Saturday, June 04, 2005

Our phabulous photoes

Sunday, June 20, 2004


Everyone learns quickly that Banheiro is the Portuguese word for toilet. Sooner or later, you will have to buy toilet paper.

I walked into a small shop and asked for a Naap-kin-nae de Banheiro. Like a number of foreigners dealing with a Latin language, I was prone to the belief that if I said the exact same word that I do in English, with what sounds to the English-speaking ear as the French accent, then the words spoken will be understood entirely by the listener.

Naap-kinnay was not a word at all, and was treated as such by a bewildered desk clerk. He was especially taken aback, at what looked like a Brazilian (nobody here takes me for a foreigner, even at tourist destinations, the touts ignore me) not only talking gibberish, but doing it with the fake confidence of a tourist who thinks that the semblance of confidence means people, all out to get you, will not rip you off. He quizzically pointed me to the back of the store. I thanked him and took a step in the direction, and I noticed a door, with “Banheiro” written on it.

Before announcing miscommunication, two thoughts struck my mind – first, Brazilian shopkeepers are really nice, they will don’t have the American prerequisites of “Buy something at my store before you use my toilet.” Second, “Wow – even the smallest cornerstores in Rio have toilets!” While these thoughts were completing their course, I had moved towards from the street entrance of the shop into the labyrinth, a narrow passage by the entry counter.

I then saw bottles, and bottles, and bottles. There was a TV behind the counter, and I wasn’t on it like in the American cornerstore TVs. This was a real TV, and it was showing a game. There were posters of footballers in red and blue, but not placed on the wall with any amount of deliberation or design style. What seemed to me as the check out counter, had a short panel jutting out, with wooden coating, and multiple marks of dripped condensation from little round glasses. I was standing right above a stool, and would dodge several more if I decided to go through with the visit to the Banheiro just to prove that I was an efficient foreign language communicator. I was in a bar.

This was one of the places were being an idiot-tourist-wannabe-local worked well for me, since the counter clerk never figured out what I was looking for. If I had just stuck to English, and said “Toilet Paper” it would have been understood perfectly and followed by loud guffaws, and perhaps a quick snap on his stand-by camera for celebrity guests. A perfect photograph for the wall, as “The American who came to the bar looking for toilet paper” right alongside “Guillehme who vomited on his wife when she came to get him”

The small street bars in Rio are mostly open, many of them just counters, with lines and lines of bottles placed on racks and cabinets overhead. The bartender stands behind what is usually a large rectangular counter, which takes up most of the space in the shop. It leaves only two strips of narrow passageway – one to a side, and one in front for customers to squeeze into.

When you (a non-local) glance in from the outside, if there are no customers, these look like standard shops selling supplies, or a snack shop or juice bar (of which there practically two on every block in Rio). Unless you look closely at the bottles up high, or notice that the innocuous looking pieces of blocks scattered about are actually barstools cramped next to each other, you’d wonder where the bars are hidden away. (this may also be the Indian in me speaking, because my point of reference is what the average Indian cornerstores look like)

Of course, in the evenings, there is no mistaking it. The stools are full assorted evening drinkers long-sipping their “chopps” (the local term for beer) in little tea-cup sized glasses that make the beer drinking experience a much more flavourful one than most pint mugs that lose fizz after three gulps. Now these are the more traditional hole-in-the-wall bars known simply as Barzinhos (~inho is the suffix for “little one”). Other terms for bars include Botecas and the Botequins which each approximate to more or less the same thing. If you are a tourist though, it is likely that you will not end up at any of these smaller bars, and will most probably go to more upmarket ones with tables and chairs that look more or less like very nice American bars, with lots of people talking loudly on wooden chairs arranged tightly together.

Unlike in the US, you can be waiting outside a bar and have the person serve you a beer and drink it in the street (this is actually fairly common in Europe). In some of the more popular Botecas, there is a class of customers that comes, stands outside drinking on the street, to eventually pay and go away without actually waiting for a table to get called. It is an honour system. There is not much gender disproportion here, and though men generally outnumber women at the hole-in-the-wall bars, it is not uncommon at all to see a woman sitting alone and undisturbed at a barstool sandwiched between a number of male of drinkers.

The standard drink of the evening is beer – Cerveja (pronounced Ceh-way-zhaa). This can vary quite a lot if you move out of the cities and into the inland areas, though beer is generally big throughout Brazil – the weather is warm, sunny and perfect for chilled drunks. Moreover, after playing football on the beach or going for a vigorous dip in the Atlantic (yes, the Atlantic exists in the southern hemisphere as well) there are few better ways to lay back and absorb the lush sunshine than through a chilled teacup of light frothy lager. There are also local dark beers that are slightly on the sweeter side, though it seemed to me that it was more of a drink of richer yuppies.

Now even though every bar I’ve been to (no matter how small) has a fairly extensive menu of alcohol (including a range of American and European whiskies), most bottles on the wall seem like they have been there for years. Like in India and Thailand, Whisky is a “gentleman’s drink” (gentlemen usually being a middle-aged businessmen) here too. And a drink that means almost nothing in the US – Johnny Walker Black Label – is as big in Brazil as it is almost anywhere else in the rest of the first classes of the third world.

Finally, there is Cachaca – the sharp distilled sugarcane juice drink that tastes a bit like concentrated white rum, and goes fabulously with lime. The drink is strong, and comes in many varieties. It was generally considered a poor man’s drink (refashioned in time as more upmarket), but as one moves away from the cities into the rural areas, there are more and more ad-hoc-bottled Cachacas, in much greater variety than in the cities, where branded Cahcaca rules roost. In the poorer sections of the cities, generic brand Cachaca gives beer more of a run for its money as the most preferred mouthful.

Wine is a strictly upper-class drink, and Gin and Dark Rum are among the bottles that spend a lot of time on racks without much attention. Martini, Peach schnapps, Irish Cream and assorted liquers are mostly absurd and will get you very unwelcome stares should you ask for them, even though they are technically available on the wall racks. Remember, the racks are to only to theoretically prove that all those drinks exist, and that even the most finicky Boston tourist can drop in for a drink, and rue the wonder of alcohol imperialism, before proceeding to order a local “Brahma” or “Skol” beer.

Note to Indians receiving this: All those bars in India called Copacabana and Ipanema that serve Pina Coladas thought that Copacabana was in Hawaii. You cannot ask for coconut water mixed with whatever here and expect not to be sniggered at, or possibly even taunted with some causticity. Notice your waiter isn’t wearing a garland of flowers over his nipples.

Cachaca does a great job of absorbing the flavour of anything you put into it, so a few black peppercorns into the drink, and let it stay for a week, voila, you have a great black pepper flavoured Cachaca. Among the variety of things that you will find thrown into Cachaca bottles, there are the standard popular ones – Tangerine rinds, Passion fruit, Cinnamon Sticks, Pepper to the more extreme ones such as little creatures quaintly embalmed in alcohol. Most people outside of Brazil know it for the famous Cachaca drink – Caipirinha (pronounced Kaee-pee-reen-yeah, but said faster). This drink involves chopping up a lemon, crushing it with sugar, and pouring Cachaca over the mixture. The drink is had with the squeezed lemon thrown in, and a share of ice equal to that of Cachaca.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Amazonas Chillies


After my arrival in Brazil, I enjoyed some weeks of mocking Brazilians for their pedestrian chillies (aka peppers for the Americans). When I first landed in, I was in Minas Gerais, and chillies aren’t big in the food there. Supermarkets don’t even carry chillies, and when they do, it is one or maybe two kinds. They have somewhat sharp variety called Malagueta, which I was warned falsely as having sting enough to kill a small monkey. While not completely writing Malaguetas off as lollipops, I was not entirely impressed by these chillies and longed for some hardcore Andhra Pradesh style noxious little bastards that scald every body part that comes within whiff range.

One afternoon, my local host Rodrigo took me to the “Mercado Central” the main market at Belo Horizonte that meets in the mornings. You can get a wide choice of fresh food, and local food and craft products. Rodrigo’s quest was to bring back his homeland’s pride and return me the favour of malice, by treating me to chillies that could aptly crush my macho mudslinging at the Brazilian capacity for spice.

The first spice shop we went to had a few bottles of chillies packed in brine (common in Brazil – homes and restaurants have bottles packed in with chillies, with Cachaca poured in them so the Cachaca gradually becomes a spicy sauce by pulling in the flavour of the chillies, usually Malaguetas). When asked if he had anything strong enough, the proprietor of the store said he did not, and directed us to a small shop somewhere further into the inner reaches of Mercado Central, and to ask for “The Prophet’s Shop”. As we left, he qualified that we may not leave the prophet’s joint alive, that it would not be surprising to die on the spot after sampling.

The prophet's shop.

So we got to the shop. It was a small shop, but it was located perfectly, at the exact end of a long hallway of shops – such that you see it from a distance, then can approach it in slow, building melodrama. There are about 20-different varieties of chillies all arranged in boxes on a counter tilted 45 degrees down. Over the counter, stands the prophet, and over the prophet, a sign saying “Paraiso das Pimentas” – Paradise of Chillies. The Prophet of Pimente, as everyone knows him, stands stone faced and disinterested in you, as you approach him, and continues to show no emotion after your status as a potential customer has been made evident.

Rodrigo told him the whole story about loss of national pride, and asked that the most drastic Pimente available should be given to me for testing. The Prophet waited a moment, swiftly turned and picked out a small yellow pimente, and said “This is from the Amazonas (Para). Only the Native Americans (called Indios here) have the recipe to make this properly, and I grow it on a very special piece of land” and handed it to me. By mentioning Para and the Native Americans, Prophet had already raised the bar – these weren’t your average city dweebs, now we were in the Orientalist land of natural foods that were once designed and harvested to poison and torture captured enemies.

Immediately, all eyes were on me – the Prophet, his wiry assistant, Rodrigo, and by now a few neighboring shopkeepers and passers-by who were curious to see if the downfall of an unwitting tourist were in order for the afternoon. The little yellow chilly looked rather innocuous, something like a still-born capsicum. I sniffed I from afar, to check if it had the toxicity of the average Andhra pepper. It didn’t.

Not to be publicly undone at such a critical moment, I immediately rose to the task and chewed off a huge chunk of the yellow fruit. It went through well, rather painlessly, and felt something like a raw bell pepper stalk at first. It took a few chews for the seeds to start bursting.

Then I discovered parts of my tongue that I did not know existed. These were first tingled, to get them excited, then hammered by an acidic blast. This was rapidly followed by a spectacular feeling of a full-blown inferno around the throat area as it passed down the saliva which had by now been infected with the venomous micro-flakes of the prophet’s fruity scepter. My face, about to explode, kept remarkably straight, as everyone stared waiting for an expression. Never to be undone in public, I stated emphatically that the chilly was “Pretty Good.”

I maintained no eye contact with anyone for over a split second, in case veins in my eyes detonated in public. I was barely able to shadow my tears from all and sundry. A few passers-by looked with curiosity at this strange foreigner in the Prophet’s realm. Rodrigo was pleased at finally having come up with a chilly that was good enough for me (I bought five bottles).

And the last variable in the equation, the prophet, stood vindicated. Everyone else may have stood awed at my successful devouring of that one chilly, but the prophet knew what went on behind that face. Like a good tourist, I took a picture shaking hands with the prophet, not as equals, but as a man who humbly recognized the prophet’s right to that name.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Signs, Motorcycle Diaries, and Academic Research

Signs in Brazil:

Hello: Thumbs up
Cheers: Thumbs up
All Okay?: Thumbs up? (appropriate suggestive eye contact and angular tilted head)
All Okay.: Thumbs up.
What a magnificent body: Thumbs up
The water is warm: Thumbs up
I like you: Thumbs up
Can we get the check: Thumbs up

And a woman at this café speaks loudly on her cellphone, right now, throwing off the uneasy equilibrium on socially accepted norms of public sounds in the realm of civility.


I saw the film Motorcycle Diaries, in Spanish with Portuguese subtitles. It is a film based on the experiences of Ernesto Che Guevara and Alberto Granado as they rode a motorcycle through most of South America. It seemed like the kind of film that one would miss out a lot on without understanding the language, so I probably did.

But I did notice a few important things about the film. First, it seemed remarkably value neutral, and did not go into the radicalization of Che Guevara. The film was nicely shot, but not phenomenal (the locations themselves are phenomenal though). On the whole, it is a grood road film, and does one thing that helps understand people with significant histories very well – it shows the importance of isolated and trivial incidents when serialized and applied to a certain viewpoint. It is hard to write a script that does not put Che on a pedestal or alternately demonize him – this one does.

The film shows us Che as a person without strong value affinities (and through the film, there is a slow change in that). A number of the experiences and personal exchanges during the motorcycle journey are reflective, but not one overpowering. Certainly, not a single experience is one that could not happen in a city or a train, and lack the same insight depth that the (mainly rural) encounters of Che. There is no moment of awakening, no incident of shocking significance, no sudden melodrama, nor any extraordinary profoundness to anything Che says or does.

Even as the film ends, it is never clear that the journey could have had the effect that it did – though the beauty of the film is that it is now possible to see exactly where the pieces fit in, and how. While reading about the life of Che, or of his revolutionary acts, it is good to see him start as a mild-mannered (horny) youth taking a trip that could in some people evoke a sense of karma, and in others, a desire for action. To summarize, as the film gets over, you’d probably feel, “Ah, that makes sense!”

The film made me think about what we are doing in Brazil, and thereafter elsewhere in the world. As academic researchers, we come here to record what we see. We will then critically document these on the basis of academic best-practices, conduct a survey and assess impacts in as neutral a fashion as possible. We will travel for days, and suffer a series of experiences and personal exchanges that will be reflective, but few overpowering.

At the end of our trip, we will have a fairly good idea of what the economic value of computing projects in Brazilian slums and perhaps even miraculously be able to attribute a dollar worth to this phenomenon. (That being said, we as academics are fairly aware of the absurdity of a statement such as “Access to computers is worth $0.60 per citizen, per square mile, per annum” to community X)

But as researchers, the consequences of our actions are always separated from our work. We are trained to be as neutral as is possible, and walk away from the situation with an assessment that is rational and applicable to economic and social indicators. Our job is to do this analysis as per generally accepted industry standards, and we will.

We may never know the value of access to a computer to the three people in the slum who have learnt to use it, and are on the Internet now, six hours a day. We can only tell if their usage of the Internet generates income (for them) or for the community. We can tell for certain, that someone is paying a lot of money for that Internet access, and that access essentially benefits three people in a community of 3000, while 13 others suffer malnutrition – a food need which could in turn be reduced to 70%, if the amount payable towards the computer were diverted within the next quarter (after that, we’d need a new assessment).

I perhaps never can know what it is to live in the slum and have Internet access, or what it is like to not. Like a guilt-ridden prosperor, or fascinated trespasser, I may be overrating it immensely, or as the trained speed-reader, I may have just skimmed the surface. But I’ll go with my gut feeling. After weeks of going from one telecenter and computing training school to another, it is clear to me that something substantive is being done here, something expensive, that cannot be entirely quantified in cash. The succor from the digital divide to me is as measurable as shade in a sunburnt beach. But can we presumably judge whether the shade can be extended, if the canvas were cheaper, or could customer acquisition be better, if we cut some of the canvas budget to publicize the joyless disposition of sunstroke?

In academia, we lay the foundation for building societies, and when we can’t do that, we at least document the conventions for keeping it in check. Here we will seek technological and economic sustainability, and perhaps find it some places, find it nowhere. Two years down the line, some brighter spark than me will redefine sustainability.

After we leave, our report will be up for public access on the Internet. Funding agencies will read it, and write-off certain organizations. Somewhere, a decision will be made that food is more important than google, or pornography, and somewhere a plug will be pulled. Another professional revolutionary with a vision for a marginally different Brazil will be written off as “business model garbage generator” for the technology era.

We will leave Brazil in the hope that what we did here served an uplifting purpose, but we can never know who it was we trampled. Or, like all academics, we may have greatly overestimated our worth, and the reach of our work. That being the likely case, we can probably recommend in a report that our air ticket expenses were better spent on canvas in some scalding beach. Preferably a beach that we aren’t sunbathing at.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Slum Communities

Our interviews continue – the main part of our work here is going into poor communities, mostly ones with donated computers, and seeing how these have been employed. There is a well- known Brazilian project that has been working on “fostering citizenship” through technical empowerment, and we’re mainly affiliated with them at this point.

Why all of this is important is that we’ve been traveling into slum areas in Brazil, and over the next two weeks, will be doing a very extensive survey project in these areas to assess the impact of the projects.

This experience has brought us to face a very difficult fact about research – understanding the group you study. None of us feel we can ever understand what living, with a sense of permanence, in a slum is like, and no matter how often we make casual visits to slum projects as honored guests, this understanding will not get more than fractionally better. I do not have a friend, brother or at least a business interest in the favelas – I can never really feel that my own sense of well being is constantly affected by the ups and downs of living in the slum communities. I can walk away from this situation anytime and have it be a memory, and an outlet for having written a few emails. Perhaps I will be congratulated for this work.

But that being said, every person we speak to gives us new insight into life in the favelas. Every day we find out new things – break old half-conceptions and refresh. Every few days, we come across at least one exceptional, spirited person, whose acquaintance tells us that we, as objective dispassioned researchers, are not here to help and uplift, but to learn from people who are doing outstanding things. So I can write this without guilt – for these are only an outsider’s gentle brush with life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

Before arriving in Brazil, I had been warned about the favelas. I had been told that these were guarded by machine guns, and unauthorized people have absolutely no access into them. The favelas, mostly located on little hills in the city (of Rio, though hill favelas are also common in Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo) and these have rather obvious informal boundaries, and one apparently would never enter there except for a very good reason – my friends from Brazil had never entered any in all their lives. (the term favela, by the way, is not totally PC – and most people who live in the favelas tend to call them morros (mountains) or communities)

Coming from Bombay, this was somewhat unusual to me – we walk in and out of slums all the time, partly because many “cottage industries” are located in slums. So WRT Bombay, if you need to get leather, you invariably go to Dharavi, for work on textiles, it is common to go into Sewri, and so on. Of course, one could say we travel only into those parts of the slums that are fairly well known to us and therefore do not know the entire depth of the slums (or can claim to understand life inside one), but with the exception of a couple of places – I can’t think of whole localities of the city that would be out of bounds, or where a local resident would stop me from entering.

A lot what I heard about favelas seemed additionally bizarre – I was told never to walk on the streets at night, near favelas, not to take pictures, to wear inexpensive-looking shoes and so on – most important, I was told not to try and get any research work in the favelas done myself. It was effectively a picture of anarchy.

So I did take a lot of this with some salt – after all, this is a very unequal society (I have an unconfirmed statistic that the top 1% of Brazil is worth more than the bottom 50% -- the more certain statistic is that in global inequality rankings it is almost constantly in the top 5 nations and has a high GINI index of about 60). In such divided societies, misconceptions about poor neighborhoods seemed likely. I would soon find that while a lot of this is misunderstood, some of the issues turned out to be fairly real (Ramble: Having said that, nobody deliberately misleads anyone on favela and safety issues – there is indeed a high armed crime problem in some of the Brazilian metros, and most people warning you are almost certainly concerned about your well being – if you’re used to walking home a few miles from bars to beat down the drunkenness).

First up, yes – you ARE watched if you enter a favela and are not a local resident, and it is practically impossible to do any research in a favela without the approval of the community, which is itself a rather fluid entity. This may mean something as simple as having an individual from the community be with you when you are in and out, or as complicated as needing approval from specific individuals, who may be centers of influence in the community.

In our case, the four projects in favelas that we’ve been at so far, we would never have found, and even if found, we would never have done an ounce of useful work at any of them without being escorted by people from the organization we were with. When we entered one of the favelas, children crowded around and were shouting “taxi taxi” at us – apparently taxis rarely, if ever, go into that favela (almost never at night), and there is no public bus going in there. The only transport (although remote, this favela was actually within the city limits of RJ) were small privately run vans which squeeze people in and go from point to point – somewhat like shared rickshaw systems in Bombay.

Now there are favelas in the heart of Rio, and favelas outside of Rio (33% of Rio lives in favelas, another unconfirmed statistic) – unlike in India, where you move gradually from a rich neighborhood to upper middle class and middle class pockets, and slowly as you move farther and farther away, to the lower middle class neighborhoods – but with slums scattered in each category, here in Brazil it is somewhat different.

There seem the rich areas, the upper middle class areas, the middle class areas, and then the dramatically poor areas. There seems (to me) to be no concept of a lower-middle (working) class neighborhood, and there is a jump down straight to the favelas from the middle class localities. Also, these favelas go on for miles and miles. We traveled for a good 20 minutes just driving at a constant speed of 60kmph through favelas and more favelas, often divided by gang colors. (An aside, the gang graffiti is much like California, and there are two major gangs in Rio – the TCP and the CV gangs. One of the neighborhoods we were in had recently been acquired by TCP, all the CV graffiti had been crossed out along the streets – practically one block away, we were in a staunch CV zone. It turns out these territorial battles are particularly bloody, and are fought with very sophisticated weapons)

So our team was doing an interview in a favela in Northern Rio. Often, during interviews, I sit around with a comical expression on my face as everyone speaks a language I don’t understand. So I wandered out of the building and out into the street. Our taxi driver who we had hired for the day, was waiting outside, I greeted him and went off for a walk. I had hardly found an appropriate graffiti wall for photography, when the driver came running after me, made some dramatic signs towards me, and practically pulled me away. As we walked back towards the building, I understood he was telling me not to walk away from him while we were in the locality. I was aware of this requirement, but I had taken it with a pinch of salt, writing it off as upper-class paranoia with slums.

Nonetheless, I got some great pictures of gang signs, so my talent in pushing the limits would be certain to rise from the ashes again. Midway through our very next interviews, we heard fireworks. This was repeated several times in during the conversation. At first, I was not sure what they were for, but guessed it may have been because of the Brazil-Argentina match the night before, which Brazil won painlessly. I was later informed this was not the case – the fireworks were signals by the gangs for one of the two – either there was police around, or a rival gang had attacked.

Of course, now I wanted a picture of the police helicopters, and while leaving the second school I decided to try another stunt. I got a picture of the helicopter, but as soon (milliseconds) as I had turned my camera towards the neighborhood which set off the firecrackers, I was loudly alerted to put my camera away, actually, I think it was an order, and I obeyed it without question.

Since that day, I have found that what I heard was absolutely correct. It is NEVER okay to take a photograph in a favela unless you know exactly what you are doing. The drug trafficking business here is very serious, and since the favelas are usually on hills (ironically, the best views of Rio are thus from the poorest neighborhoods) taking any pictures of uphill areas one never knows what buildings are on them, and who, wishing not to be photographed, is living in them. For those concerned about my well being – I now humbly respond to this “rule” with unquestioning deference. (Ramble: Travel within favelas is often on little motorbikes which ply in and out of the areas from the fringes, sometimes there are no paved roads, and almost always the entire localities of houses are made of brown brick – thus the unusual sight of brown patches amid the fancy hills of RJ). Another reason for the ban on pictures may be the fear of information on the 'enemy terrain' to leak, such as the identification of strategic points, or of surveillance people. Many of the favela "invasions" (related to drug terrain wars) happen on flash raids by rival gangs that need to get in and out quickly.

We were told that the police presence increases in violence in the favelas, rather than control it – this seems to be a general opinion across the board. The police here have a "take few hostages" system when it comes to dealing with the gangs within favelas (funnily, i think it is the police complicity with organized crime in bombay that makes the city safe. Here, gangs frequently fight for supremacy, but these fights are usually restricted to the gangs themselves. In one case, At Raina da Paz, we were told by the coordinator in one of the internet centers in the favela that the gangs kept her intimated of the exact dates between which they would be at war, and that on those days, people should stay out of certain areas and so on.

Our business contact from Sao Paulo, who is also working on a similar project says that an average of 80 people are “executed” weekly as a result of the drug trade in the localities that he alone is in charge of (this says nothing about scale, but I think the guy was in charge of a large tract of East Sao Paulo).

But all this being said, I have no claim that any of this represents life deep inside a favela. Most of the places we have visited are at the edges of the favelas, and we only look longingly like lecherous researchers at the upper inclines of the favelas, which have been etched as a strange labyrinth in our minds. The deeper one goes into the favelas, the less the commercial entities (and therefore less reason for someone not living there to be in there).

And while all agree that the drug trade in the favelas is absolutely massive, as is the violence between gangs involved in traffic, we’ve also been *reminded* time and again, that people live there, ordinary people who live and work in the same spaces as we do. Several taxi drivers (invaluable research resource) have told us that live in Rio is made out to be much more dangerous than it actually is – they feel reasonably comfortable driving around favelas in the daytime, though not at night. People we’ve met and interviewed in the favelas have told us of no personal history whatsoever with violent incidents, nor any real fear of them in daily life, and that the violence is completely restricted to people in the drug trade. When we are in the favelas, we notice that there are hardly any high walls or grills to protect (even the more affluent looking homes). The differences are pointed out often enough, but it is also good to know that the same television serials are popular, the same beer (Brahma and Skol) sells in massive quantities, and kids are as likely to be spending their time gainfully on Instant Messaging at a favela telecenter as they are at Ipanema.

In closing, one poignant difference did strike us hard. One of the interview locations we were at yesterday was a school in a favela – this school had a small facility for orphans and abandoned children, who were up for adoption. I had an interesting meeting with a kid there – when we were busy peeking into the childrens’ resting area. He was a two-year old was awakened for some reason. He got up and went to the matron, and told her something was missing, to which she told him to go and check near his slippers which were in some other room. The kid, with no further ado, had wiped his eyes to being fully awake and walked off into the hallway, unescorted, to find his slippers. He did not say a word to anyone else.

Small incident, but in that brief encounter, the extent of independence I saw in the kid was quite remarkable. At that age, I would probably have cried in bed, lying in a pool of my own urine, waiting for my mother to come and deal with my problem whatever it was. This was almost a tragic underscore to what may well be a first phase in the lost childhood of this boy.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Game Theory and Kissing in Brazil

Game Theory and Kissing in Brazil

Greetings in Brazil are a very specialized activity, usually like a game of scissors, rock and paper – in which the two parties need to guess before hand what the protocol is likely to be. The knotty element here is that in European tradition, Brazilians move forward and hug and kiss each other on the cheek. Easy enough if there is a nationwide enforced standard. In lack thereof, the Paulistas (Sao Paulo residents) kiss once, the Cariocas (Rio residents) kiss twice and the Mineros (Minas residents) kiss thrice.

Thus, there are two factors – first, will or won’t the parties kiss, second, if they kiss, how many kisses will be exchanged. There is an additional layer of complexity – whether or not the kiss will actually exchange hands, or whether it will be an imagined cheek brush. In fact, add to that this, whether the cheek brush will be brushy enough, or whether like a hard disk read, it will whiff the surface of the cheek.

So imagine game theory – in Case 1 outcome, both parties kiss each other multiple times, both go home happy. This is the best case scenario, and usually happens successfully with grandmothers only, since it is common knowledge that they will go for the maximum variable.

In Case 2, one tries to kiss more times than the other wants to – in such case, the kissee (the one being kissed) is one up on the kisser since it is now clear that they like the kissee more than the kissee likes them back. The kisser now has the option of pretending they were extending their cheek to clear their throat or worse, as an exercise to control double chin.

However, there is the third case here in which these tables get turned. The doomed kisser from the Case 2 (who for the purposes of this case is referred to as the Kiss Virtuoso), realizes early in the kissing scene that they may not get the second (or third) kiss, and therefore he/she starts and quickly and very gracefully stops midway through execution. This is an art gained from years of kiss skullduggery. Thus, even when the kissee does not reciprocate, he/she is not entirely certain that the reciprocation was expected. All good if it ends here, but Case 3 usually does not.

This Case 3 scenario is especially interesting when the kissee, seeing the initial movement of the kiss virtuoso (KV) thinks that a kiss is being seriously solicited, and then after a moment’s hesitation not to hold back. The kissee moves forward with a possibly gawkish pout, thereby now becoming the kisser, only to find that the virtuoso has gracefully moved back leaving the kissee/kisser with a comical expression and a protruded ass and an angular back that must quickly be sprung back into straightness. The case three is truly worse than Case 2, because now you’ve been scammed. In Case 2, you were just overly affectionate, and easily forgiven, now you made a presumption about how much the other person wanted to kiss you, and are therefore exposed to additional jeer for your social inelegance. Now the KV has an upper hand on the kissee for the rest of the evening.

The “skill involved in becoming a KV” is therefore the dependent variable that throws the equation out of equilibrium. Thus, to anyone who is past their first week in Brazil, falling into a Case 2 is never the real dilemma, the game is wondering whether it is a KV one is about to greet.

And thus, the most likely outcome, the dramatic Case 4 scenario – everyone loses – one fake kiss only, both parties go home with no lost honour, and no real gain. You could have had three squarely planted kisses on your cheek, instead you got one bad one. Sao Paulo, known as a no-nonsense city, not surprisingly, has decreed not to waste its time on figuring out the toodlepips and will stay with the unit.

So the inevitable greeting time comes by. A new person is added to a party. You as a kiss player approach the person with slanting eye contact to understand how they play the game. The eye contact should never be direct, because then you are forced to introduce yourself, and thus have to complete the greeting. Instead, you let the host at the party greet the guest. If you are incredibly lucky, they will exchange only one hug and kiss (which side to go to is also important, try never to bang into someone’s forehead). So if they exchange one kiss, then it is reasonably certain that one is as far as any stranger will get with them. But if they kiss more than once, then you are potentially in trouble, so slant your glance further, and drop something, forcing unwitting Johnny next to you to be the enforced next person introduced.

So if Johnny gets it, just watch what happens to him, and then you have a fairly simple game – plan for exactly as many kisses as were successfully executed without embarrassment.

Of course, there is a caveat to everything – even the single kiss strangers may not always kiss, and may have a handshake reserved for strangers. And waiting for an additional kiss is nowhere near as bad as trying to get mouth to cheek contact when a lame handshake was all that was merited.

And finally, all of this may change during the course of the evening. You may start off the evening at a handshake, with Johnny, for instance, and in the duration of the evening, you may have reached the point of deserving two kisses – then again, you could goof up in receiving those two by never extending your cheek forward and thereby brining fleeting social indignity upon poor Johnny, and thereby lose your privileges in receiving kisses in the future. Nonetheless, all that aside, you figure – ah, he tried to go for me, so now Johnny and I are on kiss terms.

Now the catch, off course, you would never know you have lost this privilege, and would probably try and move your cheek forward for a kiss the next time you meet Johnny – and this time, Johnny, possibly spiteful, and one bad experience closer to becoming a Kiss Virtuoso, may well upstage you by allowing you to bend forward expectantly in vain. Or then, Johnny could move to Minas, and become a rabid kisser, and demand three everytime you met him. Who is to know?

In my own case, I have had the benefit of being a foreigner from a strange land – I inevitably get the handshake – whether in the land of one, two, or three kisses. This can be minutely embarrassing, when everyone gets a kiss and you get a sterile handshake, but better than a situation in which I plant a hard salivating smooch on the beard of someone who at best wanted to pretend to kiss me.

PS. Our team’s kiss intellectual Manisha adds another Case scenario – in which there is a kiss in which both the kisser and the kissee are dilettantes at the art. It sometimes happens when both clumsily end up face to face, very close to each others. Such moments are seldom cinematic slow motion with lips brushing, instead, they are mostly embarrassing, since both party ends up thinking the other is wondering if they are come on to, followed by a brisk pull back and no conversation or eye contact with one another for the rest of the evening.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Brazilian Football

The inevitability of football is true here. This week, there is an occasion which will be a lifetime rarity, that I am doomed to miss - A Brazil-Argentina football match, in a Brazilian stadium. The tickets are being scalped for 15 times price. I had sort of made a bet that I would go in wearing the blue and white stripes (the Argentine colours), then quickly realizing that security cameras will only postscript my fate.

Today there was a small league match here - a couple of local teams. I discovered an interesting little tidbit of information about Brazilians - they watch the television version of the game, but listen to the radio commentary. Here is why:

There are two commentators, Yin and Yang. Yin follows the ball, and Yang, the maestro, talks about the higher level hypotheses. The ball-follower has a pipe running into one nostril that allows him oxygen, so that he can speak without stop for 180-second intervals, in a flow of words that matches blows with the average auctioneer, with the range of emotion to put the average tamil melodrama to shame.

They have heart attacks here, several of them. And there would be more if it weren't for Yang, the philosopher. Yin gets you charged, he starts (always he) with the ball, and his voice runs like a camels hump through little ups and downs and slowly it starts building up. I was listening to the commentary in a car stereo, in Portuguese, and it did not matter that I couldn't get a word of it, the tension was implicit nonetheless.

The slow build up clearly moves towards a crescendo. Yin gets faster, and faster as the ball moves towards the half-line, and faster as it hovers around the opponent's side, then suddenly blips just a little, possibly a back-pass, and it starts again, building slowly and surely, the endless flow of words, which with a remarkable suddenness of a field opportunity rises to a sudden roaring peak - and you fall off the chair practically - what just happened?

There was a kick, but it was yet yet another missed opportunity. Yang now steps in - "ah, yet another great moment, in our club's history" and continues with statistics on the failed kick and its angle of fall, the kicker and his history of such failure, and occasional success. Yin meantime a deep breath and continues the next one-minute cycle as the ball now moves over towards his half, in the hands / legs of the visiting team. Then once again, Yang comes and allays all our fears and our excitement, reminding us this move has failed over and over before, and says with unambiguous peace "if they only made passes like in the old days" it would all be different.

"What happened, what happened" I would keep jumping, only to be told over and over again, "oh, nothing, which is what he just said" and it starts to get to get incredibly tense, feeling like every minute, someone raised his decibel level by one more unit, and everytime a new letdown. Then you realize, when the goal does happen, there is no doubt about it, no need to ask what happened. It isn't another word in Portuguese which will pass you by. It does not have one "o" - it goes for a mile "goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal"

Every Brazilian is a coach, I am told. This is true - the popular pastime for TV crews here is to ask random people what their opinion on the team is, and how things can be improved. Needless to say, even I have an opinon by now about where Ronaldo should be standing when the game begins.