Brazilian Everyday-Life Stories (2014)

During the times I spend doing fieldwork in Rio, I have written side stories about everyday life peculiarities. My idea is to reflect on “normal things” that happen in the Brazil I used to live in.

Now I just arrived to Rio for the last fieldwork trip. So I decided to continue writing these notes. I had taken these notes in 2012 and 2013. This year’s notes are below.

28/05/14: after transfering trains from the diesel train (my hometown) to an electric train (in a place called Saracuruna), one sees lots of people selling all sorts of stuff in the wagons. One of the vendors today was selling pirate CDs. He used a portable microphone so he wouldn’t have to shout (the small loudspeaker hanged on his belt). He also carried a portable CD player so he could play samples of the songs in the CD he was selling. Then two women called him. They asked for the price of the CDs. They cost 2 reais (less than 1 euro). Then the women seemed to have asked how they could know the CD worked. The guy got one copy and started playing it for them. It worked fine. So the women bought one copy each. The guy went on trying to sell his stuff. The women seemed satisfied for getting those beautiful songs all compiled in one CD.

28/05/14: early in the morning I took the train to Rio. The train from my hometown is one of the old diesel ones. This one in particular was even older. One door wouldn´t shut. Neither would many of the windows. It had rained the night before so the aisle of the wagon I entered was all wet. I found a dry spot and sat down. That’s when I noticed the passengers coming after me. They all (about five people) had tissues and paper with them. They came in and started inspecting the seats. “This one is wet”, one said. “this one is wet and dirty”, another one checked. “Here!”, a third one shouted. Then they all sat facing each other and talking all the way to our final destination. All the time I was worried that my clothes would have been dirty because of my lack of experience in post-rain train trips from my hometown.

27/05/14: A friend and I were walking to home after having dinner with other friends to celebrate her son’s birthday. On the corner of our street, she noticed some water leaking through the asphalt. “Oh! It seems there is water on the pipes today. Gotta turn the water pump on”, she said. In my hometown, the shortage of clean water is common even though most people pay for the water fees. So just like my friend many people spend nights up believing that the water runs more properly through the night. I remember my dad doing it during my childhood. As I gathered from my friend, the problem remains.

27/05/14: I am not sure what kind of day he had had, but considering the way he drove I could have guessed. “Good evening”, I said. The grumpy driver didn’t even bother looking at me. My friend and I moved on into the bus. There were no seats available. So we took our position on the aisle holding on to one of the poles and finding ways not to rub our lower parts on the face of those who sat. “Did you miss the traffic in Rio?”, my friend asked and smiled. I smiled back holding tight while the driver challenged gravity every time he took a turn. In fact, it felt to me that the grumpy driver blamed us passengers for the awful day he seemed to be having. He speed and stop. We shook back and forth. Someone pushed the stop button: he stopped one stop away. Meanwhile, my friend and I tried to keep a conversation. He seemed calm and used to it. Me, I think my scared eyes showed my real feelings I so tried so hard to hide. Then the northbound bus got to an area with lots of traffic changes due to the city’s delayed preparations for the mega-events. The area looked like a Formula 1 track with lots of curves and sharp turns. The driver seemed to feel like a F1 driver. Imagine being in a F1 race in a crowded bus? We got to our stop (actually two stops ahead of our stop) safe. And I really hope the driver had a good night sleep and has a day off today. For his passengers’ sake. Then again, grumpy and crazy drivers seem to be everywhere in Rio. I guess it is up to us to get used to them.

26/05/14: it had been at least 15 years since I had been to a catholic mess the last time. On Saturday I had promised my godson and his sister I’d go with them. So I did. And it felt very nice. A lot of things have changed. First, the priest looked younger than I am. So he speaks “a language people understand”, some friends said later in comparison to the older priests of our younger days. There seemed to be more young people as well. Another thing that touched me a lot was the happiness some people I knew showed when they saw me there. “Congratulations for bringing him”, an uncle said to my godson. Another friend said she thanked a lot that I had been back. In fact, she had been happier before when we talked about the church on Saturday (24/05) and I praised it instead of criticizing it as I often used to do. “Do you believe in God?”, she asked. “I believe in love.” And being at the church made me feel happy for seeing so many people displaying love to the church and each other. “Let us pray now for Magé and its people. Let us pray that this violence ends”, the young priest said. I saw people nodding. At the “greet each other” moment there was something different too. Instead of shaking hands as we used to do when I was younger, the priest requested people to hug. As we hugged, I couldn’t stop smiling. Our bodies seemed to tell us how loving and caring in a way our mouths never say. The stressed minds with everything happening in the city seemed eased for the while our cheeks kissed. “I feel very good”, my uncle told me while caressing my head. “So should you”, he seemed to be saying. It was perhaps the first time ever that I realized deep inside why religion (more than the institutions) is so important to so many people. The church allows people to openly display love to unknown others in a way the hurried, stressing and violent everyday life rarely does. Being there seems to remind people that despite all the everyday evil, we still care for each other. It did feel very good.

21/05/14: Today I felt like shaving my head. Instead of doing it with my own hair cutting machine, I chose to go to the local barber shop in my parents’ neighborhood. I thought it is a nice place to chat. His costumers are often very funny and tell jokes about everything. But while I waited, we talked about the rise of crime in the city. Then one of the costumers said he was almost killed by mistake in February. “Some people thought I was someone else and opened fire. Over 30 shots!”, he said. The barber confirmed. “I saw my friends running and I ran. Then I just heard the shots”, he continued. We all looked shocked. Then he started laughing. “Have you ever seen a fat guy like me running? Man, how did I run like that? How did they confuse this fat face and big head of mine with the guy they were looking for?!”, he joked. We all laughed as we often do about everything including some serious things we can’t really control, prevent or stop from happening.

20/05/14: When the inbox signal in Facebook blinked this morning I took a look and saw someone hoping all was well with our friend. Then I saw a last name. Visualizing messages in my old mobile phone is horrible. I can never get the full message and it never ends loading. But I guessed something had happened to one of my childhood acquaintances who had become police officers. Since the late 1990’s I have seen friends and relatives joining the military police of Rio. Some felt it was a chance for a stable job. Others joined it for the thrill and the chance to save lives and fight crime. I never really liked that job much. For me, the pay is too low for the high risk. Also, I think there is very little institutional respect for the officers. As they all decided to join the force anyway, what is left for us outside is to respect their decision and live in fear, concern and hope they will be fine in the end of the day. But not this time. As I got to see all the messages, I found out an old childhood neighbor had been shot last night. Despite the serious wounds, he is as fine as possible now. In one piece of news, he was reported to have said to the taxi driver who rescued him: “hurry up because I want to live.” Luckily he will.

19/05/14: a good old friend had her birthday today so I went to hers to greet her. She lives in the center of my hometown. When I got there, she was on the phone. Some of the guests she invited were calling to say they would not be able to come to the party. “Maria said she is not coming. She is afraid after a guy was murdered on her street last night”, she explained. The phone rang again. “My in-laws are not coming because there is a shooting in their neighborhood”, she explained. This neighborhood is one street away from where my mother grew up. Lots of my relatives and close friends (including my friend’s in-laws) live there. I got worried. Then, we heard a motorcycle park outside. An old friend of ours came despite the shooting in her neighborhood. She is a teacher there. For being a local teacher she is known and somewhat respected. She arrived, greeted everyone and explained the shooting situation. Then someone asked if she is in danger for working close to where the shooting was happening. “The problem is that there are some strange people around. I used to know the guys. They all used to be my students. But now my former students are all in jail. These ones are new and no one knows them”, she explained. Soon after that we had dinner and sang happy birthday. Even sooner, the guests started to leave. “I need to get back before 10 so I won’t have problems to get home”, one guest said while hugging the host before rushing outside.

19/05/14: This weekend I talked a lot to some guys I know who are police officers. As it often happens when they are together, they talked a lot about their work. As the World Cup approaches, the hottest topic seems to be the “pacification” process. All the officers I know say it is a make-up program that is doomed to fail. They are also annoyed by having days-off cancelled so they work as back-up in pacifying police units. I guess the only thing that prevents them from rebelling against Rio state’s government is their sense of pride and honor for being part of the force. They seems to have a sense of heroism when they frame their work as a war against the bandidagem (criminals). But I wonder how long this will last before low-salaried officers in a super-dangerous job challenge their bosses.

18/05/14: this morning I decided to run as part of my practice for a marathon in August. So I thought of going from my parents’ house to a district called Andorinhas. Andorinhas is a small village by the mountains with lots of waterfalls and rivers. As I ran the 16 km up towards the mountains, I started remembering the best my hometown has to offer. The air was fresh and the streets were quiet. Soon, the forest and the farms would take over the small tree-less buildings common in the center. As I approached Andorinhas, I could smell the fresh breeze. People would slowly take the streets to buy fresh bread and have small talks on the way. All the people greeted me as I ran by. “Go on, athlete!”, one cheered. Others smiled. A while later, I reached my goal: Tamanqueiro. Tamanqueiro is a natural pool of clear waters that is very popular and crowded in the summer. But the fresh breeze of the autumn scare locals from the rivers. I was there alone. From the distance, I noticed something on the water. “Oh, no. The water is dirty…”, I thought. But I was wrong. The things on the water were flowers and tree leaves. I took off my running shoes and the t-shirt and swam. It felt so good. Not only because of the refreshing water. Lately, all I hear from Finland about my hometown is how abandoned it is and how violent it is getting. The violence is indeed a problem. But hearing about the bad things we do as people makes me forget of how nice and beautiful the city can be. And how kind the population can also be. Running and swimming felt good for reminding me that not all is lost in Magé.

18/05/14: After I wrote about safety in Rio being concentrated in the better-off areas of Zona Sul and Centro, I started wondering: “does it mean all other areas are unsafe? What does ‘safety’ mean?” To me it seems that Zona Sul and Centro have a higher degree of safety that all of us want. For example, it is possible to walk around without feeling threatened or in danger (at least for me as a black Brazilian used to the place). But in other areas of the city, this perception of safety can sound like a utopia. So people redefine safety according to the context where they live. I went to Maré yesterday. Maré is a favela that has been occupied by the army before receiving the “pacification” program. As a local friend and I walked close to her street, her brother greeted her and said: “Cuidado…” (something like “watch out…”). Later, I asked why he warned her. Her answer indicated that the presence of the army makes them feel unsafe. She explained that now shootings are really hard to notice or predict. There is also more silence, which means something is wrong or about to happen. What I gathered then was that my friend felt safer in the favela when the police or the army were not around. Not that drug gangs are good, but that for those living there the moments of hell most often come when there is conflict. Violent and unpredictable conflicts are highly associated with the presence of the police or the army in the favela. In addition, the history of police violence makes Maré dwellers like my friend not to trust the institution. This is what I mean that people in different contexts understand safety differently. As Rio makes efforts to become a safer city, it does so by not taking into consideration that the feeling of safety by reducing criminality in one region (say Zona Sul and Centro) may as well increase the feeling of fear and the absence of safety in other regions (like Maré).

17/04/14: People often ask me if it is safe to visit and be in Rio. As my stay in Zona Sul (a middle and upper class region) continued, I can easily say yes (of course, watching out for pickpockets as one should in all big cities like Rio). It is safe to be in the Rio most tourists stay when they are here. The only time people go through the most troubled areas of Zona Norte is when they cross the city from the international airport towards Zona Sul. I stayed and walked around Zona Sul (Urca and Laranjeiras) and Centro (the center) in the past two days at daytime. It really felt peaceful. In some occasions, I saw some tourists (foreign-looking) sitting around corners or checking maps without seeming distressed by the surroundings. Locals also looked cheerful. The regular morning cheerfulness cariocas often display: the young talk and smile as they walk to work; the elderly sit at squares like Largo do Machado calmly playing checkers; kids walk to schools regularly… walking around Zona Sul and Centro (mainly Cinelândia) actually made me feel being in one of those posters of the Brazilian tourism bureau: all sunny, all happy, all beautiful. So yes, it is safe to come if you stay in the areas where the city administration has so carefully cleared from street dwellers; it is safe to be in the areas which mostly seem to have benefited from the strategic “pacification” of favelas surrounding touristic areas. Welcome to the Rio in which city and state officials want you to stay. Just remember: expanding your journey here to include anything northbound beyond Avenida Presidente Vargas (a central road that seems to divide the shiny middle-, upper-class white collar quarters from the dark and dirty low-income blue collar quarters) is at your own risk. So, stick to the neighborhoods in the posters and flyers you had access to in your home country and you will probably feel fine.

16/05/14: Yesterday, I spent the night in heaven on Rio: Urca. The place is surreal. Sitting around the Sugar Loaf mountain, Urca is like a small village in the center of Rio. Looking from a fifth-floor apartment where some friends are living, I could see a very green and quiet neighborhood. Under the window there lies what is left of the first swimming pool in Brazil where a colony of fishermen now rests the boats after the journeys in the Guanabara Bay. A not so careful look would easily spot marine turtles swimming in the dark waters of the bay. The place is so out of this world that even the noise coming from the neighbor is different from the ordinary noise of commercial radio stations. As I worked on my fieldnotes, the tunes of someone practicing the piano took over the room. Later the day, I stared at the bay to see some cheerful youngsters romantically jumping off a small bridge into the waters laughing and enjoying a warm and sunny autumn afternoon. I kept wondering, as the dream-like experience went on, how great it would be to live in Urca. At the same time, I realized that staying in Urca can also have an impact on how I see the things around. Suddenly I saw myself forgetting about all social inequality, violence and distress that happens out there five minutes away from where I stood. In fact I had also forgotten that Urca is extremely expensive to live in. It is also surrounded by a headquarter of the Brazilian Air Force (would it be so quiet otherwise?). Soon, I realized half of the day had gone by as I went on daydreaming under sunshine, smelling the breeze from the bay and listening to the birds. Urca is wonderful, but it is also a powerful distraction for a social scientist interested in understanding the dynamics of the highly complex city outside Urca, the place my friend living there for a while referred to as the bubble.

14/05/2014: This is a weird feeling. I can’t see the World Cup anywhere other than the advertising ads and the media pro-Brasil campaigns. The times of World Cup used to be great back then. We used to leave school and start planning how to decorate the street. Then, we would create a toll fee system on the street with a rope to collect some money to buy green and yellow paper and paint. Chidren, youngsters and adults together would make the street beautiful to support the Brazilian team. Some cities would have a competition to find out the most beautifully decorated city. Apparently, not this year. The streets remain as they used to be. People mainly talk about the World Cup relating it to corruption, high costs and distress. The different labor categories which have increasingly been going on strike use the World Cup as a justification for their demands (if so much money can be put to a mega-event, so we can get better wages as well). People have even complained of the amount of days-off because of the World Cup. In the favelas I have been to, there was nothing other than the regular everyday routines either. The legacy is nowhere to be seen either. The roads that connect the North (working class) to South (middle and upper class) regions remain bumpy, buses remain crowded, many new roads and other kinds of development remain under construction. All feels strange. I don’t doubt people will support the national team during the games in a month from now. But the traditional and organic build-up to the events is nowhere to be seen. The excitement is nowhere to be felt. On the media, it all feels so phony. So detached from reality. I don’t know. It is a strange feeling.

13/05/2014: as we drove through my hometown Magé on the way from the airport, we passed by Mageense FC. Mageense is a club where most low-income local youth gather to party, date and have fun. I used to go there a lot with my friends. So I thought it was cool to see it has just reopened for parties. “Maybe I will go check it out these days”, I thought. About 1 hour later at home, my family and close friends were having a welcome pizza when my sister saw on Facebook that someone had just been stabbed to death next to Mageense. As a reaction, those in the room who had a mobile phone searched for information online. Apparently, there was a picture of the dead body circulating in WhatsApp. As no one found further information, we briefly grieved and kept talking about the trip. The next day, a 15 year-old cousin stopped by saying she was next to Mageense when the stabbing happened. “When I saw the fuzz I ran away”, she said. Then we all asked what had happened. She told us (apparently a young guy killed a 17 year-old out of jealousy). “Someone sent the photo of the body here in WhatsApp. Look!”, my cousin said as she passed the phone along. We looked. “There is one of him alive as well. Hold on… look!”, she continued. We looked. Mom said he was the grandson of a church friend of theirs. We grieved for a while and then continued talking about my cousin’s school habits. Then I thought of Mageense again. Maybe I will not stop by there after all.

12/05/2014: the first breakfast had the usual background soundtrack of the morning catholic prayer on the radio. Mom always listens to the catholic station while she makes the coffee. As I listened to the broadcast, the prayers ended and a talk show started. Its called “Up-to-date with the news.” In today’s program, the host (a priest), two commentators and a guest talked about citizens’ participation in everyday life politics. The guest explained about an online platform her organization came up with to create awareness about the importance of citizen participation in society. Soon the discussion shifted to education. The commentator said how important it is that people participate in matters like school development discussions, for example. The priest-host said: “see the World Cup: it is beautiful to see so many people on the streets. But why don’t we do the same for better-quality education?” The second commentator said how important it is that actions are done for the development of people and communities so that they learn to become the main actors in promoting their own development. As a rebel teenager, I used to think these programs were mere Christian brainwashing. As I grew, I realized they were very important faith-and-culture moments for people like my mom. Now as a researcher, I feel happy to see that the church’s radio station has such a program in the morning when most people listen to it. Mom was not paying much attention to it. But the message of citizen participation is there resonating in households of working class people. I sipped my hot chocolate, smiled and thought: “Amen!” before going on with the unpacking.