Last updated: Monday, 28 March 2005 14:08 -0500
|Wherein I blather about my first trip South of the Equator, sampling my memory in a truly random-access way. Do not expect much in the way of paragraphical continuity; seek ye elsewhere if that is what floats yer boat. :-) Bear in mind that I was in a country foreign to me, and unfamiliar with its language and customs; I may have misunderstood things and hence misreport them here -- but that is only my own ignorance.|
In late 2000 I was invited by Cesar Brod of Univates in Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil (Brazil), to come speak at the Software Livre conference in May of 2001. I had never been to Brasil, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to shoot off my face, so I accepted.
Nothing happened for a few months, but when they did start happening it got fairly exciting. For example, U.S. citizens going to Brasil need to have a visa, which means filling out paperwork and having it processed by a Brasilian consulate in the U.S. There are a number of different types of visas, and different kinds of documentation that need to be provided to obtain them, and I was completely clewless about it -- all of my international travel to this point had been to countries that did not have this pre-visa process, but rather granted a visa at immigration and passport control.
The aspect of this that made things exciting was that some of the types of visas required an itinerary or copy of the airline tickets, which I obviously did not yet have, and notices were prominent that applicants should 'allow n weeks for processing.'
As it happened, the visa and ticket arrangements got sorted out at the eleventh hour, and everything happened in the proper sequence. (I do not think the trip organisers realised just what an 8-hour layover at JFK in New York would be like, but oh well. I tried several different ways of getting on a later flight from RDU to JFK, but was baffled by the fact that the reservations were made from Brasil and the flight in question was the first leg -- any changes, even had I been able to make them, would have seriously altered the fare schedule. Sigh.)
Despite my concerns and angst about the travel arrangements (about which PROCERGS seemed to be very casual), once I arrived everything was grand. There was a van to take us to the hotel, and throughout the week Cesar, Alex, and the other People In Charge took most excellent care of us, seeing that we always had transportation and food. (The hotel was within walking distance of the conference -- for someone with good legs.)
I tried to film the phenomenon of water going down the drain in an anti-clockwise direction South of the Equator, but was foiled -- the sink in the washroom on the plane was emptied by a bubbling suction device, and the sink in my hotel room disobliged by using a clockwise swirl. So I still have not seen it for myself. Nor did I remember to look for the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, confound it. Maybe I will have better luck next time.
I really do not want to think about, much less describe, the trip back. Let me just say that I got stuck in São Paulo for a considerable number of hours longer than required by my itinerary. :-(
I was at a serious disadvantage on several occasions because I could not understand the accents of people talking to me, and without an interpreter the best I could do was stand there looking intensely interested until the other person wandered off. Which was too bad; when there was an interpreter around, the other parties no longer were, and so.. no chance of a follow-up. Too bad indeed; some of the sentence fragments I did understand sounded cool.. and all I could do was stand there going 'huh?'.
Of course, even when the official interpreters were on the job things did march with perfect smoothness. I met with them for about thirty minutes before giving my presentation, just to make them aware of any acronyms or idiomatic expressions I might use. (A good idea, but you try to figure out what portions of what you have not yet said might be confusing when translated..!) When the time actually came, I clipped the microphone to my shirt but no-one could hear me. Remarking that I had 'too much beard' to much laughter, I repositioned the microphone so it worked. A day later I found out the translator had told the audience I had said I had 'too much beer.' Pretty funny (I do not drink), and she realised and corrected herself immediately, but the crowd was not laughing for the reason I thought they were.. heh.
The simultaneous translation was weird in other ways, too. Many, if not most, of the people in the audience were wearing headsets, and I had one myself. When responding to a question, which was usually asked in Portuguese, I had to turn up the volume so I could hear the translation -- and then remember to turn it down agin so I would not hear my own words in Portuguese. Let me tell you, it is really disconcerting to go through this business of hearing Portuguese aloud, English in the headset, English aloud as you respond, and then Portuguese in the headset -- especially when the audible and headset pieces are happening at the same time. I am probably not explaining this very well, but oh well -- it was weird and required the development of some new short-term habits. :-)
Speaking of language again, I studied Portuguese -- briefly -- at University. And I am here to tell you: Brasileiro Portuguese is significantly different from that of Portugal. Almost all of the pitiful rag-tag fragments in my memory were completely useless because of the pronunciation differences. About the only words that still worked were 'sí' and 'não.' :-)
Every day the hosts took us out to lunch at a different place, and every night to a different restaurant for dinner. When I came in late one day, shortly before Rasmus' talk, Cesar asked if I had had lunch. When I said 'no', he was all set for us to charge out and find a place. When I demurred, he insisted on sending someone out to get me a ham and cheese sandwich. Quite a guy!
At least two of the places where we ate a featured item was meat on skewers. The server would come round with a skewer, a metal plate, and a large knife. If you wanted some of the meat, he would put down the plate, rest the tip of the skewer on it, and carve some off for you. One of the skewered delicacies -- of which I partook not at all -- was chicken hearts. A lotta chickens did the funky to fill one of those skewers..
The last night was a big do at a restaurant, Galpão Crioulo, that featured live entertainment. I did not get to eat much because I was too busy watching (and filming) the amazing things the gaucho1 dancers were doing on the stage -- one number was a sort of gaucho counterpart to a Scottish sword-dance, and another was a stunning display of boleadoras technique. I hope to get some of the film into a digital format..
During the week I noticed a few people walking around drinking from what I can only call 'strange contraptions'. I finally asked someone about them, and was told that the contraption and the hot drink it contains are called 'chimarrão' (pronounced something like 'shim-a-HOW', with the last syllable nasalised). I was able to find out more at Galpão Crioulos, the restaurant where we ate on the last night; they had a kiosk outside the dining area where you could sample the stuff and buy the paraphenalia, or even just examine it. The container (called a cuipa) is essentially a treated gourd, and the green stuff in it is a tea-like substance called erva-maté made from a relative of holly. I have no idea how they get the maté to hold its form. It is drunk through an ornamental metal straw called a bomba, which has a strainer attached at the bottom.
I tried the maté but did not care for it much; aside from not being a tea-drinker, it tasted a little as though the previous sampler had been a smoker. (It is apparently considered extremely bad manners to wipe or clean the bomba as the chimarrão is passed around.)
Although I did not care for the chimarrão, I did take a fancy to what seems to be the national soft drink, guaraná. I really cannot describe the taste, but I liked it -- and Rasmus said that he became addicted to the stuff when he lived in Brasil.
I should have written this report sooner; unfortunately, I have forgotten a lot of people's names. Like that of the fellow from Cuba who was in the van from the airport, or the network whiz who helped me get my wireless working, or the Uruguayan who gave me the package of erva-maté on the last night. No, wait -- I do not think I ever knew his name.. :-)
I am not sure how many other people from the U.S. were at the Software Livre, but there were at least two others: Rasmus Lerdorf and Tim Ney. We ended up hanging around together quite a bit, joined by a common language.
I did not get to attend very many sessions, but the attendees seemed very enthusiastic -- and there were lots of them. I know that my presentation and Rasmus' were given to packed halls, and the applause was loud and prolonged. We kept getting stopped for autographs and photographs, which was unexpected (but gratifying :-).
The attendees seemed to be a mix of geeks and suits; both seemed quite adequately represented. There were government officials as well as corporate hackers all over the place.
Software Livre was apparently funded at least partially with state money, and the organisation that produced it, PROCERGS, is apparently the sole-source software procurer for thegovernment of Rio Grande do Sul. Alex and Claudio (Alex is the one on the right) from PROCERGS took me on tours and answered a lot of my questions about how things were being done. I cannot be sure I understood it all, but the impression I got was of a bunch of active, committed people who had the government on their side.
I was very impressed by the whole event, and especially by some of the things I learned there. For instance, the state of Rio Grande do Sul had recently determined that any and all software solutions developed for the government had to be free software one -- no closed or proprietary solutions need apply unless there was a very good justification.
That was pretty cool, but what was even more cool was seeing the private sector getting involved. One of the banks -- I do not know how big a bank it was, but it was the one that had ATMs at the conference -- had deployed Linux as the operating system in their ATMs. Right down to Tux appearing in the lower-left corner of the screen display. This was not just a gimmick, either; I was taken to the bank and given a tour, and saw where they were working on the ATM software. And Alex demonstrated the functionality of the ATMs by withdrawing some money, and I got it on film. Complete with Tux in the corner of the screen, but not including Alex's PIN. :-)
It would be a mistake to judge the entire state of Rio Grande do Sul by the attendees and events at the Software Livre conference, and another to judge all of Brasil by what I saw in the single state of Rio Grande do Sul -- and I am certainly not qualified to judge anything or anyone in any case. However, my opinion is that the free-/open-software community in RS is alive and incredibly healthy; the people I saw seemed to have boundless enthusiasm and a largely-shared vision of what they want to accomplish. The involvement of the government and of the bank were incredibly exciting, although the former situation may change at the next election, and the latter may change due to factors I cannot imagine. I can only hope things continue to progress in the direction they seem to be going now, and I hope Cesar and friends invite me back next year -- I cannot wait to see what they will have accomplished in the meantime. For I have no doubt that they will have accomplished something really neat..