Sunday, 17 April 2011

Warning: the following contains far too much national stereotyping.

Not much irks the average Brazilian (street crime, potholes and thieving politicians aside) than being lumped in with the sorry bunch known as the third world. Rightfully and unrightfully so – rightfully as carving the globe up into only two groups is as foolish an idea as milk cartons, unrightfully so as all good Brazilians spend their time telling everyone about what a disastrous mess their country is and then complain furiously if it’s described as such by anyone from a fora.

It’s a nasty term, anyway, the third world, even if we ignore for a moment the big question elephant in the room, or in other words – whatever happened to the second world? It rather sounds, in fact, that while we don’t much need a New American Language*, we could certainly do with another way of describing countries, given that First World or Third World, Developed or Developing, BRICS or Floor Tiles don’t quite seem to cut the mustard.

And who better than Your Life Is An Impossibility to step into the breach? From this moment on then, there’ll be no more First World or Third World but instead we’ll have Crap Countries, Countries That Think Themselves (which might only make sense to Portuguese speakers) and Countries That Are A Bit of A Waste of Time, All Things Considered.

Countries That Think Themselves is easy enough, though experience of having grown up in, or at least having spent a long time in, a country that doesn’t think itself is generally essential if you’re going to identify one that does. USA! USA!, obviously, Germany, Ingerland, France and so on. Funnily enough people from these countries aren’t always aware that they’re living in a CTTT (or a CTTI). The Ingerlish, for example, often see themselves as long-suffering and downtrodden, at least in comparison with parts of Europe, and even talk every now and again about reducing poverty in parts of the country, even though from a Brazilian perspective poverty in Ingerland generally means having an I-Pod that’s not quite the latest model.

Countries That Are A Bit of A Waste of Time, All Things Considered is harder to pin down, though is perhaps best summed up as everyone who is neither a CTTT or a Crap Country and inspires great amounts of neither love nor loathing. Australia, New Zealand and Canada spring to mind.

Which brings us to the Crap Countries, a group of which Brazil is undoubtedly a proud member. Before anyone gets all steamed up, it should be explained that being a Crap Country doesn’t mean that the people in that country are crap, or that the scenery or the food or the culture is crap, or that it’s crap to live there. What it means is that given the premise that a country, or at least a government, should be able to take care of its people by organising decent public health care and education systems, by guaranteeing at least a minimal level of public security and safety, and by building and maintaining things like roads and public transport systems, any country that doesn’t manage to do that, or at least doesn’t do it very well, is pretty much a Crap Country.

No cries either of neo-imperialist European running dog, if you don’t mind. As regular readers will know Your Life Is An Impossibility is from Norn Iron, one of the Crappiest Countries of them all, given that a Country That Thinks Itself threw zillions of pounds at it for decades and it still couldn’t sort itself out. For those who are wondering Oirland, home of the Louth Media Mafia, is a Crap Country too, though it managed to clamber into the Countries That Are A Bit of A Waste Of Time division for a few years back before recently tumbling back to its rightful level.

Brazil is trying hard to not be a Crap Country these days, and is even getting it right in some places – new hospitals spring up like daisies, the previously calamitously cracked and fissured BR101 motorway here in the nordeste is now (almost) as smooth as an Oscar night red carpet, social welfare programmes mean not many people die of starvation anymore, and there’s even the odd bit of public housing here and there.

This talk of countries being crap or not leads to an interesting question about gringo life. Even putting aside for the fact that most Brazilians don’t distinguish much between one stripe of gringo or another, which countries prepare one best for living in Brazil in general, or Recife in particular?

It depends, is as always the quickest and best answer, but there are gringo tribes just like there are tribes everywhere else. There are the ex-pat retirees littering the beaches of the nordeste (particularly João Pessoa), who are almost always British or Estadunidense, and who consider themselves fully immersed in local culture if they manage to buy an agua de coco in front of their apartment buildings of a morning without getting shot.

There are the pousada and restaurant owners, who very often (and no-one knows why) are Dutch, Scandinavian, Spanish or Argentinean), and the hapless teachers of English As A Second Language, a tribe which unfortunately includes YLIA, who obviously enough are mostly English, Oirish or Estadunidense. Then there are the scheming property developers (again almost always English or Estadunidense), roaming Recife in their 4x4s, heart-broken (or overjoyed, who knows) at the rampant real and the limp libra or dollar.

Certain national characteristics go well with living in Brazil, and plenty don’t. Being English (a bit aloof, a little too concerned with punctuality, slightly snooty) is probably more of a hindrance than a help in knockabout, intensely intimate, always late Brazil. Ditto being German.

Vested interests apart, when travelling YLIAI has always felt slightly blessed to be from Norn Iron, in marked contrast to how he feels about being Norn Irish whilst at home.Growing up in the Black North during the 80s and 90s taught a person to laugh at the things that otherwise shroud life in darkness, and also, in marked contrast to the mindset of upper middle class Brazilians, that whatever danger lurks around the corner should be looked steadily in the eye, and should not be allowed to drive one inside to hide behind electric fences and locked doors.

There is, between the Brazilian and the native of other Crap Countries, a certain shared knowledge that Bad Things Have Always Happened And Always Will Happen, which helps. This is unlike the experience of, say, the Canadian, who arrives in Brazil and is immediately appalled to find that there are countries where poverty exists, hundreds of people are murdered every week, and people don’t put eh? at the end of every sentence.

And the more liberal breed of Estadunidense in Brazil must undergo his own Road To Damascus moment. Shocked to find that everyone in Brazil and South America, generally speaking, sees him or her as a millionaire neo-colonialist warmonger, our Freedom And Democracy loving chum must declare himself or herself ashamed to be American, proclaim that Bush/Obama/Clinton/Kennedy/Bieber is the devil, and leave odd Facebook messages saying how they think that Mr Amadinejad seems to be quite a nice fellow really.

Someone somewhere should make a list of the Top Ten Gringos ever (YLIA feels a future piece coming on). Peter Robb, author of A Death In Brazil would be on it, as would super-Serb footballer Petkovic, after over eleven years of playing in Brazil.

Maybe top of the list, though, would be a certain Bernard O’Brien, an Irishman who shipped up in the Amazon in the 1600s, around the time when the Portuguese were chopping Indians up for fun. Rather than join in the slaughter, O’Brien chummed up with the Aruã Indians, trading mirrors, combs and axes for a few jars of the local moonshine. O’Brien ended up defending the Aruã against the Portuguese at Fort Tauregue in Amapá, before being defeated and imprisoned. Eventually exiled to live amongst the supposedly man-eating Cururi Indians, O’Brien instead made bestest friends with the cannibals, learning their language and exploring the “rivers, forests and medicines and secrets of the Indians.”

Top Gringo!  

Note: Information on Bernard O’Brien taken from John Hemming’s fantastic book Tree Of Rivers, lent to me by the Louth Media Mafia, to whom thanks are due. 

* I have no idea who the people in this video are, but they seem quite nice, despite being Estadunidense, and watching it gave me a strange feeling of nostalgia, as though I was watching people that I had once been close to but no longer knew, or worse, people that I had once known but who were now longer alive.  

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