Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Black and White

I saw a documentary the other day on SABC Africa, the South African broadcasting channel that is distributed throughout the continent on cable tv, about a British man that traveled to Kenya to get a taste of the country. When he arrived in Nairobi, he asked his taxi driver to take him to see some of the local culture. The driver dropped him off at a five star hotel where every night there was a buffet dinner with gazelle and antelope meat roasted on skewers, and a dance and drums show called Black Jambo. The dancers and musicians were quite talented - fabulous really - and the meat was exotic. Exactly as planned for the 100% white, affluent crowd. The tab came out to over $150 dollars. The british host of the program was somewhat disgusted and felt like just another white tool in the machine wanting a taste of Authentic Africa.

The next day he asked the cab driver to take him to see something more realistic. The driver took him to his own neighborhood, the shantytown where he had grown up and where, coincidentally, all the members of the Black Jambo dance and drum troupe lived as well. The dancers had established an informal charitable foundation and were teaching local kids how to juggle, do handsprings, play the drums, and so forth. The British host spent a day with everyone in the shantytown, feeling finally a taste of what he perceived to be Authentic Africa, and at the end of it all coming down with a big case of GUILT for being white, priviledged, etc.

The following scene in the documentary was an interview with the host of the program and a man originally from the US but who had been in Kenya since he was 5 years old. The American man had founded a giraffe sanctuary and had dedicated his life to caring for and raising awareness about the gentle animals. The host of the program asked him some questions about being white in Africa, about how he felt about his position in life seeing that he was surrounded by slums and children begging on the streets.

The giraffe man responded with an answer that really intrigued me -

The richest people in Africa, by far, are black Africans. They have the real power on the continent and enjoy wealth and luxury far beyond what the western world imagines.

Indians come after the black Africans in terms of affluence, benefiting from years as the dominant players in commerce and trade, entrepreneurial to the bone and sound financial investors in many areas.

Next come the Europeans and whites in general. Perhaps because they are a minority, their wealth is more noticeable...

Then came the statement I wish more people would understand -

All the whites in Africa are well off comparitively speaking. There are no poor Europeans on the continent. And although the blacks represent the few individuals that control the wealth and power in African society, they also represent the most destitute, hopeless majority that inhabit the urban streets and rural expanses of the continent.

Race relations in Africa has been on my mind a lot these days...Lots of paradigms being broken, admitting to myself that I bought into several stereotypes along with the rest of the world...

We have a client that is a very wealthy, white South African and one of the most staunch supporters of black economic and social empowerment that I have encontered here...

Another client is a European that, despite his cultured background and world-class education, is one of the most closed-minded bigots I´ve ever encountered...

Yet another example is an associate of ours in Chimoio that is Mozambican, born of a white Portuguese father and a black African mother. He is the worst discriminator of the lot, calling his darker compatriots uncivilized fools, convinced that because of his mixed blood he is somehow better...

This kind of attitude turns my stomach but, at the same time, I can´t help but feel sorry for our mestizo Mozambican friend or the racist Italian...

Human beings are truly pitiful, in every sense of the word.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Back in the Land of Diet Coke and Traffic

Not to mention being back in a place where, contrary to Chimoio, four goats on a sidewalk is stranger than a Mercedes in the street. From the internet cafe with a high speed connection, I can see four restaurants out the window - Japanese, Portuguese, Macao-ian (what is the adjective for something from Macao?), and Pakistani. This morning Rico and I had a croissant, cappucino, and fresh pineapple juice for breakfast at a lovely little open-air cafe. There are tons of people in the streets - black, white, brown, and every mix inbetween - all speaking different languages with different accents.

I´ll say it again - I LOVE MAPUTO!!

Ricardo and I arrived last night and will be in the big city for another 10 days. Since I finally formalized a work contract with Agrolink, I am now an official member of the team with a permanent position (not just a consultant), so I will be helping put together all of the projects the company is working on. Rico and I are here mainly to work on a timber\reforestation project and with a client that wants to expand his banana plantation and export out of Mozambique. We had a meeting this morning with the banan client and I was reminded yet again of how much happier I am when I have responsibilities, a schedule, and am forced to be accountable for the timely and quality delivery of my work.

The plan for this afternoon is to do some editing on a business plan Rico has put together, then hopefully pay a 4 dollar fee to use the lovely pool at the Hotel Cardoso just next to the flat we are staying in. The weather is hot and sunny, and I am in desperate need of some color on my body. In my current state, after 6 months of being cooped up our house in Chimoio, I am scarily white!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Feels Like Seven Again

Today I almost peed on the couch in the living room. I'm not kidding. I woke up with my bladder about to burst and ran to the bathroom. But, of course, one of my housemates was using the toilet. I banged on the door and pleaded with him to finish quickly. Unfortuately, though, he had just sat down to take care of some intestinal difficulties. (We got a huge box last week of beautiful yellow mangoes from a friend's plantation...suffice to say that some of us exaggerated how many mangoes we ate and later paid the price.) So unable to get into the bathroom, I sat on the couch next to Ricardo, crossed my legs, and tried to distract myself. But the situation was urgent. I could feel my bladder giving out and sat desperately deciding what to do. I couldn't run outside to pee because the yard was full of workmen and dogs. I considered getting a pot from the kitchen, but was too embarrassed to act on that thought. I sat and wiggled and felt like I was seven years old again, laughing too hard during recess and realizing that I was about to pee in front of my friends on the playground.

Blessedly, my housemate finished up his business quickly and I raced into the bathroom, oblivious to the smell left behind, making it to the toilet just in time to pee and pee and pee.

Ninguém merece isso. I hate sharing a bathroom with five other people. Thank God Ricardo and I are going to Maputo later on this afternoon...10 full days with a clean, always-available loo.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Last Day of Chimoio (for a while, at least)

So I ended up not contacting any of my potential new friends... It was blisteringly hot yesterday, and I settled in front of the fan around noon and didn't really move much after that until bedtime. My body hurts from being so sedentary, but it's a horrible cycle - the more bored you are and the less options for leisure that you have, the lazier you get. I have, without a doubt, never been this lazy in my entire life. It's a bit embarrassing, really, if I sit and honestly thing about how many opportunities and activites I pass up to remain sitting in front of the fan watching our new cable TV.

In addition to my laziness, I decided that it would be best to contact everyone once I actually have a more consistent schedule. Ricardo and I are going to be on the road pretty much the entire time for the next month. Tomorrow we are going to Maputo for 10 days to work with a banana client. Then we will fly to Tete, the hot province I was talking about in an earlier post, and from there rent a car and go to Blantyre, Malawi. One of our associates is working on a microcredit and HIV/AIDS project there and we are going to work with him as consultants for about a week. Then we come back to Chimoio for a few days and in the middle of December will go to Maputo once again to catch a flight to Johannesburg and then São Paulo. So basically I have only about a week left of time to hang out in Chimoio, so I decided to put off being social until after the new year.

I can't wait to travel tomorrow. I've decided that I can successfully take Chimoio in one-month doses before the boredom, heat, and community living make me DEPRESSED!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

White Hot!

Ali and Rico, trying to keep cool in the middle of Mozambique's summer.

The White Party

Last night we went to a party at the house of one of Agrolink’s shareholders. Supposedly, the party was to celebrate this person’s departure from his current job with a tobacco company where he has worked for several years. Really, though, it was just an excuse to gather what could be considered the socialites of Chimoio for a little see-and-be-seen. All of the guests had to wear white (I wondered all night whether the theme was imitating New Year’s in Brazil or P. Diddy’s annual party in the Hamptons) and, coincidentally, most of the guests were also…white. To be fair, there were several black Mozambicans at the party as well, but I was shocked to see how many young, white people came out of the woodwork for a get-together where they didn’t even really know the host. I think everyone here is simply hungry for new friends, stimulating conversation, something – anything – to take away the monotony of life in Chimoio.

I have been here for six months and I can’t say that I have made any new friends outside my household. Living with five friends is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was great to land in a town in rural Africa and already have a support structure in place. I have built-in entertainment with a group of people that I know and trust. Given the absolute lack of things to do in Chimoio, we have little motivation to leave home. Why bother, when you already have a group of drinking buddies, DVDs to watch, music to dance to, and shit to talk? The problem is, my built-in social group has severely limited my forays into the outside world here. Other than a handful of Mozambican work associates, I literally don’t know anybody other than my housemates. I don’t call anybody on the phone. I have nobody to invite for a coffee and a chat.

Last night I realized just how nice it is to talk with people outside my housemates that have interesting stories to tell and could potentially become friends. I ended up meeting a group of people around my age that are here in Chimoio from different parts of the world, each brought here by a different, sequally compelling motive. A girl from Seattle who has great spiky, short blonde hair, suggested that we all invent three different scenarios that had brought us to Chimoio for the others in the group to decide which version was true. It was a fun game, and I turned out to be surprisingly good at it. In fact, I was the only person in the group that successfully guessed everyone’s true occupation on the first try. I correctly guessed that in my company there was a guy from Mississippi studying community water-use rights in a village near here, a girl from San Francisco who is here as a Peace Corps volunteer and works in an HIV/AIDS program with a local NGO, and a guy from South Africa that works with a commercial de-mining company. I stumped everyone with my three scenarios except the water rights researcher. They all already knew each other, and we were mutually shocked that in my time here I had never met them. It made me realize just how isolated I have been thanks to my work and my living situation.

We hung out for a while, getting to know each other a bit better, then Ricardo and I decided to head home. Poor Rico is still not fully recovered from his Hepatits A, and can’t drink any alcohol. So at parties, he drinks as much Sprite as he can stomach, then hangs out with the rest of our tipsy group until his patience runs thin. We said our goodbyes, then drove off the farm and back to the big city to watch some TV and eat fresh mangoes before hitting the sack.

I have been deliberating all day as to whether or not I should make an effort to find my new friends today and invite them for a beer of something… I’m pretty sure I will. The excitement at the possibility of having a great group of friends here – as has happened to me just about everywhere else I’ve lived – is fabulous.

Ah – I nearly forgot the coolest part of the evening. On the way out to the party, which was in a beautiful house on a farm some 15km outside Chimoio – we had to cross the railroad tracks that run along the so-called Beira Corridor (the route that connects landlocked Zimbabwe with the busy port of Beira). We were in the ’92 Land Cruiser that a friend periodically lends us, and the back of the vehicle, that had been converted to hold several people and a stretcher when in the service of the Mozambican Red Cross, was packed full of housemates and crates of beer. When we approached the railroad crossing, I noticed a man running back and forth along the length of tracks near the road holding an old, reflective lantern with a red light inside. He swung the lantern wildly, creating the effect of a flashing red light. On the opposite side of the tracks, the man had already lowered an old wooden barrier to prevent cars from entering the crossing. On our side, however, there was no barrier and the dark man with the lantern was our only warning not to go onto the tracks. Rico stopped the car and we looked to the right just in time to see a huge white headlight on the front of an old, rusted train, bearing down towards us at breakneck speed.

It was an incredible experience, one of the few since I have arrived in Africa that have totally broken my sense of time and place. Watching the old train whiz past, precariously rattling in its squeaky tracks, with no other cars or lights around, I closed my eyes and felt the wind, perfumed by a recent monsoon rain, swept over my face. This place is indescribable, completely caught between the perils and blessings of modernization, left behind, disputed, impoverished, and yet wiser in many ways than we will ever be.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


November is litchi season in Chimoio, and for a limited number of weeks these exotic fruits can be found in local markets. A bag full of 30 or so litchis costs under a dollar.

Juicy, grape-like interior of the litchi. The taste is like the sourness of a strawberry mixed with grape taste.

Big, shiny litchi seeds that I'm just dying to turn into a necklace.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Joys of Communal Living

Today has been a day of grossness. The first offense came early in the day when I went to take a shower and found two used Q-tips discarded on top of the stack of clean towels in the bathroom. I sat and debated for quite a while whether or not I should obey my initial instinct of common hygiene and throw the waxy swabs in the trash. In the end, my resentment towards my sloppy housemates won out and I decided to leave the Q-tips exactly where I’d found them, most likely for Dona Margarida the maid to pick up later in the afternoon.

After my shower I went to the kitchen to prepare lunch. I decided to make a pasta salad with tuna, celery, and spring onions with fresh-baked rolls on the side. I chopped all the vegetables, mixed and rolled out some dough, and boiled water for the pasta. I was excited about using a new, seemingly superior brand of pasta that showed up at Shoprite the other day – Moni’s & Fatti’s, imported from South Africa, with nice-looking packaging and recipe suggestions on the back. My anticipation quickly turned to disgust when I opened a new bag of pasta, dumped it in the boiling water, and watched dozens of small brown weevils float to the top of the pot. At first I thought the dark specks in the water might be stray pieces of oregano, but upon closer inspection they were definitely insects. Disgusting, dried-up bugs polluting my lunch plans. My stomach flip-flopped and I cursed Shoprite and whoever Moni & Fatti are for a complete lack of quality control. I ended up giving the contaminated pasta to the dogs and boiled a fresh pot of water for another try at a bug-free meal.

The true cherry on the sundae of nastiness came this evening when my housemates came home from their respective jobs (Ricardo and I are still working from home, thus my excess of domestic tasks as of late). One of my housemates, who shall remain nameless, walked in carrying a take-away styrofoam box from “Elo 4”, one of the two local restaurants here in Chimoio. My housemate, obviously quite excited about his food, announced to us that he’d purchased a Big Elo (pronounced, of course, Bigg-ie Elo), a monster of a sandwich that is composed of ham, cheese, a hamburger patty, and a fried egg all wedged in a white bun with fries on the side. Box in hand, this person sauntered into the bathroom proudly letting us know that he was going to take a cagadinha, a little shit. The rest of us, not quite believing that our otherwise sane housemate was going to enjoy his sandwich while taking a poo, looked at each other in shock. About 20 minutes later, we heard a flush and our friend in question emerged from the bathroom, nearly empty take-away box in hand, polishing off the last of his French fries and licking his fingers as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

Days like this remind me what a joy it is to live with 5 other people in the cú do mundo na África.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Let there be Tea

Yesterday we got the big news. I was in the kitchen making a chocolate pound cake in our new oven (!) when Ricardo got a call from our contact at the EVD, the International Business and Cooperation Agency of the Dutch Government. I was so nervous I couldn’t bear to eavesdrop on the conversation, so I headed out to the backyard to distract myself until the call was over.

Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then fifteen. Why was it taking so long? My initial reaction was that a lengthy conversation was a good sign. After all, if the proposal had been rejected there wouldn’t be much to talk about. Or would there? Maybe the guy from the EVD was explaining to Ricardo exactly why the project hadn’t passed the external committee evaluation. Then again, maybe he was explaining what the next steps would be now that the project had been approved…I tried to prepare myself for either scenario, repeating in my head that what was meant to be would be, that I couldn’t afford to be depressed if it was rejected, not to be cocky if it was approved, etc., etc., etc.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ricardo hung up the phone and ran outside.

Parabéns!!!!” Congratulations!!! He picked me up and swung me around in circles. “The proposal was approved!

I was so excited. All the hard work I had done in July while Ricardo was in Brazil had paid off. The hours of research and revision, the trips to Zimbabwe to meet with our project partner, the sleepless nights worrying that I wouldn’t get it all done in time – it was all worth it.

After dancing around the living room in celebration, Ricardo and I each set off to make a series of phone calls to notify the other shareholders in the project about the good news. I also called my mom, who whooped with joy and sent congratulatory hugs and kisses to all of us who had worked so hard to make this happen.

Then a strange thing happened. About an hour after the phone call from EVD, I became noticeably depressed. I didn’t want to drink the beer my housemates had brought from Shoprite to celebrate. I wasn’t interested in the movie we had all sat down to watch. I thought back about the afternoon’s phone calls, the excitement, the feeling of success – it all felt so far away.

I excused myself and went to the bathroom, the only place I could be alone and pensive without anybody worrying or coming to join me. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and rested my elbows on my knees, trying to figure out what was wrong.

I was irritated with BL, who earlier in the day had failed to properly screw on the lid of the pickle jar, almost causing me to drop the damn thing when I went to put it back in the refrigerator. How many times had I told him to put the lid on things? How much food had he managed to spoil by lazily leaving it out of the fridge? Does nobody listen to me in this household?? I was annoyed, but BL’s sloppy habits weren’t enough to spoil the good news about the proposal. I kept thinking…

I felt frustrated with myself for having blown off my exercise routine, making excuses instead that I was busy with work, had eaten too recently to get on the treadmill, or that it was a day for celebration and relaxation. But that wasn’t it either…

I should be excited, I told myself. It was because of my proposal that the EVD approved a project worth US$ 1 million and agreed to give us a US$ 600,000 grant to cover part of our costs for the first 2 years of operation. Because of our project, a tea processing factory will be established in an impoverished region of Mozambique. Jobs will be created for construction workers, factory managers, mechanics, and line workers, not to mention some 1,000 family-sector tea farmers that will receive technical assistance and sell their leaves to the factory for a fair wage. We will obtain FairTrade certification for the factory and its growers, promoting sustainable development in the agricultural sector. Mozambique will once again be in a position to be competitive in the international tea market (prior to the country’s civil war, it was Africa’s 3rd largest tea producer after Kenya and Malawi).

Our project will provide hope for a secure future for our Zimbabwean partner, Buzi Tea, a family-run tea plantation and processing plant that is at risk for expropriation under President Mugabe’s controversial land reform policies. And it will set the stage for me, Ricardo, BL, and our other partners to become successful investors in Mozambique, a concrete example that the private sector, when properly managed, can be a socially responsible answer to the woes of the developing world.

Then it hit me…The seriousness of it all, the real potential that this project has to change lives – ours as investors and consultants, our Zimbabwean partner’s, those of the destitute tea farmers in the highlands – that was the cause of my sombre mood.

The real work is only about to begin, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to make this project a success.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

All Eyes on Thursday

Keep your fingers crossed and good luck machines on for me. We will find out on Thursday whether the proposal I wrote for the tea processing project has been approved or not. We got a bit of promising news last week that the proposal passed an evaluation by an internal review committee in Holland; now we are waiting for the results from an external review committee that includes representatives from Mozambican and Zimbabwean officials as well as officers from the Dutch Embassy in Maputo. If the external committee gives the project a thumbs up, come January we would start construction of a factory in Mozambique and the formalization of an outgrower scheme to support family-sector tea farmers.

In other news, the weather has taken a merciful turn and provided Central Mozambique with cloudy skies, cooler temperatures, and constant rainshowers. It has been an unbelievably welcome change from the past week where temperatures soared past 100F (40C) every day. In Tete, the capital of our neighboring province to the north, it got up to about 115F (45C)! Tete is regularly cited as the hottest city in the world on those maps that show ridiculously high and low temperatures that make you pity the poor suckers in Siberia or Chad (or, as the case may be, Mozambique).

Today I am happier than usual for two reasons:

1. I finally got my ass off the couch and hopped on the treadmill for a 45-minute walk. I also got out the green yoga mat I took such pains to stuff in my suitcase when I moved here and did 100 sit-ups. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a month-long trend leading up to my trip to Rio, land of the bikini-clad gorgeous, in December.

2. I ate fresh coconut for the first time since I was about 10. My mom and I used to buy the brown, dried coconuts at the supermarket in Albuquerque and, with the help of an ice pick and a hammer, drain the milk and crack open the tough exterior to get to the white flesh inside. I love coconuts! Here in Mozambique (as well as in Brazil), it's common to see green coconuts that vendors will split open for you to drink the water inside. Água de coco is refreshing, balances your electrolytes, and is a fabulous cure for a hangover. I have green coconuts as often as possible. But it had been ages since I'd taken the time to hunt down a mature brown coconut, but there they were at Shoprite last week, right next to the giant cucumbers. Last night my housemates and I cracked open the brown shell by slamming the coconut on the countertop, then ate the sweet flesh right out of the shell. Yum!!! Definitely worth the time on the treadmill.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Friday, November 04, 2005

Purple and Dry for the Drips

Today has been a miserable, weezy day. I have a walloping case of allergies brought on, I am convinced, by the dust that reigns king in our house and leaves your feet a lovely reddish-brown if you forget to put on your chinelos while walking around. I seem to get an allergy attack about once a week here in Mozambique, the relentless sneezing and sniffling rendering me completely useless for at least 24 hours.

As if that weren’t enough, allergies make me hot. Not the kind of hot that would make the boys of Chimoio line up in front of our house for a glimpse of the goddess that lives behind the wall of bougainvillea and hibiscus. I mean temperature hot. The hundreds of unrealized sneezes and constant sinus pressure make my head throb and pulse rise. It’s almost the same feeling I get after a good half hour on the treadmill, only with no effort required beyond stuffing wads of toilet paper in my nostrils and occasionally going to the kitchen for a glass of water to wash down a pill or two. The only problem is that the pills bring no relief and, now that summer has hit central Mozambique with full humid force, I don’t even have the silver lining I enjoyed back in July that my allergies chase away the cold of winter.

So basically my day has consisted of sitting in front of the small fan in the living room wondering how on earth the body can produce so much mucus in such a short amount of time. Yesterday I was fine. Clear nose, non-itchy eyes, no pseudo-menopausal hot flashes. Tomorrow I will be fine again, as it goes week after week. But today…that’s another story altogether. I tried to translate a budget from Italian to English for this timber project Ricardo is putting together, but gave up after my nose dripped onto the mouse pad of my laptop. In the course of the afternoon, I managed to go through an entire roll of toilet paper!

Speaking of such things, nose-blowing became the cause for a fight amongst my housemates last week. I haven’t mentioned it yet on the blog, but we now have a 6th member in our domestic community, Rogério. Yet another one of the boys from the business school back in Rio, Rogério came to Chimoio about 2 weeks ago for a short-term volunteer assignment with ACDI/VOCA, a local organization that works with smallholder farmers’ associations (and where I did a brief stint as a volunteer during my first month here). Before coming to Mozambique, Rogério worked as an investment banker and lived with his parents in a flat in Leblon, one of Rio’s most upscale neighbourhoods. The culture shock that has come about after Rogério joining our modest household has been both amusing and supremely frustrating.

As I mentioned in an entry soon after arriving in Chimoio, one of the things sorely lacking here is the convenience of a well-stocked grocery store where you can find the same quality items week after week. Here we rely on Shoprite, a sad excuse for a supermarket where a good portion of the food is expired and you will almost never find the same selection of items from one shopping trip to the next. Shoprite can’t even be counted on for staple items like paper towels or ground beef or juice. So when something good appears, the strategy is to buy as much of it as possible and create a stockpile in our pantry, hoping that we won’t run out of whatever the item is until the next lot has been delivered to Chimoio.

The problem started when Rogério, a chronic, honking nose-blower, grabbed a handful of napkins on his way out the door to play basketball with some guys from ACDI/VOCA. Ricardo noticed the wad of napkins and yelled out after Rogério,

Que porra é essa, cara? Você pegou metade do pacote de guardanapos!” What the hell, man? You took half the package of napkins!

Rogério, already past the porch, illustrated his intentions with a loud, snotty honk into one of the napkins. “I’m going to play basketball, bro. My nose runs when I get out of breath.”

Porra, meu irmão, usa papel higiênico então!” Damnit, use toilet paper instead!

Rogério looked back at Ricardo as if he were crazy. “O que? Toilet paper? You’ve gotta be kidding. That stuff in the bathroom is like sandpaper. No way I’m going to make my nose raw with that shit.”

Granted, Rogério had a point. For the last month, the only toilet paper available at Shoprite has been this single-ply, perfumed, bright purple stuff, certainly a reject from the South African market. Whatever chemicals they use for scent and color have the unfortunate effect of drying out the toilet paper to the point that it feels like an industrial file on your tender parts.

Nonetheless, napkins are an especially scarce commodity at Shoprite and, in the total absence of Kleenex in Chimoio, we have all adapted to using toilet paper for blowing our noses – even if it is purple and rough. We all agree that chapped noses and bums are much less painful than the embarrassment of running out of napkins and having to provide guests with neatly folded triangles of purple toilet paper next to their dinner plates.

Not quite willing to believe that toilet paper was the only option, and suspecting that his friends were screwing with him like they often do, Rogério continued on with his stack of napkins to the basketball game. Two hours later he came back red-faced, sweaty, and wiping his nose with the back of his hand. I was sitting on the couch watching Mythbusters on our newly-fixed TV and, my attention totally fixed on the bridge about to be blown up by the scientists, barely registered Rogério walking past me. That is, until I heard the distinctive honk and snort of someone blowing their nose in the kitchen.

Blowing one’s nose in public is one of the major cultural taboos in Brazilian society. Unlike Americans – who generally feel right at home ridding themselves of snot in restaurants, in line at the bank, and in meetings – Brazilians are quite private about nose-blowing and consider an activity that should be strictly confined to the bathroom. Before Rogério’s arrival this was the practice for nose-blowing in our house, as 4 of the 5 residents were either Brazilian or, in my case, had lived in the country long enough to adopt its customs. But good old Rogério proved that, as is the case for most rules, there is always an exception.

And, as if the prospect of snot in the kitchen weren’t offensive enough, I nearly keeled over when I found Rogério using – you guessed it – NAPKINS to clean his nose. With my hands on my hips, mouth slightly agape, I just stared at him for about a minute. He wadded up the freshly-used napkins and threw them in the trash, then grabbed another handful from the package and started to walk away. I gave an exasperated sigh and threw my hands up in the air.

“Didn’t you hear what Ricardo said about using toilet paper?”

“Yeah, but I thought he was just messing around.”

Não, Rogério. You’ll see. The next time we go to Shoprite there probably won’t be any more napkins. How’s that going to look if a client comes over for tea and there is a big roll of toilet paper in the middle of the table?.”

Fique tranqüila, Ali.” Rogério shot me the kind of look that is generally reserved for mothers when they chide their kids about putting the cap on the toothpaste and not leaving clothes on the floor.

Whatever. I was frustrated, but decided to cut Rogério a little slack. After all, he’d only been in Chimoio for a couple of weeks and didn’t really understand yet how this place works…

The next morning I went into the kitchen to start preparing lunch for everyone. Cooking has become an integral part of my daily routine, and I actually enjoy the challenge of making a meal for 6 given the lack of ingredients and the fact that we have no oven. I was especially proud of my creation that day. I pan-fried some pork chops with spicy mustard sauce, made perfectly fluffy white rice, and prepared homemade applesauce as an accompaniment.

The food turned out so nicely that I decided to actually set the table instead of letting everyone serve themselves directly from the pot as we usually do. I organized everything on our new dining table, set out plates and silverware, and prepared a pitcher of water. Outside I heard the gate open, the heavy chain clanking against the metal, and I ran back to the kitchen to get the final touches for the meal – napkins and serving spoons. Only there were no napkins, just the empty plastic wrapper left on the pantry shelf, testament to one of my housemates who was too lazy to throw away the packaging. Just then everyone walked in the house, ready for lunch.

“Rogério!!!!” I gave him dagger eyes as I yelled, “There are no more napkins!!!!”

Foi mal, bro. Sorry, man. I used them all yesterday.”

“Used them for what?”

“Ah, you know, I had to blow my nose. The heat here makes my snot run.”

Seu filho da puta!!! Son of a bitch! We told you yesterday to use toilet paper instead!!”

I was furious. Letting my ego get the best of me, I stormed out of the kitchen and plopped down in front of the TV, turning on the Style Channel, something I knew was bound to irritate my male housemates. Ricardo took over the conversation in my place.

Porra, Rogério. You know what this is? It’s something that a momma’s boy does. Someone who has lived in the lap of luxury their entire life and has never gone without. Someone who’s always had a nanny or a mom to go out and buy more napkins. This is a community, man. You don’t know how it is around here.”

Just to prove his point, Ricardo went to the bathroom and brought back a roll of the gaudy purple toilet paper. “See? This is what we have to use now.” He plunked the roll next to the pork chops and sat down at the table, tearing off an exaggeratedly large section of tissue to use in place of a napkin.

Rogério shook his head and walked away, cursing Ricardo the whole way back to his room. I gloated silently from my position on the couch, happy in an immature way that Rogério had gotten that humiliating lecture…

After an entire evening of receiving the silent treatment, Ricardo and I decided that it was time to talk things out and start behaving like adults. We asked Rogério to come to the dirt lot that doubles as our backyard, and had a long discussion about what it really means to live in a house with 6 people. At the end of it, we had all apologized and vowed to be more tolerant, more understanding. As not to be too sensitive, the boys parted by telling each other vai tomar no cú, the true sign that things are okay between guys – they tell each other to piss off.

The trick to making a community like ours truly work is that everyone must be willing to give up his or her ego, the part inside us that insists on being “right”, that latches onto feelings of jealousy and irritation and perfection, that enables a life concentrated on and fueled by the self.

We are definitely not there yet. I am definitely not there yet – be it in my role as a housemate, as a professional trying to negotiate with difficult colleagues, or as a girlfriend. But each petty fight I am able to recognize as a symptom of my ego getting the best of me, the closer I come…

The final component necessary to make a multi-cultural, multi-person household run smoothly is humor, especially since Gemelli, Rico, and Rogério would dismiss concepts such as ego and self as new agey babble. Laughing at a difficult, frustrating situation is a less abstract way of letting go of the self, rising above the situation. By finding the humor that underlies all of our daily interactions, I am able to tolerate them much better…

Rogério now goes through an entire roll of toilet paper every two days, his incessant nose-blowing echoing through our poorly-insulated walls. I managed to consume an entire roll myself today thanks to my allergies. There is still no white toilet paper (or napkins, for that matter) at Shoprite.