Forging through the Red-Tape Jungle in Bahia

I need an international driving license and have been putting it off for years. When I finally get around to it, it becomes a Kafkaesque comedy. Of sorts. I’ll laugh about it one day!

Here’s how it’s been going so far…

Day 1 

Today I went to the Brazilian equivalent of the DVLA/DMV and had to queue to get a number, only to be told that I didn’t need one – I just had to talk to the man standing next to me, who was helping a little old lady and taking a very long time. When he was finally free (and there was already someone behind me in the no-number queue), he told me to go to desk X and say M___ sent me, only to be told that I was in the wrong place – they didn’t issue what I wanted there, and I had to go to their outlet at the Citizens Service Centre (SAC) in a nearby shopping mall, where I was told that I didn’t have all the documents I needed, so I went home and will try again tomorrow…

Day 2

It seems to be a guideline for bureaucrats (unwritten, I hope), even if their job is supposedly to make services more efficient – the whole point of the Citizens Service Centre – that they must always hold back at least one piece of vital information. Yesterday, I was told that I needed a document I had not been informed about when I checked the requirements online. Could be I’d missed it, so no worries, here it is. Then I was told that I also needed to provide black and white photocopies of all documents (fortunately available for an exorbitant price in the mall). No worries, done in a flash. Finally, when I returned with the copies, I was asked if I knew how much it cost! “Erm, has it gone up much? It used to be R$80…” “It went up in March – now it’s R$520! Oh, and there’s another thing – you can’t just bring a 3×4 cm photo any more. It’s all computerised…and the computer isn’t working.” “Any idea when it will be up and running?” “Nope!” “Can you give me a number so I can find out if it’s working or do I have to come by in person again?” “Come by in person! If we gave out our number we’d do nothing but answer the phone all day!” Hoping the third time will be the charm… (By the way, the dialogue was summarised and involved more than one interlocutor – in case it seemed it was that easy to get all the information required!)

Day 3

The third day was definitely the charm. I have just confirmed hat I don’t need an international driving license in the UK. My Brazilian one will do nicely for up to a year. Just shows that greed doesn’t pay. I would happily have paid R$80 but R$520 gave me pause! Now I find that I don’t have to pay anything…for now. (If anyone knows differently, please tell me!)

Russian around Havana

I’m feeling a bit bereft because I’ve just finished reading all of Martin Cruz Smith’s beautifully written Renko novels. It turned into a project that lasted several months, starting with the most recent, Tatiana, and going back and forth till I finally decided to reread Gorky Park and move forward from there. After that strange, meandering journey with the poetic Russian chief inspector and sometime exile – an itinerary including lyrically rendered visits to Moscow, Alaska and Siberia – the last novel I read was Havana Bay. Incredibly enough (or perhaps not, since the author took the pen name “Cruz” from his abuelita), it includes a sensitive portrayal of Cuban Santeria. One could even call it emic – seen from the practitioner’s point of view. My only complaint is that it gives the impression that the only orishas worshipped in Cuba are Chango, Oshun, Oggun and Yemaya. Otherwise, I highly recommend it. But be sure to read Gorky Park, Polar Star and Red Square first.

(PS Since this is “a view from Brazil,” I should also add that I only managed to enjoy that journey without gaps of several months by purchasing the Kindle editions from Amazon)

Piled higher and deeper

Bound dissertation

The hardcover version of my dissertation

When I arrived in Brazil in December 1986, I was only going to stay for three months. I had just completed my MA in Latin American Studies and was enrolled in the PhD program in History at UCLA. The plan was to gather information on the role of iyalorixás (high priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé) in the lay community. Mãe Menininha, one of the most famous iyalorixás in history, had died that year, and I wanted to explore her influence in society at large and go beyond that to take a look at other religious leaders. I soon learned that the Candomblé community was (is) sick and tired of being studied, and decided that I’d rather be a part of it – and Bahian culture in general – than study it. Then I got involved in Capoeira Angola, building on the basics I had learned in LA. It was more of an activist movement than a martial art – helping revive and perpetuate another aspect of African resistance in Brazil.

Before the three months were up, I came to a decision: I would find a new home for my only “family” back in California – Lily, a lovely lilac-point Siamese cat – and stay in Brazil. With the help of good friends who made that possible – Susan, Steve and Cynthia, this  is a shout-out to you – I made my home in Bahia, and for a while there, I thought I had left academia behind me. I married a Capoeira classmate, had a beautiful daughter (who is now 25), got divorced, adopted another daughter, and worked as a translator and English teacher. But then, after a while, I started dreaming of that PhD I had left behind.

Fast forward a few decades. Based on the research I did for my MA, which focused on Brazilian intellectuals who studied Africans and Afro-Brazilian culture before it became an accepted field of study in the 1930s, I decided to turn my attention to an Afro-Brazilian, Manuel Querino, and an African American, Booker T. Washington. Both were self-made men who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They both believed that education was the best path for former slaves and their descendants to get ahead, and led by example. Although they were both highly respected in life, they were later maligned, Washington as an “accommodationist” and Querino as a “humble Black teacher” who lacked “intellectual sophistication”. My aim was to put both men in context and shed some light on their tactics and trajectories.

Reader, I graduated on March 18, 2014. After all these years I have earned a PhD in Ethnic and African Studies from the Federal University at Bahia Center for Afro-Asian Studies (CEAO/UFBA). And that is just the first step. Watch this space.

 Here’s a link to my dissertation (in Portuguese)

National health services: Real and imagined

Brazilian NHS

This week, a close relation had back surgery in London, and a dear friend got a root canal done in Paris. Both used their respective countries’ public health services. Both were very happy with the excellent care they received. During the health care debate in the US, Brazil was held up as one of the countries that offers its citizens a universal public health system. That is a travesty. The above photo, which recently circulated on Facebook, shows expectant mothers waiting to have their babies delivered in Brasilia. This is what this country’s national health service (called SUS, or Universal Health Service) looks like. Brazil has the worst of both worlds – on one hand, predatory insurance companies that often fail to cover life-saving services like radiotherapy for cancer without being taken to court (my personal experience), and on the other, a taxpayer-funded public health system that is an option of last resort for the truly desperate.