Friday, September 12, 2008

On Samba Time

Reading List

  • The Accidental President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Brain Winter
  • Why is This Country Dancing?, John Krich
  • A Death in Brazil, Peter Robb


To name, they say, is to conquer. Few names in recent times have had quite the grip of the McKinsey group's BRIC, the quartet of countries leading the developing world: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. You can argue about the massive differences in status and potential between these countries; you could argue about missing worthies (as Argentinians have, suggesting alternate formulations such as BRAC). But to contend the point is to concede it. And now, on account of being invited to deliver a keynote talk at the Brazilian Programming Languages Conferences (SBLP), I have the chance to see this sibling country up close.


Ipanema is dorsal. Look down that grand sweep of beach, and over at the end stand two enormous, sharp peaks of rock, like a pair of breaching orcas. In photographs, they always look misty and just a little surreal. And that's just how they appear to the human eye, filtered through the distance, the humidity, the spray and, yes, the smog. The two giant fins could be the symbol of a city if it didn't already have so many to offer.

If Ipanema is dorsal, I suppose Copacabana is ventral. No longer the glamorous queen, it ought to have slipped into the role of the dowdy dowager. And, I suppose, some of its oceanfront hotels do. But there is life here—even if it's all cheap and kitchy and blandly uniform, somehow it feels a little more alive, too. It too, is punctuated by its own morro, the totemic Pão de Açúcar. And all these granite giants are simply a small part of what Guanabara Bay has to offer.

What is stunning is not that these beaches are the way they are, but that for so long, they weren't at all. The human obsession with the beach is relatively recent, newer even than the fancy for mountains. But whereas mountains were just dark and treacherous, beaches were...unnecessary? Ocean-going people knew the water already, while landlubbers had already chosen to avoid it. Who, then, had use for stretches of sand, or even the time and leisure to wallow in them? And thus these two had to wait until the 20th century to be “discovered”, though even then, it's a little difficult to understand why they weren't colonized simultaneously. Not that it helped, architecturally: neither appears to have a single redeeming building. But more on that in a bit.

I stay in Copacabana, wary of the clichés. I had actually hoped to be in Santa Teresa through a b&b service called Cama e Café. But repeated emails to them proved to be a highly frustrating experience, and I didn't want to trust my trip to them. Besides, there's something to be said for the anonymity of hotels over forced intimacy. In the end, Copacabana proves to be a perfectly fine base. Both its seediness and its commotion feel real, and I miss the hustle of the center of a large city.

Long before I cast my eyes on any rocks or beaches, however, I have to get into town from the international airport. Rio's Zona Norte is notoriously poor and slum-ridden, and in this the ride resembles nothing so much as a drive through Mumbai, down to the few half-finished houses, small bits of cement and plaster (as much as could be afforded) holding together brick, wood, and whatever other materials were available...and these are the grander accommodations. It's one of the great, great ironies of both Mumbai and Rio that some of the best views are afforded to those who might lose them at any moment by virtue of having their dwellings washed away in a rainstorm. And just as we pass this dwelling—on one of the major highways coming into town—a man runs right across the street, right across three lanes of traffic each way (imagine I-95), and at that instant I know I am closer to India than to the US. I continue to be so stricken by the similarities between the two cities that I wonder if this is some sort of curse of the Portuguese, from Bom (Boa? Boim?) Bahia to the Cidade Maravilhosa.

I also wonder, not for the first time, whether someday all our cities will have to feel like this. But that's another matter.


I am on the metro at around 10am, in the recently-opened Cantagalo station. I have already fulfilled my tourist ambition to give directions (correctly) in every place I visit. In this case I can take no special pride at all: the woman wants to know whether the train will go to the Central station; there is only one line, we're at the end station, and everyone is on one platform. My only accomplishment is processing the Brazilian pronunciation of the terminal -l (yes, the rest of the world has been mis-pronouncing “Brazil” all along, in addition to mis-spelling it).

The platform is full, and filling. Few people look like they're from the beach; most look like workers or other natives. The platform gets fuller and fuller. On the opposite side are several workers, and just past the end of the opposite platform is a stationary train. Everyone is calm.

A few minutes into this, a functionary in a rather more serious-looking uniform (the workers on the other platform were in drab grey; the new one is in a very deep blue, clearly indicative of higher rank and authority) runs down the opposite platform. People are curious but only a few heads follow this motion. Then another. A small stream of people has been steadily heading back upstairs—these must be people on an actual schedule—but everyone else waits as even more people pour in. Everyone is utterly calm, utterly patient. Nobody seems to even ask the officials what's going on.

Finally, one more deep-blue-besuited official descends to the opposite platform, and he says something. Now people are upset. They are shouting, hollering, whistling, shaking heads, and showing a range of emotions. It's fascinating that simply the statement of the obvious releases this reaction, even though having said that the official may actually have hastened these people on their way to their destination.

My metro experience having been thwarted, I decide it's time to try the buses. The buses of Rio are mildly terrifying, and that's when they aren't outright heart-stopping, driving at what appear to be dizzying speeds and without regard for lanes. The system itself appears close to unstructured: there are hundreds of lines without clear markings of routes, stops, or anything else.

Not surprisingly, with a little inspection the system appears to be a wonder. The buses have dispensed with niceties such as route maps for the simple reason every bus says on its front where it's going and via which places. The buses do have numbers, though they're not always easy to find; and, more to the point, they don't really matter. Trying to get to Centro? Just stand where a bunch of other people seem to be standing, flag down a passing bus that says Centro, hop on (carefully, as this sometimes means crossing a lane of traffic), pay at entry (fixed rate no matter how far you're going) and, when you see your destination, press a bell, and hop off. In fact there appear to be numerous bus lines operated by different companies, with varying degrees of comfort (and perhaps safety). Their rates differ, too, but the rates are prominently displayed on the front. By staying away from the buses during rush hour, I've been grinning during and after every trip.

Of course, it doesn't help that as we lurch through town (the speed is a little oversold: what is dizzying is their momentum), I glance out my window and, in a storefront reflection, see the name of my bus company: Verdun. Not a comforting name for a system with a slightly dubious reputation for respect for human life.

Eventually I do use the Metro, and I use it quite a bit. It's clean, well-organized, easy to use, timely, and regular. It has some of the best, most rational signage of any metro I've ever used (though the announcements are spotty and sometimes wrong). The stations range from pleasant to excellent (Cantagalo mimics the Washington DC station structure). Low coverage aside, it does almost everything one could possibly want of a big city metro system. It is almost certainly a far better public transportation, along the same stretches, as the bus system, and will presumably eventually supplant most of it.

But it misses on two counts. For one, the turnstiles have a terrible sense of rhythm: you'd expect to insert your ticket and walk right through, and the half-second gap it forces always breaks my stride. In the nation of samba, this should be considered criminal: as if the metro is in Rio, but not of it.

Which it is. There is something human and visceral about these buses, and every time I speed between Zona Sul and Centro, across the arc of Botafogo beach, looking out over the morros of Guanabara Bay, with the Pão de Açúcar standing sentinel and the Corcovado's Christ statue towering over the scene, my heart races a little. If I lived here, if I did this every single day of my life, I think I would still feel a little bit happier every time I saw this sight.

But then, the metro, too, has its moments. It is late at night, and I am returning to my hotel. I am changing between tracks at Estácio, and we're waiting awhile. Suddenly a tune of haunting beauty floats in over the tannoy. I do not recognize it; I cannot even place it; but it swirls about me, enchants me, and then settles deep inside my bones. I let a train pass, hoping the music will never end.


I don't know how long it takes to get to Centro, or what time it is when I get there. I don't know these things because I'm not wearing a watch. I was told, you see, that to avoid being targeted by muggers, it'd be best to not be wearing any sharp-looking watches. So I left behind my watch; the plan was, once I landed here, I'd wander down to a local store and buy the cheapest thing I could find. But I'd gone a whole day without one, and when I did spot a store with the appropriate quantity of appropriately shoddy timekeepers, I...just kept walking. Somehow, it just seems appropriate in Brazil.

My afternoon in Centro reminds me of nothing so much as another leafy but large and congested, sub-tropical southern hemispheric city located by a fantastic bay: Sydney (minus, of course, the abject poverty of Rio). And just as Sydney is all modern but for a tiny sliver of preserved colony, so with Rio. Nobody standing in the afternoon sun in the Praça Imperial, amidst random statuary of unknown worthies and surrounded by low, white buildings with wrought-iron balconies can help but be transported to Portugal or the Mediterranean. To be sure, the moment passes quickly, but there are other such details dotting the city. My favorite was walking by the southern wall (on the other side from the flyovers) of the Museu Histórico Nacional and looking up to see blue tiles along the rim of the slightly-overhanging roof.

The Museu itself is worth a little while. It is mostly potted history that should be familiar to anyone who did a little reading before their visit. But a few objects stand out, and there are two new areas—a restored room of ceiling frescoes about the laws that have governed Brazil, and a section on native Indian art—that are both worth examining. Far less appealing is a recently created exhibition on health and medicine in Brazil, funded by Lisbon's peculiar Gulbenkian Foundation, whose entries are—unlike the rest of the museum—in Portuguese only. This is less of a pity than it might seem (for what a fascinating topic it is!) as the exhibit itself appears to be low on content and high on uninformative visuals. As for the rest, the historical paintings, busts, and the like are by a series of European nobodies who were smart enough to realize that with their talents, they would die poor and unknown in their native countries but would be feted as French or Italian painters and appointed to the court in Brazil. (It would have been interesting to learn more about episodes such as Projeto Rondon, about a modern variant of which I saw one photograph but learned nothing, and for which there's virtually no information even on-line.)

Brazilian TV is famed for its awfulness. I see nothing to redeem it, and there's certainly much about it that is abysmal in any language. But I do wonder if its reputation is overdone a little, or perhaps it has improved to the point of being only bad, and thereby not compelling enough. All of this, I must add, simply did not prepare me for the moment when I turned over a channel, landed on RAI (the Italian network), and found, dubbed in Italian, a modern Amitabh Bachchan movie.


I want to go for a walk in the evening, and somewhere I read that Rua Visconde de Pirajá is an interesting shopping street. This is just as well, because I'm looking for a bookstore on the street, and figure I could scout it out. But I get there to find a drab, dismal street—worse even than the worst I'd prepared for, which is rows of boutiques and bijouteries—and I'm so depressed I turn around after two blocks. I stop in a store to buy some bread, only to find that a man blocks me and won't budge until the bread is up to his standards (the rolls look fine to me—and prove to be so), and the woman checking out in front of me handles her purse and purchases with the snobbish slowness of one who can't be seen to acknowledge other humans around—and I contrast all this to the essentially Brazilian good cheer of the staff, and remind myself never again to shop where the rich live.

The street, and the store, are in Ipanema. As I've mentioned, Ipanema is where it's at. Well, not really; Ipanema is yesterday's news, and the rich Cariocas have sold and moved on to Leblon and points further west. But they've left in their wake a place of unimaginable ugliness. It reminds me of...well, I can't really remember its name, and that's the point, but the similar area of Mexico City. As Ibero-America got rich in the 50s, 60s and 70s, they built buildings of truly striking blandness that combine to blight the landscape at least as much as the favelas their owners no doubt despise. The names of these buildings—for here, all buildings are named, much as they are in the rest of the developing world—speak of unrequited aspiration; the Edificio Mondrian, for instance, is an ugly brown stone with a brown-tinted glass foyer, conceived by an architect who cannot possibly have known even the very first thing about the Dutchman. These architectural crimes, combined with the fact that it's the only part of town when I ask a question in Portuguese and am responded to in English, means I avoid it entirely for the rest of my stay.

Speaking of aspirations, Kathi and I have been playing an informal game of Curves-spotting. Curves is a women's-only gym that is characterized by cheap locations and blinds and, I believe, a lack of mirrors (on the sound principle that women would be more likely to stay fit if they didn't have to worry about preening men or women, or intrusive eyes). Curves seems to be a class-marker of the solidly middle-class (you can fill in your own pop-sociological reason for why). And there, at the north-western end of Copacabana, I see my first Curves in Brazil.


Returning to the concrete matter of shopping for rolls, the astute reader will notice that I have entered that territory that every traveler outwardly dreads but secretly loves: that of Things That Must be Weighed. (I had thought rolls would be sold in whole units, but they are priced by weight.) This momentarily strikes terror: I gesture to the woman beside the bread tub, she signals to the weighing scale, I try to ask her what code to use, she doesn't understand, I desperately scan the bread sign for a code, find absolutely none, in despair place the bread on the scale, and it magically knows what I've ordered. That's right, there's nothing else around to be weighed. I don't feel too foolish as I grab the sticker it prints.

Walking back, and at several other times, I feel myself gently spritzed by water from above. My first two or three times I worry that it's about to rain, and find it odd that it could do so without a single cloud in sight—the Southern Hemisphere must be a truly strange place. Eventually, I formulate a reasonable hypothesis: this must be from stand-alone air-conditioners mounted on upper floors. It's winter here in Rio, which means it is merely somewhere between warm and hot but not blistering, and I feel sorry for these poor people who had to inhabit the mores of their settlers from temperate European lands.


As I walk around town, I notice several kiosks for chaveiros, and they appear to be key-makers. A quick search confirms this. Chalk this down to the opposite of a faux ami (a bon ami?): the root for the word in Portuguese sounds surprisingly similar to the word for ‘key’ in Tamil. Of course, this may not be coincidental: perhaps the Tamilians had no need to lock anything down until the marauding Portuguese showed up.


As I drink a vitaminas (a fruit drink with milk rather than water, which would make it a sucos) at a roadside stand, a few blocks inland from Copacabana beach, I see something odd. A very fair-skinned woman walks up to the stand, towing a black boy. The woman is just pushing past 30, and is dressed to stand out: black pants and a shiny orange top buttoned tight; the boy is about seven, wears beach bottoms and nothing else. The woman is asking him to pick a drink; she leaves him there for a moment with the menu while she walks around the corner with purpose; while she's away, he fingers some cash (a two or five reais bill, and some coins); she returns; a drink is ordered, but I never hear a word from the boy. I nurse my drink, but I'm really quite done, and his drink is taking a while to make. I walk away.

An hour later, I'm walking to the shopping street, and four blocks from this encounter, I see the woman again. This time she's walking hand-in-hand with a much older man—about 55, heavier, a head mostly full of unruly white hair, comfortable and seemingly prosperous but, if he's filthy rich, hiding it well.

They don't say much, and I don't understand what they're saying.


In the evening, after sunset, I go to Arpoador Beach, the eastern end of Ipanema. It's quieter, calmer, there, and traces of pink paint the western sky. Copacabana is crowded, in part, because of separated “bike” lane that runs between the road and the beach proper; I use scare-quotes because there are relatively few bicycles in it compared to foot traffic, especially runners.

I had heard about the running in Copacabana, but since I'm traveling extra-light, I haven't packed running shoes. But as I come around the corner, I'm seized by the desire to move; so I tighten the straps of my Teva sandals, pick a particularly ugly hotel about a kilometer away as a target, and start to trot. It's tiring, and it feels great. To cool down I walk another kilometer. As I turn around, my legs suddenly start to move involuntarily. Running westward is less fun, because you're immediately beside the chugging traffic, but I feel propelled by forces I don't entirely grasp. I get to and pass my target (the same ugly hotel) without even noticing it, and keep on, and on—I must have a tailwind!—until I realize I'm a few blocks past my hotel, and I could go on forever with this wind...and I stop. There will probably be hell to pay on my kees eventually, but I'll take it.


Rio has numerous “kilo” vegetarian restaurants. Some are purely vegetarian, while others have the odd non-vegetarian dish and are labeled “natural”. They range in quality, but the good ones are outstanding.

My favorite is one called Reino Vegetal. It's nowhere near anything you'd expect: it's neither in the chic Zona Sul, catering to the swelte, nor in the heart of Centro, ministering to executives. Instead, it's deep in the heart of a very old-fashioned commercial area—the kind of place where the streets are still cobbled (and not to be charming), the sidewalks are still high, and some of the signs look like they haven't been painted in decades. I've been here before: not here here, but it's Bangalore's N. R. Road and the old commercial center of very many other third-world cities. It's far from the searching eye of a tourist, executive or yuppie; indeed, it's far from the eye of all but the all-seeing Google (or, in this case, Happy Cow).

As I'm ordering a drink, one of the staff asks me whether I'd like...well, I'm not sure, really. It sounds a bit like the word for ginger, but it's definitely not. It sounds closer to injera, but surely not; nobody would put that in a drink! I decide it must be yet another of the local exotics, so I give her my assent. She's delighted; she repeats this to another person. Am I being had? The staff seem really nice and decent folk; and then, it hits me, she's asked me whether I'm Indian! (Why can they never phrase questions the way they're listed in the language guides?) [Tip for the baffled: Brazilian Portuguese pronounces “di” with a `j', so “India” comes out rather like “Inja”. That's right, I'm an Injun.] She goes out into the dining area and tells one of the diners—who I think is one of the owners—this. And the next time I walk in (how could you not return to such a place?), she immediately greets me with a great big smile and announces, the Indian is back. She's so taken with this that every time she walks past my table she comes by to ask me a question about the food and my enjoyment of it, and rapidly she has exhausted every word and phrase I know. It doesn't deter her one bit.


In the evening, I am on the metro when an elderly, dignified-looking white couple walk in; the woman seems much firmer than the man. A young black woman gets up to offer her seat to him. They thank her; then the older man says something, the younger woman asks something, and suddenly these three have begun a discussion that goes on for several stops. To be able to understand the language!

I do not have to wait long. The next day, an old dame sits by me. She has just squeezed through what have to be the narrowest of turnstiles to board a bus; though in fine shape, she's annoyed by this and tells me about it. I offer the universal roll of the eye in assent. Now she complains about something on the metro. What where they thinking, too, I agree. I'm worried that any moment now she's going to start asking questions, and I'll have to drop the pretense. It turns out she already has, without the intonation, and is awaiting my reply. I stutter out that I don't really understand, and at the same instant we both blurt out, “Descuple!” [I'm sorry.] She finds out I'm from America (no reaction), and that I'm Indian (delight!). Now that she's established I don't speak any Portuguese, we begin talking again, this time with very small words. The “conversation” covers religion, her sister, politics, her hometown of Santa Caterina, and poverty. It's heady stuff, even if I haven't an idea what she's saying. (Well, generally there are only two mainstream opinions on any of these issues, so it's pretty easy to establish which half of the equation she's on, but the bit about religion involves Christianity, her sister, and something about the Buddha, and I'm pretty much lost.)


In general, the people I encounter are everything the stereotypes suggest: warm, friendly, and patient. Yet there is such a species as the impatient Brazilian, and I find its natural habitat: the trains. As a metro train pulls into an end-station, the entire crowd lurches towards the (closed) doors, leaning on them, banging on them, some even trying to pull them apart. Something is afoot, I figure—maybe the doors open too briefly—so I join the throng. Then we are inside, the doors remain open for generously long, and I'm baffled. Next time, same behavior, again I join in, again the same response. So the third time, I stand back and watch.

They are rushing for the seats. They are not merely rushing, they are charging, knocking over one another, scattering in every direction inside from the door like roaches in a bright light. And then, once they're settled, they resume being Brazilian. (There is a similar scene near the beginning of Central Station where, before the train doors open, people pour into the cars through the windows.) If you don't want a seat, there are entire prairies of standing room awaiting your habitation. The one time I'm on a metro car that still has empty seats, two women walk in and proceed to stand at a pole. I am scandalized by their un-Brazilian behavior, until one of them pulls out a Lonely Planet guide.

This love of automated comfort carries over elsewhere. Put a staircase next to an escalator? Why bother? Even as dozens of people are queued up to get onto the escalator, I am stared at for taking the staircase—even in this town of legendarily buff bodies. (Then again, the turnstiles on the buses are so narrow and so firm, abs develop naturally and fitness is essential for using public transport.)


The downside to all this urbanism is that it's simply impossible to see the night sky. I feel sorry for the vast majority of Brazilians, whose only exposure to the constellations must be the ones on their flag. In a few generations they may not even know what those stars on their flag stand for.


One of the great joys of visiting Brazil is surely attending a soccer game, and in Rio, where would one want to watch one more than in Maracanã, that throne of Brazilian football? Of course, the thought of a football game at Maracanã is enough to raise every alarm about safety and security in Rio. Not surprisingly, an entire industry has sprung up where desire meets fear. For a neat sum, a tour guide will pick you up at your hotel, bundle you into a van of other (presumably) equally nervously excited tourists, take you to the stadium (where your ticket has been bought for you), have you all sit together in the stands, and then escort you back out into the safety of the van, to be returned to the hotel.

Does anything sound more awful?

That said, I confess to thinking about this for a while. I am nursing a cold, I am weary from the flight capers, I am...let's admit it, I am a bit nervous. As a compromise, I email a guide named Sergio, who runs such a service, but seems unlike the rest of his species. Sergio isn't available the week I am in town (but, to his great credit, happily answers my email questions). So I am on my own. I don't shave for a day, to try to achieve the characteristic Carioca scruff, and off I go.

Well, it's everything you might imagine. The level of play itself is quite awful; other than a few inspired minutes when Recife Sport puts together a textbook use of space—a display so good even the home fans seemed to admire it—there isn't much to watch on the field. (But as it is Brazilian football, there are a few moments of absolutely dazzling virtuosity.) But one doesn't go to a Brazilian soccer game to watch the play anyway. And I had, through a combination of error and luck, landed bang in the middle of the Flamengo cheering section, with drums right behind me and red flares going off over my head. It is terrifying and exhilarating.

I stand for the hour I'm on the train, on the grounds that I'll be sitting for the next two hours or so. As the fans file in, however, the front row is standing, so the rows behind have to stand, and those further back have to stand on their seats, and so on, until everyone in the entire section is standing. Then we begin clapping and singing—my hands begin to feel bruised, and I realize the game hasn't even begun yet—and we continue thus for the entire duration of the game.

This is Brazil, so of course we don't just stand. At various points everyone begins to jump to the beat in—remember, this is Brazil!—perfect harmony. I am jumping, too, but I feel an odd sensation beneath my feet. So I keep my feet firmly planted to the, uh, seat, and realize—the stadium is vibrating. It is difficult to translate that moment of terror into words; the only possible response to this is to resume jumping with everyone else.

This is so much fun that I go back and do it again later in the week. One of the legendary rivalries in soccer is between the two Rio teams, Flamengo and Fluminense. Having watched Flamengo play (league-leading Grêmio), it seems only fair to also watch Fluminense (play Recife Sport). Sergio—a Flamengo fan, it must be said—has warned me to not expect much from Fluminense. In the event, he was pretty accurate. At any rate, for the benefit of other travelers, I offer the following:

Watching a Game at Maracana

What I most like is that people have a great time entertaining themselves, without needing to be entertained. There is no pre-game show; there are no cheerleaders; there are no clocks or replays (though those may be safety measures). At half-time, a very, very old man bounces a ball off his foot, never letting it touch the ground, as he walks the entire length of the sideline; it is pure virtuosity; but nobody seems to especially notice. Instead, I equip myself with the cornerstones of every healthy meal, namely proteins and carbohydrates (aka, nuts and beer), and do my best to cheer to the insanely catchy Flamengo songs (though the Fluminense ones prove even catchier). Police swarm the place, but uselessly; at one point a group of them moves to investigate a flare-launcher; suddenly Flamengo scores, and the sky overhead turns red, and the police return to obsolescence.


After Rio, I ask nothing of the rest of Brazil. Fortaleza reminds me of nothing quite so much as Cairns, Australia, though the similarity proves somewhat superficial. São Paulo feels like New York, its language a jarring, truncated version of the mellifluous tongue spoken elsewhere. The facade of Boa Viagem in Recife depresses me during the day; even the brand new buildings are built with a pre-aged look. But at night, the beach clear, I emerge from my hotel to see the street-lights reflect off the dazzling white sand, and I find its attraction. There is nobody about, but I walk down closer to the water. Suddenly, I hear a muffled rhythm, and a barely-teen boy goes past, riding bare-back on a white horse.

I haven't earned the right to conclude anything, but I decide that Brazil feels like India about twenty years ahead. The traffic is Indian, but there is no honking; the footpaths are Indian, but there is no spitting. Yet again, I think, this may be what the future will look like for everyone.

But something special has happened here, where two potent, fecund forces—the tropics, and immigration (some of it forced, regrettably) to the New World—have collided. The street names in Rio (Venceslau, Dodsworth, Ulrich), the buildings in Recife (Lundgren, Robert Bruce Harley), and much else speak of great distances traveled for opportunity. On the other hand, in a world that increasingly values services over goods, it must be frustrating to be saddled with a language of one's own. How those forces will balance out will be fascinating to see.