If Google Translate hasn’t lied to me, then the heading should translate as, Who are you, Brazil? This is the question I have been pondering during my travels and since my return a week ago. This incredibly complex country seems so elusive, so unknowable, so contradictory.
In traveling from Rio all the way to the north of the country, it becomes evident that one is, in fact, traveling in a schizo place where nothing makes sense. And maybe that is part its appeal, like the allure of danger that hides behind every crumbling, unlit street corner at dusk.
The lush patches of jungle that cohabit with sprawling, pastel-colored colonial mansions in the wealthy areas contrasted with decaying, rusting wire fences and piles of trash just down the road in the slums seems not to make sense. Even the stunning palm tree-lined, white sand beaches with fresh, aquamarine water that should cover every page of Travel + Leisure magazine are fraught as some are for rich white people, while others are for the poor black people. So, this breathtaking natural beauty is somehow scarred by the impossibly complicated and unbelievably unjust class and race politics that ensures the elite Brazillionaires thrive in luxury while the rest of the country struggles for everyday survival. Except that on any given weekend, the rich white people are hiding out in the air conditioned malls while the darker-skinned folk have fun at the local beach. Beauty, celebration, worship are as central to Brazilian life as rice and beans. Some may go hungry but a choice has been made to enjoy life whenever and however one can.
And so. In a country of hundreds of millions of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, united only by a common language and possibly a religion, how to make sense of and describe such diversity? How to reconcile the fact that your friends are robbed at knife-point by children high on crack, that they’ve had guns put to their backs while walking down a busy street in broad daylight, that you yourself have been the victim of a very financially disabling fraud with the incredible kindness and generosity of others? The man in the ‘Shopping’ (mall) who fixes your friend’s glasses for free, the kind hotel and restaurant staff who go out of their way to help you, the relaxed and generous nature of locals you meet along the way, the sweet Brazilians who still kiss you on the cheek even though you are sick, who bring you food and drink and ask you how you are and want to talk about you and your family despite knowing you can’t understand a word they are saying.
So, Brazil, as you stand in front of me, as I hold you at arm’s length and consider forgiving you for the financial harm, for freaking me out with the way you treated me and my friends, I will also think about your complexities and strengths and decide that I have only scratched your surface and, if I ever have the opportunity again, I would like to get to know you more, to get under your skin, the way a psychiatrist gets to know a very challenging patient.