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Published: July 13th 2009
I am in Santarem after 3 days on a boat. We got here two days ago and the ground still feels like its moving when I walk. This place is incredible and way flooded. They have 15 meters more river than they are supposed to, we went in a canoe today and entire trees were underwater... we paddled the canoe to a restaurant we were not supposed to be able to paddle to. And from the water stains on some of the buildings here it looks as though they probably had about one more meter in the past. I will give detailed accounts of things later, but this is probably this nicest place we have visited thus far and one of the most comfortable (and cheapest) hotel we have stayed in thus far. Below is a more or less finished copy of my reflection paper for my class, I thought I would add it to let everyone know what I have been working on. I began to feel like this paper would never end and really it didn't... I don't know how to finish it, I never seem to run out of topics to discuss nor a conclusion and thesis, just a rambling of ideas. If anyone wants me to buy them awesome stuff in Brasil put money in my account. Good night and I love you.
Brasil: The Roots of Inequality
I did not know exactly what to expect on this trip, but what has happened is essential to the understanding of my world. Often unbearable and overwhelming, almost constantly frustrating, this trip has really pushed me to the edge, and at times I questioned why I came it all. This place, as well as the people, are beautiful and as uncomfortable as it might have initially been it was/is exactly what I needed. I have realized my privileged and spoiled nature. I have realized my entire country's privileged and spoiled nature. The United States and Brasil have a lot to teach each other and I hope to use this experience to one to lift up both countries. The world is in dire need of better relationships and I have dedicate my life to this goal. I do not have any clear organization for this paper nor do I know how to transform this ongoing torrent of thought into something entirely coherent. I will do the best I can, but it is hard to process so much at once and as you know this trip and this exploration is still ongoing for me. So let's begin and follow the meanderings of a confused, ambitious and naive individual trying to make his way through a country he has never before studied with a language he has never heard before. Keep in mind while you read this that people can never be categorized and grouped so easily as we like to do and that it is necessary for the study of things to label them, but ultimately these labels mean very little.
The people for the most part are without racism and share a common understanding that Brazilians are Brazilian and it is as simple as that. The exception here is that they do have a sort of subtle racism and I have noticed a sort of reverse racism towards white people. That is the more white you appear, the better you are treated for no apparent reason. In the US people have an obsession with ethnicity and family heritage a family was before becoming American and although you are American, many people identify themselves as African-American, Cuban-American, Asian-American, Irish-American, etc. And there is often a very clear and often violent racism that I have experienced directly in the United States, especially between blacks and whites. This lack of racism is important to life here in Brasil, because so much of the infrastructure and culture is based on this shared vision of Brasil. In Brasil though, it is completely acceptable and even very common. The separations in discriminations here are more based on social class rather than racism. This is true and yet this is not entirely true, because the class separation is often related to appearance and in specific, how “white” your are. (I put white in quotes, because it is really relative on what white is and I will talk more about this later.) The white race here still somehow maintains an ideal of racial superiority here even though white is actually the minority here. The whites are more likely to get a job, but there are so few whites that plenty of blacks also get important positions and help to level things out.
Or at least this is how it seems to someone from the US, and this outside perspective on race is worth noting, because they measure race differently here than back in the US. In the United States race is measured by starting in the white side of the skin tone scale and any amount of black blood will make you black, black features remove your whiteness. In Brasil it is measured in the exact opposite way beginning with the black side of the pigment scale and any amount of white blood makes you white and removes some of your black features. This is in large part due to the fact that Brasil has more darker skinned people than the US. Be it heritage of the Natives and Slaves mixed with the majority or just the fact that they live at the equator and in a tropical climate is really uncertain to me. Many people who would normally be considered white here would be black in the United States and many individuals normally considered black in the US would likely be considered white in Brasil. ______ wrote an excellent essay about this and concludes his piece with this quote ____________. And in fact where the United States sees, for the most part, a single line between white and black, Brasil has over 100 different classifications of skin tone. Furthermore this difference in the measure of race is based on the individual being measured and not on their parents, whereas in the United States it is measured not just on an individual basis, but also on the family heritage you come from. Thats right, here in Brasil, the measure of race allows for you to belong to a different race than your parents.
Brasil has an amazing talent for taking traditions from all aspects of its history and combining them into one, entirely different, and purely Brasilian, tradition that unifies them. An example of this is seen in the relationship between Candomble and Catholicism. Many people here will practice and make claim to being a Catholic and a member of Candomble. According to traditional Catholicism this is not possible, because Candomble takes part in spirit posessions by nature spirits and saints. This is acceptable because a long time in the past slaves were forced to convert to catholicism and to avoid prosecution practiced a sort of false syncretism between the two religions and as time progressed it became accepted as an actual form of syncretism. There was at one point a movement to remove the Catholicism from the Candomble traditions and return to the original deities, but after so many generations it had become a new belief system and to remove it was now just as offensive as it once was to have to practice Catholicism with Candomble. It originates in Africa though with the Yoruba and also has aspects of Islam, Native American belief systems. This blend of seemingly contradicting beliefs is a prime example of how adaptive and unique Brasilian ideology is as well as their ability to take a mix of imported and indigenous traditions and shape it into a uniquely Brasilian tradition.
One thing I feel Brasil might be doing better than the United States is setting methods for a minimum wage in Brasil. Minimum wage is set as a monthly salary in Brasil and not as an hourly pay rate, like back home. I feel this is important, because in the states you might make minimum wage, but if you are not receiving enough hours for work, then you are not making enough money to support yourself. If you have a monthly salary that is guaranteed, then you can rest in knowing your bills will be paid for and that your hours won't suddenly be cut below your bottom line. Brasil is not perfect in this system though and has a great deal of inequality in the way salaries in general are appropriated amongst social classes. A politician can make $R 10,000 per month while minimum wage is set as $R 430 per month. We do have this same inequality in the United States with the appropriation of money, but I feel that Brasil is closer to a solution with a monthly salary rather than an hourly wage. I know too many people in the US with two and three jobs just to make it by. Salaries are easier to adjust than an hourly wage and this is in my opinion the better way. I believe that if people felt more security in their daily lives, crime rates would be reduced and the economy would be improved.
Brasil does, however, have an extremely high unemployment rate and many of the people here resort to making their own handicrafts and peddling them in the streets. Whether or not the governent allows this peddling to go on untampered with is unclear to me because the infrastructure is not good enough to enforce it if they do try to prevent it. Either way I admire this in the people here, even the homeless I have seen have a chance at starting their own business and it should be considered how difficult it is for someone to support themselves in the US. The cost of living is much higher in the United States and finding/creating a job is much more difficult. A 3 bedroom house in a decent neighborhood in Brasil with a garage, kitchen, living room, and water resevoir can be rented for only $R430 here. In the united states this same setup would cost you no less than $US 950 (at least in my experience). And the homeless are not aloud to peddle without a license in the United States. In fact, in Tampa I have friends who have been arrested or threatened with arrest for no other reason than not having a home at night. It is illegal to feed the homeless in Tampa. It is illegal to dig for food and supplies in the garbage and often times companies will poor bleach on any food placed in a dumpster to prevent anyone from eating it. Whether or not this is the case with the laws in Brasil, I do not know. I also do not know much about how people feel about their garbage here, but I will say that I have seen a much more active, healthy, happy homeless population in Brasil than in Tampa. And since they are not only begging, but actually making and selling goods most of them eat dinner at restaurants and such. (granted I only had experience with a small sample of the homeless.)
Another aspect of the better situation with the homeless in Brasil is the ability to “invade” a section of town or to set up favelas on the fringes of the city. People go out and just build lodging if they need to and often in doing so create a sort of community. When one needs to they can live in the favelas, which I am told are sometimes violent and dangerous. We visited one and it did not seem so violent in fact the people seemed quite happy in their daily chores. Dangerous perhaps, if for no other reason than the fact that many of the houses are poorly built and there is large quantities of garbage lying around as well as no real facilities for disposing of human waste. Most of the above mentioned is put into the river.
The government here is currently undertaking a very massive relocation program for the favelas. The government is building apartments for those living in the favelas to inhabit and own. It is only $R 15 more expensive because of a maintenance fee. These apartments are much more secure than many of the homes in the favelas and everyone we spoke to about it liked the idea. We spoke with people living in the favelas still and those already inhabiting some of the finished apartments and no one had anything poor to say about it. The government has given them lots of notice and assistance. This is not my specialty and I do not remember a great deal about it, but I remember we were with crescent, a black economist from chicago, and she said this is one of the most comprehensive government relocations we have seen. And somehow this is all getting done even though the current government is in turmoil, dealing with scandals and corruption.
An invasion on the other hand is apparently a place where homeless people move in, or invade, to an abandoned or currently unused parts of town and begin to build houses out of whatever. Early on most of the houses are usually made of mud, sticks and scraps they can find. One of the invasions I saw though was very well founded and had actual houses built in it as well. The invasions can wind up in a few different ways depending on who actually owns the property and how the owners choose to deal with it. Sometimes the owners will square off sections of the property for the invaders to settle on and use, sometimes they will provide a separate area for them to occupy, Sometimes it is just given up and remains an invasion, and often they kick everyone out and destroy the houses. It has even been noted that the government will often provide a designated place for these people to go which would be considered a legal invasion. Oh yes, there are legal invasions and illegal invasions and it is sort of confusing and difficult to get detailed info on, because we do not yet speak fluent portuguese (give me a year). I suppose the outcome just depends on the individual circumstance as well as who owns the land and what the land is planned to be used for. Invasions are quite an interesting phenomena though and perhaps a future art project for myself.
One thing that the US could teach Brasil (and that Brasil has taught me) is about maintaing infrastructure and the importance of it. The roads here are not well maintained, trash is all over the streets, and police are scarce if present at all. Even when they have a law for something it is not well enforced, especially when in regards to the higher social class. (insert example from text)
We had a good strong taste of this infrastructure problems when traveling after the program. In our efforts to reach Belem we were informed that it is better travel first to Maraba by train and then to Belem from there by bus. The distance is about the same from Maraba to Belem as it is from Sao Luis to Belem and it takes an extra 14 hours by train to get to Maraba. The length of the bus trips is not even all that different; from Sao Luis to Belem is approximately 12 hours and from Maraba approximately 8 hours. The difference here is small, but important. The importance in going to Maraba, a not so friendly place, is tied up with the constant assaults on buses traveling at night. We first encountered this information while searching the internet for a way to travel cheaply from Sao Luis to Santarem. The gentlemen describing both the Transamazonica and the reason for staying away from it was well informed, so I will just let him speak for himself:
(The following can be found at this webpage: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/jungleboy/southamerica-06/1161693900/tpod.html)
My intention had been to take a bus to Santarém from Marabá. This bus takes a route of 1177km along a road called the Transamazônica and this road needs a bit of explanation. In the 1970s Brazil´s brutal military dictators, enlightened souls that they were, were simultaneously grappling with two complex and entirely separate problems. Firstly the northeast of the country (thats the bit me and Sarah went to together, minus Rio) had a population surplus and severe unemployment. Secondly the Amazon region was in danger of slipping into the control of unspecified 'foreign powers´ due to a lack of population and lack of infrastructure. After lengthy pondering of these parallel statistics someone noticed that if you take the unemployed people from the northeast and set them to work creating infrastructure in Amazonia... Brilliant! And so the idea of the Tranzamazônica road running from east to west in Amazonia was born. As I said, brilliant. Except for the minor flaw (seeminly unnoticed by the generals) that a large section of the road is under water for 6 months of the year. Actually the section of road that i was intending to travel on was not part of the underwater section (and anyway it is the dry season here) but as it is impossible to get from A to B on the Tranzamazônica these days, no-one really bothers to maintain it any more with the result that there are potholes in the road into which an entire bus could fall according to traveller legend (I dont believe this however - its not in the Lonely Planet), which in turn has the result that thebus is not able to go very fast along the road. I had been warned that if you leave Marabá bus station at any time which will leave you near the city on the transamazônica after dark you run a severe risk of the bus being robbed (the word in Portuguese is 'assaltado´ and it really is an assault: several motorbikes appear in front of the bus from which gunmen shoot its front tyres, then a 4x4 pulls up in front of the bus blocking its way, then they take EVERYTHING at gunpoint - you are lucky if they leave your underwear apparently); I had also been warned that the jounrney was likely to be at least 30 hours.
Everything we had read elsewhere supported this. On the bus we met a local who had been robbed 4 times and a gentlemen at the hotel we stayed at said he had been robbed 2 times. In fact, almost everyone we spoke with about it had been robbed at least once on the buses. I do not know where she got the statistics from, but Chakira (the local on the bus) told us the robberies happen almost every night and that 4 out of 5 buses traveling at night will be robbed. She was telling us this as the sun was setting on our 9.5 hour trip and we had 2 more hours after the sun went down until we reached Belem, so I had plenty of time to think good and hard about it. I began pondering why there is nothing done about it. Some ideas I came up with were: They could reinforce the buses to prevent these attacks, put armed guards on every bus, police the road better, or even more practical than all of the above: STOP RUNNING BUSES AT NIGHT!
In all practical sense I do realize that reinforcing the buses is costly and impractical as is policing the road better, but armed guards on every bus or better yet not running buses at night seems totally logical. I do wonder what would happen though if they put these guards on the buses. Until now the assailants have been mostly non-violent towards their victims, only taking goods and not being physical. If armed guards began to fire back would they stop their attacks or would it escalate? From history lessons around the world, I think the latter is the more likely to occur. And if they stop running buses at night the buses would lose too much money. Furthermore stopping night buses brings me to wonder, would these criminals be driven to act in the day out of necessity? I say this because they have an industry running off of this and many people are reliant on this industry. When you remove an industry without replacing it with another one more violence and more crime occur. In other words by simply removing the illegal industry you create a void and run the risk of actually escalating things instead of fixing them. What could be done here to remove these ongoing “violent” crimes and replace the industry they are built upon with something more productive? A couple of SWAT teams should be able to take care of this issue. A sting operation with a baited bus and no passengers maybe. The intial information needed to run such an operation could be gained just by talking to the victims. Further details could be gained about the assailants from the people captured in the sting to find the root of the problem. Perhaps creating jobs relevant to the issue at hand is possible. The problem still remains though, if you remove this industry, what do you replace it with? Jobs repairing and maintaining the very roads that are having these problems is probably a start. This would be very costly for the government however. Perhaps, prison labor from the captured bandits is a solution for the cost. I had also considered the possibility of using the captured bandits to police the highway. I know this seems strange, but it is possible. But while I think this is possible, I think it requires more training and debriefing of their previous mentalities than Brasil could afford as a short term solution. This is a very practical long term solution though (better than just keeping them in jail) and again would save money. Rather than just keeping them in Jail, which costs money, they could pay them for a service. I do not know how practical such solutions really are... but they don't sound so strange in my mind.
These are serious issues and it doesn't stop at the roadways. Everyone here just throws trash in the streets and the government pays tons of money to have teams of people walk around cleaning the street everyday. This is another thing the US could help out with. Some have stated that it is difficult to get the people to stop doing this, but I have considered this for some time (seeing as how the trash issue was one of my first impressions on Brasil) and I do not see an opportunity to change the minds of the people. I do not see trash cans readily available for everyday use. I never realized how many trash cans are in the US, but they are everywhere and it is very easy to find one in the US. Here you might have to do some searching. Even if you find a trash can though, the bags are just set out in the streets in piles. Which is not such a terrible method of disposal, except when you consider the amount of stray animals walking the streets of some places. These animals tear open the bags and scatter garbage all over the streets. In the United States we have, in my opinion, a much better disposal method. We have trash cans readily available everywhere, dumpsters for mass amounts of garbage, trash pickup containers for houses and possibly most important, steep fines for littering. People here will through garbage anywhere and people in the states are not really any different. The real difference is that people in the United States who don't care about the environment in which they live, do care about having to pay $US 500 for throwing trash on the ground.
With as many problems as Brasil may have with infrastructure they have some vast improvements in infrastructure to share with us as well. For instance, FREE MEDICAL CARE. They have public hospitals here that provide assistance to anyone who needs them, with any problem they need it for. And you can even get dental attention as well. They also have private hospitals and doctors that provide much quicker assistance and often have better facilities, but to have medical attention for free is incredible for me. I can not afford to go to the doctor for anything in the United States and still have a foot fungus from when I was 9 and all of my wisdom teeth as a result. I went to the hospital one time when I had the flu and for 1 hour and no real help they charged me $US 3,000. In the United states a set of braces would cost around $US 1,400 here you only pay the maintenance fee which is $R 90. I have often heard people talk badly about socialized medicine because it would kill the private medicine industry and that there are all kinds of problems with having socialized medicine like long wait lists and poor treatment, but Brasil proves that you can have both coexist. This is super important for me, because that means the people who can afford to (and are often the ones fighting against socialized medicine) can pay for private care while those who can not afford to can get much needed assistance with necessary health issues.
One thing that is more or less the same is the good ole boy system (replace with a technical term from the book). My mother used to tell me all the time, “This world is not so much about what you know, but who you know.” And so it is the same in Brasil. I have not experienced this enough to really speak with conviction about it since I have not really been part of the work force here. The mentality does seem the same, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. Perhaps this is not so much a Brasilian nor American behavior, but a human one. When faced with survival and a free market it almost becomes necessary at times to take care of yourself and loved ones in desperate times. And when it reaches the point of not being necessary anymore it has become so ingrained in the market and behavior that it is near impossible to remove.
Another peculiar behavior I have notice here in part with the help of others in the class with stronger powers of observation is the general acceptance and contented nature of Brasilians in regard to injustice and uncomfortable situations. They tolerate the government doing what it
Infrastructure, everyday living wages vs political wages, good ole boy system, places like maraba and the transamazonica, candomble, tolerance of injustice. Everyone likes to complain about such things, but not many of them really get up and do anything about it. And I suppose this is true in the United States as well, it is just harder to notice since we have a better functioning and longer founded democracy. My lack of intitally observing this in the United States is also possibly related to my tendancy to surround myself with people that do more than just complain. What I mean here is that many of the people that come from a rough life have no aspirations to help those in the same position, only to escape the situation themselves. This is one of those issues that is dangerous to discuss and a point that should be considered with the aforementioned uselessness of labels and grouping of peoples. Another consideration to be given here is the small sample size I had available to observe. People that want to help their peers do exist and are working to do so here, but it seems most are unconcerned with much else, but escaping.
In the United States we have the “American Dream.” That is, the promise that no matter who you are or where you are from you can succeed, but it seems so much more possible here in Brasil. It is easier to start a business, gain property, and really get off the ground with a business. Yet the attitude here is one of general dismay and struggle in regards to financial issues. The US has so many rules and hoops and fees to get a business up and rolling and yet it is just the opposite, everyone is typically optimistic and relatively confident in the ability to move upward and onward in the world. Is an ideology so important to a people that it precedes reality or am I simply mistaken and understanding things all wrong (which is completely possible). Again I must note my small sample population and lack of any real time and research spent. Also I might add that Maranhao, the state in which Sao Luis is located, is the poorest state in Brasil.
Well I could do this forever, for I have seen, heard, discussed, read, experienced more than I could ever write about in time for this paper to be turned in. I will end it here by stating that this truly has changed my views on life and provided a great depth of insights that I will be using in the future. Both my personal and professional lives have been changed. I have a new appreciation for things, a new tolerance for uncomfortable situations (like hour long bus rides in buses so cramped you can hardly breath), a new outlook on my country and the world. I will hopefully one day use these things to improve relationships and living conditions for as many people as possible.
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