Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sexual Assault in the Peace Corps

The front page of today's The New York Times: Peace Corps Volunteers Speak Out on Rape

This issue is of great personal importance to me not just as a female Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, but as a woman who suffered daily sexual harassment while on the job. As many of you may know, I was attacked once in a banana field. That was not the only incident. Thank God nothing more serious happened to me. Many of my fellow volunteers in Paraguay and other countries were not as lucky.

Please take a few minutes to sign the following petition asking that Peace Corps protect its volunteers and calling for anti-sexual violence legislation. Consider signing up for updates from the First Response Action blog to hear about other women who have suffered while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers abroad.

If you could take just two minutes from your day and sign the petition, me and hundreds of other women would be infinitely grateful.

Thank you.

Economic Development in the Peace Corps

Today a colleague of mine, Professor Miles Davis, invited me to appear on his monthly radio show about business social entrepreneurship. The topic for today was "Economic Development in the Peace Corps."

Check out the podcast of the radio interview (save the file and use any music software such as Winamp or iTunes to listen):

"Business" Today Live from Hilton Garden Inn with Miles Davis, professor at Shenandoah University

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mom, I can't talk now, I'm going to fly

“Mom, I’m just saying hi. I can’t talk now. I’m going to fly.” “Fly? Pooja, you know you’re flight is on Monday...” “No, I’m going to FLY. I’m going to hang glide. Talk to you later!”

So started my hang gliding adventures. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I fell in love with paragliding after floating over mountain tops in Merida, Venezuela and was determined to “fly” again in Brazil. A friend suggested that I paraglide in Rio de Janeiro. I thought, “What better way to end my trip than by by floating over one of my favorite cities?” I headed to a travel agent and requested parapente schedules. “Parapente?” the travel agent repeated snidely. I thought that was the word...that’s what it is in Spanish...and I even used the correct Portuguese pronunciation of “chi” for the last syllable. “What you want is Asa Delta,” he told me. “Whatever.”

The scheduled date arrived. After a week of rain, a morning of sunshine appeared on the horizon. I headed to São Conrado, a beautiful beach next to Leblon, the richest neighborhood in Brazil. The guests at the Sheraton Hotel share the beach with the neighboring favela (slum) dwellers (next to every rich area and famous beach in Rio, there is a slum). From the beach, my pilot and his assistant drove us to our point of take-off, the peak of mountain Pedro Bonita. Suddenly I realized what was the difference between parapente and Asa Delta. I would be hang gliding, not paragliding. It may not seem like a huge difference from the ground, but from the air it involves one crucial, nerve-wracking fact. When I paraglided, a strong gust of wind lifted my pilot and I off the ground and up into the air. When it came time to hang glide, my pilot asked me if I was ready to jump. “Jump? Jump where?” I asked fearfully. “There,” he said as he pointed to a wooden ramp that looked like it was going to collapse any moment. I thought it might be too late to mention to him that I have, had, a fear of falling from heights. We practiced running before getting into position. “Ready?” he asked. I shut my eyes tight and did not open them until I was already hanging in the air. As I cannot describe the incredible feeling of flying in the air, I will have to show you.

Carnaval da Rua

As much as we don’t want to admit it, we all form impressions of certain people based on ethnic or cultural stereotypes. In less than a week, my 50+ year-old Japanese-Brazilian Couchsurfer in Curitiba successfully shattered several of my illusions. When I first perused her profile, I thought that she seemed animated. Upon meeting her, my first impression proved true. The woman did not just have energy, she had spunk! I could hardly keep up with her as she ran around her apartment performing one task after another, the whole while talking about one thing or another. She did not fit in at all with my cultural expectations of elder Japanese woman as quiet, reserved, and traditional.

She took me to watch the pre-Carnaval bloco of the samba school Garibaldis and Sacis. A bloco typically consists of musicians from a samba school performing samba marchinha – the fast-paced samba that is played during Carnaval – on the streets. Often, members of the crowd will join in the festivities by bringing their tambourines and drums from home and playing along with the band. One word usually defines the dress code, “ridiculous.” The men are dressed in what I like to call “their skivvies,” sungas or Brazilian speedos, along with masks and accessories. The women have pieces of flare that enliven even the most mundane clothing. At the head of the bloco is a truck carrying the main singers and directors of the samba school. Around the truck is a throng of people hopping, skipping, and dancing frenetically. As the truck drives through the streets at a record-breaking speed of 5 MPH, the crowd follows, pushing each other to keep up the pace while avoiding actually leaving the frenzied mass of people that is constantly in danger of being run over by the 18-wheeler behind them.

In the midst of this excitement where was my Couchsurfer? She was dancing in the middle of the bloco. One hand held a beer can while the other held the hand of the Brazilian man with whom she was dancing. She finished her beer, threw the can off to the side of the street, and pulled me into the fray with her now free hand. She twirled me and had me dancing in no town! The many times I dreamed about Brazil, I never pictured a Brazilian as a 50 year-old Japanese woman chugging a beer while shaking to samba.

Here’s the great thing about Brazil: everyone can be Brazilian. Brazil is like the United States of South America, it has people of all different colors, origins, and ancestries. When South Americans look at me, they don’t see an American, they see an Indian. I have to explain to them that after three years in South America, I feel more latina than Indian. I joke, “I’m a useless Indian, but I’m a great latina. I don’t speak Hindi, I don’t dance Indian dances well, but I speak Spanish, Portuguese, and even Guaraní, and I’m a terrific salsa and samba dancer!” I guess it’s the same with my Couchsurfer. When I looked at her, I saw a Japanese woman, but in her heart (and her samba-dancing hips) she was a Brazilian.

The bloco truck

Our friend joining in the musicians


The woman on my left was my Couchsurfer

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pooja, You Had Me at Gender Reversal

I recently had an experience that shattered all preconceptions I had about the differences between men and women. Two of my girl friends and I accompanied our two guy friends in Salvador to go shopping for sungas, a.k.a. the mankini that men use in Brazil. A sunga isn’t quite a Speedo, but it’s definitely in the same family. Our male friends were a little nervous, yet excited to be purchasing their first sungas. At the first store, they stood rooted to the ground, perplexed, while the store assistant showed them the models. “Are they supposed to be that small? Pooja, can you ask him if they have any bigger models?” James said to me, clearly frightened by the prospect of putting on the tiny bathing suits. We girls helped out the best we could, picking out suits that would complement the boys skin colors and figures, but the boys didn’t seem happy. “Let’s go to another store,” my friend suggested.

Several stores later, the guys were starting to get into the whole shopping experience. Jason ran over to James’s dressing room so that they could look at each other in their sungas. “Oh boys,” we girls sighed. We were getting tired of being dragged around from store to store. When Jason asked for help at this store, my friend begrudgingly grabbed a suit and threw it into the changing room. “Are you ready yet?” we asked impatiently. “We’re still not sure. Let’s go back to the first store and double check the sungas there.” What, men comparing clothes at different stores?

We returned to the first store where Jason picked the sunga of his dreams. “Do you like it?” he asked, stepping out of the dressing room to the model it for us. “Whatever. Get whatever you like,” we replied. Meanwhile, James decided that he liked the swimsuit at the last store better. While he ran back upstairs, we girls left the store to get some a snack. When he returned, Jia complained, “Are you happy? Can we get some food now?” She was cranky from hunger and from having to wait for the boys to finish their shopping.

As we walked out of the mall, the boys walked with an extra spring in their steps. They had every reason to be proud of themselves, they had just bought sungas. I couldn’t help commenting, “All the differences that I thought existed between men and women were imaginary. This is definitely a case of gender reversal.” The boys acted like female stereotypes that day. They tried on different outfits, assessed each other in them, discussed how tight some models were and how uncomfortable others made them feel, browsed items at different stores, and probed us for our honest opinions. All the while, we acted like the “typical man,” impatient and bored of the opposite sex’s prolonged shopping expedition.

The next day the boys had a sunga model shoot. While one walked around the beach, the other took photos of him from every angle. A guy model shoot? Is that ok? I mean, Jia and I take photos of each other in bikinis all the time, but that’s expected of women. The guys even took pictures of themselves posing and skipping along the rocks near the beach. We girls couldn’t help snickering that they looked like the shots that husbands usually take of their wives during their honeymoons. My favorite was a picture of Jason posed sideways like Superman with the wind running through his hair. While they did this, we women sat on the couch and stared at the TV. So how different are men and women really?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Baby, Baby Babylon

Brazilians refer to São Paulo as babilônia, meaning a metropolis with all of the problems of a large city: pollution, traffic, crowds, filth, etc. Now I know why. I took the bus from Curitiba on Wednesday as I had a dinner with a friend from the U.S. that night. I arrived early, at 2:30 PM, in order to have time to shower and get ready before my dinner. I went straight to my CouchSurfer’s apartment building, but encountered neither him nor the keys to the house there. I waited there until 7 PM and finally called my friend explaining to him my situation and telling him that I’d be late. He offered me the shower in the hotel. I figured that it’d take me an hour to reach the hotel, but the doorman told me that because of the traffic it would take two. Shit! I had gathered all my stuff together and was headed out the door when my CouchSurfer showed up. By the time he had shown me around the apartment and I had gotten ready, it was already 8 PM. My host had told me that it would be better to meet my friend closer to home, as my friend had a car and driver available.

I arrived at the metro station ten minutes late, stressed about having kept my friend waiting. I called the cellphone number he had given me and his driver responded, they were stuck in traffic. An hour later I called again, they were still stuck in traffic. I waited for what seemed like an eternity in the metro station, all the while cursing myself for not having left earlier and my CS host for showing up four hours late. It took my friend two hours to traverse a distance of less than 10 km! São Paulo, babilonia.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Os Vagabundos do Valagão

The house of the CouchSurfers I stayed with for two weeks in Floripa resided on a street called “Servidão do Valagão.” When I first arrived there, my host told me to “fica a vontade” (“make yourself at home”). I sure did. The next day, I wanted to heat up food but the house had run out of gas. The guys told me to walk up the street to the house of “os meninos” (“the boys,” a.k.a. the neighbors) and use the stove there. I knocked on the door but no one was there. Regardless, I let myself into the unlocked house, heated up my food, did the dishes, and left. When my hosts asked if there was anyone at home and I replied that there wasn’t, they were impressed. “You told me to ‘fica a vontade’!” I exclaimed. They couldn’t stop laughing at how quickly I had adopted the customs of their neighborhood.

I loved staying on Servidão do Valagão because the neighborhood functioned as a community. One house had a cook, one house had gas, and one house had a laundry machine. Usually, the guys prepared food at one house and everyone ate there. My hosts always left the doors wide open. Even when they weren’t at home, neighbors would come over to hang out. I remember one night when I wanted to go to bed early but two of the neighbors were over. We landed up talking until past 1 AM.

Life on Valagão was truly bohemian. Even though everyone was either employed or a student, I couldn’t help but mock them (all in good fun) for being a community of musicians, yoga instructors and practitioners, and beach bums. When one day I commented to one of my hosts, “This is a house of vagabundos” (vagabonds, nomads), he replied, “You primarily!” True, I was the principal vagabond of the houe.

When the guys were together, they would have jam sessions. The sessions would usually commence with one guitar and one singer. As more neighbors entered the house, they would grab an instrument and join in the music. One night, they played for five hours!

Having one friend on Valagão meant making a group of friends. It made cultural integration EASY. On a phone call with my parents, they grilled me, “Aren’t you going to take a Portuguese course there? Can’t you take a three hour-long break from the beach everyday to study Portuguese? Didn’t you tell us that your goal for Brazil was to learn Portuguese?” I guess I did say that. The truth is that even when I’m on the beach, I’m learning. I’ve made friends on my way to beach and spent afternoons chatting with them in Portuguese. Even when it rains and I’m stuck inside the mall, if I go with a Brazilian it is a chance to learn new vocabulary and practice my Portuguese. I had several lessons in “colloquial” (slang, curse words, and words to use while shooting the shit) at the house on Valagão. My friends commented, “You speak fast in Portuguese! You speak Portuguese perfectly, except for your accent.” This was the night that I learned how to say “cheesy pick-up line” and “Where the hell is my f***ing _______?” As my girl friend gave me word after word to describe Brazilian men, the guys couldn’t stop groaning. “Iso é uma conversa de meninas!” (“This is girl talk!”) we exclaimed and resumed our conversation. She was explaining a phrase to me in English, when my host entered and as usual shouted in English, “We don’t speak English in this f***ing house!” I yelled back in Portuguese, “Somente falamos em português em esa porra da casa!” (“We only speak Portuguese in this f***ing house!”). That had him rolling on the floor, laughing. When I headed off to bed later in the night, I bid the group goodnight, “Oi galera, boa noite.” The minute I closed the door my host burst out, “She’s sooooooo Brazilian!” Score, life goal fulfilled!!!