Driving Dr Gledhill: Taxi drivers I have known (part two)

On a more serious note, the worst experience I ever had with a taxi driver was very recent. It was fortunately just a short way from the Historic District to the Historical and Geographic Institute. Somewhere en route, the driver and I got to talking about crime (always a meaty subject with taxi drivers, as they are unusually exposed to it) and he revealed that he was a police officer. Then he regaled me with the story of how he was jogging along Dique do Tororo in his expensive trainers, wearing an even more expensive watch, when a mugger pointed a knife at him and demanded that he hand them over.

He did, but as the mugger was walking away, the cop/cabbie pulled out his concealed gun and aimed it at his assailant. When the mugger pleaded for his life, the former victim, now executioner, said he was going to send him somewhere no lawyer could get him out of and riddled him with bullets. Then he rang up his friends on the force and had forensics clean up the crime scene!

I was chilled. And terrified. There I was in the same vehicle with a confessed cold-blooded killer who was clearly proud of his exploits. We were close to the institute, so instead of asking him to go around Piedade Square and leave me at the front gate as I would normally have done, I asked him to pull over at the other side of the square, hopped out, paid my fare, and breathed untainted air again. I was reminded of my first impression of Brazil when I arrived in December 1986 – people seemed to be more afraid of the cops than of the robbers. In nearly 30 years, nothing seems to have changed…

Driving Dr Gledhill: Taxi drivers I have known (part one)

One thing I will miss about Bahia is the taxi drivers. They range from friendly, reliable and helpful – particularly Henrique (henriquetaxi@gmail.com), who was recommended to me by the Sacatar Institute – to the downright psychotic. Since the friendly, reliable and helpful taxi drivers don’t make for a good story, I will focus on the psychos.

The worst was the guy I call ‘rabid road runner meets The Shining’. I was going home in the company of an American friend – which meant that although we were speaking Portuguese in the taxi, his accent betrayed the fact that he was a ‘gringo’ – and hailed a cab near the Afro-Asian Studies Centre. Half-way along, the driver started speeding and I asked him to slow down. Using paggro with which I was all too familiar, he slowed to a crawl until he thought we’d had enough (I said nary a word) and started speeding again. Both my friend and I protested, but to no avail.

When we were finally nearing our destination, I told the driver to turn left into the cul-de-sac where I lived. Instead  he revved and tore up the hill to the right. My friend and I both shouted at him to stop, so he pulled over, turned around, and grinned at us with a manic expression that made me think he’d pull out a butcher knife and growl “Here’s Johnny!” We paid and jumped out of the car as fast as we could while he did a 180, burned rubber and vanished around a corner.  Just another taxi ride in Bahia…not!

Driving Dr Gledhill: Intro*

I have been back in the UK for exactly one month and many things spring to mind as a posting topic, but none so emphatically as driving! Of course, there are the obvious differences like driving on the left, as everyone else calls the right side of the road (or as they call it in Brazil, ‘mão inglesa’), but my experience has revealed much sharper contrasts.

When I arrived in Brazil in December 1986, the economy was at a standstill. The day I arrived in Bahia, a general strike had been declared and the beaches were full. There was a price freeze in place and most basic commodities had vanished from the shelves, awaiting a thaw. The people I was staying with obtained dairy products and meat from their relatives in the countryside. The supermarkets were bare. The very thought of purchasing a car was a far-fetched dream for most. When I asked a Capoeira teacher if he had a car, he said he had to sell it because he couldn’t afford the petrol. It took a few minutes to realise he was joking. By the time I left, it was so easy to buy a car that the roads were clogged. Endless traffic jams were making Salvador worse than São Paulo. But in all that time, I never wanted to buy a car. Wondering why? Let me explain.

I had just arrived from Los Angeles, which of course is a city designed for driving cars. Public transport was (still is) so bad that anyone who could afford the cheapest hulk would prefer one. My first automobile in that city cost $100 (purchased from a friend of a friend) and listed to one side. I seem to recall that it was a Ford with push-button transmission. I was immediately pulled over after taking delivery because it didn’t have a catalytic converter!

Thanks to hand-me-downs from my family, I went on to better wheels, but my experience on the roads was pretty much the same – lots of motorway (expressway) driving, both within the city and en route to other parts of the state. I was a prudent driver and kept strictly to the speed limit – living dangerously by LA standards because shortly after I left I heard that drivers who did the same were being shot at! I drove for a total of 8 years before settling in Brazil. And that is where my driving experience ended until last week.

Why, you may ask. would I willingly give up my freedom of movement and put myself in the hands of bus and taxi drivers (the Metro only started running last year and I’ve only taken it once)? Of course, buying a car would have been very expensive – the monthly payments, insurance, maintenance, petrol (or ethanol, which is also an option in Brazil), and parking! But that was not the main or only reason. In short, drivers in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (being careful not to generalise) are completely insane. Road rage is normal behaviour, especially for bus drivers. Signalling is more like gaslighting. Thought I was turning left? Hah! Gotcha! And motorcyclists weave among the sweltering motorists (who keep their air conditioning turned off to save money) like extras from a Mad Max film. Long story short, as long as I could afford to take a taxi, I preferred to have a professional behind the wheel, but even that had its perils…. (to be continued)


*It has always amused me that in Brazil – at least, in Bahia – if a taxi driver wants to ingratiate himself with a passenger, he (they are usually men) will call them ‘doutor’ or ‘doutora’ (or even worse, for females, ‘madame’). When I was working towards my PhD, I would joke that I wasn’t a ‘doutora’ – just a ‘doutoranda’ (PhD candidate). Then when I actually had a doctorate, I would suggest to those who called me ‘madame’ that ‘doutora’ would be more appropriate! Here in Blighty, people I don’t know routinely call me Dr Gledhill. Still getting used to it.

Musings on the Term ‘Expat’

Recent controversy about the use of the term ‘expat’ for Europeans (as opposed to ‘migrants’ or ‘immigrants’ for people from other parts of the world) gave me pause when choosing the new title of this blog. It is no longer ‘A View from Brazil’ because I’m now in Blighty (aka the UK). However, in my specific, somewhat unique case, I can safely use the term without fear of inflicting a micro (or macro) aggression of any kind because I was raised British in Puerto Rico, have always considered myself British, have never held or desired any other nationality, and never intended to spend my entire life away from the one country where I can legally vote!

That being said, nearly three decades in Brazil – more specifically Bahia – have left me thoroughly acculturated, and that is going to be the main theme of this blog from now on: readapting to life in the UK after living in northeastern Brazil, whilst reminiscing about and keeping an eye on the country I left behind in body but not in spirit. I’ve established a family there which is now in its second generation (also thinking of starting a blog titled Yummy Grannies – all rights reserved).

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!)

What do Brazilians look like?

I recently came across an article that has sparked all kinds of responses online and the time has come to add one of my own. Titled Future Humans Will All Look Brazilian, Researcher Says it naturally caught my eye! Without even reading it, my first question was, which Brazilians, from where? 

Xuxa and Pelé

Xuxa and Pelé when they were dating

While I was brunching in Paris with a fellow Brit earlier this year, two women asked to share our table and started speaking Spanish. I initially assumed they were from Spain, since we were in Europe. Also, one was “Mediterranean” looking and the other was a blue-eyed blonde, which is entirely possible in Iberia. When we eventually joined in the conversation (in English), it turned out that the “Mediterranean” woman was from Argentina and the blonde was…wait for it…from Brazil! My British companion was surprised, and said she didn’t look Brazilian. I explained that they come in all shapes and sizes.

The reason for that is immigration – and a policy of “whitening” that began in the 19th century. There is a large population of German descent in southern Brazil whose best-known representative nowadays is Gisele Bundschen (note the German-sounding surname!). It comes as a surprise to some that long before the influx of Nazis on the run after Hitler’s defeat in the mid-1940s, a much bigger wave of migrants arrived in what is now the state of Santa Catarina in the 1800s from the region now called Germany. There is even a city called Blumenau, founded in 1850, that holds an annual Oktoberfest.

Many Italians settled in the Central South, and there is a large population of Italian descent in São Paulo. A popular soap opera, Terra Nostra (1999-2000), portrayed the stories of white immigrants from Italy who replaced black slave labour on coffee farms in São Paulo State at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries.

Centuries of racial mixture and  immigration, not only from Europe but from Asia and other parts of South America, as well as more recent arrivals from Africa (particularly former Portuguese colonies) have resulted in Brazilians of all colours on a wide spectrum ranging from Pelé to Gisele and even paler and blonder than she (like TV children’s presenter Xuxa Meneghel, also Pelé’s former girlfriend). However, there is an image of what Brazilians should look like, formed among Brazilians themselves.

The original “three sad races” of Brazil are Amerindians, Europeans and Africans, in order of arrival, and the population that resulted from that mixture is considered “typically” Brazilian. For that reason, people of Asian descent, for example, may never be considered 100% Brazilian. A third-generation Sansei will find him or herself referred to as “Japa” because of their appearance. I have read of cases where Nipo-Brazilian workers in Japan – dekasseguis – feel more Brazilian outside their country than they do at home.

For more information on race relations in Brazil today, see my entry on that subject in the Brazil Today encyclopaedia

Water Shortage (not what you’d think)

Parts of Brazil, including the state of Bahia (which is the size of France) are experiencing a ‘water crisis’. Fortunately Cabula, the working-class-gentrifying neighbourhood where I’ve lived since March, has not even suffered the temporary shortages caused by ‘improvements’ to the supply system. However, there is one drama I had never experienced before – having to possess the right kind of bottle, and one that is within its ‘best by’ date, in order to purchase mineral water. This is because tap water is undrinkable and I don’t trust ozone filters. Clay filters are supposed to be best, but they take up too much space and are hard to clean. So for years now, I’ve purchased large bottles of mineral water and so far, I’ve had no problems – until this afternoon. Starting with the fact that, in order to buy just the water and not the container, one has to have ’empties’ to hand over in return. But that’s not all!

clay filter

Back to Clay Filters?

It all started when I decided to purchase water from the cheaper of two suppliers – simple market logic, you’d think? More like penny wise, pound foolish! When the cheaper supplier (Supplier T) was out of stock, I turned to the other one (Supplier I) and found that they only sold the pricier ‘crystal’ plastic bottles and would only replace them with others of the same type. And when I managed to claw them back from Supplier T, who had replaced them with the cheaper kind, the bottles turned out to have ‘expired’ – that is, they were too close to the end of their expiration date to be acceptable for Supplier I.

Today I found that Supplier T has suddenly stopped selling water altogether, when they still owed me two ‘crystal’ containers (probably out of date, but still the type I need to get the better brand of water). I had to pay Supplier I for two ‘crystal’ containers plus the water – nearly three times more than what I would normally have to pay. At least it’s an investment – as long as no one in my household allows another supplier to swap them out for the cheap kind. When I explained the situation to Supplier I, she said “You were buying from Supplier T, weren’t you?” Lesson learned.

World Cup reflections

As usual, a highly publicised international event has arrived in my city and I’m watching it on television. Salvador’s Fonte Nova stadium has seen dramatic games and a torrent of goals. That’s likely to dry up (Fonte Nova means New Fountain in Portuguese, hence the pun) in the quarter-finals, if the round of 16 is anything to go by.

Orisha statues by Tatti Moreno (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

Dique do Tororó with the stadium under construction in the background (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

I had lunch on Tuesday with two American friends who were going to the USA-Belgium game later that day. I haven’t heard their feedback but the view from my TV was thrilling. That wasn’t their first World Cup match at Fonte Nova. They told me that even when the seats are way up high, they have a spectacular view – the stadium was designed to make the city’s lovely Dique do Tororó part of the scenery. However, it seems that the Baianas do Acarajé (women in traditional dress who sell Afro-Brazilian bean fritters) were nowhere in sight, although they ostensibly won their fight to overturn FIFA’s ban on their presence within a mile (or kilometer?) of the stadium. In fact, my friends have seen no street vendors whatsoever in the vicinity of Fonte Nova – and they said there were plenty during the World Cup in Germany.

Acarajé sellers demanded to be allowed to sell their wares near the stadium during the World Cup

Acarajé sellers demanded to be allowed to sell their wares near the stadium during the World Cup

They also told me that, inside the stadium, they could have been anywhere in the world. It has been entirely stripped of its Bahian and Brazilian identity for the duration. Very sad.

Another American friend informs me that there are plenty of scalpers. There is hope yet of seeing at least one game – the last one is scheduled for Saturday – but I’m not too optimistic. A seat way up in the ‘gods’ is bound to cost a minimum monthly salary, or more. I’m not sure it’s worth it, no matter how dazzling the view.

Some samba with your salsa?

At first, I thought it was too funny that BBC World News is using salsa as the soundtrack for its full perspective on Brazil during World Cup season. The more I think about it, though, the more incensed I am that the culture of this gigantic country should be subsumed in a giant melting pot called “Latin America”. Although its music is rich and varied, from frevo to Axé, from MPB to funk, any Brazilian who knows or cares would immediately identify samba as the national rhythm. Why hold the World Cup in Brazil and then insist on placing the soul of the event in the Caribbean?

World Cup’s doing wonders

I’m used to complaining about the world media’s emphasis on the Rio-Amazon axis in Brazil, overlooking Bahia entirely. These days, more and more features are focussing on Salvador as a “soccer city”. The latest was on BBC World News, about Football Beyond Borders, a lovely project organised by Brits to make the World Cup generate income for underprivileged neighbourhoods.

Here’s a report about the project