Sometimes I Put the Wrong Date on the Check

Ahh, the New Year has arrived. Time to wax poetic on the past and publish new hopes for the year to come. And how lucky I am to be changing countries and jobs and as many things as I possibly can at the same time. Lucky? Yes! Lucky! Because I have always found that internal transitions are made more powerful and affective if our external conditions are similar.

Rio NYE 2013. I was not there.

And so this New Year I find myself in Puerto Rico…not just a beautiful island, but also a land of in-betweens: one foot in Latin America, and the other in the United States. How fortunate for me, because that's how I feel too. One foot firmly and happily moving back towards my country of origin, and the other lingering in Brasil, anticipating the samba schools of Carneval, and yelling at the poor drivers as I cross the street. It will be like this for a while, I am sure, and those I am with will have to hear a lot of “In Brasil, we did it like this…” and “I'm thinking of the word in Portuguese…” If that's you, sorry! I can't help it! That's what happens to all of us on some level as we move from year to year, decade to decade. Things change, and sometimes we don't move as fast as the time requires.

So from this land of in-betweens, I wish you all a wonderful year of full of the wisdom from years past, and hope from the changes and challenges that are to come. Happy 2014!

 

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Look the Other way

So the other day I was enjoying another wonderful walk to work, watching the buildings I always pass slowly get taller, and enjoying the fresh clean air. Oh, and yes, of course, yelling at the cars that almost hit me as I cross the road. This time, right after I screamed a quick “OI!!!!” at the passing car full of women who were on their way to some important salon appointment, I looked behind to find a young woman in trendy sunglasses (read: Ray Ban's from the 1980s which are for some reason enjoying a renaissance of sorts with the younger generation here in Brasil), and I smiled at her as if to say “Yeah, I got your back, don't worry.”

She responded differently than I would have assumed: “You scared me…,” she said, in a low sultry, insistantly laid-back voice. “Oh,” I said, “I'm sorry, but I think it's important for them to understand that the law says they need to stop for pedestrians who are crossing the street in a cross-walk.”

“You're not from here, are you?” she said, in her best yousillytouristyouobviouslydon'tunderstandbrasil voice. And then she continued to explain to me why here in Brasil, it's just best to let that kind of stuff go, because it will never change, and your life will be so much better if you just forget about it. And I responded with my best American politeness that I completely understood what she was talking about, and that while I value the same kind of serenity in my life, I could not disagree more with her statement and found that she was completely wrong. Was she aware of the laws? Weren't they written there for some good reason? To which she languidly responded that she was in fact aware of the laws, and also was studying to be a lawyer, but still, she argued that my attempts to raise others awareness were going to do nothing but make me more and more angry.

Studying to be a lawyer, eh? She obviously had no idea who she was talking to. I was born a lawyer. It's in my blood. Bring it on.

You see, don't all people deserve respect, whether they are in a car or not? And if we cannot respect these laws, how can we be expected to follow any of the laws? And without laws, how can we call ourselves a society? or part of the civilized world? And was she also not aware that there are also plenty of places WITHIN BRASIL that people are already obeying laws, respecting each other, slowing down to let others cross the street? In the end, she saw my position, and then quickly ran into a bank before she lost too much ground in her argument. A good lawyer in the making.

That is the problem with living the good life–you have to give up a lot of things that would make your life easier; things like ignorance, self-indulgence, and laziness. And then you have to continuously ask your self (and your friends if you're brave) the hard questions: How can I give more respect to my neighbors? How can I care for the widow, the neglected, the overlooked? Who is my neighbor?

Not an easy way to live (I don't do it very well), but the alternative is just empty “beleza.”

 

How Bazaar

This was one of those days that I always dread: I had to go to a government organization (Detran: the Brazilian equivalent of the DMV in the US) in order to get the official documents for the car that we recently purchased. It is always a pain to go to government organizations here: long lines, delapedated buildings, and usually more than one trip back home because of some incorrect form or missing signature.

The Throng of Those Awaiting Government Documents

I had done my homework: prepared my papers, made my copies, checked my directions…Alas, when I arrived, I was informed that I had filled out the wrong form.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Things were looking positive before my arrival; I had followed the directions correctly, and I was even able to make a left turn where I needed to, just like Google maps said I could. But it's hard to describe the stark reality that met me–the closer I came to my destination, the more I began to be surrounded by what only could be described as some kind of government services bazaar. There were people all over the road, trying to entice me into their offices and to convince me that their service would be much easier than going into Detran myself (here, they are called Despachantes). And there were those selling the goods that might make it easier to pass the inspection, and those selling food and beer (mind you, it was only 8:30 in the morning) and any number of cheaply made goods. Somehow, I was able to see through the spectacle and arrive within the gates of Detran for my inspection. Here is where I found out I had the wrong form. Sigh.

The Inspiring Waiting Area

But then I thought, surely someone from the circus outside might be able to help! Aha! A glimmer of hope! I had forgotten of course, that the circus is only there to entertain…and also, in a cash driven culture like Brazil, a pocket full of credit cards will not buy much of anything.

I returned home…sitting in the remains of morning traffic for about 45 minutes…thankful that my new car is well equipped with a/c and a stereo to keep me calm and comfortable.

For some, the story would be over after this. Battered, downtrodden, left to lick my wounds and fight again another day. BUT NOT SO FOR ME!!!! oh no no no. This was the day I had set aside to conquer the demon Detran, and I would not let one small oversight (two, if you count the fact that I had no cash with me), keep me from vanquishing this terrible foe. I got the right form. I filled it out. I printed it off. I ate lunch. And I returned.

Oh, and yes, I passed my inspection, and received my new documents that same afternoon. Only after waiting in many lines for a few hours, mind you. The correct form indeed made all the difference.

The Entrance to the Compound

But for me, I'm still stuck in the confusion and nervous energy of the Bazaar. When I first arrived just outside the Detran “compound” (think tall grey concrete wall with steel door entrances) I felt that queezy feeling that comes when you know you are surrounded by people who are ready to take advantage of every vulnerability you have. And government agencies bring about vulnerabilities: they provide a service that I need, but I have to jump through all the correct hoops in order to get that service. It's an easy place to be preyed upon by those wanting to “help,” and of course to make a quick buck. On my second arrival, my return after lunch, the invasive zoo that greeted me struck a different, more spiritual chord. Yes, I am spiritual, and I think sometimes, I even “hear from God.” I don't use this language lightly, or even to feel holier than thou; it's just the words I sometimes use to describe an experience where I see things anew, more truthfully, more clearly and deeply. This was one of those moments.

As I arrived, I was immediately transported into the story where Jesus arrives at the Temple in Jerusalem, only to find the outer courts (and I can imagine, the whole surrounding areas) full of money changers and peddlers looking to “help” the arriving worshippers and pilgrims who were in need of the spiritual renovation in their lives that could only be found through a certain prayer or sacrifice at this very Temple. I understood that this was an even greater Bazaar than my own surroundings, and this clear and terrible image was accompanied by a simple message: “Matt, this is how I felt when I arrived at the Temple. Now can you see why I got so angry and turned over those tables? Now can you feel a little of what I felt? The pain? The anguish?”

Yeah. I'm still chewing on that a day later. Sometimes I yell, and get angry, but it ain't always with that good a reason. Perspective–it's a filling meal.

 

I really hope this isn’t catching…

As I have said here before, living in any foreign country is no easy task, and usually there are many moments of each day that I am reminded of the difficulty.

I regularly have the opportunity to explain Brazilian laws to other Brazilians: they always appreciate this, and while they usually respond with a raised voice and claim that I am wrong to think that a crosswalk would be for pedestrians, I usually find I can yell louder.

This tendency to find ways around the law can be “cute” sometimes, other times frustrating, and other times horrifying. Last night, a large truck carrying steel rods overturned on a road near where I live, killing at least three people, possibly more. By law, that truck was not allowed to be driving on that road. Not such a “cute” cultural tendency when it turns out this way.

There are a number of things that happen in daily life here that cause me to pause, to reflect, to pray, to yell my head off. And then there are the things that happen that make me think: My God, we have GOT to get out of here!!!!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!! well. I can be a bit dramatic sometimes.

A good friend of mine visited recently (he is Brazilian) and we had some time to just sit and chat. We talked much of the things we love here, of life, of faith, and some, yes, of our concerns for this growing giant, Brazil. He too has noticed many of the things that concern me (he lived outside of Brazil for 5 years from which he gained a certain amount of perspective), and for me it was enlightening and confirming to share my thoughts with a native. I believe that cultures (just as people) have fantastic, wonderful, and one could even say, “holy” elements–characteristics that enable them to rise above pain, to create beauty, to foster love, to harmonize people. The opposite is also true: cultures have sins, diseases that fester and threaten to break them down, to limit their ability to grow economically, spiritually, creatively. I realized many of these cultural truths while living in the US, and they are becoming clearer and clearer to me here in Brazil as well (some I have already shared here). But recently I have considered some of these malodorous elements of Brazilian culture and I have wondered, or worried: are they catching? contagious? I do not remember much envy in my thoughts before living here (judgement, yes, but not so much envy), but now I find it creeping into my thoughts, my decisions, my desires. I would never before have considered the possibility of just “parking wherever I want” no matter the consequences for others or the law, and yet many times I find myself making choices while driving that show no regard for my fellow citizens or for the law.

And maybe that’s why some days I find that I’m so tired. It’s like my mind and spirit and soul are fighting off a cancer, and that can be hard work. Constantly sifting through the elements of my day, searching for what can be kept, discarding what may be harmful, adapting my character, my ideas. Gruelling work, revealing my ugliness, my holiness–yes, sometimes I yell, but I’m finding other things surfacing under that rage, pushing their way to the surface for air: sorrow, and hope.

A good friend just returned, and I’m so happy to have him back in town. I picked him up last night, and he remarked about how much my driving had changed. “Dude, you drive like a Brazilian now! Hahahaha!” Yes, I said, BUT I do one thing different. I stop for pedestrians.

 

My Way or Your Jeitinho

When I’m angry, I usually yell. And it’s the kind of thing that works exponentially.

You get the picture. And I have a feeling that this post may end up that way. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but I fear what I have to say may not be so pretty or appropriate for everyone (read: proud Brasilians without much perspective).

I often feel like I am being taken advantage of–strike that. I will speak more frankly here, because, well, I can. Since moving to Brazil, I (and my family) have been blatantly overlooked, lied to, disrespected, almost killed and/or maimed, and yes, taken advantage of more times that I would like to remember or count. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are MANY things I enjoy and even LOVE about Brasil and its people, but there are also those things I could do without. And I think many Brasilians would rather live without them as well, but I can only truthfully speak for myself. I am beginning to understand something called the Jeitinho Brasileiro (the Brazilian way), and if you don’t know what that means, I will be curt and blunt in my explanation.

“If it is to my advantage, I will do it, even if it means I will hurt you or unfairly take away your advantage.”

This way of thinking permeates Brasilian (and other Latin American) culture and society, so much so that many do not even see it, or if they do, they accept it as a way of life. And, as Brasilians do not often separate the personal from the professional, the Jeitinho Brasiliero can be easily identified in business dealings, political life, the grocery store, etc. “But Matt,” you say, “what is so wrong with that? This is a dog-eat-dog world, and you have to be strong to get ahead. How is that different than anyplace else in the world?” Maybe a few examples would be helpful.

I have often waited for long hours in bank lines, or lines related to Government services. The time that one passes in this way is excruciatingly boring and frustrating, but it is a part of life here, and I accept that. Often, while waiting in these lines, someone will arrive who feels that her question or issue is so important that it merits going to the front of the line, interrupting the person (who probably is a friend or cousin of theirs), and resolving her issue quickly and effortlessly. And people in the line will often watch, sometimes in disbelief, and other times not even caring.

There are many crosswalks that exist all around the city, and there are MANY people walking. For those crosswalks that do not have a traffic light controlling them, it is written in Brasilian law that drivers of cars are required to allow pedestrian traffic to cross. The few times that I have experienced drivers stopping for me have been truly wonderful, but normally this does not happen. We run across the street in fear of our lives. I have many times almost been hit by cars while crossing the street with my children. The times that I have attempted to remind my Brasilian brothers and sisters of this, my request for simple “gentileza” (kindness and respect for others) has been ignored, scoffed at, and oftentimes, refuted. One man even said “No! That crosswalk is not for you!” Well, then who or what is it for???? Talking Elephants????

I have had many issues arise (both professionally and personally) that are difficult to resolve. Many times, just in order to buy time, or to try and please me or assuage my fears, I have had people lie to me–over the phone, directly to my face, representatives from the apartment agency, neighbors, at my kids’ school. These are not usually HUGE lies (although sometimes they have been), but they are often the type of lies that promise something that is very well intentioned, but will not or cannot be delivered.

In traffic, if the person ahead of me needs to stop for any reason and for any period of time, they will stop–even if it means their decision to stop will cause traffic to back up and inconvenience many people behind them.

I could go on, but I think it better here to stop, clarify, and evaluate a few things. Many of the situations described above are small, yes, but when they add up over time (sometimes even just over one day), it is easy to imagine how one might feel like screaming their head off. And I have. But don’t think there aren’t some larger systemic examples of the Jeitinho. It is to the advantage of many here who are rich (in which I include myself) to keep the poor (who FAR FAR FAR outnumber the rich) in the place that they are. Within the last ten years, the government of Brasil has shown its desire to “help” those that are poor to live a better life–they have greatly increased the “Bolsa” (welfare-type benefits) which gives money and assistance (medical care, education) to those in need. And of course this has changed many lives for the better, but it also has a dark-side, a side which keeps the poor just happy enough that most of the time they can overlook the dire circumstances of their life; a life which for anyone looking from the outside, reeks of the uncivilized third world indigence that Brasil (and other countries in South America) so emphatically claims to have left far behind.

And so now I have said it one way, and I’ll say it again. To live in this way is not civilized. Of course, you CAN lie, and cheat, and cut, and ignore, but this way of life is not civil, respectful, or mannered. Let me be clear: my words and thoughts are in no way meant to stand as judgement against Brasil or its people. As I have said before, I love this place, and for the time being I am raising my family here, growing as a human being and as an artist here, working here, loving here, enjoying the people and the many beautiful places here. But the truth has a way of shedding light on everything, even the things that are really ugly. We must also realize that whether a society is civilized or uncivilized has no real effect on its intellectual output, it’s ability to function, it’s artistic contributions, and as is especially clear in Brasil’s case, it’s economy.

What then are the benefits of a civilized society? Well, I will leave that for you to think about, and if you want, leave a comment and continue in this civil conversation. Suffice it to say I believe there are many reasons, the least of which have the potential to give each and every person a measure of respect and value that can transform a city or a country from a place that is merely “live-able” into a place in which life is “worth living.”

 

Driving me crazy.

Driving is not so good for my heart. Or my head. For some reason, going long distances (more than 45 minutes) in a car kills my spirit. My operating system did not come with tranquility already installed, and so I had to install an after-market version, and that version doesn’t work while I’m behind the wheel.

What to do, what to do?

Me in my Fusca

Usually I talk to myself. And to the people that are driving near me.

Allright silver chevy, let’s keep movin’; “OH COME ON RANGE ROVER! REALLY?? REALLY????”

I naturally talk to myself anyway, so I spent much of my time in the car talking myself down from the ledge of driving oblivion. Needless to say, if the car ride lasts longer or possibly includes a traffic jam, things can spiral down pretty quickly. Let’s just hope you are not a child of mine that is not behaving in the car at that point. Or possibly someone else who has gotten the directions wrong yet again. Yeah, you won’t likely receive much mercy from me in those instances.


But what is it with the car? I can take short trips and be just fine. And if I know where I’m going, and the roads are great and directions perfect and there’s no traffic, I can sometimes drive for hours without incident–singing away the day, tongue wagging in the wind, not a care in the world.

But NONE of those things exist here.

Which is why it is AMAZING that I do as well as I do. Seriously, driving in the United States is a piece of cake for me now. But here? I don’t often know where I’m going, and if I do, it doesn’t matter. I still can get lost, or make a wrong turn and end up going in a direction I don’t want to go for twenty minutes before I can turn around and fix my mistake. You don’t want to be in the car with me then. It’s not pretty. And let’s not forget that the roads are horrible here (most places), and the drivers? well, they’re just trying to survive, just like me. Many will cut you off or traverse three lanes in order to turn left, but that is the road currency here, and there seems to be a mutual respect for bad driving in all it’s forms. I still get mad at those folks, but it’s not always necessary: the other day the devil incarnate that cut me off turned out to be a nice middle aged soft spoken woman who actually apologized for cutting me off. I was surprised.

Too bad I flipped her off first.