The Selaron Steps (Escadaria Selaron)

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Santa Teresa Neighborhood; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cultural Spotlight – Capoeira

Capoeira is a very unique cultural aspect of Brazil and one that while it has its origins elsewhere has become very Brazilian in its customs, history, and usage. With different elements of dance mixed in with parts of martial arts, Capoeira is unlike any other form of movement in the Western Hemisphere. Not only is Capoeira based on dance and martial arts, it is also formed from a foundation of acrobatics and music to accompany the many movements. The amount of exercise involved in becoming a true Capoeira artist means that you will definitely break a sweat while getting physically fit if you intend to practice this unique art form on a daily basis.

Capoeira is known for having its origins in different parts of west Africa but was developed after the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century. After enslaved Africans were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese settlers, it became a way for the slaves to stay physically fit and strong if they ever decided to flee and run away from their slave masters. If they wanted to collaborate and rebel, they could use their capoeira skills to help defend themselves from possible attack or capture from the slave masters as well.

Capoeira uses the full body and so you can use both your arms, hands, legs, and feet to do a large number of movements. The movements are acrobatic, complex, and fluid and based often off of the music and rhythms that are being played for the dancers. Hands often stay on the ground as inverted kicks are flown in the air. The ginga is the focal point or main focus of any capoeira movement and is usually the beginning of any fluid kick or handstand to come.

The capoeiristas’ are those martial artists or dancers who perform the movements often with other capoeirista while being surrounded by a group of observers who are either playing music or encouraging the capoeiristas on to continue their rhythmic movements to match the other participant. The origin of the word ‘capoeira’ comes from the Tupi language words of ka’a (forest) and pau (round) referring to the low-lying vegetation areas where fugitive African slaves would hide from their masters when they would try to make an escape. Most of the African slaves who started capoeira in Brazil were originally from Angola.

After the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the new republic outlawed capoeira throughout the country. If you were caught practicing capoeira anywhere in public, practitioners would be thrown in jail, tortured, or even killed. This prohibition continued throughout most of the 20th century even if it was sometimes tolerated in universities and in private places during times of both democratic and military rule in Brazil. Still though, the Afro-Brazilian communities especially in the Northeast kept capoeira alive during these forbidden times and even renamed capoeira to be called ‘Luta Regional Baiana’ which means the regional fight of Bahia in order so that practitioners could practice their form of capoeira without outside interference.

In the recently enslaved communities of Quilombos who had liberated themselves to be free and self-reliant in parts of Brazil during the 18th and 19th centuries, capoeira became a way of defending themselves in case of war or conflict with Portuguese colonial troops or Brazilian soldiers. By using the martial art to dodge potential attacks and/or captures, the Quilombos were a formidable fighting force who used capoeira to defend their communities and their land at often great cost.

The key to capoeira from my own observations in Brazil is to never stop your movements and to always be thinking of how to dodge, kick, sweep, and even take down your opponent. The ginga movement of being fluid is both an attack and defense mechanism to make sure you are constantly ready to either take your opponent by surprise or to evade their own attack. Most attacks in capoeira are done with leg sweeps, swirling kicks, or knee strikes but can also involve the elbow or head. However, most forms of capoeira today are done as simulations and to train for a game or a competition rather than war or actual combat.

To the public who view capoeira in a non-violent lens, these presentations in the roda or circle are just for show and involve games of aerial acrobatics rather than being more about striking or deflecting physical attacks. The circle involves musical instruments specifically for the game between capoeiristas and there is singing, and dancing involved with everyone in the circle participating at some point. Capoeira instruments include the berimbau, which can be played from very slow to very fast depending upon the rhythms requested as well as other instruments such as pandeiros, atabaques, agogo, and the ganza. The row of musicians in the roda (circle) is called a ‘bateria’ and the touch of the berimbau instrument in particular fuels the speed, aggressiveness, or style of the capoeira game.

Similar to Carnaval and Feijoada, Capoeira is one of Brazil’s most famous and impressive exports to the rest of the world. Every year, thousands of tourists come from around the world including serious non-Brazilian practitioners travel to different parts of Brazil to practice its most famous martial art. The capoeira masters (mestres) often teach the Portuguese language in addition to the movements of capoeira so the foreign student can really immerse themselves in the cultural background and history of this traditional martial art. The capoeira demonstrations are perhaps more acrobatic than physical when in public but in private, you would have to guess that it is much more intense and much more serious in terms of displaying physical prowess than what is shown to the public.

After the 1970s, this unique part of Brazilian culture was on its way to not only being accepted by the people but being embraced and taught to the next generations. A powerful way of resolving conflict, promoting social cohesion, and learning about physical fitness, capoeira is great at bringing the community together in a positive way while showing how important it is to recognize and value past traditions. From the roots of West Africa to groups of escaped Afro-Brazilian slaves whose cultural practices were almost extinguished over the centuries due to subjugation, maltreatment, and neglect, capoeira like their rights to human freedom and basic dignity made a powerful comeback which is still being fought for and advanced to this day.

The Need to Have a Social Conscience

Keeping with what’s been going on in the world lately, I believe it’s important to reinforce just how important it is now and into the future the need to have a social conscience. What do I mean by a social conscience? Boiling down the formal definition to even simpler terms, it is the feeling derived from caring for others more than yourself. You feel the urge to put others’ needs before your own. It does not mean to stop caring for yourself and taking care of your daily needs but to think of others who rely on you and to put them first especially for family members and friends.

However, having a social conscience goes beyond just our family and our friends. It goes for our immediate society as a whole whether it is the community you live in, the nation you reside in, or the world you inhabit. You feel responsible for what goes on outside of your own life and those of family and friends to think of a larger picture. To have a social conscience is to see beyond your own problems and to see the injustices that continue to plague our world.

You also have to realize that your problems while difficult or not unique and others are going through the same tribulations as you are and sometimes worse. Having a social conscience involves putting yourselves into the shoes of other people and to realize how they could possibly be helped and how you personally can be involved in assisting them. Showing concern for others is the right way to have a social conscience and also to think about how these injustices can be resolved. Any individual can make a difference by having a social conscience and by taking it upon themselves to change their behavior to reflect their new attitude.

How do you show your social conscience? There are numerous ways to do so and you could even put them on a scale from small actions to large movements designed to change the foundations of the society. In the case of a social conscience, I find that it’s like exercising your body. You don’t want to take on too much weight or distance at first for weightlifting or running. You should rather want to start small and build up your actions over time and to be more ambitious.

For some examples, starting off small with your social conscience can include environmental stewardship, collecting donations, or getting involved in your local community. Any of these actions can create a ripple effect and can cause a shift in societal behavior for others to follow your lead or for the actions to spread to other people and even communities based on how consistent and courteous you are with these goodwill efforts. For environmental stewardship, it could be recycling your own bottles and cans each day and getting your neighborhood to do so as well.

You can also plant trees and install solar panels on your house if able to gather momentum from smaller actions. Donating your own clothes or extra food can lead to organizing food drives or even creating your own organizations to help collect donations in your town or city. Leading a local trash pickup event can lead to other future leadership roles for yourself such as running for your child’s PTA (parent – teacher association) board to running for the town / city council board seat. Social consciousness does not have to encompass all of humanity but rather as the popular saying goes, “think globally, act locally.”

As long as you are having a positive impact on the life of another person, you are exercising your social consciousness. The more you do it, the more natural it is, and it becomes your routine or habit. Your first time donating your old clothes to the Salvation Army becomes a monthly habit. Your first-time volunteering at the local food bank becomes a weekly occurrence. Helping others feels good and it can lead to you doing it more often so why not give it a try? A social consciousness does not have to extend to everybody in the world all at once but the actions you do locally can definitely ripple out and stand as a positive example for others to implement in their own communities.

If you would like to get involved globally, there are an almost infinite number of opportunities to study, teach, work, and volunteer in non-governmental organizations and local non-for-profits in important areas such as education, health care, infrastructure and the environment. Spending time to educate yourself on the culture, history, politics, and the society of other places around the world will help better inform you of the injustices and problems of your own. No human society is perfect but there are small improvements that each day we can choose to perform to make it a little bit better than it was before.

Even when you are not in a position of local, national, or even global leadership, you can elect to pay attention to the problems that must be solved, form your position on the issues by being educated and choosing your sources of information carefully and then choose to vote and elect those leaders who have a social conscience. You will know if they have one or not by not only of what they advocate for but how they have advocated for these issues and who they have surrounded themselves with. A person with no social conscience cares for no one but himself and his own brood. Their friends are disposable to them and they care nothing for others beyond what they can do for him or her and how their own prospects can be improved. A person without a social conscience deserves to lead nobody and not be followed by anyone.

A socially conscious leader cares for the least among them and feels their pain as his or her own. While they have not experienced pain or misery as those whom he or she advocates for, he can listen to them, see what they say based on those experiences, and come to an educated decision on how to best fix the problem and work with those who are experts in that field to solve the issue as best as humanly possible. Social conscious behavior is so key to have when it comes to be a leader of a community or a nation and it is unfortunately neglected as of late when it comes to judging the men and the women we put into positions of influence and power.

As long as people err in their own behavior and judgment, there will be manmade problems and injustices. What someone with a social conscience can do is to do their best to continue to fight for justice and solve those problems in any way they can. Rather than focus on 100 problems at one time, it is best to focus one’s attention at 1 or 2 big problems that can be solved in time and that can gain popular support from the community after receiving the facts of why and how the injustice exists. Keep educating yourself on the injustices and the problems that exist in your world and decide how you want to push our world back towards the ‘arc of justice’ that our conscience and actions should bend to as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently put it. We only have a finite amount of time on this planet and if we can right some wrongs and create justice where there was little or none before then we are doing our small part to make this world a better and fairer place.

Are You a Wolf or a Sheep?

We often like to think of ourselves as ‘introverts’ and extroverts’ in terms of our social makeup in how we act socially and how we get along with others. However, I like to think of another spectrum for which deserves some thought and introspection. Both of these classifications are not anything new, but I would like to put my own personal spin on what they represent, the good and the bad characteristics, and how these two personality types interact with other people.

I fundamentally believe that any person could be classified as having both character types with the extremes representing one or the other. I’d like you as the reader to figure out by the end of this article whether you are a wolf or a sheep? How did you come to that conclusion? and are you happy with this classification or wanting to resolve to change yourself?

When you first think of a ‘wolf’, you may think of the animal itself and how it can be dangerous, unpredictable, and fast. However, a wolf can also be thought of as cunning, loyal, and a team player. The wolf is not afraid to go it alone, sometimes for months at a time, while he or she is also comfortable with the pack where there is strength in numbers. The wolf can survive both on its own and in a group. The wolf adds value to the group but is able to self-sustain itself when it needs to.

If you see yourself as a ‘wolf’ kind of person, you take other people’s opinions into consideration, but you are not afraid to strike it out on your own. You don’t go along with the herd or the group all of the time when they are not of the same opinion or going in the same direction as you. You are an independent, reliable, and courageous person who is not afraid to go it alone even when it doesn’t please your tribe. At its extreme, being a ‘wolf’ can lead you to be a loner and cause you pain as you are no longer able to rely on your wolf pack for help or assistance. You may shun others with your actions and your opinions much to your detriment. A ‘wolf’ knows how to push his or herself to the limits, but it may bite off more than it can chew.

In a world where it is difficult and sometimes detrimental to go against the pack, a ‘wolf’ can decide to do so in an effort to sustain itself against the odds. Being a wolf is risky, but it has greater highs and lower lows. The risk is higher but so are the rewards. The wolf prides itself on being able to integrate into a community if necessary but it solely does not need it to survive like other animals. Any person can be a ‘wolf’, but it depends how far they push themselves physically and mentally, and how far they are willing to stray from the pack. A wolf can handle being a loner, being unpopular, and being cast out if it means keeping its morals, goals, and ambitions ahead of itself.

In contrast to the hard-headed yet cunning wolf, the ‘sheep’ is more timid, cautious, and relies on its flock for everything from where to eat, how to look, and where to go. The ‘sheep’ is unable to voice a contrasting opinion or forge another direction because as an animal, it would be largely left defenseless from predators, including a pack of wolves, if it is not careful.

The ‘sheep’ goes along with all of the other sheep in the flock not because he or she wants to but because he or she needs to. As an animal and a personality type, it puts the group’s needs above its own much to its detriment and making it weaker in the process. A sheep is not a risk-taker and is more about the collective group than being its own individual. While the life of a sheep may be comfortable and cozy, it is likely not to push itself to the limits and find out what he or she is truly capable of. Sometimes, it’s necessary to act, be, and think independently and a sheep is not able to do any of these things. A person can be a ‘sheep’ when they are not able to go against the group to develop themselves and to gain inner confidence. While it’s good to be in the flock or to be part of the pack, to do so all of the time much to your personal detriment is neither productive nor desirable. While sheep and wolves may be together, only the former has to do so some of the time while wolves have a choice to be on their own independent of the pack.

After thinking about these two personality types through the guise of these animals, it is my belief that any person can fit on the spectrum from the huddled sheep to the running wolf. Both personality types like ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted’ have their innate positives and negatives. However, you have to decide for yourself when it is best to act like the ‘sheep’ or to be the ‘wolf’. There are those people out there who want to be 100% wolf or 100% sheep but you may not have this end up being a good decision for yourself. Life is about balance and you have to decide whether it’s best at times to be the ‘wolf’ and when it’s time to act like the ‘sheep.’ I find that to be 100% like each animal’s characteristics can lead to alienation, disenchantment, and outright dissatisfaction.

There are times in life where you have to be independent of others, believing in your goals when no one else does, and having opinions that the group does not share leading to positive ostracism. You have to be the ‘wolf’ when these times happen because you will be better off for it and be a more enlightened person as a result. Also, there are times when you have work with others well as a constructive team and put your beliefs and opinions on the back-burner when you can’t achieve and do things on your own.

‘Sheep’ rely upon strength in numbers and being part of a strong community that can support and back each other up when being independent could lead to isolation, despondency, and even death. Being independent v. being part of the group is a constant struggle in one’s life and you have to decide for yourself when it’s best to strike it out on your own or to be part of a larger group (family, friends, colleagues, schoolmates), etc. in order to get ahead.

You should ask yourself after reading these two descriptions of these popularly known animals whether your own personality and characteristics are more in line with the ‘wolf’ or with the ‘sheep.’ There’s nothing wrong with having a mix of both or being aligned with one or the other, but you have to do some introspection to decide whether you are a wolf or a sheep. A person with no defined personality traits that they are aware of is too easily manipulated and too easily controlled. Please be sure to always think, act, and do for yourself but to also respect your tribe and your group if they are supportive of you, your goals, and your beliefs. Now, “Are you a wolf or a sheep?” Decide for yourself.

An Urban Transformation

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“The kids were cheering me on.”

I had the pleasure recently of visiting Comuna 13, a neighborhood in Medellin that has had a difficult history with gang violence and the illegal drug trade but which is showing signs of both progress and renewal. Due to the investments made by both the local and city government, Comuna 13 has become a hotbed for beautiful street art and graffiti murals, which has attracted many local artists to make a positive mark on this community. Many of these artists are from Medellin and grew up in the neighborhoods of Comuna 13. Rather than discuss the past of Comuna 13, I would rather talk about why this particular community is poised to have a brighter future.

Beyond just the new street art and the graffiti murals that you can find around Comuna 13 are the relatively new escalators that connect the San Javier metro station to the communities located in the hills surrounding this transportation hub. These escalators make it a lot easier for both students and workers to gain easier access to the rest of the Medellin metropolitan area and are an easy way to get from point A to point B. The escalators are free to use for all people including the tourists who come to visit this part of the city.

While the escalators are not so numerous, it is possible that more of them will be added to other parts of the city in the future if I were to haphazard a guess. Medellin can set an example to other urban cities on how to connect neighborhoods efficiently with the use of escalators, especially those with sloping hills and steep mountains within the city limits. For the elderly and children as well, these escalators can be quite useful in helping them get around the neighborhood without too much trouble.

If you don’t feel like taking the escalators, there are concrete staircases adjacent to the new escalators so you can choose which way you want to go up or go down. The escalators are weatherproof as well which is quite genius when you think about. On your way to the metro, the overhang, which is a bright, fluorescent orange color, will protect you fully from the elements such as rain, snow, hail, etc. It only takes about five to ten minutes to get from the top of the escalators to the bottom of the escalators so if you’re in a rush, you won’t have to go through too many escalators to get to your final destination.

The city government of Medellin and local police has done a great job in my opinion with regards to keeping this part of Comuna 13 safe and secure. I noticed during my visit that locals and volunteers are instrumental in helping to keep the area around the escalators clean and orderly. There are park benches and small parks nearby to encourage community get-togethers as well as the fact that there is a big slide where the local children can use to slide up and down to have some fun in the neighborhood. Being the kid at heart that I am, I partook in one of the slides because it is pretty enjoyable and you do go down at a pretty fast speed.

Beyond just the new escalators, the cool slides, and the park benches, there are also now a few library parks, which are free for members of the community to enjoy, explore, and learn. In addition to being places for education, the libraries are great meeting places for the community and can strengthen neighborhood ties. You can also hold cultural, recreational, and educational activities such as group English classes or a family birthday party. Books in these libraries are free to borrow and use.

Everyone can use them regardless of their age, educational level or social status. The mind is a terrible thing to waste and because of the twelve library parks in Comuna 13 and other parts of Medellin, city residents here have a real chance to learn new things and satisfy their curiosity. One particular volunteer group that I’m interested in learning about is called ‘Stairway to English’, which provides free English classes with native speakers to members of the Comuna 13 community.

My visit to Comuna 13 left quite an impact on me. I did go through an organized tour this time, which I do recommend to people visiting this webpage. It was really useful to learn about the history, background, and the progress being made for this part of Medellin. Medellin is quite a large city and it can be easy to get caught up in only staying within your own neighborhood and to not see other parts of the city. Personally, I do hope that other escalator projects in urban areas will become popular in Colombia and other parts of the world.

Human beings are increasingly becoming more urban with over 70% of the world’s population projected to be living in cities by mid-century. This puts the onus on local, city, and national governments to adapt to this reality and try to make life easier and better for the millions of people who call a city their home. Other cities should take note of the social progress being made in Comuna 13 and I can only hope that more and more residents of Medellin will be able to improve their lives in different ways because of urban projects like building library parks or constructing escalator routes.

If you’re in Medellin sometime and you’re curious to check out the positive urban transformation that is ongoing in Comuna 13 and other parts of the city, I would recommend using Comuna 13 Tours, which has a very knowledgeable, kind, and helpful staff members who are bilingual and want to share their city with foreigners out of the goodness in their heart. This is not an official endorsement and I don’t get paid or receive any benefits from mentioning this tour on my website.

I’m doing it because I really enjoyed the experience I had recently with them and I think other visitors who come to Medellin should do the same based off my positive experience using this tour group. Perhaps, most importantly of all, you’ll meet a few locals during your tour and you can see how hospitable, kind, and open they are in Comuna 13. My only advice is to be careful about your photo taking, and to be respectful of both the tour guide and the locals who are kind enough to take some time out of their day to share with you. I look forward to visiting Comuna 13 again someday and I hope to use that giant slide again too.

For more information: http://www.comuna13tours.com/

The Importance of Community

“Be part of a group. Life is better that way.”

“Being apart of a community is what makes you happy…not rising to the top and sequestering yourself from community.” This quote is from one of my favorite podcasts, “Tangentially Speaking” with Dr. Christopher Ryan. During this show, he conducted an interview with travel host and producer, Jonathan Legg of ‘The Road Less Traveled’ who is the author of the quote above. I was listening to the podcast while I was driving through my hometown when the subject of ‘community’ came to the forefront of their interview. The two of them, who are both very intelligent and worldly men, explained to the listeners how chasing money, fame, and fortune doesn’t ultimately make us happy as human beings.

I absolutely agree with this assessment made on the podcast and believe that while possessions, money, and owning property can create happiness in the short-term, long-term happiness and fulfillment can only come from strong bonds with your friends, family, and community. Dr. Ryan and Mr. Legg also mentioned in one segment of the podcast how isolating oneself while traveling, and staying in hotels does not create a great life experience. I couldn’t agree more having stayed in nice hotels, hostels, and guesthouses during my own travels.

While one could be very comfortable and relaxed in a hotel, you won’t meet other travelers and potential friends as easily compared to when you’re staying in a cheaper hostel that’s in the city center. Dr. Ryan and Mr. Legg concluded in their discussion on communal living that the best way to live is to have your own space to eat and sleep, but to live in close enough proximity to others nearby that you can still have a sense of community and sharing without being isolated. I believe that compared to recent generations and even further back, the idea of community is starting to weaken and become less important which is in direct contrast to human nature and true happiness.

Harvard Political Scientist and Professor, Robert D. Putnam, was one of the first people to bring to national attention the change and decline in communities with his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” He makes the argument that people have been interacting with each other less and less over the past few decades. Instead of going out to socialize in public through bowling leagues, picnics, sport clubs, religious organizations, etc., more and more people are opting out and have been expanding the amount of time spent using technology as a substitute.

With the ability to have groceries, electronics, books, restaurant food, etc. delivered right to one’s doorstep in major cities and towns now, people have less and less motivation to leave the house. Telecommuting and ‘working from home’ have become more popular as well making ‘office work’ and ‘happy hours’ less obligatory. Social and traditional forms of media have exploded in the sheer amount of offerings whether its’ through websites, TV channels, and/or digital gadgets.

When it comes to community life, religious and social organizations have often formed the backbone and glue that holds people together. However, many different news media outlets have reported that attendance at churches and synagogues have been taking a downward spiral. A growing percentage of Americans are identifying themselves as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ when it comes to their religious beliefs. Personally, I have no problem with our generation being an irreligious one but I do think it’s tough to replicate that type of community within other types of social organizations.

In addition to the close bonds between neighbors that shared religious beliefs can bring, it can provide a sense of belonging just like many other social groups. Beyond religious affiliated groups, membership in long-standing organizations such as the Boy Scouts and other volunteer organizations is also on the decline as well.

Newsweek.com highlighted this trend illustrated this disturbing trend with official numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “In recent years, the percentage of Americans volunteering has dwindled and is now at its lowest level in a decade. Last year, In 2014, the official volunteer rate was 25.4 percent, or 62.6 million people, compared with 29 percent of the population in 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Official statistics on volunteer rates go back only to 2002.)”

Recently, one of the pillars of my community that I was born into and grew up with shuttered its’ doors last year. My local synagogue where I was Bar Mitzvah’d, went to Shabbat services, and celebrated the Jewish holidays was not able to fund itself due to overall lack of membership and decided to merge with another still functional congregation. This was disappointing for me to hear about because I have a lot of fond memories of that place and the people I met there. It was more than just about religion but it was also a gathering place for Jewish residents of the local area to come together and get to know one each other better and form bonds of friendship. While members of the former synagogue have moved on to another synagogue nearby, it’s not the same as it once was and it’s difficult to integrate oneself into a new community.

This is a trend that seems to be replicating itself across the country. Most Americans don’t know their neighbor next door like they used to and beyond the local school PTA of the local town or city, there’s not much anymore to bring people together. The increasing atomization and isolation of people is worrying for me to hear about. However, I am quite positive about the power and spread of the internet to bring people from different backgrounds and beliefs all over the world together.

While it’s not perfect, you can still remain connected to old friends, former classmates, past roommates, etc. through social networking. Instead of bowling leagues, sports clubs, the local YMCA, now we have Meetup.com and Groupspaces. As technology continues to advance, the meaning of ‘community’ will continue to change and adapt to the times. However, we as human beings must not forget the importance of being apart of a community and how much it means to our mental health and overall happiness.

References:

http://www.saddleback.edu/faculty/agordon/documents/Bowling_Alone.pdf

http://www.newsweek.com/2014/10/03/volunteering-america-decline-272675.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/17/us-usa-boyscouts-idUSKBN0KQ05O20150117