SITTING in Dubai Airport two weeks ago, I was dozing off while I waited for my flight to Brazil. That day I had stayed up the whole night packing and waiting for the taxi that took me from Abu Dhabi to Dubai at four in the morning. The taxi driver drove so fast, and there was so little traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road, that I arrived at Dubai Airport in record time. After checking in and battling my way through the crowds in the duty free hall and having McDonald’s coffee in the food court, I was tired and just wanted to sleep a little before my flight took off.
After snoozing for more than an hour and a half I woke up to see a woman wearing a tube top holding a baby, while sitting next to an older woman. Since I had my earphones in my ears I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I said to myself “they must be Brazilian”. Only a Brazilian woman would show so much of her body in public with no shame. Sure enough, when I took the earphones out of my ears, I heard them speaking Portuguese.
The flight to Sao Paulo was packed. One wouldn’t think that Emirates Airlines would have enough passengers for this route, but their daily flights suggest otherwise. My flight was full of Japanese Brazilians. Why they were flying via Dubai, I could not fathom. Later, the Japanese Brazilian woman sitting next to me on the plane explained why they all preferred flying via Dubai rather than through Los Angeles, the route that Japan Airlines and Varig traditionally took between Japan and Brazil.
“We don’t need visas to transit through Dubai. Flying through the US is much harder. We need visas and we have to line up for interviews at the US consulate,” she explained.
The 14-hour flight was long: thank goodness for Emirates’ excellent in-flight entertainment system, which allowed me to watch three films. Their tight seating though is really horrific for someone like me who stands 6 foot 4 inches. I was literally jammed into my seat, my knees hitting against the seat in front of me. I had bruises on both knees for days after the flight.
“Only 675 days” screamed a huge illuminated sign on the roundabout near Brasilia’s airport.
“What’s that?” I ask my mother.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Later I realize that it’s the countdown to Brasilia’s 50th anniversary in 2010. Launched in 1960 by President Juscelino Kubitschek, Brasilia was a bold modernist vision of a new capital for Brazil in the country’s central highlands. Brasilia was designed by the revolutionary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who at 101 is still alive today in Rio de Janeiro designing new buildings.
An avowed communist in his youth, Niemeyer’s socialist vision of the new capital had Brasilia’s pioneering inhabitants living in apartment blocks that all looked the same. Powerful ministers were supposed to live next door to their drivers in Niemeyer’s egalitarian utopia, but the truth is that apartments in the city ended up with middle class bureaucrats, while ministers lived in the posh Lago Sul residential area in expensive villas, and the poor workers who helped build Brasilia and kept it clean were relegated to pokey satellite cities that were rife with crime and poverty.
Today Brasilia has huge traffic jams during rush hour, another sign of the economic boom that the country has experienced under President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva. His pro-market views have assuaged the fears of investors who thought the left-wing former worker’s union head would nationalize swaths of industry. Lula has not taken the path of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, although his socialistic “mensalao” project of giving a minimum salary to all families that send their children to school regularly has lifted a large segment of poor Brazilians into the lower middle class.
That plus the rising power of the Brazilian currency has allowed millions of Brazilians to travel abroad. I ran into Brazilian tourists in Vienna, Austria, in July, and Brazilians are taking up well-paid jobs as pilots and engineers in countries across the Gulf.
Brazilians are known worldwide for their warmth and friendliness. This translates into their daily spoken vocabulary, where they regularly call people on the phone “querido” (loved one), and give away “beijos and abracos” (kisses and hugs) to people that they are probably not that close to. My Brazilian-American friend Camille told me that she refuses to be so gushy and intimate on the phone with practical strangers.
“I never say those things to mere acquaintances,” she told me. “I reserve it for people really close to me.”
Camille is a descendant of American Methodist missionaries who came to Brazil during the American Civil War from North Carolina. I met her in 6th grade when we were both attending the American School of Brasilia in the 1970s and the early 1980s. When I arrived with my parents in Brasilia in 1975, the country was still under military rule and Gen. Ernesto Geisel was the president.
No one really dared openly criticize the dictatorship, especially anyone at the American School since the US Government had supported the coup in 1964 that brought the military to power in Brazil. It was the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the string of leftist-leaning presidents in Brazil had not pleased those in power in Washington.
Camille left the American School after eighth grade and attended a private Brazilian school where she had a history professor who was critical of the military regime. “He was great. He really made us think and told us when something was bullshit,” she said. “But he didn’t last long. The school soon fired him for criticizing the government, and in his place we got this really dull woman who stuck religiously to the textbook.”
Camille later found out that he had been tortured by the government, but was glad to note that she saw him years later at a democracy rally in Brasilia.
Today the military are back in their barracks where they belong, and democracy has returned to Brazil, with all of its flaws and shortcomings. Corruption is rife in both houses of Congress, where politicians are regularly forced to resign for accepting bribes or illegally racking in millions in bonuses. Although no big politician has ended up behind bars, Brazilians seemed resigned to the fact that many of those in power will find the temptation to steal too hard to resist.
President Lula has been extra generous in boosting the salaries of politicians and civil servants. The Correio Braziliense newspaper just last week ran a front page story noting the huge salaries of civil servants and showed in a table by how much they were going to increase in the next two years with the annual rises that they get. A top Brazilian diplomat, at the level of minister counselor, gets a whopping 17,500 reais a month, or $10,937, which is expected to rise to 19,500 reais in 2010, or $12,187 a month.
With the minimum salary set at a paltry average of 415 reais a month, or $259, one can understand the outrage that many Brazilians feel for overpaid bureaucrats and politicians.