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October 16, 1996
My wife Eleanore and I have lived here in Brasilia, Brazil, for something over a year and a half now, and I have to admit that I am no nearer making sense of the place then when we got off the plane. I certainly understand a great deal more than when I got here, but part of what I have learned is how much more there is to learn. It is a bit like Xeno's paradox: one can never arrive, because one has to first complete half the remaining distance to the goal, and before one can travel half the distance, one has to travel half of the half of the distance, and so on. I doubt if I'll ever get to a place marked "understanding." I'm not so sure I'd want to get there.
And yet, you could argue that an American ought to be able to understand Brazil, simply because the two countries have a lot in common. Brazil is only slightly larger than the continental United States, and the vast distances shape the culture of both nations. Brazil got its independence from a European power not so long after the United States did. Slavery in Brazil ended about twenty years after it ended in the U.S. The institutions of slavery and racism had profound influence in both societies, and race relations are still complex and difficult both here and there. You could point up a lot of such similarities, and they would all be meaningful -- and they would all be deceptive.
A few months back I was driving along in our high-tech late-model Jeep Grand Cherokee down a six-lane highway in the center of ultra-modernist central Brasilia. Suddenly I had to swerve suddenly to avoid ramming a horse-drawn trashcart that was cutting me off from the fast lane -- but then I had to swerve again to dodge the city bus that was charging down to cut me off from the slow lane. Somehow we all survived unscathed, but it all seemed a pretty good metaphor. I must admit that the metaphor was made even better by the fact that the road ended about two hundred yards further along, rendering it utterly moot who got there first. Bus and horsecart might be in a tearing hurry to get there first, but there was nowhere to go once they got there. The only thing wrong with the incident as metaphor of things Brazilian is that, in the somewhat pejorative opinion of most Americans here, Brazilian might drive fast, but there's not much else they do in a hurry.
Even though I managed to get out of the way, the bus and the horsecart should have collided with each other. Somehow, this time, they didn't -- though Brasilia is home to many horrific accidents caused by massive driver stupidity. [One set of figures I saw reported that Brazil had one-tenth as many cars as the United States, but twenty percent more traffic fatalities) Of course, the stupidity starts with allowing horse-drawn carts onto six-lane highways. There's probably a law against it somewhere, but traffic enforcement is not exactly a top priority here. There is a new campaign one of the local papers started up, called PAZ NO TRANSITO (Peace in Transit) but I can report that it hasn't taken hold on the roads I drive. Also, the cars in favor of the campaign (who drive just as badly as anyone else) are asked to put PAZ NO TRANSITO signs in the rear windows of their cars. This is not smart, as the signs are about 15 inches square and block much of the driver's view. I also think that calling for peace on the roads says something without intending to say it. Peace is, after all, the opposite of war -- in this case, the war of each against all behind the wheel. In the States, violence in the streets refers to pedestrians with guns mugging each other. Here, it refers to the behavior of the drivers. Including, to return to my original point, the horse-cart drivers.
The city of Brasilia is the first place I have ever been where horse ownership is a sign of poverty. Yes, there are posh stables and thoroughbreds and all that as well, of course, but the horses we generally see are the ones grazing in vacant lots, or wandering across the road through traffic. The posh horses are kept in paddocks, not left to graze in open fields next to the street. The posh horses are not the ones hauling what seems to be stolen government trash around the city, as the cart horses do.
Or is it stolen government trash? And if so, why? I have seen the men from the carts going through the ministerial trashbins, getting there ahead of the official trash haulers. I have seen the cartmen piling the bags of trash into huge unsteady piles behind their half-starved, worn-out horses. And I have seen the carts full of trash clip-clopping along all over the city. What I haven't done is figured out what they are doing with the trash. Are they indeed stealing it, or do they have some obscure verbal contract with the cousin of the chief of building maintenance? Are they going through it for recyclables? If so, where do they recycle them? There is no recycling program here. If not recyclables, what is it they find in the trash that makes stealing trash worth it, and how can they count on finding the whatever-it-is often enough to make it all worthwhile? (Bear in mind that little discarded food is going to keep for a long in a tropical climate.) Or have I seen without observing, and completely misinterpreted what seemed to be going on right in front of me? If so, I haven't the faintest idea what is going on.
What about the guys who walk along the side of the highway trying to sell ropes of garlic to the people in the cars, although the cars are going thirty or forty or fifty miles an hour? How often does anyone brake to a screeching halt and buy two or three feet of garlic because they are running short at home? And what about the guys who walk along the same highways with full-length mirrors hanging off their bodies? How often do Brazilians in cars impulsively decide they've run out of mirrors and pull over to snap up a roadside reflective bargains? (Or maybe the garlic guys and the mirror guys are all part of some anti-vampire plot.) And what about the guy in the median strip selling baby chicks by the dozen to the upper-class apartment dwellers who drive past? Are there people who raise poultry in their living rooms? If not, who is this guy selling to, and why is a median strip by the big upper-middle-class shopping mall the place for him to be? Who are these guys selling to?
How about the guy with the small tool chest sitting by the side of the road, on a camp stool, under a tree, next to a hand-painted sign with all the letters big on the left side and squished together on the right, because the painter ran out of room. The sign advertises the man as a plumber, electrician, and painter. Has it ever crossed his mind that the way he painted his sign is not the best advertisement for his skill with a brush? And what about the squatters who were living in an open field just up the road from the plumber? They had what seemed to be a collection of old hot-water heaters in front of their cardboard shack. Their sign reads VENDE-SE BORO. "Vende-se" is clear enough, but "Boro" is a bit obscure and has several meanings. As best I can figure out, the sign either means QUANTITIES OF THE ELEMENT BORON FOR SALE or else STOLEN GOODS FOR SALE. It might mean fishing bait, but that doesn't much sense either, as these guys are nowhere near the lake, and the people driving past are commuters, not fishermen. Either I'm missing something, or there's something wrong with their sign, or with my dictionary, or else these are truly daring criminals.
How did the allegedly genius architect who designed the city of Brazil come to decide to build it for the convenience of cars, not people, and then forget to include enough parking places? Why is there an unlabeled late-sixties Ford Galaxie with a slight oil leak on display in a concrete-and-glass bunker outside the tomb of President Kubicheck? Is it his? What happened to the sign? And beyond all that, is having the car there in the best possible taste, considering he was killed in a violent car crash?
Why is it that Brazilians are delightful in any private social occasion, but capable of incredibly obnoxious behavior in a semi-anonymous public setting? Eleanore and I had dinner at a friend's house one evening and were both absolutely charmed with one of the other guests, a quite lovely and gracious young Brazilian woman. On the way home, some maniac, driving without her lights on, needlessly cut us off on an otherwise empty road in order to make a turn. Guess who it was. Another example: it is a normal and socially acceptable thing for someone to pull his car up in front of a nice outdoor restaurant in a nice part of town, pop the car's hatchback, and crank his car's sound system up all the way so that everyone in the restaurant can shout over his favorite music as they dine. Some people have had specially designed fold-out speakers panels installed in their cars' hatchbacks for this specific purpose. A half-dozen Brazilians on a picnic in the park will leave enoug trash behind to make you think you'd missed a small rock concert. An American friend of mine was driving a Brazilian upper-class kid somewhere when the kid tossed some trash out the car window. The American yelled at the kid, who blithely explained that, by littering, he was creating a job for whoever had to go pick it up. (And I hasten to add that I am not talking underprivleged youth or the downtrodden masses lashing out at an oppressive society by being crude in public. All the above examples of public rudeness were committed by very upper and upper-middle class types. I have no doubt they all have the most charming of manners at home.)
Why is there a long-abandoned one-third-built cinderblock shell of what looks like a sort of hotel sitting there next to the presidential palace? If the whole city was intended as a showplace for Brazil, why have a shabby eyesore, a monument to bad planning and bad building technique, where every visitor to the palace has to see it? Why is there a chain-link fence around the open-for-business Museum of Art, making it look permanently closed? And what genius designed an art museum with glass walls and open balconies, making it impossible to control the amount of light, heat, and humidity around the artwork? (For some reason most of the art museums I have seen in this country have glass walls.)
During the dry season (which ended about a month ago) there is at least one fire going somewhere in the city pretty much all the time. I would estimate that I personally saw two hundred fires or columns of smoke from fire inside the city limits during the six-month dry season. Nearly all were small brush fires in vacant lots, but I saw fires near schools and stores and clubs and peoples' homes, or near busy roads. (There are enough roadside fires that I suspect a fair number of them are touched off by cigarette butts thrown from cars.) Nearly all the fires simply burn themselves out before they amount to anything, but there have been several have been real infernos, with roaring flames taller than I am. I have seen the fire department respond to exactly one of those two hundred fires. Okay, I can understand giving a miss to a small patch of dead brush that will burn out before the fire department can arrive. But one fire in two hundred? Does the fire department (and the fire training academy, located right in the center of town) have something better to do that keeps them away? Why don't they put out the fires?
Why is television reception so lousy in Brasilia, when the city's central landmark, built in a position more or less exactly equivalent to that of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, is a huge television tower? (I think, by the way, that the city reveals a lot about itself with its two most prominent features: the Television Tower and the huge highways that bisect the city. Eighteen lanes of traffic run straight down the center of the city, north to south, while twelve lanes slice it in half east to west. Just about at the point where all those lanes go over and under and around each other, at the center of the city, is the TV tower. The city was designed in 1955, as the city of the future. The future, it would seem, was all about television and cars.)
Part of what little theory I have about Brazil is that people have come to accept all these oddities (to speak of them diplomatically), and many more. Having accepted them, they do not question them, and therefore do not try to change them, and therefore the oddities continue. Something might be counter-productive, or ruinously wasteful, or needlessly unpleasant, or dangerous, or even actively harmful, but we're used to it.
I suppose there is not much point in worrying too much about these imponderables. Even if I got explanations, I doubt they would satisfy me. But even so, I feel as if I have to keep asking all these questions, at least to myself, because, if I stop, in some way, the anonymous THEY who run the world (or at least the THEY running this part of Brazil) will have won.
Stop asking the questions, and after a while you will stop wondering about the mysteries and the things that don't make sense. And then you'll stop noticing that they don't make sense. Sooner or later, you will have accepted them all to such a degree that you catch yourself assuming they do make sense, after all. Such things are parts of the world you live in, and they have been going on a long time. Therefore they must have some logic going for them.
Maybe so. But if there's much logic around these parts, I certainly haven't noticed it.
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