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.