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."

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