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Latitude Attitude: São Paulo, Brazil

Although we planned to spend almost the entire summer in Salt Lake City, we ended up nearly constantly on the move. No complaints here – I love the chance to explore new places! I knew almost nothing about São Paulo, Brazil, before tagging along there for a week while my husband had a work commitment. I’d never even ventured into the Southern Hemisphere, and knew not one word of Portuguese.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve heard it said that we learn best when we’re out of our comfort zone – for example, functioning solo in a new culture when we don’t know the language. And boy, did I learn a lot.

Traffic Rules

I explored the city primarily on foot, with the occasional Uber ride. Traffic is intense all over the city, at most times of the day and night. As with any new place, it’s important to grasp the rules for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to avoid collisions and retain sanity. Here’s what I noticed from my travels on foot around São Paulo.

  • When the signal turns red at an intersection, all of the motorcycles will move to the front of the line to get a head start..
  • If on foot, check that a car isn’t whipping around the corner first before entering an intersection. They will not stop for you.
  • When the coast is clear, pedestrians run like crazy to cross. The lights are short, and again, no one will wait or stop.  

The exception to busy traffic? During World Cup matches, when traffic died down to just a few trucks here and there, as most folks stayed home or swarmed to local bars to catch the game.

    

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Ready, set, go! Motorcycles lined up at an intersection.

City of Juxtapositions

The divide between rich and poor is pronounced in Brazil. Homeless encampments squat just a few blocks away from gleaming hotels. In the Old Town Center area, graffiti mars buildings at eye level, but a gaze upward reveals beautiful architectural details. Amidst heavy traffic, lush islands of serenity like Ibirapuera Park and Trianon Park provide a quiet escape. Modern structures stand side by side with buildings from the 1500s and 1600s. On one short stroll, I overheard at least six different languages in conversations: Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, Chinese, and Italian. The contrasts all around me felt jarring at times, but also eye-opening.

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Homeless encampment and graffiti in Old Town Center

      

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Architecture, old and new

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Peaceful Trianon Park

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Busy urban landscape

World Cup Fever

Enthusiasm for soccer competitions in the USA is muted at best, even more so because the USA team didn’t make the World Cup finals this year. The day after we arrived in São Paulo, the city transformed into a sea of yellow and green, the normally busy traffic slowed to a trickle, and bars filled with fans to watch the Brazil vs. Mexico match. We chose a local bar and joined in the fun, as it erupted in cheers for two goals – and also anytime the referees made a favorable ruling, or the goalie made a save, or the ball moved a few feet in the right direction, it seemed. The final score: 2-0, Brazil victorious! For hours after the match, fans in various states of intoxication wandered the streets celebrating.

A few days later, we joined an even larger crowd at a different bar for the Brazil vs. Belgium match. This time, the outcome was not so fortunate for Brazil, though one goal did result in the usual amount of triumphant vocalization. I was reminded of Philadelphia, my home town where the Eagles recently won their first-ever Superbowl, and Washington, DC, my current city where the Capitals won their first-ever Stanley Cup this June. No matter where you’re from, it seems, you share in the exuberance when your favorite team succeeds, and in the disappointment when they lose. Fandom is universal.

 

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Watching the Brazil vs. Belgium World Cup match

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Decked out in my own Brazil gear

Future Priorities

A week in São Paulo offered just a snapshot of the diverse, beautiful, complex, vast country of Brazil. My wishlist for future visits could fill a lifetime: driving along the Costa Verde with striking coastal views to the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) of Rio de Janeiro, beaches in Ubatuba and waterfalls in Ilhabela (Beautiful Island), hiking in the mountains of Serra del Mantiqueira,  experiencing cultural festivals in Salvador de Bahia, taking a boat ride into the Amazon jungle, and checking out some of the array of UNESCO heritage sites all over the country.

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Costa Verde, Brazil. Image source: Flickr

Safety

One last note: I did much of my traveling through the city solo on foot while my husband attended work meetings. I’d heard a lot of warnings about crime and the need to be vigilant, especially as a female solo traveler. As a result, I carried very little money with me and avoided public transportation. I never felt unsafe or threatened in Paulista, Jardins, or Brooklin, the upscale areas of the city that I visited on my own. I saved the somewhat sketchy Old Town Center for a time when I had a travel companion, but again felt safe walking around there in the daytime. Like any city, especially one in an unfamiliar place, it’s a good idea to be cautious and stay alert.

All told, I loved the chance to expand my comfort zone in Brazil. My first visit to the Southern Hemisphere will not be my last!

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Mountain Home

Although I’ve always lived in relatively flat places in the Mid-Atlantic region, something about the western mountains just feels like home. On long road trips, the first glimpse of the mountains after days of travel across flat plains sparked gasps of delight. My family spent many happy hours hiking in the Rockies, tossing pebbles into rushing streams, and spotting wildflowers, birds, and mountain animals such as elk, marmots, and bighorn sheep.  

This summer, our first glimpse of the mountains after a long westward drive came near Taos, New Mexico. I pulled the car over and paused a few minutes to absorb it, stepping out to smell the sweet scent of Ponderosa pine. “Nothing like it, is there?” noted a fellow driver who had stopped for the same purpose. Nothing indeed.

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Nothing like the mountains

Taos seems just a bit enchanted. The area attracts artists, independent thinkers, and lovers of the outdoors. Earthships, an off-the-grid settlement, occupies acres of land on the Taos Mesa. Its name hints at the otherworldly feeling of peering at pods tucked into the desert like a settlement on some faraway planet. A few miles away from Earthships, we stayed overnight on the mesa in a funky domed house, gazing at the stars and dreaming of those other worlds.

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Domed house in New Mexico

The next morning, more up-and-down miles brought us to Moab, Utah, where dramatic land formations characterize Arches National Park. Years ago, I’d read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, which details his time as a park ranger at Arches. I’d worried about the human destruction of Arches after reading the book, but for now, the park seems to be managing its visitors wisely. In our experience, park guests seemed to respect the trails, content to marvel at the gravity-defying sandstone arches without feeling the need to desecrate them.

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Double Arch at Arches National Park

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Turret Arch

At last, after nine days of driving from Maryland, we reached our destination, Salt Lake City, our home base for the summer. Cool summer nights perfect for runs and bike rides in Liberty Park, friendly local people, inviting coffeeshops and restaurants, and the ever-present Wasatch Mountains just a short distance away: all of these are enough to make a place feel just like home.

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At home in Utah

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Beyond OK

My interest in Tulsa, Oklahoma started with books. The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s 1963 classic, earned a spot in my heart after I saw class after class of middle school students fall in love with its sensitive protagonist and his tough, loyal group of friends. Stay gold, Ponyboy!

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Just last year, reading Jennifer Latham’s compelling novel Dreamland Burning awakened me to another Tulsa story, a 1921 riot that destroyed a thriving black community in the Greenwood neighborhood and killed and injured hundreds of people.

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Around the same time as the riot in Greenwood, another racially motivated mass killing was taking place in Oklahoma, this one involving a wealthy Native American tribe. David Grann’s excellent nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon details the years-long conspiracy to murder Osage people in Oklahoma during the 1920s, and subsequent FBI investigation into the deaths. My bookclub read and discussed this book a few months ago.

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Modern day Tulsa is diverse and green, with an active arts scene and vibrant neighborhoods. Several filming sites of the Outsiders 1983 movie remain, though some have changed notably in 35 years. The Greenwood neighborhood no longer exists as it once did;  however, the Greenwood Cultural Center and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park stand near the site of the 1921 riot and remind us both of a dark time in Tulsa’s history, and the resilient potential of people and communities.

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John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. Image from Flickr, taken by JasonC_Photography

The town of Pawhuska, located about an hour’s drive from Tulsa, is the center of Osage tribal culture, as it was in the 1920s when the events detailed in Killers of the Flower Moon happened. Present-day Pawhuska has a museum dedicated to Osage culture and history, where a young docent chatted with us about the tribe’s rich traditions and resurgent interest in preserving their unique language.

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Downtown Pawhuska, Oklahoma in 2018

Nearby, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve protects a huge tract of original prairie lands, and supports a herd of over 2,000 free range bison. These magnificent creatures, once prolific in the eastern and western United States, can grow to weigh up to a ton. These (mostly) gentle giants ignored our gawking as they peacefully munched prairie grass.

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Tallgrass prairie bison

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Watch out for loose bison!

On our way from Tulsa to Amarillo, Texas, we stopped to pay our respects at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which honors those affected by the April, 1995 terrorist attack at the Murrah Federal Building. A ranger explained the significance of the memorial’s design: gates which mark the time of the attack and the beginning of the rescue and recovery mission, empty chairs which symbolize the lives lost, including tiny chairs for the victims who were children, and the Survivor Tree which stood through the attack and continues to thrive. Despite the horrific events that occurred nearby over 20 years ago, the memorial is a surprising oasis of peaceful reflection.

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Gate and reflecting pool, Oklahoma City Memorial

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Field of Empty Chairs, Oklahoma City Memorial

Prior to our visit this year, my only experience in Oklahoma was a few hours driving through on a childhood trip. Rich in history, resilience, and natural beauty, the state merits more than a quick drive though. I’m glad we made time to visit a place that’s more than just OK.

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Pausing in the Ozarks

Since October, my husband has commuted nearly every week from Maryland to Salt Lake City. This summer, we took advantage of my flexible teacher’s schedule to relocate to Utah and save him the weekly trips. As it worked out, we are both traveling more than ever this summer, by chance and by choice! We are both nomadic souls who rarely refuse an opportunity to be on the move.

We decided to bring a car out to Salt Lake City, taking a leisurely course through nine states. As a child, I had patient parents who drove us through much of the United States on long family camping trips. Over thirty years later, many of those beloved trip memories are turning fuzzy, and I was eager to make new cross-country memories.

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With my brother, causing trouble on a road trip circa 1983.

A bonus and challenge of the trip was driving Mike’s Tesla electric car, which has to be charged every 200 miles or so. A network of superchargers, many located near interstates, allows for “quick” charging, about an hour in most cases. Luckily the chargers are often near hotels, restaurants, or coffee shops. While the car charged, we slipped into those places for air conditioning and free WiFi, having a bite or catching up on email and news while we waited.

After lightning quick stops in Morgantown and Louisville, we slowed down for a couple of days in the Ozarks. We didn’t know much about the area, beyond a few references from movies and TV, not always of the positive variety.  We had few expectations besides a slower pace of life, much welcome after several days of moving at 70 miles an hour.

The farmhouse Airbnb where we stayed was charming, with glacial Internet service that encouraged us to unplug and enjoy nature instead of depending on constant technology. On the same land as the farmhouse was an original 1800’s log cabin, hinting at the area’s pioneer history. The Laura Ingalls Wilder home is not far away.

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Log cabin in Missouri, on the site of our Airbnb

Our sleepy break in the Ozarks featured one adventurous mishap in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways National Park, which connects 125 miles of rivers. We discovered just how scenic they are when our car bottomed out as we crossed one such river on our way to a trailhead. We spent over an hour stuck in the river, unable to move the car backward or forward, watching helplessly as water trickled inside. Luckily, two park rangers came to our rescue and towed us out. Our car and belongings were waterlogged, but otherwise unharmed. 

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Stuck in a scenic river.

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Our ranger rescuers

We celebrated in relief that evening with local moonshine, learning from our bartender that moonshine refers to unaged whiskey, and does not need to be bootlegged or made in a bathtub.

Among some, Missouri has acquired a less than savory reputation: in books, movies, and shows such as Gone Girl, Winter’s Bone, and Ozark, it’s depicted as a backwards, unfriendly place where few people would choose to live. It even made Fodor’s 2018 “No List” of worst places to travel for some policies and practices that are deemed less than progressive. Like any stereotype, though, there’s another side to Missouri for those that care to take a deeper look: scenic landscapes, kind and neighborly people, and the smoothest of sweet tea moonshines.

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Cave Spring by Thomas Hart Benton

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Service Learning Done Right

This school year, one of my roles at school is Service Learning Coordinator. Each student in my county is responsible for volunteering 75 hours in the community before high school graduation. The goal of service learning is for students to learn new skills, become more compassionate, and make a difference in the community.

I can attest that students at my school perform a lot of service. Each day, my mailbox overflows with forms verifying that students have tutored, coached, assisted, cleaned, packed, and advocated for any number of organizations. While it’s heartening to see the extent of students’ commitment, I sometimes wonder how much they learn during each of these activities. When they complete service learning, are they merely checking a box, or are they growing as citizens?

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to observe a fantastic service learning experience in action. 

The organization Project Management for Change requested student volunteers to help set up for a “Project Management Day of Service” event that happens each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the University of Maryland. The event pairs nearly 200 volunteer project managers from the DC area with over 40 local nonprofit agencies. The project managers use their skills and knowledge to help the nonprofit groups plan projects for maximum impact. This year the event helped all of those nonprofits pursue their missions more effectively, from providing hurricane relief to combating human trafficking.

What really stood out to me on Saturday is how the Project Management for Change leaders structured the Service Learning process for the student volunteers. They emphasized the learning, not just the service!  Here are a few of the ways they made the experience meaningful for students:

  •  Establishing a purpose. The leaders explained the mission of the organization, and how the students’ work would directly support that mission. The students understood that their work would help create positive change in the world.
  • Creating teachable moments. The leaders gave the students a mini-lesson on project management, using the task at hand (packing gift bags) to demonstrate how project management can make work more efficient.
  • Providing autonomy. The leaders involved students in decision-making throughout the experience, allowing them to make informed choices and discuss their reasoning.
  • Enabling reflection. At the end of the task, the leaders conducted a summarizer activity with students. Students reflected in small groups, evaluating the task and suggesting upgrades for the future. The students were encouraged to use critical thinking and to support their conclusions with evidence.
  • Honoring perspectives. The leaders actively encouraged students throughout every step of the experience, and treated them as equal partners rather than unpaid labor. They listened to the students and valued their opinions.

 As a result, students left the experience enriched and motivated. Several commented how worthwhile they found the day’s activity. If you know any teenagers, you are aware that they are not always effusive in their praise! The impact on the students was truly stunning to witness, and inspiring to this service learning coordinator. Bravo, Project Management for Change!

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
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From Dachau to Charlottesville

During a trip to Europe this summer, my family spent an afternoon at the Dachau Concentation Camp Memorial in Germany. The oldest of the Nazi concentration camps, Dachau is now a museum where visitors can learn about the causes and effects of Nazi rule. A somber day in an otherwise carefree jaunt through three countries, the experience left a deep impression on my family and me. Throughout the museum, photos, writings, and voices of survivors remind us that the crimes of the Nazi era are not so very distant.

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Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

The museum ushers visitors chronologically through the founding of the camp, and its functioning during the years prior to and during World War II. Visitors walk through the gate that prisoners entered with the empty promise of Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Liberates). Photographs, artifacts, newsreels, and thoughtfully presented exhibits help visitors understand prisoners’ experiences in the camp.

All prisoners were marked by badges that identified the reason for their imprisonment: political activism, religion, ethnic background, and sexual orientation were just a few of the designations. Prisoners were subjected to inhumane conditions: grueling labor, paltry rations, humiliating treatment, rampant, untreated disease, and torture of every sort. The most difficult for me to read about were the medical experiments in which some prisoners were forced to participate, many to the point of death.

A reconstructed barracks unit conveys a sense of the horrific living conditions for prisoners. Most of the 34 original barracks no longer exist, but their foundations are a reminder of the places that once housed thousands of prisoners.

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Reconstructed barracks at Dachau Concentration Camps. Multiple prisoners were crammed onto each of these bunks.

Past the foundations, visitors can view the two large crematorium buildings where the bodies of prisoners were burned. Nearly 32,000 people died at Dachau, from disease, malnutrition, and murder. Memorials throughout the camp, now a surprisingly peaceful place, give visitors time and space to process and reflect upon what they’ve seen. We left with a deeper understanding of history and a sense of responsibility to prevent future atrocities.

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Camp crematorium, where prisoners’ bodies were burned.

The roots of the atrocities in Dachau were deep seated: centuries of religious intolerance, years of state-sponsored discrimination. The museum documents thoroughly the terrifying rise of Nazi power, and the systematic dehumanization of groups of people.

Dachau reminds us of the importance of vigilance against the subtle creep of discrimination today. It starts with our thoughts, our words, our actions. It is evidenced in ugly acts like the ones last weekend in Charlottesville, and in quieter but insidious racism that we see everywhere. We see it when our neighbors or our leaders or our students make blanket statements about immigrants, or African-Americans, or Muslims. To me, these statements can be just as hurtful as a man who slams his car into a crowd of protesters, in part because they are harder to spot and harder to condemn.

In public schools and through youth groups, Nazis methodically, deliberately taught young people to hate. They started with the young because those are most vulnerable and the easiest to persuade. Those of us who work in schools have a responsibility to teach our young people attitudes of tolerance and acceptance. In Long Walk to Freedom, South African leader Nelson Mandela said:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

He expresses well my core values as a teacher — and as a human. Love must win. People must be taught to love. I must do my part. As a new school year begins, I am planning with that end in mind. Our students need to talk about what happened in Charlottesville, and the larger context of hatred and intolerance in America and throughout the world. This collection of resources is a terrific place to start. I hope and I believe that I am ready for the challenge.  

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Conserving Community

Centropa is an organization based in Europe, and dedicated to the preservation of Jewish history. IThe organization started by conducting interviews of elderly Jewish people in Eastern Europe. Each interview began with a simple premise: tell the stories behind your family photos. In the years since, it has expanded to much more. A peek at the treasure trove of resources on the Centropa website reveals not only interviews but short films, student projects, lesson plans, and a vast archive of rare photographs. Behind each resource is a unified mission: to foster connections among people of different backgrounds and beliefs. The more we can understand about each other and how we are linked, the less likely we are to commit atrocities against fellow humans.

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A mosaic of Maryland’s past

This February I attended a workshop for teachers in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored by Centropa and hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. There, I met educators from as far away as Texas and Illinois.  Together, we toured nearby Baltimore neighborhoods, learning about the diverse groups of people who had lived in the area over the last three centuries. Residents of different races, faiths, and national backgrounds opened businesses, raised families, attended schools, and worshiped locally. We visited the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Maryland and the third oldest in the United States, which has operated since 1845.

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The Lloyd Street Synagogue

While immersing us in the rich history of the Baltimore area, the workshop also inspired us to bring history and community spirit to life in our classrooms. The Milton Wolf Prize, sponsored by Centropa, honors work in community-oriented diplomacy. Students can enter projects that examine a local problem and how it’s being addressed. Several students presented their winning projects during the workshop. I loved seeing their passion and their innovative approaches to addressing environmental and social issues.

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Touring Baltimore with Centropa participants

The Milton Wolf Prize also includes a teacher component, for lessons that incorporate the work of Milton Wolf and La Benevolencija, the topic of the short Centropa film “Survival in Sarajevo.” The teacher contest is accepting entries until June 8. If you work in a school, I invite you to explore and enter the contest!

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Learning about Maryland’s Jewish history