Wednesday, June 08, 2005

First impressions

Usually it takes a few days to wind down and get into the swing of things Brazilian. That’s because I tend to rush around in London. When I get to Rio the pace of life seems to slow down. But that’s because I’m normally here on holiday.

Yesterday during my first full day in Rio I noticed how quickly I had slipped back into the groove. Going around the Baia de Guanabara in Botofogo on a bus, the driver putting the vehicle almost on two wheels, realised that life in Brazil need not be slow.

But what Rio can be is disorientating. Early afternoon I set off to walk to walk to Leme, partly to take in the sights, partly to ind when capoeira classes take place at Marrom’s academy (Marrow is associated with my group back in London). Down Av. Ataulfo de Paiva, Leblon’s main street, I was met by first jarring image: an old, black woman sitting listlessly by the side of the road, holding out a plastic cup to collect change. As I passed I noticed a middle-aged white woman walking her two poodles, decked out in red coats and shoes on each foot. Two more contrasting - and telling - images of the Brazilian condition would be harder to find.

On Rio Branco, the main throughway through the Centro commercial district, public sector workers were out on strike. A large march was taking place, led by a series of trade unionists on a double decker bus. They were protesting reforms by the Government and making a racket. The police were trying to hurry them along and blowing their whistles to drown out the sound. But the protestors were prepared, carrying megaphones and waving banners which showed they came from every part of govenment, including the finance, agriculture and culture ministries.

But the problem is not the reforms, but underemployment. Stocking up in the local supermarket two people worked at the cashier’s, one totting up the bill, the other bagging the things I bought. Similarly, in the Martinica buffet restaurant in Ipanema one woman gave me my receipt while another collected it from me on the way out. And in Centro I went to have my student card phtocopied (it’s the best I can do withouth getting business cards) and the shop employed seven or eight people and five photocopiers to do the job. Whoever heard of doing it yourself?

Yet some things are changing in Rio. On the Copacabana beachfront work is apace to replace some of the old kiosks with modern ones and a wooden deck area which should provide more space for more people. The signs around the work say this is a public private partnership project (which as readers of this bloig will know, is the new wway of doing things n Brazil). Whether it is the municipal or state government sponsoring the work I wasn’t sure, but if it’s the former I wouldn’t be surprised: the mayor, Cesar Maia, already announced his intention to run for president next year; a few new public works would raise his profile. Similarly, the cathedral and old convent opposite the Praça 15 de novembro is also undergoing rennovation. About time too, given the amount of graffiti it was covered in a few years ago.

But the most evocative image of Rio yesterday had nothing to do with politics, demonstrations or social problems. Instead it was on the bus, yet another driver tearing around the bend of Botafogo’s beachfront. The Christ on top of the Corcovado looked serene, the effect of a wisp of mist and cloud around his feet. The sun had already set over the hills beyond, but still it was light and the edges of the clouds gavce off a pink glow – a reminder of the day that had just finished.

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