Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Short Pause in Living Brazilishly: Now I’m Going to Africa

Other than in Hollywood blockbusters, you seldom witness a real-life situation in which a man wakes to find existence as he knew it irretrievably altered, the hot porridge of destiny bubbling thickly in his bowl. At this precise moment he is compelled to choose: sup heartily at his bowl, or gawk blankly as it cools and, eventually, is rendered inedible? If the Taco Bell eating contests in which I engaged until quite recently attest to anything, ’tis that THIS GRINGO CAN EAT. I don’t mean to brag, but my figurative mitt trembleth not when, poised with tarnished spoon, it digs profoundly into the metaphorical porridge.

So in the spirit of my Quixotic quests, when offered a month-long assignment to Uganda last week, I accepted. And for solid measure on the back end of the jaunt, I’ve tacked on four days in Kigali, Rwanda, that I might visit the genocide museum and go gorilla-trekking on the city’s highland outskirts. As if my virgin African foray could grow no more exciting, this morning I found out the return flight will stop for nearly a day in the Ethiopian capital, hitting the tarmac at Bole International Airport at 6 AM; a 3-mile taxi ride gets you to city center, and the flight to Dubai doesn’t depart until late in the day, so I’ll be checking out Addis Ababa for a few hours in the interim. I will add that I received formal confirmation of this entire trip just yesterday, when I awoke to find the day like most others preceding it. In the last 24 hours, I’ve been scrambling to get airline tickets, travel orders, and essential administrative minutiae under wraps to depart Rio this coming Thursday evening.

I never thought I’d visit Africa, much less work in it for any period of time. I suppose that in my line of work, anything is possible. Like everyone else doing this job, so too did I sign a worldwide availability clause as condition of employment. Yet I assumed I’d spend the bulk of my career in Latin America, with Africa remaining what it has been to me heretofore: an unquantifiable and intangible entity, a vast expanse of loosely-configured states with a jungle bigger than the continental U.S., Muslims in the north, and somewhere in the realm of 3,000 languages spoken in bursts, the colonial-era ones boasting the greatest dispersion. Up until this trip became a concrete reality, I felt no more connected to the African continent than anyone else from my Ohio-born, white-bred, corn-fed family.

But when I stop and think of it, hints of Africa have abounded throughout my life. It is sadly not until now, however, that I have taken a moment to ponder what they foreshadowed of my own future. My father deployed to Somalia in 1992-93. I was almost sent to Africa for my Peace Corps assignment (though El Salvador won out, and the jury’s still in deliberation on how good a thing this was for the Pulgarcito de las Americas). I’ve had both African-American and continental African friends over the years, one of which was a Sudanese man who painted in vibrant hues for me the history of his nation and the suffering it has endured in its own long march to independence. Occasionally, I’d read books about the continent, chiefly the late Nelson Mandela’s Long March to Freedom and the history of Stephen Biko and the Black Consciousness movement he represented before his beating death by South African constables. Major motion pictures like Hotel Rwanda were impossible to miss, and there’s the laundry list of random documentaries, like Vice Magazine’s recent one on the naked warlord generals of Liberia.

So it’s safe to say, without fear of sounding cliche or dramatic, the signs and symbols of Africa have never been far from my head and heart. In two days when I disembark the plane in Kampala, Uganda, they’ll round the long corner from a fantasy I dared not even imagine when conjuring myself from bed yesterday… To an objective reality that will invariably shift the sands under my feet and, I think, alter the very course of my life.

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Summer in Rio: Fleshy Gods of Humidity Sit Mockingly on My Face

Christmas has passed, the New Year is almost upon us. This ought be a time of reflection, celebration, rejoice. Yet this gringo is hardly in a festive mood, for the Brazilian summer and its intensity now blankets Rio.

For public record and the satisfaction of my own ego, please allow me assert the following: I have suffered the extremities of heat in many past lives and have lived to tell about them. Name your place and I’ll spin you a yarn of a climate defied: gnawed by gnats on boating docks of the South Carolinian coast; floored by the stroke-inducing temps in the Salvadoran lowlands and the Colombian Amazon on the Rio Putumayo; driven to near insanity by the northern Iraqi summer waiting for a plane that never comes on an asphalt flight line; baked alive in the Chinese urban summertime blast furnace that is Wuhan, when eggs still fry on the pavement at midnight. And yet though I intuit those were qualitatively worse, there is something inherently brutal-er to the ceaseless, oppressive humidity in Rio. It is simultaneously depleting my strength while goading me agrily to fisticuffs with every slow walker who stands betwixt me and the next air conditioned store into which I can duck for respite. It is a contradictory sensation which I attribute to the effects of prolonged hot weather on the cerebrum. And this is only the first real week of it.

Concurrent to gringo biology, I suffer. Toting a towel to which I am tethered when outdoors for any reason, I am also avoiding hot beverages to the extent possible (though as a general personal policy, no Starbucks shall go un-entered). I am taking cold showers. I have even slowed my afternoon beach workouts. (Though further to this final point, I admit my ego’s mighty thirst is sated when fellas with far more pronounced striation and bulk tap out and head for the refuge of a beach umbrella, whilst I hit 10, 20, 30 pull-ups before jogging to the next exercise station and commencing anew this perverse form of personal flagellation. In the bizarro mental world I inhabit, this somehow equates to enamoring their girlfriends with my gringo fortitude.)

Concurrent to gringo psychology, I complain. I once read that the idiot resists, but the wise man accepts. Then consider me an idiot, for my spirit continues to resist this heat. I also once heard that brevity is the soul of wit. Thus you may also consider me witless, for I experiencing no shortage of epithets, complaints, and manifestos sure to be spit in defiance of this protracted summer season. For a man who is already known as loquacious, I am presently spurred to my most verbose capacities yet, and all for the spiritual uprising my sweaty soul began demanding about a week ago when the summer “officially” began.

And corollary to gringo psychology, I question. Never one to leave well enough alone, my intellect is forever insurgent against scenarios that ought to possess a logical explanation yet, somehow, categorically defy reason. How is it that Rio’s inhabitants don’t perspire? They are dry – DRY, I TELL YOU! – their skin faultless cafe-com-leite brown bereft of the first hint of glisten! How can they mill about in their groups, conversing under direct sunlight at high noon with no hats, no sunglasses, sometimes in jeans, utterly at ease? I see the incessant consumption of beer and soda in the street – not a bottle of water sipped amongst them! – yet no one is dehydrated. Are the Brazilians evincing a new stage of evolution? Are they possessed of an adaptive advantage that is not apparent to the gringo eye? I understand they are accustomed to their natural environs, but just as I wonder how Europeans puff Marlboros like chimneys yet don’t suffer the same incidence rates of lung cancer as Americans, I query if Brazilians are equipped with the same eyes and flesh as me? If so, why do they not suffer greatly as I? How can they look so damned good after years of being cooked like Chicken McNuggets in the veggie oil vat?

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On Zombies and the Day After Christmas

December 26, 2013. It’s the day after Christmas. This morning, Rio resembled the opening scene from 28 Days Later: a metropolis abandoned, no hint of life in the humid morning air, aluminum cans and other bits of refuse piled inertly on the curb. Once in awhile you’d see a passerby ambling into the light, just as quickly limp back into the shadowy awning of the closest café. At these moments you realize why guns are verboten in Brazil: you’d probably shoot someone for a zombie, so eerily similar are the common attributes between the walking dead and those unlucky few sallying forth to gainful employment today.

End of an Era: The Silenced Mics of the Jaula das Gostosudas

The Jaula das Gostosudas (Caged Hotties), Brazil’s once-premiere female funk group, just aborted its reign at the top of the pops due to, as you might have surmised, internal schisms amongst its female integrants. (To be fair, The Beatles also ended due to mutual animosities between the Fab Four, so it’s not just a female thing.) Never being one to extol the virtues of Carioca funk music, I never knew the gostosudas existed. But as with all the most fortuitous of life’s multi-hued circumstances, I found out about the group half-an-hour ago, whilst on a quest for an open Starbucks in Leblon and passing random, seemingly unconnected people who, upon further scrutiny, possessed three common attributes uniting them this overcast Sunday morning: all were men, all were over 40, and all held open the entertainment section of today’s paper, examining with exquisite interest an article proclaiming the end of the Jaula das Gostosudas. Clearly the break-up of this funk outfit is receiving disproportionate attention, and one suspects this is not due to the loss of quality music now that gostosudas’ mics are forever silenced, their bum-bums never to bounce anew.

For posterity’s sake, it’s critical we invest a final, proud moment in honoring the achievements of these Brazilian artists, these musical queen-pins who took it to the proverbial next level. Seizing the liberty to conduct a YouTube search, I chanced upon the following specimens of their contribution to arts and letters in Rio de Janeiro and beyond. This one’s my personal fave. The push-ups will spur you onward to exercise robustly. Start around 1:04. Not only were the gostosudas in peak physical condition, they could likewise croon. Consider starting around 1:10. Here they demonstrate the training regime that undoubtedly catapulted the gostosudas to stardom. For point of comparison, here is one of the many competitor female funk outfits, Gaiola das Popuzudas. Their lead singer, Valeska Popuzuda, broke off to begin a solo career last year, and has done well for herself based on the amount of advertising I’ve spotted for her in select parts of Rio. In the broader historical trajectory of the study of Brazilian butts, here’s the one that initiated the trend. Granted, there were meaty flanks in Brazil long before her time. But the Mulher Melancia (Watermelon Woman) was the first to elevate the lethal duo of bun-bouncing and Carioca funk music to national prominence. Watermelon actually found six distinct speeds with which to shake; just wait ’til she shifts into 6th gear. It’s a sports car, not a family sedan, and it’s at least level-4 armored.

I don’t know why, but when searching for the Jaula das Gostosudas in YouTube, buried midway down the list of return is always Anthrax’s “Room for One More” video. I don’t recall thonged hinds in the Anthrax clip; then again I never paid much attention to anything they did during that long, depressing night with John Bush on vocals.

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Matanza, Brazilian Metal, and the Capoeira Mosh Pit

…in which your intrepid author chronicles a sight both novel and new, the likes of which he has never seen in over 20 years of metal concert attendance.

The Band: Matanza
The Place: Circo Voador, Lapa district, Rio de Janeiro
The Verdict: CAPOEIRA MOSH PIT. Need I say more?

Matanza – one of Brazil’s premiere underground metal/punk/hardcore institutions – taught this old metal dog a new trick: a CAPOEIRA MOSH PIT. As the Portuguese conquistadores who suffered that transatlantic voyage under the helm of Ferdinand Magellan wept when first laying eyes on the Brazilian coast, so too did my eyes moisten last eve at this new and novel sight. The Circo Voador reeked of piss and puke, the body fluids of the roughly 1,000 in attendance finding vent on the concrete floor faster than a Wikileak in cyberspace. Though already imbibed into oblivion, no ruffians were afoot in this crowd; the collective mood light, the masses in high spirits I marveled at Brazilian metal fans joie d’vivir whilst sipping a Bohemia a guy I had only just met bought me.

Always seeking visual vantage points at shows, I took a spot on the balcony overlooking the crowd while Matanza’s roadies made the final preps. Below the kids were already moshing while the PA blared metal classics, nearly all of which were released before Matanza live at Circo Voador 2 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazilmost of the crowd was even born. First it was Pantera’s “Walk” from 1992’s glorious Vulgar Display of Power. Matanza’s audience knew every downbeat and bellowed every lyric, proof positive that some music, like true love, might well be ageless. Then came Iron Maiden’s “Aces High”, soliciting crowd-wide synchronized operatic gestures, just like Bruce Dickinson himself. After that was Slayer’s “Raining Blood”, during which the kids flogged themselves silly. Following was Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box”, garnering the most rapacious sing-along. I assessed this was because not only are the lyrics fewer and more deliberately sung in this tune, but its vocal register is lower, making it possible for the average non-native English speaker to sing it with confidence and proficiency. I will now officially recant some of the heresies I’ve spoken against Alice in the past: at least in Brazil, the late Layne Stayley and company were onto something truly special.

When it got f**king brilliant was during one of the final prep songs, Sepultura’s “Rattamahatta”, from 1996’s Roots. With its home field musical advantage, this one pushed the kids over the cliff, the most voluminous reaction of the night save Matanza’s Matanza live at Circo Voador - Rio de Janeiro, Brazilperformance itself. And this is when I saw, for the first time in my life, the CAPOEIRA MOSH PIT. See for yourself in the video below (note: unfortunately, for some reason, WordPress is telling me the file type isn’t supported, so contact me individually thru this blog and I’ll see about getting you a copy if interested): at 0:17 the pit begins to clear and someone does a hand-stand. By 0:25 the capoeira begins. And at 0:43, a guy back-flips in the pit center. The crowd, hands thrust toward the rafters, promptly goes bonkers. And finally came Matanza. I know nothing of the band’s music or history, other than a minor handful of YouTube videos I watched in the lead-up to last night. I know they’re big enough that MTV Brazil, before shuttering its corporate doors in September 2013, did a special program on the group. I also intuited that Matanza has a good sense of humor, with album titles like “Musica Para Beber e Brigar” (Music to Drink and Fight) and “To Hell with Johnny Cash” (in which they pay homage to the late Man in Black). And I know their vocalist looks like an tubbier, circa-1996 Tomas Lindberg of At the Gates renown. What I did not realize was that I would witness one of metal/punk/hardcore’s true musical potencies. And I say this with 23 years of metal concert experience.

Matanza is the among the top metal/punk/hardcore acts I have seen. They came out swinging – punctually at 2 AM (?!) – with punchy, upbeat numbers setting the evening’s blitzkrieg pace. They machine gunned the first five songs successively, a ferocious Matanza live at Circo Voador 3 - Rio de Janeiro, Braziland precise sonic surgery. Then vocalist Jimmy London addressed his adoring masses, thanking them for years of unflagging loyalty, before commandeering the band into its next series of tunes. From this point forward, Matanza minimized idle time between numbers, optimizing the crowd’s formidable energies, keeping the pit heaving straight thru the 1.5 hour set. London is the most natural frontman I’ve seen since Kreator’s Mille Petrozza or Vader’s Piotr Wiwczarek; clearly steering band and audience equally, he’s a black symphonic conductor whose presence, delivery, and occasional humor noir stage raps deftly incite AND control the chaos on the floor. Matanza’s bassist and drummer deserve kudos here as well: with a crisp and rumbling tone somewhere between Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris and Overkill’s D.D. Verni, the bassist literally rumbled my molars AND boxers. He and the drummer tightly interlocked, comprising one of the best rhythm sections since Bad Religion. And you could be forgiven for not realizing they only had one guitarist onstage. With a tone as thick and cutting as any of the two-guitar duos out there, he filled out the band’s sound and provided the edgy nuts requisite of any metal band worth its weight in broken noses.

I’ve told this to precious few: since an aborted Judas Priest gig in 2008, I’ve been contemplating, with some degree of gravity, retiring from metal. I entered last night’s gig, these thoughts weighing on my mind, pondering if indeed it would be my curtain call. Yet ’tis the season, after all, for a Christmas miracle: (un)divine intervention transpired and at 3:30 AM I departed the venue with sore feet, perspiring brow, and renewed faith, blessed that the Metal Gods had yet again transmitted unto me inspiration for at least another few years.

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The People’s Court: Brazilian Public Transport Edition

It’s 6:51 this morning as I climb onto my bus, the 128 at the intersection of Rua Jose Linhares and Ataulfa de Paiva in Leblon. And it’s late, dreadfully late, fully 45 minutes behind schedule. Adding to our collective misery, it’s begun raining. So the bus-cramming masses are frowning under furrowed brows dripping lil’ beads of Rio rainwater, roundly miffed as we shuffle onboard this lowest manner of public transport jockeying for seats and resisting the G-forces abounding while the fuselage clangs and clatters down the street. The last person to pay the fare, an elderly woman, no sooner begrudgingly drops her 2.75 reais into the trocador’s grubby mitt when she launches the opener of a series of well-aimed shots across the bow, accusing the driver of dereliction of his transporter-ly duty, her aged tongue a silver bullet splitting his unibrow. The driver, for his part, is urged to retort: ’twas not his fault, cannot she see?! He huffs forth a litany of ever-paler justifications for the delay, none of which I comprehend, all lost in the crescendo of ambient noise inside the bus, which sounds (and feels) like traveling warp-speed in a rickety metallic casket. He stops for breath, and grandma resumes the offense, this time peppering her argumentation with broad gestures to her fellow passengers, all of whom are now paying close attention, a handful nodding in approval of her words, which the Senhora is not mincing this morning. The driver, loathe to be on the losing end of a public relations fiasco of one, fends off her verbal jousts, gesturing equally broadly (while driving, mind you), beseeching the captive audience to recognize the merits of his defense. It went on like this for some time, the puff-puff-give of angry human interaction, the warring parties slowly dividing the passengers into opposed camps, each spurring its respective benefactor onward to hopeful victory.

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The Brazilian Favela: Doth Fools Step in Where Angels Fear Tread?

A typical Sunday morning, yet depressingly overcast in a city not meant for anything less than sun beaming down from the turquoise heavens, lamentably poo-pooing my initial plan to hit the beach. Not wanting to sit stewing inside my ever-stuffier apartment, my beach deployment scuttled and the shutters on Starbucks Leblon still sitting conspicuously closed, I opted for the only viable alternative: simply walking and seeing where it took me. So 30 minutes in, I made it to the Vidigal favela, lying up a hillside but a short distance from my place.

As I’m certain has occurred with many gringos whose fascination with Latin America entailed reading endless books on the region, so too was my perception of the Brazilian favelas negatively swayed by a volume I read years ago called Child of the Dark. The autobiography of onetime favela dweller Maria Carolina de Jesus, this sketch of daily life in Rio’s poorest communities rose to global prominence as the first-of-its-kind in the now-estimable canon of Brazilian testimonial literature. The picture she painted was bleak by any standard, and formed the bedrock of my understanding of Rio’s slums. This perception was buttressed by subsequent years of grisly fofocas regarding the misery of Rio’s urban poor, the inherent criminal demeanor and intent of those who inhabit the favelas, and the risk I’d run as a foreigner walking into a place like Vidigal without a guide shepherding my stupid and naive flock of one. It does not help that the media – both locally and globally – focuses on the crises faced by someone every day in such places. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. Thus you could forgive one for assuming every favela ought be a total shit-show, all the better avoided, the people of such locales pitiable for the mournful and intrinsically unrewarding existences they barely eek out of the pathetic hand life has dealt them.

And yet since my October arrival in Rio, a curious thing has happened: I have come upon information contradicting, at least in part, this standard narrative. If even part of the info is accurate, it would seem the conventional wisdom is none too conventional, after all. In the last decade, the so-called Brazilian “economic miracle” (not really a miracle, but I’ll tackle that in a future post) yanked nearly 40 million people out of poverty, injecting them into the incipient Brazilian middle class with credit lines and disposable incomes. Subsequent to this economic blossoming, the favelas began to improve – if only slightly and at a snail’s pace – as money began trickling into them both from insiders-done-good and outside investors who saw opportunity. As Brazilians living in the favelas gradually enhanced their individual and aggregate purchasing power, they gained marginally more political power, organizing and demanding better municipal services and utilities like potable water that won’t give you amoebas, stable electrical grids that don’t crap the bed every 12 minutes, internet connectivity letting them interact with one another and the distant outside world, and other material and technological pleasures of the modern world.

Things kicked into even higher developmental gear after Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The government realized if it plans to successfully host these high-profile mega-events, establish its global image as that of a “serious country” (a goal of near-fanatical regard to Brazilians at all stripes), and provide a safe environment for the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who will descend upon the country like locusts to a crop in coming years, it had to sort out the security situation in its key cities, which necessarily meant making the favelas safer. So the authorities organized and deployed Unidades de Policia Pacificadora (UPP, or Pacification Police Units in English) into slums like Vidigal. The idea was simple: halt the most egregious crimes committed, restore a sense of marginal order, and instill even the semblance of calm on the streets, perhaps along the way imbuing residents with a kernel of belief that the elected officials are, in fact, doing something remotely approximating their job description, i.e. serving the citizenry. Very novel, crazy talk in Brazil, really. This became even more important when a crucial statistic came to light in recent years: nearly 65 percent of Rio’s middle class lives in favelas. And when that many middle class people are calling for safer streets, politicians begin to listen.

Of over 600 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, roughly 34 are considered “pacified” now, with Vidigal being at the top of the list. There’s a great deal of labor and growing pains still lying on the horizon – after all, recent estimates claim that Rio has 665 soccer stadiums’ worth of favelas within its municipal limits, housing in the ballpark of 2.5 million people, and they are still amongst the most violent places in the world if the statistics are true – but Brazil ought be recognized for what it’s already accomplished in the favelas, many of which didn’t have state presence of any sort as recently as 20 short years ago.

While the absence of open conflict does not automatically equate peace in the favelas, and while there is still plenty of poverty in Vidigal, just walking through it I clearly perceived that the problem now is not the abject misery of days’ past, when favela residents lived in wood slatted shanties, crapped in buckets on the porch, and lived in mortal fear of being roughed by neighborhood toughs (and, sadly, the police themselves) asserting their will by might. True, there are still economic issues, serious crime problems, and locals will tell you the cops don’t always seem to be on the right side of history. But the fact that a gringo like me could go walking into Vidigal – and more importantly, out of Vidigal – without incident is testament that the sands are shifting, hinting the favelas’ better days may lie on the not-too-distant horizon. All of this implies that a discussion of the favelas is more nuanced than the erred traditionalist everything-about-this-place-sucks construct I toted to Rio in my know-it-all gringo ditty bag, and Vidigal was a good entry point to learning more about these communities.


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