Brazil

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“People say that I write hyperbolically. The hyperboles however are not in my writing, and rather in Latin America itself, which is completely hyperbolic by nature.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I had been in São Paulo for a couple of weeks studying Portuguese, and was chatting with some people online in my apartment when a new friend signed on. I had met Paula in a local gym, and all I knew about her was that she was incredibly fit. It was Saturday night and she was heading off to a VIP party in a few hours, she said. Did I want to come?

All other plans I might have had for the evening were immediately cast aside, and I quickly scavenged a suit and tie from my sympathetic flatmate, a man a couple inches taller than me and about thirty pounds heavier. His clothes hung a bit loosely off my frame, but at least I had some formal wear.

The soirée was in honor of a twenty-two-year-old debutante who had just graduated from university. Her family was obviously of modest means, and had decided to celebrate the occasion by inviting only her 500 closest friends. They had arranged an open bar as well, with free drinks and sushi for everyone all night, and set up a huge stage for a non-stop parade of about a dozen live bands. All the women were in dizzyingly expensive ballroom gowns and evening dresses. The men looked rich and professional. In my ad-hoc outfit, I felt like a homeless tramp who had accidentally stumbled into a New York fashion shoot.

The lady of the evening, a glowing brunette named Amelia, was wearing a gorgeous gown with a luxurious train. She was being escorted around the huge room by a man presumably her father, greeting all the doctors, wealthy businessmen and various other glitterati. When it came my turn to be introduced, I realized immediately that Amelia’s affection for my date Paula was deep and sincere. It wasn’t just pleasantries; they really were the closest of friends. It was only then that I started to realize just what kind of a person my companion really was.

“What do you think of the party?” Paula asked me with a smile, hooking her arm through mine as we bid goodbye to Amelia.

I told her, with a touch of self-consciousness, that I doubted I had ever been to such a high society event in my life.

She laughed, evidently very amused at this.

Paula was the heiress of five different medical equipment companies that her dead father had founded. She worked as dentist, but only as a hobby and social service. She had several houses, multiple cars, a motorcycle, and a collection of sport bikes. A gregarious and amiable woman, she was extremely popular with everyone because of her friendliness and off the wall sense of humor.

Being rich in Brazil, I learned, is a strange life and a dangerous privilege. In the past, Paula had lived in a huge house and run a large and well-known private clinic, but her lifestyle had proved to be too ostentatious. People began burglarizing her office, she told me, and even started ransacking her home. The last straw came when a hired thug snuck into her workplace as she was closing up for the day, bound her to a table with duct-tape, and waved a machine gun in her face.

After a few weeks of hanging out together, Paula decided to take me to a family get-together and introduce me to her clan. It was a memorable experience. Everyone, it seemed, was a doctor, lawyer, or chief of police. They were vivacious, passionate and sitcom-quality bizarre. One of her sisters, “the really crazy one,” was living in Switzerland and had written a tell-all book about the family’s eccentricities that was in the final stages of publication. She had been notorious for drug use, promiscuity, and assaulting heavily armed swat-team members, Paula told me, so it was only natural that she be the one to write an opus on everyone else.

The father of the family was dead, but the mother (in her sixties) had recently remarried, to a man the same age as her daughter. The couple nuzzled in a corner, while an elderly aunt and uncle spent the afternoon joking around with me about transvestites, blowjobs and anal sex. Paula’s brother was an anesthesiologist and idiosyncratic multimillionaire, being the main inheritor of their father’s immense fortune. He scandalized the party by leaving in tears, roaring away on a souped-up motorcycle as he wept over a woman who had already separated from him five times.

Hanging out with Paula, I met a whole cavalcade of São Paulo elites and, without particularly wanting to, became privy to dirty secrets. She pointed out famous people constantly when we made rounds of the city. That lady drinking coffee across the room, she would whisper, she’s had more than 80 plastic surgeries! The model on that billboard, she’s addicted to steroids!

One evening we went to a nightclub called “Rei Castro,” which was the salsa joint of São Paulo. Paula had studied both ballet and ballroom dancing for decades, and could strut, swing, hustle or shimmy anything designed for a biped. She started the evening by trying to teach me how to dance like a Brazilian, which was a bit like teaching a trout to climb a ladder. Quickly seeing the futility of her efforts, she switched her attentions to Marco, one of her more seasoned salsa partners. They danced a few songs and came back to the table.

Marco was a very successful surgeon of Lebanese descent. He was a busy man, Paula explained, owning several clinics in the area. We discussed his plan to buy a personal helicopter. It was the best way to avoid the local traffic, he explained, and after all they only cost half a million dollars!

The following morning we visited another friend, Fernando, who was a personal trainer at one of São Paulo’s elitest gyms. He was a muscular ox of a man, who enthusiastically recommended illegal drugs to everyone he trained. A poster boy for the benedictions of his lifestyle, taking year round, overlapping cycles of massive doses of growth hormone and other anabolizing agents, he had managed to lose both his neck and his fertility. His wife had been pregnant five times, Paula told me, and lost the baby to suspicious miscarriages every time.

Another friend I had made in the city was a professional dancer named Carla, a spunky black girl who performed with various dance and acting troupes. One afternoon I went to watch her rehearse for a show, and got to meet some of her dancing associates. The most memorable was Magdalena, a muscle-bound blonde with a scandalous personality, who regularly jacked up on ‘roids and reportedly had a clitoris the size of an imported car. That is, according to her own humble self-description, which she laid out the first conversation of our acquaintance. Oversized female genitalia was, she explained, yet another of the innumerable benefits of heavy juicing.

Carla told me how the male dancer of the troupe had done so many performance enhancing drugs in the past that he had actually managed to grow breasts, and needed to get them surgically removed. In other countries, steroid use is not usually something that people brag about to all and sundry. Not so in Brazil. Here it seemed like standard dinner table conversation.

I also had an acquaintance named Josie, who was a wealthy endocrinologist. One day I was introduced to her lawyer friend, a 42 year-old, devastatingly beautiful brunette. When I commented that the woman looked spectacular for her age, Josie rattled off the awe-inspiring litany of lip, breast, nose and other surgeries that her friend had undergone, then mentioned matter-of-factly that she planned to do the exactly same when she hit forty.

A few days later, I was talking to Paula about the excesses of Brazilian body culture. She said in that, in spite of having a body that was universally recognized as being already perfect, she too was considering lip and breast augmentation.

Growing interested in this widespread phenomenon, I picked up the latest edition of “Plástica e Beleza” (‘Plastic and Beauty”), a thick glossy magazine replete with surgeon’s advertisements and pictures of radically altered white women.

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The list of possible staplings, lifts, peelings and remoldings ran for pages. Here is a brief excerpt:

  • Lipoinsertion for wrinkled old hands (to plump them up again)
  • Gluteal prostheses (“make sure you sleep face-down post-op”)
  • Blepharoplasty (eyelids –to make your eyes look bigger)
  • Ritidoplasty (i.e. a face-lift)
  • Lipoaspiration (mold fat to look like a washboard stomach)
  • Bardotization (lip injections)
  • “Intimate surgery” (vaginal constriction and/or hymen rebuilding)
  • Permanent facial make-up (tattooed on)
  • Permanent beard depilation –for men (deep acid burn of hair follicles)

You can also get accompanying psychotherapy for the whole family, as a part of the surgery package (No, I’m not making this up). One riveting article described how extra ear cartilage can be used to reconstruct your nipples after excessive breast augmentation (often the nipples are moved out of place and need to be shaved off and surgically replaced). This was followed on the next page by a discussion of the minimum age to give your daughter radical cosmetic surgery for her birthday (fifteen).

Reading magazines like this, I can’t help but think of “Boxing Helena,” a memorable film starring Barbara Hershey as a beautiful woman kept hostage with her limbs amputated in the home of a sexually troubled plastic surgeon.

Of course, this magazine is dedicated to a very small target audience, not necessarily representative of your average Brazilian. Your average Brazilian usually has to go without blepharoplasty.

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Apart from plastic surgery vacations, the most important part of many tourists’ trips to Brazil are the “favela-tours,”[2] excursions through the slums. They typically last around three hours and cost about $100 a pop. These loveable, see-how-the-other-half-subsists safaris are all the rage, with numerous travel companies competing for tourist favor. Usually the tours are done by armored jeep, as pallid Europeans jockey for position with their cameras. The companies try to outdo each other on the internet by offering “taboo-breaking” and “insightful” destitution voyeurism.

The country’s government divides its citizens into five economic classes from E to A, with E being the absolutely penniless slum dwellers (about 20% of the population), D, C, and B being “middle class”, with some middle classes more middle than others, and A being the “rich.” It is a pyramid, with an elite and ridiculously wealthy group (like Paula and her friends), called the “Triple A’s” at the top. Most major cities in the country have special VIP department stores that cater specifically to Triple A’s, where you can walk in and spend millions of dollars at the drop of a hat.

According to World Bank estimates, Brazil has the fourth most unequal distribution of wealth in the world, after Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, and Swaziland. Not the best company to be in.

In 1974, Brazilian economist Edmar Bacha coined the word Belindia as an appellation for his country, to represent the fact that a small minority of the population lives in Belgium-level conditions while an overwhelming majority of the rest languishes in India-level squalor. The term brazilification, meanwhile, which was originally coined by Douglas Coupland in his book “Generation X,” has recently been entered into modern editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, referring to the sociological phenomenon when the gap between the rich and the poor becomes so vast that the wealthy find themselves living in million-dollar houses right next to ghettos.

So there is a lot of desperation in Brazil. And when people get desperate, they get violent, as any visitor to the country knows.

Rio gets a lot of bad press, and is more internationally infamous for violence, but Brazilian organized crime really reaches its extremest incarnation in São Paulo, under the Primeiro Comando da Capital (“First Capital Command”) mafia. To become a full-fledged member of this massive gang, killing a policeman is reportedly required. It is united, at least partially, with the powerful Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”) of Rio de Janeiro, and employs a small army of justiceiros, or professional hitmen. Rumor has it they are even trying to mobilize a legitimate political party, modeled on the IRA’s Sein Fein.

The leader of the P.C.C. is Marcos Williams Herbas Camacho, otherwise known as “Marcola”. He has spent half of his life behind bars for numerous bank robberies, and controls the criminal population of São Paulo from a maximum security prison cell. Known as o bandido que fala mansa (“The soft-spoken bandit”), Marcola has an intellectual reputation and is a voracious reader, having read thousands of books. He is reportedly a huge fan of Dante Alighieri.

On May 12, 2006, Marcola unleashed the greatest wave of violence in the history of São Paulo. 73 different penitentiaries simultaneously rioted and conducted a massive prison break that exploded across the entire state. Tens of thousands of convicts poured into the streets and wrecked unbelievable havoc. 152 civilians were killed, 82 city buses were burned, and about 5,000 more were stopped. Five million people in the city were left without public transport, and 170 kilometers of traffic jams clogged the panic-stricken streets. Police stations and patrol cars were machine-gunned, and fifteen bank branches were robbed and burned. The pandemonium brought the city to a 100-hour standstill. Apparently the authorities had been threatening to suspend some of Marcola’s prison privileges, and he had disagreed with the decision. When the riots reached their peak the governor of the state of São Paulo, Cláudio Lembo, reportedly ran for the kingpin’s cell and cut a deal. The wave of violence stopped almost immediately thereafter, with a quick phone call from Marcola, and the escaped convicts returned quietly to their prison cells.

It sounds impossible. It sounds exaggerated.  I know. But it happened. And there are a number of conditions that exist in the local prison system that allowed it to happen. One of the most interesting statistics I have read regarding the prison situation in Brazil is the recent research done by the economist Marcelo Neri, that indicated that the illiteracy rate in the prisons of São Paulo (25%) is actually considerably lower than the overall illiteracy rate of the city’s population that lives free (33%)! That is to say, the criminal population is literally better educated than the average citizen. No wonder things can get so out of hand!

Graffiti seen in Sao Paulo