Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rio Wild


News coming from Rio has been a little disheartening lately, particularly since the soccer World Cup kicks off in two months. The city is seething with discontent and in some under-privileged areas, social unrest is close to the boiling point. In its renewed efforts to flush out drug gangs from the slums (favelas), the heavy-handed police raids have caused civil casualties. Anger is growing among many of the favela’s inhabitants.

Collateral damage has occurred in spite of the police new modus operandi. To limit shootouts with the gangs, before moving in, the army and the police give them advance warning. By allowing the gangs to move out, bloody head-on confrontations are avoided. However, the weapon and drug issues remain. Drug gangs take temporary shelter in another favela and wait for the army to leave and then re-occupy their former territories. Lately, many gangs have crept back into the so-called pacified favelas overlooking the suburbs of Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio.  The gangs must stay close to their market.

Brazil has the privilege of ranking first in the world for crack-cocaine use and is the second-largest consumer of cocaine after the United States. The task of the police is daunting.  Removing the drug lords from the favelas is like shooting at a moving target. It is a lost cause.

To protest the violent tactics of the police forces, slum dwellers caught in the crossfire (often prodded by gangs) have taken to car and bus torching and road blocks. Daily confrontations are reported in peripheral areas. This new form of protest is rapidly spreading; the airport road is one of the favored target for blockade. Brazil is under intense scrutiny from the international media, an opportunity that the self-appointed protest leaders don’t want to miss. The misguided police offensive gives them plenty of visibility.

Last week among these bombastic news, some cheerful pieces of information went nearly unnoticed. We learned that Tarcisâo and Bela (not her real name) had been rescued from a brutal death. The first was going to be fried in a pan and the second barbecued. Rest assured, Brazil is not going back to its anthropophagic heydays, although the two are city residents they are not people. Tarcisâo is a guaiamum crab and Bela, a young female capybara, and both have settled around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in the upmarket southern part of Rio.


The wildlife living around the lagoa (lagoon) is diverse and plentiful and generally goes undisturbed in spite of the surrounding human activity.

Tarcisâo had been caught by hungry homeless people who also happen to live in the area, however illegally. The 60 centimeter-long crab carries a chip and lives with his long-term partner Gloria. They are both monitored by a wildlife NGO. The faithful couple is at the center of an environmental research project which seeks to establish the life expectancy of the breed. Tarcisâo is probably 5 year old and if it can escape another frying pan, could reach the venerable age of 15. It was freed when its identity was disclosed and an alternative meal was offered to its famished captors. Guaiamum crab is not an endangered species in Brazil, because they are a delicacy, few reach Tarcisâo’s respected old age.


                                           Tarcisao with friend



                                           Less lucky guaiamums

Bela’s fate was even more dramatic. It had been grabbed by drug dealers and taken to a near-by slum for barbecue. The scientists travelled to the dangerous favela of Rocinha to plea for Bela’s life. After some convincing, Bela was returned to the lagoa. Apparently ransom was not paid. For once, drug gangs received a little bit of positive publicity. Capybara is the world largest rodent and is commonly seen grazing in the wet lands around Rio de Janeiro. They are social, gregarious and gentle. Because they have a semi-aquatic lifestyle, the Portuguese colonizers had the habit of eating them like fish during Lent when other meats were forbidden. May be the drug gang was keeping this tradition alive.


                                             Capybara and lagoa

Meanwhile across the Guanabara Bay, in Rio’s sister city of Niteroi, dramatic events were taking place. A one-month old, three kilograms baby capybara was spotted wandering alone near the busy bridge which links Rio to Niteroi. It was subsequently rescued by the environmental police. Too young to survive by itself, the officers spent part of the night walking around the near-by beaches looking for the baby’s family. Unable to find the family, the baby was taken to an animal shelter where it can be properly looked after.

At the same time, the local police were confronted by drug gangs. During the gun battle, one bystander was shot dead. The slum dwellers reacted by torching more cars and blocking more roads.

Rio is a city of wild contrasts.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Enjoying Rio de Janeiro at Half-Price!


This title may sound surreal in a city where an ice cream cone costs about $ 6.00 (R$ 14 at the current exchange rate) and a caipirinha, the national drink, $10[1]. For residents and tourists alike, Rio prices are over the top. People complain because the cost of living has far exceeded the 6% annual inflation. They also make jokes about it and the real, the Brazilian currency, has been fittingly renamed the surreal with Salvatore Dali portrait printed on the mock notes.


This being said, some Cariocas, as the Rio residents are known, can still enjoy a perk undreamed of in many other parts of the world. This perk is called meia, short for meia entrada, or half-priced admission. In Rio, nearly 70% of the population pays half-price for admission to theatres, concerts, shows, museums, sport events, stadiums, landmarks like Sugar Loaf and Corcovado, and so forth. The half-price benefit is a state-wide law (lei da meia) dating from 1930. Brazilians take this half-price benefit very seriously, too seriously for the entertainment industry which regularly lobbies the government to have the law curbed or repealed. To compensate for lost income, organizers double admission prices. As a result, the 30% “demographic middle” has to pay outrageous prices for popular concerts. Rock bands and pop stars do not get out of bed for less than a million dollars a show. The full price admission can easily reach $ 400, a record price even by BRICS’s standard[2].

Who are the lucky beneficiaries? First and foremost, students, rich and poor. For decades students have abused the system. It is estimated that there are twice as many student cards out there than genuine students! This number exasperates the entertainment distributors. Students are avid consumers of rock concerts which are shockingly expensive to organize.

The second group of beneficiaries is made of senior citizens and disable people who are habitually law abiding. A reason might be that Brazilian ID cards are not easily forged. For seniors, the meia is one perk among many others. After 65, senior citizens travel free in public transports like buses and subways. They can also visit state-run museums for free. Supermarkets, banks, movie theaters, and so forth provide special counters for seniors.

Unable to compete with the fast moving photocopying and printing technology, the government has decided to limit to 40% the number of admissions for students to any show. The new regulation has not yet been implemented but it will raise all sorts of disputes. Seniors will not be affected by this decision, true they are not great fans of rock festivals.

During the organization of the 2014 Football World Cup in Brazil, the meia policy has led to a tug of war between the government and FIFA, the international football association. FIFA did not win on this front: half-price tickets will be available but only in the cheapest seating category. In addition to those mentioned above, two extra groups will benefit from the half price policy: people receiving low-income grants (Bolsa familia) and obese fans. The later will get extra pampering and enjoy extra-wide seats. This is the Brazilian way to fight obesity.


             Extra-wide seat at half-price: Two seats for 1/4 of the price!

According to 2011 statistics, half of the Brazilian population is overweight and 16% is obese. If this trend continues it seems that 100% of the audience to any entertainment, including games, movies, theaters or concerts will be entitled to meia entrada!

The population of Rio is aging fast, the city will soon become the geriatric capital of Brazil. Copacabana is already the suburb with the oldest population in the whole country. As a result, standing in a senior line is rarely a good idea. The “demographic middle” line goes much faster.

Thanks to these perks, Rio seniors spend little time at home watching telenovelas. They are enthusiastic movie-goers. Afternoon shows attract mostly seniors; forged student-card holders go to night performance to avoid detection. This blogger has not researched the cultural habit of obese people, but one may suspect that they watch plenty of telenovelas.

In a country of surreal prices, the meia entrada is a bit of an illusion but it nonetheless stimulates people to seek entertainment. Last week, four senior ladies went about town and had a drink in a café in the hip Dias Ferreira Street in Leblon. In Rio, the chic suburbs of Leblon and Ipanema are the epicenters of price surreality! One lady ordered a $ 10 caipirinha, the standard price in Leblon. The other three requested red wine by the glass. The waiter poured so little of the liquid in the glass (at $12 a shot) that they complained. With aplomb, he rebutted them by saying this was the way wine was served in the best cafes of the world. He had picked the wrong customers, one was German, the second from Belgium, the third French and the forth a well-traveled Brazilian. The absurdity of the situation escaped him too. Finally the ladies settled for the cheapest (drinkable) Argentine wine bottle at a thrifty $50.

                        idosos rio

The gregarious Cariocas are becoming “un-gregarious”, changing their ways. Now at the end of a lunch or dinner in a restaurant, the bill is no longer equally divided, many patrons “go Dutch” paying one’s own expenses. The locals complain about surreal prices and rising inflation but they still have meia to cheer themselves. Very few Cariocas will trade Rio for any other city by the sea.

[1] Taxes hit hard too: 83% on cachaça (the local rum) and another 76% on the caipirinha. Beer can: 55.6%, soft drinks 46.47%.

[2] An economic grouping of emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and China.