Archives for category: Uncategorized

Just about everything in my life has changed since my last post; I don’t even know where to start. Between classes and settling into life here, I’ve been busy, but I wanted to give an update.

Follow along in my facebook photos, the ones in Curitiba start about halfway through the album.

I left Rio on April 7th and came to Curitiba, where I will be studying until August. It’s funny, Rio is far and away the most beautiful city I have ever been in, but after a while you start to take start to take it for granted. The skyscraping peaks draped in rainforest, the endless sun-drenched beaches, the food, the ocean, the waves, all these things which were so amazing at first just somehow become the new normal. And then after a while you start to get sick of the traffic, the noise, the heat, and everything else that comes with living in Rio. I enjoyed my time there beyond belief and I will return in the future, but after 6 weeks in that crazy city I was definitely ready for something a little bit calmer, cleaner, and quieter, as everyone told me Curitiba would be.

And it is. Curitiba is about as opposite of Rio as you can get and still be in Brazil. Located in the south of Brazil, the city has a very strong european influence which you can see in everything from the architecture and city planning, to the food and the people themselves. Within Brazil the southern region has a well deserved reputation for being more developed and organized. There are public squares, fountains, and pedestrian streets throughout the city, and the number of swanky shopping malls is almost matched by the number of museums and cultural spaces. Additionally, Curitiba has an innovative bus system that is renowned for its efficiency. The weather here is much more temperate than the heat of Rio; its usually around 75 during the day and cooler at night. Everyone says that it  gets really cold in the winter but I’ll believe it when I see it.

It’s been 3 weeks here and I’m just starting to get settled into a day to day routine. After a lot of searching I moved into my apartment last friday and it has turned out to be a miracle situation. My 2 roommates are Brazilian, and the owner of the apartment, Louriete, is a portuguese teacher. Lourie has been super helpful, showing me around the city and constantly introducing me to people. Chatting with her has been a great way to practice my Portuguese and I’m sure it will continue to be.

As cool as the bus system is here, I was getting sick of riding it back and forth across the city 4 times a day, so I bought a bike last week off of the Brazilian version of craigslist. Drivers here aren’t very friendly to bikers, but there is a decent network of bike paths throughout the city including one that goes directly from my apartment to campus.

Thats all I have time for for now. More to come!


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?

The first week here in Rio has been a whirlwind, so many new people, places, sights, sounds, and foods to take in. It’s a lot to digest and it has been a lot of fun to try and find our feet here. On Tuesday Mat and I decided to get right into it by hiking Pedra da Gávea, the world’s largest beachfront stone monolith (what a title). It was hard to find info about the trail and most accounts recommended hiring a guide. After searching the internet for a while I found a post that said it was possible to make it on your own but that you may have to do some rock climbing along the way. Not ones to be scared off by a little free climbing, Mat and I decided to go for it.

We took off on a bus from Ipanema just before 10 AM towards Barra da Tijuca, a barrier island suburb of Rio which is often referred to as “the new rio” or “the miami of Brazil”. Its about a 45 minute bus ride in traffic, but some of the views over the ocean and of Pedra da Gávea itself made it hard to believe this is what many people look at on their daily commute.

After passing through the tunnel under Pedra da Gávea, we hopped off the bus and headed toward the trailhead, located in an upper class neighborhood on the backside of the mountain. The entrance to the trail was marked by a sign and by a guard station with a couple of park rangers hanging out inside. We signed in with them and talked a little bit in broken portuguese and english; after they took our names down, we started our climb up the mountain.

2013-02-26 14.44.30

The first hour was a lot of steep uphill hiking through the jungle. There were some colorful orchids in bloom and lots of unfamiliar  flora along the way. We really started to feel the heat at this point, the high was forecasted to be 98 fahrenheit, and even in the shade we could feel the temperature in the jungle rising as we made our way up the increasingly steep trail. After about an hour of climbing we came out to a clearing with a great view over Barra, and more impressively, of the enormous head shaped wall of rock that we were going to scale. Looking up at the 100 foot vertical faces on all sides was intimidating, and it was hard to imagine how we would be able to get the top of this seemingly impenetrable rock cylinder. After taking some pictures and applying sunscreen like my life depended on it, we continued on and emerged from the jungle into a grassy highland. Without the protection of the jungle it became blatantly clear that the sun was going to hurt, and since shade was now hard to come by my only option was to continuously apply my SPF 900 sunscreen and cringe like a vampire.

2013-02-26 12.04.53

So we kept making our way along the trail and eventually came to the point where we were going to have to start some actual rock climbing. This last section is known as Carrasqueira pass, and it is a near vertical section of rock climbing that did not look easy from the bottom. Without thinking about it too much we just started off up the wall, grabbing footholds and moving towards the top, and before we knew it we were there. After walking through some welcome shade, and scampering up a few more boulders we emerged at the actual top, tired and ready to take in the view.

One of the amazing things about Rio is that practically everywhere you look you can see some combination of dense urban landscape, beautiful beaches, and awe-inspiring jungle covered mountains. This is true almost no matter where you are in the city but I think I can safely say that from the top of Pedra da Gávea, you can see the best Rio has to offer of all of these. There are huge mountain ranges extending back into the mainland, Pão de Açucar and Cristo Redentor visible in the distance, and the light sand beaches of São Conrado, Barra, and Ipanema running the coast between the mountains that punctuate the shoreline. We could see hang gliders floating easily and seemingly aimlessly in the breeze above the favelas that dot the hillsides below. These favelas are shantytowns that tend to be built on the sides of mountains, and something about them seems to convey movement even from a distance. Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio with more than 150,000 inhabitants, was directly in sight, sprawled over the back of Morro Dois Irmãos and sandwiched up against modern high-rises with a fancy golf course in sight. Looking at Rocinha from a distance I couldn’t help but marvel at the vast differences between the appearance of the favelas vs that of the middle and upper class neighborhoods. The divide between how different classes live is really visible even from a distance. From afar the favelas look like a jumbled mess of houses piled on top of houses, with no discernable pattern or system of roads. Meanwhile the upper class neighborhoods nearby are filled with high rise apartment buildings and residential areas with pools visible in backyards. The stark contrast between the rich and the poor is made starker by the geographical proximity of one to another. Looking down on Rio it is fascinating to think about the diversity of life both within and between economic classes here and to see how that is manifested in the fabric of the city.

2013-02-26 12.48.10

To see pictures from our hike check out my facebook album.

We’ve been having a lot of fun meeting people from the hostel and enjoying the city, and I’ll keep posting here with updates.


I’m all packed and ready to go, but it still doesn’t feel real. Maybe thats a good thing. Anyway here is some info on Brazil for you all to follow along back home.

The New York Times travel section did a feature on Rio this past weekend which gives a good introduction to what the city is like now in the midst of all the change going on there. It captures not only the phenomenal beauty and diversity of the cidade maravilhosa, but also the ways in which Rio is still struggling to change the reality of the cidade partida, or divided city.

Here is the hostel I will be staying at in Ipanema for the first week in Rio, before moving in with my host family.

Anyway I’m off to the airport so wish me luck.

20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the tradewinds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover

Mark Twain

For those of you who don’t know, this is an evive station. The basic idea is that you buy a re-usable water bottle from them, and they have a machine that you put your water bottle in to be cleaned and refilled with water. The evive company makes money by playing targeted advertisements at you during this cleaning and refilling process, and the station is being marketed as a sustainable alternative to buying bottled water. It’s been installed in several locations on WVU’s campus and now the company is attempting to expand to PITT as well. Sounds great huh? Well I’m pretty picky when it comes to things being marketed as “Sustainable,” so hold on a second.

I have a couple problems with the whole evive system, the first being that the addition of a large, wholly unnecessary, energy-intensive process to the water distribution system is clearly a bad idea from a sustainability perspective. I agree that using this evive machine is probably more sustainable than buying a bottled water every day, but thats not really the point. We already have the best potable water delivery system in the world, and we should be using and expanding it. Adding the evive water-perfectification system into the mix is silly because it attempts to fix the problem with another, potentially slightly smaller problem. I’m tempted to quote the old adage, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but that doesn’t quite fit, because I agree that the amount of bottled water being sold indicates that there is something “broken” in the system. However I think that the way to go about fixing this problem is through public action and education.

My other objections to the evive system are related to the social aspects of how it functions, which is critical to think about when you are talking about access to a basic resource like water. This machine, which according to the company delivers “clean, sanitized … UV-treated, and filtered water” reinforces the idea that tap water is unfit for consumption in the first place, which is ridiculous. Think about the fact that globally the leading cause of death is diarrhea caused by unclean drinking water. Do you know anyone who has died of diarrhea? No, you don’t, because we have an unbelievably effective water purification system already in place before the water comes out of your tap. So what exactly are we using more energy on purification for?

However beyond all of that I think the most important thing to recognize is that this scheme, like bottled water, is a privatization of water resources, meaning that public access to water is being mediated by a company that needs to make a profit. On this point I think a lot of people will call me an uptight marxist, to which I respond, “Yes.” Water is a textbook example of a resource that should remain outside of a market system. In this case we are “only” trading a minute of our time to be advertised to, but the principle is that some things, like water, should be public.

I’m going to step off the deep end here a little but bear with me. At the roots of the sustainability problem lies our society’s problem with consumptive behavior. Evive, which makes a profit by advertising (read: encouraging consumptive behavior), can therefore never be a sustainable company, even if they make a water bottle filling machine that has no environmental impacts and uses no energy. They will still not be a sustainable business because their business model is built on encouraging consumptive behavior, which is really the core of the whole sustainability problem in the first place.

If none of that stuff convinces you, my last point is one of usability. This machine is going to take at least 2-3 times as much time as a hydration station to use(the website says 30 seconds to fill the bottle on the page; 1 minute to wash). If these actually get used in any amount that is going to appreciably reduce the amount of bottled water sold, lines are going to form at them and I for one am not going to be happy about it.

Please comment! I appreciate feedback, especially criticism.