The past few weeks have been a blur of sunshine, palm trees, green waves and blue sky. However, as I have moved up the coast, I have encountered Brazil’s darkness too. Like most humans, I love to go to the beach, to feel wet sand under my feet and to wade around in clean, salty water, the waves lapping around me. Naturally, I wanted to experience the famous Brazilian beach culture – sipping fresh coconut juice in a skimpy bikini under a palm tree while watching children in only shorts play soccer on the sand. I can’t keep count of how many beaches I have visited. And indeed, these cliches are true – the beaches are incredibly beautiful, as are the people, with their taut bodies and coffee-colored skin.
Of course, Brazil is also known for much darker things, and it is the contrast and coexistence of the light and the dark that is so striking. Stories of being robbed at knife-point abound and indeed, these incidences have happened to most of the travelers I have encountered. The divide between the rich and poor is staggering – of course, everyone knows this about Brazil, but it’s not until you see it with your own eyes that you can feel just how fucked up and unjust this society is. Days ago, I was staying near the beach in a nice suburb of Recife in the north of the country, walking along the (shark infested) shoreline and seeing sleek new apartment buildings stacked along the boulevard contrasted with the sad state of affairs a mere twenty minute bus ride away. In the center of the city, the once grand colonial buildings are crumbling, their bright blues, pinks and yellows fading. People addicted to crack walk around expressionless like zombies. Street vendors hustle as the street dogs scavenge amongst the desolation. Exploring a Brazilian city can feel as if you are moving between two countries.
But I hear that there are much worse places in other parts of the country. Places that would be too dangerous to enter. Places too sad to even think about as people die of hunger, drug addiction, violence. It’s not news, and indeed, these tragedies happen all over the world, but here, in the midst of a deeply schizophrenic culture that is so strikingly divided along class and race lines, the reality is hard to face.
And in the midst of all this beauty, danger, sadness and celebration I have a kind of meltdown involving tears and snot. Some deep-seated emotional issues were triggered and I was overcome with feelings of vulnerability. And then, looking around and seeing so many terrible sights – children on crack, people missing limbs and rows of teeth, prostitutes and maybe the saddest sight of all – the workers toiling and hustling all day and all night just so they can get by, living day-to-day as the concept of ‘getting ahead’ doesn’t exist – I catch myself.
There’s a kind of culture shock coinciding with my own internal upheaval. Brazil is the setting and I am but one minuscule character in this ongoing drama. But there’s no need to lose perspective and indeed, I have to feel grateful for all that I have. Tomorrow is another day: the sun will rise, and regardless of the state of my physical or emotional wellbeing, it will also set. The drums will keep beating.