Diego in Brazil: Getting to know Rio’s Zona Sul

October 29, 2013

If you have been following my blog or have read one or two posts, then hopefully you have noticed that I have been trying really hard to avoid becoming yet another tourist in this dynamic city. Typical questions from friends and family back home can be anything from “Do you go every day to the beach?” and “Have you visited many favelas?” to “Is every Brazilian really sexy?” or “Is it true that no one really works and people just relax all day?” What I experience every day at PUC-Rio (take a look at some of the pictures in this entry) is drastically different from these questions.


PUC-Rio constantly has new cultural activities on campus. This picture shows two students and many design and architecture books.

I must admit that if I had come to Brazil a year and a half ago I would most likely fallen into the trap of experiencing Rio de Janeiro from this perspective. And that is of course no surprise. The touristic and exotic discourse surrounding Rio de Janeiro has been shaped for decades. The mix of beaches, forests, mountains, and industrial areas make of this city a mystical experiment in the eyes of many.

Now that I look back, I can more easily understand why as a Guatemalan I grew up constantly having these images in mind. To some extent I think Rio the Janeiro becomes the object that could fulfill, in an ideological and exotic way, what many people think we lack back in Guatemala. I do not support this idea, but I write it here for you to have an idea why I have been so focused on not buying into it. Keeping this in mind, I have continued to wonder how to then avoid becoming yet another tourist.

Well, if you have read some of my posts you know I have tried to understand what each part of the city means for those who live here. Luckily studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro has given me the time to understand how different socio-economic and cultural groups experience this city differently. My host family certainly has a particular perspective on favelas, the government, Rio’s public services, the city’s wealthiest areas, and so on. Such perspective does contrast with the way many of those who I have met in my host university think. In the beginning I assumed that studying in a private university would restrict me to meet only a certain wealthy sector of Rio’s student population. As you may have guessed already, I was completely wrong.

I wrote this short entry because in the next two or three posts I will share with you some of my trips to Rio’s southern zone. My host family lives in one of these neighborhoods and after gathering different perspectives, stories, complaints, and expectations from many people in the past two months I feel somehow ready to let myself explore much more. Reaching a point in which I can fully appreciate how Rio is experienced differently by the countless groups and identities living here is of course impossible. Yet I have tried my best to build an understanding of the city that will allow me to leave my study abroad program knowing that I truly challenged and changed my past ideas of Rio de Janeiro.

We all have different goals for our study abroad programs. I will feel incredibly satisfied if I can get close to achieving one of mine. Come back for the next posts to get to know some of Rio’s neighborhoods!


A very interesting debate on the democratization of culture. I thought I would stop by to take the picture and eventually stayed until the debate finished.

Diego in Brazil: Exams at PUC-Rio

October 18, 2013

[Taking pictures of my classes during exams was not a real option for this post, so I am sharing with you some pictures of PUC’s campus during a beautiful rainy day in October.]

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This is where you can find the International Cooperation Office – a fantastic and very helpful team!

Five classes and five mid-term exams. One of my major concerns about studying abroad at PUC-Rio without having taken some Portuguese classes was writing exams. Your time is limited, looking up words in a dictionary may make you lose some valuable minutes, and what you write simply may not make much sense.

Apart from my Portuguese language class, four of the courses I am taking at PUC strongly rely on reading, writing, and analyzing texts. I knew in every class I was going to be asked to write an essay as a response to a question. I was nervous, definitely. But how did it go in the end? Well, I am not sure yet. But let me tell you what my experience was with these exams.

I hope you read one of my previous posts in which I wrote about PUC’s grading system. To summarize that post I can say that PUC grades students mostly based on two exams per semester, allowing those who study here to have some space to work and have internships outside their time at the university. This made me think during the first two months of my semester that my exams would be very heavy in terms of content and would require me to carefully do the assigned readings for each of my classes.

And yes, I was right. Two of my professors told me that what we had done in class was not extremely important for the exam. “Everything will be based on the readings,” my professors told me. I spoke to my four professors before the exams to get an idea on how I should go about studying, and every single one of them told me to simply do the readings and not worry about their in-class lectures.

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One of my favorite places to read on campus

Coming from UR, this was quite a new approach for me. I could not understand how my professors’ great in-class lectures were not important for my exams. I have four classes on Brazilian Foreign Policy, Latin American Politics, Contemporary Geography, and Social Inequality. If you are into social sciences, imagine how fantastic it has been to see professors teach how these topics relate to Brazil (of course, being in Rio de Janeiro and doing all of this in Portuguese makes it ten times better.) But hey, “that does not really matter as long as you do the readings” seemed to be the general rule.

My experience at UR has been quite different. Of course, you always need to do the readings and get through those assigned books. Yet you can expect your exams to also include some questions about discussions, projects, papers, assignments, and many other aspects of your courses. Both at PUC and UR I was asked to analyze a particular subject based on what we had done in my course. The difference is, and this is just my impression based on my first round of tests, that at PUC you can do well in those exams by attending classes, preparing each reading, and learning the dry, classing theory for each course.

Now, before I close the post, let me be really clear that I am not suggesting you should not go to classes when you are abroad. I can guarantee you that your exams will not go well if you pretend you can read 15 papers before your test and sit there analyzing a new question in two hours. Understanding how my professors tackle each question in class using our readings was essential to write my exams. How did my tests go? Well, I still have not got results back, but let’s all hope everything worked out.

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PUC’s main road on campus. It was a beautiful rainy day in October

Diego in Brazil: Interacting with Rio de Janeiro’s socio-economic and racial inequality

September 27, 2013

I have been writing in this blog for some weeks now, and so far I have tried to stay away from portraying Rio de Janeiro under the same lens you may find in other type of stories about Brazil. I came to Rio almost seven weeks ago with the goal of avoiding becoming yet another tourist in this incredibly dynamic city. To accomplish that, I decided I would stay away from visiting some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods at first. From what I heard before coming here and what I have seen so far, this what many outsiders do when visiting Rio de Janeiro.

In recent years, the ‘Favela Tours’ have become major touristic attractions for foreigners. A quick search online for these tours will show you what these companies advertise: “interact with local people, see the happiness that comes out of these slums, and learn about the city’s socio-economic problems.” Most of the exchange students I have met at PUC-Rio have already ‘visited’ some of these favelas, yet when I ask them what the difference between their visit and these popular favela tours is there seems to always be an uncomfortable pause in the conversation.

Certainly many people would disagree with my approach to settling in Rio de Janeiro. Living in Rio’s Zona Sul (the city’s richest area) with a host-family, attending a private university as an exchange student, and interacting mainly with Rio’s middle-class will not show you much about other regions of the city. But this is precisely my point: what exactly is to be “shown” about these marginalized neighborhoods? I share many foreigners’ desire to learn about and interact with Rio de Janeiro’s diverse population. But can we find a more just way of learning about the country’s social diversity when we have the time and resources to do so? Would it be possible to suppress our ‘inner explorers’ until we find a social position or activity that will contribute to the lives of those from whom we seek to learn? In other words, could we approach a new social reality as foreigners and complete strangers while respecting the humanity of those who suffer from inequality and discrimination in the city? I truly want to believe we can.

One of my first steps in finding a more conscious way to learn about Rio de Janeiro was paying attention to how Rio’s residents talk about the city’s socio-economic inequality. My main source of information and perspectives is my host University. I must say that my perspective on how PUC-Rio talks about poverty, culture, and racial discrimination in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil is highly determined by a very particular set of students. As in any other university, you will find some differences between those who discuss social exclusion for two hours in a sociology course and those who take more technical courses. Among the many perspectives and ideas I have heard in my classes so far, the most common thought that I keep encountering is that “poverty in Brazil has color.”

Poverty and race relations in Brazil have drastically changed in the recent decade, and according to one of my professors, class conversation on these topics is shifting and constantly adapting. The World Bank states that Brazil saw its poverty rates dropped from 21% in 2003 to just 11% in 2009, and despite recent protests in Brazil’s biggest cities, statistics show that poverty continues to drop in the country.  I have heard many students arguing that race relations in Brazil are also changing, yet by 2012, 70% of those living in poverty were Afro-Brazilian. Programs and new systems such as university quotas based on race have been established in the country, but as recently as last year statistics showed that only 2.2% of Afro-Brazilians can access higher education. Rio de Janeiro mirrors some of these relationships present in the rest of Brazil.

Let me go back to my point of respecting marginalized populations as we seek to learn about a new place. I want to ask, how fair is it to enter these communities as ‘travelers’ seeking to gain experience and then return to our safe and comfortable accommodation in the nicest areas of the city? Why would we take the freedom to pay our way into these favelas to witness the marginalization of countless families and communities for the sake of experience? As I wrote in one of my first entries, my goal for the semester was to find a position that allowed me to interact with Rio’s diverse population while contributing to these communities. I have been looking for some math and reading teaching programs that go directly to groups of kids and young students inside or near Rio’s poor neighborhoods. If everything works out in the next few weeks, I will hopefully join one of these programs for the rest of the semester. Is it a perfect solution to my questions? Of course not. Yet I want to believe that we can make an effort to grow as exchange students while respecting and contributing to the lives of those who welcome us in their cities and homes.

PUC-Rio has been an interesting place to learn about racial and social dynamics in Brazil. Just last week the University hosted a fair with many people who came to sell their products. The activity had a strong focus on racial and ethnic diversity, and I was happy to join other exchange students who were also interested in learning more about this complicated topic in Brazil.

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One of the booths at the Brazilian fair

Maybe six months will not be enough to fully grasp how PUC-Rio talks about inequality in Rio de Janeiro, but so far I have at least had the opportunity to learn some interesting perspectives from the University.

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The fair gave me new perspective on Brazilian diversity

Diego in Brazil: Grades at PUC-Rio

September 24, 2013

Stay with me during this post. I know I am writing about grades and not a weekend trip to a beach or a new location, but you may be surprised at how a grading system may reveal many cultural and social aspects of a place.

As the semester continues to move forward my professors at PUC-Rio have begun talking about our first tests. Grades at PUC certainly work quite differently than at Richmond. Instead of having a cumulative grade that you earn through class projects, tests, presentations, class participation, and so on, at PUC I only have two tests during the semester that will form my final grade. My first test accounts for approximately 40% of my grade, and in a matter of a week or two I will be having tests for my five courses. According to some of my Brazilian classmates, these tests at PUC tend to be a way for your professors to only determine whether you have completed the assigned readings. Gladly I have been trying to stay on top of my readings in the past month.

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The University’s atmosphere definitely calms you down from any concern about a new grading system

Interacting with my classmates has definitely been a major entry point to many aspects of life in Rio de Janeiro. Having a set topic for conversation does help when meeting local students. Trying to explain that I am a Guatemalan student at the US currently studying abroad in Brazil can get quite complicated at times. When that happens, it is always useful to fall back to a topic related to the class we share to build a new conversation from there. For instance, I have really enjoyed learning about Brazil’s tough political environment through some conversations with one of my classmates from my Political Economy of Latin America course. However, these conversations can also reveal something deeper about the life of students at Rio.

I had wondered several times why I saw countless posters advertising internships for students at PUC. Fortunately UR has several programs to fund students in their internships, but the amount of internships opportunities advertised at PUC is certainly beyond what I have seen at Richmond. According to one of my classmates from my Geography class, obtaining a first job in Rio may depend much more on previous work and internship experience than on a particular grade. His opinion is that Brazil’s professional environment requires you to leave college with at least two years of work experience with you. For that reason, he believes students and professors understand that work experience is a pillar in students’ preparation during their first university degree. When you bring all of this into account, you begin to understand part of the academic culture at PUC.

If a higher education institution understands the importance of work experience for the professional world it operates in, why would it not adapt its academic system to prepare its students in the best possible way? From conversations I have had with other UR students about grades at their study abroad locations, it seems to me PUC-Rio’s system is more common that this post would suggest. Yet it has been incredibly interesting to think about and ask what lies behind PUC’s grading system.

Diego in Brazil: Bureaucracy and social networks

September 13, 2013

Maybe it’s time for an “It’s been a month!” post, so here it goes!

A month and two days ago I was going by bus to the international airport in Lima. I had just finished a 10-week research/internship project in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon and I hadn’t really had the time to prepare for Rio de Janeiro. Now that I look back and think about that last week in Peru, I realize that I hadn’t built solid expectations for what could happen in the following months.

I guess typically these posts reflect on how time flew by, but it seems as if the opposite has happened for me. As I look at the calendar all I can think of is “has it only been a month?!” Don’t get me wrong, I have found an incredibly interesting combination of classes at PUC (my host-university,) a bi-weekly yoga class, two daily bike rides to and from my University, a lovely home with my host-family, the environment to learn Portuguese, and great people. When I say that it surprises me that I have been in Rio only for a month is precisely because of how well established I feel already. To show how far I have got in settling in Rio de Janeiro, I want to tell you about two very common topics in conversations among Brazilians: family and bureaucracy.

One of my favorite aspects of studying in Rio de Janeiro has been encountering a culture that highly values social networks. Similarly to other Latin American countries, you will find in Brazil that family and friends form a person’s safety network and may go as far as forming part of someone’s identity. In my Poverty and Social Inequality class at PUC, we have been discussing how social integration in Brazil happens mainly through these social networks. Western social thought has typically valued social integration through a person’s career and professional development over social networks. However, research conducted across socio-economic classes constantly shows that Brazilians will, on average, protect their social networks over seeking new employment opportunities.

I have felt incredibly comfortable living in this environment (I’ll blame my Guatemalan background,) and experiencing these social interactions again is making me want to go back home for some years to recover some of those networks!

Navigating a new place as an immigrant without strong social networks can be tough at times. This past Thursday I went to Brazil’s Federal Police to register as a foreign student (a mandatory procedure for all non-Brazilians who stay in the country for more than thirty days.) I stood in line for four hours, and when I finally managed to present my documents I was told my mother’s name did not match the police’s system. I didn’t get more than a “you cannot register until you fix this.” I came back home incredibly frustrated. The only exciting aspect was that I now needed to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to correct my immigration documents. As you may remember from my initial posts, my favorite course at PUC is precisely Brazilian Foreign Policy, so the trip was not bad at all. “You can’t fight Brazilian bureaucracy,” replied my host-mother when I told her my story, “that’s why you always need to know someone.”

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It was quite a trip to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this past Friday

Diego in Brazil: Biking in Rio de Janeiro

September 3, 2013

I never expected biking to become my favorite activity in Rio de Janeiro. It wasn’t until I moved to Rio that I realized I hadn’t had the chance to live in a city where biking is encouraged and the right infrastructure exists. About two or three weeks ago my host-mother suggested that I could bike to and from PUC, my host university, every morning and afternoon. I thought it was a fantastic idea (from a social, environmental, and financial perspective, biking is the way to go!) but first I needed to make sure I had a bicycle, a safe path to take, and, of course, the time to do it.

I initially thought about buying a used bicycle. I had seen countless bike racks (bicycle stands) in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul (where I am living,) so I thought buying a used bike was a reasonable plan. I told my host-mother about my plan but she quickly suggested it would be better to subscribe to BikeRio first. Needless to say, I had no idea what she was talking about, so I asked her to explain. BikeRio is a sustainability project led by the city’s Prefeitura (similar to a City Council,) the Itaú Bank, and the bicycle system SAMBA. The project relies on approximately 60 stations with twenty bikes each located throughout Rio’s Zona Sul and some other neighborhoods. BikoRio’s main objective is to provide a low-cost transportation alternative for people who move around these urban neighborhoods. “That’s exactly what I need,” I told my host-mother, and I had no idea that I was about to expand my image of Rio de Janeiro by simply joining a biking program.

Using BikeRio is incredibly simple. You pay a $4.00 monthly fee and gain the right to pick a bike from any station and use it for an hour. After you return to the bike to any station, you can wait fifteen minutes and pick another bike. The project also has an app for iPhone, iPad, etc., where you can check if the closest station to you has any available bikes. And in case you are wondering, every bicycle I have used so far has been in perfect condition.

“Great, I now have a bike,” I thought, but I also needed to find how to safely get to PUC and then home every day. The first days that I biked to my University I took the route that my bus usually takes. At that point, that route was the only one I knew and taking it was quite necessary to avoid getting lost. With time I have found countless ways to get to PUC in the mornings and come to my apartment in the afternoon. However, and I say this without a doubt, the safest and most enjoyable route to take is around the Lagoa (Rio’s lagoon.) The city’s Zona Sul now has several biking paths and lanes that can take you across this part of the city crossing only some major roads. This past Friday and today in the afternoon I went biking without a particular destination, and I reached some very interesting and new places in the neighborhoods surrounding the one where I live.


Biking is becoming increasingly popular in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul

So I have a bike (well, several) and a safe way to get to and from PUC every day, but do I really have the time? Going by bus to my University saves me a total of 40 minutes per day in comparison to taking a bike. Now, if I were to base my transportation choice purely on how much time it takes out of my day, I would have to go for the bus. However, the benefits I get from biking are definitely greater than what I could get out of those 40 “extra” minutes each day. Those benefits impact my health (both physical and mental, since I have found that biking can clear my mind for a while,) my perception of Rio de Janeiro (you certainly become part of the “biking community,”) my finances (I calculated that I save approximately $68 per month if I take a bike instead of the bus,) and many social and environmental aspects of the city. From a holistic point of view, and as I said in the beginning, biking is the way to go!

I am looking forward to biking beyond Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul. I recently met some Brazilian students at PUC who go biking for fun every weekend, so I am truly excited about joining them this coming week. Buying a used bike is still an attractive plan…

Diego in Brazil: A new routine

August 26, 2013

Moving to a new place certainly has its advantages. Although feared by many (I suppose), one of my favorite aspects of settling in a new city/town is finding a new routine. Based on how everything developed this past week, I will dare to say that some sort of order is entering my life here in Rio de Janeiro. Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much depend on avoiding settling for a repetitive routine, knowing that I should not unpack my suitcase because in a matter of weeks I will be changing places, and even accepting that people I meet will stay around only for some time before I go back home or they continue their journeys. Yet these are precisely the thoughts and needs that make finding a routine so great sometimes.

From Monday to Thursday I spend about 8 hours each day at my host university, the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC). I have two or three two-hour classes each day, and I normally stay to have lunch and dinner at the University’s cafeteria. On Monday and Wednesday I start with States, Politics, and Development in Latin America, continue with “Poverty and Social Inequality, and end the day with Geography of the Contemporary World. In between my classes I manage to escape to the University’s gym for a one-hour yoga class. On Tuesday and Thursday I go to only two classes: Brazilian Foreign Policy and Portuguese.

Exchange students at PUC have the option to choose certain courses that are taught in English. I originally considered taking some of these classes, but in the end decided to go for only courses in Portuguese. Being a native Spanish-speaker certainly gives me some advantage to learn Portuguese, but it is not by any means a guarantee that I will magically be able to communicate effectively. While I had never taken a Portuguese class before coming to PUC, I spent about a month and a half working in the northwestern region of Brazil this past summer. Sadly I did not find myself in the urgent need to speak Portuguese since many of those that I worked with spoke Spanish. However, my time in the Brazilian Amazon did help me to get used to Portuguese sounds, main endings, pronunciation, and so on. This, plus a lot of motivation and desire to learn Portuguese as soon as possible, pushed me to avoid English courses and go straight for those in Portuguese. I am afraid I will have to wait for my first tests to see how that turns out.


PUC has a very warm atmosphere

It is an exciting time to be studying in Brazil. Next to Brazil’s socioeconomic changes in the last decade and the country’s growing economic and political influence around the world, social sciences at Brazilian universities have developed and expanded significantly. My impression so far is that my professors at PUC are much more concerned with theoretical and structural approaches to a social question than my professors at Richmond. I would say two different reasons explain what I have seen. On the one hand, the recent expansion of social studies in Brazil has led to very active debates on theories, appropriate methodologies, and other type of “larger” questions. On the other hand, Latin American social thinkers have traditionally chosen structural over particular explanations for social and political topics. To give you an example, while last semester at UR my international relations class started with readings on contemporary political structures, my Brazilian Foreign Policy course at PUC has been reading about Brazil’s foreign policy since the late 19th Century, several theoretical approaches to foreign policy, and discussions on how the study of foreign policy has developed in Brazil during the past twenty years.

Both inside and outside the classroom, the atmosphere at PUC is incredibly dynamic and welcoming for new students. As I walk towards the cafeteria, I come across hundreds of students eating, drinking coffee, and chatting in the University’s two main buildings. A friend at PUC recently invited me to a women’s rights group that meets every Tuesday to watch films, discuss, and organize for several events. Needless to say, I am incredibly excited to join them this coming Tuesday. While student-run groups may not be as common at PUC as in some US colleges, joining activities such as yoga has definitely given me a space to meet Brazilian students at PUC in a more relaxed environment.

Whenever possible I bike home at the end of each busy day. On Thursday I chose to bike around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lagoon in Rio’s Southern Zone, and had the great pleasure to talk for some minutes with some local fishermen who have established a small community next to the Lagoa. Biking home from PUC around the Lagoa takes only about 25 minutes, and now that I met these local fishermen I will be definitely trying to avoid taking the bus more often.


A fishermen community next to the Lagoa, a lagoon in Rio de Janeiro’s Southern Zone

As I said, there are some great things about finding a new routine!

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