Belo Horizonte: World Cup 2014 host city

BELO HORIZONTE! coming soon to a TV near you.
Fifa’s World Cup 2014 host city presentation video shows some of the attractions of life in my second home, even including a shot of my friends in the Mountain Bike BH Racing Team.

Que saudade!!!!

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A Brazilian Beach


From Christmas until Carnival (in February) is the traditional time for Brazilians to take their holidays and travel to the beach – if they don’t already live by one. It’s the equivalent of August in France when temperatures in the cities are (even more) unsuitable for doing any work so offices empty. Of course, much of the Brazilian population does live on or near to the coast – particularly in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Even my home in Minas Gerais is close to the sea (6hrs drive) by Brazilian standards. This exodus brings with it some familiar problems – expensive flights/hotels, traffic jams, crowded towns. But once you find your space on the beach, put up the umbrella and refresh yourself in the sea, all the problems begin to melt away.

So what’s it like on a Brazilian beach and how does it compare to one in England or continental Europe? Here’s a few illustrated examples from my New Year trip to Arraial do Cabo; a couple of hours east of Rio de Janeiro.

First of all, in any busy bit of beach you can expect a sea of umbrellas. I guess this is the same in Southern Europe, but the sun here is VERY strong at this time of year.

DSC_0029 For Brazilians (and even more so for visiting gringos) you need to hide from it for most of the time and also use lots of high factor sun-cream. Once in the shade, the beach is generally a cooler and more pleasant place to be than nearby towns….

…..especially once you have put on your Brazilian bikini or ‘sungas’ (men’s trunk-shorts).


Yes, exposing flesh is the rule in Brazil. And that flesh is on average, golden brown.

If you happen to have forgotten your sunglasses, you won’t have any problem picking up a new ‘designer’ pair:


After you’ve got settled and dressed appropriately (in advance: I didn’t see any English-style towel-wrap changing manoeuvres) you will be needing a cool drink.

Well, you either bring that with you in an ice-filled cool-box (see bottom right)…DSC_0018

…order it from a waiter (if you’re in a part of the beach with rented tables and service) or you find the nearest vendor who will sell you a icy drink from their super-sized cool-boxes.


Ice-cold beer is the drink of choice for most Brazilians but soft drinks are available and sometimes you see a caipirinha (cachaça/lime/sugar/ice cocktail) vendor. 

After your drink it’s time for a dip in the sea or perhaps a game of football.


To state the obvious, the sea in most parts of Brazil is MUCH warmer than England….although there are places/times when the difference is not so big. Arraial do Cabo is adjacent to ‘Cabo Frio’ (Cold Cape) which refers to the cold water currents it sometimes receives from the direction of Argentina. During my stay, the temperature and colour of the water changed amazingly quickly on some days. The most beautiful clear turquoise water (in many of these photos) was in fact surprisingly cold, whereas when it was darker blue-green, it was nice and warm. The beach football is like what we see in Europe…except better! 

After your dip in the sea or game of football, you are probably feeling a bit peckish. Luckily, the average Brazilian beach is well catered for and you won’t be required to walk back to find a fish and chip shop on the prom – the food comes to you. To start with, you might want a corn-on-the-cob (‘milho’ or “milhão” if it’s a big one!) : fished out from a pan of hot water, dipped in salty water and then spread with butter….


….or perhaps you want an ’empada’ – a small savoury pie made with buttery pastry and various fillings such as sun-dried beef, chicken, cheese, salt-cod, shrimps. Many vendors will happily supply one from their warm, sealed containers.


Skewers of prawns or fish are also available (sorry, no photo) and in the north-east of Brazil, crabs are very common.

Following all that hard work, beer and a belly-full of food, you probably are starting to feel a bit sleepy so it’s back to the shade for a snooze, like this man who was snoring away happily….

DSC_0022After you wake up, it must surely be time for some photos. Brazilians LOVE taking photos. Mostly of themselves or each other. They are not shy about it and will enjoy spending a few minutes perfecting their pose, snapping a few shots and then going back for more if they’re not happy with the results.


When your sweet tooth is calling, you can appease it with a ‘picolé’ (ice lolly) from the vendors passing by every minute. The main difference here is the flavours, in this photo: Condensed milk (the basis of many Brazilian sweets), chocolate, sweetcorn(surprisingly good!), strawberry, tapioca with coconut, graviola (see previous blog post), blue energy, lemon, açaí (see below) or bubblegum(?!). DSC_0117

Or you can have an Açaí sorbet: a mixture of the amazon açaí super-berry and guarana puree (made of another amazon berry with lots of energy/caffeine).  This will normally be topped with banana slices, crunchy granola and in this case; various other toppings and sauces. Just the thing to end a long, hot afternoon in the sun!


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Dear Mr Cameron and Mr Milliband

Dear Mr Cameron and Mr Milliband

The eyes of the world will fall on Brazil in June 2014. If you can fit it in amongst PMQs and cabinet meetings, I would recommend you come for a visit. It is a truly wonderful country with a lot going for it.  As well as watching the inevitable failure of 11 blokes dressed in white shirts, I think you would also find there are some interesting lessons for both of you in taking forward the country which I will return to next year.

Starting with you Mr C. You like to talk about your utopian vision of the “Big Society” towards which you want Great Britain to move. My worry is that your idea of Big Society means “tiny government and let society step in to clean up the mess”.  Well  after 2 years of living here, I think Brazil may be the epitome of “Small Society” and it certainly is a mess. I’m not about to make direct comparisons between Britain and Brazil nor suggest that this is the way that Britain is heading if your policies continue as they are, but I do think there are some things worth reflecting upon.

Brazil has a “tiny government”. Or to be more precise, it has a huge monolithic government, dragging the country backwards like a chain around its neck, but the output and effectiveness of the public services which the government provides is tiny. You hope to trim back the fat that was built up by years of Labour’s excesses, to leave a lean efficient public sector which costs taxpayers the minimum amount possible and yet provides the bare minimum of essential public services. Undoubtedly, a lot of cuts are necessary and perfectly feasible. In Brazil there is a disastrous combination of inefficiency, poor spending priorities and corruption meaning that  huge government spending results in unimaginably poor public services. The observations I want to make are regarding the effect of such “tiny government” on society (big or otherwise).

As you very well know, Brazil is extremely (and famously) unequal. There is a very small minority of the population who enjoy a very high standard of living (depending on how closely you define that term). Luxury imported cars, huge houses with swimming pools, teams of staff cleaning and cooking for them, top class restaurants, endless health checks, sports, recreation and high quality education for their children. But my god do they pay for it. None of the above is provided by the government’s public services. Using the astonishingly high salaries that they earn (often in the public sector), they must pay for private health provision (they wouldn’t dream of using government hospitals), private schools (they would never trust government schools with their children’s education) and their children’s recreational activities take place safely behind the high walls of their secure gated housing and sports clubs. Once they have paid for all of this, they become bitter about the extortionate taxes they pay on the imported foreign goods they buy. About the high level of income tax they pay with terrible public services in return. About the “wasteful government spending on layabouts” who receive the country’s famous ‘Bolsa Familia’ payments (a conditional cash transfer scheme providing small cash payments to poor parents in exchange for their children being vaccinated and attending school each day). The result is that this section of society is completely excluded from the majority, and often bitter and un-caring towards them. Why should they look after the interests of others when they already have to pay so much to look after their own? Indeed, their bitterness and self-interest turns to tax avoidance and corruption, further fuelling the problem.

The remainder of Brazil’s society has to deal with the day to day reality of “tiny government”. Their children attend state schools which languish in the world league tables of education standards, dooming them to low-skilled work and wages. They spend their lives struggling to earn enough to pay for the essentials. When they get ill, they are left with no option but the poorly funded and equipped state health service, sitting in dirty crumbling hospitals for hours or days. They live in neighbourhoods which either are favelas (ilegal constructed housing, often with no government services) or which would appear to your eyes to be favelas. Rubbish piles up in the streets, roads and pavements are falling to pieces, housing standards are low and crime (or fear of crime) is ever-present. Their children are either left to run the gauntlet of recreation activity on the streets or they are kept behind closed doors to play on their computer consoles. Somehow, perhaps by combination of the wonderful weather, a genetic predisposition or maybe just ignorance about any other alternative, they mostly remain admirably happy and spend their lives content to put food on the table, beer in the fridge and football on their televisions. Lacking the education and means for social mobility, some of them inevitably turn to the easy option of crime. There are plenty of targets who occasionally have to stray out from behind those high walls. Others turn to drugs, normally crack cocaine, to provide a quick and easy fix.

Of course it is not quite as black and white as this, but the net result of “tiny government” is a “tiny society”. Those who have the money, pay for the services which the government fails to provide, and bitterness, self-interest and corruption becomes endemic. Those who don’t have money, are stuck to cope with what is left over.

As you for you Mr M: I would urge you not to forget what has happened in Brazil. Where government largess and inefficiency (yes, and corruption) means that lots of money in equals very little public services out. Where poorly prioritised spending gives free places at state universities (the only ones which are anything approaching world-class) to the brightest children who almost inevitably come from the richest families which can afford private schools. There is always a need for rigorous accountability and improvement of public spending and to strive for efficiency savings. However, as I have described to Mr C. above, the acceptability of any government cuts must be the standard of services which is provided (rather than any supposed indicators). Yes, you can reduce the number of police, doctors and teachers as long as you can guarantee an appropriate level of security, health care provision and educational performance.

Brazil has numerous and many different problems to Britain and (as I said before) it can not be compared as a direct example of what happens when you trim back to a tiny government. But my observations while I have been living here have led me to worry about a tipping point of poor public services leading to societal changes which might be very difficult to reverse. A point where public services have been peeled back so far that the fabric of society (and high living standards) begins to break down. When police services are diminished to the point that the rich ‘put up walls’ and the poor are left to the wolves. When health services are so under-funded that private provision is the only option for those who can. When public authorities can no longer maintain pleasant public spaces, recreational facilities, museums and cultural institutions. Perhaps “Big Society” will step in and the rich, seeing the mess around them, will give more money to charities and NGOs to help the rest. Or perhaps they will become bitter, corrupt and self-interested and leave the rest to languish.

Yours sincerely

Tom Wood

PS. If you pop over before February, you can kip on my sofa.

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Heading home


3 months ago, I described the difficulties of finding a suitable job out here in Brazil, and mentioned that I had set a deadline for my search. That time has now arrived.

Although I hadn’t given up my search completely until quite recently, a series of things has led to a dramatic change in our (mine and my wife’s) hopes and even wishes of staying in Brazil. Some of the international companies I have been in discussions with for a long time are facing difficult times in Brazil and even pulling out  of the country. My wife has also become frustrated by the ‘jeitinho Brasileiro’ (Brazilian way of doing things) with regards her work and we are both seeing better opportunities back in London. The economy back home is by no means rosy but it’s better than when we left. Meanwhile the outlook for Brazil’s economy suggests some difficult times ahead. It’s funny how things have changed around from my questioning of a ‘New world‘ order 2 years ago! Aside from professional life, we also have mixed feelings about going back to London. Some of the major downsides are very much still present (depressing weather, sky-high property prices…) but in many other respects, we will go back with different eyes following our experiences in Brazil. Living in a dramatically different setting provides a new appreciation for certain things which I previously took for granted, but also provides a new outlook on what is important.

I already know that I will painfully miss certain things out here in Brazil and I have my suspicions about others which will become apparent. I have come to take for granted  the excitement of dealing with totally different challenges in my everyday life. Some of these things I would now describe as annoyances but the eye-opening nature of living in a completely exotic situation is difficult to put into words. Leaving this behind will probably only fully hit me when I’m back in the familiar 9 to 5 routine.

In a couple of months time I will find myself back in the UK……but this time a little bit more Brazilian.


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Yesterday morning, I walked the park trail along the top of the mountain which overlooks Belo Horizonte and which gives the city its name (“beautiful horizon”). It wasn’t the first time I had walked the trail but yesterday I finally saw a magical sight which had so far eluded me during my time in Brazil. Arriving at the top of the ridge, with the huge sprawl of the city to the north and the vast sea of forested hills to the south (albeit with ever-encroaching development of luxury condominium developments) I saw an unmistakeable flash of orange in the distance and heard the croaking sound of a Toco Toucan (wikipedia page here with close-up photo).

Two of these magical birds flew past and settled on a distant eucalyptus tree. Then three more arrived creating a sort of tropical Christmas tree with five orange baubles. It was only a distant viewing (although not quite as distant as my low-level camera zoom suggests) but the birds are absolutely unmistakable with their huge orange bill set against black and white plumage.

It was really thrilling to see these picture-postcard birds in the wild. After complaining for some time that I had not managed to see a Toucan, despite many ventures deep into the wild, it was ironic that in the end I saw them on the doorstep of the city. This particular Toucan species prefers the open savannah and vegetation of the Cerrado (which begins around Belo Horizonte and spreads north over much of central Brazil) as well as the wetlands of the Pantanal (western Brazil) rather than the dense forests of the Amazon or the Atlantic Rainforest (from Belo Horizonte southwards). Apparently, the Toco Toucan’s range is actually spreading as a result of  deforestation which has resulted in the splitting of forest cover in the later biomes.

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Finding a suitable job in Brazil has proved a LOT harder than I imagined!

For most of the months/years that we were thinking about and then preparing to move to Brazil, the world media was full of news of the economic boom in the country. It even described a serious lack of skilled workers and especially people with good English. Although the Brazilian economy has taken a bit of a nose-dive in recent months, these facts are essentially still true. However, for someone coming from oversees with an unusual profile (even in his home country) it has been very difficult to find anything suitable. And while fluent English-speaking is certainly a valuable skill, Brazil is not like some developing countries: you simply cannot get by without fluency in the local language. My portuguese was reasonable when I moved to Brazil and is now very good. I can easily hold a professional meeting/interview and communicate well. However, it is not perfect and it gets more difficult when I run into new areas of vocabulary. Working in portuguese would still be a very steep learning curve. Writing in portuguese is even harder and, as a key technical skill in my own language, this makes me feel a bit like i’ve had an arm chopped off.

I’m not going to go into detail of my particularly difficult in finding work but there are some apparent differences between professional life in the two countries.

Back home, it is perfectly feasible to graduate in one discipline and yet gradually migrate (or indeed dramatically move) to a different area of work. Your experience is what counts. In Brazil, it seem to be very difficult to convince anyone of your abilities away from the area of your degree.

Another difference I have noticed is that in Brazil it seems that the role of the average employee is kept very distinct from those who are responsible for management of projects, teams, clients and business. Back home, I began taking on such responsibility soon after starting work and these skills developed in parallel with my ‘technical’ experience. Finding a mixed roll in Brazil seems to be difficult.

Anyway, the result of all this is that after almost one and a half years in Brazil, I have still not managed to get a job (luckily I have continued doing some contract work for my old employer to prevent a hole from appearing in my CV or bank account). I have had some real success in forming a good network of contacts in Brazilian and multinational companies but none has yet provided an opportunity. The longer this has gone on, the more frustrating it has become. It has limited the extent to which I can integrate into Brazilian life, make friends, improve my portuguese and feel settled. It has also made it increasingly difficult to hold-off a growing tide of home-sickness, and an inevitable longing for the comparatively easy life I knew back home. (oh dear, I am breaking my promises made last year about ‘the grass always being greener’!)

The year ahead is highly uncertain. We have set a deadline for my job search now which has provided some renewed impetus and also brought some relief from the frustration. It’s good to feel like I don’t just have a blank space in front of me. At the same time, it’s very hard to think about moving home and starting again without having achieved some of the things I hoped to in Brazil.

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A stain on the beautiful game

Belo Horizonte’s short moment on the world stage has passed by – at least until next summer when the ‘real thing’ comes to town. But as I write this post, the buzzing of police/media helicopters outside my window is only beaten by the buzzing of social media with photos, reports and videos of the latest day of protests, vandalism and police violence.

Once again, thousands of people (this time not including me) marched out to Belo Horizonte’s football stadium to protest against, and in full view of, the Confederations Cup semi-final between Brazil and Uruguay. And once again, a minority of violent protestors/vandals prompted the widespread use of tear gas, rubber bullets and general repression of free protest. No doubt in some cases there was justification for heavy policing, but this video shot metres away from where I was standing on Saturday, shows the true spark which started the violent confrontations that day: a military police officer grows tired of hearing the views of a protestor and sprays copious pepper spray in his face. The crowd’s angry reaction is then responded to with tear gas.

Over the last week, the growing nationwide protests have prompted a rush of measures by the Government, scrambling to respond to the protestors’ pleas:

  • bus fares have been reduced (or planned rises have been reversed) across the country
  • congress last night voted against the proposed PEC 37 constitutional amendment – a key demand – which was widely expected would lead to impunity for corrupt practices
  • the president has promised to spend all royalties from Brazil’s pre-sal oil fields on improving education and healthcare
  • a referendum is planned for September on political change to reduce corruption (e.g. banning companies from funding political campaigns)
  • even public enemy number 1 – Renan Calheiros (the president of the Brazilian senate who was previously forced to resign as a senator due to corruption) – has proposed free transport for all students. (Protestors’ wishes to see him sacked have not yet been adhered to)

The pace and scale of the reforms being announced has seemingly left many people thinking the goals have been achieved: the protests have reduced in number and scale in the last few days. It does seem that the Government has been forced – by the scale and timing of protests – to start to take such matters seriously. On the other hand, you are left wondering why – if the Government is suddenly able to make such seemingly impressive promises – did they not make the changes long ago? A cynic (or wise man) might suggest that it is because there is a lot less to the proposals than is being made out. I prefer to remain at least partly hopeful that we are witnessing the start of some much-needed changes. But my Brazilian friends are certainly highly cynical of the power of the president (in the face of a recalcitrant senate) and the memory of the electorate after a year has passed and a series of additional sweeteners are announced.

For now though, I am left unable to truly enjoy what remains of the Confederations Cup – despite the Brazilian team’s passage to the final on Sunday. The protests and police reaction have left an indelible stain on the beautiful game as it is being staged in Fifa’s Brazilian cups. I hope there will be significant progress in the next 12 months to allow myself and the rest of Brazil to enjoy the World Cup.

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