Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sao Paulo Protests- Confusion From Within

"The protests were never about the political parties" said one of my students yesterday. "Yet now there are members of these parties out on the streets alongside the protesters. You can see they're trying to manipulate the direction these demonstrations are going in. And I don't like it.
A representative of the #changebrazil generation?

And Andrew, have you seen the signs out on the streets? I saw one on Thursday saying 'It's not our fault you're not having sex Dilma', and another saying 'impeach the president'. Impeach the president? For what!?! Some of these people don't know what they're talking about? What are they doing there?

And these people with their banners are representing the change our country needs? I really hope not!

I won't be going to anymore protests, I'm suppose I'm confused by what they all mean now"

And he's not the only one to have expressed doubts to me about the people there. One of my friends who has been at all the protests this week said to me:

"You see these rich, middle class kids with their banners, taking pictures of themselves for Facebook and talking about how they're gonna change Brazil. Well then they're walking out of the train station, skipping past the homeless guys in the street and joining the crowds. It's as if they can't see what this is about. Before I was more than happy to support the bus fare reduction and to to be a number in the crowd, now I'm not sure if I want to be a part of what's going on".

Whilst this opinion might sound a little unfair on these 'middle class kids', it does point to an undercurrent of confusion, suspicion even, within the protesters as to what other people's motives are for being there.

I went down to observe what was going on at the first big protest on Monday, and the atmosphere was electric. People were clearly feeling very optimistic, many had made banners and home made placards and the whole thing felt very organic. It didn't seem to matter that people were protesting about a variety of different things, because the glue holding everyone together was the 20 cent rise in bus fares. Fast forward a few days and the might of the people nationwide had succeeded in getting this fare overturned.

Understandably though, it wasn't enough. "It's not about the 20 cents" have said so many viral pictures doing the rounds on social networking sites. And so  the protests continued. But what's happened now is that outside the hashtags most include on their banners and placards #changebrazil and #vemprarua (come to the street), there doesn't seem to be a clear goal that everyone is protesting for.

The momentum for change quickly snowballed into huge and occasionally violent demonstrations, but with the original aim of the people and the bus fare now achieved, this snowball looks to be in danger of splitting into several pieces.

Many of the people who support the protests from a distance have had their commutes home affected by as many as a few hours a day. This is because main roads (the arteries of the already congested transportation links of the city) are being closed to accommodate the protests. From
what I've heard from these people's sympathy for the protests is on the wane.

So is it time to stop protesting and see if Dilma makes good on her promises from last night?

Well many people have understandably said they don't trust her and her government to follow through with these promises (and many want to see investment in education programs, not foreign doctors being shipped in to Brazilian hospitals). So naturally, more protests are planned...

And after so long without a voice, you can see why people don't want to leave the streets. They've changed things through protesting, and they want to see more of this change. Is there really an alternative for them to voice their opinions other than through these demonstrations?

I can't help but think of the words of Hunter S Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas as I write:

"We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...and now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

  • Is it now time for the people to get off the streets and wait to see what type of 'water mark' they've made on the political landscape?
  • Have the protesters already done enough, or can they achieve more through protesting? 

  • Are the 20 cent protests in Sao Paulo about to 'roll back" in both size and significance over the coming days?

So much has happened here in such a short space of time, and I wouldn't bet against the next few weeks being equally as significant to Brazil politically. Although this significance of people taking to the streets for any future protests remains to be seen.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Seven Days In Sao Paulo- Diary of a Foreigner

As many of you will probably be aware, something BIG is going down in Brazil right now. There are so many great blogs, articles and videos already out there that explain the situation (including the informative yet powerful video I've added underneath). So what I want to do with this blog post is to give you a run down of what life has been like on a daily basis for me personally over the last seven days. I've done this to give some perspective of what has gone on that goes beyond the pictures and news headlines you've probably seen and read about. 

Thursday 13th June

Yet again I heard my alarm, woke up, took one look at it and slapped it into silence. I’m not impressed with myself. I should have gone running today like I did on Tuesday morning, but instead I rolled over and slept some more.  

I had a couple of classes today, and with the protests about the 20 centavo (6p) rise of the bus and subway fare being extremely topical, it didn't take long for my students to give me their opinions on it.  The protests were newsworthy here not just because of the motivation for people taking to the streets, but also because they were then tarnished by acts of vandalism. 

“I really don’t agree with the Protestants use of violence” said one student, echoing a very similar mistake made by many of the students I've taught this week….that protesters are called Protestants in English.  After pointing out the mistake, we continued the discussion. “Why not protest about corruption and lack of infrastructure? 20 centavos is nothing” my student said after I’d asked him to elaborate on his opinion.

“It might be nothing to you, but surely it’s a big deal to the poor people living in Sao Paulo?”  

“Andrew, it’s not even the poor people out protesting. It’s the university students from USP causing the trouble”. 

Students have had conflicting views today, and I even heard that some of these protesters are rumoured to have been paid to be there by other political parties. 

These protests are somewhat divisive.  

When I got home after my evening class I discovered from Twitter that a demonstration in Sao Paulo that evening had got out of hand and that police had been very heavy handed. I was pretty shocked at the video footage I saw, it is kinda weird to see people being shot at and gassed on the streets I walk down daily.

Friday 14th June

Just a few classes today, so I killed some time in Starbucks between classes with my book. I seem to go there a lot, too much maybe. I hadn't been much of a coffee drinker before moving to Brazil, but now I can’t imagine my day without a coffee at some point. 

During my second class my student (who lives very close to where the protests took place last night) told me that the demonstrations from the previous night had affected her plans.

“Andrew, I was going to go out with my boyfriend for a romantic dinner” she began. “But we had to stay in. Everywhere closed early around here and it was too dangerous to go out, so we couldn't even leave my apartment….and to make things worse, I had no food in” she laughed. “I really didn't think things would get so bad!"

That evening I had class, I usually go to my students offices in Berrini but because of the protests around this area, we agreed to  have our first Skype class. After, when I asked my student how he felt about the class without me physically being there he told me he much preferred it to regular classes.

"I enjoyed not needing to look at your face for an hour and a half!” I think he was joking....!

Before this class, I logged onto my Facebook and Twitter accounts and saw that there is a lot of anger directed towards the police from the previous night, and many of my friends had confirmed through Facebook that they were going to a protest on Monday in the Pinheiros neighbourhood. A few hours later my housemate arrived home and told me that his boss nearly got arrested last night when he left the office. He had tried to make the short walk to the subway but was approached by a policeman who had threatened to arrest him. It was only after he’d pleaded with the officer that he was allowed to continue on his way. I've met his boss, he works in IT and definitely doesn't look like much of a trouble maker. If this is what's going on out there, this is some scary stuff!

Saturday 15th June

My Facebook feed is going crazy today. So many videos and pictures of police shooting at groups of people who were holding banners and chanting “sem violencia” (without violence).

My friend called me to ask if I wanted to go to Skol Sensations with him, a huge dance event that is held annually in the city. I impulsively decided to go. The youtube clips I’d seen had looked amazing….and I am happy that  the event more than lived up to my expectations. The night life in this city is phenomenal. 

However not long into the event, my friend had his iphone stolen. He hadn't felt it being taken from out of his pocket, and as you would imagine, he was angry. “I’m sick of this. Things like this always happen here in Brazil. I've just been to Canada with absolutely no problems, but here in my own country I’m robbed 2 hours into a night out”. 

Sunday 16th June

If Facebook and Twitter are anything to go by today, my Brazilian friends are REALLY angry about the way Thursday night turned out with the protests. There is plenty of talk about the next one tomorrow, with people saying it’s not about the 20 cent rise anymore, it’s about….(get comfortable) the World Cup, corruption, lack of infrastructure, health care, crime and the general standard of living in Brazil. Tomorrow is going to be a VERY big deal. 

After showering I went to a food fair with my housemate. In between eating (amongst other things) we talked about the impending protest. “In the future when I have children and they ask where I was when the protests were on, I want to tell them I was there” said my friend.

Monday 17th June  

“Andrew, how long have you been teaching me now? And for how long have you had to listen to me complaining about how corrupt my country is? Well now things are finally changing, we are not powerless anymore. I am feeling so optimistic about Brazil’s future” said one of my students (a university student) with a huge grin on her face, as she talked about taking part in the protest later in the day.

I tend not to see many grins on a Monday morning, so I felt a bit bad when I told her after her passionate speech that we’d be looking at a grammar exercise I'd brought in for her.

Later when I told another student that the protest was happening near to where she lived, I swear she was about to break down and cry in front of me. She had no idea. 

This is a generic 'Sao Paulo is bad' picture, not one from during the protests
“I support the protesters Andrew, really. But it’s going to take me so long to get home; it took me a really long time on Friday because the police just closed the roads I need to use. Traffic here is bad on a normal day. And I’m so tired after my weekend!”  

What might be hard for someone who isn't familiar with Brazilian culture to get their heads around is that the Brazilian people have waited until now to act. You have these big sporting events round the corner and the issues they're demonstrating against aren't exactly new. So why now?

Well let me tell you something you may or may not know, Brazilians rarely complain about things. This surprised me when I first realised this, I mean when you see those passionate footballer supporters and feisty looking samba dancers on the TV and news back home, you wouldn't expect them to be shy when it comes to expressing how unhappy they are about something. 

“Andrew, what’s the point in complaining. It never really gets us anywhere” have said numerous of my students to me during our classes over the years. And as an English teacher I've heard so much about corrupt politicians that just get let off the hook. “And what can we do about them? Nothing, because this is Brazil we are expected to just accept it. It is the way things are". 

"But you have the power to vote for whoever you like, right?" I once asked.

"It really doesn't matter who we elect, politicians are all as bad and as corrupt as each other”.

Well, the 20 cent rise in the bus fare has proven to be the straw that's broken the camel’s back, and as someone who has listened to complaints about the system for so long, I couldn't help but root and feel empathy for everyone out there demonstrating. 

It reminded me of that youtube video of that Australian kid who was being bullied and he just couldn't take anymore….he’d reached boiling point and after grabbing the bully, turning him upside down and then dropping him on his head, you just knew that for that kid, that one act of courage had unleashed something inside him that meant he would never be the same again. 

And that is what has happened in Brazil today….there is surely no going back from this? 

Tuesday 18th June

Before class this morning I looked on the UK websites to see if the events had made the news. The Guardian had reported it, alongside a video focusing on the violence in Rio….which surprised me, because there were so many other things they could have focused on around the country, things that didn't involve violence. 

As I approached the train to get home after my evening class, I actually knew it had closed but was secretly hoping it had been reopened. I knew this because I had been in a wi-fi zone nearby and had access to Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to people updating their statuses, sharing and retweeting key information, I've been kept in the loop with what's happening and when it has happened. So I'm not likely to find myself unwittingly in the middle of a protest that's got out of control. 

police pepper sprays woman
At the station a police officer came up and asked me where I was going, and after telling him, he went out of his way to direct me to the nearest bus stop….I really appreciated this. Police have a bad reputation in Brazil, but they aren't all bad....but judging from a picture doing the rounds today, it's easy to see why people might disagree with me on this one.

I mean, look at that girl, she looks like she couldn't fight her way out of a wet paper bag, let alone do something that warrants being treated like this.

So  I eventually squeezed onto an overcrowded bus, and instead of feeling uncomfortable I, like most people on there, simply felt relieved to be heading towards the direction of home. As we drove past one bus stop, I saw a line of people waiting to take the bus that would have made a grown man weep….

My housemate sent me a message to say that he'd got stuck in Bela Vista. There were lots of bombs and shots going off around his friend's house, so he was staying there the night.

 Wednesday 19th June

There wasn't anything planned on a big scale in the city today, which is good because I’d switched a class and was teaching on Paulista Avenue, the place most of the protesting has been taking place. I called my parents today to let them know I was fine, My Dad had seen Dilma (or as he calls her, ‘that woman whose name I can’t pronounce') on the news in the gym, but David Guetta was on really loudly at the time and he couldn't make out what she was saying. 

I think the call did more to worry than relax them, because they weren't really clued up on what was going on here. I forget that I'm living in a bit of a bubble that makes these riots seem all consuming, yet in the UK other news stories are of more significance (Step forward Nigella and her surprisingly non-obese husband). 

I took a nap after my morning class, and then looked on Facebook. The Brazilian Human Rights Division have approved a bill to research a cure for homosexuality. It still has a few stages to go before being officially passed, and in the current political climate I’m sure the Brazilian people are just dying to foot the bill for this one! How out of touch are these people!!! 

So later today it was announced that the price of the transport in both Sao Paulo and Rio has been reduced to 3 reais, knocking off that 20 cents that started the riots in the first place. The people won, right? Well the mayor of Sao Paulo tagged onto the end of his speech that cuts would need to be made elsewhere. 

Thursday 20th June

One of the most iconic pictures of the protests has come from Rio....
that's an awful lot of unhappy people right there!
So is that the end of it? Well with another big protest planned nationwide today, I wouldn't count on it. People are feeling somewhat optimistic here right now that they can make a change, they're taking to the streets draped in Brazilian flags and there is a real sense of community within the protesters. I've not seen so many of my Brazilian friends talk politics before, and it's actually very inspiring. You can see that they enjoy feeling a part of this, and also that these protests have been empowering for them.

"If we can change to get them to reduce the price of the bus, what else can we achieve? We just need to keep going and going" said my student earlier this week. And with things having gained such momentum in such a short space of time, I'm sure what has happened here in the last seven days will have a huge impact on Brazil's political landscape for a long time to come.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Beauty and the Brazilian

“So how are you finding living in Brazil?” asked a friend I hadn't seen for a while when I was last visiting the UK. As I began to reel off one of my stimulating standard responses, “the fruit there is so cheap and as for the weather…” I was quickly cut off.  

“Nice, tell me about the Brazilian women” he asked with urgency, “they’re all gorgeous out there, aren't they?”

It really annoys me when the middle of my sentence interrupts the beginning of someone else’s, but like I said, I hadn't seen my friend for a while so I let him off. No sooner had he asked me this than I noticed a predatory smirk settling across his lips. It was pretty clear that I didn't actually need to reply; I could see that he’d already made up his mind about Brazilian women and was merely affirming his opinion of them in my presence.
"Hiya, I'm Sandra and this is my sister Tina....we're just your normal, regular girls next door
in Brazil! Honest!"

So I humoured him and asked what he thought they ALL looked like, and this is when he predictably began to describe sun kissed, curvy women on the beaches and almost naked women dancing on top of carnival floats. I mean, OF COURSE HE DID! Every year these images make their way onto internet pages and in newspapers around the world during carnival time, perpetuating the idea that woman in Brazil are exotic goddesses.

And it's for this reason I'm writing this blog. Because do you know what? I’d say that yes, there are a lot of beautiful women here; probably more so than in any of the other countries I've been to. But are they ALL beautiful? CHRIST NO! Those beautiful women pictured on the beaches in Rio I've mentioned definitely aren't the only type of woman here. For every scantily clad carnival queen whose picture you'll see in newspapers, there are so many who escape the photographer’s lens….including the forgotten Brazilians. The mingers!

"Hiya boys, I'm Gizelle and I'm Brazilian....I'm free for drinks on Friday!"
A few weeks ago I was at a free 24 hour event in Sao Paulo called Virada Cultura, which showcases some of the best of Brazilian culture and music on various stages in the centre of Sao Paulo.

“Andrew” said one of the friends I went down there with, “I've never seen such an ugly gathering of people in my life. It’s like being in a DVD extra from Lord Of The Rings, where the camera crew give you a behind the scenes look at the characters grabbing something to eat between filming!”

I remember laughing at this rather harsh comment, because there was actually an element of truth to it. The people there weren't all ugly of course, but well….a lot were. Just like in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, as the cloak of darkness fell on the city centre around midnight, these aesthetically challenged Brazilians seemed to come from nowhere! I should point out that this area isn't one cornered off especially for its ugly residents, but it's an area renowned for both its crack addicts and poverty.

Which led me to wonder if there much of a link between poverty and beauty for Brazilians here. Well, a few weeks ago one of my students gave me some insight into his views on this.

“Andrew, there is no such thing as ugly women here” he remarked, with a deliberate theatrical pause.

“Just poor ones!”

He laughed for an unnecessarily long period of time afterwards, signaling that this comment was indeed meant to be taken as a joke. However it was actually not the first time I'd heard something said like this. I was talking to one of my friends about Virada Cultural recently, and they told me that they’d never go there. “I’d much rather pay to go somewhere to feel safe, and be around beautiful people, than go somewhere free with poor, ugly people who want to rob you”. 

For many of the Brazilians I've talked to about this, there definitely seems to be a strong link between wealth and beauty. 

So what was my student getting at when he cracked this joke? Well money not only buys decent clothes, haircuts and dental work (as in all countries)…but it also gives you access to cosmetic surgery. And with the exception of America, Brazil is currently the world's biggest consumer of it.

Cosmetic Surgery

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but over here a large number of those eyes seem to have a clear vision of what procedure they'd like when going under the knife. And right now I'll touch upon those having surgical procedures on their faces.

Dilma, the president of the country and someone Forbes magazine considers to be the second most powerful women in the world right now is a prime example of having utilised on this type of surgery. Being fully aware of the importance of her looks to help her appeal to Brazilian voters, she's noticeably had quite a bit of it done (the before shots are pretty interesting)...and the work shes had done is so obvious, that you can't help but feel at the time she wasn't all that bothered about who knew about it.

And here in Brazil this attitude is not so unusual.

I remember waiting for one of my students to arrive for class last year. As the door was eventually pushed open my student appeared in the doorway with two black eyes and a nose wrapped in bandages. To say that she looked like she’d had a rough day would be a bit of an understatement!

“Are you ok?" I enquired, sounding suitably concerned.

“Yes” she responded proudly and slightly flippantly. 

“I’m just recovering from surgery on my nose”. Far from being embarrassed about having the operation in the first place, she seemed to revel in the attention it brought her from the other students. A few weeks later those bandages were taken off, the swelling around the eyes had gone down and that old witches’ nose was now a much more petite one, which seemed to do wonders for her self confidence.

I've been told that there isn't much of a stigma about going under the surgeon’s knife in Brazil, because it’s a bit of a status thing, “well if you can afford it, why would you keep it a secret?” one of my friends asked me when discussing the subject. “But then again, nowadays everyone seems to be having it, and you can even get it done for free in some clinics, so it’s really not a big deal anymore”. In the UK people are much more discrete about anything they have done, as if admitting to a surgeon tampering with their looks in their quest for beauty somehow makes them less of a woman. Well, the opposite seems to be true here.

And this feels like an appropriate place to wrap this post up. So, when it comes to surgery, there isn't nearly as much of a stigma behind having it here as there is in the UK, and no....not ALL Brazilian women are stunning. I feel like I’m crossing a line by saying this with the reputation Brazilian women have internationally, but then Brazil is a country after all....and not a nationwide roll out of the Playboy mansion!
"Get me some Brazilians for the picture, any will do" said Hugh Hefner.....never!