HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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24 February 2012

Balanço do Carnaval

Balanço do Carnaval

This was my second Carnaval experience in Rio. Much like the first, it changed the way I think about the city and about the possibilities of Carnaval to change space and the social order. The spatial element is easier, so let’s begin there.

I went to the Volta Alice bloco in Laranjeiras at 9am on Sunday meeting two friends. Volta Alice has a double meaning as the bloco does a Volta up the Rua Alice, a narrow passage up towards Santa Teresa and it also means come back, which it does every year. Thousands of people crammed into the narrow street, shuffling forward behind a massive samba-blasting beer can. Not a bloco to bring parents to, Volta Alice is a forward-moving mosh pit. Moving from side to side was only slightly less difficult than back to front. Retreating to the back would have taken about 10 minutes though tightly crammed and increasingly drunk, though always friendly revelers. It was hot and sweaty. When the beer can stopped rolling, the crowd’s density increased. By 10am beer had become a possibility, by 10:30 inevitable.

It was within this context that an ambulance doggedly tried to push through the bloco. Driving this rather impoverished looking conveyance was an elderly gentleman who insisted that he get up the hill to get to work. In the passenger seat, a woman on the phone chatted lightly. There was clearly no medical emergency underway though it seemed as if there would be soon. The bellowing fumes of exhaust poisoned revelers even faster than they could do it to themselves. The license plate was from São Paulo, the way clearly lost. Was there no police control at the entrance to Rua Alice? Why was this siren blasting in the middle of this sweaty, slowly moving wave? C’mon…

These otherwise excellent hats from Belo Horizonte were a poor option for a dense crowd.

People do love to cram together in sweaty lumps of flesh in Rio de Janeiro. I felt badly when my sweaty arm or back slathered those near me. I stepped on dozens of feet, knocked over a beer or two, and bumped roughly into well-muscled, chest-hairless Cariocas. I was one more beer-fueled, sun-soaked biped in a pulsing mass that I could not see the beginning or end of.  This is fun until the herd tries to take the same public transportation system or there is any kind of emergency.

Sargento Pimento is the Portuguese translation of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. Last year this bloco was a disaster because so many people tried to cram in the small side streets of Botafogo and no one could even get close to the music. This year the good Sergeant was moved to the Aterro do Flamengo and it was still a disaster.

The sound car was terrible, you had to be within 100 meters to hear anything. I talked with a professional stage hand who said he was “embarrassed for them”.

The cell system crashed. With that many people trying to find each other there were probably 100,000 SMS messages a minute bouncing around. None of them made it to their intended destination. Thousands never met up with their friends.

Though I didn’t see it myself, the anecdotal reports from the end of Sargento Pimento were that the Gloria and Catete metro stations were utter chaos. If something went wrong, a fight, heart attack, birth, not as many people would be singing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds next year.  How many people gave each other nerbvous looks, thinking, “Imagina a Copa…” Imagine what this will be like in 2014. Let’s hope the emergency systems aren’t tied to the cell towers?

We clearly need to figure out a better method for measuring crowds, but there were certainly as many as 40,000 and perhaps as many as 90,000 (my guesses) at the bloco (any suggestions on crowd counting techniques welcome). Imagine a stadium full of people emptying all at once into two metro stations that run along one line and most of those people heading south. That’s the situation that unfolded after Sargento Pimenta.

I heard at a debate earlier this year, “Praia não tem catraca.” The beach doesn’t have a turnstile. This means that it’s impossible to control access to Rio’s major public spaces. When you invite millions and they come, you need to be ready to handle it. We’re a long way from that in Rio.

It’s clear that Rio Metrô is not a mega-system. On Monday night as we went to the Sambodrômo via Metrô, there was only one attendant at the Flamengo station and both of the automatic tellers for recharging the metro card were broken. The Metrô is a scandal disguised as a model of successful, privatized urban governance.

There was a sophomoric element to this year’s Carnaval. The tv and radio campaigns to stop people peeing in the street were backed up with more toilets. The arrests for peeing in the street seem stupid, but they did allow for guys to shout “Polícia!” at their friends. Funny the first time.

Despite the lack of traffic control at Volta Alice, there was a greater police presence this year than last. I didn’t really notice them too much when I wasn’t looking for them. Relative to the policing tactics that I have seen in Austin, Texas this is a pretty hands-off approach. When the hands get you though, it’s not good. Why arrest people for peeing? Can’t you write them tickets? Perhaps because there’s no ticket to give, the cops aren’t there to bust people, they’re there to make sure there’s a limit to the possibilities of Carnaval. OGlobo seemed to take a perverse delight in showing the effectinve policing tactics of the police by reporting on how many people were arrested per day for peeing in the street. While peeing strategies are essential for making it through the party, reporting pee-arrests as front page news should also come with a criminal penalty.

Carnaval confuses, confounds and delights in many of the same ways that the city does. The party is stretched out over two weeks, marking the end of summer and the official beginning of the year. It’s seemingly endless, overwhelmingly large, too much to take in. It seems both too near and too far any to get any focus on. Millions are in their neighborhoods dancing and singing where they usually work, go shopping, sit in traffic. There is an apparent liberty of expression that is both constrained and amplified. Rio’s aggressive sexuality is validated, making public life even more uncomfortable for women. The social production of fantasy takes physical form on women's bodies who do incredible things to (butt and bust implants, bigger thighs than footballers) and with their bodies; girls imitate their elders. 

There is a common sentiment that nothing gets done between xmas and Carnaval, but this isn’t really true. People work their asses off to make the party happen. There are tens of thousands of beer vendors, making their investment back R$1 at a time, lugging ice through crowds, pushing heavy carts, and negotiating with drunks.  I don’t know how to estimate the number of aluminum cans consumed, but it is surely in the tens of millions. Plastic bottles? Sustainable tourism? Overload of sewage systems? Who cleans all this mess up? Can it really get bigger and bigger and bigger until 2016?

Once there, the pageantry and beauty of the samba schools was amazing. The creativity, detail, beauty, and coordination filled me with wonder. The Unidos da Tijuca floats were some of the most incredible things I have seen, mindboggling testaments to the creative possibilities of Carioca society. I’m under no allusions of pureza but as a spectacle in-and-of-itself, wow.


As if to remind us that the year is about to really begin, Sunday marks the end of summer hours in Brazil. The long slide into a short winter has begun.










16 February 2012

Fora Teixeira!!!!

Fora Ricardo Teixeira! E daí?

It is long past the time when Ricardo Texeira should have been sent to Rio’s Bangu One prison where he could share a cell with the dozens of Military Police who were imprisoned for having the temerity to strike (albeit briefly) for higher wages. Incredible what happens in Rio when you take on the government:  só porrada.  It appears as if Mr. Jowls, as I like to call him, has finally run out of escape hatches and is going to resign from the CBF, some say today, maybe tomorrow, certainly before March.

Reports have R.T. literally hiding in his hotel room to avoid Herr Blatter at a recent CONMEBOL meeting in Buenos Aires. The man is not well, physically or mentally, nor has he been for some time. Romário is ramping up his criticisms of the feudal system that counts as professional football in Brasil, making it clear that Tricky Ricky (as our good friend Andrew Jennings calls him) is only a major figurehead in a very sick footballing world.


As Mr. Jowls flees to the dangling dongle of Florida (where he will no doubt be immune from prosecution and extradition – USAmericans please write your government asking that this misanthrope’s visa be revoked) what will be the implications for the World Cup? R.T. is the president of the Local Organizing Committee, his daughter is the Secretary General of the 2014 World Cup, his personal secretary director of communications. Will there be a house cleaning as FIFA tries to distance itself from the sordid legacy of João Havelange and his criado?

There are rumors floating about that FIFA is ready to cut one or two cities form the cup, or that they were waiting to see how they could appear to tidy house while maintaining the status quo before they suggested any major changes to Brazil 2014. Some rumors have suggested a re-working of the match schedule in order to regionalize travel. I won’t repeat the absurdities of the current scheme, check this old post if you don’t remember what the current plan is. There are some chairs being shuffled, but will they clean the stains?

Dilma should use the imminent fall of Dr. Jowls to nationalize the CBF. This would have various effects:
  1. End the obscene and absurd position of FIFA that politics and sport are separate categories of human endeavor. FIFA cannot ban Brazil from international competition, in this regard, the government could immediately take the upper hand in negotiations over the World Cup Law. (Not that it really matters as the Worker’s Party is quickly privatizing everything in sight. For those gringos out there that have still have some romanticized vision of Lula’s lefty politics, the PT is about as progressive as the Obama administration on immigration). 
  2. Reduce the influence of cartolas in the running of the game. The person who is taking control of the CBF in R.T.’s absence is an 80 year old who recently stole a medal from the winner’s stand at a junior tournament in São Paulo. The second-string keeper was the last one on the podium and got a handshake, nothing more. FDP.
  3. Have concursos públicos to administer the positions in the CBF, hopefully professionalizing and making more transparent the running of football in Brazil.   
  4. Pull the plug on OGlobo.


It won’t likely happen, but one year ago it didn’t seem likely that Teixeira would be facing criminal charges in Brazil and Europe and fleeing with his family to South Florida. Let’s keep up the pressure!!!! Fora a familia Teixeria-Havelange ! Nacionalize já a CBF!!!!

09 February 2012

Homenagem à Yemanjá

The other night, when I came home from a party, all of the lights on the Aterro do Flamengo were out. From the front window I could clearly see fires along the beach, flickering offerings to the orixá Yemanjá, goddess of the sea.
Aterro do Flamengo, 2am 3 Feb, 2012. Immediately above the 2am
are the fires set on the beach in honor of Ymenjá.
The lights were out, the radio later informed, because a power outage had hit a few parts of Flamengo and Botafogo. The cause of the pane (breakdown) was unknown and there wasn’t a larger systemic failure as happened in 2009 when a massive apagão hit Brasil shutting off power to nine states. 

It might appear that Rio is falling down faster than it can be built or remodeled, but that’s not an accurate assessment. Antes de mais nada, we should remind ourselves that Rio is not the only city in the world with some old and decaying infrastructure problems. The United States, for example, will (soon) find itself in a massive infrastructure crisis. Has everyone forgotten about the I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007? How’s that I-95 corridor treatin’ ya? Waited for a summer-time bus in Austin? How's that passenger train service between x and y USAmerican cities beyond the Portland - D.C. megalopolis?  After the Minnesota collapse, I'm pretty sure there weren’t Brazilian journalists calling up professors in the USA to ask whether or not the country was falling to pieces. There should have been, but we know that the only thing flat about globalization is Thomas Friedman’s head.

So it's not just Brazil or Rio that has infrastructure problems but they are particularly acute here for a number of reasons. The country has only recently emerged into the global economic spotlight. Even though it's a terrible term, it's not a CRIB country for nothing. For many decades, it did not have the financial capacity, international trade or internal consumer markets that produce the need to develop large scale widely placed infrastructure (remember that this only happened in the USA beginning in 1956 with the Eisenhauer National System of Interstate and Defense Highways program). 

True, there are many bureaucratic and institutional structures that limited Brazilian infrastructure development and investment (and continue to do so), but the reality is that Brazilian cities, and especially Rio (and especially after the capital moved to Brasília in 1960), did not invest in basic infrastructure. Not having smooth functioning transportation, communications, sewage, tourist, security, or other systems that are equipped to handle the volumes of traffic that come with rapid economic growth is a historically contingent reality. The successful pursuit of so many bloody events is stressing these already fragile systems. These things really need to be planned for in the long term so that the short and medium term effects aren’t so disastrous.

The costs for the mega-events are manifold and magnified by pushing the creaky old legs of the city onto center stage. Perhaps the building wouldn’t have undergone a hurried renovation if it weren’t in the most expensive real-estate market in the Ámericas. Perhaps more rigorous oversight by the city government would have saved some lives. Maybe, just maybe, they should have accounted for all of the bodies before scooping up the rubble. They found a few later in the city dump. Some parts of the story are unimaginable, some structural, and some things just can’t be explained. 

An easy solution? The World Cup, Olympics and their minor offspring cannot occur in any city that does not include them as part of an existing, long-term, integrated metropolitan urban plan that folds the events more seamlessly into its varied fabrics. It’s nice to dream, não?

Ymenjá might have appreciated the blackout the other night, but she would probably be happier if the bay were clean.


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