Watching the Titanic Sink in Brazil

Watching the Titanic Sink in Brazil

    There are few nursing homes in Brazil, due to the fact that
    the entire social service structure of
    the country—from its public
    hospitals to its government-sponsored welfare—is so rudimentary.

    There’s no outside to the family. Both young and old belong to you
    and the end of life is more hopeless
    than the beginning




    May 13. The bus Maringá-wards is state-of-the-art. Brazil has the best bus system in the world, and now the
    long-distance fleet of Viação Garcia, which serves the state of Paraná, features an "Executivo," including air-conditioning, a cockpit
    for the driver set some steps down from the passenger level, and passenger seats that retract way back. Eleven hours are
    scheduled from São Paulo to Maringá, at the cost of 33 reais (US$ 11).

    By contrast, just a few days ago it cost us twice this amount to bus about a third less the distance from western
    Pennsylvania to the Port Authority in New York. We had to change buses once. Only the second was air-conditioned, and had seats
    comparably wide as this Brazilian bus. Both American buses were no more than half empty. This one is full, and full of the sort of
    middle-class looking people whom you seldom see on American buses.

    But so what? The roads (all one lane, once we leave the state of São Paulo, the richest state in Brazil) are still often
    cracked, narrow, and clogged with trucks. As we get closer to Maringá, the bus begins to stop more frequently at little towns.
    Inside the city limits of Maringá, individual passengers can request being let off just about anywhere. This human scale is nice.
    But it transforms state-of-the-art into what Brazilians term a
    pinga pinga, "drip, drip." We arrive at Maringá’s new terminal
    forty-five minutes late.

    The Hotel Bandeirantes has it. Eva’s parents have it. Maringá has cable! Now cable makes the whole scale of this
    planned city—which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its existence five years ago, when we lived here—feel different. Even
    the charming downtown grid of small shops and boutiques appears somehow more precious or intimate, now that it’s
    possible to go home, turn on the television, and watch ESPN in Spanish or a channel from (of all places) Dubai.

    Or do some forty cable channels such as these really make as much of a difference? Somebody spoke of the global
    village, granted. But who has been listening in Maringá? Maringá is the sort of city where you can see farmers clattering along
    the main thoroughfares in horse-drawn carts. Locals (even Protestants) remain proud of their cone-shaped cathedral, at 124
    meters the highest monument in South America (and tenth highest in the world). Maringá, I think, is a village model for
    post-industrial capitalism to stage its global energies. First, it styles itself upon local circumstances, and then proceeds to cast them
    into figurative darkness; little about Maringá matters for the global imaginary other than these horse-drawn carts.

    Of course cable makes some difference to me. But I’m just a visitor, for whom the fact that it’s now possible to
    watch a German news report or a British documentary makes Maringá, if not more charming, then at least less remote from the
    rest of Brazil, if not the world. Trouble is, like a local, whether the television is on or off, I still have to re-dial a few times in
    order to make a phone call to the university, or put the toilet paper in a basket rather than flush it down the toilet after I wipe
    my ass.

    Eva’s parents, Oscarina and Virgílio, are both in their early eighties. Her mother looks far more frail than she did
    five years ago, and her father is so drugged, incontinent, and insentient that he might as well be dead. Eva’s two sisters,
    Elzira and Ercília, have had to devote their lives to these two for the past five years, alternating two-week periods in which one
    stays with them round the clock. Hiring maids hasn’t worked. Finding a health care facility for the father has proved impossible.

    Lately, it seems, a place has been found, in Londrina—some one hundred kilometers away, where Ercília lives. But
    the problems this would prompt seem insuperable. Set aside the cost. (Close to 300 reais—US$ 100—per month.) Set aside
    even Oscarina’s objections. (The old woman refuses to listen to talk of moving her husband out of their apartment.) Consider
    only the practical matter of getting the old man to Londrina. He can’t be put in a bus. In order to make it feasible for him to
    endure a long trip in a car, the sisters can’t do it alone; even Elzira’s strong heart sinks.

    Virgílio is older in Brazilian terms than he is in American terms. Worse, he’s more incomprehensible; there are few
    nursing homes in Brazil, as a function of the fact that the entire social service structure of the country—ranging from its public
    hospitals (a scandal) to its government-sponsored welfare (virtually non-existent)—is so rudimentary. What the case of their
    father prompts the family to face is that finally it has only its own resources. There’s no
    outside to the family in Brazil. Both young and old belong to you. Hence, back in São Paulo, the whole of Nara’s family is saving for the birth of her second child,
    which can only take place at affordable cost of 1,200 reais—US$ 400 (nobody having any health insurance or trusting it if
    anybody did) in a private hospital two hours from São Paulo. Hence also, the end of life is more hopeless than the beginning.

    I see Milton, my friend from the university whom I hung around with a lot five years ago. He speaks right up, in
    English. It’s rusty but still intact, clear, and thorough. I ask if he’s spoken English since I left. He says, no. I’m incredulous. "You
    mean, you haven’t spoken one word of English since I left, not once?" "Not one moment," Milton replies.

    What’s that joke? If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you speak three, you’re a polyglot. If you speak
    one, you’re American. So, in Brazil more than anywhere else, I’ve remained American, despite the fact that I understand so
    much Portuguese by now that I like to say, of all the people in the world who don’t speak Portuguese, I speak the best
    Portuguese. The surprise here in Maringá is that I now seem both to understand and speak more confidently than I ever have before.
    I can impersonate a native ordering coffee,
    pingado. How to explain this?

    I think of my friend, Arnie, who lived in Brazil for fifteen years. At least ten years passed before one day, he told
    me, he just began to speak Portuguese. Was this because at last he had come to accept the fact that he was living
    permanently in Brazil? Perhaps. Just so, is my Portuguese more confident because I suddenly accept the fact that I will never live
    permanently in Brazil? It had to happen in Maringá, where Eva and I have lived longest in this country, and could have
    lived forever. You don’t just speak a language. As Milton illustrates, you speak emotions.

    When we first visited Maringá together eight years ago, Eva got to be reacquainted with Cida, a woman in the
    English department, whom she once knew—but not very well or very long—when both were teenagers in Maringá. Cida
    produced a picture of a seventeen year-old Eva, looking to me like a hippie with a handkerchief tied round her forehead and long
    hair flowing down. Eva scorns this reading of the picture. She was a poor girl. She hated hippies. She didn’t know any
    hippies. Hippies were the product of the upper classes, who had the luxury to invent themselves in fashionable international
    ways. Brazilians never forget the implacable pain of class.

    This time Cida has us over for dinner. Her husband, Napoleão, has now sold his little grocery store and works at
    another while he takes courses in computers (same as their eldest daughter, about to graduate from college). Cida herself is
    retired, with a full pension, at forty-two! Such a thing is possible in Brazil; politicians refuse to change the system whereby you
    can retire after twenty-five years of work. Now Cida isn’t quite sure what to do with her life (there’s some talk of building a
    pensão for students on some land she bought with an inheritance) and bides her time as an instructor at a local English language school.

    Eventually Cida and Napoleão drive us back to our hotel, which has long had the reputation of being the finest in
    Maringá. We try to disabuse them; the carpets are threadbare, the rooms are cheap. Cida just recalls a story of when she was
    young and her father, a shoemaker, took her on a special visit to a private club to see its fine horses. She was so humiliated by
    the looks of the club members that "I felt worse than the horses." She and Napoleão drop us off at the Bandeirantes. But
    they refuse our invitation to come in, and just drive away.

    It’s Maringá’s 51st "Exposition." We persuade Ercília to go with us. There is the obligatory pavilion featuring
    industrial exhibits. There are the obligatory pens featuring livestock. It’s a country fair! I haven’t been to one in decades.
    Eventually we stroll around the amusement rides. But where are the games where you shoot at rows of ducks or throw darts to win
    dolls? We never come across them. I give up trying to figure out why, and just try to relax into the easy
    caipira atmosphere. All the men and boys wear cowboy boots. It’s like being in Montana.

    Some singer named Daniel is appearing at the rodeo stadium. Ercília’s never heard of him. We decide to wait. Men
    ply the crowd with beer, soda, and popcorn. Finally the lights on stage blaze forth, the sound system explodes, and Daniel
    appears. He turns out to be one part heartthrob and one part country rocker. There’s a cute little number, lavishly mounted,
    featuring some cowgirls and cowboys doing a square dance. Daniel thanks God again for the opportunity to appear in Maringá.
    We are very far from samba.

    In an American formula, Brazil just as accurately equals Montana minus samba as it does Louisiana plus samba. If
    this doesn’t matter to Americans, though, what does it matter to Brazilians? The night before, Cida showed us a tape of a
    huge national show presented in São Paulo,
    Brasil 500, designed to commemorate the discovery by the Portuguese. After
    band after band and singer after singer from Bahia or Rio, Eva protested in the name of the south. "What about
    our music?" Cida just shrugged. We all know that an appearance by Daniel at
    Brasil 500 would have made as much sense as a booth
    selling Jimmy Buffet or caijin CD’s at Exposition 51 in Maringá.

    I’ve studiously avoided seeing the movie
    Titanic. But it’s playing here and there’s not much else to do at night. I
    invite Elzira and Ercília along. Though Ercília sees movies regularly, Elzira, who attends church every day, hasn’t seen a
    movie in more than fifteen years. There’s a moment, going to see the most famous movie on earth, I feel that I may as well be
    in the company of an Amazon Indian. What will Elzira think? How will she respond?

    It turns out that she loves the movie. (Ercília is somewhat disappointed not to be more moved at the love story).
    Exactly why is not entirely clear to me. It’s the sensation, I guess—not so much the suspense as a level of the ship fills up and
    the Girl tries to rescue the Boy (say), as the realistic recreation onscreen and the almost visceral editing. Titanic in this
    respect is a very contemporary movie. It’s designed so that anyone can see it, in the sense that anyone will respond the same
    way to the danger of water filling up a cabin.

    Yet people at any movie, even one such as this, are nothing if not culturally specific.
    Titanic, for instance, is pronounced "tchi-ta-neeki" in Portuguese. Milton tells me that local kids who want to put on airs effect an English pronunciation of
    the word. I, on the other hand, will forever put on airs by effecting—or at least mentioning—the Portuguese pronunciation
    of the word. Meanwhile, I’ll never forget that I bore witness to a global phenomenon in the company of two sisters-in-law,
    one of whom said three rosaries all the way through the long sinking of the ship, while the other joked with her about
    praying for the souls of those who went down.

    To be continued. Next: "Florianópolis"


    This text is part of an essay called
    South of the Border, South of Brazil: Reflections on Another Life.

    Terry Caesar is the author of, most recently, a collection of essays on academic life,
    Traveling Through the Boondocks.
    He has been traveling to Brazil for some eighteen years, ever since he first arrived in Rio de Janeiro on a Fulbright. He
    welcomes your comments at


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