Monday, 7 January 2013

Around Brazil – Porcaria de Janeiro


The period around New Year is the great unifying time in Rio de Janeiro, and the beach is the great unifying place, more than any other in both cases. Everyone is on the beach at midnight as the New Year begins, and everyone is equal on the sand, in the sea and under the fireworks. All types of people are there mixed together, from the rich Zona Sul types of European and Mediterranean ancestry to the poorer people of the Zona Norte and favela communities, often of African and indigenous blood, all colours and all backgrounds are united by one thing – they all leave their litter on the beach.


Copacabana Beach on 1 January apparently has the largest single regular clean-up operation on the planet, and this would be no surprise to anyone who has spent that night, or a Saturday or Sunday afternoon at the beach in Rio. The sand is almost covered in rubbish with New Year champagne bottles embellishing the general waste of crisp and cigarette packets, flyers, beer and soft drink cans, plastic bottles and bags galore. At the end of a regular afternoon you can find all these things and even occasional used tampons and nappies if you are lucky. The justification that it keeps somebody in job, heard regularly from people across the economic spectrum, just doesn’t wash. People get paid to clean the streets and your car, but throwing your litter around in them doesn’t make any more sense there either. Perhaps the poorer people don’t know any better and the richer people don’t take their maids to the beach to clean up after them, I don’t know, but generally if you see people taking their litter away with them from Ipanema Beach, they are almost guaranteed to be gringoes. Not always though, because only today a Brazilian mother and daughter were filling up carrier bags between them with other peoples’ litter, three bags full between them and they’d hardly left their canga.

This is not the behaviour of the average middle class carioca though, the only people you find collecting litter on the beach usually are the cata lata people. It has long been my feeling that those who collect your aluminium cans from the beach are generally the most respectful, courteous people in the whole of Rio. It feels like almost the only ones sometimes. Having watched the wonderful Waste Lands film about the project of artist Vik Muniz in Jardim Gramacho, I had to expand this feeling to include people who collect litter all around the city.  Jardim Gramacho was the city dump on the edge of Guanabara Bay in the Zona Norte, the largest waste facility in South America and possibly even the world until it closed in 2012. No surprise that Porcaria de Janeiro produces so much waste with the uncaring attitude of most residents to leaving litter in beautiful places and recycling none of it. Even the children’s games and the religious ceremonies of Rio leave litter everywhere. Kids leaving broken kites on every street, while the macumba rituals leave the beaches full of candles, bottles, plastic cups and containers full of food for the rats and pigeons to enjoy.


Hopefully, if and when Tiao and Zumbi from Jardim Gramacho enter into the political world of Rio and possibly even the Zumbi Nation of Brazil, they might help to change those attitudes a little. I won’t spoil the film for anybody but it is as uplifting as it should be depressing, and another of Brazil’s Great Films of the past decade or so.

In the meantime, the beaches fill with litter which blows into the sea, the turtles and rays are poisoned by it, the drains block with it and cause all kinds of storm chaos, flooding and maybe even contribute to the landslides that are becoming a regular feature of life around the state. A little more education (especially for the educated cariocas) and lot more recycling facilities would help. Rio is expecting a whole load of visitors from abroad in the coming years, and if the proud cariocas want to show the best side to their city and their state, then the first thing that they should do is to stop visiting those beautiful beaches and leaving them looking so ugly. A small step to help turn Porcaria de Janeiro back into the marvellous city that it once was.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Statues & Self-Worth

Another year, another Jesus statue.

In November 2010, Poland launched their bid for the Guinness Book of Records with their 33m tall Pomnik Chrystusa Króla, Christ the King. Some people claim that it is the tallest statue of Jesus in the world, others say that the 2m high golden crown that takes it over the limit disqualifies it. Either way, the statue is a winner for the town of Swiebodzin and its 21,000 people. Catholic pilgrims now travel from far and wide to look at a plaster and fibreglass statue stuck on top of a mound of rubble. The recent benefits to the local economy may mean that he is not alone for long as an Absurdly Tall Jesus Statue in a Small Eastern European Town.

Now Peru wants to get in on the act. Lima is constructing its own statue of Jesus on Morro Solar just to the end of Lima’s main beaches, south of the city and the touristic districts of Miraflores and Barranco. The colossal statue is a pet project of the colossal ego (according to Wikileaks’ US Diplomatic Cables) of Alan Garcia. The President of Peru has decided to leave a gift to his nation, although he somehow seems to have managed to sneak in a whole statue and put it on a prominent city hill without anybody else in the city knowing, including the mayor.

Limeño Jesus was just about all paid for by the Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht, who were also given the contract to build the trans-continental highway that recently connected the two countries. Before you can say ‘condition-of-the-bid’, the million dollar man will be up and looking out to sea, while Limeños look at him from all over the city.

The statue will bear a close resemblance to our very own Cristo, and at 37m tall will be very nearly 7m taller, not counting plinths of course. This fact alone may prove to some that the statue will be far more of a tribute to The President himself than to the relationship of his country with Brazil, but reports of the statue bearing a very close resemblance to Alan Gabriel Ludwig Garcia Perez are surely way off the mark. At least until he grows a beard perhaps.

So Lima Jesus will be the tallest Jesus statue in the world, taking the crown (ha!) from Cristo de la Concordia of Cochabamba in Bolivia... of course... you all knew that, right? Like quest to build the tallest building in the world, or the US/Soviet Union Arms Race, this Largest Jesus Statue competition seems to have grown legs (another ha!) and could be just as pointless and seemingly endless as the other two.

So many towns and cities around the world want to have their own Jesus statue, and I’ve seen a few in South America of very differing qualities, including the marvellously tacky Cristo Luz in Balneario Camboriu, Santa Catarina.

We all know that none of them can remotely compare to the best though.

The beauty of Cristo Redentor on top of Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro lies not just in the originality, the fine art deco lines of the statue itself, his iconic status or his age. As with property, it is location, location, location. The crazy idea that putting an enormous statue on top of a just about vertical 710m high mountain takes Cristo to places which other Jesus statues can’t reach. He is also far less intrusive up there, especially as a ghostly presence at night with swirling clouds. At Carnaval time he lights up in different colours. There are some tourist attractions in the world that are tourist attractions for a reason, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio is definitely one of them. The views of the city are incomparable, perhaps only Cape Town has similar views from so high up, right on top of the city. With such a wonderful location, the Rio Jesus should be clearly the Best Jesus Statue in the World, and size does not always matter. Neither does the fact that he disappears from view occasionally in the clouds of Tijuca Forest.

But he still isn’t the best. He isn’t the only one who disappears from view regularly. The Buenos Aires Jesus in the Tierra Santa Park also appears and disappears. I choke with laughter every time I see him rise. Unbeatable.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Understanding Brazil – General Elections



The 2010 elections in Brazil threw up many stories, some of which seemed to pass the foreign news agencies by a little. Dilma Rousseff not quite becoming Brazil’s first female president was the dominant story, while Green Party eco-warrior Marina Silva quietly impressed just about everybody with a dignified campaign and exit. She might make a bigger splash in 2014, especially if she can associate her campaign with a successful Brazil team winning the World Cup on home soil.

Romario and Bebeto can look to reform their 1994 World Cup winning Seleçao strike partnership as Rio de Janeiro Federal Deputy and State Deputy respectively. Neither made rocking baby cradles in celebration as far as anybody knows. Romario was once memorably described as playing football ‘like a lizard slithering across the rocks’. This kind of ability could come in very useful when it comes to a life in Brazilian politics.

The ‘comedy’ angle of the campaign was provided by Tiririca, a kind of unfunny clown who has his own tv shows and has appeared on others. Knowing that being an unfunny clown does not preclude a person from taking part in politics in Brazil, he declared himself for the post of Federal Deputy for Sao Paulo with a winning campaign slogan. ‘What is it that a Federal Deputy does anyway? In truth, I don’t know. But vote for me and I will tell you’. Well over a million people voted for him, comfortably the most votes won by any Federal Deputy in the whole of Brazil, and the second most in Sao Paulo State history. Whether such honesty can find a place in Brasilia remains to be seen, as it appears moves have already been made to keep him out of there. Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, to call him by his real name, has unfortunately already had his honesty called into question. Perhaps his declaration that ‘Worse than it is now, it won’t remain’ rubbed a few people up the wrong way. He also declared his ability to read and write as sufficiently high to enter into Brazilian politics, which requires an exam to be passed, when in reality this son of the Ceara coast in the north-east may have the kind of literacy level to be expected from somebody who began working in a Brazilian circus at the age of eight. Perhaps it is true, or perhaps this voting power has frightened those in his way who have turned to the dark arts in order to keep out this true Clown of the People.

Tiririca can always learn to read and write properly of course, although it may be a little too late for him. Such a lack of literacy earlier in life has been no barrier to Marina Silva’s political career as yet. Another issue that appears not to have been a barrier for our hero is that he was once prosecuted for racism, after one of his ‘comedy’ songs compared a black woman’s hair to a brillo pad and said that she smelt worse than a gamba. Children’s entertainment such as this could be the future of Brazil with him pulling the puppet strings in Brasilia.

That Tiririca was not the biggest clown with shady history involved in the Brazilian General Election of 2010 should not be a big surprise to anybody who has ever lived in Brazil, and taken a passing interest in the politics of the country. Or even watched a novela. The election story that should embarrass Brazil more than that of Tiririca is still that of Fernando Collor.

Fernando Collor de Mellor, 32nd President of the Federal Republic of Brazil from March 1990 to December 1992, puts the achievements of Tiririca and every other Brazilian politician in the shade. After the huge Globo TV Network helped to bring him to power in order to prevent Lula’s first bid being successful, Fernando immediately disappeared on holiday for 6 weeks. His brief period of office was characterised by his right hand man and accountant PC Farias helping to salt away billions of dollars from the federal coffers into their own secret accounts. After being impeached in 1992, he later ran away to Miami and was there when his old friend Farias was murdered in 1996. Once the time to prosecute him had run out, he returned to Brazil, and in 2002 tried once again to become the Governor of Alagoas State. He failed, but in 2006 he was voted in as a Senator instead, after professing support for his erstwhile rival Lula. He failed in his run for Governor in 2010, although he did manage to win almost 400,000 votes, at 30% a reasonable effort in such a small state.

Whether the ongoing amazement that is Collor’s durable political career lasts longer than that of the professional clown remains to be seen, but whatever happens you can be sure that the 2014 election and the preceding World Cup shenanigans will throw up more over-the-top, highly unrealistic stories of greed, power, corruption and lies that will outshine even the most ridiculous novela. Such is the world of Brazilian politics.

Around Brazil – Oktoberfest Parade in Blumenau


Oktoberfest in Blumenau was never top of the list for Brazilian cultural events that I needed to attend. Even with Blondie’s relatives in the area, it didn’t appeal because going to a German festival while in South America just seems wrong. I’ve been to plenty of German beer festivals and always had a fantastic time there, but they had the added advantage of being in Germany, and full of Germans, and full of German beer. I didn’t imagine it could be this way in Brazil, although at least Oktoberfest in Blumenau is actually in Oktober.

Blumenau was founded in 1850 by Hermann Blumenau and his group of German immigrants. They headed up the Itajaí River in Santa Catarina past the floodplains on each side, possibly filled with flowers at that time as they are now filled with paddy fields and cattle. With a name that means Floodplain in Bloom in German, he must have felt immediately at home and decided to stop where the green hills on each side converged and their boat couldn’t travel much up into the mountains. The scenery may have reminded the fresh immigrants of home, with tree-covered hills and fertile land to grow the things that Germans love, such as hops and wheat amongst the native fruits.

They grew families too, with Blumenau having a high percentage of blond people, some who still speak German as a first language at home and have Portuguese tinged with Teutonic accents. With such a strong Germanic influence, perhaps it was no surprise that after the floodplains flooded in 1983 and Blumenau was cut off from the world for a few weeks that the locals turned to the fatherland for inspiration. With most Brazilian beers having been brewed by German immigrants with their pilsner knowledge, the idea was to start an Oktoberfest to cheer up the town. It worked quite well. Just over twenty years later and the town is famous throughout Brazil for its huge festival, the largest in South America.

Much as in Rio, there are also parades preceeding the weekend days of the seventeen day cervejaganza. The idea for us was to watch the parade and laugh at people we knew wearing lederhosen and dirndl. But our blond-haired blue-eyed Brazilian met with something of an accident as he was playing bowls on the night of his birthday a week before. While examining who was closest, the rival team hurled down their final bowl, slammed the jack into the air and straight into his conkers. The pain was so bad that he was carried home in the back of the pick-up. After arriving home, things got even worse for him but I should not go into such private details, suffice to say that he would not be leaving the house for the his club’s desfila. He’d only just bought a brand new pair of lederhosen for the occasion. We were offered their place in the line-up. Wearing the outfit. Now many gringoes can say they’ve taken part in one of Brazil’s largest cultural events wearing a Carnaval costume, but not many can say they’ve taken part in one wearing a German costume. How could we say no – it sounded like there may be some quality comedy involved as well as free beer and free entrance into the arena.

An afternoon of dressing up and giggling followed, with some dance moves learnt from youtube. Hats were to be worn, hair was to be rolled into buns and long white socks were to be bought. I never thought I could look forward to wearing leather shorts and dancing amongst large German men with moustaches, I’m not that kind of guy. But by Saturday afternoon I was already drunk with excitement and laughter, and still 12 hours away from the finish line of the night. This was really going to be a marathon not a sprint.

The reason that Oktoberfest was founded in October, the reason that those floodplains were full of flowers, and the reason that the area is so green is because the mountains behind attract the clouds. In spring it rains regularly and heavily in Blumenau and Saturday was one of those times. The clouds came down the valleys and obscured our view of the town in the afternoon. The phone call came half an hour before we were due to start. Cancelled. My Big Moment blown. I don’t want to hear that ‘Rained on Your Parade’ phrase, thanks.

Around Brazil – Praia do Rosa


The mainland of Santa Catarina has so many fantastic beaches that it would take months to visit them all. If you only have time for one, then Praia do Rosa is as good a choice as any. As well as great surf and great scenery (including the whale watching of course), the town itself has a twinkling charm that can also be found in places such as Arraial d´Ajuda or Jericoacoara. Unlike some of the more residential beaches, Praia do Rosa always seems to have that holiday feeling and doesn´t empty, even in the winter months of south Brazil. You can still find candle-lit restaurants open all year round here.

The bumpy, sandy roads help give Praia do Rosa the air of undeveloped beach town, yet this is also partly because the residents of the town appear to care more about their environment than many other places in Brazil. Construction has largely been limited to two stories, and the hills at the northern end of the beach protect it from the predatory eye of developers. The southern end houses some historic boat houses and also had prehistoric rock carvings (in Brazil terms), which were sadly destroyed some years ago.

Being set on a hill, one of the beauties of Praia do Rosa is that many of the small pousadas come with views of the beach. Falling asleep to the noise of the waves breaking on the shore, one of the most helpful sounds for drifting off, is something that I haven´t had enough of in Brazil. With a visiting mother to impress, and wanting her to leave Santa Catarina with memories of more than the days of rain that we´d had recently, we had to go for a Room With A View. We got just that. With a view of the whole beach at night, I couldn´t wait to wake up next morning for sunrise. The sun reflecting from the blue Atlantic Ocean, with surfers already bouncing in the waves below us is the kind of first sight of the day that I don´t wake up to often enough in Brazil.

With some of the best surf in Brazil on your doorstep, the very best kitesurfing just around the headland at Ibiraquera, the ASP World Championship Tournament event for the professionals just down the road at Imbituba, and the best whale-watching in Brazil also leaving from the port there and taking you to all three beaches, this is the perfect place to base yourself for a few days. Trails take you over the headlands to other quieter, pine-fringed beaches such as Praia Ouvidor and Praia Vermelho. If you can´t walk that far and the sea looks too rough, there are enough lagoas in the dunes behind the beach, and over the hill behind or leading from the dunes at Ibiraquera to keep you entertained.

As you would expect of a surf town, the streets are busy at night with plenty of bars and restaurants to pass the time. Some of the most charming pousadas with the best views in Brazil (we stayed at Vigia das Marés, with Nelson being a complete fountain of information on everything about the area), and plenty of cheap apartments to rent, just about everybody can experience the delights of Praia do Rosa – undoubtedly one of those special places in Brazil.