CHRIS VINE: Notes from Brazil

“Where are you from? England? But isn’t it better there?”

I write this on holiday in an exotic location in the Brazilian Highlands, surrounded by quartzite mountains, in a small village that has no traffic noise with cattle and horses wandering freely in the streets. However, I live in young city of tower blocks (80 years old) located in what I often like to call the Agri-desert.

But first, let’s explode the myth of a cultural melting pot (I believe that means little brown people jumping about in gay abandon), beaches, bikinis, “The Land Of Samba” and the Amazon. Brazil is not simply an Ipanema beach fantasy for sun starved Europeans; in fact, contrary to that dream, it has a very conservative culture.

The big question that everyone, Brazilians included, asks is: “why don’t things work properly here?” The cities appear to be modern, covered with high rise buildings (they do love their concrete here) and lots of new cars but behind this there is an incredible chaos in public services, particularly in public education and healthcare. Inequality, racism or more accurately, a caste system exist in the society where mixed race and darker skinned people are, in general, are lower in the food chain.

Equal in land area to the USA minus Alaska, Brazil is a huge country that, apart from the Amazon and the coastal strip is practically unknown to foreigners.”The Interior” represents all of Brazil apart from the narrow coastal strip, and is in many ways, culturally and geographically cut off from the rest of the world as we Northern Hemisphererians think of it. Many friends here refer to the city I live in, with its population of 500,000, as a “big farm with lights”. So if you think about Brazil, you have to think: provincial. Historically, Brazil and the rest of Latin America developed in a completely different format to the colonization of North America. The Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish on the rest of the continent came with the express purpose of extracting the wealth of the land and exporting it back to Europe. This was accompanied by the enslavement of the indigenous inhabitants and then later the importation of African slaves to farm the plantations and work in the gold mines. The two tiered society continues today in Brazil, where the old landowner families still control most of the wealth, and along with the middle class, live behind high walls, barbed wire, electric fences and security guards in gated communities or apartment buildings. One of the first things that you notice are these security measures, even in modest middle class neighbourhoods. Then there are the dogs. All house dwellers tend to have dogs for security, so every neighbourhood has a chorus of dogs barking throughout the day when pedestrians or animals pass in front of the houses.

The southern and south-eastern regions of the country are the wealthiest and most industrious, the arid northeast, the poorest. Apart from the NE and most of the Amazon, the country is basically a giant agribusiness machine. Cattle, Soya, Wheat, Corn and Sugar Cane being the main crops. Not surprisingly, Brazilian Country music, called Sertaneja, is the most popular form of music and it has absolutely nothing to do with the coastal Samba or Bossa Nova that fill the tropical dreams of estrangeiros (foreigners). All the large cities are surrounded by slums and shanty towns, “The Periphery”, populated by migrants from the poorer rural regions in search of better living conditions. As one political pundit has pointed out, it is similar to the relocation of the poor during the European industrial revolution. The most famous slums encircle Rio De Janeiro , climbing up the steep mountainsides of the city, contributing to the effect of a social pressure cooker.

Corruption is endemic, and all politicians are distrusted, as scandal after scandal is exposed in the media. However, scandals aside, the PT (worker’s party) government that has been in power since 2002 has at least created a basic system of welfare support for the poorer families, much to the chagrin of the middle class and ruling elite, who would prefer to maintain their comfortable lifestyles with maids, housecleaners, nannies and gardeners who work for a minimum wage of £200 per month.   2014 is an election year (as well as the debacle of the World Cup) so the media assault on the current Government is in full swing. To show how there is a surplus of labour, when travelling by car, advance warning of road works is usually a man standing by the roadside with a red flag – much cheaper than having an automated system!

Actually, often the excuse is that there is no money available – even though Brazil is one of the most highly taxed nations. There’s LOTS of money here but the general opinion is that it goes into backhanders. It must go somewhere……

The bureaucracy is Soviet in its scope and import duty is so high that imported goods are twice the UK price, leading to the expression “I am poor, so I shop in Miami.” The general opinion is that the USA and Europe (i.e. London) are better and more cultured places, however, Brazilians tend to become extremely patriotic if you even begin to criticize their country.

Drivers do not put petrol in their cars as there is a petrol station attendant for that, plus the others who check your oil and water or wash your windscreen. The first time my wife was driving in the UK, she waited for a while on the forecourt for the attendant until another driver figured out she was not from the UK and explained that in the UK the only person working at the petrol station is at the cash register. I have to admit, for all my criticism of the reasons for the Brazilian system, I do actually prefer it because you get to interact with a (usually friendly and polite) human.

The gentle nature of the people, except when behind a steering wheel, is always a pleasant surprise. I had to get a car battery replaced late one Friday afternoon and the man only took cash, which I didn’t have on me, “No problem, come back and pay next week”, without taking any of my details. Another time, I went to the Federal Police Immigration Dept. to get an extension on my tourist visa. The officer inspected my passport and realized that I had been let into the country by mistake three months earlier because I had, in fact, used up my annual six month permission to enter Brazil as a tourist. “But, hey, you’re here.” So he stamped the passport for another three months. I ran into the guy some time later at a gallery opening, after he had retired, and asked him about this to which he replied: “Well, I could see you were an OK person and not a problem.”

The food: the fruit and the meat are fantastic, although there is much less choice in the supermarkets than in the UK, and it is hard being a vegetarian, never mind vegan, if you eat out. “You don’t eat meat? What on earth is wrong with you?”, being the shocked refrain.

The fact that you can drive through a red traffic light if no-one is around, especially at night, is also a delight. I was surprised to discover that there actually are traffic rules when I saw an information video at the local DVLA office. “Oh yes, we do have traffic regulations, it’s just that most people ignore them”. Police are thin on the ground, especially traffic police. On the highways, there are basically no patrol cars, only strategically placed police stations where motorists have to slow down to 20km per hour and pull over, if required, for a document check, which feels like a hangover from the days of the military dictatorship. However, I must admit that I have been fined for overtaking on a double line, not wearing a seatbelt, speeding through a radar check etc but it all seems pretty random. Another Englishman here is convinced he can bribe a traffic cop, as in “Isn’t there some kind of fine I can pay now?”, but I wouldn’t want to try it.

The Cerrado, savannah country, where I am as I write this, with colonial style Portuguese churches, amazing vegetation and fauna is incredibly beautiful. I haven’t visited the Amazon, but the Pantanal wetlands are also very beautiful and it is said that it’s easier to observe the wildlife there. I have a horse that lives on a farm about 25KM outside of the city and even there I have seen tapirs, capivaras, iraras, monkeys, anteaters, big lizards and thankfully no snakes. The region that I live in was all native sub tropical forest 80 years ago, when the British built a railway and opened up the area as an agricultural zone mostly for coffee. Now only 6% of the forest remains. Guardian readers might tut tut about the deforestation of the Amazon (and Mato Grosso state too, by the way) for soya and cattle, but let’s remember that a lot of the soya farms are financed with foreign capital to provide fodder for chicken nuggets and hamburgers. It certainly is the Wild West in Mato Grosso and up in the Amazon basin and pretty lawless. A dentist friend lived up that way a few years ago, and he told me that one day the phone rang and a voice asked if it was him talking, to which said yes and then the voice said “Well, I am going to kill you. It doesn’t matter why, I just am.” It is quite likely that my friend treated some local rancher’s wife and she said something about the treatment that upset her husband, so a local killer was contracted. Needless to say , my friend got out of Dodge.

I still can’t understand why there is no Blu Tack here and why envelopes are not gummed: when you go to the post office there is a pot of glue and an old brush for you to glue the envelope shut. I have, on occasion, with some exasperation tried to explain that this makes no sense, “but what if I have 20 letters to post? Am I going to have to stand there and hand glue all the envelopes?” This is met with blank stares.

One of the things that I used to complain about here was the terrible lack of road signs and even street names in towns – as in where on Earth am I? But a few years back I took a coach from Heathrow and all I could see were signs, inside the coach and outside – do this do that you can’t do this, eat, drink, think on the coach, use of seatbelt is compulsory etc…..and suddenly I missed the Brazilian lack of interest in such matters.

I realized that a good symbol for Brazil would be its pedestrian pavements which have no standard and vary in form literally from house to house or building to building. They would be considered illegal in the UK because of their unevenness and fragmented construction. In fact no-one walks on them because it is almost impossible to do so. I have a great photograph of my father scratching his head and staring at the state of the tarmac in disbelief.


Chris Vine studied fine art in Britain and the USA, working as a painter and performance artist. He began playing improvised music in his teens as part of the UK free improvisation movement and was associated with the downtown music scenes of New York and Washington D.C. in the early 1980’s, working with Elliott Sharp, drummer Bobby Previte and composer Bob Boilen amongst others. He formed the Heat Poets in partnership with the open field poet Chris Torrance in Wales in 1985. Vine was guitarist with Ted Milton’s cult group Blurt throughout the 1990’s and worked as composer and sound designer with Welsh dance and theatre companies such as Earthfall, Teatr Genedlaethol Cymru and the Centre for Performance Research. He has been based in Brazil since 2000 working with Verve Cia de Dança and is a member of the Ethernet Orchestra, which features live online improvisations from a global network of musicians.


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