It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Brasil for more than a month at this point. So much has happened it would be impossible for me to try to describe it all to you. Maybe I’ll try to give the greatest hits.

Lets start with some pictures of recent stuff. Here is a facebook album.

Most of my daily energy has been going into learning Portuguese, and trying to think and communicate in another language leaves me without much energy for other things. Learning a language is a far different kind of learning than what I am usually good at. There is very little that is logical about it, and there is only so much you can get from a book. It is much more about being willing to open your mouth and speak with people, even when you are going to speak horribly incorrectly, as I usually do. Just from my short experience learning portuguese so far here, I think learning another language is a good experience not only because of the whole other culture you open up for yourself by being able to speak, but because the actual learning process is humbling. I’m still really only at the beginning of it, but I feel like constantly struggling to communicate has given me a more visceral appreciation of my tiny little place the world.

This week Mat and I are at an academic conference in the city of João Pessoa. It was 3hr plane ride north from Rio, and it is a classic tropical city. The pace of life feels a lot slower here than in Rio; people talk more softly than they do in Rio, and you can cross the street without playing dodge-that-car. From our hotel we can see the farthest east point in all of the americas, as well as countless palm trees, and the kind of tropical blue water that always makes me feel like I’m on another planet. This is not the jersey shore.

The conference, which is on the topic of non conventional building materials and technologies, is really big and I was pretty intimidated when we got here. There are people from 20+ countries presenting, and Mat and I are the only undergraduate presenters at the conference. There are tons of interesting people here, who are doing mindblowingly cool stuff all with the goal of combating climate change, working for social justice, and changing our paradigm of development throughout the world. It has been a really interesting experience to see the wide range of work that is being done on these topics throughout the world, and to see generally how academic conferences like this work. It is also really encouraging to see that there are so many smart people who are gravely concerned about issues that are facing the world today, and who are actively working on solutions.

Mat and I presented our group’s research(Powerpoint) yesterday and we got a really positive response. People were very interested in the idea of applying the gridshell design to the problem of disaster relief. Much of work presented at this conference is advanced and specific research, which is really important to improving the science of non-conventional materials, but I think after a while people start to glaze over from all of the technical details. Our research is a little bit easier to engage with and I think that, after a long day of listening to lectures on how moisture content effects the material properties of rammed earth, a lot of people appreciate the simplicity of our concept. People asked interesting questions afterwards, and some good discussions came of the talk. I’ve also gotten a chance here at the conference to practice my portuguese with some locals who aren’t talking to me like a child like the teachers at school sometimes do.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference yesterday spoke in his introduction about embracing the struggle that we face in trying to combat climate change, eliminate poverty/inequality, etc…the sentiment really applies to any challenge. He talked about the greek myth of Sisyphus, not sure if you know it but I didn’t so I ‘ll tell it again. Sisyphus was doomed by the gods to struggle for eternity, which sounds like a pretty rough sentence, but the speaker asked us to see the struggle in a different light. He said that we are doomed to struggle forever, but that this is actually a blessing; that struggling together is what fills our hearts and gives our lives meaning.  That’s a rather poetic way to look at it, no?

Another presenter spoke about various non-conventional building materials and their implementation, and he said one thing that stuck with me. “The only truly sustainable building is a building that we love and cherish and care about. An ugly building is a bad building no matter how sustainable the materials we use are, because we won’t take care of an ugly building and we won’t be invested in the future of the building.” I think we often forget that in order to overcome our throwaway culture we need to care about the stuff that we have, and part of that means we have to have nice stuff that we want to take care of.

So much else has happened here that I am leaving out, and it is hard to believe our time in Rio is almost up, but I’m excited to move onto the next stage, and I know I will be back in Rio in the future. Next we are heading to Curitiba in about 10-12 days to get ready to start the semester in mid April.

P.S. I have a plan forming for next may after I graduate to just head to South America and travel until the money runs out. The world cup will be going on in Brasil in June and I want to be here for that. Who wants to come?