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Notes from Brasil --

Judith asked for "stories". Don't know if I can manage that, but perhaps a few highly prejudiced observations and vignettes. This is long. Feel free to go to another topic :-)

First off, I don't know what you know, or think you know, about Brasil, but if your assumptions were similar to mine, check them; to follow Cordelia, check them at the ticket counter, and if Varig loses them with your malas, no worries. Most of us, I think, tend to consider South America as one undifferentiated lump, inhabited by short, mostly brown people with a penchant for strange and sometimes exciting music.


The part of Brasil I'm visiting is the southern state called Parana, mostly in the capital of Curitiba. Black and dark brown people are in the minority here; the settlement was in waves, first the Portuguese, later Italians, Germans, and Polish. I suspect, but don't know, that the last group included a sizeable admixture of other western Slavs -- Ukrainians, Slovakians, and the occasional Hungarian. The result is an ethnic mixture that looks more like Austria than Mexico, such as:

--The flight attendant on the Fokker 100 from Sao Paulo to Curitiba; fit to cause heart palpitations amongst the Aryan Brotherhood. Honey blonde hair pulled back in a twisted bun, cool grey eyes, and, um, zaftig, such as you might meet in Berlin or Zurich. But blondes aren't particularly valued in Brazil, so her makeup darkens her skin tone two shades, and her brows and lashes are done in golden brown.

--A man sitting at table overlooking the beach, with a bottle of Antarctica (a pilsner-style beer) in front of him. Square faced, square bodied, arms folded, knees slightly apart, expression stolid. A Serb, perhaps, or Ukrainian; possibly Polish. We speak to him; he's third generation Brasileiro; his name is Lourenco Goures.

--A trio in the street, mother, daughter, son. Mother is dark ash-blonde, fair complexion, mouth slightly parted over protuberant and not particularly straight teeth; daughter has dark red hair, slightly popeyed, receding chin and forehead; son has grey eyes, lank dark hair combed across, also slightly weak chin and prominent teeth. Characters from a Dick Francis novel, or bit parts on Keeping Up Appearances perhaps.

--A couple, getting out of a Volkswagen beetle in front of a small cafe. He is probably twenty-five, thin face with smooth olive complexion, thin dark brows over hot brown eyes, slightly petulant mouth; she is a year or two younger, slender, laughing, nose a little big, fall of black hair that fuzzes ever so slightly at the ends; both casually elegant in black leather, moving with languid grace. Parla Italiano? -- No.

--Two girls walking along the road; not sisters. The younger is about twelve, dark, fluffy hair; the elder is around sixteen, reddish blonde curls to the small of the back, pale, with freckles. Both of them are scrubbed and pressed "Scandahoovian style", on the way to town on Saturday evening; both are barefoot, carrying their shoes to prevent scuffing. The worst you could characterize either of them is "pretty".

--A woman in the restaurant: Lanky, face pale and a little lined, sharp features, thin mouth, mass of fluffy black hair with curly ends; think Appalachia -- Tammy Wynette's first cousin. [Do I notice the women more than the men? Damn straight. No apologies.]

Europeans, in other words. My host tells me that there are a few small reserves (i.e. reservations) for the remnant of the indigines, but for the most part, the original settlers intermarried with the indigenous peoples rather than conquering them; so you see a residuum of their features and characteristics in the faces, unremarkable and unremarked on. Reynaldo also says that Brasil changes gradually from south to north, with palefaced Europeans in the south shading to dark brown indigenes and black Africans in the North.

Here in Curitiba -- and the south in general -- the result is an ethnic mixture more reminiscent of Minneapolis or Milwaukee than Mexico. In fact, a typical resident of the US these days would expect to see more Latinos and blacks every day.

For an American visiting the country, after a few days something remarkable sinks in: Brazilians don't discriminate. Any remnants of ethnic prejudice show up as pride in the ancestral homeland; skin tone is irrelevant. TV personalities and politicans confirm it. Unlike Mexico, where they claim not to care but do -- if you want a job in Mexican TV, you better have fair skin, and preferably light hair and eyes -- Brazilian TV personalities and political figures more or less match the population in the range of ethnic origins.

A subtle point: the frankly black people look different. It takes a while to spot it, and when you do it's more than a little humbling: they are missing the facial expressions -- sometimes haunted, sometimes fearful, sometimes resentful, mostly resigned -- of people who know they're at the bottom of the social order. It's unfortunate, but true, that it's a shock to be greeted by a young black man in Rastafaran dreadlocks -- and get a cheerful "good morning!" and a little bow-of-courtesy as you pass, rather than the usual sullen shove.

Paradise? -- Bullshit; ain't no such animal. There's plenty of tension between and among the groups; they get along no better and no worse than any other variegated group of people manage. The lack, or more properly minimal degree, of ethnic conflict simply leaves more scope for the type based on regional rivalries or class.

Poverty there is, and plenty of it. Parana, and the industrial south in general, doesn't have the horrid slums of Rio de Janeiro; but there are favelas here, populated by the poorest of the poor, built on land unsuitable for building. River bottoms subject to floods, dirt hillsides they denude of trees to get wood for cooking, and little closed valleys with malarial swamps are the locations, other better sites being taken by the middle class.

In Parana they're a bit brusque with the favelas, though not cruel. The one that periodically grows up along the banks of the Iguacu River gets cleaned out with bulldozers from time to time -- dangerous for the inhabitants, unhealthy for everyone else, and polluting the river at its source -- but several smaller ones have been attacked by surveyors, who divided the place into plots and handed out deeds. Regularized, in other words, a strategy they prefer when it's possible. Upward mobility is definitely available, although tough, and it's best to keep in mind that the favela-dweller is as apt to have sandy hair and blue eyes as black and brown, respectively. Not so in Rio, alas.

* * *

South America. Land of hot sun and humidity, bright skies and tropical jungles, and people in hats with wide brims, yes?

Brrraapppt! It's August. Add six -- yes, call it February, at twenty-five degrees of latitude; and a Continental climate, because although Curitiba is only fifty miles or so from the ocean, there's a smallish, sharp granite mountain range intervening, and the altitude is 3,000 feet. In other words, it's cold -- one or two degrees Celsius in the early mornings, warming to fifteen or perhaps seventeen in the afternoon. It seldom or never gets to freezing; my own theory is that there's too much water in the lush vegetation to allow it. It has snowed once in living memory; Reynaldo, who's 28, recalls scraping enough white stuff off of roofs and the like to make a snowman a foot or so high.

The hotel has no heat, and the maid invariably leaves the window open for fresh air. Thankfully they provide an assortment of covers, and I have been sleeping under two blankets and a faux-down coverlet the last couple of days. My host is horrified -- he says it used to be a good place -- but I certainly can't fault the food or the service, and over all am not too dissatisfied. Next time we try a different one, though.

Incidentally, if you visit Brasil, don't stay in a motel. A place to sleep so as to be ready for business or vacation on the morrow is a hotel; a motel is for entertainment -- bring your own, or provided by the management for a fee, and it even says so on the signs -- indirectly perhaps. One, on the road to Paranagua and the beach, is called La Poeme (The Poem), and the 'M' is formed of the familiar heart-glyph with the point broken off; which says it all to me, but I doubt the proprietor would understand or appreciate my take on the symbolism.

On Saturday we visited the ocean -- a town called Caioba (Kie - o - bah, same accent on all syllables), Matinha (Ma - cheen - ya, famous for surf), and Paranagua (Pa - ran - a - gwa). All very pretty; the first two are frankly tourist traps, complete with surfer dudes with long streaky hair and flipflops, while the last is an old port currently in the process of gentrification.

The road is partially blocked, and we are stopped by a pair of policemen, very natty: Cordovan cavalry-style boots, fawn trousers like jodhpurs, jackets in Russian Army brown, peaked caps with round tops a little bit larger than we normally see in the US, bright red. One is tall, pale, with a short beard; the other black, with a pair of odd-looking sunshades. Will and Geordi, incognito on assignment, but Jean-Luc is nowhere to be seen, and why are they in Federal Highway Police uniforms? -- Commander Riker tells us to be careful, and stay in the left-hand lane, because the next ten kilometers are being used for a bicycle race. Valentin, the driver, thanks him and accelerates away with relief. He's recently had Lasix eye surgery, and his driving license still calls for eyeglasses; not easy to explain, perhaps.

Every twenty or so kilometers we have to slow down for a police checkpoint. Military police, that is; the highest of the three categories of police to be found in Brasil. The checkpoint is more or less perfunctory -- slow to 40 kph, merge into one lane, and pass the actual checkpoint, a kiosk containing a fat guy in a uniform who looks us over boredly as we go by. Brasil's civil government is still shiny new, and this is mainly a revenant of the rule of the colonels, as are the atrociously high import tariffs. The people rather like the military police; they're the ones who maintain the search and rescue squads and other emergency services. There are little posts all over, mostly store front stations manned by a half-dozen soldados (privates) and a couple of sargentos, supervised by a sub-tenente. That last is theoretically an officer rank, but they mess with the sergeants. Warrant officer, perhaps.

Back at the hotel on Saturday night, I went straight to bed, under all the covers, and shivered for a while. As I said, the hotel has no heat; neither did the car. It took an hour or so for my feet to get warm, even under all the covers available.

On Sunday I went to the feirinha or "little fair", actually a street market, looking for souvenirs. I don't do pictures, and my wife has threatened me with bodily harm if I don't come back with something, being as how our twenty-fifth anniversary is coming up. The market is big, stretching nearly a kilometer from the Ingreja do Ordem -- I think Jesuit, though I don't know; the oldest church in Curitiba -- to the mosque :-) which is painted green and blue and has prominent radio transmitting antennas on the onion-topped towers. In the middle, another Catholic church (the second oldest, the sign says) faces across a little plaza on an Episcopalian church. The Episcopalians have much the better show, with a tall tower supporting a round gold-leafed cap on five columns.

Trash and litter is frowned upon and picked up promptly; the place is cleaner than the typical US flea market. Looking the wares over, I'm reminded of Hilbert Schenk, the scene in Steam Bird where the President gets off the plane, looks the welcoming party over, and comments to his advisor, "We govern a melting pot, and the same glop comes out no matter where you turn the tap." The world, or at least the Western Hemisphere, is rapidly becoming homogenized. Glittering little hanging-things of cast resin; horoscope items; bisque statues, either religious or cute; T-shirts celebrating rock groups or (mainly US) sports teams; a set of horrid little statuettes carved from something that looks like cypress knees.

There are some nice items. I buy a piece of cloth we'll use as a bedspread, unbleached cotton in a rough-square pattern with a bit of fringe, probably machine made but without "Made in Taiwan" stickers: fifteen bucks. A small jewel-box, very nicely made of some fine-grained reddish hardwood, devoid of ornamentation, surprisingly heavy; twelve dollars. A trio of gaudy butterflies, suitable for a wall-hanging of the sort Bobbe likes to do, the largest six inches across: a little less than five dollars. Not too bad, actually. Someday I want to have a set of shirts made, a little heavier than tee-shirts, each saying in a different language: "I am a tourist. Cheat me." To be worn on these little shopping expeditions.

There's a lot more art than I'm accustomed to seeing, and mixed in with the truly horrid is some nice stuff -- all out of my price range, alas. I have three criteria for souvenirs: I have to be able to afford it, I have to have some idea where it's going to go at home, and I have to be able to pack it. One artist has a nice collection of landscapes, showing white board-and-batt country houses very like the one I now live in, on red-clay country lanes like the ones of my childhood home. I saw several I'd like to have, but unfortunately all failed at least one of the three tests. Farther along was a selection of nudes, tastefully erotic but with something -- what? -- askew perhaps. Then I met the artist. She spoke English, so we chatted for a few minutes. Sharron, do you like that sort of thing? Maybe if I come back I'll buy you one.

In front of the Catholic church, a little warmth for Eric's heart: a smooth Socialist politician is working the crowd, backed by a band playing guitars, wooden flutes, and an assortment of panpipes. (The last has a generic name: Zamfireira :-) ) They launch into the obligatory rendition of Guantanamera, and the politican joins in. That gets scattered applause, but the crowd likes the flute-and-panpipe renditions of old favorites much better. Down the street, another artist is playing electric violin. This one is a cheerful heavyset guy with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, very much appreciated by all; his name is Henry Pollack. The politican buttonholes people for a chat, and his minions hand out leaflets with his name: Van Honi. In the cross-street, where city police in grey Waffen-SS uniforms politely direct traffic both pedestrian and vehicular, is a Volkswagen Beetle painted Mary Kay pink, with old-fashioned bullhorns on top, exhorting the ladies to visit Dra. Maria da Cruz for the finest in feminine health care.

On the way back to the hotel with my loot, I notice something, and later go back with my notepad so as to reproduce it precisely:


You will have to imagaine the tildes and cedillas --


The building is quite substantial, thank you, although it's no Cockroach Central. No barbed wire, and the guards have only Glocks in snaptop holsters. Kind of nice to have it out in the open, no? Real civilized.

* * *

Portuguese is unusual, for me, in that I can hear words in it. In most other languages, when someone speaks to me I hear only a continuous flow of sounds, and can't find the word-breaks in the stream to begin trying to understand. Reynaldo says I do very well on bom dia (bom gee - ah, soft g), and if I can learn to say cao ("dog"; there should be a tilde over the a; approximately cown) I can learn the language.

A lot of the vocabulary carries over from Spanish, but it is NOT Espanol! J is pronounced almost as in English, as are the majority of the vowels (but not the dipthongs). P is softened to something like F, but B doesn't reduce to V; T generally comes out CH, but not always; and D usually, but not always, becomes soft G. X is SH; thus peixe, approximately fey - sh' with the single-quote representing a schwar, "fish", and puxe, more or less poo - sh', which is found on doors and means pull(!). ("Push" on doors is confusing to them when the visit English-speaking countries; they laugh about it.) Unlike Spanish -- especially Mexico City Spanish -- there is no cultural imperative to speak quickly, but country accents make sentences end on a sharply rising tone, so that a simple statement tends to sound like a really urgent question.

A lot of the vocabulary corresponds directly with English and Spanish, though it may not look like it at first. Sibilance - dipthong at the end of a word (sao, coes) corresponds to English -tion or -sion; thus in the police sign, divisao = division, informacoes = information(s), municoes = munitions. (The Cs in the last two should have cedillas.) Pick up a newspaper, make those changes, and substitute "the" for o and os, and you're about forty percent there. A little Spanish vocabulary, suitably adjusted for spelling, will add another forty percent; not bad for not really knowing a word of the language!

Days of the week are numerals: segunda-feira is Monday, tercia-feira Tuesday, quarta-feira, quinta-feira, and sexta-feira. Saturday and Sunday are Sabado and Domingo, as in Spanish. The word feira means a fair or carnival, so in Portuguese every day really is a holiday -- and all the meals I've had have been pretty good, although "banquet" would be a little strong. Use of the feminine ending (-a) for the days of the week conforms with "feira", but that's the only place where the ordinals are feminine. Elsewhere "second" is segundo masculine, so if a sign says simply "sexta" it has to mean Friday.

* * *

Most of the cuisine is international, with the usual emphasis on Italian for special meals. (Only in the United States do you find Mexican in that role.) One type of restaurant deserves special mention: the churrascaria, which an English-speaking Brasileiro will probably render as "barbecue".

Fair, and strong, warning: the churrascaria is not for the faint of heart, and most especially not for vegetarians -- or the high in cholesterol. It works like this: in the middle of the place is a set of steam- and cold-tables, with salads, vegetables, fruits, and soups, self-service like a buffet. Your waiter marks the number of diners on a card, takes your drink order, and in some places leaves a marker labeled "nao" (no) on one side in red, and "sem" (yes) on the other in green. You fill your plate at the buffet and sit down, and the drinks come.

There follows an endless succession of people with meat -- beef, chicken, lamb, pork, sausages of various types, fish, shellfish, you name it -- mostly on skewers (which may be swords, real or fake), sometimes in chafing dishes with cheese or sauces. Point to an item, or ask if you speak the language, and the guy slices off a generous hunk and puts it on your plate. In the places where they give you a marker, turn the red or "no" side up and they will leave you alone; otherwise they'll keep coming until you leave. Getting out of a churrascaria with a reasonable cholesterol level takes either a very favorable metabolism or extraordinary strong-mindedness.

The other food-custom that deserves mention is breakfast. I said above that Brazilians don't discriminate; that includes characterizing particular foods as "breakfast" versus "lunch and dinner" items. Sunday morning, for instance, I ate as usual at the hotel buffet: scrambled eggs with bacon, a ham and cheese sandwich, orange juice, and a generous slice of custard "icebox" pie with fresh strawberries on top. Other choices included (but were not limited to) jello, Polish sausage, lemon pie, cereal with milk, salami, prosciutto, flan, and suicide-by-chocolate cake. I looked longingly at the last item, but *sigh* I had that yesterday. Maybe tomorrow :-)

And of course coffee. The were-mouse would be very dissatisfied, although tea (ch'a) is available, and the Dwarf and a few others might well rejoice. Apparently Brazilians didn't drink much coffee until the colonels essentially isolated the country; the coffee companies, needing a market, decided to introduce coffee gradually, in small quantities. The result is hot, black, and very strong, almost always needing sugar, and usually served in very small cups, sometimes only an ounce. All the companies I visit maintain a simple kitchen where coffee is prepared at least twice a day, promptly at ten and four, and either brought around in Thermos carafes for management and uppercrust types like (ahem!) y'r ob't svt, or served in the canteen for the peons. I drink a lot of it. So do the Brazilians.

Those who don't want coffee can imbibe tea, Coca-Cola (of course!), or guarana, a soft drink made from a tropical fruit. Guarana has an alkaloid similar to caffeine, but more effective; Jolt Cola's got nothing on this stuff! I'd try to import it into the United States, just for programmers and college students, but I'm afraid it would wind up firmly on the forbidden list along with methamphetamines and cocaine :-(

* * *

You've probably got the idea that I like Brasil. You'd be right, at least as regards the southern parts where I've visited. It's a big country, ranging from tropical-humid to tropical-arid in the North, and all the way to continental-temperate in the South. I've only seen a little of it, not even a real scratch on the surface, but I've enjoyed my visits -- even with the cold hotel room! -- and won't be at all bothered by the prospect of coming back, at all, at all. Maybe next time it can be summer --

The Traveler in Jeans