TRAVEL / Where worlds collide: In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the rainforest is a lost memory. Paul Rambali observes the city's many cultures, from the glitzy towers of TV power to the slums made of garbage

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE OLD factory district in the north of Sao Paulo is a vista of razed terrain, empty lots, a flat spread of nothing waiting for a planning decision, for fresh investment, with only the contours of the freeways for geophysical relief, a past too recent, a future too far off, the flat, barren crossroads outside American towns where boom meets bust.

Lining the road are the Over-nite motel, the Roman-Ville motel, the Broadway restaurant, the kind of places that spring up wherever six-lane highways come together to give access. Plasterboard villas with red-tiled roofs, they are new, but already grey with dust. The signs have dulled and rubbish blown by the wind accumulates under security walls. Between the walls and the road there is no pavement.

JORI WORKED the windscreens at the roundabout, holding the buckets of water for the other kids, then jumping out as the lights changed to clean them herself as soon as she could reach across the hoods. From the traffic island, she watched the motels being built. It was an encouraging sign. It meant her world was improving.

It being all she knows, she cannot think like me that it looks impermanent, like much of America, that it didn't quite come off, before the money ran out halfway through, before someone stole it or saw a better prospect.

Between the district headquarters of Alcoa and Unibanco, there along the road that leads in and out of the city, living on a traffic island beneath a flyover, Jori grew up; like millions of others, modern Brazil buzzing past their ears in haze, while they make love in a shack, on a torn mattress, on a cardboard floor.

The thing that shocks me the most is how unsanitary it is. I stifle my revulsion, for this reaction in me upsets me as much, measures the distance between us. The favelas or shanty towns of Rio, with their semi-official status, sewerage and lighting, and their superb views, had not prepared me for the squalor of those of Brazil's largest metropolis, Sao Paulo, at the engulfing edge of the tide.

Waste living off waste, refuse off refuse. There are several tons of garbage behind the shacks where Jori was born, the garbage of garbage. I look carefully to see what it consists of, since it doesn't resemble the garbage I'm used to. It's uniform, every piece the same size and texture, without colour; millions of small pieces of nothing. The garbage of garbage.

There are no empty cans; these have all been recycled. There are no bottles either, for the same reason; no bits of broken glass - these have all been collected. There is nothing that might have been thrown out of an ordinary home, for this garbage has been salvaged, sorted, broken down, picked clean by children looking for food or amusement.

All that's left are shards of wood, the broken scraps of scrap, pieces of pieces, small scraps of paper or cloth. It is the size of each piece that gives this garbage its homogeneity. Each piece is small, because anything big enough to be used has been saved. What has no value for people for whom a broken piece of plywood is the wall of their home?

Today, these homes are being bulldozed and the dusty street beside the flyover is full of squashed rats, flattened by advancing bulldozers as they fled their nests in panic.

One family has salvaged from the bulldozers, from their home made of salvage, the corrugated tin, the broken pieces of plywood, the old fence posts, the door, the tattered chairs, the electric juice-maker, the occasional table, and the lamp. Everything is broken, frayed, bent or rusted and it's all piled high on the back of a white pick-up truck with the town logo on the side and beneath it, the slogan of the new mayoress: 'Sao Paulo - a City for All'.

Six years was not so long. Jori will miss the place. She will miss the makeshift school where old man Nando showed her letters and numbers. They had found some paint left over from the construction of a motel nearby and painted the words Escola Infantil on the side of his shack. The shacks had padlocks and chains on the doors, to keep out the dogs, and the thieves. People with nothing stealing from people with nothing.

On top of their possessions, cheering and waving as the truck drives away, sit the family. There are eight of them. They lived in two shacks, which meant they got dollars 4,000 indemnity from the city, dollars 2,000 for each shack. They have paid their debts and opened a bank account with what was left. And they are going to be rehoused in a new bungalow.

Watching them go are some boys. There is a skinny boy, aged about 12, thin and sweating, clutching at his scrawny elbows and shuddering, a feverish fear in his eyes as he watches the bulldozer flatten his home with a rev of mechanical fury. Now he has nowhere to sleep, nowhere even to lie down, and his jaw shivers with cold and fright. He is suffering from secondary malnutrition, its effects reversible in time. Recurring dysentery has left his knees protruding like tennis-balls from thin legs. He must find somewhere to sleep.

The trucks take away the broken planks, the old furniture and the plates, the Primus stoves and the nailed-up curtains, and the people in the back with them, loaded up on top, garbage on garbage, going off to their very own casa popular. Funded by the Banco Nacional de Habitacion, the casas populars are far from the city. That's the problem, but it's a real house at least. Living under the freeway interchange had its inconveniences, but it was central.

Under the flyover now, only a few houses remain. There are thin, mangy chickens picking at the dust, and sick, exhausted dogs snapping weakly at the flies that circle them. Across the railway tracks is the church of Deus e Amor, the cathedral of the poor, a converted factory building. Old man Nando had taught Jori to read the big neon letters of the sign on the front of the church: God is Love.

NILSON will be working in the jardims, the wealthy hillsides where the streets are lined with jacarandas that give a soft, diffused shade from their fine, lacy leaves, the lightest of green, like a delicate fern at the end of branches large and strong enough to reach across the street. The force of tropical nature in the midst of this polluted, concrete environment is a constant wonder, a constant reminder. The pavements swell and crack from the roots pushing up from the giant tropical chestnuts, as though the earth beneath Sao Paulo were truly a living thing, a Gaian entity that will one day wake and shrug off this giant city.

It's in these suburbs that the fabled violence of such cities as Rio and Sao Paulo is most tangible, or at least the fear of it. Here, and in the downtown district, near the overcrowded tenements, where the pimps and thieves mingle with the office workers by day and control the lobbies of seedy hotels by night. Elsewhere, in the modest residential districts, in the poor, dusty suburbs and in the favelas, there is relatively little of the random violence of North American cities. Nilson's job will be to hold off the desperation of people like himself, the unskilled poor. And to hold open the gates for imported cars.

These are the leafy suburbs of the TV soap operas, the telenovelas, where the mistress of the house complains - like a Victorian lady or Southern dame - of the impossibility of finding good servants nowadays, and has to make do with five where before she had 12; where swimming-pools nest in a profusion of emerald fronds. It's here that the violence is done. Muggers in the streets outside; and respectable, corporate muggers in the living-rooms inside, with their walls covered with Indian art, drinking imported whisky from cut crystal.

At a party beside a pool in the jardins, I am introduced to Victor Civita, the grandson of Victor Civita Snr, founder of Abril, the publishing company that owns most of the magazines on Brazilian newsstands, including Veja, the Brazilian Time, which sells almost a million copies a week. The group is now headed by Victor's father, Roberto, and has branched out into television. They have licensed MTV in Brazil, broadcast on UHF in most urban areas.

The warm evenings compensate for the humid tropical days; the temperature descends enough to liberate the scents from the walls of verdant vegetation. The people at the party work in the media, in advertising, publishing, fashion and television. They are mostly in their late twenties, the sons and daughters of people in control of the media. I'm asked the inevitable question. 'What do you write about?' And when I hesitate, someone adds helpfully, 'Arts, politics or ecology?'

In Brazil, as much as anywhere else, ecology has become a buzzword, a growth sector, a career. I was almost sorry I wasn't an ecologist. As a foreigner, I would have satisfied an image they have of themselves, of a nation with environmental issues to resolve that matter for the whole world. Ecology, for cosmopolitan Brazilians, has given them new status.

Instead, I say I'm interested in television in the developing world. Brazil is the tele-literate society, a model for the next century. TV in Brazil, as everywhere else, has become more real than life: the collective memory, the collective unconscious. Television shares and validates experience. In Brazil, it has brought about the political enfranchisement of the sub-literate, a revolution more instantly far-reaching than the printing press. Television has opened a trans-Amazonian highway in the depths of the jungle. In the centre of the new settlements is a post with a television, which a local functionary comes to switch on every evening. The whole village gathers around to catch up on Western civilisation. Indians, like the military and the industrialists, have sensed the power of this new flickering totem. Some tribes have their own cameraman, providing material for government agencies, universities, BBC and Home Box Office documentaries.

Bringing MTV to the Brazilian public, I tell Victor, is worse than opening Pandora's Box. He is contributing to the destruction of history.

'You should meet my dad,' says Victor. 'He hates television. It's against everything he stands for. It's anti-culture]' Victor's dad publishes educational material at a loss, 'because he feels he has to'. I feel a little sorry for Roberto Civita, who still believes in content, and doesn't realise that form, or surface, over which the modern attention skates, is all that remains. But his ideals didn't stop him buying a franchise on MTV, and CNN, and ESPN, and TNT classics, and two other channels.

'He had no choice. It's the future. I made him do it,' says Victor.

He grows dejected. 'It doesn't fill your mind. What do pop videos make you think about? More pop videos]' The station also runs public service announcements about drink-driving, Aids and, of course, ecology, that Victor enjoys making.

Victor studied politics and media at Columbia University in New York. He wanted to be a musician, but accepted this alternative for the sake of the family. Troubles with the military censors had led to a spell in exile in London in the Seventies after one of their magazines, Realidade, was forced to close. At Columbia, he read Neil Postman's influential study of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. 'I hated TV. I thought it was the end. Now here I am.' He predicts: 'We'll all go back to storyboards. Instead of rapid editing, it'll be one long take. It's been overused already. The limit is the imagination.' History will fall back into place? Content will be revealed? Maybe not. 'Non-Verbal Literacy' is the term for what MTV is teaching America. The following day, Victor introduces me to the advertising executive who helped to set up MTV in Brazil. He too is interested in television in the developing world. He has a large file of clippings on non-verbal literacy. He says the problem is that it leaves people with no facility to verbalise an argument. I would go further, and say it leaves them without an argument to verbalise.

Victor's grandfather started out by publishing Donald Duck comics. The company still does, and Brazil is the only country in the world where they are writing new adventures for the feisty fowl. Brazil, which, before television, was two nations, rich and poor, urban and rural, that didn't know each other, is becoming like the rest of the tele-literate world, one big all-seeing but unremembering child.

AILTON KRENAK is a small man with silky dark hair and a lucid, calm gaze, the leader of the Union of Indian Nations.

A few years ago, he called together the shamen of the Indian tribes of Brazil for a magical ceremony. His aim was to penetrate the dreams of Brazilian politicians and fix in their subconscious a respect for the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.

He lives in the city, but says: 'Cities are a cancer, a leprosy on the face of the earth, and they are a phenomenon of the 20th century. People who are planning them are worms. And the people who run the media are criminals because they are selling the idea of the paradise city, and it's a lie. Cities are full of violence; against people, against children. It's a madhouse. People want a car, an apartment, a salary, they're searching for something all the time, but not life. And the green parts of the city are the biggest lie of all.' He says this without anger, without despair, without impatience, as if explaining it to a curious child.

We are sitting in a garden, surrounded by the city, by apartment blocks and telecommunications towers. A flock of green parrots swoops down, rare in the city, chased by a swarm of army helicopters low above our heads. 'But what do you say to these people?' I gesture at the apartments.

Krenak speaks slowly. 'I've been asked the same question in other circumstances. In London, I was told, 'We're here in a city with a high quality of life, apparently, planes and cars, and we feel paralysed. We live in a fish tank. How can we change it?' I said the cities are not a problem, they're just an expression. The people who come to the cities don't know where they're going, don't know where they come from. They're huddling together but they aren't looking for something together. They are linked to each other but they cultivate individualism. They don't know what the others are thinking. They don't know when children are born, when they reach puberty, when they die.

'People in the forest organise their lives around birth, growth and death and everything is a party, a feast; a feast for planting, for growing and changing one's state, for working, for ripening, for culling. Everything is a feast. Not searching for a plane or a car; looking for joy. When we came into the world, we had the joy of being in a beautiful place full of surprises. To pass your life here is a wonderful gift. It's not a separation, it's a passage from one state to the other, and it remains in memory.

'I carry in me a memory that goes back many, many years, to the birth of my grandfather. The memory of creation is transmitted by the generations. It's not something that was, it's something that is. It's a permanent event. I'm with my ancestors now - and with my children's children.'

The Indians are soft. Their sweet, gentle disposition inspired the raptures of the Jesuits. Ailton's handshake is like holding water. But he has a steady, unblinking gaze that holds me and examines me as he speaks.

Now in his thirties, he grew up on an Indian reserve. He has a Brazilian wife, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, and lives in a house in the suburbs of Sao Paulo, on a plot of land that should ordinarily be the site of an elegant villa, like the ones opposite. Instead, perched on the brow of the small hill is an airy, empty building, one of the oldest houses in the state of Sao Paulo, the floor of which was once the floor of an Indian clan house. The river that ran nearby has become a sewer. The house has been transformed into a small museum. Krenak calls it the Forest People's embassy.

Photographs lining the walls show the activities of the Centre of Indian Research, a farm in the state of Goias run by Ailton's organisation. It's described as a centre for the study of applied biology and botany. 'Not in the European sense,' says Krenak, 'but how to handle it.'

Students at the centre are studying native agriculture to find ways to make use of their knowledge of the plants and animals of Brazil. 'The aim,' says Krenak, 'is to mix technologies, Indian and Western.' The results are being communicated to the tribes.

'There's a kind of bush phobia in Brazilians,' he continues. 'They want to destroy the forest, because there's so much; they want to tear it out. To build Brasilia, they destroyed the savannah and then built the city. Then they called in landscapers to plant new trees instead of using the ones that were there.

'The enormous agricultural potential shows how original, unusual solutions could be born in Brazil: architecture based on Indian forms, medicine based on herbal knowledge, similar to oriental medicine, employing meditation, acupuncture. Why didn't they use it?'

The head of a mining syndicate once asked Krenak about the forest, the Indian lands. 'Why don't you let us in? We'll extract the gold and the diamonds together. Your people will benefit. We'll help to preserve the environment, it'll be all over.'

'Do you have a mother?' Krenak asked him.


'The earth is my mother. How would you feel if I took her eyes out, extracted her kidneys?' The man was furious. 'Are you threatening me?'

'He was threatening me]'

I LIE ON the hotel bed listening to the sounds outside, the noises of animals: a deep, low grumbling from the cats, gusts of hysterical laughter from bright-coloured birds, monkeys chattering and squealing.

I am in the middle of the rainforest; from the window I can see the murky red-brown waters of the Amazon, meandering through a green carpet. The birds and animals I hear are all native species, but they don't live in the forest. They are kept in a zoo in the hotel grounds, to provide the atmosphere that is missing from the surroundings. Near the hotel are public beaches with bars and restaurants and pleasant suburban villas.

Marly had promised to meet me here in Manaus, and then we would go to the jungle, to see if we liked it there, living in a tree-house like Tarzan and Jane. Then she said it was looking hard for her to get away. She had to see her family, she had outstanding commitments related to her new job and, I surmised, a new boyfriend. We talked a lot on the phone, spent the time allotted to us - our time, as she called it - being fatalist - on crackly, fading connections; we left our passion in a cable on the ocean floor.

Lying on the bed, on the phone to Marly, I am distracted by the sounds of the animals, Brazil parodying itself for my benefit. I realise that what I like about her is what I like about Brazil, the mix of folly and seriousness; her pride and independence, and her wish to be strong and original. She was someone who believed in magic and science.

By the time we meet again in Sao Paulo, I will be reconciled to the knowledge that she doesn't need me. I'll say something about being an emotional imperialist, taking advantage of her feelings, and she will give her enigmatic orchid smile. I realise simply that I have been seduced by innocence and abandon. I think I could have come ashore in Brazil at any time over the last five centuries and it would have been the same. I glimpsed this, and finally understood it, in the collection of folk art at the Memoriale museum, and I adored it in Marly, dark and tan and young and lovely.

The prodigious magic I discovered was a brush with sensual enchantment in a world ruled by coincidence and laughter; the encounter with sublime, instinctual forces far older than the New World, but nearer there to its gaudy, crazy surface.

Across the railway tracks from the Memoriale, I had watched the bulldozers taking the shacks away from under the freeway. Jori was flying a kite she had made from string and paper, flying it high above the freeway, the bulldozers and the police vans, high above the garbage and the debris. The little girl had made the kite from paper she found in the garbage, paper on which were architectural drawings. The drawings were plans for a nearby shopping mall, to be called the Eldorado Mall.

In the Eldorado Mall there is a place called America, a restaurant with a ceiling painted a deep, bright blue, and small, white clouds, a perfect American sky, like the sky on the ceiling of the cathedral of the poor, or the skies in the old baroque churches.

In America, the cheeseburgers are plump and juicy and the salads are called Yuppies. The caboclos are still the servants. Small, smiling brown people, the descendants of the Amerindians; descended from an idyll to which we dream of ascending.

She smiles and thanks me for my order, and I wonder if it's the smile of the conquered, or that of the conqueror.

Copyright Paul Rambali 1993

Extracted from 'It's All True: in The Cities and Jungle of Brazil' by Paul Rambali, published by William Heinemann Ltd at pounds 9.99 on 27 May. 'Independent on Sunday' readers can buy copies post-free through Reed Book Services Ltd, PO Box 5, Rushden, Northants NN10 9YX, tel 0933 410511. Quote reference 111456.

(Photographs omitted)