Thursday, 10 May 2007

Understanding Brazil: The Workmen

Much as you can tell a British workman by his hands (they're always in his pockets), so you can always spot Brazilian workmen: they're always watching somebody else work. Whether it has been working on home improvements, roadworks, building houses or huge construction sites, I have only ever seen one man working at any one time. He saws the wood while anywhere between one and ten other men stand by staring intently. They don't seem to help or advise in any way which makes me wonder if that is what they are paid to do. Watch.

I have a rubbish theory that two gringoes arrived at a Brazilian house long long ago to do a job. The owner asked why the second man had come:

"He's my assistant. We always work with an assistant in England." - came the reply.

"What does he do?" - asked the Brazilian.

"He assists." - was the logical response.

The owner thought "He assists" and translated literally into the falso amigo "Ele assiste". This then grew to become part of the working culture in Brazil. Rubbish maybe, but it explains why you can have a whole day of work on a house from four men that results in just three new floorboards laid, or one wall painted. Nothing else does. Admittedly bad choice of materials doesn't help speed things up. Witness the obras in Rua Augusta in São Paulo that have closed the pavements for months. The surface is being relaid, no pipes, no tunnels, no cables underground, nada. But when you see four men watching their friend put down coin-sized blocks in a mosaical grid, you'll understand why.

Obviously the heat could be one way to explain the slow progress but I don't buy that because the pace of those type of workmen is in complete contrast to that of the binmen. I love watching them work, and it's the same all over Brazil. No matter how hot it is, they are always running, picking up binbags, throwing them in the back of the truck, shouting 'Vai!' and climbing on while the truck sets off again. Maybe they're on piecework and so get paid per kilo of rubbish, which is why they zigzag down the street faster than I can walk. I sweat just doing that, but they never stop moving, bending, carrying, throwing, and I've never seen anybody leave bags behind out of laziness. They pick up everything worthless. Including me. I got too close in my admiration once, and got thrown in the back of the truck too. They never stopped dropping things on my head long enough for me to get out. We eventually stopped at some roadworks. One man was painting a white line in the middle of the road with a tiny brush. He wasn't blocking the road, but the six men watching him were. I climbed out and crawled home to shock myself in the shower.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite good. I think you got to understand it someway, however:
1. You generalyze. Another traveller commented that people work 14 hours daily in São Paulo. This is very close to the truth.
2. I spent 43 years in my life working very hard and, I guess there was not a foreigner around to watch it and pen about it.
3. Realmente, em certas circunstâncias é possível ver o que você descreve, e chega a ser engraçado. Contudo, vamos não generalizar, sob o risco de dizer besteira.
4. Brasilia foi constuida em tempo recorde, por brasileiros, e não foi desta maneira como você descreveu.
5. Com respeito às pedrinhas que servem para fazer calçadas, trata-se das ditas "pedras portuguesas". Concordo com você pois é uma estupidez passar uma eternidade colocando pedrinhas quando uma despejada de cimento faria a mesma coisa, e melhor, em 5 minutos. Mas, não esqueçamos que é uma tradição que nos foi passada pelos "Portugueses". Que droga, hem?
6. Bill Bryson também tem coisas interessantes deste tipo para dizer. Não sobre o Brasil, é claro.