The First-Hand Look, and other perceptual problems...

tale of traveling toil by chris carlsson

Submitted by ludd on July 4, 2010

We toured the favelas (slums) built on stilts over the Amazon as it surged by Belem's million inhabitants at the river's cavernous mouth. Winding down narrow passageways six feet above foul- smelling mud, garbage and river water, we were greeted with friendly curiosity. Among the wooden shacks and extreme poverty we found the occasional antennae and color TV* visible in the middle of a living room.

(*Brazil has several national, privately-owned TV networks--the market is dominated by Brazil's own media giant, TV Globo, the pliant voice of authority through several military and civilian regimes. At any given time 65% of Brazil's millions of TVs are tuned to TV Globo.)

We encountered in this stilt-town a 5-year-old's birthday party, with a 3-foot tall cake and 2 dozen formally clad young partiers waiting to cut loose under a plethora of Catholic icons. We were encouraged to shoot the scene with our video camera, during which everyone was very quiet and serious. Awed by the camera, a great deference fell over the party, making its recording a thoroughly empty effort. But its "emptiness" was my problem since their quiet wasn't less "real" than boisterously ignoring our presence would have been. Maybe their reaction was more interesting...

Right around 3 p.m. the equatorial rains would fall in torrents. The city of Belem is full of mango trees planted over a century ago, and the street of the house in which we stayed was thick with Mangueiras. Every day, about 2:30 or so, young boys would begin appearing up and down the street, clad only in shorts. Sometimes they clustered under a tree and threw old shoes or rocks up in the hope of knocking down a ripe mango. Then the rains would start and within minutes dozens of mangos were pelting the area below. The boys, armed with emptied garbage bags that they'd rinsed out in the rushing curbside stream of dirty black water, scrambled to stuff their bags and shorts full of mangos. What a sight! Six and seven-year-old boys with 15 good sized mangos stuffed into their tiny shorts and clutched in their little arms, hobbling along trying to prevent them from falling and being snatched up by latecomers.

Not too many cities have free food falling into the streets every day at 3 p.m.! But too many do share Brazil's astronomical rates of malnutrition and infant mortality, which plague its "developed" cities as much as the country's infamous northeast. Amazonians, over seven million in "urban" environments, typically live in (to our eye) squalid conditions.

Throughout a bizarre trip on the mud-stricken Transamazonian Highway, we were treated to the raucous presence of a small video brigade of Stalinist youth associated with the Communist Party of Brazil. From the moment we boarded the bus they bombarded us and the other passengers with pro-Albania chants, party songs, macho posturing, and even out-of-key Beatles tunes! They had all the qualities of a teenage clique out for a fun camping trip, but with the political rhetoric laid on thick. Occasionally we would overhear one berating another about what Bukharin's position was in 1926, or some equally vital historical point. Later, at the Indian gathering we were all headed to in Altamira, one young man of this group turned out to be the son of an assassinated Communist city councilman. He gave a speech that was notable for his 1968 Maoist militant oratorical style and the way his voice took on a gruff, barking sound.

"Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished... what else can the so-called escapism of traveling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history?.. The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind."

--Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955

Cannibalism proves to be an apt metaphor for how culture percolates from the center to the periphery. We went to Brazil in part because it was a big, vibrant place, full of political drama, but also full of cultural dynamism and sensuality sorely lacking in our U.S. lives. But for the first month or so, wherever we went we were besieged by some variant of mid-80s eurodisco or U.S. pop music. It was surprising, confusing, finally depressing. It wasn't until we went to Bahia and later to Fortaleza and Belem in the north that we got away from the banal, repetitive music of the center and found the rhythms and depth we'd been expecting.

But what programming have we absorbed to form these expectations? How do we know what it is we're looking for? Perhaps this is the reverse of the cannibalism promoted by U.S. culture's presence in other societies. We have a clear idea of what we want: the unfamiliar but fun, the safe but thrilling encounter with the Other. Aren't our vacation fantasies someone else's job description?

We went to a Rap/Funk show in Sao Paulo featuring Brazilian rappers. I assumed Brazilians would be able to get funky with the best of 'em but lo and behold, this was the stiffest and least funky Funk I'd ever heard (of course, I did grow up in Oakland, a veritable funk/rap capital). I absolutely detested this pale imitation of black U.S. music. It turned out that all musical genres are practiced in Brazil, including punk, rap, thrash, heavy metal, and all modern sounds, but why did it all sound so fake except the music that I knew beforehand to be "authentic" Brazilian? A punk band called the Titãs actually sounds exactly like dozens of bands I used to pogo to in the late '70s, a sound I still enjoy. But the Titãs are an exception since usually the cannibalized sounds didn't ring true.


Every tourist destination has its "special" place where it is said to be really remote and beautiful, unspoiled but ready for a visit. Such a place is Trancoso, a somewhat developed coastal village at the end of a 30-km sand road from the better known tourist mecca Porto Seguro on the southern Bahian coast. But this place, too, had been "cannibalized." We got there and found a town that consisted of a central square surrounded by little wooden shacks which masqueraded as restaurants in the evenings. After dinner they passed around the honor of hosting the evening's hot lambada discoteque. In the surrounding area the streets were marked out and private plots housed either a home or a small hotel for the numerous Europeans and Argentinians and wealthy Brazilians who jammed the town during the magnificent January summer.

The three of us found a place in an extremely muggy loft where we could stay above the dining/kitchen area for about $12 a night. It was owned by a 35-ish wiry German who had married a Brazilian woman. He was gradually building small cabins throughout his land, and also rented hammocks to backpackers, fantasies of a thriving "Hippie Hilton" undoubtedly the carrot on the end of his stick.

During the days we would walk two kilometers down to the fantastic beach and plant ourselves under a palm tree to provide a bit of shade against the blistering sunshine. Throughout the day vendors of every imaginable description made their way up and down the beach, often with wheelbarrows full of ice chests laden with beer, popsicles, cokes, etc., while local hippies sold handcrafts and small sandwiches. Ancient fishermen offered coconuts from the back of their mules, hack one open for you on the spot and pull out a gleaming plastic straw and plunk it down into the sweet innards, for about 20 cents. The consumers of this cornucopia of beach treats were the wealthy tourists from around Brazil and the world. (In the evenings, Trancoso became something of a free drug zone, with coke and pot openly sold in the main square.)

At the end of the day, the beach was littered with hundreds of cans and bottles, coconut shells and plastic refuse. Human feces and toilet paper floated in the water just offshore, and could often be carefully stepped over on the beach, too. As our days in paradise rolled by, the ecological time bomb before our eyes, which we contributed to by our presence, ticked on inexorably. Trancoso-as-Paradise can't last for more than another five or so years. No sewer system was under construction or even planned. Garbage collection? Who would do that? Where would they take it? No, easier to chuck it down a nearby ravine once every few months, or burn it. And where else would one drain the primitive toilet systems but into the nearest running water? So what if it runs right into the beach that everyone comes thousands of miles to enjoy! Have a Caipirinha! (the ubiquitous national drink--serious fire water!)


Whatever your intentions or specific origins and attitudes at home in the U.S., when you arrive in a 3rd World country you are in the upper class by virtue of having traveled outside of your own country on vacation, clutching U.S. dollars. The presence of our then 4-year-old daughter won instant friendship many times, as Brazilians love children, although the class differences were perhaps emphasized by our large, healthy blonde daughter. She was as big as 7 and 8 year old children in some of the neighborhoods we visited. On the other hand, her presence underlined our status as visible targets.

People continually warned us to watch out for our child (implying that she might be kidnapped at any time!), not to wear watches or jewelry in public, and not to leave valuables in our hotel rooms or the hotel safes, either. We managed to avoid violent assaults. We never lost our luggage. But we did escape a couple of hairy situations.

One night we had gone to an ocean-side neighborhood called Rio Vermelho in the city of Salvador to see a celebration/film screening on the side of a church along the central north-south traffic route. It was sponsored by a local environmental group which had successfully contested the construction of a shopping mall on a nearby lot for over 3 years and was declaring a partial victory. They also demanded the cleaning and opening of the nearby beach to the public. The majority of the 40 or so attendees sitting in the parking lot for the free movies were homeless boys with their sweaters and scraps of cardboard—they were puzzled by the avant garde, surrealistic Brazilian films, but found a resonant tale in the story of a serial murderer caught after killing a dozen homeless boys in the interior.

As we bussed home a couple of hours later, our bus stopped in standstill traffic. Far ahead we could see a large crowd in the street. As it drew near, we could see the crowd was dancing around a large flatbed truck with a band playing on top--later these scenes became familiar as the Trios Elétricos wound through the city's Carnaval-packed streets. As our bus slowly drew alongside the crowd dancing directly in front of the Trio, the dancing youth began using the bus as a drum. As their pounding reached a deafening crescendo, suddenly the window adjacent to my partner Caitlin shattered, spraying broken glass all over her and our daughter, opening dozens of superficial wounds. All the passengers leaped to the aisle in the middle of the bus, and there we stood for another 15 frightening minutes waiting for the danger to pass. There was no escape—outside the bus was the frenzied mob, inside we were sitting ducks. But nothing else happened and eventually we made it home.

Another time, during the 3-day bank holiday imposed when the "New Cruzado" was proclaimed in January 1989 (only to be superceded in March 1990 by the "New Cruzeiro"), we greedily pursued the best exchange rate we'd heard of yet from a guy in the street. We knew it was too high, but our anticipated good fortune was quickly reversed when our money changers hustled us into a labyrinthine alley and snatched our $100 and just as quickly dashed away. Justice seemed to be served, even at the time, but it was galling to have been had so easily.

Also, as "low-budget tourists" handling our relative wealth was work: going to the Cambista, paying bills everywhere, hiding our money, passports, video equipment, etc. The risk of a rip-off was an underlying concern during many days of the vacation and often constrained our "free time."


I find it strangely ambiguous to be a traveling U.S. citizen. Since I am sharply critical of all U.S. politicians and government actions, I always emphasize that I am only American by twist of fate, and don't identify with U.S. interests. In spite of such alienation, I benefit from my status by the value of my money, my health, my ability to travel freely, and if things go wrong, the likelihood that at least I can purchase better treatment in jails, hospitals, or wherever I might end up.

We sought out people involved in various social movements, trying to bridge the gap our advantages created. People were generally willing, even eager to explain their lives to us, which in turn gave us a sense of responsibility to share their stories when we returned home.

In fact, some of our Brazilian friends seemed to have great expectations of us, which we are finding difficult to live up to now that we are back home. One woman who lived on the edge of a favela (slum) in the Zona Sul of Sao Paulo was very excited to be interviewed by us on video and looked forward to receiving a tape to show her friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, we've been unable to contact her since we got home, and we can't tell why, whether it's the postal service there, here, or she moved, or we have the wrong address, or what.


Language is a basic obstacle to every foreign odyssey. I've followed the same pattern with several languages (French, Spanish, Danish, and now Portugese): I become newspaper literate in about a month or so, and after 3 or 4 months I can understand a good 60-99% of what goes on around me, depending on accents and all that. But in no case have I mastered self-expression. To be honest, I've never come close! Somehow my language aptitude is acute up to the point of speech, then it balances talent with sheer ineptitude and neurosis.

Experience itself conspires to make speaking a recurrent trauma. A typical case in point: one day, about a month into the journey, we were in Rio de Janeiro, it was late afternoon and we stopped in a small supermarket. Caitlin was fed up with doing all the talking (she is a wizard at adapting to new languages) and left me in line at the checkout stand to complete what should have been an utterly routine transaction. But what we didn't know and I was about to find out, was that you couldn't buy the bottles of beer on the shelf unless you brought with you already empty bottles in exchange. When the sales clerk tried to explain this to me, I failed to understand at all and fumbled for my ID, assuming she was asking me to prove I was old enough to buy alcohol. We weren't communicating! The line of people behind me was growing and discontent was becoming audible. I ran outside the store and yelled a block down to Caitlin to please come back and solve the problem, which she did, but what a discouragement! Just when I had started to feel some meager confidence that I could get along, too!

At that moment, complete alienation is inescapable. I am surrounded by a society in which I cannot function, even rudimentarily. Is this the final revenge of superficial experience, of traipsing in for a "little looksee" without getting my hands dirty, my ideas too compromised, inevitably remaining an observer?

When I left for Brazil I thought my trip would be something more than merely finding a nice beach to lay on, or a new body to exchange fluids with—this trip was different... or, as I thought when I had horrible moments of lost confusion, was it?

We pursued encounters and discussion with like-minded political activists, and tried to consolidate personal links across artificial and repressive national boundaries. To some extent we pulled that off. But the assumptions that fueled us were often thrown into doubt along the way.

For example, we found ourselves trying to interpret activists from Brazil's Green Party (PV) within the framework of U.S. ecological politics. It was hard not to compare their ideas to the then- current split between social- and deep-ecologists at home, even though that division wasn't particularly important to the Brazilian political scene. In fact, Alfredo Sirkis, the Green Party city councilman from Rio de Janeiro, claimed that his party encompassed both tendencies quite peacefully.

He went on to comment on the divergent factions in U.S. eco- politics: On the New England-based social ecologists: "I told them they were `Leninist-Anarchists,' They had saved the worst things about Leninism and thrown away the good things." On the California-based deep ecologists: "They were living on a different planet, called California, and had no link with the rest of humanity, not even the rest of humanity living in the U.S."

Later we found other ecologists who were careful to keep their distance from the PV. Trying to understand the Green Party as a variation of a Greenpeace or an anti-nuclear alliance only moved us further from understanding what an ecological political party means in the Brazilian context. Given their marginal status after the recent national elections, and their close relationship to the Workers' Party, it's even less clear what they represent as an independent political party.

On the other hand, Brazil doesn't exist in a vacuum and the rise of ecological political groups there is directly related to and influenced by the growth of similar movements in Europe and the U.S. So drawing such connections is inevitable, and not totally without foundation, even if it tends to demote the specifically Brazilian context in which they exist.

Similarly, our encounters with the Workers Party (PT) were invariably framed by our own experiences and philosophical predispositions in "ultra-left" libertarian politics in our lives at home. Should we interpret the PT as a classical social- democratic formation? As a Leninist party? As a grand coalition of left forces in Brazil? Was the electoral strategy as bankrupt as it is in the U.S.? Or should all these categories be thrown out in light of the cataclysmic changes in the East bloc, and because the PT grew out of highly democratic mass movements with roots in many different Brazilian communities?

And how to interpret the Catholic Church, which is split in half in Brazil between the traditional oligarchy-supporting right wing bishops and the broad movement of base communities organized by the overtly left-wing Liberation Theologists? I have been hostile toward catholicism for as long as I've known much about it, but again and again people we met in urban slums, in rural areas, in different movements, explained how they had been drawn in by a young priest, often Italian or Spanish.

The current leader of the PT's city council "bancada" (their group of seats) in Sao Paulo, Joao Castro de Alves, described to us how he had been a simple metalworker and a fanatic sports fan in the late '70s when he was invited to a "Pastoral Operaria" meeting (Christian workers). When a major strike wave engulfed the industrial area around Sao Paulo in 1979, he found himself deeply involved, and soon he was fired. His involvement with the Christian worker group provided the network of social support that allowed he and his family to survive the next couple of years of unemployment (there are no unemployment benefits to speak of in Brazil). And it also gave him the possibility to get involved with the founding of the Workers Party in 1980, which ultimately led him to his current position.


I would like to go back and live in Brazil someday, perhaps for a year or two. The more time has passed since I was there, the more I have come to realize how difficult it is to truly grasp another society's reality. My own baggage was so heavy, my predispositions, responsibilities, and faculties so influenced my experience that it's almost problematic to distinguish the "facts" or the "truth" about Brazil as I present them, from my own life experience as passed through a 4-month prism of Brazil.

"I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveler of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveler, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lose on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveler, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should."

--Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955

Me, too!

On the other hand, in spite of these rather negative conclusions about the possibilities of truly connecting to another culture, going to Brazil was a fantastic experience. The human condition is sufficiently universal that we made personal friendships that may last for years. The communication and cross-pollination that accompanies such a visit has an inestimable value for our own lives, but also, modestly, for the future of humanity. We can be sure that we don't know how sweeping, global social change will happen. The grains of sand that our travels contribute to the dunes of world history may seem necessarily small and insignificant, but we'll never know what our exchanges finally lead to until many years from now. Everything starts somewhere!

--Chris Carlsson