Sunday, January 31, 2010

Taming the mane

A month ago today I arrived in Rio, just in time to celebrate New Year's on the beach. (Yes, it was an amazing way to start 2010. I recommend that you all try it.) It was raining when I arrived, and as soon as I stepped outside my nicely straightened hair instantly turned into a gigantic lion's mane--not a pretty sight. Don't worry; I haven't been walking around like a freak this entire time. It's nowhere near straight, but I've managed to tame the mane a bit with the help of some styling products and Leo, a most fabulous hair stylist.

I arrived in Rio without much of a plan and highly anxious about finding a productive way to occupy my time here. Much like my hair, however, my emotions have settled down over the last few weeks and I finally feel that things are falling into place. I have a better idea of what I want out of this particular experience as well as heightened clarity about what I want for myself in the future. I am finishing my third article for the Rio Times and can now call myself a journalist. I'm exercising daily and feeling results. I've met some very worthwhile people. And I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after what began as an unknown amount of time away from my partner. In other words, things are looking up.

Happy month-back-in-Rio to me! Now if I can only find some extremely well-paying freelance work so I can stay a while longer...

xoxo M.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The engine is running

I think this will balance out my previous post, or as my boyfriend refers to it, the "death entry". I believe I've turned a page. I just got back from my first outing (interview) as a reporter.

Yes, a reporter. I'm working on my first assignment as a contributing reporter for the Rio Times, Rio's only English-language newspaper. While this is not a full-time job from which I'll make a living, it's certainly an opportunity to write and to be published-- by someone other than myself, that is. Plus it's a chance to dive deeply into some topics of my interest, giving my plans for Brazil considerable leverage. I met with the publisher/editor yesterday, and after a very pleasant meeting we agreed that my first article will discuss recent pacification efforts by the police in the favela (shantytown) where I volunteered in 2006. This morning I made a few phone calls and by 1:30 p.m. I was heading up the mountain on my way to interview Carlos. Sorry, Mom.

A little background: The NGO/school where I volunteered, Solar Meninos de Luz, serves the Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo favelas in the mountainous terrain that separates Rio's famous Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods. For the last 30 years, these favelas, which are essentially one large, connected community, have been controlled by drug and arms trafficking. In the last two months, the drug lords have been pushed out and are no longer dictating life there.

As part of the government's policy to heighten security in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, the police have already invaded and installed Pacification Police Units (UPP) in five communities including Cantagalo/Pavão-Pavãozinho, with plans to set up units in 100 favelas by the end of the year. In the past the police would invade and then leave, which ultimately did nothing to curb drug trafficking. Now the UPP are setting up permanent bases in the favelas to run the criminals out and keep them out. Whether or not this will work is questionable, given that the police corruption has traditionally played a significant role in trafficking here, but for the moment things are peaceful.

I was blown away by how much things have changed in three years. The metro (subway) system, which until recently only operated in the lower-middle class neighborhoods of the north part of the city unknown to most tourists, has opened two new stations in Copacabana and Ipanema. This has cleaned up and modernized various street corners that in the past I avoided whenever I could. I took the Sa Ferreira exit at the Ipanema station, which dumped me at entrance to the favela closest to Solar-- very convenient. (Favelas that have developed on mountainsides generally have one or two main roads and several staircases along the face of the mountain that lead into the community.) The hike up the endless staircase into the community remains the same, but it seemed a bit sunnier and more colorful and also less intimidating. There was a policeman standing at the entrance keeping watch, and the energy of the people walking in and out seemed lighter and less aggressive. I was received warmly at Solar by people I'd never met but that were thrilled that a former volunteer had returned for a visit. They filled me in on the school's developments over the last few years and offered their positive opinions about how the UPP presence is affecting the community. After a little over an hour I concluded the visit and made my way back to the metro, marveled by how natural it felt to be there again and filled with a sense of satisfaction, renewed energy and purpose.

OK, enough blogging. Time to start working on the article. Look for it as of Wednesday:!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brazil isn't for beginners

I arrived in Rio just over two weeks ago, and it has taken me this long to sit down and write about my (second) first impressions of the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City—Rio’s nickname). I left Rio in 2007 after an unproductive year of too little work and far too much sun exposure. I haven’t returned since, except for a three-day trip to attend a friend’s wedding that same year. Whereas I had hoped to arrive and instantly fall in love with the city again, this did not happen; the adjustment process has been slow. I did not find the exotic atmosphere, the breathtaking landscapes, or the overly warm people I was expecting. Nor did I find the noticeably more modern, developed Brazil that appears in the news and economic studies. These elements exist, of course. I simply wasn´t seeing them. Instead, I found myself in a truly developing country littered with garbage where nothing works properly, where broadband internet is unbearably slow, where you can never let your guard down due to the high risk of being mugged, and where to make rice or beans you must first carefully sort through every grain in the sealed 1lb bag you bought at the grocery store to remove sticks and rocks and then rinse for any excess dirt and other particles before cooking. Although pigeons and cockroaches can be found in the most modern cities in the world, I have to mention them here because it was here in Rio where my disgust and hatred for these nasty creatures was born. The heat and humidity are suffocating, and the filth of the city is inescapable. Ever-expanding shantytowns plagued by drug wars interrupt the lush flora that covers the mountains throughout the city. And rather than kind and welcoming, I found the people to be highly superficial and critical of everything but willing to do nothing to change the situation. Without question, I’ve had a very difficult time finding the beauty—and the marvel—of the Marvelous City.

Perhaps it’s having fallen in love with Europe since I was last here, or perhaps I’ve finally come to appreciate how easy life can be in the US, or maybe I’m just older and more intolerant, but this time around I’ve been especially resistant to the Carioca pace and social norms. Here it’s perfectly acceptable if your guests show up two hours after the agreed time or don’t show up at all, and without warning. What should be extraordinarily simple tasks are complicated by bureaucratic measures and what is seemingly laziness masked as stupidity on behalf of Brazilian employees in any position. (This may seem like a sweeping generalization, but any foreigner that has lived in Rio can attest to this.) Here, for instance, you need a CPF (the Brazilian social security number) to do just about anything. It took three trips to the store and much negotiation (read: flirting) to buy a pre-paid cell phone and a pre-paid aircard for internet service because I’m a foreigner and do not have a CPF--the salesman just couldn’t seem to move past that section of the endless paperwork. I encountered the same stuck-in-the-headlights-paralysis when I signed up for the gym. Forty-five minutes had passed before the woman helping me came up with the solution to use her own CPF in order to complete my registration, because it was “simply impossible” without the magic number. I found this proclamation quite entertaining because in Rio everything is negotiable. You just have to know how to negotiate.

Here, the Brazilian “jeitinho” guides social interaction at all levels. If you can offer something in return- a favor, a bribe, a contact, and yes, flirting- you’ll get what you want; if you can’t, you’re likely stuck. Finding jobs and affordable apartments is more a question of who you know than what you know. It’s a constant game of who can outsmart the others and who can walk away with the greatest advantage. As Tom Jobim said, Brazil is not for beginners.

I think my experience with Brazil is much like any other relationship, with places as well as people. At first you are so enchanted with the novelty that you only pay attention to the good aspects and anything negative is readily overlooked. After a while, however, the newness wears off and you start seeing what lies beneath. You start questioning whether this is something you truly want, and if you choose that you do, you have to accept the faults and work carefully and diligently to maintain the relationship.

That’s where I am with Rio—questioning whether the aforementioned chaos and insecurity is something I want to accept as a normal part of my life and whether the superficial cultural norms are something I want to adapt as my own. I left in 2007 right as I was beginning to notice the faults and this trip I jumped in right where I’d left off. By the end of the first week I was nearly ready to haul my suitcases back to the airport. Nevertheless, I knew that I don’t want to limit my description of my Brazil experience to the above paragraphs. Ultimately a place is what you make of it. If you choose to focus on the faults, that’s all you’ll see. I made the decision to stay, to force myself to look beyond the crap and try to find something genuine amidst the ultimate soap opera culture. So far it hasn’t been easy, but I know that it requires added effort and practice. And little by little I’m starting to find beauty again. It’s a different sort of beauty—but beauty nonetheless.