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Brazilians bring some warmth to chilly Yosemite

College students, some seeing snow for the first time, work and teach at the ski area -- and throw some great parties.

February 07, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — They've traded Brazilian beaches for Sierra snowdrifts and bartered away summer vacation in South America for a winter of work, sometimes in 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The boys and girls from Brazil -- along with a smattering of fellow college students from Argentina, Chile and Ecuador -- have landed this season in Yosemite's frigid granite gorge to serve as ski instructors and kitchen help, tidy up lodge rooms and outfit cross-country skiing enthusiasts.

Residents of a tropical country known for samba, not snowflakes, many had never before ventured north of the equator. Most had not seen snow. Few had ever skied.

But they've proved eager to work hard at their mountain jobs -- and they throw a lively party.

"I'm here to meet new people, new cultures, new places. And to do some Winter X Games-type activity," said Adonias Melo, 23, a University of Brasilia network engineering major and nascent snowboarder who's midway through a three-month work stint at the Badger Pass ski shop. "We're young; we like to do some parties, listen to music -- Guns N' Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica."

Melo and his South American peers are the latest batch of foreign-born students to hit the park as part of a long-running federal visa program that places college undergraduates in stateside jobs. It's a great opportunity to sharpen language skills and experience a slice of U.S. culture.

Bruno Cabrelon, 21, a business administration student from Sao Paulo, is most impressed by the scale of all things American.

New York's skyscrapers. Yosemite's granite spires and sequoias. Super-sized junk food.

"M&Ms, Twix, everything is big here," Cabrelon said. "It is very good, and cheap. I am eating M&Ms every day."

Cabrelon has also taken up snowboarding and skiing with gusto. When he and his buddies aren't outfitting skiers at Badger Pass, one of the oldest and smallest ski areas in the West, they're on the slopes themselves.

Before coming to the United States, Cabrelon's only brush with snowboarding was on a sand dune outside Sao Paulo.

"The snow, it's faster," he said.

"And colder," added his friend, Gregorio Bueno, also 21.

"In sand you don't hurt so hard," Cabrelon said. "The sand is softer to fall."

There have been other adjustments.

Alexandre Rabelo, 21, came down with a horrendous cold during late December's freezing weather.

"I'm liking more in the day," he said. "The night, sometimes I feel cold. The rivers, the trees, the snow, it is very beautiful. But here it is more cold than seeing in the movies."

Though awed by Yosemite's grandeur, the Brazilians admit that the park's slow pace caught some of them by surprise.

Yosemite Valley stores typically close by 8 p.m. Some employees bunk down by 10 p.m., an hour when the work-exchange students say they're just getting rolling.

"We are very warm, expansive, and it is difficult for us. The walls where we live are very thin," said Andrea Valle, 19, an advertising major at the university in Belo Horizonte.

Valle and friends usually leave dorm rooms behind and hit the Loft, a venerable Yosemite employee hangout open after midnight. Anyone with the next day off might mosey over to the horse stables for the bonfire and a few beers.

On New Year's Eve, the Brazilians threw a rousing party at the stables, complete with guitar, singing and samba lessons for the Americans.

Park rangers arrived at 1 a.m. and shut it down.

"It was disappointing. Midnight came, we said, 'Happy New Year,' then it was time to go home," Cabrelon said. "In Brazil, we go until the sunrise."

Valle and friends Virginia Lins, 19, and Gabriela Soares, 23, said they're thinking of asking rangers for permission to hold a scaled-down fete for Carnaval, the boisterous week of celebration that grips Brazil on the eve of Lent.

"We are hoping we can have one day," Lins said.

Sean Costello, manager of rental operations for the park's concessionaire, Delaware North Co., said his South American team combines a penchant for enjoying the moment with a solid work ethic -- laboring for minimum wage, minus housing and meal costs.

During the Christmas rush, he said, they toiled tirelessly, were unfailingly polite and always smiled, never allowing the endless lines of patrons to fluster them.

"They just come with so much enthusiasm," Costello said. "Guests love them."

For three decades, international students have come through Yosemite and Badger Pass, as well as Sierra resorts to the north at Lake Tahoe, said Colin Baldock, Delaware North's guest recreation manager.

Baldock, a native of Australia, first arrived in the U.S. years ago on a similar stint. He's watched Romanians and Russians come, as well as students from Thailand and all over Europe.

The Brazilians have made a particularly big impression.

"They're going 1,000 miles an hour, they're very, very friendly and they're soaking up as much as they can," he said. "Many never saw snow before. Coming here to this kind of environment is really foreign in more ways than one."

Ana Scanavachi, 21, a skiing neophyte when she arrived in mid-December, is now giving lessons.

A business student from Sao Paulo, Scanavachi admits she had been on skis on only one occasion before arriving at Badger Pass, which is a 30-minute bus ride from the valley floor.

But she managed to impress during the week of employee training and was picked to tutor beginners, in large part because she demonstrated a caring nature and an ability to communicate, Baldock said.

Out on the bunny slopes at Badger, it's plain to see. Scanavachi quickly has a pony-tailed little girl smiling, slapping high-fives and managing slow-motion turns.

"I love here," said Scanavachi, gazing at the towering cliffs and verdant pines. "I'm just getting used to the cold, but if I could stay another two years I would."


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