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Brazil 101

Brazil 101

Question: "Is Brazil all it’s cracked up to be?"
By Philip Blazdell

Dear Mr. Blazdell,

I read your article on Bahia in Brazzil magazine. I enjoyed it
very much. I’ve never been to Brazil. One of my oldest friends however wrote the Lonely
Planet Guidebook to Brazil, perhaps you’ve read it? His name is Andrew Draffen. He and
I went to school together in Australia and he later married a Brazilian woman and lived
for a time in Rio. I’ve read so much about Brazil, Rio, the history, culture, society of
the place. I often listen to samba and forró on CD.

I suppose I have a rather simplistic question. Is Brazil all it’s
cracked up to be? From just reading about it you get contradictory and slightly
bewildering impressions. On the one hand many portray the country as a kind of paradise of
the human spirit—where the zest for life is greater than anywhere else, the people
more open and joyful, the women more beautiful and amorous, the pleasures of life keener.

Reading about the crime and poverty and political strife in Brazil
however, you get the impression of a kind of hell on earth. Where does the reality lie and
what is Brazil really like? As I said I’ve never been there but I desperately want to go
one day. My wife refuses to go as she saw a news documentary about homeless children being
systematically murdered in the streets of Brazilian cities. She refuses to set foot in a
country that treats its children in such a manner. How can I argue with something like
that? Rio for example also sounds like a violent and dangerous city. What are your
thoughts?

David Holt in Missouri, USA

Reply:

After a night of thinking and chatting I feel a little bit more able to give an answer
to you. If you don’t mind I will save your letter for future articles in Brazzil—I
feel it is so important.

Before I give you my answer I think its important to say that I really only know the
Northeast of Brazil well. The country is so big that it’s quite hard for me to travel as
much as I like. I am told by many people that the variation between here (which is poor)
and the South (which is richer) is remarkable—I am happy to believe this as I notice
a considerable difference when I got to the next state. I also would ask you to take my
thoughts into consideration that I have just spent the last 18 months in Japan, which I
hated. Brazil was always my dream, and as I have written somewhere I consider myself quite
an adventurous person, so perhaps it makes it easier for me to live and work here.

I agree with your sentiments exactly, about the huge contrasts the media and books give
of Brazil. To a certain extent I am as responsible for this myth as the next man, though
the Lonely Planet book is brilliant and impartial it is still necessary to gloss over
certain aspects to sell the book. For example, if I was to write about the day-to-day
frustrations I have here—like meetings never happening, never getting paid, have to
bribe people for a phone line, etc, the editor of Brazzil would throw his hands up
in the air and wonder what I am thinking about.

I try to write about the positive aspects of this place, which I feel there are many
of. My intention is that people will get a little bit of the flavour of Brazil from my
articles—I always try to hint at some of the problems here, but perhaps that gets
lost in my gushing about a beach or a place. Perhaps this creates the urban myth that
Brazil is the most exciting, sensual place in the world.

It reminds me of the sign I used to see at Osaka airport in Japan, which read: `Our
country finer, our heritage greater and our people kinder—Welcome to Japan’. Every
country wants to extend this myth of being fantastic. I traveled for some time in Malawi,
which extols itself as the warm heart of Africa, only to find myself hassled and
frustrated at every move. I even find myself idolizing London now after 20 years of
complaining bitterly about it.

Perhaps, and this is only my opinion, Brazil seems so exotic purely because it is
largely unknown by the average European or North American. My own personal experience is
that very few of my friends know anything about the country. For example, I have been
asked if there are cars in Brazil, if we all live in the jungle or if there are such
things as supermarkets.

I would be the last person to say Brazil is a paradise—though certain situations
and places come close and am the first to admit that the country has some serious
problems. For example, here in Fortaleza we have a thriving child sex tourism industry,
which to me is almost so horrific I can’t even begin to rationalize it. But, and I say
this with the hope of an optimist, I don’t believe that the situation is so dire that we
must give up hope.

Undoubtedly the place can be dangerous, just last night a colleague was the victim of
an attempted carjacking close to the university. But a closer look at the situation shows
a different story. She was in a notoriously bad area, late at night in a brand new car.
Its just like the Japanese minister I was with once in a pub in London who took out a wad
of 50 pound notes and wondered why everyone stopped and stared. Opportunist crime is
always a problem when there is a disparity between the rich and the poor.

I had a similar experience in Mexico City not so long ago. My point is this, if you are
aware and do not take risks then Fortaleza (I can’t be sure about other cities) is safe.
There are enough honest people to keep you out of the bad areas—in Salvador nearly
everyone stopped us on the street to warn us from one area. So far I have been in no
threatening situations and feel reasonably comfortable.

However, I believe Rio may be different, nearly everyone I know here warned me about
going to Rio alone for Carnaval, but on the positive side my boss told me if I wanted to
see Rio, which he suggested was essential for me, he would willingly take me and show me
around. Perhaps this is the true paradise of Brazil, the fact that often people have so
little to give and give so willingly.

I am interested in your wife’s views and can sympathize with them. This started me to
think about where I have been recently. Just a scan through my passport gave me this
list—and with some thought a reason not to go there.

China—terrible human rights record—the dieing rooms

Japan—Rape of Nanking

Soviet Union—Human rights issues

England—terrible colonial past

France—testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific

In the end I gave up when the only country I felt I could safely visit was Canada. My
point is that every country has some skeletons in the cupboard, and through my travels I
have come not to accept these but to have a more compassionate view of life. I do not
endorse the horrors, real or otherwise, which I am sure a few sick people perform in
Brazil, or anywhere else in the world, but through my work as an educator I try to offer a
solution. That of education. Brazil does not need moral or economic sanctions, it needs a
firm hand and compassion—for that reason alone I believe that you really must come
and see this place for yourself. I will willingly introduce your wife to some excellent
schools here run for homeless children which are simply fantastic. Our department gives
generously and we take a real pride in our children we have helped.

To answer you question, is Brazil what its cracked up to be, I have to be honest and
say…perhaps. I came here with very few expectations and so far I haven’t been
disappointed. I find the people incredibly warm and hospitable—for example my
landlord who let me live rent free for two months to allow me to settle in—and the
countryside generally attractive. The only way to answer this question is to come and see
it for yourself. It would be a pleasure and privilege to discuss this matter further with
you whilst sipping a cold drink in the beach.

I hope that some day you take me up on this offer, but in the meantime, these thoughts
are mine, and quite possibly mine alone, please let me know if this helps to resolve your
problems and if I can clarify any matters further.

Kindest regards and thanks for opening my mind a little !

Philip

The author grew up in London and left at the earliest opportunity for a
glittering career in Asia. After failing miserably to adapt his Japanese colleagues to an
English sense of humour he took off for sunnier climes. He currently lives, and is
rumoured, works in the NE of Brazil. He has traveled extensively, mostly using other
people’s money—of which he is absurdly proud. He is a regular contributor to this,
and other esteemed travel magazines. He is always happy to receive letters from readers
and will personally reply to all. He may be contacted at philip@dem.ufc.br 

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