting for the first time.

I’ve discerned it’s impolite to ask anyone to close her window at home or in the car, even on a cold winter day in the south of Brazil. Unfortunately, this lesson was revealed while asking my frail Brazilian mother-in-law why she had her apartment windows open, as she sat buried under a mountain of blankets.

For expats, daily life is an adventure in wonderment. I wonder how no one expects a tip herenot the taxi driver, the barber, or the pizza delivery guy.

I wonder how the price of everything is negotiable, and when I negotiate with an offer of cash, I can still pay with a credit card if I don’t want parcelas [paying in installments]. When I pay a doctor, I get a discount if I don’t request a receipt.

I marvel at the everyday site of twenty people in a Curitiba restaurant having a pleasant family lunch. In the US, this only happens at a wedding or a funeral because twenty family members don’t live in the same city. If they did, there would be trouble.

There is always more mystery…

Living in a new world becomes easier when we focus on the similarities—aren’t we all humans sharing the same planet? There’s a crazy comfort in knowing Brazilians are as preposterous as everyone else.

In other words, every country is a mystery.

For instance, I can’t explain how Brazilians have so effortlessly embraced the 21st century: Forty years ago, no one in Curitiba had a telephone, a car, or had been on an airplane.

I don’t understand politics in Brazil. How can a country govern itself with more than thirty political parties? In the US, two parties are sufficient to create chaos.

Meanwhile, the electronic banking system here is outstanding. Americans don’t believe me when I tell them it’s possible to pay the mortgage at an ATM.

Another wonderful mystery: In the days of the military government, Curitiba “elected” a visionary urban planner to be mayor for 12 years. It is a rare opportunity when an urban planner/architect runs a city. During that time, Jaime Lerner built one of the best urban bus systems anywhere; established mandatory recycling for all homes and businesses; created the first outdoor pedestrian mall in Brazil; and expanded a park system that made Curitiba one of the greenest cities in the world. Senhor Lerner was so good at city planning that the population has doubled in 40 years. Who knew.

After I’d survived my first melodic night in Curitiba, my future wife suggested a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. Having moved from New York, I was accustomed to seeing the homeless camped out on sidewalks. I remarked that I hadn’t seen any in Curitiba. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you will.”

Sure enough, a few minutes later we entered the local mall, and I observed three young men in the mall’s restroom brushing their teeth. My girlfriend, however, refused to accept my homeless sighting, a trio no less, and insisted we wait nearby.

When the three men emerged from the restroom, I noticed they were very well-dressed for homeless. “See, they work in the mall,” she said, with a look of “I thought Americans were smart?”

It was my first, but not my last, moment of supreme cultural stupidity. Men in their twenties brushing their teeth at work. Who knew.

The myths are true!

Today, I know that my wife keeps a toothbrush in her office so clients won’t see food in her teeth. For the same reason, women in the supermarket on Saturday morning are in full make-up and high heels with silk scarves that match their nail polish.

Like the proud, beautiful city of Curitiba, Brazilians are a proud, beautiful people.

The myths I’d heard are true. Who knew.

* * *

Readers, your turn! Do you feel similarly enamoured of your adopted land, or has the enchantment worn off? Please leave your thoughts for Michael and me in the comments!

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine Curitiba in English.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with this month’s featured author, Cinda MacKinnon!

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Images (from left): B. Michael Rubin in João Pessoa (no, he doesn’t have a photo of himself in Curitiba!) and the Curitiba tubo, courtesy marcusrg via Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0). We think it doesn’t take much imagination to see the cylindrical, clear-walled tube bus stations as the Curitiban equivalent of Alice’s rabbit hole or looking glass. After all, the city’s Rapid Bus Transit System (Rede Integrada de Transporte, or RIT) is rather wondrous: the first of its kind in the world.

Mark Hillary delivers reality check to gringos who moan about Brazil, in self-published book (2/2)

Mark Hillary Part 2 CollageIn Part 1 of my interview with Mark Hillary, a fellow Brit and amigo in São Paulo, we learned about what spurred him to write a book called Reality Check: Life in BRAZIL through the eyes of a foreigner.

A lively discussion ensued about what makes Brazil such a contentious country for expats (short answer: it’s a country of extremes).

Today I’ll ask Mark about his decision to publish Reality Check as an e-book. As I mentioned last week, Mark is well published in his chosen field of technology and globalization. He is a HuffPo columnist and has also blogged for Reuters about British politics. But Reality Check represents his first venture into the Amazon e-book platform.

I was curious about why he chose this route and also had some questions about his reading and writing habits generally.

* * *

Mark, Reality Check isn’t the first book that you’ve written. Can you tell us something about your other books?
It’s actually my tenth book. I used to be quite a senior IT manager in a bank, managing people all over the world. I had already started contributing articles to technology magazines while I was at the bank, and eventually I was sent off to India to help the company build up a big new office in Bangalore. I was hiring hundreds of technical team members and then trying to sell their services bank to other sections of the bank. It was quite an experience, especially as it occurred right at the beginning of the big push to India by many technology companies.

I wrote a book about it all, which was published by the respected German publisher Springer and well received in journals and newspapers such as the FT.

After that I carried on writing about the connection between work, technology, and globalization.

It’s impressive that you can span the range from big IT questions to a foreigner’s take on life in Brazil.
I’m interested in many areas, which is probably why my three times at university have included courses on computer science, business and management, and psychology. My earlier work on outsourcing naturally led me to how companies are changing and globalization, and this has naturally led onto my writing about being an expat. If there’s a connecting thread, it’s work and the changing nature of work in our time. That said, I wouldn’t want to only ever comment on a single topic. Life is a lot more complex than that.

You decided to release Reality Check in the Amazon Kindle format. Why did you make that decision?
I’ve been asked that question a lot. Six of my books were published using traditional publishers, and three were self-published via Lulu. And now, with the Brazil book, I’ve used the Amazon Kindle format. I went into some detail on the pros and cons of each of these methods in a recent Huffington Post article, but in short the important thing to remember is how the publishing market is changing. Obviously there is still a lingering sense of kudos with the traditional publishers. A novel published by Penguin is still seen as “better” than something self-published, but it doesn’t have to be. The platform and process of publishing itself has just been democratized and made available to all.

If you know how to write and you can market your work to an audience, then it is much faster to publish with Amazon or Lulu. And, not only can you reach a global audience instantly—you earn a far greater percentage of the sale price.

In the case of Reality Check, I wanted it to be available around the world as quickly as possible, and Amazon has a great system for doing that. Plus you don’t actually need a Kindle: iPads and phones are all being used to read this book.

Do you think it helps that you already had a following through your writings and other books?
Reality Check has has been in the Amazon top 20 books about Brazil since publication on September 1st, and yesterday when I checked, it was the number one book about Brazil and number two book about South America. So people have been noticing it.

I think it does help if you already have a following. It used to be that publishers and agents acted as the gatekeeper, so readers could be confident a book that ended up in the shops was good. Now anyone can publish any old rubbish, so there is no longer that guarantee of a published book being any good.

The much-celebrated poet Seamus Heaney is a good example. He has been lauded as one of the greatest writers of the past century, and he had plenty of work published by traditional publishers. But he was self-publishing new work before his recent death.

Do you plan to make Reality Check anything other than an e-book?
I’m planning to also release a paper version of the book, but it will not be until the second edition—planned to come out just before the World Cup football competition in June next year.

Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment?
The present one is about my own experience of ghostwriting. I’ve written for ambassadors and company CEOs, and I once had to help astronaut Neil Armstrong add a few jokes to his standard Apollo 11 speech. The work I have written for others to be delivered in their name has often, but not always, gone down well, and I wanted to explore that. And in the tech area, I’m working on a book project that aims to be a graduates’ guide to how you get a job in a job market where nobody wants to pay you a salary.

10 Questions for Mark Hillary

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that we’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:

1. Last truly great book you read: I recently read all of Ira Levin’s novels back to back—all great; but I’ll go for Paul Trynka’s biography of David Bowie, which I just now finished.
2. Favorite literary genre: Dystopian novels: Burgess, Orwell, Ballard.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I read fiction and non-fiction and always carry my Kindle because it’s so much better for travel than lugging around a lot of books. This week I was on a plane and I read The Default Line, by Faisal Islam—about the financial crash of 2008 and what has happened since.
4. The one book you’d require David Cameron to read, and why: Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The new global revolutions, by Paul Mason. It’s a study of the various riots, uprisings and protests around the world, particularly in 2011. I think the UK has more unrest to come because living standards and earnings are in decline—the people are going to kick off again one day.
5. Favorite books as a child: Those by Roald Dahl, though everyone seems to think he was actually a nasty piece of work in real life.
6. Favorite heroine: Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was her only book and she never courted any publicity. It challenged racism over 50 years ago and still retains its power today.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Oscar Wilde. He wrote 20th-century books and plays in the 19th century and despite his sad downfall, is still remembered and loved today.
8. Your reading habits: I mostly read in the evening. I don’t watch TV, other than for movies so that gives me more time. I tend to read one or two books a week unless I’m traveling a lot then it’s more just because of the endless time spent in airports or on buses.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard. Life after the oceans have risen and the world we know now is flooded.
10. The book you plan to read next: Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke—already on the Kindle waiting for me.

* * *

Readers, any more questions for Mark? He may sound a bit intimidating, but in fact he’s very approachable and happy to answer any questions about e-publishing. (Though he doesn’t write fiction, he also has views on publishing platforms for novels.) Meanwhile, if you’re interested in Reality Check, you can purchase it on Amazon. I would also recommend becoming a fan of its Facebook page and following Mark on Twitter: @MarkHillary

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, by another Englishman who is also an expat albeit in California: Anthony Windram.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Mark Hillary surrounded by his traditional books and his e-book cover.

Mark Hillary delivers reality check to gringos who moan about Brazil, in self-published book (1/2)

Mark_HillaryA little while ago I interviewed Megan Farrell, a fellow gringo in São Paulo, about the book she had written about “exbrat” life in the city. As far as I’m aware, Megan’s was the first book to be written about life in SP by a foreigner, although she seems to have started a new trend because within the last fortnight another has emerged: Reality Check: Life in BRAZIL through the eyes of a foreigner.

Reality Check is by Mark Hillary, a fellow Brit in São Paulo (he recently moved outside the city), who is an author, blogger, and advisor on technology and globalization. He has already published a number of books and is a contributor to Huffington Post, Reuters, The Guardian, and Computer Weekly.

Mark is also a friend of mine. We connected through Twitter just over a year ago. We eventually met at a local bar when—unsurprisingly, given his background in technology and social media—he organized a meet-up of gringos who had connected online but had yet to meet up in the flesh.

Since then he and I have continued to meet up, although less so since his move to the countryside. We had a particularly memorable trip in June to Rio to watch England play Brazil in football at the brand new Maracanã Stadium. (As anyone who follows my posts should recall, I’m a bit of a football geek.)

Over the past year Mark has written, in his column for the Huffington Post, a number of insightful articles about life as a foreigner in Brazil—most notably, “No HP Sauce, Endless Red Tape: Would You Want to Live in Brazil?, which responded to a gringo Facebook forum that had listed all the reasons why foreigners hated living in this country.

It was to my pleasant surprise, then, when Mark announced he had extended his account of life in Brazil and intended to publish it as an e-book.

Leaving aside my acquaintance with Mark (and the fact he gives a nod to my personal blog in the book!), I must say that I found Reality Check a very enjoyable read. It is a thoughtful and critical, yet balanced, account of his experiences in Brazil and of the country in general—and frankly, I’m rather annoyed that I haven’t written it myself.

Mark’s book also seems to be a good accompaniment to Megan’s. Whilst hers is a straightforward, step-by-step guide to life in São Paulo, his is a narrative providing a broad overview of gringo life. Either way, both books will be of use to those who are either moving to Brazil or perhaps are simply interested in finding out a bit more about South America’s largest and most populous country (it’s also the world’s fifth largest economy).

Anyway, enough of my wittering on. Let’s hear more from Mark himself.

* * *

RealityCheck_bookcoverHi, Mark. Congratulations on your new book and thanks for agreeing to this interview. First off, can you say a little more about what inspired you to write it?
As you already mentioned, I wrote the book in large part as a reaction to the negative posts about Brazil in online gringo communities. Everyone has their own reasons for moving and living away from their home country, but the majority of the groups I’ve encountered online are full of complaints about Brazilian food, prices, bureaucracy… Anyone who reads the posts made in the Facebook group for Gringoes.com would think that the UK and US offer a utopian paradise that would be madness to ever leave.

As you said in your intro, I wrote an article for the Huffington Post where I tried to give a more balanced view on life in Brazil.

Then I thought that, as someone who has rented and bought a home, started a company, hired people, and married a Brazilian, I could probably give a more detailed opinion on the experience—hence the book.

So being married to a Brazilian was what brought you to Brazil?
Yes, we were living in London, but after the financial crash in 2008 my business was much slower than before. By 2010 it became clear that there were many more opportunities for me to build a research and publishing business in Brazil than in the UK and so we moved just before the end of that year, nearly four years ago.

We recently featured another book about expat life in Brazil: American Exbrat in São Paulo, by Megan Farrell. Megan’s focus was on the “exbrat” community in São Paulo—i.e., those who are transferred here for work by a large company. My impression is that your focus is less specific and more of a broad overview of life in Brazil as a foreigner.
I’m not really interested in the exbrats. If a big company transfers someone to Brazil and they have their home taken care of and a driver to ferry them around, and they only ever go for a drink in expat pubs, then I don’t think they are experiencing the real Brazil. I’m not suggesting that the only authentic Brazil experience is living in a favela, but there are other kinds of foreigners here—journalists, teachers, people from all walks of life—who are constantly looking for ways to explore their new home.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you wrote the book?
I really set out to explore some of my own experiences, with the expectation that people investing in Brazil or looking for a job here might have an interest in the book.

The book has only just been published (2nd September) so I guess it is a little early to tell, but how has it been received so far?
It is very recent, but there is already a very positive review from a Brazilian reader on Amazon. I started my author Facebook page when I published the book, and that community is growing by around a hundred people every day—so people are noticing it. One of the biggest newspapers in Brazil (Folha de SP) has been in touch to interview me about the book—despite my not having done any press promotion for the book due to my traveling almost every day since the publication!

Did you connect with São Paulo and/or Brazil in any new ways whilst writing the book?
It made me more determined to plug areas outside of Rio, which has a lot of friends already. I’ve really enjoyed living in both São Paulo the city and interior—SP needs a few gringo fans to speak out and remind people that the city is not just about concrete and cops murdering civilians.

You recently moved to the countryside outside São Paulo—how and why did that come about?
We spent two years living in the centre of São Paulo and just wanted to find something a bit quieter. I love it where we are now. There is a great sense of community; the neighbours all know each other. There is none of the security paranoia you find in the city centre, and there is some fantastic scenery on our doorstep.

Do you miss SP at all?
I miss being able to go out to see my friends in the city, or go to concerts by international bands that will only ever play in major cities. But we are planning to get a very small apartment in SP soon, so we don’t completely lose touch with it.

You mentioned the “security paranoia” in SP. In my observation, most of us gringos carry a fear that is at odds with how our Brazilian partners and/or friends feel. I enjoyed reading the section of your book covering this perception gap. Do you think that more positive accounts of Brazil by writers/bloggers like you and myself can help to shift these perceptions?
If people like you and me can get visitors to realize that they can walk down Avenida Paulista or along Copacabana Beach without fearing for their life, that would help. On more than one occasion I have met business contacts who flew into town and then were shocked when I suggested meeting away from their hotel. Standard advice from American and European companies is often to stay inside when in Brazil because of all the street crime.

The Brazilians, too, should play a part in correcting this situation. I don’t think we have much influence because we are seen as outsiders, but as more Brazilians get exposed to alternative cultures through travel, I hope it can change a little.

Last year I brought my wife’s teenage cousin on a trip to the USA, just to show her what life is like outside of Brazil. She found it incredible that you could walk up to the front of so many celebrity homes in Los Angeles—that anyone could walk into Sylvester Stallone’s garden. That’s unimaginable in Brazil.

What are you thoughts on foreign media portrayals of Brazil? Do you feel, for example, that persistent foreign criticisms of Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup and Olympics have been fair?
Every World Cup and Olympic games gets this negative press, so I don’t know if it is any worse than the last time. Anyone from the UK should be able to recall how the London Games were going to be a disaster right up to the week of the Games—the attitude seemed to change only when everyone saw that spectacular opening ceremony.

All I know from personal experience is that when you and I went to the Brazil v England football game at the Maracanã in June, the organization was superb. The stadium looked good, the public transport all worked, and the volunteers helping the crowd were great. I couldn’t fault it—so I’m really looking forward to the World Cup.

From the way you write so passionately about Brazil it is clear that you love living here, but there must have been the odd difficult moment when you wondered whether you’d made the right decision in fleeing the economically stagnant UK for your wife’s native land. When have you felt most displaced?
Sometimes the bureaucracy in daily life does get perverse and goes beyond just the criticism of a foreigner claiming that it all works better in Europe. Examples include having to pay someone to get my car registered to a new address or being fined for not paying my stamp duty on the day I agreed a mortgage with the bank—even though I paid on the day I got the documents myself. Sometimes I wonder if there is ever going to be any government that sweeps away this nonsense. I also fear that the job cuts created by improved efficiency means we are stuck with much of this.

Conversely, when have been your least displaced moments, when it all seemed to make sense?
I live in a really beautiful place now surrounded by a lot of wonderful people. Every morning when I take my dog for a walk then start work for the day I know I’m lucky to be here.

* * *

Readers, I will be talking to Mark again on Tuesday of next week, when we focus on his decision to self-publish his book. Any further questions for him, meantime? And don’t forget, if you’re interested in Reality Check, you can purchase it on Amazon. I would also recommend becoming a fan of its Facebook page and following Mark on Twitter: @MarkHillary

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new episode in our “Location, Locution” series, by JJ Marsh.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Mark Hillary’s author image and book cover

For travel addict & photography lover Milda Ratkelyte, a picture says …

Milda M CollageWelcome to the second installment of “A picture says,” a series that sheds light on the people who move through our planet with a camera in hand, registering the look, character, and ambiance of people and places that capture their fancy.

Our guest today is Milda Ratkelyte, a camera-happy Lithuanian whose wanderings have taken her to the UK, America and now Asia.

Here are Milda’s vital travel statistics:
Place of birth: Lithuania
Passport: Lithuanian
Overseas history: From least to most recent: United Kingdom (London): 2005-2008; China (Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing): 2008-2009; United States (California, Colorado, New York): 2009-2010; United Kingdom (London): 2010-2011; Singapore: 2011-present.
Occupations: Travel Community Manager at AsiaRooms.com and owner of Milda Ratkelyte Photography
Social media coordinates:
Twitter: @MildaRatkelyte
Facebook: Milda Ratkelyte Travel
Instagram: @milda_ratkelyte
Google+: Milda Ratkelyte

And now let’s meet Milda and find out: which came first, the photography obsession or the peripatetic life?

Kenyan curiosity

Hi, Milda. Let’s talk a bit about your travels. You are originally from Lithuania but have spent a considerable amount of time in other countries and now live in Singapore. Tell me about how that came about, and what inspired your moves.
I had the most amazing childhood in Lithuania. I was very lucky, because my dad was a true travel fanatic. Back then it was not easy for us Lithuanians to go traveling to remote destinations outside of Europe, but my dad found a way to get us to Kenya for a summer. From that time on, I was addicted to travel, and have been wandering the world ever since. “Explore, discover and get to know different cultures and people around the world”that’s become my mantra.

Boy reaching for candyKenya sounds amazing. Can you share with us one of the photos from that trip?
I like this shot of a boy reaching for what he hoped would be candy. It’s from the early days of my camera experience, but I love it because it’s just so natural. There was no set up, no preparation. I was wandering the streets of the Watamu village, looking for the school where I was volunteering, when a group of kids ran towards me asking for candies. I didn’t have any on me, but I had a pack of pencils that I was carrying to the school, so I gave them out and decided to take a photo of the group. As I was setting up the shot, this boy ran from the end of the street. Noticing something was being given away, he squeezed through other kids and jumped right in front of the camera.

Asia calls!

How did you end up in my native land, the UK?
When I graduated from high school, I knew that I want to do something travel related. I enrolled in an International Tourism Management course at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. For my work placement, I was sent to work in China for the Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, which gave me the chance to explore some other Asian destinations such as Hong Kong and Singapore. I fell in love with Hong Kong and told myself that once I graduated, I would definitely be coming back. However, when that moment occurred, reality kicked in: I could not get a visa for Hong Kong. I’d decided to stay in London when an opportunity to work for a major events company in Singapore suddenly landed on my doorstep. I had my bags packed in a few days and was on the 14-hour flight to Singapore.

How do you like Singapore?
I’ve been in Singapore for two-and-a-half years already and absolutely love it. Mostly, because it’s the most convenient spot in Asia travel wise. In just two hours I can be in Bali, Hong Kong, or Thailand. And Malaysia is just an hour’s bus drive away.

Luck strikes again

On your blog you say you were “one lucky girl” in finding your current position as a Community Manager for AsiaRooms, a site for booking hotels throughout Asia. Tell us how that opportunity came about and how it fits into your life ideals and love of travel.
When I moved to Singapore, I was working for an events company in the oil and gas industry. While I loved the thrill of closing huge deals, I had no life. The hours were long, with weekends in the office and sales calls at all times of the night. After about half a year, I missed having time to travel, take photos, explore and discover! I started looking around for something in the travel industry, and that was when I got introduced to my current boss, who mentioned that AsiaRooms.com were looking to hire a Community Manager. It was a dream come true. Today I can definitely say I love my job! I have been working on the launch of AsiaRooms.com Community site together with an amazing team, and we’ve already achieved some incredible results. I have also gotten a chance to study and have completed MatadorU’s Travel Writing and Photography courses. But most importantly, I’m getting to work with some amazing and talented photographers, filmmakers, writers and musicians in Asia and across the world while traveling a lot! This year I will finally tick off all the places on my bucket list for Asia.

Passionate about photographybut not equipment

On your blog you say that you love photography “and being able to freeze a particular moment in time, so when things in life change you have the one thing, one memory that never will.” What are the shots that capture some of your favorite memories? And what made them so special?
It is hard to say which ones are my favorites since there are just so many of them, and every trip I make is special. But if I had to choose, I’d pick the photos from the trip to Kenya such as the one above. That was the first time I got exposed to a truly different environment. It was also the first time I experimented with my DLSR, which was a present from my dad. My dad passed away unexpectedly last year, and I feel sad that I’ll never get to travel with him again. But having those photos reminds me of him and of the reason I started traveling.

What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
I have a Canon 300D with two Canon lenses: 18-55mm and 70-300mm. When I was doing a short weekend photography course, my tutor joked: “This girl is truly passionate about photography and not equipment.” My camera was so old it did not have half of the functions they were using during the course!

But although the camera has huge sentimental value, I think I will need to invest in a new one soon, since I have started MatadorU’s Travel Filmmaking course and will need a camera that can capture video.

A “no holds barred” approach to people as subjects

Where have been your favorite places to take photographs? Any particular shots stick out as being amongst your favorites?
My two favorite spots are Myanmar and Japan: Myanmar, for its amazing people, who are always smiling, and the colors of its markets, nature and city life, as well as incredible sunsets and sunrises over the ancient city of Bagan; Japan for its nature, culture and architecture. The old streets of Kyoto, the underground cafes and restaurants in Tokyo, hip people in the Harajuku district, lush greenery and deer in Nara, and bamboo groves in ArashiyamaJapan is just naturally photogenic.

ThanakaBoy_mmIn your shots of Myanmar, I noticed one of a young child. Tell me about how that shot came about and what exactly is going on!
It was taken in Bagan, Myanmar, which is full of the remains of temples and pagodas. That particular morning we’d grabbed our bikes and were exploring the terrain, when I was approached by this young kid trying to sell me his drawings for a dollar. They were crayon drawings of the temples, neatly packed in plastic bags. The boy spoke almost no English, but soon he became my little tour guide, showing me around all the ruins. After our little tour we sat on the old dusty stairs at one of the temples, and while he was trying to tell me more about the place, this perfect photo opportunity appeared. I just love the look in his eyes.

I often feel very reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that I am doing so. Are you the same?
I used to be very reserved about it, but at the same time I knew that this was a major obstacle if I want to progress with my travel photography. I think I came to realize that after traveling around with my boyfriend, who is also a photographer and who has never had hang-ups about this! He doesn’t find it difficult to go straight to someone and ask them to take a photo. At the beginning I used to stay back and watch him, but when I saw how his shots turned out, I realized I needed to overcome this barrier.

Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
It was hard at the beginning, because the truth is you will get a lot of people who will just tell you NO, but at the same time you will get the few that will be very nice to you. I guess my main advice would be to definitely ask them first, and if they don’t agree, leave it! If they do agree, have a little chit chat with them to ease the atmosphere and, once you take the shot, show them how the photo looks, I’ve noticed a lot of people appreciate that!

But how do you get around the inevitable problem of language barriers?
Well, I always try to learn at least few words in the local language before I visit country, like “please,” “thank you”, “hello”, etc. As for the rest, I just point to the camera, then at the person, and smile 🙂 Usually this works—and trust me, the results will be worth the effort.

Parting shots…

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers (like me) who are traveling or living abroad?
1. Never leave your camera at home. The truth is, some of the most amazing photos are from the moments that come out the blue. It doesn’t have to be an incredible place, it might just be the street you walk down every day. Even if it’s just your iPhone camera, have something at hand.
2. Don’t let rejections stop you from achieving your dreams. I must admit, I have been trying to pitch different publications, blogs, magazines, etc for over a year and all I got were either unpaid opportunities or rejections. And it’s hard to keep motivated, when someone says that your photos are not good enough. But I’ve carried on pursuing my dream and finally, a year later, I am getting paid assignments and, what’s even more important, people are finally starting to look for me and not me for them. As a Community Manager at AsiaRooms.com, I source the photo and video content myself, so I get about 30 pitches a day from very talented people. The roles are reversed: I am the one who is telling someone that we will not be publishing their work. However, in most cases, it’s not because their photos are not good, it’s because the industry is so competitive and businesses like ours can choose only the very best. Knowing this helps me to deal with my own rejections.

Thank you, Milda! Readers, what do you make of Milda’s advice on shooting people? And do you have any further questions for her on her photography, travels, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Images (from left): Camera lens from Morguefile; Milda Ratkelyte reveling in her Grand Canyon moment. All other photos by Milda Ratkelyte

Why “exbrats” in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city

MeganFarrell CollageThis week’s guest interviewee is Megan Farrell, who like myself is an estrangeiro (foreigner) in São Paulo and married to a Brazilianalthough unlike my good British self, Megan is American and also has a young daughter (sounds like far too much responsibility if you ask me!).

Megan and her family previously lived in New York, but she took a sabbatical from her job on Wall Street in 2009 to become a full-time mum. Then, when her husband was offered a job opportunity here in São Paulo in 2010, they decided it would be a perfect opportunity for Megan and their daughter to learn Portuguese, experience life in a different culture, and learn more about Dad’s home country.

I first came to know of Megan when I moved to São Paulo myself at the start of 2012 and found her blog Born Again Brazilian whilst doing some research for my own blog. Ever since, I’ve kept up-to-date with her tales and travails, and was pleasantly surprisedif not a little enviouswhen she announced earlier this year that she would be releasing a step-by-step guide for foreigners who are living (or planning to) in São Paulo: American Exbrat in São Paulo: Advice, Stories, Tips and Tricks for Surviving South America’s Largest City.

I say envious because a similar idea had occasionally cropped up in my mind, but having read Megan’s book, I’m actually rather glad I didn’t attempt it myselfthere’s no way I could have had done the topic justice to the same extent. Megan has done her research, even offering advice on visas, taxes and other mundanebut extremely importantdetails that a move to São Paulo can entail. She includes things I would definitely not have thought of or, to be honest, had the patience to cover.

My only quibble—which perhaps tells you more about me than it does about the book, which is excellent—is that it reflects the experiences of a small minority in Brazil: exbrats. As someone who loves history as well as current affairs, I tend to prefer books that provide a holistic overview of life in a particular country. What’s more, the life of the exbrat seems completely outside my realm of experience. Though a cynic might suggest that I’m on an extended holiday, I didn’t move to Brazil on an all-expenses paid work package.

And to be fair, Megan doesn’t fall into the “exbrat” category either: her husband is Brazilian so didn’t qualify for the relocation package that makes countries like Brazil so enticing to non-Brazilians.

So, who exactly are these exbrats? And why write a book for them? Megan and I had the pleasure of meeting up I person a few days ago and talking about the audience she had in mind for her book. The following are some highlights from our conversation.

* * *

AmericanExbratinSaoPaulo_cover_pmHi, Megan. Tudo bem? Why did you decide to write a guidebook for non-Brazilians who come to live in Sao Paulo?
If you are making a move to a country such as Brazil, you need to have your expectations managed appropriately. Much of the pain my fellow expats have experienced has been because they were unprepared to deal with some of the idiosyncrasies of life in São Paulo.

What do you mean by an “exbrat”? Was the book specifically aimed at them?
I used “exbrat” because it feels rather fitting of the collection of people I’ve come across here. Expats, including myself, often stomp their feet over inconveniences they’ve encountered here, yet still expect and enjoy all the benefits of being in Brazil. Not necessarily in a pejorative way, but it felt very bratty to me. You also meet people who were previously army brats and were never able to shake their nomadic waysso “exbrat” is also an adult term for these foreigners.

So exbrats are primarily the foreigners who move to Brazil because of job opportunities?
Yes, the target audience is largely people who are moving to São Paulo or have recently arrived in the city for work, as well as human resource managers at companies who send employees to Brazil.

You included yourself just now in the “exbrat” category. But you are married to a Brazilian who didn’t get an expat package.
Believe me, some aspects of the things I’ve experienced here in Brazil have been a shock, as they probably were to you as well. So, while the book is definitely aimed at exbrats, I don’t think it’s too “exclusive.” There is an element of the “exbrat” in all of us. Some people are never able to get out of the exbrat cycle and as a result, fail to take advantage of the opportunities living in this country offers. My hope is that my book will give them a clearer picture of what to expect, and how they can prepare for that reality, so that they can get over the culture shock and go exploring. One of the world’s most fascinating countries awaits.

I think I know what you mean. I particularly remember reading in the book about your shock of attending an officially organized children’s “play-date” and there being seven paid staff to run it, as well as each child returning home afterwards with a crystal tea set as a parting gift!
Yes, exactly! That is far removed from my experiences in New York but is not so uncommon if you and your family start to mix in the same social circles with people towards the very top end of society in Brazilwhether that be through expat communities, your child’s school, or spouse’s workplace.

Has the book reached other audiences besides those who are moving to São Paulo? Perhaps people moving to other South American countries or those where English is not the first language?
Thus far the audience has been very specific to people moving to São Paulo, as opposed to other countries in South America—or even other cities in Brazil. It’s also attracted a few readers who work with Brazilians but in other countries.

Injecting her own anecdotes, and photos, into the book

Which section of the book are readers enjoying the most?
People tell me that they really enjoy the humorous stories I’ve included, which are based on some of my most painful and awkward experiences. For example, I tell the story of how I visited the same bakery for over a year before someone explained that because I wasn’t emphasizing the appropriate accent in the word pão (bread), to a Brazilian ear it sounded like I was asking for pau (penis)! Living in a non-English-speaking country provides plenty of opportunities for embarrassment or frustration, but when something goes wrong, I’m the kind of person who chooses to laugh, not cry.

Did you connect with the city in any new ways in the process of writing the book?
Definitely. I wanted the book to be as complete as possible (without taking ten years to write) and so I did more exploring on some of the subjects I wanted to include. Also, the photos in the book, minus a few I purchased the rights to, are ones I took. Much of the photography I already had in my collection. But there were gaps, so I had to get out and take pictures, which always gives you a second perspective on what you are seeingmore removed and analytical.

The topic of domestic servants

What was your most displaced moment when doing the research for the book, when you wondered why you’d embarked on this mission?
Trying to explain the culture of the people who might work in your homethe culture of the working poor in Brazil.

What do you mean when you say “culture of the working poor”? In your book you seem to suggest that household workers, who are of a far less lower rung on the lady in Brazilian society, are just taking advantage of the situation that they are in. Do you think this is cultural, or the impact of their socio-economic circumstances?
Half and half. I think it is definitely a Brazilian thing to try to take advantage of different situationsand this exists at all levels of society. For example, there’s the term jeitinho Brasileiro, which Brazilians use for situations in which they “creatively” try to get round complications in life.

However, yes, there is also a socio-economic component. If you are from a poor neighborhood and are working in the home of a rich family or person, it’s probably not too surprising that you might want to take advantage of your situation by asking for a loan or a raise.

From blogging to book-writing (she hasn’t looked back!)

Why a book instead of a series of blog posts?
Believe it or not, people still like reading books! HA. Over the past three years, since I’ve written my blog, I’ve received a number of questions about moving to São Paulo and life here. Most of the answers were already within the posts of my blog. I wanted to create a document that was more comprehensive, arranged by topic and easier to navigate. I also did a survey of my expat friends, and almost all of them said they would have purchased at least three books about moving to São Paulo before they camehad any actually existed. So I decided there was at least a bit of demand. Blogs are great, but sometimes you want to read a story from beginning to end. Plus, I’ve always just wanted to write a book.

What was the most challenging part of the book-writing process?
Editing. The editing process was a collaboration with my awesome friends, as well as my mother. It’s difficult to edit yourself. Actually, it is impossible to edit yourself. And when you have a pile of people helping you sort through the stories and facts, you get lots of opinions. But it was all good. However, I don’t think I can advantage of my friends again, so I’ll probably hire an editor for the next one.

Why did you self-publish the book?
A few of my writer friends encouraged me to try and find a publisher. But I just couldn’t figure out what a publisher was going to do for me that I couldn’t do for myself. I have a strong network and a background that includes marketing. I also don’t have the patience to go through a bureaucratic publishing process with an extended timeline. I knew that even if I did manage to find a publisher, I would not be their priority. The market for this is not on the level that would make a publisher move fast.

What’s next? Are you working on any other writing projects?
I am. I’ll probably update this book sometime in the next year. I also plan to write one for Rio. My husband is from Rio, and most of my experiences in Brazil (prior to moving to São Paulo) were in that city, so I know it pretty well.

You mentioned at the outset that you like broader books. I’d love to write something about Brazil as a wholeto counter the focus I put in this one on the expat life. It won’t be another step-by-step guide but a more of a general analysis, including politics, culture and so forth.

Finally, I’m working on some fiction stories that take place in Brazil. When living in New York, I did a screenplay course so have some experience in writing fiction. Currently, my idea is to write two series of short stories. The first will be based around Brazilian folklore, and the second, around some real-life episodes I’ve witnessed that are difficult to record in a blog or non-fiction format.

Ten Questions for Megan Farrell

Finally, we’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:

1. Last truly great book you read: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems. I have a five-year-old. But we’ve read it more than a hundred times and it still makes me laugh. Okay, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late is another contender. Mo Willems is a genius.
2. Favorite literary genre: I’d love to lie and offer up a more intellectual answer, but my favorite genre has always been horror. I enjoy a good creepy tale. After that, humorous memoirs from people who have overcome great obstacles, like Jeannette Walls‘s The Glass Castle.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m most happy if I have a copy of The Economist with me on a plane
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: I wish Michael Bloomberg would write a book that Obama could read, because I think the USA would benefit by being run more like a business. But since Bloomberg has yet to put pen to paper, I’d have to say Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.
5. Favorite books as a child: I loved any book that involved a child in a new world. James and the Giant Peach. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Little Prince. The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pippi Longstocking.
6. Favorite heroine: Wonder Woman. I think if Brazil had a Wonder Woman, or the collection of super heroes that we have in the States as—albeit fictional—role models, people would emulate change for the good of the people. Brazil needs to believe in something other than futebol—but that seems to be in the process of changing, as Andy and I discussed last month on this blog.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Hands down, Stephen King. I hope he doesn’t die before I get to meet him. I just need to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t involve stalking.
8. Your reading habits: I used to spend the weekends (sometimes all weekend) reading. But now that I have a child, I usually read right before I go to bed—in bed.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: American Exbrat in São Paulo, of course!
10. The book you plan to read next: I suppose I should say Fifty Shades of Grey, because I haven’t read much of it and people keep bugging me about it. But if you’ve read Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy (I only read the first), Fifty Shades is like reading Judy Blume. Yawn. I think I’ll wait for Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. How could anyone resist a sequel to The Shining?

* * *

Readers, as I said, Megan was a delight to meet in person, a sense of which I hope I’ve conveyed above. Any further questions? Have I pressed her too hard on the “exbrat” point?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new episode in our “Location, Locution” series, by JJ Marsh.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Megan Farrell’s author image and book cover; photo of Sao Paulo from MorgueFile.

As an expat, is it my place to join another country’s political protest?

BrazilianProtest_ahpmJust after the street protests broke out in Brazil last month, Megan Farrell, an American who lives in São Paulo with her Brazilian spouse, contributed a guest post to the Displaced Nation.

Megan was very honest in admitting that she had previously taken little notice of politics or social issues in Brazil:

Being displaced … makes it easy to be in a bit of denial.

I, too, am an expat in São Paulo with a Brazilian spouse, albeit from the UK. Like Megan, I didn’t initially involve myself in Brazil’s latest political movement—but my reasoning was a little different from hers.

I’m someone who self-identifies as politically engaged and active. Back in the UK I was a union rep at my workplace and I’ve been involved in protest movements since my student days, the most prominent being those against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Additionally, as a social worker and student of social sciences, it’s second nature to be socially and politically aware of what is going on around me, whether that be at home or elsewhere.

Why, then, would I be reticent to involve myself in the politics of the protests that were going on around me here in São Paulo?

Not my fight to fight

Despite broadly agreeing with the objectives of the early protests (about a rise in bus fares which as a daily user of public transport, by which I was directly affected), I felt that as a gringo and a guest of Brazil, it wasn’t my place to get involved.

To be honest, I even felt a little reluctant to use social media to post articles or comment upon what was happening, and when I was asked to cover the protests for a site in the UK, my first inclination was to turn it down.

As a foreigner I was sensitive to being seen by Brazilians as poking my nose into their affairs. Additionally, I was also quite aware that there is a lot of history and background behind these protests that I am only, at best, partly aware of.

On top of this, Portuguese is my second language, so whilst I can read it without too much problem, I was apprehensive of inadvertently misconstruing a tweet, newspaper article or blog post, and using ill-informed or partly understood information to inform my opinions.

Eventually, however, I went out on the streets.

What led me to change my mind?

What was my impetus for joining the protests? I think it was seeing the extent of the violence (rubber bullets, tear gas, etc) the police used against what was widely reported as peaceful protest in São Paulo on 13 June.

And it wasn’t just me. The harsh police response was a turning point for many Brazilians as well, because while it may have successfully extinguished the 13 June protest, it also had the converse effect of igniting far broader outrage across the city and the whole of the country. At the same time, it provided an opportunity for a far wider array of grievances to be voiced (most of which Megan notes in her article so I won’t go into them again here).

Once I’d been out on the streets I felt a little bit more confident about joining in the discussion myself. When a couple of photographs I’d posted got a bit of attention on Twitter, and Planet Ivy in the UK—an online news magazine started up by a team of young, adventurous journalists—asked me to cover the protests, I agreed.

A duty to inform the folks back home

My decision was largely influenced by my realization that people at home in the UK—as first my mum and then Planet Ivy made me aware—were largely unaware of what was going on.

In Megan’s post, she mentioned her disbelief at how her friends and family members in the U.S. were still sharing updates on Facebook about their morning meals, their cats, and sports teams:

How could this be? How could they just not care?

Like her, I had the sense of being in the middle of something big and important, and for a while just assumed that everyone else around the world must be aware of it as well.

If I stopped to think about it, of course, no one is ever as interested in an event who are on the scene. But once I realized that there were people out there who wanted or needed to know more, I thought I could do my bit to inform them.

Another motivating factor was the need to correct the widespread misperceptions of the Brazil’s situation—in particular, the negative press the country has been receiving in the UK with regards to its preparations for the 2014 World Cup.

Whilst a fair amount of that criticism has been justified, it occasionally feels as though the UK press has some sort of vendetta against Brazil, with every news story seemingly inferring that “this once again casts doubts about the safety of Brazil and its ability to host a major international event.”

Alas, I thought, even if I am a naïve foreigner living in and writing about Brazil, I could at least provide some insight about what is actually going on at street level.

A closer connection with my adopted land

As an aside to this, one interesting thing about the protests is that they’ve helped alter my perception of the connection I have with São Paulo and Brazil.

Obviously, through my Brazilian wife and my residency in São Paulo, that connection is now much deeper than before. However, and as mentioned in my last post, in the 18 months since moving here I’ve evolved from whining expat (or “exbrat,” as Megan likes to say) to being an avid proponent of my new home.

My decision to join in the nation’s protests—whether participating on the streets or discussing and sharing the issues with people online—was a kind of watershed moment, effectively making the transition complete.

Of course, I’ll always primarily consider myself a Londoner, a Brit and a European (a fact I’m constantly reminded of by my Brazilian friends and family, who refer to me as “the gringo”), but increasingly I feel just as proud to be quasi-Paulistano*.

*People from São Paulo refer to themselves as Paulistanos.

* * *

COMING SOON: Andy’s interview Megan Farrell about her new book on expat life in São Paulo.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, from our travelogue writing coach Jack the Hack.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Photo of protesters in São Paulo, June 2103, by Andy Martin. Go to his photo blog to see more.

NEW VS OLDE WORLDS: British husband and Brazilian wife swap cultural allegiances

Libby Collage New&OldThanks to Kate Allison, regular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, is replete with rich observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the often subtle, yet powerful, differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today we hear from one of our regular contributors, Andy Martin. Those who caught Andy’s Random Nomad interview at the start of the year will remember that he’s a British social worker and football geek who followed his Brazilian spouse back to her native São Paulo.

—ML Awanohara

AndyMartininUK_pmA few weeks ago I made my first trip home to the UK since moving to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, in February 2012.

Prior to leaving I started to ponder how I’d feel once I touched down in London.

After such an extended period of time, I guess it’s only natural to feel this somewhat apprehensive. Yet another reason for my intrigue was the number of times over the past year a Brazilian had asked:

Você tem saudades de Londres?

There is no direct translation for “saudades“—which probably says a lot about how us English speakers struggle to express our feelings. Broadly it translates as something like:

having a deep sense of nostalgia or longing for something or someone*

To such beautifully expressed enquiries of my sentiments about home, my typical response has been some muttered utterance like “Na verdade, não,” which basically means: “No, not really.”

What did I say above about us English speakers being expressive?

Or perhaps that’s just me.

Delighted to be in the new world…

Yet, on the whole those two words do sum up my thoughts about home. Sure, I miss friends and family—but the place? As I said, “Na verdade, não.”

I’ve lived in London, walked its streets and drank in its pubs for most of my life, so why would I be so desperate to go back?

Perhaps it is because I know that we’re likely go back to settle there eventually.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s not that I don’t miss London, more that I am happy with my lot here in São Paulo.

Which I am.

…while my wife is attached to the old one!

Ironically, it is actually my wife who is the one who most wants to return “home” to London after she finishes her degree at the end of this year**. This surprises most people, who assume that my Brazilian wife is the one who wants us to stay in Brazil, when it’s actually the opposite.

Why?

Part of it, I guess, can be put down to the opportunity each of us has to explore the unknown.

When I traveled around South America in 2007, I had never before left Europe. Likewise, until she went to Buenos Aires in 2008 (where we met), she had never left Brazil.

Both of us had only really ever known one way of life.

Now, with my wife having spent three years in London and us now having spent almost 18 months in São Paulo, we both seem to have come to appreciate and adore the things about each other’s countries that the other takes for granted or even dislikes.

The predictability, and quaintness, of London

For my wife São Paulo is a stressful city, with its inadequate infrastructure having a tendency to make life more complicated than it needs to be.

On top of this it’s a place that for her, because of the fear of crime, constantly leaves her feeling on edge.

Conversely, London is a place where she says she feels safe and where life is made easier by things working as they should—even if it that isn’t always the case.

For example, it still amazes her that a train can be scheduled to arrive at, say, 10:27 a.m. and then on the whole it actually arrives and departs at 10:27 a.m.

Additionally, coming from a land that was “discovered” as recently as 1500 by the Portuguese, she finds Europe’s long history fascinating—the fact that there are buildings in London older than the country of Brazil itself being a prime example.

I’ll be honest, in some ways I probably felt the same when I first arrived in Brazil. My initial posts on my own blog, The Book is on the table, whilst written with my tongue firmly in cheek, could possibly also be seen as me just being another gringo moaning about stuff—the subtext being that “everything back home is much better.”

As time went on, I realized that I didn’t want to be or become one of those moaning expats. Of course, it is natural to compare things when you move or go abroad. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong being critical if it’s fair and balanced.

But to make a habit of it isn’t good for one’s mental health. It ends up making you bitter and unhappy with your new environment. It’s also the quickest way to feeling homesick.

Even worse, such comparisons can easily drift into self-righteous rants asserting one’s cultural superiority—a throwback to the attitudes of our colonialist ancestors that did no one any good back then and will do no one any good now.

The unpredictability, and beauty, of Brazil

Around the time I realized that moaning and comparing are pointless enterprises, I started to feel a genuine affection for Brazil, something that has been reflected in my blog posts over the past 6-9 months.

Firstly, it would be hard not adore a country and continent that shares my passion for futebol.

Additionally, I found it easy to get used to a relaxed, slower pace of life in this part of world, which is not hard to complain about when it’s touching 30°C (86°F) for most of the year.

We have a swimming pool in our apartment block, something that is unthinkable in the UK, and there’s 4,500 miles of stunning coastline to pick from to go to on holiday.

Then, there’s the fact that if I want to go out for a beer or meal I know the bar or restaurant won’t be shut by midnight, as they so often are in London. If I want to stay out sipping a beer until 4:00 a.m., I can.

I’m also enjoying, although also a little frustrated by, the challenge of learning Portuguese, and as someone who studied Sociology and Social Anthropology and then later worked with migrants as a social worker, living in Brazil provides the perfect opportunity to explore South America, its indigenous history and the legacy of immigration after its colonization.

Additionally, the continent’s history of revolution and resistance against oppression also matches my own rebellious tendencies and political values—something I didn’t always have an outlet for in the UK.

Finally, it might sound a little condescending but I’ve now come to embrace some of the things I once moaned about. Living in London is great, and I appreciate my wife’s perception of the quality of life, but all the things I mentioned above provide an alternative quality of life. In other words, there’s more to life than just functioning public services.

Brazil may be frustrating sometimes, but it certainly makes life just a little bit more interesting—though my wife is yet to be convinced by that argument.

Maybe at some point I’ll change my mind and the novelty of life in Brazil will wear off—there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that might be the case. However, for the time being, whenever a Brazilian affectionately ask about my longing for home, I’ll continue to mutter: “Na verdade, não.”

*It’s extremely convenient in these situations having a translator as your wife.
**As a compromise I’ve so far managed to negotiate us staying until at least the end of the World Cup next year, using these two strong arguments: 1) I love football; and 2) Living in São Paulo meant we missed the Olympics in London.

* * *

Speaking of the Olympics, the handing over of the torch to Brazil at the end of the London Olympics certainly showed you the contrast between old and new worlds! Readers, can you relate to this couple’s frequent twists and turns in their cultural allegiances?

STAY TUNED for next week’s series of posts!

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Img: Photo of Andy Martin taken during his recent trip to the UK, at a wedding.

Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile

For travel & shutter bug Ildrim Valley, a picture says …

Collage_1000words_Ildrim_dssWelcome to our new series: “A picture says …”, featuring interviews with displaced creatives for whom a camera is a mode of artistic expression for the sights and people they encounter in their nomadic wanderings.

To kick off the series, I have the pleasure of conversing with Ildrim Valley, an intrepid adventurer who is also an economist(!) and travel photographer. It is, of course, this last point we’ll be focusing on, so to speak…

But first a few of Ildrim’s vital statistics:

Place of birth: Baku, Azerbaijan
Passports: Canada; Azerbaijan
Overseas history: From least to most recent: Azerbaijan (Baku); Switzerland (Geneva); Kenya (Nairobi); Canada (Vancouver, British Columbia); Hungary (Budapest); France (Toulouse)—2012 to present.
Occupations: Graduate student of economics; travel photographer; amateur snowboarder; adventurer!
Cyberspace coordinates: Curious Lines (photography blog)

Without further ado, let’s find out more about Ildrim and the way he uses photography as a creative outlet for his international adventures.

Peripatetic from an early age

Hello there, Ildrim. Welcome to the Displaced Nation. Let’s begin by having you tell us a bit about your travels. What inspired you to set off and what has motivated you to keep on going?
My first travel experiences come from traveling with my mom and brother. My mom is eager to change her surroundings, so thanks to her I was lucky to move around and travel early in life. At an early age I’ve been amazed at how life can be so different for people elsewhere than my hometown.

I think that this early fascination developed into a strong curiosity about lifestyles. Now that my mom no longer takes me on adventures (she gets herself into trouble without me!), I try to find my own means of traveling and satisfying my curiosity about places around the world.

You are a self-described adventurer. Do you prefer going and going, or do you sometimes settle in one place for a time?
As I travel more, I realize that it’s not just about seeing a new place that excites me the most. As fun as it is to keep going and going, simply being somewhere new isn’t always satisfying. Settling somewhere for a time gives me an opportunity to live through something different and possibly understand it.

I understand you recently moved to Toulouse, France?
Yes, I moved to Toulouse in September 2012 for graduate school. I felt like grad school would open a few doors to pursue some of my other interests, and it presented a fairly easy way to move to another country. So I set out to look for good schools around the world that fit my background as well as academic interests. At the time I was interested in southern Europe, and Toulouse offers the right kind of balance: it’s a great school with welcoming people and fine landscapes to be explored. Plus an opportunity to finally master French was very appealing—though I have to say I’m not doing a very satisfactory job so far.

On your photography blog, Curious Lines, you say:

Photography for me isn’t just an art form, it’s a way to share experiences.

When and why did you start using DSLR cameras?
I got my first DSLR in 2010, shortly before moving to Budapest. I got it in order to document the move.

Does the process itself of capturing a place or moment affect the relationship you have with that place? For example, does capturing a good set of photos increase the fondness you have for that place?
The process of capturing a moment does affect the way I experience a place, which in turn affects my relationship with it. But how I feel about a place has a lot to do with how I feel about the people from that place. So when I spend enough time in one spot, I get to meet people and build relationships. However, when the stays are short, the camera has a more significant role as it facilitates a connection with others. It helps me get a reaction, an emotional response—a smile or maybe a conversation.

But it’s important to point out that in some places around the world, carrying a camera can have a negative affect. People are fast to judge you on how you look. In Kenya, for example, I have a lighter skin tone, which results in the locals treating me differently, not necessarily in a positive way.

Likewise, having a large camera around your neck or in your hand will send a different signal and will be interpreted in a different way depending on where you are in the world.

I would just like to add that one way in which camera affects my experiences is that it taught me how to look at things differently without a lens. It helps me appreciate things differently and it’s important to know when to put the camera away and enjoy things with your own eyes. It’s easy for me to get sucked into continuous photo taking when I’m in a new place. Though I enjoy it, there are still other things to be enjoyed behind the lens, which is even more true when you’re traveling with someone else. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other; with time I’ve been learning how to balance the two.

For me, the camera has to be an extension of the adventure and not the purpose for it.

Looking back on all the places where you’ve taken photos, which have been your top three favorite places to shoot?
Although my opinion changes with time, my top spot for now is Mongolia. Last year I spent about a month there. The people and their lifestyles around the country fascinate me. The landscapes are pure and surreal. When you have such a keen interest and curiosity about your subject, shooting becomes that much more enjoyable. I’m actually redesigning my Website to present more content via other channels than a blog. One of the new sections will be about my experiences in Mongolia. The other two places that I love for photography are coastal British Columbia and Croatia.

An eye for the London Eye

On your blog you also say:

Once I started using a DSLR I’ve realized that scenes that come out on my computer screen don’t reflect the whole beauty of the moment. They don’t transmit the same type of emotion I felt standing behind the lens. So I tried and am still experimenting with different techniques to bring myself and others closer to how it actually was, at least in my mind. I don’t always try to achieve the most “realistic” looking photos, but rather try to transmit the feeling of the scene.

the-london-eye_dropshadowI notice that one of the techniques you’ve used is High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDR), an example of which can be seen in this striking image of my hometown London (original here)—by the way, you’ve now made me feel a little homesick! Tell me a little about HDR and how a novice photographer like myself can go about trying to achieve similar effects with a DSLR camera.
I have a very basic example of what High Dynamic Range (HDR) does in one of my blog posts. In a nutshell, cameras don’t capture the range of light the same way our eyes do. Our eyes adjust to both bright and dark spots in the same scene while for cameras it’s always a trade off.

HDR photography allows you to capture more light by taking multiple shots of different exposures. I take three: one normal, one overexposed bright photo, and one underexposed dark photo. By combining these three shots together you get a higher range of light information available to play with. Some people take five or even seven photos, but three is enough in most situations.

To achieve this HDR effect, I take my three shots bearing these points in mind:

  • The auto-bracketing option on modern-day cameras helps you take three photos with a single click.
  • Set the camera on Aperture priority mode (“AV” or “A” on most cameras) to have the same aperture and depth of field in all three shots.
  • Ensure that the three shots are as identical in composition as possible. A tripod could be useful. (The surroundings or simply holding your breath will do in many cases.)
  • Use software* to combine all three shots together and then let your imagination take charge.

*Some of the most popular softwares are Photomatix Pro, HDR EFEX PRO and HDR Darkroom. Then there are options like Luminance HDR, which is free (open source) but will take some time getting used to. Whichever software you choose, it will help you combine all this light information into one image. Then it’s almost always a good idea to take it into your preferred photo editing software and continue working as you would with any other photo.

People pix

Streetvendor_drop shadowTell me about this recent photo you took of a street vendor in Kiev (original here). How did you find yourself in Kiev?
I was on a long earthbound trip in 2012 from Budapest to Hong Kong, which took me through Kiev.

How did you come across this street vendor? Did you converse with him before taking his photo?
There was no verbal communication. Rather, I nodded at the guy while moving the camera in my hand slowly, indicating that I wanted to take his photo. His face was blank in acceptance so I went ahead and snapped the photo.

Do you always try to try get permission from people when trying to take a photo?
I prefer to ask for permission, but sometimes it’s the spontaneity that makes the photo and asking would yield a different result when they prepare themselves for the photo. Either way, I make sure the subject knows I’m taking their photo.

Is it difficult to obtain permission when facing a language barrier?
It’s important to learn how to communicate with your facial expressions and your body as well as being able to read others. In my experience, regardless of whether your communications are verbal or non-verbal, the more confident and subtle you are, the more likely you are to get approval.

One thing about the street vendor picture that really stands out for me is the boldness of the colors. Can you tell me why and how you set up the shot like this?
Initially, I tried to achieve an effect that would provoke an emotional response akin to the one I had in that moment. A new environment can be emotionally overwhelming—a feeling that can be difficult to capture. First impressions are special. So when I first started editing it was the exaggeration of colors that made me feel the closest to “re-experiencing” the place. Although you can never really re-live the moment, you can come up with something that reminds you of it.

In a way it’s like when a friend tells you a “you really had to be there” story—and exaggerates the details to make the point. It’s not that the true story needs any exaggeration to be interesting, but you need to have the exaggeration to translate the feeling.

Many of these aspects of photography are, of course, a matter of experience and taste. Believe it or not, my earlier photos were even more color crazy. With more experience I’m leaning away from it and trying to express the moment in other ways. I really like black-and-white photography and the subtlety of its expression. I find it trickier and am experimenting with it more at the moment.

Parting shots…

When you take a look at the two photos mentioned above, what’s the first thing you remember?
The London photo reminds me of my host, a friend I haven’t seen in years.

The photo of the Ukrainian street vendor reminds me of a young violinist I met on the train and spent the day with. It also reminds me of how hot the day was and my craving for kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread). Believe me, a hot day in Ukraine can make you crave kvass as a refreshment.

Are you hoping that these photos will evoke similar emotions in other viewers?
The intent is not always to prompt the same reaction I had. The same photo can prompt many different reactions. I like it when visitors to my site send messages expressing how my photos reminded them of their own experiences.

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad, on getting started?
I’d say to take photos for yourself first and not to think about what others would want to see or to try to meet their expectations. The first person your photos should move is yourself.

Thank you, Ildrim! Readers, what do you make of our first photographer post? Some wise words here, and who knew that autobracketing could be so useful? So, any further questions for Ildrim? Please leave them in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post from expat author, Helena Halme, who is giving away THREE COPIES of her latest novel! 🙂

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Images (from left): Camera lens from MorgueFile; Ildrim Valley (on right) with a traveler he met last summer in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Says Ildrim: “He was originally from Slovenia but didn’t like being associated with any particular place. He’d been traveling on his bicycle for about four years at that point.”

Talking to expat entrepreneur Alison McGowan about cracking the hard nut of Brazil’s tourism market

Hidden Pousatas Brazil CollageAlison McGowan is rather famous among us expats in Brazil: a foreigner who has settled here and “made it” as an entrepreneur. Her business is called Hidden Pousadas Brazil. Pousada literally means “place to land” or “place to stay”; but as McGowan explains on her About Us page, unlike in Portugal where a pousada is usually a luxury inn in a restored historical building, in Brazil the concept encompasses a much wider range of price and accommodation.

Alison has visited and vetted many of Brazil’s pousadas on behalf of Western tourists who might be overwhelmed by a country of Brazil’s size and complexity. She offers a set of well-honed marketing services to pousadas that come up to her standard, consisting of an English-language Web page on her site optimized for Google, from which they can receive direct bookings. (She will also add social media and PR for a further fee.) And she provides an English-speaking interface for those pousada owners who lack the requisite linguistic skills to attract foreign guests.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Alison’s pousada business, too? Word has traveled far and wide among the English-speaking world thanks to some choice publicity. Seth Kugal chose to include it in his write-up on Brazil for the New York Times‘s Frugal Traveler series, urging those looking to make Brazil more affordable to try

a rare English-language pousada site nicely curated by an expatriate Englishwoman, Alison McGowan.

And the intrepid Michael Palin, while he finally added Brazil to his itinerary with a four-part BBC series last year, gave a shout-out to McGowan for her “gorgeous pousada” recommendations.

Yet her accomplishment can’t have been easy. According to recent data, 40 percent of Brazilian start-up businesses do not survive for more than two years after opening due to the “excess of laws, regulations, taxes, paperwork…”

I caught up with McGowan recently on behalf of the Displaced Nation and peppered her with questions about her business success story. Any wannabe displaced entrepreneurs out there, listen up!

Olá, Alison! Tudo bem? Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for the Displaced Nation. How long have you been working in Brazil?
I established Hidden Pousadas Brazil in 2008 but have a long history of working with and in Brazil dating back to 1979 when I was sent out to set up the first office for Oxford University Press. In 1984 I decided to return to UK but continued working with Brazil over the next 18 years before returning to the country definitively in 2002, bringing my old business in educational marketing—called Florence Associates—with me. This lasted me very well until 2008, when the increased use of broadband Internet and students booking direct with schools effectively put paid to the business model. Hidden Pousadas Brazil was a very lucky idea which came to me at just the right time. It never occurred to me to go “home” when the other business ended.

Let’s go back even further in time. What first attracted you to the country both of us now call home?
I lived in Paris for a year in the early 70s and that was where I first discovered Brazilian music, and Brazilian musicians. I fell in love with both!

What do you love most about living here?
I love the people, the attitude, the optimisim, the energy and the light.

As an Englishwoman, do you ever feel “displaced”?
I rarely feel “displaced” but had one such moment yesterday when I realized I had spent over a thousand reais paying company bills which were actually optional. My Britishness and desire to be up to date with payments had blinded me to the possibility that anyone would or could legally send an official demand for something which I actually didn’t have to pay.

Have you reached a point where you now feel more comfortable in Brazil than in Britain?
I feel totally comfortable in both countries and move easily between them, partly because I am pretty well bilingual and understand both cultures very well. People here often refer to me as a gringa carioca—basically a foreigner who is at the same time someone from Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian musician friends just introduce me to others as a fellow musician. Nationality isn’t usually mentioned.

You said that Hidden Pousadas Brazil was a “lucky idea.” Where did it come from?
I was super stressed from running a huge cello festival in Rio and asked a friend for a recommendation of somewhere to stay where I could just chill out in peace for a while. He immediately told me to go to the Pousada Santa Clara on Boipeba. I had no idea at the time where Boipeba was or indeed what a pousada was, but I went and discovered paradise—a traffic free island with endless deserted sandy beaches fringed by palm trees and a lovely, friendly pousada guesthouse to stay at. I thought if this paradise existed there must be other paradises in Brazil, and I reckoned I knew quite a lot of people who would like to be in paradise if they only knew it existed! Hidden Pousadas Brazil was born.

Was opening up your own business something you always wanted to do?
Had I not lost my rather well-paid job in the UK, I might not have started down the entrepreneurial path. That was the original stimulus. But now that I’m on my second business, I can’t imagine working for someone else again!

What’s been the biggest challenge of running your own business in Brazil?
The most challenging part is undoubtedly Brazilian bureaucracy and tax system. It is both expensive and time consuming to get it right.

The most fulfilling?
Meeting so many satisfied travelers who have been choosing pousadas and trips just using the recommendations on www.hiddenpousadasbrazil.com.

If you could do anything else, what would it be?
I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. Once Hidden Pousadas Brazil is in a mature phase and is no longer challenging, a logical step would be to move into consultancy, public speaking and training for pousada owners, but whatever I do would still have to allow me extensive travel in offbeat Brazil!

What’s on your bucket list?
Right at the moment a few pousadas on deserted beaches in Piauí, Ceará, Maranhão, and Rio Grande do Norte are beckoning; also some places near the capital city of Brasília such as Pirenópolis and São Jorge in the neighboring state of Goias, as well as in the historical cities of Minas Gerais.

It sounds as though you still have a lot to explore. Have you left Britain behind, or will you go back to live some day?
I will be here in Brazil for as long as good is good, but I still go back to the UK twice a year, and could easily run the business the other way round, living in the UK and coming over to Brazil a few times a year.

Do you have any advice for anyone else wanting to be an entrepreneur in Brazil?
I wouldn’t do it unless you speak Portuguese fluently, understand the culture, have tons of patience, considerable money and support behind you, AND see a gap in the market for that brilliant idea you are passionate about! If you’ve got all that then go for it! The rewards are enormous.

We understand you are creative in another way: as a travel writer. Do you have any books planned?
I have plans for two forthcoming books: one just entitled The Hidden Pousadas of Brazil and the other on foreign immigration and entrerpreneurship in the Amazon in early-20th century Brazil (title still to be decided).

É boa pra caramba! We look forward to featuring one day on the Displaced Nation.

* * *

Readers, I found talking to Alison McGowan quite a trip! Do you have any questions for her before she ventures off in hot pursuit of the next Brazilian paradise? You can also follow Hidden Pousadas Brazil on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and subscribe to their YouTube station, where the latest video shows Alison giving advice for anyone planning a trip to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014 (coming soon!) or the Rio Olympics in 2016. As an avid football fan myself, I have only one comment to make on Alison’s creative enterprise: Vai Brasil! O Brasil é o número um! For the purposes of today’s celebration of Alison, this football rallying cry may be translated as “Go to Brazil! It’s the number-one country!”

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, about a theatrical enterprise…

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Images: (Clockwise from Alison McGowan’s headshot) Pousada Araras Eco Lodge, in the northern Pantanal (home of the Hyacinth Macaw); Pousada Uacari (in the Mamirauá reserve, home of the uacari monkey); Pousada de Selva Mato Limpo (in the hills of the Serra da Mantiqueira); and Hidden Posadas Brazil logo.

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