Beauty is Sadness

On Christmas evening, I flocked with the crowd that had gathered, like a colony of seabirds, on the Pedra do Arpoador, a jumble of rock jutting out into the sea at the far eastern end of Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.


In the summer time, when the world tilts just so, from Arpoador you can watch the sun set into the water, slightly to the left of the magical, jagged shore. And as the sun sank down on Christmas evening, the colony of humans – there were hundreds of us nesting shoulder to shoulder on the promontory – broke into applause. Why does this not make the headlines? Yes, there is hatred and grief and wretchedness in this tilted world. But there is also this jumble of rock on the Brazilian coast, teeming with strangers who clap together in awe as night falls.

I’ve been Rio twice during my first six months in Brazil, and will go again as soon as the next half-chance presents itself. Both times, before I’ve gone, I’ve been thoroughly cautioned about the place. (An emerging theme of my life in Brazil). Rio’s beauty is a siren song; in all likelihood you will get robbed on the beach, they’ll tell you.

Some months ago in my Portuguese class, I was introduced to Rubem Braga, a Brazilian writer who spent the bulk of his career working for newspapers in Rio. He wrote hundreds of short sketches and reflections about everyday sorts of things with a dreamy, melancholy touch, teasing out the beauty and the despair that lurk everywhere around us. Take the Arpoador sunset, for example. Wonder and grief are sides of a coin. The sun sets, and every one of us there clapping for it on Christmas will go back to dust.

Rubem Braga (1913-1990), illustration by  Pablo Henrique Blanco .

Rubem Braga (1913-1990), illustration by Pablo Henrique Blanco.

Braga, in his own devious way, got in on the game of sour talk about Rio. Take this passage, written back in 1951 (my own translation):

I am one of those strange animals that inhabits Rio de Janeiro … I’m a tough, an expert in survival. As you know, a Carioca is, above all, strong. Although I may, from time to time, flee the city’s dangers and discomforts (once, in search of some peace and quiet, I even became a war correspondent), I always come back. I’m used to living dangerously … day by day, night by night, during this, an era that the shocked historians of the future will call the Battle of Rio de Janeiro.

Even though he’s poking fun at Rio’s reputation for danger here, that reputation clearly is nothing new. Other things that haven’t changed 65 years later: Braga went on to describe one of Rio’s beaches as “one of the world’s most beautiful sewers,” and concluded the essay by needling the municipal government's ineptitude. (There’s something Twain-ish about Braga, too).

Here’s another characteristic Braga passage, from a 1945 essay, “The Company of Friends.” It begins with Braga and his bohemian friends playing an enthusiastic, if not terribly skillful, game of soccer on a Rio beach, then lurches into angst:

Afterwards, we dove in the cool water and lazed around, thirty or so of us men and women, guys and girls, talking on the beach. How sweet, the company of friends, the women in their bathing suits, the shade beneath the tents. We hung out there under the sun, beside the sea, beneath the blue mountains. Ah, circle of friends, these moments on the beach will turn into ancient memories. What a foolish, sad thought. He’ll fall in love with her; that other couple will separate; some of us will wander far away; some of us will die suddenly; some will become enemies; one will betray another; one will fail miserably; still another will grow rich and distant and harsh. That other guy will never be heard from again, and that woman, the one there, laying down, laughing her clear laugh, her body glistening – some day she’ll end up stricken and ugly, sour and sad.

An Emoji’s Worth Several Words

There’s a solid running scene in Porto Alegre. The parks are full of joggers and the race calendar is full of events. One of my early accomplishments here was joining a team, Cia dos Cavalos. The literal translation would be “Horse Company” or “Horses, Inc.,” but I prefer the more evocative “Band of Horses” or “Thundering Herd.” One of the many cool things about these running teams – the Thundering Herd is just one of lots here – is the camaraderie. E.g., here are some of us after a race a few weeks ago:

Pretty much any time a few of us cavalinhos get together for whatever reason, people haul out their phones and start snapping pictures. As far as I’ve seen, few Brazilians will pass on the opportunity to take pictures of things with their phones. There are lots of pictures of my running team like this one floating around out there.

Another wildly popular phone-related thing in Porto Alegre is WhatsApp. It’s a sort of texting app on steroids that’s pretty much essential to communication here in 2015 A.D. My wife and I use it to bounce questions off our son’s pediatrician (she invited us to do this and responds quickly – “probably it’s a viral rash” – a spectacularly better situation compared to trying communicate with his doc in Virginia). My barber uses it to schedule haircuts. The proprietor of the little hotel I stayed at when I went on a birding field trip (see post below) WhatsApped back and forth with me to hash out all the specifics.

Of course, the Thundering Herd has a huge WhatsApp group chat. There are about 100 of us cavalinhos signed up (something like 200 total on the team, I think), resulting in a near-constant stream of virtual team camaraderie. Messages, pictures, voice memos and videos fly back and forth by the hundreds (really) every day.

A third thing of note at the intersection of joviality, 2015 communications technology and Brazilian culture is emoji. They love it. I realize that the whole world loves emoji now, but there's way more saturation here than I'd been used to. Here’s a random screen grab from our cavalinhos WhatsApp group:

I have no idea what this was about.

I have no idea what this was about.

In this exchange they abandoned Portuguese altogether:

"Look, look" "Look, look, look" "See no evil" "Look, see no evil, look" "Dude" "Look" "Look, look"

"Look, look" "Look, look, look" "See no evil" "Look, see no evil, look" "Dude" "Look" "Look, look"

This isn’t unique behavior to a bunch of giddy runners clowning around on their phones. The hotel proprietor used emoji. The lady who cleans our apartment sends emoji. Check this, from an acquaintance with whom, for odd reasons well beyond the scope of this post, I was WhatsApping about my anniversary dinner:

English? Portuguese? No worries. Emoji.

English? Portuguese? No worries. Emoji.

Did you notice that I also used a little frowney in there? That was a while ago, and I've been getting more fluent in this myself. Check my emoji here. I was trolling my coach, the grande mestre cavalinho, about drinking heavily to rehydrate after a race:


I was kidding about binging-as-recovery-strategy, and I'm not sure coach entirely copied that at first, which added an extra dose of amusement to the whole exchange. Nuance and tone are easy victims in this warp-speed 2015 communications environment even when people are speaking the same language. Factor in the old-fashioned actual language barrier that’s gradually eroding, but still very present, between me and the rest of the Thundering Herd and things can get really fun.

At least we have emoji. A big yellow thumbs-up would make fundamental, immediate sense even if I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. And while I haven’t actually tried, I doubt the other cavalinhos would get it if I WhatsApped about ROTFLMAO. Good thing there’s that yellow smiley emoji that’s crying with laughter. It is in heavy rotation on the Thundering Herd group chat:


The sudden abundance of emoji is opening up what must be a fascinating new line of linguistics inquiry, e.g. what is its grammar? Are there dialects? Do they improve our communication? I think I've stumbled into the grand unfolding experiment. They don’t teach you this stuff in language class, but they probably don’t really need to. I’m not exactly sure how the other cavalinhos would translate this in Portuguese, and I doubt any of them would translate it into English they way I do, but that's the magic of emoji - you just kind of get it.



It's All Fun and Games Till the Bridge Gives Way

I took a field trip the other weekend to Lagoa do Peixe National Park because there was a migratory bird festival going on and I am a bird geek. When you’re a bird geek, moving to a new continent with new avifauna is very, very exciting. And when you’re a bird geek in a new continent who finds out about a migratory bird festival happening nearby, you go.

I rented a car and left Porto Alegre on a Friday afternoon. I picked up a hitchhiker for a while to have someone to chat with. I was trying to get to Tavares, where I’d booked a room, before dark but fortunately I didn’t quite make it.

Approaching Tavares, RS

Approaching Tavares, RS

The next day was bird geek heaven. We checked out marshes and sand dunes and lagoons and the beach. After a few hours, I’d racked up almost two dozen lifers, but I didn’t take any pictures of birds because I was too embarrassed to pull out my camera around these sorts of people.

Not very many people in Porto Alegre had heard of or been to Lagoa do Peixe. I guess if you don’t like birds or peace and quiet, there’s not a lot to do there.

Getting to the beach meant our bus had to cross an old, tired-looking wooden bridge over a marshy tidal channel. If this bridge had been in the U.S., the state DOT would have shut it down decades ago. But here in Lagoa do Peixe, where far southern Brazil just kind of peters out into the ocean, the only precaution taken was when the bus driver made all of us bird geeks get off and walk across the bridge so he could attempt the crossing with no innocent souls aboard.

Depending on your perspective, what happened next was either the bus driver’s fault or the bridge’s fault. With us bird geeks safely across, the empty bus began to follow. Had the driver kept the wheels directly over the main structural beams of the bridge things might have been fine. Would have, could have, should have, whatever – the driver didn't do that and the bus almost immediately busted through the rotted decking boards.

A troubled bridge over water

A troubled bridge over water

This wasn’t the world’s most dramatic bridge fail, but it was an effective one. The bus was stuck and the only road back to civilization was blocked. Lucky for us bird geeks, a couple other vehicles were already on the beach side of the bridge, so we crammed into those and carried on. We found lots of shorebirds, flamingos and a footlocker-sized sea turtle carcass rotting in the surf.

By late afternoon, we turned to head home. When we got back to the bridge, the bus was still stuck, waiting for help to arrive from Mostardas, many kms away over bad roads. Then, minutes after we got there, help finally arrived: a backhoe in a dump truck. Right as I was wondering how the backhoe was going to get out of the truck, this happened:

Once on the ground, it took the backhoe about 10 seconds to pull the bus back off the broken bridge. Then the backhoe guy nonchalantly spidered his way back up into the dump truck:

Before we left Lagoa do Peixe behind, some of the folks in our group lent a hand by stacking some fragments of boards over the hole our bus had punched through the bridge. No blood, no foul; it was a great day for a bird geek.