Wednesday, August 6, 2014

They Do Things Differently Here #3: Accommodations for the Blind

Okay, I'm all about helping out people who are disabled.  I don't begrudge the handicapped parking spots - even at Wal-Mart where you have to park a mile from that jug of milk you need - and I'm proud to have a friend who helps kids who need alternative methods of communication.

So when I saw that Brazil had installed nifty little bumpy tile things on sidewalks and on the floors of public places like airports to help the blind, I was impressed!  Here was a country that was moving beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act to really help people gain independence!

Some bumps are round dots.  These seem to indicate that the person should stop or at least prepare for some sort of change.  They often appear at curbs, information counters, and at escalators. But some bumps are more like dashes or elongated ovals.  These seem to indicate a walkway, path, or direction. What a great idea, right?
Bumpy lines leading up to the information desk at he Natal, Brazil airport

But further investigation revealed that, while the idea is a good one, in most cases, the execution us just plain mean.

First, I noticed that on some sidewalks, the bumps just end abruptly and randomly.  What happens to those poor vision-impaired citizens who were following these bumps?  Do they stand frozen, wondering where the sidewalk has gone?  Do they feel around tentatively with their feet, hoping the dots will reappear a few steps away?
Kinley, Lanita, and Josh walk between the bumps on the sidewalk.
And sometimes, the bumps give conflicting messages. 

Is the vision-impaired person supposed to walk or stop?  Or maybe you walk on the left side but stop on the right side?  Or maybe the sidewalk-installer-guys were trying to be cute?  Who knows?

Then, in the airport in Rio, I noticed these color-coded bumpy indicators.

You may not be able to see this in the image above, but the red dots are in front of a fire extinguisher and the blue dots are in front of a bank of pay phones.  I mean, seriously?  The people using these bumps are blind! How are someone's feet going to feel the difference between the red FIRE EXTINGUISHER bumps and the blue PAY PHONE bumps??!!

I can just imagine the scene.  A fire breaks out at gate 12.  Someone yells, "Fire!" (Or the Portuguese equivalent, of course.). Then, do the airport planners really think that the BLIND guy is gonna be the one to say, "Don't worry!  I'll get the fire extinguisher!  I can follow the little dots!"?  Do they really expect him to follow the little oval bumps to the RED round bumps indicating the fire extinguisher and not to the BLUE round bumps indicating the pay phones which are located right next to the red ones??!!  What are the chances that they guy would pick up the fire extinguisher and not the phone?  

Or perhaps that's the point.  Maybe the airport planners decided that in either case, the blind guy could save the day.  Either his little feet will guide him to the fire extinguisher (after which he'd follow the little bumps back to gate 12 and heroically aim said fire extinguisher in the exact location of the fire) or he'd accidentally pick up the phone, realize his mistake, and dial the appropriate authorities to report the incident.  Either way, it's a win, I guess.

And then, at Iguazu Falls National Park in Argentina, I saw what was possibly the meanest blind accommodation ever.  The park had helpfully mounted maps of the park onto tables at the visitors' center. They were 3D, and each one was quite large - perhaps 3 feet by 5 feet.  Each map had a map key, explanations of points of interest, and labels written in English, Spanish, and Braille.  There was only one problem.  The maps were mounted - wait for it - under glass!  Yes.  That's what I said.  The little Braille bumps were completely inaccessible to the fingers of the blind visitors because they were covered in protective glass.

Here you can see the Braille map key and part of the 3D map.  You can also see the reflection of the protective glass that prevents the blind from actually using the map.  Note the hand resting on the glass, a good 3 inches above the Braille.

Detail of the Braille labels, still under glass
Again, I can picture the scene.  A blind visitor comes to the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls.  She heads over to the visitors' center (with much difficulty, since Argentina hasn't yet installed those awesome little bumpy sidewalk tile thingys), and finds a glass-topped table.  Somehow, she senses that this large, smooth rectangle must be a Braille relief map of the park!  Lucky for her, she has remembered to bring along a friend who is happy to act as a sort of Braille dot-reader/translator in just such a time as this!

"Let's see now, " the translator begins helpfully, "It looks like we've got two vertical dots followed by six sort of stair-stepped dots followed by kind of a backwards L of dots followed by what looks like a Lego creation my 7-year-old made of dots followed by some dots that look like the constellation of Taurus the Bull.  I think that means 'You are here.'" 

It's mean.  Just mean.  And, of course, I acknowledge that America still has a lot of room for growth when it comes to providing equal access for those with special needs, but hopefully, our city planners aren't quite so *ahem* blind to those needs.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guest Blogger: Josh and Stickers For Jesus

Until this summer, I had never collected stickers or had any interest whatsoever in soccer. But today I am the proud owner of a completed Panini World Cup sticker album—all 643 slots covered with the right stickers, most of them featuring soccer players I hadn't even heard of 6 weeks ago. How did this transformation happen?

First of all, I taught in May at Purdue a class in Sports Communication (with several international students), so I developed a heightened awareness of the sporting world beyond my usual focus on major league baseball and college basketball. Knowing that I was going to be living in Brazil during the World Cup (hosted this year by Brazil, in case you just emerged from a coma or aren't aware of the world beyond American borders), a Wall Street Journal article about sticker collecting and the World Cup caught my eye.

My initial interest was for my class—this seemed like an interesting example of the commodification of sport. In the same way that Americans buy sports memorabilia or wear jerseys from their favorite teams or collect baseball cards, this seemed like a more global version of the same phenomenon. 

According to the article, every four years, when the World Cup determines the best national soccer team in the world, Panini (an Italian company) publishes an album that includes sponsor stickers, FIFA-related stickers, and most importantly, the pictures of every player on all 32 teams competing in the World Cup. Collectors apparently range from schoolchildren to middle-aged men to entire families, all determined to cover as many slots in their albums as possible. The article described public spaces where people met to trade stickers to try to finish their books. It said that even though this was more of a global phenomenon, the books and stickers were actually available in America!

I went to Wal-Mart. I bought an empty album ($1.98) and five packs of stickers ($1/pack, 7 stickers in a pack). "Just a sample," I thought. "I'll use it for my class," I thought.

And I did. The reaction was startling--no one in the class had ever seen the book before, but everyone wanted to open the sticker packs and stick them in it!

Before I left the U.S., I bought one more batch of five sticker packs. "I don't have a problem," I told myself. "I can quit any time," I told myself. "This is just a little curiosity for Brazil. Maybe it will give me some good conversation topics with my readers--'stickers for Jesus!'"

Our Let's Start Talking mission project offers English conversation practice using stories from Luke as the basis for discussions. But the first part of each session is usually composed of small talk, and I thought this book might be a great conversation starter. I trotted out my new book and was a little disappointed when the first couple of people I showed didn't seem to recognize it or know anything about it. All that changed, however, when one of Gina's readers noticed what I was carrying. He even pulled up an app on his phone that kept track of which stickers he still needed!

Thus began my sticker-collecting odyssey. They're actually called "figurinhas" in Portuguese, and in Brazil they're a big deal. It turned out that several of our readers, their friends, and in one case a reader's husband collected the figurinhas and wanted to help me with my budding collection.  

First, one of Gina's readers told me a cheaper place and way to buy them--in a bulk pack that included 72 stickers for the equivalent of U.S. $6. That meant in Brazil I could buy stickers at 12 for a dollar instead of just the 7 I got for a dollar in the U.S. Bargain central! A couple of readers brought me their friends' duplicates to see if I could use any of them, and of course I could. The crowning piece of intelligence, however, was that there were informal trading posts, just like the ones I had read about in the article, in different spots around the city of Natal.

My first trading foray was at one of these outposts, on a rainy Saturday morning. With virtually no Portuguese and only a vague idea of how things worked, I took my small stack of duplicates and a list of some of the stickers I really wanted (primarily the shiny ones and those from the Brazilian, American, German, and Argentine teams). When I arrived, I found that I had made some good guesses about how things worked--I correctly had my duplicates in numeric order, making them easier for others to scan against their lists of missing stickers, and I also had a good list of the stickers I needed myself. At this point, my list of missing stickers was VERY partial--I hadn't allowed myself to even think about FINISHING the book at this point--I was just looking to have a decent collection. I probably had about 150 different stickers in the book, I had bought a few scattered sticker packs and 2 of the bulk packs, and that was all I intended to spend (at least, that's what I told myself).

My big discovery at that first trading post was that "trading" isn't always possible--in my case, for instance, I needed a lot more stickers than other people did. The market accommodated this by trading when possible and simply selling when not possible. Each sticker was priced at 20 centavos (about 10 U.S. cents). A few people paid me for some of mine, and I paid a few people for some of theirs (learning that I needed to carry more small change), and after an hour, I had been bitten by the bug.

I made a complete list of the stickers I was missing (a very long list in the beginning).

I talked about the collection with my readers.
Readers brought me stickers (!).
I started making pilgrimages in the evenings to another trading post at the mall.
And I went back to buy more bulk packs.

I continued to learn throughout this sticker odyssey:  for one thing, the Brazilian book isn't exactly the same as the American book. Different sponsors produced slightly different stickers for the beginning and end of the books, so I had to figure out which Brazilian stickers fit my American slots in a couple of cases. Another difference is that the blanks in the American book had both the number of each sticker AND the name of the corresponding player--the Brazilian book had only the numbers, no names. And while I was learning some names of national soccer stars (and also their professional teams, helpfully included on the figurinhas), I was mostly focused on the numbers I needed (helpfully marked on the paper backing of each sticker). So when trading, I would shuffle through others' duplicate decks facedown, simply comparing the numbers on the sticker backing to the numbers on my list.

When my number of needed stickers dipped below 100, I began to believe that I might actually complete the book. One of our readers asked me for my "missing list" and somehow found a handful of the stickers on the list. A couple more trading forays to the mall one weekend brought my number down to only 61 missing stickers--I was 90% finished!

That's when the husband of one of Gina's readers came through for me. A former professional soccer player himself, he had collected the entire set of stickers every World Cup for as long as he could remember--since childhood. Earlier in the project, he had shown me his completed book (I have to admit I was a little in awe) and I had shown him my very incomplete book--he wasn't very impressed at the time. But when I saw him again two weeks later, and my book was nearing completion, he offered to take me to a place near one of the trading points, a place where he suggested somebody might have ALL the stickers I needed. He drove me there, I traded for a few that whittled my number down a bit further, and then he introduced me to a mysterious character (at least to me) who had a huge box full of stickers--the price was a slightly marked-up 30 centavos per sticker, but I jumped at the chance to fill some of my remaining empty spots.  He didn't have ALL the stickers I needed, but by the time we left The Man With the Stickers, I needed only 31, which The Man asked me to write down for him.

Three days later, for less than $5, my figurinhas patron from the weekend sent me an envelope on which I had written my missing numbers. I don't know how The Man did it, but he had located and enclosed every single missing sticker. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you the joy it gave me to go to the kitchen table, sort the stickers into number order, and then methodically put one in each missing spot left in my book. My son and daughter were there with me, peeling and locating the next spots--we'd scan a page, say England's, and say, "Finished!" Then on to Argentina: "Finished!" The elusive Swiss and American pages:  "Finished!" And finally the last team in the book--South Korea. All 643 spots filled.

Don't ask me how much I invested in this little venture--I honestly don't know. At the height of my trading days, I would go to the trading spots with a pocket full of small bills and change and come home with about the same amount I started with (though some of it had changed several hands through trading). I bought and sold stickers from children, adults my age, and even little old ladies. All I know for certain is that the initial album price of $1.98 turned out to be no bargain--it was the gateway drug into the sketchy underworld of Brazilian figurinhas trading, and lots of dollars (and Brazilian reais) followed that tiny initial purchase. But I have a cool souvenir of the summer I spent in Brazil during the World Cup, and I have an excellent visual aid for the next time I teach the commodification of sport in my Sports Communication class.

I don't think anyone changed their beliefs about Jesus because of my little habit, but I will say that it led to some involved and animated conversations with readers and their friends and family members. The missionary admitted to being a little bit jealous of the way the stickers led me to interactions with people, and I was more engaged with the local culture than I would have ever thought possible. "Stickers for Jesus," in the end, might be an overstatement, but I must confess that my brief but frenzied foray into the world of World Cup stickers was an almost religious experience:  I recognized something missing in my life, I enlisted the help of friends and loved ones to help me find the missing pieces, and I was able to rejoice with all of them when I finally found what had been missing. It even took what seemed like some mysticism along the way (help from The Man With the Stickers) to finish my quest.

That's all well and good, but of course the main reason I did it was that it was fun. The general excitement in Brazil surrounding the World Cup, the collector gene that I think I inherited, and the ability to interact with Brazilians young and old, most of whom spoke no English, all made completing the book a way for me to feel like a winner at World Cup time, even if I wasn't German. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

My Hour as an Illegal Alien

It's true.  I'm a law breaker.  I intentionally, illegally entered another country.  Mostly just to say I did it. Partly to see if it was really possible.  And I'm here to say that indeed it is.

At the end of our Brazilian mission project, our family took a trip to Iguazu Falls which is located between Brazil and Argentina very close to the border of Paraguay, an area known an the tres fronteras.  Americans need a visa to enter Brazil, and Argentina charges a $160 per person retaliation fee to Americans. 

(It seems that Argentinians are bitter about having to pay for a US visa if they want to enter our country, so they charge each American who wants to come in a fee equal to the price of a US visa just for spite.  They make it very clear on their website that this fee is not for a visa.  They call it a Reciprocity Fee while proudly proclaiming that Americans don't need a visa to enter their country.  Can you tell that we were super annoyed?  At least our Not-A-Visa is good for ten years in case we ever decide to come back.)

Anyway, to enter Paraguay, Americans are technically supposed to enter the country through official channels, but we had been told by the staff at our hotel that we could easily just walk in.  (Though they did warn us not to speak in English as we crossed the bridge and not to wear any expensive jewelry.)

We decided to make a break for it.

As our taxi driver let us out near the border, he gestured casually in the direction of the bridge and sped off.  We were on our own.  The maze of cars, trucks, and wildly-careening motorcycles on their way into and out of Brazil made it difficult for us to find the pedestrian walkway.  The smell of exhaust from vehicles waiting in long lines mixed with the smell of muddy river water as we approached the border.
We finally figured out that we needed to go to the far right side of the structure you see in the picture above.  All of the cars stopped at little windows to go through Brazilian immigration, but we just kept our heads down and walked on.
Even after we made it past Brazilian immigration, the lines of people in cars continued to move at a snail's pace.
As we crossed the bridge into Paraguay, Kinley strode with the confidence of an experienced border-crosser.  I, however, continued to clandestinely snap pictures with my iPhone halfway poking out of my purse.  I'm totally sure that I was sneaky enough to qualify for the CIA.  
As Paraguay loomed across the bridge, we passed other border-sneakers and imagined all the cool sights we'd see just across the river.  We knew that our passports would not have a stamp to prove our adventure, so we were hoping to find some cool places to take pictures to document our rebellious ramble.  A flag?  A picturesque view? Anything to show that we had truly added another country to our list.

Sadly, all that there was to photograph in this dirty, seedy border town was a shopping center with the country's name on the side.  It seems that this little town of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, exists only as a duty-free shopping zone for Brazilians to come and buy tax-free electronics, knock-off designer tee shirts, and cosmetics.  There was one store dedicated to kitchenwares that had a couple of pink Kitchen-Aid mixers, a few mismatched pieces of Le Creuset cookware, and some random kitchen gadgets.  The prices were higher than US prices but cheaper than Brazilian ones.  I wasn't tempted.

In fact, I was a little creeped out by all the guys shouting at me in Spanish and Portuguese while thrusting fliers detailing amazing deals on phones, hair dryers, and cameras at me.  After about 45 minutes of shouting and thrusting, I was creeped out enough to want to leave the country.
On the way back, I felt much less threatened.  I realized that no one cared whether I had sneaked in to Paraguay or not.  There were no gun-toting border guards, no grumpy-looking immigration agents.  Just a dirty bridge across a dirty river.  So I took pictures openly as we crossed under the sign marking the official border!
As we headed back, I admit that I was disappointed.  Instead of adventure, we'd only found shady commercialism.  Instead of feeling proud of myself at having sneaked into a country, I just felt a little dirty.  And while it is, admittedly, unfair to judge an entire country based on one border town, I'm pretty sure that for me this was two trips in one.  My first and my last into Paraguay.  And, unfortunately, my passport documents neither.

Now, for a funny account of an American who really tries to follow the law as she enters Paraguay, click here.