Monday, May 30, 2011

What I Wish I'd Known a Year ago Today

It was a year ago today that a cab driver outside Rio’s Galeão International Airport showed me the number “60” on his cell phone to indicate the fee he would charge to drive me to my hostel in Ipanema. As he wove maniacally through the highway traffic, past haphazardly constructed favelas stretching to the horizon in every direction, I admit to feeling both giddy and nervous, and not just because I didn’t share his apparent death wish.

“Ipanema?” he asked enthusiastically. “Você gosta de meninas?”

Did I like girls?

“Sim, sim,” I nodded, flexing my caveman-like Portuguese. “É bom.”

“São boas!” he corrected. “As meninas são muito boas!” He pounded the wheel at “muito.”

My first lesson from a native speaker.

When he dropped me off at the hostel, I left him a generous tip, not sure whether this was customary (It isn’t.), and then stood there next to my suitcase, exhausted from the overnight flight, taking in the sunny, pleasant scene on Rua Vinícius de Moraes and thinking, “Holy sh*t. I’m in Rio de Janeiro.”

Aside from taxi-tipping custom, there are a multitude of other things I wish I’d known about life in Rio on the day I arrived. Here are a few:

On the subject of tipping, restaurant tips are 10 percent, and they are included in your bill. Here I was, thinking the waiter at the restaurant up the street from my hostel was always so happy to see me because he was really into customer service. It took weeks before I learned that I had been tipping him like 20 percent on bills that had already included his gratuity. After that, I stopped eating there because I didn’t want to disappoint him but also didn’t want to keep ripping myself off. He continued to wave hopefully every time I passed.

Also, at restaurants and in general, while drinking the tap water is inadvisable, it’s safe to take ice in your drink, eat leafy greens and brush your teeth with the tap water. Health experts in the States make it sound like if you get a little water in your mouth while showering, you’ll end up with a belly full of parasites. Accordingly, at first, I brushed my teeth and washed my fruits with bottled water. When I first used tap water to brush my teeth as a last resort, I half expected my then-new girlfriend to refuse to kiss me. Instead, she took great offense at the idea that I had been using bottled water on my toothbrush, as if Brazil were some disgusting, third-world mud hole.

“But my doctor told me to,” I said.

“I don’t wanna to meet your doctor!” she replied, incensed.

But when you do finally get that terrible, cramping, crippling case of diarrhea, just view it as a rite of passage and let it pass, so to speak. After three days of eating only fiber and bananas, I found myself making my most strenuous attempts yet at Portuguese, as I tried desperately to schedule appointments at area doctors’ offices, none of which had anything open in the next week or two. With a little internet research, though, I learned that about half the people who travel to South America from the U.S., Canada and Western Europe endure this little unpleasantry sometime in the first month. It’s a sort of brutal, three- to seven-day inoculation.

Do not, however, allude to your malady in Portuguese class, or your teacher may make it a topic of discussion, in order to teach words like “barriga” (belly), as opposed to “estómago” (stomach). The Brazilian sense of propriety does not always line up with that of us northerners, and a general rule is that they are quite comfortable with anything to do with their bodies. Fortunately, I have a sense of humor.

And yes, it’s safe to go out after dark. The days were short when I arrived, late in the Brazilian autumn, and I needlessly lived like a hermit for the first week or so. Most of the danger stories you hear in the U.S. are greatly exaggerated.

To discover what’s safe and what’s not, watch what the locals do; don’t listen to what they say. Cariocas tend to exaggerate danger as much as they exaggerate anything else. When I once mentioned in my Portuguese class that a classmate and I were thinking of attending a boat party that evening, the teacher became alarmed, saying the ocean was very choppy that day and the boat might capsize. I looked at her incredulously, asking if it was a regular occurrence around there to have hundreds of partygoers cast into the ocean. No, she said. But it could happen.

A girl who was taking Portuguese classes from the landlady in a house where I lived in Santa Teresa once complained to me that she was having trouble deciding where to move because everyone in Copacabana said Santa Teresa was dangerous, while everyone in Santa Teresa said Copacabana was dangerous. The bottom line is that any Carioca will tell you, in all sincerity, that everywhere they don’t regularly go and anything they don’t regularly do is very dangerous and should be avoided. Their neighborhoods and daily routines, on the other hand, are quite safe. If they live in or around a favela run by drug traffickers, they’ll tell you how thankful they are that brutally enforced gang law grants them a security that can’t be found in Ipanema.

They’re all both right and wrong, of course. One has to be wary in any neighborhood at any time of day. One of my English students, a surgeon, canceled class one day because he had just been robbed in front of his home in Barra da Tijuca, the land of gated communities without a slum or favela in sight. But no place is a lions’ den where one is sure to be robbed and savagely mauled upon entry. Generally, if normal, middle class-looking people go there, it’s safe enough.

And while we’re talking danger … beware the Brazilian women that inspired my cab driver with such ardor. For one thing, they tend to be demanding, territorial and jealous. Or they may milk you for free drinks, blatantly and drunkenly coming onto you at Shenanigan’s Irish Pub, offering to let you buy them a beer and then stumbling off, slurring, “I’m so sorry, I just can’t do this. I just can’t take it.” Yes, this happened to me.

“Take what?” I asked, intrigued.

“This! All of this!”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s a lot to take.”

Even more dangerous, though, is the fact that many of them are not only beautiful, but also charming, fun, daring and engaging. I went to the country expecting to sample the local beauty and return unattached. Within less than two months, I was thoroughly ensnared, and here I am now trying to navigate the difficulties of a long-distance relationship.

But they’re perils I’m happy to have encountered. 

 The Brazilian woman may be the most perilous of Rio’s many dangers.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rio Police Work Not Always Guns and Glory

Rio’s various police forces have been in the news a lot lately, as they take over one favela after another to clear the way for the sports tourists that will come with the World Cup and the Olympics. Saturday, for example, the elite BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) conducted another in a series of operations in the Mangueiras favela in the city’s North Zone, with only two people injured this time. (And yes, that badass logo that looks like something from the M.A.S.K. cartoon series is official.)

These guys are famous for daring, military-style raids on heavily armed drug traffickers. But my one experience with Rio police involved warfare of a much more psychological nature.

On a Sunday night about a month into my stay, I dropped into a police station to report that I had been robbed of my wallet. My girlfriend and I had only been dating for a week or so, but she was nice enough to come along to act as translator on what turned out not to be our most romantic date. However, we were sent to the tourist police station in Leblon, where the officers speak English.

The cop who handed me my paperwork introduced himself as a detective, but he looked like he should have been playing piano in some dive bar downtown. His uniform consisted of fitted jeans, Italian leather shoes and a button-down shirt with an outsized collar and the top several buttons left open to expose chest hair and a couple of gold necklaces. In fact, with his unshaven jaw and his hair styled to a three-inch altitude, he bore a strong resemblance to a younger Tom Waits.

I filled out my personal information and a brief account of events. The incident had occurred the previous Friday night, just after I left a club in Lapa with a group of friends from the school where we all took Portuguese classes. While the rest wandered across the street to the food and drink stands, I stopped to wait for a friend of ours to use one of the port-a-johns that line the sidewalk in the vicinity of the Lapa street party, which takes place every weekend night of the year and is such a spectacular sight that it merits a post of its own. 

As I was in full sight of about a million potential witnesses, it didn’t occur to me that I might be in danger, even when an arm put me in a headlock from behind. My first assumption was that it was one of my friends. (Yes, that’s the kind of friends I’m accustomed to.) But the arm tightened so I couldn’t call out, and suddenly I was horizontal, with two more guys holding my feet and a fourth one patting me down. At this point it became pretty clear what was happening, and I started struggling, but a second later I was on the sidewalk, and by the time I got to my feet, my assailants had vanished into the crowd with my wallet. The whole affair took less than five seconds and was executed as gently as it was professionally.

Even in those early days, I knew not to go out with my debit card and both credit cards in my wallet and then pick up $R 300 on my way to town. But I had just changed my location and had forgotten that I’d put all my cards in the wallet to keep them together during the move. So I faced some inconveniences over the next month or two.

As I noted in the last post, major changes have been made in the Lapa scene since my incident, making it much safer.

At the police station, I finished detailing the contents of my wallet and handed back the sheet of paper, thinking I was done there. This was like thinking a Brazilian party is over after the first band wraps up. That baby's going until the sun is bright. The detective told me to wait and passed the form to his only colleague at the station, who was also in full uniform, down to the prominently displayed gold necklaces and chest hair. This guy, who looked like he might have aged out of the Jersey Shore cast, set about entering my information into a computer. But his heart wasn’t really in it. After every 60 seconds or so of work, he seemed to need to rest his English skills by joking around for five or 10 minutes with the detective, who, for his part, appeared to have no case load whatsoever. When the humor reached a certain pitch, the data entry officer would forget the computer altogether, leaning back with his hands behind his head, laughing and chattering with abandon.

At this time, I understood Portuguese as spoken by the natives about as well as I understood Urdu, so I could only imagine that they were discussing the foibles and existential ironies of tourist-related crime. “What the hell are they talking about?” I kept asking Renata. But she was never big on the translator role and would only inform me that they were “just saying bullsh*ts.” Things went on in this way, right in front of us, for almost an hour, with me looking on angrily and deliberately, but the officers ignored us so expertly that they never noticed my baleful looks.

Suddenly, events took a dramatic turn. Deputy Data Entry looked into another room, leapt from his chair with a shout, and was out of sight at once. The detective followed, both of them talking excitedly.

“Now what?” I asked Renata. She informed me that there was apparently a mouse loose in the station, and Rio’s finest were hot on its tail. They couldn’t quite capture the furry fugitive, although I don’t doubt that there were some harrowing close calls. Each time they desisted, the daring perpetrator would reappear a few minutes later, prompting another hot pursuit.

At length, I decided I’d had enough and walked up to the counter that separated us, asking, “Uh, is there anything else I need to do here?” The detective told me to keep waiting, that it would just be a few more minutes, that these things take time. The effect of my impatient questioning was that all humor efforts were redoubled.

When the detective finally handed me a printout, after almost two hours of police work, I signed it without reading it, regretting my decision to ever come to the station. If I’d had doubts about the crime being solved, they were now confirmed. And reporters have to ask why only 4,000 of Brazil’s annual 50,000 murders are solved?

One day, I’ll write about some of my more positive experiences in Rio. The thing is, these lack a certain narrative and entertainment value that tribulation and misadventure lend themselves to more easily. (To wit: “We spent the day lying in the sun on a beautiful beach. It was packed with beautiful, quasi-naked people, and I was chastised for looking at them. The end.”) 

Rio’s Public Enemy No. 1 slips through the hands of authorities yet again.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Will World Cup, Olympics in Rio Really Be 'Deadly Games?'

No offense to my sportswriter friends, but this is what can happen when someone who makes a living by elevating games into earth-shaking events tries his hand at writing hard news.  

An online story posted by ESPN last week relating violence in Rio’s favelas to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 summer Olympics has drawn some international attention and upset the Marvelous City’s fragile self-image. The piece was reported in the Brazilian media and picked up by the Huffington Post, various Brazilian web sites and innumerable silly blogs like this one. 

However, while the report is very scary, it actually has little to do with the sporting events in question.

I wanted to do a humorously overstated imitation of the article’s dramatic, Dirty Harry-style narration, but the tone of a story ominously headlined “Deadly Games,” beginning with the sentence, “A white cross rising above the Macacos slum marks the spot where people are burned alive,” and carrying on with lines like, “The police come in behind a protective curtain of bullets” becomes difficult to parody. I’ll try anyway: “Come for the Olympics. Stay because you and your family are lead-ridden corpses feeding rats in the gutter.”

There’s a tendency among sportswriters to use hyperbole, colorful language and breathless narration to juice up stories that might otherwise read, “Yet again, the ball went back and forth until somebody won.” But it isn’t always necessary or appropriate for actual news reports to be turned into Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks.

I don’t question the truth of the report, which centers around urban warfare between rival gangs and police in a favela near Maracanã Stadium, where at least the closing game of the Cup will be held. Yes, Rio’s favelas occasionally erupt into war zones, with police and drug traffickers blasting away at each other with automatic weapons. Yes, some gangs have a penchant for burning snitches alive. And, judging from his account, the author would almost have us believe he even convinced (or paid) police to hand him a machine gun and let him take part in a raid for the story:

“The world shrinks to the metal in your hands. Firing a rifle brings you back into contact with yourself: You feel the kick of the stock, hear the bang of the hammer, smell the powder, taste the cordite, see the dense, white smoke and the glimmer of sun off the ejecting cartridge.”

What was your kill count, Wright?

But the real issue here is that the reporter, with his nose for action, instinctively picked out the most dramatic story, not the one most relevant to the The Games. While this sort of violence is a very real problem for Rio and for Brazil, it is not your problem as a sports tourist.

Your problem is that hungry little kid on the sidewalk of Avenida Atlântica, whose parents taught him to spot gringos and who is eyeing your Gucci handbag while you’re getting sunburned on Copacabana beach, obliviously sipping a caipirinha. And the gang of professional robbers who waited until I was alone in the crowd of the Lapa street party, picked me up from behind, relieved me of my wallet, dropped me on the sidewalk and vanished before I had time to react. (To be fair, the city has since made major changes to the Lapa scene, including a heightened police presence. Do not miss it while you’re there.) And the ever-present street people who will, sometimes aggressively, hound you for change, try to polish your boots and try to sell you their handicrafts. None of these folks are particularly dangerous to your physical person (although a beggar did once whip a 10-centavo piece at my temple when I declined to make a donation), but they can screw up your vacation.

Basic transportation may also be a real problem. See this excellent piece that an actual news outlet ran in late March. While it focuses primarily on São Paulo, the story illustrates the breathtaking levels of corruption, incompetence and bureaucracy that stand in the way of the massive infrastructure improvements necessary to accommodate the influx of visitors.

Gang violence, on the other hand, is contained in the favelas, with rare exceptions. You probably won’t be in the favelas, unless you pay for a tour. And, while they permeate the city, most of the favelas around tourist areas have been or will be taken under police control by the time the Cup takes place. While Rio’s sporadic urban warfare is astounding to us northerners and makes for cool movies and attention-grabbing headlines, its only relevance to The Games is the image problem it creates.

The “Deadly Games” report acknowledges early on that it's “possible to live a middle-class life without the violence of the slums affecting one's daily existence.” OK, so what’s the point of spending another 2,000 words on it in the context of middle-class tourists?

Some might be thinking, “Professional robbers? Cops with machine guns? I think I’ll stay home and watch it on television.” WRONG. The correct response is to remember that adventure is defined by a certain amount of risk. Despite a couple of incidents, I never regretted my decision to go to Rio. But leave a credit card and a debit card back in the hotel room, just in case. 

The real threat to your Olympics vacation. Just give him a real and move on. Unless he’s in a group, in which case, just move on.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rock in Rio: Forget the Lineup, How about Those Lines?

In anticipation of this year’s Rock in Rio concert, Cariocas, as Rio natives are known, are exercising one of their most remarkable talents—the ability to wait patiently in endless lines. Tickets went on sale yesterday, and would-be concert goers are camping out by the tens of thousands to get their hands on them. Not surprisingly, there have been reports of “confusion” at some points of sale. There have even been some rumblings of discontent.

From my experience in Rio, it’s not the length of the lines that makes you want to bash the cashier’s head against that of the little old lady who’s digging around for change, but the demoralizing, almost imperceptible speed at which they move. When you’ve been standing in the “express” line at the grocery store for 15 minutes and only two people have paid, you start to give up hope.

There are a few reasons for this phenomenon.

The biggest is that, almost to a person, attendants do their jobs as if they’ve been shot in the neck with horse tranquilizer. They do not feign interest in their work. What would be the point? We all know it’s a crappy job, their pay is equivalent to an American teenager’s allowance, so why pretend?

Then there’s the matter of change. They don’t have any. Ever. I don’t mean they don’t have change for a $R 50. They don’t have change for a $R 5. From what I could tell, cashiers start their shifts with an empty drawer and rely on customers to fill it. When that doesn’t work out, they have to call the money holder. This is the only person who has cash, and it’s his or her job to dispense it to the cashiers, but only as much as they absolutely need for a given transaction. Of course, they’re always wanted in several places at once, so your cashier will have to wait a while. I’ve heard it put forward that this system is used in case of robbery, but when you have someone wandering around with a fat stack of bills in plain view, the explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The salt in the wound, though, is that when cashiers have a little change, they don’t want yours. Your total comes to $R 8.25, so you hand over $R 10.25. The cashier hands you back the 25 centavos and then gives you your change for the ten. And you know beyond a doubt that five minutes later, the line will stop while the cashier waits for 25 centavos to be brought over and rolls her eyes like the delay is the money holder’s fault.

So it’s faster to just use a credit card, right? Wrong. If the store even takes credit, this usually requires the cashier to fill out some sort of paper work. A debit card is your best bet.

And that one really short line? It’s probably not for you. One source of line-related confusion for gringos is the “preferential” line for the elderly, the pregnant, the obese, the one-legged, etc. (Yes, the obese get special treatment in Brazil, although nothing is designed with them in mind.) Shortly after my arrival in town, I was awaiting my turn to pay at a Zona Sul supermarket in Ipanema, when a woman who fell into at least two “preferential” categories came up behind me and asked if I was in line. I was baffled. What the hell did it look like I was doing? I nodded and she made a little face. Several minutes later, I was still standing in the same place when I noticed that the whole time, there had been a sign next to me saying this line was for old folks. The lady behind me saw the realization dawn on me and kindly told me to stay, but I was mortified and went and found another line to spend the afternoon in.

Apparently, the “preferential” arrangement doesn’t always work out, as, according to the O Globo story, the old-timers and preggers in one of these lines for concert tickets had to wait an hour before the first of them were served. The article doesn’t specify what sort of “complications” or “confusion” caused the wait, but this sort of thing is never surprising.

The complications are often completely unnecessary. For example, in my second week or so in the city, I was making a purchase of a couple of ballpoint pens, and when I approached the register, I was redirected to another guy across the shop. So I tried to pay him, but he declined, scribbled my total—something like $R 1.50—on a slip of paper and sent me back to the register, where I was finally allowed to pay, only after I handed over the scribble. I figured the scribbler must just be the owner’s brother, but this kind of thing is way more common than any reasonable person would expect.

At home, I’m known as a patient individual. But I noticed time and again that, while I was standing there with my two items, fidgeting, sighing loudly, running my hand over my face, staring daggers at the cashier, fantasizing about burning the place down, the people around me were completely zen. Spending a third of their waking lives standing in line is just something they’ve come to accept. Or if not, they just cut ahead of you, pretending not to have noticed the rest of the line.

This is why I had to laugh when I saw the guy quoted toward the end of the story, saying folks who had been in line for a good 24 hours were surprised at the number of people who had mysteriously appeared in front of them, especially, one can assume, while they were sleeping last night. How can a Brazilian be surprised at anything, other than a person who’s always on time?

Speaking of punctuality, yes, this is a work week, and yes, there were 16,000 people camped out at just one of the three ticket-sale locations. This brings us to one key to the Carioca’s superhuman line-waiting ability: For most of them, work is just something you do between celebrations. They’re not in a hurry. They take great offense at this characterization, especially when it’s perpetuated by their neighbors in São Paulo. But there they are, in droves, camped out indefinitely while their bosses hope they get over that flu they woke up with yesterday morning and the attendants in the ticket booths wait for change and scribble on paper. To be fair, there are probably plenty of Paulistas among them, learning from the masters.

                                                I believe this is the line to get in line.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Police Try to Close Freakshow

I know there are more important things going on—for example, apparently, a mini-tsunami has drowned several and thrown sea and sand all over Rio's coastal areas—but I couldn’t resist this item that hits so close to my former home: I’m almost sad to know that police rounded up 52 homeless people and crack heads in Glória and Largo do Machado this morning. 

My girlfriend and I lived in an apartment in Glória for a month, and the metro station there was the closest one to the house in Santa Teresa where I spent three months, so I took many morning coffees at Mr. Chan’s and often paid too much for groceries at the MercaDez. As we got to know the area, we came to affectionately refer to the road that runs from Lapa through Largo do Machado—officially, Rua da Lapa, Rua da Glória and Rua do Catete—as the Freakshow Corridor. I don’t want to be insensitive to poverty, drug addiction and deformity, but when you live with this sort of thing month after month, you kind of come to terms with it. And boy, did we live with it. 

For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the homeless, addicted, demented and misshapen are drawn to that stretch of road like a mental patient is to sharp objects. In Lapa and Catete, the homeless sell random items they’ve salvaged from the trash and cleaned off, often at bargain prices. Lost a single shoe? You might be able to find it sitting lonely on a blanket on the sidewalk in Catete. While you’re there, you can pick up a naked Barbie doll for the kid and a greasy wig for the missus. 

The cast of characters, of course, had its stars. There was the guy who could often be seen talking urgently to the piles of trash that were heaped on the roadside for pickup. (Maybe he fancied himself an environmentalist?) And the one who always wore the detachable hood from a winter jacket, regardless of the heat. (Keeping the government from reading his mind, no doubt.) 

But the real star was a guy who looked to be in his late-30s and who strutted up and down the way in ill-fitted women’s clothing, face sloppily caked with makeup, snarling threateningly and constantly at passers-by. Try as I might, I could never come up with a possible explanation for this one. Transvestites are a dime a dozen in Rio (actually, I never checked the prices), but most of them are at least girlish enough that they don’t appear to want to bite your face off. Things took a scary turn when, sometime in November, she found a metal cane which she carried from then on, banging it on the sidewalk and swinging it menacingly as she rasped curses at anyone in earshot. I certainly hope she wasn’t rounded up today. People like this are too exotically weird and rare to be thrown in cages. 

Even many of the “normal” folks who walk the Corridor look like figures from an R. Crumb cartoon, twisted into caricatures by age, hardship or constant exposure the Weird. 

The most incredible sight I saw in the area was when I rounded the corner onto Rua da Glória one night to find that a family had pulled a sofa up against the stairs to the Metro station and was carrying on as if they were in their living room. As people passed on the bustling sidewalk, the man sat on the couch looking dazed while a toddler joyfully beat him about the head and shoulders, and the woman yelled at the two children who were wrestling on the sidewalk. You can’t buy this kind of sight. 

And now the police are trying to take all that away. According to O Globo, today’s round-up was the beginning of a campaign that will see police conducting sweeps in the area twice a month, into the indefinite future. Hopefully, some of the folks who are taken in will get the help they need, but my guess is that most of them will be turned loose to bring personality to some other neighborhood. Or will they be drawn back, again and again, by that mysterious attraction that the Corridor seems to hold over the minds of the deranged?

Just another day in Glória. Look, some of them appear to be Comlurb guys!

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Fairytale Setting

Once upon a time, a freelance baker, a British Hare Krishna and a graying, hirsute musician lived together in a neat, white-plaster, hillside home sandwiched between two lawless shantytowns in one of Rio de Janeiro's oldest neighborhoods. There, in their “fortress against the world,” as the baker called it, they eked out a peaceful existence amid pastel colors and bits of surrealist art, breathing an air of incense and the aroma of rising bread.

Then, my girlfriend and I moved in.

I had been living in Rio for almost four months, but now, I thought, the real story was starting—the perfect fairytale beginning. People and places, though, tend to lose their exotic qualities as you live with them. The Hare Krishna, for example, turned out to be a more-or-less normal guy, and my girlfriend never forgave him for it. 

“Krishna falsa,” she would say. “Real Hare Krishna doesn’t drink. He is not Krishna. Is just an excuse not to work, and I don’t like fake people.” This was the argument. The guy occasionally drank beer, and he slept with his girlfriend, making him a big phony.

“Renata, there’s nothing in the Krishna code forbidding work,” I would tell her. “Besides, he works.”

Like me, the Krishna, Kevin, survived by giving one-on-one lessons through the various English language schools that abound in Rio and thrive primarily on us visiting “native speakers,” whether we have papers or not. This is what any gringo does when he feels like a little prolonged globetrotting. Our language is our passport.

If you get enough students, the pay isn’t bad by Rio’s standards, but it’s poverty wages to an American, even one who just left the print journalism industry. Want of funds had driven us to this unlikely living situation, one that kept me on edge for all of our six-week stay, although we never had a problem in the neighborhood.

It wasn’t until after we had moved out that I learned that the two shantytowns, or favelas, on either side of us—Fallet and Coroa—were run by rival gangs, making our location potentially problematic. According to rumors, though, the Red Command and Friends of Friends, the city’s two biggest crime factions, were now working together in the face of increasing police encroachment. The police pacified both favelas a few months after we left.

Besides, I would ask Renata, why was normality acceptable for people who claimed adherence to the more popular religions, while those whose creeds hadn’t caught on quite as well were supposed to walk around in robes, chanting “Om?” Both of our countries were crawling with people who professed to a faith whose central character explicitly and repeatedly disparaged material wealth, and who yet spent their lives chasing the dollar, or the real, as the case may be. “You say you’re Catholic, and we’re not married, but that hasn’t kept me out of your pants,” I also pointed out.

But she would simply shrug and continue to make faces behind the Krishna’s back, as it remained so shamelessly clothed in synthetic blends rather than the pure, white cotton befitting holiness.

And she wasn’t alone. The baker, who had spent four years in London and went by the name of Wilson, once remarked to me, “Kevin says he’s a Hare Krishna, but he’s always talking about money.”

“Of course he talks about money,” I said. “He’s dirt poor like the rest of us.” I made the same appeal to reason I had proffered to my girlfriend and received the same mute, indifferent response.

And that’s Brazilians. Stubborn as hell. Any attempt to sway their opinions is like trying to move the Gavea Rock, and it probably won’t be accomplished through reason. An impassioned plea is your best bet. Have a tear in your eye. Metaphors and similes can also be effective.

In Brazilian Portuguese, the word for “discuss”—discutir—also means “to argue.” “Sensible” and “sensitive” are one and the same word. Brazilians are a likable people. On the whole, they’re exuberant, friendly and loyal. They know how to party better than anyone else in the world. But for most of them, feelings count for more than facts.

Suffice it to say that it was a rather complicated “discussion,” involving some misunderstanding between several parties, that resulted in us eventually being asked to find new living quarters, although my tardiness with the rent probably helped as well. We were glad enough to leave the favela, but we ended up in an even more problematic living situation.

Here's a view from atop the "fortress."