Fio Dental - Chapter 18: Fortaleza

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South America » Brazil » Ceará » Fortaleza
August 10th 2006
Published: May 26th 2008
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A city of apartment high rises...
At first glimpse, Fortaleza is what Natal will look like in fifteen years. It is little more than a broad, imposing, and expanding stage of high rise apartment buildings ranging from just-finished penthouses to soot-stained stepsisters that should be used as training exercises for the local fire department. Fortaleza’s vertical block residences surge into the sky as if the city were a Tetris board for God. People with the means choose to live in these palatial prisons and sequester themselves from the rest of society. Automatic gates and twenty-four hour manned entrances ensure that only those authorized to enter can do so. Yards of electrified barbed wire on all four sides stretch atop the walled compounds. Shards of sharp glass protrude from the top of each wall to complete security measures. Everything in Fortaleza, and for that matter most cities in Brazil, is either walled, fenced, or smothered with security. Residents of these palatial prisons rarely leave on foot and have hired help to walk their purebreds. When they do surface among the masses, they dawn Nike sports tops and designer jogging shorts for a quick run along Iracema or Futuro Beach. They rarely venture out on foot to mingle with

Some are less attractive than others...
the neighbors who live closer to the earth.
Direct intercontinental flights deposit and collect European tourists, who primarily flock to the city’s beaches for fun and relaxation or immediately depart for Ceará’s spectacular shoreline communities. Visitors who stay in Fortaleza are of the same kind as in Natal, just in greater numbers: single, with disposable income to distribute, of my gender, and from the land of the World Cup Champions. The prostitution scene at night is pervasive. In comparison, Natal’s is that of a national convention of aspiring nuns.

An obese Swede joined me at my table in the Café La Habanera. Marcus’ belly has come to occupy so much space that if he put on the wrong pair of shoes for a formal occasion, someone would have to tell him. The effort he puts forth in grooming his bushy face is about the same I do for researching how to skydive in Mauritania. He came to Fortaleza four years ago, bitter with the life he had in Malmö. Nowadays, he lounges from café to restaurant (self-service, buffet style) and looks after the affairs of his much younger, thinner, and downright stunning girlfriend. She speaks little, shows off a

Getting my bearings...
lot, and only moves to either excuse herself to make a phone call or light another in a chain of cigarettes. La Habanera attracts coffee addicts and cigar aficionados. Tasteful in style and presentation, it is impossible to overlook the prolific amount of photographs of Fidel and Che, either whom ownership idolizes, or has thoughtlessly plastered all over the place to lend the café more authenticity. Perhaps a little more reflection could have gone into presenting an image of a country overrun by a totalitarian murderer and hired executioner. It matters little. The misguided and naïve can still enjoy their tightly wrapped Cohiba or deeply flavored capuccino. Marcus could not stay to chat longer about life in South America and the upcoming elections in October. Not soon after she left, the taxi in which his girlfriend was traveling got into a minor fender bender and she sent out a distress call to be picked up.

Give Brazilians a credit card, cash, or a note from Mom, and off to the mall or boutiques they go. Foreigners descend upon Iracema Beach, three blocks above which is the Avenida Monsehnor Tabosa. The unimaginative one-way thoroughfare of shops and pseudo emporia embodies
Wise Move?Wise Move?Wise Move?

Is this the kind of advertising you'd want for a soccer team?
everything wrong with Brazilian foresight vis-à-vis marketing. Stores are grouped side by side according to the product they promote in the shop windows. Looking for shoes? No problem? All twelve shoe stores with the same exact brands, sizes, and colors run right into each other. Then come a cluster of shops for evening gowns, say six or so. Leather goods follow. You get the picture.

Cities follow the same inane pattern when it comes to pharmacies. A whole street can be nothing but one big distribution point for decongestants, blood thinners, and analgesics. Ignorant and untrained staff notwithstanding, no one pharmacy can stand alone in a neighborhood for very long. Instead, when one pharmacy establishes itself as a successful business, having taken the risk to carve out a niche, others open up right next door. Why should I have to work to make my own business successful when someone has already set up the structure for me? Customers flock in and will inevitably venture over to do comparison shopping. The whole method epitomizes how unambitious shopkeepers are. They simply make enough to get by, but never take a risk to independently prosper.
The fantastic lack of forethought and absence of initiative is only matched by untrained staff behind the counter incapable of answering a question about a prescription without first reading the label on the packaging first. What if I have a heart condition? Should I take these eye drops and still drive half blind? Some behind the counter (I dare not call them pharmacists) most likely received a chemistry set for their tenth birthday and blew up half the basement. Be prepared for some teenager who has taken over for Mom on her break to hand you a box and say, “Umm, that’s for high blood pressure, or wait, ah, yes, it’s actually to reduce fever. Don’t worry, that’s what my Mom always says.” Why? That’s what the label says. If the label does not explicitly instruct the consumer to avoid strenuous exercise while on medication to eliminate violent convulsions, do not expect anyone behind the counter to offer worthwhile insight. You’re on your own. Good luck.

Beyond pointlessly sweltering among Italians, French, and Paulistanos on the city’s overrated beach scene, Fortaleza contains very little of interest unless you like to shop. I don’t. The Mercado Central is a gargantuan four-tier asymmetrical cylindrical pavilion of interior passageways ramps, and staircases. They connect each floor to t-shirt stands, trinkets, lace, linens, refrigerator magnets, and annoying, yet desperate vendors. The market is a roller coaster of cheap kiosks, where it is best to load up on souvenirs for office colleagues, or better yet marvel in the aesthetically challenged eyesore that it is. Strategically located for tourists away from anything visually appealing, but near a flaking and cracked highway overpass, just getting to the market by foot is reason enough not to visit. There are no street signs anywhere. Even the painted letters for the Mercado Central at the entrance are either hidden by thick trees or the lettering has faded. The frighteningly hideous cathedral up the street is the only landmark by which to determine the market is nearby and that you have not wandered into violent neighborhoods of no return. The stern charcoal angled monstrosity so repels the eyes it is no wonder that it does not appear in any guidebook. Remember the climatic scene in Ghostbusters and the church from which gargoyles, demons, and monsters terrorize the city? Fortaleza’s cathedral was the inspiration. Come to the Mercado Central if you must. And if you must, take a taxi.

Within walking distance of a dense jungle-like ecological park, which stands out as an emerald haven among characterless fifteen-floor apartments, the Shopping Iguatemi embodies the Brazilian obsession with malls. Those who criticize and equate the emptiness of American culture with the shopping mall ought to try Brazil. Brazilians worship the mall. It is an event to come to one just to be seen. A bubble of sterile and frosty air conditioned modernity, parents from out of town bring their kids to the mall and make a day of it. It is a cheap way to take shelter from winter temperatures that plummet into the lower nineties. The size of a New England state, Iguatremi is best navigated using GPS. Most shops sell stylish goods the average Brazilian will never be able to afford. When asking where the food court is located, mall staff replies, “Which one? The nearest one? Walk north a few miles. It’s at the end of the mezzanine by the shop selling woolen mittens and scarves. If you get a move on, you should be there before dark.” Upon arrival at the food court, all the restaurants are open, ready to take your order, and rather empty. All except McDonald’s. The lines snake through the dining area.
Malls push the latest in cell phone technology. To come here on a Saturday afternoon in order to upgrade a mobile phone will land you in lines that extend beyond the city limits. Customers vie for any open counter space and stab each other with sharp elbows to mark their territory for the next attendant. While crowds wait patiently with phones in hand text messaging each other, bookstores are eerily empty. Siciliano has to be the only reliable bookstore I have seen in Brazil. Outside of large cities, bookstores are as common as snowmobiles. Go into the average house in Brazil and you’ll notice the number of books shelved in a living room or bedroom to about, depending upon the day of the week, zero. Brazil’s malls use a deceptive pricing method to entice consumers to buy. Instead of advertising a stereo for R$ 450, the tab will read 5x R$95, so as not to dissuade those who are on the fence. Paying full price at the checkout attracts a slightly lower price.
Signs in Brazilian malls attempt to train the masses on standing single file. It is a part of the culture still in its conceptual stages. The bathrooms also have instructions to them. They actually read: Lift the toilet seat before peeing and Do not pee on the floor. Brazilian stores, even on weekdays, are overstaffed with idle clerks and attendants having a grand ol’ time doing very little. Enter a sporting goods store and be prepared for an onslaught of attendants who are either trained to ignore the comment “I’m just looking” or are determined to sell you something even though you’re there to kill time while another family member is blowing wads of cash elsewhere.
As with almost every non-English speaking country, Brazil has a plethora of linguistic faux-pas. While we Anglophones are aware that English is not Brazil’s first language nor is it the local vernacular, it is still the instrument through which the world in general communicates with each other. Therefore, it is wise to consult anyone functional in English before embarking on a huge marketing campaign or even asking a printing firm to produce a restaurant menu. The results can be delightful for Americans, British, and Australians alike. Take for example, the aforementioned BRA airlines, a Brazilian domestic carrier. Last year, I came across a studio in Kraków that sold frames for portraits. Employing English, the shopkeepers painted a sign using the word “art” and the first letter of the “frame” Their idea, I suppose, was to have something to the effect of “Frame Art.” Be that as it may, the storefront window read “F•art”.
While walking back to my pousada from an uneventful walk at Iracema, I came across a coach for the Fortaleza soccer club, a first division team suffering through a forgetful season. The bus was parked outside a restaurant where one would assume the team was having lunch. To call attention to themselves, it is artistically decorated with the mascot in the team colors, blue and red. As I passed the rear of the vehicle, I took note of one of the sponsors, a soft drink company. The name of the firm: Suks. That’s right, S-U-K-S. Could anyone have come up with worse word to associate with a professional sports team?
Last night, I walked by a bar that made the slightest typographical error on their lit sight street side. It read for the world to see, “We serve drunks all night.” as opposed to drinks. Why did I not have my camera then?


29th May 2008

Glad I skipped Fortaleza
Reading your account of Fortaleza I'm glad I skipped it on my last trip through the Northeast (2004). It was a pleasant coastal city when I was there in 1966 -- not yet 'discovered' by foreign tourists. The jangadas brought in fresh fish and did not yet have advertisements on their sails. But in 2004 we did stop in Juazeiro do Norte -- a different side of Ceara. Plenty of poor from the region on pilgrimages, but no foreign tourists (or tourists from Rio or Sao Paulo, for that matter). Trying to find a craft center we'd heard about, we first found the office of the Minister of Culture. He was so happy to see two real tourists that he yelled for his driver and drove us the few blocks to the craft center! KST

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