Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Final Piece of the Puzzle

Atenção gente: agora tenho o visto na mão! Yesterday I returned to the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco to pick up my visa, and besides the long line, everything went perfectly according to plan! It's official- I'm going to Brazil!

It's such a relief to have everything in order. Now I can worry about more exciting things like culture shock and language barriers and memorizing the Flamengo roster to pretend I've been a diehard fan since diapers. This past week, unlike the past six school years, I've been a voracious reader. Harvard's International Travel Handbook preaches, "Students who have lived abroad emphatically agree that learning as much as possible about the country before you leave is the best way to prepare." The Sonoma County Public Library doesn't have many books on Brazil; I was able to check them all out and carry them all home in one trip. 

Ironically, after working for LG last summer, I knew that guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rick Steves and even Let's Go were going to bore me to death. They're valuable resources if you're actually in the country, but painfully dry if you're not. I read the Features and some of the neighborhood intros, and then I put those books aside. If I have the energy, maybe I'll go through them and jot down some points of interest, things I'd like to visit while I'm abroad. Then again, maybe I'll just ask my personal cultural informants (aka my homestay hosts) what's hot and what's not.

Travel narratives and historical fiction about Brazil have proved much more exciting. One of these was an old but still-relevant book by British journalist Paul Rambali called In the Cities and Jungles of Brazil. It was an insightful mixture of Brazilian history and his experiences in Rio researching and writing an article on Escadinha, a modern-day Robin Hood from the Juramento favela. What began as a heavily romanticized assignment ("...I hoped this story would combine romance and lawlessness in an exotic setting...") transformed into a critical overview of Brazil in all its past and present glory and tragedy. 

I was intrigued to learn about the illegal Jogo do Bicho, the numbers racket based on animal characters that employs 50,000 cariocas and has a local turnover of $10 million a week. It began in 1892 at Baron de Drummond's zoo in Rio, a scheme proposed by a *Mexican* named Manuel Zevada (oh wow...) to pull Drummond from his dire financial straits, and soon spread beyond the gates of the zoo, at which point it was outlawed and thus exploded in popularity on the streets. Today, the bosses- Bicheiros- are filthy rich and often the presidents of Samba schools. "And so here," writes Rambali, "is the power hex: supposedly clandestine, the Bicheiros like display, flirt with notoriety, want to be part of the legend. Since the Seventies, they've all been spending on ad hoc social programs and Samba schools. The sums have reached millions of dollars, causing purists to complain they're perverting the popular spirit of the Samba parades." They might be perverting the popular Samba spirit, but it's difficult to judge and punish these men who build homes, fund programs, and introduce running water and electricity into some of the poorest shantytowns in the country. Some people complain that they exploit paternalism, that their good deeds mask bad deeds. I don't know which side to take, but at least I'm aware of the debate. And if a stranger on a street corner asks me if I'd like to make a little wish, I'm not betting on the dog... for fear of barking up the wrong tree.

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