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Letter From Brazil


It is odd to thinks of the negative press around the World Cup before we arrived in mid June. It may be that the heavy police presence was a factor as was the apparent incarceration of favela youth in their slums by police acting as guards, but we did not hear or see of any street trouble. To the contrary, the good people of Rio and other places went out of their way to help us when we began to look lost (which happened with disturbing frequency), with little or sometimes no prompting, often with faltering or no English, but with a genuine sense of Brazilian hospitality and kindness.

The soccer was of the highest standard, at least up until one particular game, and attending some of the games has been an absolute sporting highlight. In particular we became ridiculously caught up (in the sense of screaming with irrational exuberance and leaping meters into air, just like everyone else) in the super tense Brazil v. Chile game in Belo Horizonte, which showed how inches vulnerable the Brazilian team was, coming within a tweak of being eliminated from their own competition. That result was not in the plot and would have produced much hand-ringing, which instead was passed on to Chile whose team played with no fear and great skill. We left the scene to the spectacle of David Luiz and Neymar in an embrace on their knees at the centre of the field, praying to their maker, who provided little assistance in Brazil’s next game when Neymar was rubbed out of the competition with an injury, and even less assistance in the ridiculous 7-1 semi-final against Germany.

Intelligent opinion quietly preferred Brazil not winning overall so as not to further deflect attention from the obvious social and infrastructure needs of the country. As we drove around, it was easy to see the problems of Brazil on the outskirts of the big cities, where infrastructure was poor - bad, unmarked roads, full of potholes, and main access roads passing through jammed and tiny roadways that barely worked as local thoroughfares through villages that could have been anywhere in the third world. Somehow these poor roads were meant to manage buses, trucks, hand-pulled carts and languid stray dogs all at once over what was barely more than one lane. Advanced Brazil was nowhere to be seen.


There were obvious very high levels of hugely excessive wealth which people did like to flaunt without much embarrassment, but then the wealthy, and even not so wealthy, pay the heavy price of living behind high walls, often with live electric wiring above as further protection, and then not unusually within gated communities and armed guards at entrances. They are like golden fortresses. One assumes the fears these amenities conveyed were real, but it was in marked contract to our experience of friendly and welcoming streets. Maybe with the World Cup over, the police were set to change sides and let the riffraff back out to terrorize the monied classes and in turn keep the security industry in fine style.

One had a fairly reliable sense that if you got into real trouble, you would prefer not to be dealing with the heavily armed police, who had a way of slouching around in excessive numbers, checking their mobile phones, and not seeming to do anything much, and who presumably were paid next to nothing and, like waiters, were probably reliant on tips for their income.

There is an election for President in October. Few people we spoke to had any time for the government and were hoping that it would follow the football team in ultimate defeat. People were concerned that an overall win for the football team would translate into unwarranted and unjustified popularity for the President.

Unlike Australia, we encountered no sense of allegiance or connection with the long former colonial power, Portugal. We heard of no one studying or wanting to study in Portugal, or wanting to visit Portugal as a right of passage experience, or even wanting a Portugese head of state. The Portugese themselves have played an expedient hand in the history of Brazil, building obscene wealth on the back of slaves they imported from Africa through the beautiful port of Rio after less then satisfactory experiences with the attempted enslavement of the indigenous peoples. The expedience of the Portugese as colonialist has been in show in living memory, when they walked out on East Timor, leaving the Timorese to face an invasion from Indonesia.

The social divide between black and white was obvious. The Brazilians came very late to the formal repeal of slavery, in the 1880s, and it does show. We never encountered a black Brazilian in any of the restaurants we visited, other than wait staff. Being black seemed to mean that you were labour. As for the indigenous peoples, there was no semblance of a reconciliation movement as we know it in Australia with the dispossessed indigenous peoples who, as in Australia, were ruthlessly driven from their tribal lands, and are now no where to be seen in any of the big cities. It would seem that they live somewhere out there (in the far distant western corners) - out of sight and mind. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, indigenous foods and ingredients are finding their way onto the menus of the best restaurants of São Paulo, such as Dom.


Brazil is growing very rapidly, as anyone visiting São Paulo can testify. It is a city the size of a country in population, and with apartments running to the horizon and beyond, making our own Southbank or Prymont look like paddocks. If it is being done to a careful plan, it is not at all clear what such a plan might be trying to communicate. The more likely course is that there is little or no plan at all, and apartments are being built whenever and wherever money will allow. For such vast country, the appearance of São Paulo is suffocating, an impression compounded by the confounding traffic which seems to run forever in endless lines, one car on the tail of the next. It might seem like no place to live, but it is the financial heart of South America and the centre of Brazilian commerce and industry – the heartland of one of the world’s largest economies. The prosperity of São Paulo is noted incidentally by it having the busiest helicopter traffic of any city in the world, being one way to solve the problem of traffic at street level – move it up into the sky.

People who look and spoke like they knew what they were talking about said that Brazil generally suffers from a malaise endemic in South America, being the under-developed nature of its civic society. Such under-development was at the price of the tax system, proper social welfare, and decent education and infrastructure. The social institution that seemed to be doing reasonably well was the military, which had a history of occasional wars with Brazil’s own people, but otherwise has had little experience with genuine armed conflict with an external enemy.

Many countries in the region endured long periods of military dictatorship which removed the stuffing of democracy, such as it might have been.
As a result, absent democratic traditions, corruption is well-entrenched. Everyone talks about it, but no one seems to know how it might be fixed. It reaches into every sector of commerce, and infects the integrity of the social fabric. The lines between branches of government are blurred and allegations of corruption extend to the judiciary. As for the armies, they are probably much too well equipped and populated for countries which have not fought wars against real enemies in living memory – save for the ill-fated attempt by the Argentinians to liberate the Falkland Islands and which collapsed in the face of a response from a small contingent of British soldiers many thousands of kilometers from home. Getting elected to public office is said to be a pretext or licence for creaming the system. These observations could of course be completely wrong, but Brazilians we spoke to had no hesitation in endorsing them.

Returning to city scapes, by contrast with São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro is deadly beautiful, almost a folly built into the cliffs and shoreline between the sea and the vast, dramatic and very steep formations which house romantic destinations like the Sugar Loaf and even the perverse and vast statute of Christ almost leaning over a massive hill top with arms outstretched ready to dive into the sea of Copacabana beach below. Its location and celebration is a triumph of propaganda for the Catholic Church. Ironically, it is the favelas built into the hillsides which probably command the best views in town, but which have a reputation of being drug-ridden and genuinely deadly, and which we were told in more normal times transport their misery into the beautiful streets and beaches below, making street violence an ordinary part of day to day life.


The beaches are the enduring symbols of life in Rio, and no places speak more for its beauty and vain style than Ipanema and Leblon beaches, in much more luxurious areas than the endlessly day and night popularity of Copacabana. These are truly beautiful places, and one can think of a great many worse pursuits than stopping off for a Pisco Sour at a beachside cafe at Ipanema around sunset.

There are some more modest tour sites, which are very fetching such as the Botanical Garden with its statuesque royal palms and the decaying colonial home at Parc Largo, but modest is not how you would readily describe Rio and its people in perpetual sun and so engaged with beaches all year round - men and women looking fabulous with their great tans and minimal beach wear, and in amongst them all the girl from Ipanema, who I think we spotted (while sipping our Pisco Sours).

There are locations in the São Paulo/Rio general environs of true history, where heritage is proudly celebrated, most particularly Ouro Preto and the towns on the Royal Route (a little nod to the Portugese past) just outside Belo Horizonte. Every building in Ouro Preto retains the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century heritage style which the town proudly celebrates, together with its involvement in Brazil's version of an anti-colonial uprising known as the Conspiracy. This low-level uprising was led by a person with the unlikely nickname of Tiradentes, or Teeth Puller, who was executed for anti-colonial activities provoked by the Portugese seeking to raise taxes in the colony, and who is depicted in a Christ-like manner in a large sculpture in the central square of the town, again thanks to the Catholic Church for leaving its mark on state affairs. In the Museum of the Conspiracy – great name – are the remains of Tiradentes and his co-consiprators (who were shipped off to the African colonies to rot) – in a kind of Pantheon, but here guarded unceremoniously by a bored Museum security man and not soldiers in fine uniforms.

The town also celebrates the religious art of Aleijadinho, or the Little Cripple (who had leprosy), and who directed slaves in the making of life-like depictions of scenes from the New Testatment scattered throughout beautiful, but decaying Rococo style churches spread around vantage points in the hilly town. Aleijadinho was also responsible for a great series of sculptures of Old Testament prophets which sit exposed outside a church in the nearby town of Congonhas, and which must be venerated as they remain largely untouched by vandalizing hands and have done so for over 200 years.

But Brazil for the period of our visit at least was really about only one religion - winning soccer games. Soccer fans all offer the world have come to love the freedom, complete control and ruthless execution of Brazilian soccer at its best, where the presence of an opposing team is a minor but necessary irritant. If the game could be played with only the Brazil team on the field, that would more than do the job. There was plenty of the beautiful game on show, with soccer stopping the country, especially when Brazil was playing. It was pointless attempting to do anything else but watch the game which was on televisions at every bar and cafe, and be consumed by the overwhelming passion of the Brazil supporters, who have enjoyed so much success in World Cups, but who had a well founded fear of disaster akin to the unexpected loss to Uruguay in 1950 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio in front of 190,000 standing fans – this time manifest by Germany 7 Brazil 1 in the World Cup semi-final. At least today they have seats at the Maracana (and a capacity of 75,000) but few people stay seated for long during World Cup games. The world was watching and admiring Brazil at play, and many Brazilians would have wished the fun to go on and on, but it was all finished soon enough, as did our great fun. Shame about the script.

With the warmest feelings for an incongruous, troubling, infuriating, beautiful, obliging and gracious country.