It’s easy to love Brazil. The sun floods the house in the morning, filling the spaces with light and lightening the mood of the people. As mid-day approaches, gaggles of work-colleagues appear on the streets, chattering and chortling as they amble towards the nearest buffet-lunch bar. In the late afternoon, people sit in the park with their tea bowls, sucking the green liquid and gazing into the future. When the light fades, the crickets come out to sing, filling the tropical night air with an elusive mystique.
Some of my colleagues cannot believe I am thinking of heading back to the miserable grey skies of England, to the land of yob-culture, school bullies, boarded-up pubs, shops that shut at 5, small-minded conservative people and baked beans with everything. To a country where camping trips are ruined by the rain, where your body never throws off its clobber, where coffee is instant bilge, where town centres have been made anonymous by ugly shopping centres, where traffic wardens are repressed psychopaths and where a cheese and onion sandwich is the highlight of your day.
After all, living abroad makes you feel like a hero: what a remarkable feat you have managed, making your way in a foreign land and communicating in a foreign tongue, launched out of your cosy comfort zone like a jack-in-a-box! Surviving and prospering abroad is the sign of an intrepid adventurer, an infinitely resourceful globe-trotter, a multi-cultural maverick. When ex-pats in Brazil sit outside a trendy bar quaffing glasses of freezing beer and eyeing the talent they wish their cowardly mates back home could see them now! ‘This is the life’, they say.
But Brazil has hit the buffers with a dull, ominous thud. The Worker’s Party, who claim to be ‘socialists’ and have been in charge for more than a decade, have been exposed as one of the most corrupt governments in the country’s history. With mafia-like villainy, they have made Al Capone look like Homer Simpson. In the latest scandal, billions of dollars were siphoned out of Brazil’s huge state oil company, Petrobras. Now the country is financially broke and morally and spiritually broken. The local currency is up and down like Tower Bridge and the future looks, well, not exactly pear-shaped – more banana republic. Being here sometimes feels like living in the middle of an abandoned building site.
The middle classes have been revolting, huge swathes of them taking to the streets to call for the impeachment of President Dilma. They say they want a new Brazil, though I doubt many of them would be prepared to give up their servants – armies of the poor who daily spend hours in cramped buses on the way to clean house, cook and look after rich kids for a pittance. In many ways Brazil has never overcome the master-slave mentality that began when the Portuguese monarchy arrived here 500 years ago. Success, for a Brazilian, is not having to do the dirty work. Today, the professional classes may be working hard in their corporate suites, but they don’t lift a finger when they come home. The surest way to go bankrupt in Brazil is to open a DIY store.
This potent mixture of political corruption, middle-class hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor is making Brazil much less easy to love. If anything, the recent displays of public anger are symptomatic of a country riddled with self-hatred. It’s very difficult today to find a Brazilian with much love for their homeland; most have become profoundly cynical. The tragedy is that, during the recent ‘boom’ years, Brazil did little to invest in public services: schools, hospitals and transportation are woefully underfunded. In this respect, Brazil has failed to throw off its ‘third world’ stigma. The irony is that, for a third world country, the current cost of living is astronomical. In short, nothing seems to make sense in present-day Brazil.
But perhaps the single most shocking thing about life here, is the blatant lack of policing and crime control. If the English police force is considered ‘professional’, then the Brazilian equivalent is a bunch of amateur clowns, so badly paid (and drawn from the uneducated poor) that they can’t resist colluding with the criminal gangs they are supposed to be catching. Many days go by here in Porto Alegre where I don’t see a single police officer. And this in a country where crime is rife and victims are shot dead if they react. One of my friends admitted recently she is just waiting for the day when a gun is put to her head and she hands over the keys of her car. If she accidentally screams, she might not live to tell the tale. When my son announced, with only a trace of irony, that if he had to stay living in Brazil he would buy a gun, something clicked in my head. That can’t be right.
And yet, despite all this angst, my reasons for being lured back to Blighty are mostly mundane. You see, I miss a lot of daft stuff – ebay, for example. The second-hand Johnny that I am has been starved to the bone. I dream of charity shops, used book and record shops, jumble sales, flea markets. I ache to buy a decent second-hand motor at a reasonable price (impossible in Brazil). I miss supermarkets with their half-price offers and vast range of imported foods. I fantasize about Wetherspoons pubs – in fact, any pub. I long to see clean water in the rivers, hear the smack of leather on willow and enjoy the light of those long summer nights.
Of course, there are a few serious reasons, too. Like free healthcare, for example – here in Brazil, like the USA, if you don’t have costly health insurance you take your place at the back of the queue and risk being forgotten. And being a rich country, there is at least some spending on public services in England and a modicum of respect for the environment. And, though I never thought I would ever say this, I want to live in a place with at least the odd copper knocking about; a place where criminals pay for their crimes if they are caught, which rarely seems to happen here. When I first heard gunshots in the middle of the night, I felt proud of myself for braving life in lawless, ‘wild west’ Brazil. But now I’m too old for Cowboys and Indians.
If I do set sail and leave these distant shores, it will not be without sadness, but with a heavy heart. If I do feel the odd twinge of hate for Brazil just now, it’s only because deep down I love it. Just play me a Djavan song and I’ll be in tears in no time. What makes Brazil warm is not the tropical climate, but the big-hearted Brazilians with their zest for life, despite all the struggle and strife.
In fact, if I had a sea-view flat in Copacabana, with armed guards on the door and a shotgun under the mattress, a constant supply of untaxed imported goods, a few dodgy friends, an English pub round the corner and a pair of binoculars I would probably stick around. But somehow I think that’s unlikely.