Learning about Learning

In my eternal quest towards knowledge accumulation (why? I am not sure.), I decided to read some presentation about the mineral law legislation in Brazil. I figured I could get some useful data out of it, to better understand how things work in the country. The presentation was in Portuguese and by the time I got to slide number 4, I still had no idea what I was reading about despite the fact that I deciphered all the words I didn’t know with my faithful Google Translate. I was also wondering why did the power point look like it was produced by a high school student in the late 90’s? By that time, my colleague arrived to work and said: “Why are you reading this government presentation, it’s such crap and says very basic things in a super convoluted way. ” The rest of the presentation was processed in 5 minutes was put to rest in the garbage bin. Lesson learned: when faced with a government produced presentation, don’t try to understand anything – read the title, refer to Wikipedia and move on with your life.

I then proceeded to read some more forecasts about China growth story, got bored and decided that I need to find another way to add value. And so I spent about 30 mins making a new employee guidebook, trying to help future generations of innocent newcomers avoid some of the pitfalls of my disorganized process . Example: “Recommendation 1: welcome new employee and get them an entry card to the building so that (a) they know what floor they work on (b) they are able to reach that floor”. Or: “Tell the employee about the customs inventory list requirement before they actually pack and ship their stuff to Brazil.” I think I’m going to start a relocation company or come up with the next six sigma framework for this industry…  No wonder my french friend always tells me with so much disdain: “you Americans, are just SO practical.”

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A lovely afternoon

I love discovering cities’ hidden gems, those spots that beautify the concrete jungles we live in. Today’s discovery was even more special as it was at such contrast with yesterday’s craziness at Sao Christovao.
On a very rainy afternoon, when most cariocas were hiding inside their homes or hanging out at their local shopping mall, I took a taxi van to Gavea, to visit the Instituto Moreira Salles. As the van ascended the narrow street covered by luscious green tree tops , I could tell I was in the right place. IMS is a located in a white modernist villa, surrounded by a mini botanical garden, with a little river flowing through it. It was is a perfect combination of artistic style and architectural aesthetics. Today they had two exhibitions of photography, depicting scenes from last century’s every day life in Mexico and Brazil. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading my book and sipping my cappuccino, among intellectual looking middle aged people. Delightful.

The real Rio – São Christovão fair

Last night I made a trip, that once again when I tell the about it, will cause my colleagues to raise their eyebrows and say something along the lines “I don’t understand why you foreigners always want to go to such places..”. I went to the northeast art and culture fair in São Christovão, in the northern part of Rio, a place which is often frequented by the maids and the doormen of those same colleagues. What a great time!

The adventure started on the city bus, which bounced like a roller coaster the entire 1 hour ride to SC. If I haven’t mentioned this before, Rio bus drivers drive their buses as if they are driving a little sports car, barely stopping to take or off-load passengers, cutting corners and other drivers. Soon after the beginning of the ride, we got some company at the back of the bus. He was about 60 years old, no teeth, very tanned (as most of the poor are), dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, and carrying a duffel bag with him. He smelled of death (more or less), and was holding a small piece of cloth into which he was sneezing or wiping his face, while complaining about the stench. His main accessory was a mobile phone (or something that looked like it), into which he kept mumbling. When he would get bored with talking into his phone or playing with the antenna, he would start singing random songs and grimacing at us, hoping for some attention. At first this was quite entertaining but quickly enough  I really wanted to push him out of the bus and drop him at the side of the street.    Thankfully, after sometime he got bored with us not giving him any attention and went to bother other people at the front of the bus.

When we arrived to SC, the contrast with Ipanema’s chic crowd was stark. We were finally in real Brazil. The physical features, the dress style, the music, everything was different. We got to try some random foods from the Northeast side of Brazil, most of which had the same colors and textures (despite being different types of meat), and carried names such as Vaca atolada (stuck cow) or carne chovendo (raining beef). I also had one of my best caipirinhas (passion fruit), and saw some fierce forro dancing all around. We failed to buy Funk (something like Brazilian Reggaeton) CDs because they were sold out in every one of the 5 different CD stores we visited. At least I stocked up on some hot peppers to spice up my life!

In the taxi on our way back to civilization, to the sounds of Forro (newly purchased CD), I was reflecting on how grateful I am for the opportunity to be “one of those foreigners”.

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Doing Business in Brazil

Almost one year ago, I wrote yet another (unimaginative) paper for one of my international business classes. The subject of the paper was “Challenges and Opportunities of Doing Business in Brazil.” I learned a lot and wrote a lot, while working on that paper, but only now I am really understanding what do they things I wrote about really mean. What is a complex legal system and bureaucracy? How can a country of 200 m have a failing infrastructure? What does lack of services translate into?
As an aspiring entrepreneur (some day, some way), I’ve been collecting ideas for potential businesses, identifying gaps and inefficiencies in the market. The examples are plenty: Forget e-commerce – the average business in Rio has a website that looks like something a 12 year old in the 90’s would make, while learning HTML. This is a great opportunity. Another one is customer service – an average waiter at a restaurant, would barely even look at you until you grab him by the sleeve, forcing him to get your order or bring you the check. The dismissive answer – “I don’t know, go ask someone else” from someone who SHOULD know, is extremely common.
There are many many opportunities in services and training, one could capitalize upon. For now, I shall continue brainstorming though..

One interesting anecdote I heard yesterday is a typical example of the types of risks we don’t think about as gringo investors accustomed to the developed world. A fellow colleague was considering buying land near an area in Rio where they are planning to build the olympic complex. She then consulted a guy who already owns a land there who informed her that his largest challenge was land invaders who will come every so often and try to set up their housing on his land. Then he had to get guys with guns, to get them away from his property. Solution: buy land and immediately build something on it and get tenants to make sure you don’t get a favela on your property!!

Baby steps

It’s interesting to observe how I’ve managed to lower my expectations since I’ve arrived here.

I was super happy this week, when I finally got a dock for my laptop (now, it cannot just be stolen), and a cabinet with drawers for my desk. It was a huge surprise since I’ve been previously told that I will be able to request them only next year (to receive who knows when..).

Also, I get really shocked when someone responds right away to my e-mail. Especially, if the response is actually related to the questions I asked in the e-mail. I’ve been having quite a few of those incidents lately..

I imagine that many people started hating me, as I was actually following up on things that I was promised and not waiting for miracles to happen (such as getting a laptop on my start day instead of a month later..).

This week I’ve interviewing language schools for my private Portuguese lessons. I guess it never occurred to anyone that before prepaying like $10,000 worth of classes, one should AT LEAST know the study program of the school requesting the immediate advanced payment. I am changing this. My company has this incredible system of vendors they work with, that charge them absurd prices for zero service, with no one ever checking the quality of those services (for example, HP for IT products, really?? or IBM for Lotus Notes, or useless shipping companies that don’t ship your cargo for 2 months because they are waiting for some approval they never requested). .

Today I also learned to make payments via the bank ATM (seems like you can pay ANTYHING and ANYONE this way). My colleague was shocked to find out that in the US we pay bills with checks (if you think of it, we should be too. So archaic..). So far, I have not seen any checks since I’ve arrived here but I am told by my bank manager that one could get some of those. Not sure how, however. A bank account here doesn’t come with a list of services.