I had great hopes of doing what I like best –talk to people, during my recent trip to Brazil. When I asked the receptionist on the first day morning which way I should walk from the hotel and what I should hope to see, she (of Taiwanese origin) sternly told me that I may not come back with my purse, passport or even person intact. I turned towards a co-host who had also flown in from Europe but extremely familiar with the location about what she was saying. ‘If you don’t know Portuguese and the ways of Sap Paulo, better not to venture out’. The goons know to spot the victims all too easily. I had hopes to talk about the yo-yo economy, evolving political situation, boisterous people, onslaught from Olympics, Samba dancers, may be even a petty thief to understand what drives them. My spirits stood punctured by their cautionary and sagely advice.
What follows is based on conversations with the car drivers, guest house keepers, hosts, hotel assistants, tourist guide in Rio and a few others. Unverified and you may believe it at your own risk and peril.

1          The road discipline is great. The BRT bus lanes are not barricaded or divided with dividers like in Indian cities – just a white line marker. Taxis with passengers and Ambulances also use the lane. But no others – pedestrian or vehicles get into those lanes. When the cars are crawling at an inch a minute speed, these busses whizz past at 60-70 kms. They know the risk I guess – if you get into it, the bus driver will have no choice but to hit you. He has no way of turning left (he is on the leftmost lane already) nor against the wall of vehicles on the other side. He has to hit them and drag along till the next signal since stopping will mean he himself will get hit by the buses behind.
Even on highways where there is 3 mile long queues there is no horn honking and they stand in one file. Just no one slips into the overtaking lane or side kerb. Extraordinary discipline one should say.
2        Portuguese gave Brazil (its original native name is Pindorama) its name after a tree which has the red/saffron colour of burning charcoal. Red dyes for cloths used to be manufactured out of it. Red colored cloths were very expensive in the 1800s in Europe and had to be ultimately banned. Nowadays the finest violin base is made from that tree.

The world’s largest football stadium is Maracana in Rio which was the venue of the recent Olympics opening ceremony. It’s the name of a bird like parrot which makes sound like the percussion instrument. At the main entrance is the statue of Bellini the captain of their team in 1958 and 62.

3         Brazil is the largest exporter of Cocoa, Beef (there is one ox for every Brazilian I was told), Coffee (largest producer for 150 years), Leather, Chicken, Pork, Orange, Sugar, Tobacco, Cashews, Pulp, Bikinis and as my guide cheekily remarked Football players.

Cashews (Cajus) come from Brazil. They gave it to India via Goa and took Mango and Jack from India. Jack is under attack now since some environmentalists believe it’s in quarrel with local species. There is Caju tree (single) in North East which covers an area of 8 Ha. (Wiki confirms this).

Brazil gets 3 crops of mangoes per annum. When during the pre flowering period the mango crop needs water the most, I understand they starve it and the starved tree starts flowering faster. When it does, they water it copiously and get a good crop. (need to understand this better). This way they induce 3 crops per annum. Apparently Brazilian mangoes are a craze in Japan to whom they export by Air. A solitary piece can cost as much as $ 50 in Japan, I was told.

4        Brazilians believe it’s not Wright Brothers but Santos Dumont of brazil who invented Airplanes. He did not register the patent or publicise it. WB used a catapult to get it up and glided down whereas SD used the engine to propel it up is their version. He is also billed as the inventor of wrist watches.

5       The largest contingent of Japanese outside Japan lives in Brazil. They started coming from 1901 and is a sizable community is Sao Paulo. There are more Lebanese in Brazil than in Lebanon. There is no quintessential or typical Brazilian. They come in all shapes and sizes, colours and textures. Only their skin tones, bone structures and facial features all look great and is one of the most beautiful people … all easy going and boisterous, irrespective of what… as good as the Greeks, Cyprus, Lebanese, Syria and middle east races.

6 Brazil
a.      In many prisons there are stationery bi-cycles which the inmates can cycle for health. They are connected to electrical generators and the electricity is sold and the proceeds are shared with the cyclers.

b.      Many (the guide said most) companies/offices in Brazil have made Yoga compulsory for 5-10 minutes at the start. They believe that it reduces work place tensions, stress and to lesser conflicts. Brazil has had to change its currency 10 times since 1942. Due to high inflation. Twice they had to knock off the last 3 digits of their currency. Looks like their inflation is as high spirited as their outlook towards life.

c.      It produces nearly 70% of its electricity from hydro sources and most of these are from dams in the plains.

d.      Divorce was legalised only in 1972. And the current rate as people felt would be 20-30%. But even middle class people are shying away from marriage due to financial reasons. They live as friends but feel raising children as very expensive and unaffordable due to rentals and costs of education etc. Sad to see even people in 40s say it.

e.      Sao Paulo can easily be rated the Graffiti capital of the world. Most of them are elaborate, colourful and cover the entire wall in a single theme. Must be taking 2-3 people a week to do them.

f.      Voting is compulsory is Brazil. Between 16-18 it is optional but from 18 its compulsory. If you don’t vote you can’t get your passport renewed or apply for any Visa or get social security. But i believe the fines are a paltry $ 5 (=ent). But you have to run from pillar to post in the Registrar’s office and waste the better part of the day besides the traffic time in reaching their office… that in itself seems to be a deterrent.
g. Earth’s magnetic potency is solely waning in Brazil, i was told. (this seems to be confirmed by Internet).

7      Rio De Janeiro (River of January) is one of the finest urban living places. It has 49 km of fine white sand beaches, a forest (botanical garden of 38 sq km) right in the middle of the city, rocky hills, and a beautiful lagoon. The small strip of land between the lagoon and sea is one of the costliest places on earth to own your residence.
Ipanema, Copacabana, and Prainha are some of the most crowded sun bathing spaces. Fine white sand but not as wide as the Marina or Elliots in Chennai – just may be 1/10th to 1/5th the width and goes into the seas fairly steeply except in small stretches in Copacabana and at one end of Ipanema. But that does not deflate the spirits of the revellers, who play beach volleyball, and other sports with gay abandon. It seems as crowded as the VT station (some exaggeration there).
The city airport is a risky affair. (see the photo taken while approaching it – I am at right angles at a distance of 3-4 kms from landing). It’s in a narrow triangle of sorts jutting out into the sea. Not even space for fencing at either end. At one end is the Sugar Loaf rock some 750 meters tall with the seas hardly 3-4 km separating it from the take off point. And at the other end are hills and the 14 km long bridge over the sea running right across – again hardly 4-5 kms away. The aircrafts can only approach it at right angles and take a steep turn at such a short distance and land knowing full well that there is very little margin for error. On takeoff he is turning almost at right angles even before vertically out of airstrip.
Even the other airports don’t seem to be fenced like in India. There is a football ground very close to the main runway in their Guarulhos International airport. A good kicker can easily kick it over the 4-5 ft high fence right into the main runway. The city airport in Sao is on a raised table and if one misses take off can straight plunge into the thick residential colony. But then their Pilots seem as confident as their football forwards.

8      Crime
A gram (or whatever) of cocaine costs $ 265 in Australia i was told but just $ 9 in Sao Paulo. Most crimes are drug related or young people trying to finance their habits. In my trip to Rio raised the topic re crime with the Guide. He outright dismissed it blaming it on the media. Crime is always there in cities. He did take us out for the first time on the base of Christ Statue, Maracana and then again in Copacabana where we took some pictures. We had earlier been advised… ‘if you want to get out at the beach make sure you don’t wear watches, don’t carry your camera or cell phone. They hunt in packs … one to engage you, another to distract your attention and they are experts in identifying their victims and quickly sizing them’. We did nothing of these when we got down 3-4 times but lucky the Guides words weren’t belied.
My driver from Sao Paulo city centre on the way back opined that the crime is largely prevalent in poorer sections and areas and controlled by mafia. In business and office areas the influence is less to non-existent but 30-40% of the area is under their control. But in Rio it is they who rule. They just don’t carry knives, pistols or revolvers but Rifles. Bullet proof cars are no protection.
People under 18 can’t be put in prison in Brazil. The drug mafia uses delinquent children as fronts and establish their control. He opined unless this is changed, controlling crime may be a pipe dream.

It was nice to see everyone from the door keeper to the driver, car driver to the chairman, flight and hotel attendants, exhibit self dignity and more importantly respect others for whatever function others were performing.

Ramdev’s Republic

It is 45 years since I visited Rishikesh last. My memories were of floating wood logs, young boys and girls with tins tied to their back jumping into the river learning to swim, and boat rides when even as a kid I could stretch over and touch the cool waters of the new born Ganges. The promise of 4.58 hrs in Google as average travel time was tempting, so we chose Rishikesh as our week-end outing destination  when my niece and nephew landed up.  In the end, we spent the weekend, shall I say, trying to ‘reach there’.

We had our lunch at Ramdev’s ashram (or more appropriately his mini republic in the making) near Haridwar at around 4 pm… on the recommendation of our driver, who always recommend places that fit their standard of hygiene and cleanliness or where they get their food free. Sometimes they kind of force that choice on you. But in this case it must have been more due to affiliation and reasonable prices.

His establishment on the right side of road looked massive, huge herbal gardens, what looked like factories, and Patanjali research centre, Yoga centres, etc following one after the other. The food courts housed with some other facilities are on either side of the road just outside Hardwar towards Delhi. We saw a fleet of cars and buses parked inside the campus (thank him for they were not spilling over onto the roads. He seems to have skillfully estimated his following or having established the facilities created the requisite following). There was a milling crowd even at the time.

Most of the crowd was middle age – people who looked between 35 to 60 years – hardly any older ones (i could have counted them on my fingers), with their young ones in tow. I saw the same kind of devotion or urge in their eyes as when i go to India’s religious places like Tirupathi, Siddhi Vinayak Temple or SriNadhwara. Except here there was no God, it is more Ramdev. He seems to have become a sort of a messiah for the low income or low-middle income class. They were not chanting his name like in Trirupathi, but the vibes in the air was clear.

I may not be able to put a finger on what exactly his USP is – but it is not just religion: it is something more. May be they feel left out by the political process or that their lots have not improved as much in recent years as that of others. Or they are feeling culturally betrayed and need a new sense of identity. Or the rest of India has tried to fast forward traditions beyond what this class is comfortable with and Ramdev is the best bet to put the much needed speed breakers. There seems to be a huge vacant space of serving which marketers and political parties seems to have missed which he is serving which should account for his popularity.

I may not be conclusive – it is not just religion or yoga alone. Or just product benefits, aroma, taste, medicinal value, or environmentality, superior packaging.  It seems much more, much different. May be Ramdev knows or may be he himself does not know but has per chance hit upon the magic, like sometimes you succeed without knowing the reasons for your success. He would require a lot of de-coding. His products are a huge succees and I reckon that even if he were to put Patanjali banions and underwears, they will become instant hits. Such seems to be the sense of affiliation in the Ramdev Republic.

Now on to the food. The food itself was tasty – better than Ammas kitchen (Chennai), or Brahma Kumaris (BK) or Sri Sris (SSR), or Tirupathis Anna Prasadam (free).  Reasonably clean.

While i was waiting for my turn to pick up my Thali, the man ahead started an argument with the counter server. It was about the quantity of Rava Kesari (Sheera) in his meal. I thought it was alright but he was arguing it was less in comparison to his predecessor’s. It filled the steel saucer alright but still the man kept arguing over what perhaps would have been 2-3 gms difference or perhaps the shape it was served. I don’t know what gets our (all Indians and I stand at near the head of the queue) worst guts out when it concerns food. May be long years of seeing starvation around and many of us would have liberated out of that only recently and embedded memories and psyche remain.  Finally when the man behind counter obliged him in sheer frustration, the customer walked away with a smug (or triumphant) smile on his face.

Even while the drama was unfolding at my counter there was some heated exchange at the other. The customer was insisting that the kichdi be packed and the counter man as explaining that there is no such system. With each denial the temper was shooting up. The man behind counter turned around and asked his colleagues if there was some such system. Finally he lost his cool on his own ilk and ‘why don’t they tell at the counter itself that we don’t pack food’. And some mild adjectives to describe their mental state, etc. He was at his wits end … about to become one of the ilk that he himself described moments back. Finally he served kichdi to the brim on the plate (just that it wasn’t spilling over) and sort of threw the plate at the customer. I felt sorry for the counter server. I thought it was too much of a sampling error (2 in parallel) what i noticed. But if true, i suspect I may not last that job more than a couple of hours. Poor man from the interior or upcountry area in search of a daily living by serving people … we can be sympathetic or sensitive to each other a lot more. This is where i find Buddhist countries far more evolved.

I had been to Ammas kitchen a year or so back. They served too much of kichdi. I tried reasoning (when i argue with the counter clerks, i call it reasoning, pl note) i was imply incapable of eating their serving … it may last 2-3 sessions etc. and that she could serve as I deem full. But she said that she had to serve 275 gms (or 375gms) as the board announced and nothing short as per strict instructions, and that i could throw the excess if so desired. Some such similar disciplining happens in Tirupathi as well (they won’t serve anything in side cups or rasam and Butter milk in tumblers – impossible). I realised the value of standardisation of serves after seeing the quarrels.

A simple board announcing ‘No packing of food’ and just keeping a weighing scale near the counter and mentioning the size of serving (gms) would have quelled both the ‘Beja Frys’ I thought.  In both cases, my sympathies were overwhelmingly with the counter salesman.

Rating wise Ramdev’s food was tastiest, Tirupathi service quality the best (for the volume they handle anything less would be chaotic in no time), and for overall experience Ammas kitchen stands out. Ramdev must be recovering full cost at least and others don’t.

Whatever it is Ramdev Baba stands for or preaches, he could also teach them some basic courtesies, politeness, respect for rules and queues and sensitivity towards others. I have not found ground level sensitivity being taught at SSR, or BKs either. The 11 year old boy at Ramakrishna Ashram who showed me around in 1994 near Trichy was dignified and self assured. I wonder if they have such programme. He could have a huge impact. They all have raw love – if i fall ill on the road or down with an accident these are the very same people who would most likely rush to my rescue, not the priests of polish and outward politeness – it is the just the briefing which may be the missing link. Ramdev may be the best placed to bring about that welcome change.

May be he could teach them some basic hygiene, cleanliness and lessons on littering. They could become a million walking advertisements for his enterprise and convert a lot of the as yet unconvinced.