Wednesday, November 28, 2012

a Friend of a Friend

With some trepidation I phoned a lady whose name I had been given by a Brasilian friend in Palo Alto.  She spoke English and as soon as she understood that I was claiming to be a friend of a friend she asked what I was doing that evening because she was going to a party and would I like to come and I shouldn’t worry as there would be plenty of people there who spoke English.  It would start late in the evening and last all night and she will come by and pick me up if I want to go.  All that moved a little faster than I was expecting, but I said ‘yes’.  The party didn’t start until 11 o’clock so we went first to a surf-side bar crowded with the young and lovely.  
     The young lady was about 35, divorced with a five-year-old child.  A psychologist, the middle of 15 children from a village in Minas Gerais, she had worked her way through school.  She says it is hard to make ends meet.  She has two maids so that she can work, but must work more to pay for the maids.  She says no one respects the government; they are just someone far away who takes their taxes and gives nothing in return.  Except for certain operations, no one uses the state health system if they can possibly avoid it and will pay to see private doctors.
     The chronic alcoholism of the Indians is due to the collapse of their world and their helpless dependency in the white world.  They have the legal status of children.  Unlike in countries such as Peru, there is no commerce by Indians.  They are very distant, she said, not a part of our world.
     Brasilian women, she said, are regarded all over Latin America as models of sensuality and openness.  In other countries they act in old Spanish ways, but Brasil is more open to the ways of Europe and North America.

It is very noisy in the bar and I couldn’t concentrate and the more I thought about a party that doesn’t start until 11 pm, and from which I might not be able to leave when I wanted, the more it became a bit much for me, so I plead a travel-related malady and went back to my hotel. 

I had forgotten about this conversation until I found it a few days ago in my notes.  I repeat it here not because it tells the truth about Brasil or Brasilians or even about the attitudes of young women of a particular class who live in Rio.  It is just what one 35-year-old professional woman thought about her country.  It all came out in conversation as I report it.  She is not a composite of many conversations, as I don’t think composite characters are proper in a factual report since one of the things being averred is that one person did hold all those different opinions.  I did, however, hear variants of these opinions from many people, though hardly a scientific sampling.  For example, another person I spent time with, a sociologist working for the government and in many respects similarly situated (though he had only one maid), would have agreed with some of her opinions, but not with others.  Reading over her comments now, what strikes me is how she was prepared to make confident pronouncements summing up her very large and diverse country when I realize that I would be completely unprepared to make similar confident generalities about my own country, not because I don’t know enough, but because I feel I know too much.  If it’s the truth you want about a place, even the most truthful conversation may be of limited value.  As for myself, I have quit looking for the big truth and am content with the many little truths and what they meant to me when I was there.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sunday in Copacabana

As I was sitting at a sidewalk table, a young and not particularly wretched-looking urchin approached me asking for money for food.  There was an untouched half a sandwich on my plate so I shared my meal with him.  He took it and walked off and half a block away I saw him throw it away uneaten.  I suspect there was enough cultural insensitivity there for both of us.

In the late afternoon I walked to Copacabana, which is more sidewalk cafe, stroll and be seen-oriented than Ipanema.  As it was Sunday, the north-bound lane of the beach front road was closed off (who wants to go into the city on Sunday?) and part of it was taken up with a hippie-ish crafts faire, mostly selling touristy knick-knacks, though a dried armadillo did catch my fancy.

Again at a sidewalk table, I was accosted by a shoeshine boy who explained in English that he must shine shoes because he has much hunger.  As this did not look to be the case I waved him off with some difficulty and wondered if I should procure a Danish-language guidebook and and keep it prominently displayed so that the next time I was approached I could look up in innocent befuddlement, point to the guidebook and turn up my palms and say, sadly, “Søren Kirkegaard”. 
     As I was writing that I was successfully solicited for 5,000 Cruseiros (3-1/2 cents, US) by a purportedly starving woman holding a sleeping, but also purportedly starving infant.
     I was beginning to see a distinct down-side to sidewalk tables.

There is more street and sidewalk life in Copacabana.  More foreigners, peddlers, street kids and prostitutes.  A lady of the street takes the next table and intrudes on my space.  After convincing her that I speak neither English nor German, and am also incredibly dense, she moves on to the next sidewalk cafe.  Street kids are charming and less easily discouraged and the restaurant employs a kid-chaser who prowls continually with a wooden baton to keep them at bay.

Peddlers, trying to get invited in, whistle to attract attention, and a pair of little black kids make cat noises.

I should have worn my white suit.  Copacabana on a Sunday night is definitely the place to wear a white suit.  I would, of course, be the only person there in a suit, but one does not wear a white suit in order to blend in.

By eight o’clock it was quite dark and I had supper in a restaurant run by a Greek family.  I had a two-inch-thick filet  --  “to die for”  --  and it was one of the moderately-priced items on the menu.  What Lucullan delights must await the big-spenders. The whole meal, with two beers and dessert, came to less than seven dollars.

Much as I might like my friends back home to imagine I am hacking my way with a machete through tangled undergrowth, menaced by jaguar and anaconda, ever-wary of the hostile Jivaro, I am, alas, playing the tourist in the lap of European civilization, about to pay for my meal  --  filet mignon, not freshly-killed howler monkey --  with my American Express card.

I walked back to my hotel at Ipanema.  Along Av. Queen Elizabeth, raucous transvestites try to wave down cars.  Though the streets are relatively dark, they seem safe as this is a neighborhood of pricey high-rise apartments and almost every building has an attendant standing outside at the door.

The next day I took a cab to Corcovado.  The meter shows 48 Cruzados, but the driver shows me a printed conversion chart that indicates that today this means 442 Cruzados.  Runaway inflation is all in a day’s work here.
     At the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Corcovado a funicular climbs through a jungle-like park to the mis-named “top”, from which there are another hundred or so steps up to the base.  It was late April and warm on the beach, but surprisingly chilly at this higher elevation(about 2300 ft.). The city beneath us was hidden by clouds, and even Christ’s head above us showed only now and then as the clouds broke, reminding us perhaps that we ought not take his presence for granted.  There was a hang-glider lazily circling the huge statue of Christ smiling down on Rio and turning his back on the rest of South America.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

go to Ipanema

The fellow in the next seat was a Brasilian surfer-journalist returning from a month in Hawaii.  He said he traveled about four months a year writing for Brasilian surfer magazines and tells me I should go to Ipanema, but stay away from Copacabana: “Drugs, hookers . . .,  bad scene at Copa”.  
  When I asked him about the Amazon he was encouraging, but in a vague sort of way, as it turned out that while he had been seemingly all over the world, to Bali and Nepal and India, he has never been to the Amazon.  This would turn out to be not that unusual among the Brasilians I meet.

I caught a bus at the airport.  The approach to the city was fairly unattractive, with dirt and grafitti spray-painted bare cement walls which, in the tropics, always look like they are rotting, but finally we came out along the ocean-front beaches and things began to look more promising.  I got off the bus at Pilar No. 9 on Ipanema beach, two blocks from my hotel.

We are told that in the old days, when immigrants arrived in America, they wrote home declaring that the streets were paved with gold.  When I got off the bus at Ipanema I was amazed to see that in Brasil the streets seemed to be paved with money.  There were coins scattered about.  I looked around and no one seemed to be claiming them, in fact everyone was apparently ignoring them.  So I began picking them up.  There weren’t vast quantities of them, as though a bank truck had turned over, but in less than a minute I had perhaps half-a-handful.  They were small coins, true, but they were money.  Eventually I began to worry that there might be a candid camera that all the locals knew about and I would find myself the butt of some ridiculous TV comedy program, so I stopped picking the money up and went looking for my hotel.
  In the days that followed I saw more money lying in the street, but by then I had realized it was the old, inflated money which, strictly speaking, was still good, but the exchange between the old money and the new was 1,000:1 and the old coins were worth less than their value as scrap metal, so I quit picking them up and later, when I would drop a small coin, I wouldn’t pick it up.  At first this seemed profligate and then it seemed like littering, but eventually I quit thinking about it.

The next day I felt like I had several days of sleep to catch up on and so I stayed around the hotel until evening, napping and watching television.  While I had studied some Portuguese for the trip, I had never heard it spoken and assumed it would be rather like oddly-pronounced Spanish, and since I was sure my Spanish was as oddly-pronounced as the next person's I expected no particular difficulty with the language and was a bit concerned that I didn’t seem to understand a word being said on the television.  I watched the news and saw soldiers arresting some feeble-looking fellows and displaying a pair of pistols and a hatful of cartridges as evidence of their malefaction, and university students demonstrating and a young woman reciting their grievances in an indignant, high-speed monotone.  I could read the words on the screen, but not catch anything of what was being said.  Fortunately, there was a very loud children’s program hosted by a handsome and very wholesome-looking young woman called XuXa and I could enjoy her company for an hour untroubled by any difficulty with the language.

When I got to the beach at Ipanema I found it was exactly as it has been represented.  The girls are young and lovely and wearing mostly string, though if anything the men are even better looking.  There are police in swimming suits carrying what I can only assume must be waterproof sidearms.  There were surfers at play, as mindless as otters.  It was at Ipanema, I had been told, that fashion trends begin, and I saw no reason to doubt it. Several people came up to me to ask the time and I realize that I am one of the few people on the beach who was wearing a wristwatch.  But I don’t do hanging out well and I was bored, even sitting on one of the world’s lovelier beaches surrounded by young women wearing mostly string and would be just as happy back in my room studying Portuguese irregular verbs. And it was hard to imagine that on the other side of the country  --  and seemingly five hundred years away  --  Indians might be shooting arrows at settlers.  I think I’d rather be there, or at least someplace other than here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Down Among Brasilians

Going down to Rio 

Whyever did I want to go to Brasil?  I had no good reason, other than some books I had read.  I read Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, Ian’s older and once better-known brother, who describes a trek through the jungle ostensibly in search of the missing Col. Fawcett, whom I had never heard of before and of course had to read about, and what a curious story his turned out to be.  And about that time I was in an Evelyn Waugh enthusiasm and read Ninety-Two Days, his account of a trip through what was then British Guiana to the Brasilian town of Boa Vista, and so I had that on my list, as well.  And I saw Sebastião Salgado’s haunting photographs of Serra Pelada and public television regularly anguished over disappearing species and endangered tribes and the jungle being paved over with asphalt and forests cut down and sold to the Japanese and I had the impression that if I didn’t see the Amazon now it might not be there next year, or if it was there would be a shopping center.
Then I saw a program on television about a lady going up some tributary of the Amazon on a little wooden boat about the same age and not much larger than the African Queen and it looked like my sort of manageable, Winnie-the-Pooh adventure, so I decided to go. 

I like window seats.  Knowledgable travelers are supposed to favor the aisle, but I do not.  I like the comfortable little nest you can make, often protected by the center seat, which no one wants, and curl up against the bulkhead and look out the window and watch the world slip by below.
I recognized the border by the parallel roads and the empty space as we entered Mexico, country I had driven through in a car, and a while later I saw what at first looked like clouds that had been caught against a mountain top, but I realized they were smoke coming from volcanos and knew that if I were on the ground I might smell the wood smoke of evening fires in little homes as families settled in for supper.
Then finally night fell somewhere toward Tehuantepec and we passed over the Mayan lands in darkness and over the sea and then somewhere along the Colombian coast we crossed over onto the southern continent where the jungles were as dark as the cleared lands.  At a little after three in the morning I saw a cluster of lights below us and to the right and the reflection of what might have been a river, and then more darkness until in the early morning light I looked down and saw the unmistakable pattern of the city that I had only seen in books, the bow and arrow  --  or perhaps it was a bird  --  of Brasilia, that modernistic dream of a capital city out in the middle of nowhere that the Brasilians had built in the ‘Sixties when it seemed that the future would be here any minute and we need only be ready for it.  It was a little before seven in the morning when I saw it.  There had been a cloud cover over the jungle, but it broke just as we passed over.  The city looked very small from the air.