It ends again…

March 31, 2009 at 8:45 am | Posted in School, Travel | 1 Comment
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Lewis and Clarkdsc04864

The last two afternoons in Salvador, spread out across a weekend, were spent exploring the winding streets and hills of this decidedly African-feeling South American city. Spanish colonial architecture, narrow roads, oppressive heat and hand-crafted goods and food all combined to leave me with a feeling not unlike the one I had upon my initial arrival in Brazil.

Organic. Alive. This house, on this hill, is not here because some developer mapped out its exact location and placement. Its here, most likely, because somebody wanted a house next to that other house on the hill, or perhaps some other sensible, natural reason. The beauty here is not planned, it just happens. A fascinating, and admirable, way of life.

We wandered about and marveled, purchased trinkets and drank and ate. The experience was ending, the days spiraling towards their inevitable conclusion, and there was a sadness, a melancholy about the bunch. This has been a fine trip, with a fine group. Smaller, tighter than China, but richer, warmer. More connections made, better conversations had. New things learned and old things remembered in this marvelous country, these two beautiful cities. Life and growth, a simultaneous quickening and slowing of pace, rolled up together and baked in the heat and the fires of this Brazil.


The (entire name) is silent

March 31, 2009 at 8:07 am | Posted in Music, School, Travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Not Rio

We arrived at our next destination, Salvador, and were, admittedly, a bit let down after the splendor and the beauty of Rio De Janeiro. There were no towering mountains, no majestic beaches. There were, though, malfunctioning air conditioners, little buggies in the beds, and the Brazilian equivalent of The Fast and The Furious taking place right outside our hotel window that night.

Such was our disappointment in this new venue, that for one full day we refused to speak its name, referring to it instead only as Not-rio. Take heart, though, and note the full usage of the name above, and here again – Salvador. For we ultimately came around, were wooed, won over and convinced that this was a fine city indeed. The initial impression, and our lodgings in particular, just left us a bit…down.

Ooba Gooba

Our business visit in Salvador was with the Brazilian construction giant turned conglomerate, Odebrecht Group. It’s name – odebrecht5b15dnative to Brazil, appearing German, pronounced…well, full disclosure, I’m still not quite sure. As a group, we mis-pronounced, misspoke, and mismanaged this proud company’s name in so many new and different ways that it was a wee bit embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I found them to be an impressive company indeed, possessing, in their history, a story that would make any American MBA student salivate upon hearing. Founded in 1944 by Norberto Oderbrecht, one of these titans of the mid-century that fabricated entire industries out of whole cloth with nothing but their bare hands and a good idea, the pride of the employees telling the tale was practically seeping from their very pores. As it should.

Existing primarily as a construction company for forty years before transforming into a holding company and embarking on a domestic spending spree, it is easy to admire the patience and planning of a company that was content with doing one thing, and one thing only, very well for almost half a century before making the leap into aggressive expansion.

dsc04762The presentation advanced and the slide moved on to an overall chronology of the company, and I found myself speechless. For this slide was not a mere time line of a company, but rather a portrait of a man’s will, spread across seven decades, dozens of countries, and millions of affected lives. To have done this thing, to have created this multi-billion dollar empire on your back– the satisfaction this man, Norberto Oderbrecht, must have, the ease with which his head must hit the pillow, and the excitement that must come when each day starts. Remarkable. Breathtaking.

Responsible now for the building of power plants, bridges, subways and stadiums, this is a company that is producing, on a daily basis, the cornerstones of the world. $18.3 Billion in 2009, from nothing in 1944, and still privately held. Epic.

The business-speak soon gave way to the requisite social-speak that was so prevalent among each of the companies that we visited. Talks of re-forestation, green processes and a walking tour through an actual nature sanctuary behind the company offices followed, with an almost unstoppable determination to prove to us that, yes, they cared about the environment.dsc04769

We found this type of thing at each company; I’m not sure if it’s a Brazilian cultural thing or a reaction to a bunch of MBA students thing, but there was a much more significant, and consistent, focus on cultural projects than I’ve ever seen at American companies (or Chinese ones, for that matter). It was a bit odd. Maybe because they’re on top of a rain forest and surrounded by poverty, two of the three holy trinity issues for American social wack-a-doos, they’ve developed an almost Pavlovian response to the arrival of pale skin. Yes we care about the earth and the poor! Let us show you.

One final observation, from the Q&A session when asked about the declining global economy. The high comedy of companies, both in person and every day at home in the WSJ, saying that they were “growing too fast” and that they’re “happy for the slowdown,” is getting to be a bit much. I mean, really? Really?

Overall, though, one of the best business visits that we’ve had. Inspiring.


A stop at the hotel, a quick drink, and back into the brink once more. A cab, cabs, actually, were summoned, a recommendation was obtained, and we were off. A snippet from the actual conversation with the Salvadorian (?) cab driver:

Cab Driver: I will drop you there. But if you go left down that hill, be careful, you will lose your pen-is. (said just like that, like pen is.)

Us: Uhhhhh. (silence)

Cab Driver: And you need your pen-is if you are going to stay in Salvador.

Us: Uhhhhh.


The restaurant. Goodness. Pronounced universally to be the best meal that we all had in Brazil, it was at this point that we finally cast off the shame of Not-rio and fully embraced the name of our new, temporary, home. It was here that I ate, for the first time in my life, an ostrich steak. Delicious, more like red meat than a poultry, and a fine complement to a Brazilian Jameson, which, by the by, bears a striking similarity to American Jameson. Thank heavens for small consistencies.

Dinner finished, the evening mayhaps over, we left the restaurant, turned the corner and found, to our astonishment, a reggae band. In an alley. With chairs and table sat up haphazardly around them and available for the resting of the feet, the soul, and the heart.

The crown jewel of Brazil, this fine evening. A letting loose. Good friends, great music, moderately acceptable beer. The cobblestones, the churches, the people. All of it right, none of it planned, reproducible or available, I think, once more. A unique lifetime experience, one of those rare moments that you recognize, while still in the actual moment, will never happen again.



Taking Flight

March 30, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Posted in School, Travel | Leave a comment

There were indications earlier in the week that this thing might happen, this event. The anticipation built, was dashed, and lay dormant for days, the promise of the act always remaining within reach.dsc04710

But now here you are. You are climbing the hill, slowly, steadily, but climbing nonetheless, riding shotgun in an uncertain vehicle to an unlikely destination where you are still unsure about what exactly awaits you. The anticipation is building, the butterflies are coming, and your mind is racing with both the excitement of the thing to come and the danger of the act itself. The wait is interminable, your breathing is tight in your chest and you are hesitant, confused, unsure.

dsc04716But then you crest the hill, you look below and see all that there is to see before you, and you know instantly, immediately, that you must do this thing. You must take this leap, you must soar in these skies, you must breathe this rarefied air. It is all so close, so immediate. Just a short run, five steps at most, and you would be off, you would be flying.

Pause. Wait. dsc04713Precautions need be taken, harnesses, straps, protection. Language barriers must be overcome. Process must be discussed, consequences explained. Uncertainty, reality, once more injected into the day, threaten to overpower your mind, halt your actions, slow your speed.

It fails. You are there now, upon the precipice, staring at your fate, accepting, ready. And then you are running. You are running and the edge is approaching and the wind is behind you and gravity is taking over, it is now, this thing is happening, your legs are pumping and the ground is…the ground is gone, there is nothing beneath you and then suddenly –


You are flying.

You are soaring and diving, racing through air and wind, breathless yet calm, certain, focused at the same time. Falling faster now, pulling up, cutting left and right, and then slow. The pace has lessened,  a moment to breathe.

Circling. Hovering.

Looking down, seeing it all, this place, this time. Knowing this was right, this risk was worth this reward, this moment, and then falling again. Faster now, over houses and friends, comfortable with the thing now, certain in its aim and course, confident in its direction and stability and so now bold, decisive with it. And then slow, again.

Circling and hovering.

Circling and hovering.

And the absence is more anxious than the action, the time between movements too long and the tightness in the chest returning. You see the ground below, the end approaching up to you, the momentum of time determined to end it before you were ready, before you were done with this, and your mind revolts, your senses abscond.

You just want to be in the air forever.

You will find a way to be in the air forever.

Sports & Entertainment (but not in that order)

March 30, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Posted in School, Travel | Leave a comment
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In the Pictures

After a day spent in the clutches of heavy mining and petrochemical companies, our next day of business visits turned to somewhat lighter fare: the local market-leading purveyor of entertainment, Globo.

A modern day Brazilian equivalent to the great American media empires of img_destaque_home_vendas_offyore, Globo’s reach extends to the populace through TV, newspapers, magazines, cable, and internet. Unbelievably, the average Brazilian consumes over five hours of television a day (the only country with higher TV consumption than the US), and thus the majority of Globo’s efforts are focused here.

Their PR representative, overflowing with energy from what I believe to have been at least seven cups of Brazilian high-test, explained that Globo’s dominance was so complete, so absolute, that advertisers need not bother with viewer segmentation data before buying ad time on their network, because you have all the demographics watching all the time.

When you have a staggering 56% market share amongst all TV networks, you can say things like that with a straight face. It really is a sight to behold.

She went on to explain how the Telenovela’s were produced, really more of an entertainment factory than entertainment art, with a staff of writers, actors, and actresses kept on salary throughout the year and mixed and matched in different programs at the studio’s discretion.

The writer’s bungalows were on site, mere feet from the sets, all hearkening back to the 1950’s Hollywood studio system that brought us the mega-musicals and westerns of old. TV and movies being churned out as product rather than portrayal, waiting patiently for the Brazilian Spielberg or Scorcese to arrive and smash the entire system to bits.

We were toured throughout the sets, all well-made static images of contemporary domestic bliss. Being Americans, we, of course, instead took this opportunity to use the various props to depict acts of aggression and violence.


Everyday Low Prices, part two

Next up was the now required, after the incredible experience of China’s equivalent, visit to Wal-Mart. A note on that: once you’ve seen the absurdity of foreign Wal-Mart, China particularly, you will, I’ve found, be overwhelmed with the desire to visit Wal-Mart whenever you visit a new country or state, just to see if they can top that.

dsc04684Brazilian Wal-Mart was, well, it was pretty much just like American Wal-Mart but with different brands. Large and sprawling, clean and calm, it felt a bit like coming home. Home to buying in bulk, paying less than things are worth, and the homogenization of brands and products. Ahhhhh. Delicous.

Full disclosure, one of the Wal-Mart grocery clerks was wearing roller skates. I admit to never having seen that in America. Leave it to Brazilians to find a way to blend athleticism and fitness into the act of stocking grocery shelves.


We capped the night off with a visit to a local soccer game in a very, very large soccer stadium full of very, very rowdy Brazilians. By my estimation, one particular section of the crowd sang one song for fifty minutes straight.

dsc04697Soccer isn’t usually my game of choice, but it was a fun night nonetheless. I took the opportunity to explain to my fellow travelers that if they just made a few slight changes to this game, it’d be a lot more enjoyable. Start by dividing the field into ten yard increments, elongate the ball a little, put all the players in full pads and helmets, and allow them to crash into each other at high velocity and, you know what, I think they might have something here.

Nature’s Bounty

March 14, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Posted in School, Travel | Leave a comment
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Behind the Vale

Time to get serious. To the business of business.

logo_valeOur first visit was with Vale, a $60B Brazilian mining company focusing on the extraction of iron ore, nickel, copper, and, recently, coal. Having seen their revenues skyrocket since they transformed from a government run business to a privately managed company, it was nice, for a change, to hear a story about the success of a free-market system rather than the heralding of its impeding doom.

We listened to our speaker tell us rather enthusiastically about the 40% and 50% price increases that Vale had gotten for their materials as the commodities market soared, but noticed a distinct change in tone when the prospect of this years pricing was raised. I suspect, that like many other manufacturers right now, the spectre of 2009 price increases (or lack thereof) looms menacingly over their head as a generation of managers raised in the the boom times begin to accept the reality of coming price decreases.

It was also refreshing to hear a business discuss the use of coal in a non-emotional manner for a change. We may not like it, it may not be the cleanest source of energy, but the reality is this: it is cheap, it is safe, and it is prevalent. Green, not green, regardless; we will be using this material for quite some time.

Lastly, a lengthy discussion of the substantial cash reserves the company was sitting on. What contrast to the heady days of just a few short years ago (read: pre-financial collapse) when large corporations like ABB were executing their CEO’s for sitting on too much cash and not expanding quickly enough. The stakes have changed, the world is unsure, and cash is king once more.

Closing remarks, a trip into Vale’s Google-esque “decompression chamber” in their office building, and we were on our way. Perhaps with a little more of the Captain in us after leaving that silly, silly room, perhaps a tad too decompressed.


Texas Tea

Next up was a visit to Petrobras, a Petrochemical company that existed in Brazil as a monopoly until 1998 when the market was first opened to imagesoutside competitors. Naming their sixty-two new competitors rather offhandedly, one can understand how they may find it difficult to take these upstarts, like Exxon and Shell, serious when you’ve had a 45 year head start.

Petrobras walked us through the two main drivers of their business: technology and supply. An exhilarating review of the decade-long improvements to their offshore drilling capabilities, leading to the recent discovery of an undersea oilfield of unfathomable size, ending with a question:

“Had we not invested in offshore drilling in the late 70’s, we would currently only be producing 15% of our own oil. Can you imagine a country like that?”

To a group of American MBA students, he asked this question. Many sighs and shaking of heads soon followed. It must be said, in reflection, that these are the effects of the long term decisions that our rather myopic government delays year, after year, after year. No we cannot drill. No we cannot develop. No we cannot put that there.

Petrobras recent oilfield discovery will create 139,000 new jobs in Brazil during 2009. As we gear up for the highest unemployment in years back in America, I worry that the people we choose to make these decisions are rarely looking beyond their next campaign.

It was refreshing to see a country where such long term vision is indeed paying off.

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