Saturday, November 13, 2010
First off: Yes. I'm still alive. I've been lost in the craziness of Brazil for nearly three weeks, so if you only have a few minutes, I recommend book-marking this and coming back to it later. It's a little long.
I knew this month-long trip would be a test of progress, as the assignment is a big departure from the direction in which I've been headed since September. I'm here as the translator and fixer (i.e. producer/assistant/project manager/etc.) for a great photographer from National Geographic. The job pays well and is loads of fun but can be equally stressful and consuming (as evidenced by the fact that it's taken me this long to post something). By day three I was becoming anxious and disappointed that I had fallen back into old habits. I was struggling to set boundaries and make time to nurture myself, and I still haven't quite mastered it. Nevertheless, while I've been unable to attend to all my needs here, I recognize that I have indeed made significant internal progress. I'm calm. I'm excited about my projects and I'm aching to write. I'm confident about my relationship and my goals and the life awaiting me. I feel like I'm finally on track, yet I'm no longer desperate to know where it's all leading. I've reached a space of trust and tranquility and flat out excitement about the unknown that lies ahead. For that, I'm both thrilled and relieved.
It's probably best I didn't post anything until now. Brazil, this far, has tested and stretched my patience to the max. I breezed through Phase One of the adjustment stages to life in Brazil, or what I call “Becoming Part of the Problem”, and quickly moved into Phase Two. (For those of you unfamiliar with the stages, Phase One consists of frustration and an inability to comprehend why things are so unbelievably complicated here. Phase Two involves resignation to the fact that nothing ever goes as planned or works properly, resulting in depression.) Now, at the end of week three, I'm deep into the acceptance phase and eagerly laugh about the absurdity of it all. There is, after all, nothing else I can do.
So, what's happened so far? (This question can also be read as “what's gone wrong?”.) Well, here is where this might start to resemble the death post...
I arrived in Rio on November 6th very nervous about the following month, despite the intense prep work I'd done throughout the week prior to traveling. Getting anything to happen in Brazil, especially in Rio, is deceivingly complicated. Multiple follow-up phone calls and incessant nagging are necessary because nobody returns emails and phone calls and more often than not people say “Sure!” to please you and then do nothing. As a good fixer is supposed to do, by the time I arrived in Rio I'd made a slew of contacts and scheduled various meetings; nevertheless, as I understand well how things operate here, I knew that the calls and scheduling were practically meaningless. Thus, I arrived feeling like I'm responsible to accomplish the impossible. And that feeling has yet to change.
Months before this trip I had contacted several soap opera stars and socialites I know in Rio requesting access to Projac, the Globo soap opera filming studios, for inclusion in the story. (In Brazil, Projac is the equivalent to Hollywood and soap stars are more famous than movie stars. That's right folks. I'm in with the Brazilian VIP crowd.) I received multiple replies with open invitations for myself and the photographer and absurdly believed it would be as simple as that. I should have known better. Three days before the trip an actress friend wrote to me because she suddenly realized that we “might have trouble photographing”. Apparently everyone that enters Projac-- actors, directors, visitors, God-- must sign a contract stating that they will not take any photos in the facility or surrounding area. You'd think someone might have warned me about this detail earlier. Soon after, the Globo press nazis got wind of my contact with my various sources and we were forced to engage in a bureaucratic process worse than those I'd encountered during my days at the State Department. To no avail. It's easier to gain access to the Pope than it is to cross the Globo threshold.
To keep this post relatively short, I only list a few highlights from the two-plus weeks in Rio:
-The photographer I'm working with is anti-fancy hotels and thus I'd found us a small hotel that I'd heard from others to be simple, clean and affordable. I'd confirmed via phone that all rooms had wifi. Not the case. Right away I had to buy a 3G modum to use the internet. I was asked to change rooms four times. Over a holiday weekend, we were forced to leave the hotel because all the rooms were booked. (Again, something I should have been warned about in advance.) And one day there was no running water for almost 24 hours. I'd be happy to recommend this hotel to anyone interested...
-One contact had suggested to meet in a well-known bookstore. I'd confirmed time and place with her minutes before leaving the hotel. We arrived at the bookstore on time and waited for nearly 45 minutes, at which point I received a message from her asking where we were. She'd been waiting for us at her apartment.
-We had an appointment to photograph a female police officer on patrol. It took an hour to get to the station, and upon arrival we were told that she had to leave almost immediately to go to her driving lesson. She re-scheduled and then canceled the second meeting. Third time's a charm. We arrived at the police station and asked one of the officers to let her know we were there. The guy nodded and sauntered out of the room. An hour later she emerged, surprised to see us, and asked why we hadn't let her know we were there. She took us on patrol for roughly 17 minutes and then asked us to wait outside briefly while she spoke with another police officer. We waited for two hours and she never came back out.
-We were invited by one of my rich socialite contacts to attend a cannot-miss fashion bazaar where everyone who's anyone goes to be seen. Turns out this classy event took place in an all-you-can-eat chain pizza restaurant.
-We had authorization to photograph at a construction site, but when we arrived we were told that nobody knew about the photo shoot. Then we were told that the project manager had changed her mind. While waiting for it all to be resolved (it never was), six giant cement trucks backed onto the construction grounds on six different occasions, each time to fill up a single, average-sized wheel barrel with cement. The cement was subsequently tested for consistency and then dumped out. I have no words.
We left Rio on Tuesday, luckily just missing the chaos induced by the latest explosion of police-gang wars of the last few days. We flew to Recife, a historic coastal city in the Northeast of the country, to document events surrounding November 25th, the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. During the flight, I was shocked to see the bright glow of fire scattered across the land below. Not a few fires. Hundreds, in every direction. And we were far, far from the Amazon. Absolutely disheartening.
In spite of the fact that the surrounding residents are destroying our planet, I immediately liked Recife. It seems much cleaner and calmer than Rio and feels more like a mix of Córdoba, Argentina and Cartagena, Colombia. What I can't understand, however, is why Recife is one hour behind Rio when it is significantly further east. The sun rises at 3:30AM. It's really weird, and yet makes total sense in a Brazilian non-nonsensical way.
On Wednesday, our first full day in Recife, we took a cab 40 minutes outside the city to the alleged meeting place of a major women's rights event. I'd been told that other important events in Recife proper had been rescheduled because of this event. Indeed. There were maybe 20 people there, myself and the photographer included, sitting in a circle in plastic chairs in the hot classroom of a tiny church. After two hours of listening to strange discussions and skits invoking every racial and sexist slur imaginable, we invented an afternoon meeting and excused ourselves, unable to tolerate any more. Before leaving, the event coordinators tried to give us a huge banner to take back to the US to promote their work. We explained that we had no room in our suitcases and they nodded, adding that since it's written in Portuguese it wouldn't be of much use there. As compensation, they handed me a packet stuffed with pamphlets and informational materials about their work-- also in Portuguese. Because in fine print it must make sense to English speakers... Then, a final treat. I got a close look at the cartoon illustration on the front of the packet, which is also the event logo posted on banners across the tiny town. Here it is:
(Translation: Seminar on Communication to Confront Gender and Race-based Violence)
Look closely at the four caricatures: a black girl, a retarded kid, an old woman and an Asian. A powerful image to help eradicate prejudice, I'm sure.
Thursday was equally strange, in it's own way. In the morning we went to the Mayor's office for a public signing related to women's rights issues. I was expecting a hassle at the door about who we are and what we're doing, but I didn't even have to take my ID out of my purse. So government buildings yes, soap operas no. I think I'm getting the hang of this. Had I been a terrorist, the Prefeitura do Recife would now be dust. A protest downtown theoretically followed the signing, and we had been told that hundreds of women would be there. And hundreds of people were there--about 30 women were actually there to protest, in addition to the passersby on their way to and from work and the crazies that live in that particular square. An impromptu street riot made for an abrupt end to the event and nice finale to my Recife visit.
I'm now in São Paulo, the last leg of this trip. I flew in this afternoon and I've already had amazing pizza and a cab driver that totally screwed me over. We'll see how it goes from here. For now, I'm happy to be in a clean hotel room with my own bathroom and running water. And like I said at the beginning of this rant-- all I can do now is sit back and laugh. That is, unless Phase Four overpowers me and I become one of them...