Turtle Feasts, University Corruption Lawsuits, and Much Much More

That time I ate an over-sized guinea pig and a turtle:

You have to love a good food adventure. Every once and a while Santarém provides one and although you initially cringe at what is being placed in front of you, more often than not the food doesn’t end up tasting all that bad. This past Friday (it was All-Saints Day and as this is Brazil…it was a national holiday) was one such occasion when Jose Luis invited us to his friend “The Colonel’s” (he’s a retired Brazilian army colonel) beach house for a day of Brazilian bbqing.

Yeah…the Colonel has a deeeeccccceeeeent view to enjoy everyday…

The day’s strange food events began when I was informed that our hosts were preparing some capivara for all to enjoy. If you don’t remember my blog post about the Pantanal, a capivara is a sort of humungoid guinea pig. In fact, it’s the largest living rodent in the world and is actually pretty darn adorable. We were told that one of the Colonel’s friends had caught a wild capivara the day before (which despite them not being endangered at all…is super illegal) and gave it to him as a present. That said, around lunchtime out rolled this delicious looking pot of stewed meat…

…other than having to get over the cuteness of the animal, it was pretty good. The meat more or less tasted like uber-tender chicken.

The day’s second (and slightly more traumatizing) “am I really about to eat this?” moment started when two of the guests (one was Jose Luis’ verbose friend Simon) strolled up from the beach holding a fairly large turtle (seriously…I just lol’d when I clicked on the link…DO IT) that they’d just plucked out of the river. They brought it over to Donovan and I and asked if we wanted to say “hello.” Following our introduction to the turtle, the two guys informed us that they were going to grill it. Suffice it to say, I assumed it was all just a lost-in-translation joke. Well, a few hours later they called me over to the barbeque and sure enough…roasting turtle…

…after two and a half hours of grilling, out the turtle meat came. Despite my initial reluctance to consume my recent acquaintance, I managed to chomp down on a few pieces and I must say…they were a delight. The meat tasted like a cross between top grade New York sirloin and chicken.  I would sum the whole experience up with Simon’s thought: “Unlike in America, where you have access to all sorts of high quality livestock, here in the Amazon we learn to eat whatever we find and it ends up tasting really good.”

Two “remarkable” things I learned about UFOPA:

As always with life as an ETA at UFOPA, everyday brings a new set of interesting insights into the politics, drama, and eye-raising decisions made at a three-year old university in the Brazilian Amazon.  I now present to you two insights I learned about our dear UFOPA this week that once again left me with a “?” expression on my face.

A Corruption Lawsuit at UFOPA: I touched on this a few months ago in a rant about the strike, but the unelected university president here is a fairly controversial figure.  He was installed by the Brazilian Minister of Education in 2009 and never had to go through a proper university selection process. This was allowed for by the fact that UFOPA was in its infancy and had no administrative structure. One of the goals of the ineffectual, four-month long strike was to put the president’s name up for a vote (I believe there is a committee at UFOPA that is charged with selecting the university president) to either give him real legitimacy or get somebody who wasn’t the stooge of the big shots in Brasília. Well, as you might have guessed, that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, the latest “news” around UFOPA is that in March the university student body filed a lawsuit against the president for stealing money from the university and the legal process is starting to “heat up.” I’ll let the absurdity of that sink in for a moment…

The students charge is that the president has been continually skimming money off the top of the school’s budget for quite some time. More specifically they contend that the administration has been filing operating costs as being significantly higher than they are, paying the much lower costs, and pocketing the difference.  As one of my students put it, “They say a white-board marker costs five reias, buy it for two, and take the three for themselves.” According to my students, this is the modus-operandi of more than few officials at public institutions across Brazil. While I cannot attest to the veracity of the students’ claims, I have to say that the case has Brazilian corruption written all over it…

Happy Three-Year Birthday UFOPA: I guess the joke is on Donovan and I. When we got here in March our coordinator Maria Luiza told us that the university was three years old…already. Well, that was just plain old false and misleading. First off, November 2009 to March 2012 is hardly three years.  Secondly, it turns out that before our arrival, classes at UFOPA had been in session for ONE academic year (i.e 2011).  Before that, the university only existed…on paper…

The implications of that bit of misinformation? The Brazilian Fulbright commission literally signed a four-year contract to place ETAs at a university that DIDN’T EVEN EXIST YET. What on God’s green Earth made that seem like a good idea? It’s hard not to feel that all of the struggles that we have had with the ETA program here at UFOPA are basically rooted in one basic, undeniable fact: the university is just too new and disorganized to receive us.  The Fulbright ETA program and UFOPA have never really been a good fit…that’s as incontrovertible as I am a gringo. What a nascent university in the Brazilian Amazon needs in terms of English teaching is just not what Fulbright can provide (this program is NOT about sending down ESL trained grammarians!).

At this point you might be asking yourself, how did a university that only existed on paper manage to get a program that universities throughout Brazil compete for? As luck would have it…insight #1 and insight #2 are connected. The following fact (which for months I’ve tried to selectively ignore) came to my attention at midyear meet-up in Brasília: The president of CAPES (the Brazilian higher education ministry that finances the majority of our funding) and the president of UFOPA…are big time buddy buddy. Given the fact that the only positive thing I’ve heard about the university president is that “he’s well-connected in Brasília and because of that…he gets us stuff,” it ALL makes sense now. There’s just nothing better than being a pawn in two crusty old Brazilian politicians back-scratching game. I guess the jokes on Donovan and I. As always, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Other happenings:

  • Tomorrow is the big day. Andy’s Prediction That Is In No Way Based On Nate Silver’s: Obama 303 electoral votes in a fairly comfortable victory. Facts are stubborn things…and unless the state polls are completely wrong…he’s got this thing wrapped up.
  • Remember that time that somebody came into our apartment area and stole a pair of shorts and a shirt that I’d washed and left out to dry during the day? Oh yeah…I do. Whoever did it…I hope you don’t come across me wearing a Kruger National Park t-shirt with a lion on it. Plain, old wack sauce. Period.
  • The climate in Santarém appears to be slowly but surely transitioning back in the wet season. We’ve had a 45 minute deluge of rain and a few mornings of cloudiness during the past week…thank the lord! And yes…those really are storm clouds you’re seeing…

  • The Fishguy invited Donovan and I to a “Pirarucu Festival” in one of the local communities next Sunday. The day will apparently be spent eating pirarucu, dancing, and drinking copious amounts of beer…should be a doozy.
  • Watched “True Grit” recently…while the plot leaves something to be desired, the acting in that movie is a joy to watch. Also, see “Ted” for a good laugh if you haven’t already (and particularly if you’re from Boston). I lol’d.
  • My calendar informs me that it is November…does that mean Thanksgiving is coming up? Ummmmm…what?

That’s all I have for now. If you haven’t already…GO OUT AND VOTE PEOPLE. Until next Monday, have a splendiferously good week.

Um forte abraço,


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