Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Brazil is not the United States

Brazil is not the United States. I like that about Brazil. Actually, I really like that about Brazil.

From day one when I first visited this country 13 years ago I loved the fact that vendors walk the sand at beaches everywhere selling cold beverages, warm fresh foods, sun bathing products, sunglasses, bikinis, children’s play toys and whatever else you may desire. I like that about Brazil. In Salvador we even had a little boy come by our spot on the sand every 15 minutes or so and empty a garden watering can over our feet to cool us down (for a small tip). Cute!

To my mind, street vendors selling beverages, hot dogs, Xtudos (cheese burgers w/ everything), ice cream – and on and on are a convenience when hanging out at a block party or waiting for the party to get started inside the Sambadromo.

Is the bus stuck in traffic? Hop on the back of a motorcycle and pay a Motoboy to get you to your destination on time, zig zagging between the backed up cars and trucks. Or, if you are on the bus, reach out the window and buy an ice cold water (or beer) and maybe a package of cookies from a vendor walking up and down the lanes in the traffic jam.

Brazil is not the United States. In the States these kind of entrepreneurial efforts would be forbidden by law or so severely regulated as to significantly reduce the convenience and surely raise prices.

Living in Brazil I can do without the seemingly ever expanding desire by many to “Americanize.” I want to warn people that it is the wrong path forward and that they should be careful what they wish for. But I can understand how television presents the illusion of universal wealth and carefree consumption in the US and how this then ignites a desire in people to get some for themselves – or for politicians to promise they can deliver these wonders once elected.

Personally, I like the fact that 2 liter plastic soda bottles are so thin they collapse under the slightest squeeze (consuming less plastic!) And it seems better in the long run to raise your children with small or very small soda or ice cream portions (which are still quite satisfying) rather than always tilt toward a wasteful and dangerous Super Size for everything.

It is my hope that Brazil will resist the temptation to emulate all that is “American” for as long as possible. Unfortunately, the class dynamics here are very pronounced and the rich seem to reach for the “American” version of things. Thus setting a coveted example. Alas. Television, advertising, peer pressure, all the usual suspects, are homogenizing so many facets of Brazil’s amazing multifaceted cultural expressions. And they are moving us all toward a more wasteful, consumption oriented way of life (among other things).

This “progress” is already infringing on our local experience in a big way. Sadly, it appears to be a tide that will not be reversing any time soon.

Right next to the "Whole Foods" look alike grocery.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for economic progress and how some of this has lifted some (quite a few, in fact) Brazilians out of severe poverty. But being like “America” in and of itself is not synonymous with progress or good. I would argue that Brazilians have created a proud, uniquely multicultural history which can progress all on its own without morphing into a USA clone.

The motivation for this post came from a walk through our neighborhood recently that made me a bit sad. The first Starbucks coffee shop has opened near our apartment (which looks identical to all those I have seen in the States). To my disbelief there is a new (franchise) sports bar named All Games that features US-style football. WTF? (Who goes there?). The worst of it all was discovering a new Burger King opening at an intersection that already has a McDonalds, Dominos Pizza and Subway sandwich joint. Argh – my neighborhood is becoming an “anywhere USA” junk yard.

Value meals start at R$18

You pay for delivery.

Three slices of meat per sandwich.

If you can find someone in my neighborhood who knows who played in the Super Bowl, I will buy you a venti  Starbucks 4 shot espresso latte with a pump of vanilla syrup.

Brazil is not the United States – and I have always liked that about Brazil. Too bad the status conscious young professionals in the neighborhood are willing to spend R$9 or more for a latte. I have a secret desire that people who grew up drinking a 2 ounce shot of coffee after lunch will not switch to a ‘grande’ or ‘venti’ super sized dose of corporate Kool Aid.


Anonymous said...

Love it! Love your writing! I like going to a country where I recognize not one store.

The Reader said...

I am with you on this one, for sure. I *love* the beach & street vendors. Stuck in traffic on the way to the airport? Flag down one of the people selling water, sodas, hot roasted nuts....yum.

I almost cried when a Starbucks opened near our old apartment, and then again a few months later when the local coffee shop had closed. So sad.

And, while I was bummed when our McDonald's quit having the one US breakfast item I liked, I have to admit, there's something much more authentic about these American chains having Brazilian food items (can you imagine paying R$15 for a slice of bread & a small coffee in the US?).

We even discovered an American football league here. Crazy. (do I lose points if I admit we might go watch them play???)

I hope Brazil hangs onto its Brazilness; we don't need another US, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Move to Belo Horizonte. We don't have Starbucks!!! It is a great place to live. It is a big city but in the same time a still somehow small.

Maggie Winter said...

I agree completely with every word, well said. I met a family group from Sao Paulo who were visiting Rio. They thought it was marvellous how quickly Brazil was catching up with America and that credit was becoming easier to obtain. I told them they should be very careful what they wished for, they had no idea what I could possible mean.I tried to explain but they want things and they want them now. We're from UK and they were stunned that we, English people would want to live in Brazil. It really shocked them and their attitude surprised me.
I suspect our little paradise is changing too fast to stop, it may be the time to start looking for a new utopia.
Great article.

Georgia said...

Well, that kid should have been at school, not cooling your feet - that ain't cute.

It seems that the best part of Brazil for you is being served by people who are the products of an impoverished country; victims of the mentality of the upper classes who haven't quite given up their 'slaves' yet... Do you think they really enjoy going up and down those beaches all day under +30C heat so that you can have a snack?

Ever wondered why gas stations employ people to fill your tank for you? Ever wondered why there are so many valets available to park your car for you?

On the other hand, however, I do agree that it is disgusting that all this American trash is being sold as gold here. Don't see how it will change, though...

Jim said...

Calm down Georgia - and read my blog before you toss around such comments. You will discover that you do NOT have my number.

The vendor/services stories are meant to highlight some of the differences in personal liberties that Brazilians have that US Americans lack (not allowed by the government). Of course I understand the poverty roots of many of these situations. Duh. Sigh.

Don't be rude. This blog is meant to be a rude-free zone. Try, at least a little, to know to whom you are speaking when you pull out the insults.

Anonymous said...


I believe there really are laws in Brazil which don't allow all or most of such entrepreneurial efforts as said on your post and that Brazilians don't really enjoy much more personals liberties than Americans. I, personally, dare to say that, by the caunting of laws there are in this country, they should be less.

Many things in Brazil, as those entreprereurial efforts, are certainly forbidden by law or severely regulated as much as in US or even more. But, unfortunately, many of those laws and regulations are extensively broken and thought to be a mere stupid inconvenience or pain in the ass that MUST be forgotten, avoided or bypast as much as possible and by any means possible.

That thought or belief is widespread thoughtout brazil and even gov officers, such as police officers, have it rooted in their core and don't follow many rules as well. There's even an old proverb in portuguese that could be a good example of such a thought so much shared by most Brazilians: "O que os olhos não veem, o coração não sente".


Jim said...

Alexandre - I Agree that I am roping the Widespread disregard for many laws here in Brazil with the idea of greater personal liberty. But I am confident that there are fewer laws regulating every aspect of amour lives here in Brazil than there'd are in the States. That would be a good post ... Looking into that.

Luiz and I use that expressions when Negotiating relationship hurdles. Never thought of it in terms of law breaking.

It is surely my experience that Brazilians are more likely to disregard laws deemed a trivial a or foolish.