The End of Power

Letter Three, From São Paulo, Brazil

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Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile

Oi, as they say here. It is Tuesday, terca feira, (c cedula, or a tail that makes it an  s). Work on the asilo

 a  rural small town home  that will house about 100 old and handicapped people–is finished for now, the multi-year project showing serious signs of surviving; it was very rewarding to be there as that started to happen.

Now– out of that decent healthy countryside, and into rough tough raucous São Paulo. If  Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful painted lady of Brazil, SP is its body and soul: Futbol, Samba, and Industry. It’s 1830, at night. The 24 hour clock, metric system, day/month/year dating, and periods in big numbers instead of commas are among the many minor differences notable to Norteamericanos.  I use that term because many in our hemisphere feel, and  insist, that people in the USA are not the only Americanos–Americans.

The fading day is trying to hold on to the city . It won’t succeed; or will it? A satellite view of the earth at night reveals a planet on fire with electric lights; São Paulo ,home to about 15 million people,  is a big burning blotch of light. 

I am sitting 3 m above street level, at the corner of Luis Coelho and Bela Cintra, in the open air veranda of a restaurant. Below the rodo dos rodos (wheeling of  car wheels as I imagine in my poor Brazilian) is intermittent and shoes carrying  bodies move along relatively quietly, in sharp  contrast to a couple of blocks away on Rua Agustinas or Rua  Paulista

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 Paulista Restaurant, and an omelet!

São Paulo Subway System                                     

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 Metro at Trianon Museo de Artes SP

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Rua Paulista        

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View from MASP- Museo de Arte SP     

                                                                                                    Vendors in Sheltered area under MASP

It rained this afternoon. Thick wet skies threw down an almost tropical rain on S P, washing, but spoiling, the view. It was very welcome because of the drought here. This was the second storm in the past few days; but it didn’t last more than an hour, like the ‘dry’ season in the tropics. Afterward I walked  up Consolacion, left on Paulista, and left on Bela Cintra to this corner restaurant–Segredos do Minero. I like the name– Secrets of Miners. It reminds me of the 13 little mining towns of my childhood, even though the restaurant has nothing to do with mines, except history, and an extract from a very nice poem. The name, however, doesn’t refer to miners but to about people of Minas Gerais,  the original mining country of Brazil, a place of  old culture,  relative wealth and a  power historically and politically. The country changed. wealth and power moved on,  but Minas remains a treasured part of the lore of the nation.  The State, the miners the mines, and Mineros — those who live there–are family. For a look at the menu of my restaurant,  cliquez   I have come here often, and the owner gave me a menu, where Frai  Betto’s poem appears. *See below: Ser Minero. 

I like the spot. I like the food. I like the chatter, usually subdued, maybe because the fare is relatively expensive… no music, no alcohol driven decibels. I like the restaurant, the name, the view from my table above the street. The menu features meats of many kinds prepared in different ways. When there is a chill breeze at night I order hot soups. They come  boiling hot in big clay pots with a ladle in the middle, to spoon the soup into a bowl. The soup is accompanied by a small roll of buttered garlic bread, I order water sem gas (no gas). And possibly an espresso later but not way late.  Like, Wow.  So? Yes, I’m an old man.

One reason I’m here is my disease: xenophilia, love of the Other. And I have a conceit of being  an American in a place including both our continents; and in that America there are three major languages.  Brazilian is the one I lack. What better way to learn than immersion?  This is my third trip but the others were touristic and short.  I did study some before coming; the overlap between both English and Spanish, and Brazilian, is sometimes helpful, sometimes very misleading! Even so, I can now read almost everything. I can make myself understood fairly well because when my words are garbled I or get totally lost I revert to gestures and to  Spanish. Nonetheless, I can hear almost nada, except when the subject is quite clear, as on TV news about assault, murder, robbery, ads, erudite art show enthusiasts, news… etc. Teen age talk in tongues in Brazil, as they do everywhere.

It seems to me Brazilians are almost reliably tolerant, and considerate, even in crowds. On the SP subway escalators, people politely almost always move to the right (like the sign says!)  to allow those in a hurry to pass. Drivers are courteous even in this city of …what? between 15 and 20 million.

People are always willing to answer questions, (even when they aren’t clear about the question or the answer!) There is a fairly typical Latin American machismo; it’s reflected in the Futbol museum, a multi-million dollar homage to maleness. Yet Brazilians are very tuned to USA and there are prominent informational items everywhere on the social, sexual, environmental and nutritional matters we focus on in the USA.

There is a general tolerance of the Other, with some exceptions: The homeless, the drug addicted, are ignored almost completely. I suppose people assume they don’t vote, or contribute much in any other way. In that sense this is a harsh, or practical reality.  Is it Tough Love? I suspect it is.. Street sleepers are usually gone by 10 AM, in this an upscale area, they are…Where?

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The ‘millennials’, young educated adults here are, it seems to me, like to their  peers all over the world.   My daughter Sandi’s friends, for example. He studied Biology at USF for a year, a scholarship; then came home and graduated. But, didn’t like the field, and took up technical drawing, now works for an advertising agency. She was a lawyer, worked for a while here, changed her mind and is now garnered a 6 month scholarship in Italy to train as a chef. They live relatively simply, marginally by some measures: no car, no home- they rent, public transportation, saving and spending on their big dreams, big Ideas, not big Things. No marriage yet, no kids, not even any pets. They hope and try to live without– or despite and beyond borders; in the physical world or in the personal.

They are not drug oriented, or escapist; their parents Worry; Obviously.   They are very  e.connected, current with  most of  the US and world  TV series  one way or another: like Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, Orphan Black  and many I can’t name. When I mention Walter White (Breaking Bad) they break into a long dissertation about the crafting of the show, the use of metaphor, color, clothing…etc. They feel the series was a timeless classic at birth.   They talk about  the theme of the book Lili sent me: The End of Power by Moises Naim... meaning the power of nations, of government, of industry, of Order… They reference the printing press, which led to an end of the God and King alliance.   Surely, they say, this too is a dangerous time, the inevitable beginning of major world change.

I express a  reservation about the power of individuals over institutions because it seems to me that  who live in relatively free, if clearly imperfect condition, don’t  understand how a ruthless dictatorship of one sort or another can hold its people prisoner in body and mind… Can the of change overcome that? Possibly but not  yet in places like North Korea, which is a black void on the satellite night view of earth. Maybe the change will be universal and irreversible, like the development of the printing press, land earlier, that of language, writing, agriculture. We agree it will not be easy or predictable.

I am in my hotel room watching CNN. People are, they say, concerned about the closing down and evacuation of São Paulo due to lack of water. There is here, yes, a drought; much like ours in CA, it may last several years; in some small towns the water infrastructure is inadequate and people have to go elsewhere for water,  as in some San Joaquin Valley towns.

But at least so far these 15 or 20 million Paulistas have water;  the parks, and rural fields, are green and the SP faucets put out clean chlorinated water, with only occasionally a slight musty smell.  Everyone who can continues to choose bottled water in a determined effort to fill the ocean with plastic garbage, which is of course, oil.

A video taken from my hotel room TV 2 days later deals with the worst storm in recent history, flooding of hundreds of miles of freeways,  portions of the metro, hundreds of cars swept away, a death.

My take, therefore, on  ‘News’ is  it’s not what it pretends; it’s not evil by intent, but degenerate, created or invented, ,and often toxic in fact.  NEWS is not about what happens, it is about entertainment and profits. Once we are imprinted with false or very selected  ‘facts’, or factoids, it is hard to let go.


*Carlos Alberto Libânio ChristoO.P., better known as Frei Betto[1] (born August 25, 1944) is a Brazilian writer, political activist, liberation theologist and Dominican friar, born in Belo Horizonte. At the age of 20, when he was a student of journalism, he entered the Dominican Order. He was later imprisoned for four years by the military dictatorship for smuggling people out of country. Betto is an over the top activist, populist to say the least, communist to say the fact. He is also a fine writer, for which one can forgive most of his political sins, even though he uses his considerable talent to mislead. This is the redacted piece from the restaurant menu, I’ve translated it crudely losing it’s cadence, corrupting its imagery, misinterpreting its more subtle meaning: but that is what translation does!

“To be Mineiro is not to say what you do, but what you will do; to pretend not to know what you know; to speak little and listen much; to let people think you a fool, to sell cheese, and have a big bank account.

“A good Mineiro isn’t a drunkard, doesn’t reap the wind, doesn’t walk in the dark, or in the damp, doesn’t fear speaking with strangers.

“Only believes in smoke when he sees fire, only risks when certain, never gives up a bird in the hand for two in the air.

“To be Mineiro is to say ‘UAI’. To be different. To have a registered trade mark. To have a History.

“To be Mineiro is to be pure and simple, humble, and modest, courageous and brave, faithful and elegant; to be Mineiro is to see the sunrise and the moon’s bright light, to hear birdsong, and the purring of cats; it is to feel the awakening of time and the dawn of life.

“To be Mineiro is to be religious, and conservative; to cultivate letters and arts; to be poetic and literate; to like politics and love liberty; to live in the mountains, to have an inner life; it is to be decent.