Thursday, 25 February 2010

Brazil-istics Part Two

The other half of the South American continent, Brazil, feels like a continent in itself. Despite many similarities with their Spanish speaking brothers and sisters to the South, West and North, Brazilians are different. The heart of this difference lies in the smallest details. I started listing those details in Brazil-istics Part One. Below are my concluding observations about what makes Brazil so Brazilian.

1) Something that is so obvious but it is still worth mentioning is music. Whereas, the rest of South America is going crazy to salsa music every weekend, the Brazilians love samba, reggae, bossa nova, maracatu and afoxe. Music seems a lot less clichéd and more surprising in Brazil. It is not just about losing yourself and getting laid (although it’s that as well); it’s about finding your roots. The African influence in afoxe, maracatu and the drumming of Salvador are evident in the hypnotic rhythms and the trance dancing and the euphoria and the spirituality which connects the musicians to the audience. I remember waiting in Belem bus terminal for three hours and watching a band bang out tune after tune of maracatu. They had their own dancers but other waiting passengers frequently joined in the elaborate man and woman dance pairings. And the strangest thing was that despite the frenzied and erotic dancing on display nobody was getting drunk. It seemed the music was doing that for them.

2)    Brazil could have the highest concentration of surfers per capita outside of Hawaii. Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador are big cities with access to surf beaches. On any given weekend at any beach with surf you will see 100s of young people twisting and turning in the waves, displaying awesome board skills. They often dispense with wetsuits and cords on their ankles: just a board and bright beach wear is all you need for hours of fun in the surf. From the head of the Amazon River in the north all the way down to Porto Seguro is one great long beach with barrels and breaks and pipes for those in the know.

3)    The cold drinks seem colder in Brazil than in other South American countries. Even those countries in the north blessed with equatorial sunshine couldn’t, if my memory serves me right, produce a beer or a coke that spins you out with its dangerous but refreshing iciness.

4)    Brazilians are the fondest in South America of the football top. Football is a South American religion and in Brazil they wear their religion on their back. The most popular tops are the yellow of the national team, Adriano and Ronaldinho. Surprisingly we spotted a Tevez in Manuas and a Messi in Trancoso. 

5) Something that you can’t fail to notice about Brazil, especially northern Brazil is how racially mixed up the people are. Nearly everyone is a shade of brown or black. It is the white people who stand out, but somehow they don’t stand out because they fit in. As you get to meet people and their families you notice that blood crosses the racial divide. In fact perhaps for many there is no real racial divide. You fancy who you fancy and skin colour is probably no more important than the colour of the iris. What separates people is not colour but money. Brazil for me felt like the future – when racial prejudice has gone what remains will bear an uncanny resemblance to Brazil.

6)  No list about what makes Brazil stand out would sadly be complete without mention of armed robbery and serious crime. The day we arrived in Rio a helicopter was shot out of the sky by a gang with machine guns. And that felt like a typical news item. Every time we saw the news on TV there was always a section where they displayed for the cameras all the guns and drugs the police had managed to uncover. It is perhaps the saddest irony of Brazil that for a country where 99% of the people are friendly and honest no one has been left untouched by the violence. Everyone has experienced a gun or knife pointed at them by a crazed and desperate youth demanding money. Everyone advises you to just pay because the desperation of your assailant will not make them think twice about killing you. We heard stories from travellers and locals about armed robbery, rape and cons that I don’t want to even start to relate. The locals warn you, the guide books warn you, the movie City of God shows you – violence is rife; night time is a time for caution. Just to put this in perspective – in 2002 a study was carried out by the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute. The unpublished results found that homicide was the leading cheap cause of death for persons aged 15 to 44. 

7)     My last observation will go some way to counterpointing the grim reality I have just stated. And this observation is that Brazilians are some of the most helpful people you could hope to meet. From our first day in Brazil we experienced kindness that surprised us. From the start we were caught off guard by how expensive the buses were. From the Venezuelan border we could only afford a bus to Boa Vista. In Boa Vista bus station we looked to change some dollars at a fair rate (obviously that’s not going to happen at the border). We walked into the tourist information in the bus station and the man struggled to comprehend my grating Spanish, but once he did he found a newspaper, discovered the official rate of exchange, made a phone call and within 5 minutes we had exchanged at a small shop in the terminal – we pretty much emptied the woman’s till, but she smiled and said you’re welcome. And that set the tone for much of the rest of Brazil (except for Salvador where people cuss you out, beg and try to short change you). Locals were forever guiding us on to the right bus, helping us reach our destination, running off to get ice, ready to go that extra mile to show genuine hospitality. A hospitality that is not to do with politeness and formal manners but rather indicative of a practical mind that knows how to apply help and is willing to do so for nothing more than a thank you.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Brazil-istics Part One

“We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It's one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it's another to think that yours is the only path.” Paulo Coelho

I have my share of pain and renunciation I guess, all neatly held back by denial; but, putting that aside, I was impressed with the path that was revealed to me in Brazil, and I crave your indulgence to allow me to expand on some of my observations about Brazil. I apologize in advance for any judgments – they are just my projections, my daydreams for how life should be. Finally, before I begin, I would like to point out that the ordering has no hidden agenda to it. That is just the way the thoughts fell out onto my notebook.

1) In the bus stations, airports and hotel lobbies the clocks show slightly different times. There is a nebulous 5 or 6 minutes-ish about all pretensions to an exact, official time. This seems to be especially true for departures. A bus scheduled to leave at 16.00 that leaves at 16.06 is most definitely leaving on time. This Brazilian generosity over time, this indifference to living your life at the mercy of the clock is slightly different to the famous Peruvian 20 minutes. In Peru when you arrange to meet, a person often responds by claiming that they will be over in “20 minutes”. This can lead to some infuriating waits until you realize that a Peruvian 20 minutes is somewhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours.

2) Northern Brazilians in particular are some of the most casually dressed people you are ever likely to encounter. They all appear as if they are heading out for a day on the beach. They wear beach shorts with bold splashes of colour, havaiana flip flops and football tops. Or they dispense with the tops and just let it all hang out. Women, especially bigger ones, will squeeze into tight leggings or hot pants and colourful blouses that show a generous portion of spare-tire midriff and overflowing cleavage.

3) Following on from number two, women seem unashamed of their body shape and their extra weight. The average over-weight woman has no problem grabbing the affections of a young slim chap. At the beach they wear the tiniest bikinis that reveal a wealth of stretch marks, cellulose and big wobbly behinds. This fulsome package turns the heads of the young men.

4) Brazilian men of the north who are permanently attired in beach shorts seem to forever be grabbing their nuts and scratching them in public. That is what men do.

5) Brazilians, as everyone will tell you, are the happiest folks you will encounter in South America. They are forever smiling and love nothing better than to meet a foreigner and give them the thumbs up. This thumbs up business is a core characteristic of communication. Life is a continual round of thumbs up. I never encountered a thumb down when I was there. Apparently, Brazilians have an alter-ego to their sunny dispositions called saude. It is claimed that saude is untranslatable. It is a type of philosophical melancholy which will periodically wipe the smile from their faces and cast a shadow on their hearts. There's something beautiful and human in that as well.

6) The stereotypes of normal folk struggling to survive in developing countries are nearly always wrong. Yes, the majority of Brazilians are not wealthy and matters are not helped by the high prices in Brazil to buy food, bus tickets and other everyday stuff. Yet, I saw so many people use credit cards to make purchases. I guess they have tiny overdraft facilities. It also makes sense when you consider how rampant armed robbery sadly is in Brazil.

7) Brazil seems to have the highest percentage per capita in South America of hippy folk who live on beaches and at the edge of towns and villages. They are allowed to put up tents, erect make-shift accommodation and sling up their hammocks. Perhaps the country is so big and nature still, despite the inroads made by loggers and farmers, so pervasive that they can afford to be more relaxed about the laws of land ownership and allow land squatters. These colourful folk aren't usually your average beggars. Instead they cultivate talents for juggling, diablo sticks and making jewellery and manage to get by that way. There is always fishing and selling the odd bit of weed to keep things ticking over and hold back hunger. With the weather always hot and a place to stay free, they seem to get by.

8) Brazil is less overrun with backpackers than other South American countries. The masses are drawn to Machu Picchu in Peru and the high Andes in Bolivia. Concomitant to this, there are fewer hostels. Instead you find yourself staying in bed and breakfasts called pousadas. They cost more than your average hostel but the breakfast (café da manha) is much better than the poxy coffee and croissant that passes for a breakfast in much of the rest of South America. To save money camping is a good option.

9) There is a logical explanation for the huge ladies. Brazil serves the biggest plates of food I've ever encountered. They have this amazing thing called prato feito, universally known as ‘PF’, which consists of rice, beans, some type of meat and manioc powder. It is a mountain of food with only the smallest amount of vegetables. It is amazing everyone doesn't die of scurvy.

That is it for part one of Brazil-istics. Just writing this has filled me with joy; it has thrown me back to all those idyllic days spent getting high and lying in a hammock; and it has left just a trace of sadness on my soul when I consider where I am now – in Japan where all the clocks are synchronized.