30 December 2008

In Country: Context is Nothing

The following is a decontextualized list of things that I have witnessed in the past 5 days.

1) When driving, stop signs are just a suggestion.

2) Brasilians are very social. Even asking for directions on the street becomes a community based activity. Whether walking or driving, the typical approach to finding one's way is to just head in the general direction of one's final destination. Then, apparently with great random, stop and ask for directions. Sometimes this may require a second opinion, so another person will also be solicited for advice. After the directions have been agreed upon by all parties, resume traveling toward the destination. After a while, it is appropriate to again stop and ask for directions. Usually this second stop is accompanied by an explanation of the first set of directions earlier in the journey. This second inquiry may also require more than one person's advice. And, of course, it is always necessary to acquire agreement about the directions from all parties before resuming the journey. On occasion, the names of one's children or the place of one's birth may also be inserted into the conversation. Travel in Brasil is like attending a very large party.

3) In the States, handicapped parking spaces are provided for individuals with physical challenges. In Brasil, this courtesy is extended to senior citizens. In some grocery store parking lots the word idoso, which means senior citizen, is placed between choice spots near the doorway. In addition, once inside the store one can find separate cash register lines (known as preferencial) especially for pregnant women, women with babies, people in wheelchairs and senior citizens. This afternoon, because I am still functionally illiterate in Portuguese, I managed to stand in the caixa preferencial line for . . . oh, about 10 minutes . . . before it was pointed out to me that I was neither pregnant, carrying a newborn, navigating a wheechair nor old enough to qualify as a senior. It's not clear to me what was more embarrassing: standing in the incorrect line or having to be told that I was standing in the incorrect line.

4) All Brasilians, regardless of body type and size, wear skimpy bathing suits at the pool and beach. While it's quite appealing in the thin and youthful, there are some exceptions. Men, often with the bulging beer gut acquired with age, wear speedos. Women, without concern for the impact child bearing may have wrought upon their bellies, wear two piece bikinis. Not to be forgotten is the posterior view of the famous Brasilian thong, which manages to disappear into the crack of one's rear. Anyone who does not wear the speedo or the thong is known to be a foreigner.

5) Brasilians call all Americans "gringos" regardless of the color of one's skin.

6) Most buffet style restaurants provide customers a wash bowl before entering the food line.

7) Household garbage is placed in a raised cage on the sidewalk to await pickup. Supposedly this is to keep dogs from getting into it before the truck arrives. When the garbage truck does come along each day, young men run behind it for the entire route, stopping at each house to throw the cage's contents in the back of the truck. They are very thin young men. Although unconfirmed, locals claim that the garbage men are prisoners working off some of their jail time.

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