If you are like me, you may have formed your opinion of Brazil from TV coverage of Mardi Gras and tourist snaps of Rio. My chance to see it in person came from a company in Porto Alegre (the nation’s tenth largest city) that asked me to teach a workshop for their employees. While the trip is fresh in my mind, I want to record my impressions.
Porto Alegre may be one of the smaller cities, but it is home for a million and a half inhabitants. It is also the state capital of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost of the twenty-six states. A journalist I met at the airport told me that the state had a reputation like that of Texas, and Porto Alegre has a rivalry with other capital cities because of it. By being at the southern extreme of the nation (which extends up to the equator), the climate in the city is not as warm as further north. For comparison, New Orleans is around 30 degrees north latitude, and Porto Alegre is around 30 degrees south latitude.
My hosts were very generous with their time. On my first full day in town, I started my day with a walk in a beautiful civic park near my hotel, and then I met three scientists from the company for lunch. Brazilian barbecue is every bit as good as its reputation! I also discovered that guarana, a local energy drink flavored with berries, is outrageously tasty. From there, my hosts took me to a former gas works that has been converted to a cultural center; local goth cosplayers were enjoying a convention at the facility. We continued our journey to the children’s science museum, which was surprisingly empty for a Sunday afternoon in summer.
As we drove around the city, I was frequently struck by the contrast between the beauty of natural growth we could see everywhere and the delapidation in many of the buildings. The biologist in me was struck by the commensalism all around; what we call “air plants” were growing naturally, embedded in the bark of trees and competing with the hanging moss. The organic growth of the city had frequently led to irregular street patterns, and the quickest route from one place to another was rarely a straight line. Many of the buildings seem to have been built in more prosperous times. When we passed the administrative center of Rio Grande do Sul (a distinctive triangular building with curving sides), I first thought, “how beautiful!” As we drove closer, though, I saw many imperfections in the building as well as trash in the surrounding park. Many active building sites could be seen throughout the city, and I wondered how carefully building codes were followed. Growth is good, but quite a lot of it seemed unmanaged and haphazard.
As we sat in the company cafeteria, I noticed a very hopeful sign for the Brazilian economy. The room was half-full of women! Of course one hears chatter about how gorgeous the women are in Brazil, but at the company, I saw signs that women are also a very big part of the economic growth of the country. My hosts explained that women had not yet percolated into the top executive positions of the company, but they had been hired in large numbers for the factory at the site. I have often wondered how a nation could claim to be interested in economic growth while keeping one gender tied down.
In Brazil, I saw some of the challenges that I spoke of in my post about the BRICs. Can nations with rapid population growth translate that into economic growth? Population growth helps to keep labor costs down, and so companies can hire more easily. It’s not clear that industries in Brazil are growing fast enough to accommodate the population. My hosts mentioned that government corruption has been problematic, and getting approvals for new businesses has been slower than one might hope. The costly side effect of these slow-downs is the growth of favelas. When people cannot afford code-compliant housing and are working informally, they make do. Even though Porto Alegre was far from the largest city in Brazil, its favelas were apparent. I saw a surprising number of horses used for transportation, and I certainly saw people serving carts full of cardboard. Poverty is apparent, and employment is lagging behind.
The other topic I want to raise about Brazil was the extent of my linguistic isolation. Portuguese is the dominant language of Brazil, of course, but I had not appreciated how rarely English would be spoken outside the major tourism sites. In more than one restaurant, I was forced to resort to pointing at menus, and my limited middle-school Spanish training was essentially useless. I had not reckoned on how lonely I would feel without speaking the local language. I felt an incredible sense of relief when I fell in with a group of French tourists on a trip to Itaipu dam, even though my knowledge of that language has suffered from twenty years of disuse. I know that I would need to invest serious time in language training if I were to spend significant time in Brazil.
I could go on for many more pages; I see I have barely made mention of the second half of my trip (tourism at Foz do Iguacu)! I didn’t even get to complain about the traffic in Porto Alegre, where lane markings are only suggestions. I know that I hope to see Brazil again, and perhaps I will be better prepared for what I find on my next visit!