LETTERS

    By In Rio, ninety percent of all transactions are conducted with a
    check. This spooked me a bit initially, but now that I know how this works it is no
    problem. A check here is as good as gold, actually better.

    The Manager from "Hell"

    Marta and I are very happy with our new apartment. It is very large, has excellent
    views, and is just wonderful for wine tastings and promotions. It is quite an old
    apartment as is most of Copacabana, but in very good condition overall, albeit the windows
    and outer awnings need a coat of paint, and a bit of maintenance. We have balconies on two
    sides, part of them covered, part of them open to the sun.

    The lounge room has part of the balcony extending from it. This is one part of the
    building that needs a little attention, not much, but some, as it leaks a little. As the
    apartment is also on the top level, this part of the building is in actual fact part of
    the building construction, but this is in dispute with the Corporate Body that claims it
    is the owner of the apartment’s problem. The owner of the apartment is a dear old lady of
    about 85, but sharp as a tack, and really kind after some bad experiences with a previous
    tenant (drug dealer). Marta and she get on like a house on fire. So this dispute for
    repairs on the balcony is in deadlock.

    In addition to this, we have garage space. Garage spaces in Copacabana are like gold.
    We have no car, so we are happy for someone else to use this for a nominal monthly fee
    (say $100 per month). When we moved into the apartment, Marta noticed that someone was
    using the garage space. We tracked this down to the owner of Apartment 701, who is also
    head of the Corporate Body. Marta let it be known through the porter that we would like to
    discuss this issue a bit further with the owner of Apartment 701. He did not reply and
    just ignored us, and continued to use the garage space.

    So eventually Marta thinks I should send a letter, polite like, and I slip this under
    the door. As I get back in the apartment, the phone rings and a woman says, "We know
    what you want, come down straight away!".

    So, I rock on down and I am greeted by the empregada (maid), and shown into the
    lounge, offered coffee, and wait about five minutes. Eventually a lady comes to see me,
    and we start to chat; how’s life? What do you do? What do you like? How long have you been
    here? How long are you planning to stay in Brazil? Do you use AMWAY products? (curious
    question), etc.

    She is the wife of the Corporate Body Manager. One of the first things she says to me
    is, "You know of course that our apartment is bigger than yours!" Like as if I
    care a shit. They own four cars, and two are garaged in the apartment complex, one of them
    in our car space. The other two cars are garaged in another apartment complex which he
    pays rent for.

    So anyway, to cut to the cold cow, we chat and she understands the situation, and I
    say, talk to Marta as I know nothing (good cop, bad cop type thing). I suggest $125 is a
    nice place to open the batting, but you need to talk more with Marta as she wears the
    pants on these things. So we wind things up nice and sweet when the husband enters the
    house.

    You can almost feel the gloom and doom enter the room with him. Oh boy. He wrestles my
    hand into some form of a handshake without breaking too many of my knuckles. His wife sort
    of takes about three backward steps to introduce me, and is already half apologizing to
    hubby for even letting me in the apartment ( I am now sort of feeling sorry for her as I
    can imagine the misery this guy exerts over everyone he contacts).

    He starts asking a heap of personal questions, what I do, where I am from, what I plan
    to do. I say I am Santa Claus and I am here to sweep his chimney. Anyway, the guy just
    starts to lay down the law as he sees it. "You are responsible for the balcony
    maintenance, it is your problem, not the corporate body, and as for the garage, the
    corporate body laws prohibit the subletting of the garage". Ja Volte, Herr
    Commandante. So I say, "Look, I am sure we can work something out, but you know
    it seems like you should at least ask first before you use someone else’s property".

    At this stage you can see the smoke coming from his ears and nostrils, and me thinks it
    is time to ease on out.

    "Tchau Senhor, nice talking to you, don’t suppose this is a good
    time to ask if you want to buy some Australian wine?"

    A couple of days go by, and I am starting to meet a couple of the other tenants in the
    building. We have a chat in the elevator and word is out and about. One dear old lady
    says, "Be careful, he is louco". Another says, "You are dealing with
    fire" and starts to laugh and point to his apartment with one hand and a finger
    twirling by the head, so you know, I am prepared.

    Just as an aside, his two cars parked in the garage have these stickers on the rear
    window that reveal quite about him. One of the stickers reads, "Why am I the only
    driver on the planet who knows how to drive?" and the other, "I drive this car
    just the way you do". I think this guy must have had a bad childhood.

    The streets of Francisco Sá

    You know how I mentioned the streets of Ipanema were a mess when I arrived (laying
    fiber optic cables). Well now it is all hunky dory that part of town in Ipanema. It looks
    sensational. The streets have all been repaved (albeit partly in a very inappropriate red
    brick and not the Portuguese stone), it is very clean and tidy.

    Guess where they have started now. Right outside our apartment. It reminds me of that
    scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: "I love the sound of
    jackhammers in the morning".

    Actually they are getting a lot better at this now, a bit more organized. They should
    finish my street in about 3-4 weeks. Just wish these jackhammer operators would wear
    earmuffs for their own health. Boy, they sure love loud samba music these guys after work.
    How much does a jackhammer operator make in Brazil? Not enough, that’s for sure.

    I think these guys were also responsible for knocking out the phones one day as well. A
    city this old does not have the best maps of where all the things are underground. So it
    is natural that when they get a bit enthusiastic with the jackhammer, they sometimes hit
    main electric cables, phone lines, sewerage lines, fresh water, all sort of utility things
    underground. One day I saw a sewer line split open under pressure with someone working
    nearby, I had to laugh, but shit (literally), it gives new meaning to the phrase "Up
    to your armpits…". Dante’s Inferno or what.

    Vending Machines

    There seem to be very few vending machines in Brazil. You want to buy a soft drink,
    candy, cigarettes, Coca Cola, beer, ice cream, crisps, chocolate, Chokitos, etc. go to a
    human being to buy these things, not a machine. Soaks up a lot of labor that’s for sure.
    It is a stark contrast from Japan where you can buy almost a Boeing 747 from a vending
    machine.

    Overall, I would say prices are cheaper from a human being than from a vending machine,
    better service, more reliable, and that’s what life is about, transacting between humans,
    not machines. Where money is concerned, give me a human to buy/sell from any day. You
    never ever have a human take your money for a can of Coca-Cola, and then no Coca-Cola can
    pops out. Or not give you change. Vending machines, who needs them? Vending machine
    salesmen maybe.

    Actually, the reason I am told they do not work in Brazil is the coins are not very
    suitable (some are pretty similar in size) and there are too many machines broken into and
    the contents taken. Figures, all those people selling in the streets are feeling
    threatened, you could not blame them if they broke the machines. I would do the same.

    The Czech republic

    Brazil has been a democratic republic since 1985 I think. But it has been a cheque
    (check) republic for a lot longer. Ninety percent of all transactions are conducted with a
    check. Now this spooked me a bit initially, but now that I know how this works it is no
    problem. A check here is as good as gold, actually better, let me explain.

    Historically, Brazil lived with very high inflation for a long, long time. Triple digit
    stuff. This required extra ordinary amounts of financial management skills to understand
    how to keep a fist on your dollars. Combined with the fact that it is never wise to carry
    a lot of cash in your pocket (i.e. money in pocket erodes rapidly), and indexed bank
    accounts to inflation, the result, everyone uses checks.

    So let’s say you pass a dud check, accident or otherwise. As soon as your bank
    determines your check is not covered, you get a phone call saying rectify this
    immediately. You do this again and things start to get a little difficult in your life.
    Your bank account is frozen, your credit cards are locked up and will not work, your name
    is plastered over every financial institution network as a bad boy, and you are frozen out
    of the financial network, and the check is passed back to the person who presented it.
    Things start to get pretty grim. And it is your responsibility to fix this. You get two
    chances on this, but you have to recover the dud check, this is your responsibility.

    Now supposing you are the recipient of a dud check, you are pissed off initially, but
    you know the guy who passed it to you is also in deep shit. He comes to collect the dud
    check as he needs to unlock his credit, and you say, "Sorry pal, that is going to
    cost you for all the inconvenience you have caused me." So a dud check can actually
    make you more money than a good check if you are that way inclined.

    People use checks here for insanely low amounts. With the new toll on the highway
    between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, people have been paying by check for amounts as low
    as 93 cents.

    Blending in.

    Have not touched this topic for a while, but we have had a few visitors from overseas
    lately, and it has reminded me of a few things. As much as I have changed my appearance,
    dress code, suntan, etc., I do not look "classically" Brazilian. A Brazilian can
    look at me and say with a high degree of confidence and observe that I am a foreigner, not
    of Brazilian birth. As soon as I speak Portuguese, then it is give away. Usually I am
    mistaken for a North American. This is very evident on the buses, and even more so on the
    Metro (underground train service, just brilliant, clean, fast, cheap).

    One thing I have yet to master is the Carioca male walk. They have a walking
    style that is so languid. It is all from the hips. They walk slightly splayed feet, almost
    bow legged. The feet point outwards when they walk. The walk is all from hip, and the
    action is just so cruising.

    The other thing to note is eye contact. When you visit Brazil for the first time, you
    will encounter an enormous amount of eye contact. Both sexes make eye contact, but it
    obviously more prevalent between members of the opposite sex (except at the kiosk in front
    of the Copacabana Palace where you will encounter a lot more male to male eye contact for
    those interested). Many men interpret this eye contact as an invitation, and sometimes it
    is, but mostly it is just a Brazilian thing, look, see, observe, converse with the eyes.

    It can be a little intimidating sometimes this eye contact, especially if the eye
    contact is from someone you do not want to make contact with. For example, there is a
    "Rato de Praia" who always wears a Michael Jordan T-shirt who works the beach in
    Ipanema. I do not even like to say bad things about him, because he has to make a living
    somehow, and most of the time he just tries to help on the beach selling beer, chairs,
    etc. But I have also seen him steal from a tourist who went in the water for a swim. He is
    very intelligent, speaks English very well, and listens to everyone talking on the beach.

    He has watched me intensely from the moment I have arrived. He keeps thinking,
    "When is this gringo going home? I thought he was a tourist? But now he has been here
    too long, what does he do? How much money does he have?". He tries frequently to
    start the eye contact game, even deliberately standing in front of me when I am on the
    beach, he has tried to make conversation, but I have a sense of foreboding about him. So I
    have to go to considerable lengths not to make eye contact. It is a game, and as long as
    you play the game, and do not respond, nothing happens. Nothing really, but adds to the
    adventure in a macabre sort of way.

    Watching someone die

    We have a couple of botecos just near our apartment. These are very popular with
    the locals especially on a Friday night. Now Friday night in Rio is like Friday night in
    Australia, every one heads for a bar to have a drink, mix with friends, talk about work,
    politics, sport, women, men, love, life, friends, etc. Consumption of alcohol is pretty
    ferocious, and many people overindulge.

    One Friday night in early October, I was coming home and noticed one guy was really
    hitting the booze very hard. It was 8:30 PM, he was already beyond the make sense stage,
    and just barely standing up. At 10:30 PM, I wander downstairs to get some milk, and he was
    still there, but now he had a bottle of cachaça in his hand, he was on the ground
    propped up against the wall of the Newsagent. He is just paralytic, and it is very sad.

    The next day I came downstairs at about 6:00 AM to ride my bike, he was flat out on the
    sidewalk not moving, but breathing, so I figure sleep it off. Twelve hours later at 6:00
    PM he has moved about 10 meters to a pile of sand being used to repair the sidewalk. He is
    sleeping still, but just hopeless, and still a ¼ bottle of cachaça in his hand.

    At 7:00 PM in the apartment, I hear a thud, then a screech of brakes. I look out over
    the balcony and a crowd is beginning to form around the man lying on the road, he has got
    up and walked in front of a car. The driver is just looking and explaining in animated
    fashion to the crowd that the guy just walked out in front of his car. An ambulance
    arrives after ten minutes. The man is put on a trolley, a sheet thrown over his body,
    wheeled inside the ambulance. No police attend. The ambulance drives off. The driver gets
    in his car and leaves. So ends this section.

    "Man, man, one cannot live without pity" – Dostoyevsky, Crime &
    Punishment.

    John Miller is an Australian, living in Rio de Janeiro, selling
    Australian wine. `Postcards from Rio’ is a journal of his journey in the land of the Cariocas.

    For contact:

    John and Marta Miller
    Rua Joaquim Nabuco, 106 / Apt 1001
    Copacabana CEP 22080-030
    Rio de Janeiro
    Brazil
    Tel: +55 (021) 521 8568
    E-mail:
    millerj@gbl.com.br

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