Rio, one last time with feeling

I am on the farewell tour of my posts. I am in Rio today.  I will be in São Paulo next week and Recife the week after that. There is nothing left for me to do but say goodbye and to thank my good colleagues for all they did.

I am at the Marriott at Copacabana. It is really a great place, right across from the beach. I am not very much attracted to the beach, per-se, but I do like to go to the little cabanas and drink draft beer while watching the waves. Copacabana is interesting sociologically. During the sixties, it was a magnet for the young and the beautiful. Many never left.  They are not as beautiful and young only in comparison to the sand and trees. Actually, it is likely that most of the coconut palms are younger. But I think it is a good thing.  They seem content. There will probably soon be a generational change with new young people starting the cycle again.

The taxi driver on my way to the consulate was a real Rio lover. He seemed a little gruff until I opened my window, explaining that I wanted to feel more of Rio. He told me as much as he could get in about the history of the city and why it is the greatest place in the world. The Paris of the tropics, he called it, but better than the Paris of France because God has sculpted nature to enhance Rio. He has a point about that. Rio is one of the world’s most beautiful natural locations for a city.

One of the big advantages of the Marriott, besides the location, is that I get free caipirinhas. I was a little unhappy when I noticed that I did not have my return flight to Brasília until 8:20. But now I am happy. I had time to go to the beer place near the beach & Marriott gave me a special pass to come back to the lounge, nice of them.

I am experiencing one of those moments in time where everything comes together. This happens not very often when the single moment seems to merge with the eternal. I cannot explain it and won’t try, but it is really a beautiful, peaceful and balanced feeling.  It seems like nothing could cause me distress.  It will pass when I have to get running to the airport, if not before, but I will enjoy it as long as it abides. I may never get back here and I want to remember Rio in this pleasant mood.

My picture up top shows the view from the little bar on the beach where I had my last Rio beer.  The next picture shows the Marriott lounge, where I had my last Rio caipirinha.  You can see why it is not hard to be in a good mood.

Driving around Rio

You always pay more for taxis in Rio. They are used to tourists and they know that there is a kind of differential tourists are willing to pay, or maybe don’t know they are paying.  But this time I got by w/o too much trouble.  I suspect the driver that took us from the airport to the hotel was taking us for a ride.  When I noticed we seemed to be going the wrong way and commented to him, he told me that there was a big music festival and we could not take the usual shorter route.  Maybe that was true.  I ended up paying more for an extra-long ride and when he gave me change, he did so with small bills, pausing each time until I just told him to keep the rest.   But on the way back from Sugar Loaf, we got a driver who actually used the meter and it told the right amount.  We went with the notorious “flat rate” to the statue of Christ.  I didn’t mind paying, since the guy waited for us and took us back down.  When I came with Espen a few months ago it was hard to find a taxi back.  The convenience was worth the price and the taxi driver was interesting.

He told me that he had been driving cab for about seven years.  He was a cop before that, but police work was too dangerous.   He said that in his police academy class of seventy, twenty-four had been killed in the line of duty four years later when he decided to seek a more tranquil profession.  Of course, he was a cop in the middle of all that trouble with drug dealers in the favelas.  Things are calmer now.

Taxi drivers in Rio own and maintain their own cabs, although licensed and regulated by the city.  He can have up to two other people drive the car.    His car is completely flex-fuel.  It can run on gasoline, ethanol or natural gas.   These days by far the best fuel is natural gas.  It costs the least and gets the most mileage per unit, more than twice as much as ethanol.  Ethanol is the worst.  Mileage is poor for the price.  Gasoline is in the middle.   Natural gas also has the advantage of better engine wear and less pollution.   He asked if we use much natural gas in the U.S.   We don’t.  Busses often run on natural gas and some delivery fleets are turning over to gas, but we don’t currently have the infrastructure.  I suppose that might change with the fracking boom.   Changing to natural gas makes the cities cleaner and quieter than they would otherwise be, in addition to saving money.

Rio really is a pretty city.  Mariza is visiting and I wanted her to see it.  We went to Acre last time she was here.  That was an interesting experience, but not the pleasant one you get in Rio.   Rio is really one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

We saw a double rainbow over Copacabana.  It was gone before we got our cameras.  Would not have done it justice anyway.   But the red sky was still interesting.  Red sky at night, sailors delight. The picture doesn’t do that justice either.  

Getting U.S. students to Brazil

I was in Rio for a seminar on how Brazilian Universities can attract more Americans students. I asked PUC Rio to organize and sponsor the program, since they are the most successful Brazilian university in attracting American students and they did a wonderful job.  The event was held at the Loyola Center, just up the hill from the main PUC campus.  This was a private home, and a really nice one.  The owners left it to the school for seminars and meetings.  The neighborhood is very nice, but in some decline as the local favela is bleeding into the nearby forests.   I was told that property values have declined as fear of marauding bands of toughs has grown.  I walked around a little and  didn’t see any, but I was not there at night.  Thinks look different in the dark.

We got a good deal on the meeting. The only USG expense was my travel and paying for a coffee break.  That the universities are paid their own way shows their commitment.  Brazilians sharing experience with Brazilians is a better idea than us trying to tell them what to do, but I did have a role.    

Along with Luiz, the executive director of Fulbright, I gave a presentation on the American university system.  I made my presentation in Portuguese.  I am feeling better about the language these days.  It is hard to judge your own language ability, but people seem to respond.  They ask questions based on what I think I said and laugh at my jokes. Maybe they are just being polite, but at least the language is good enough that they know they are supposed to laugh.  

Little river near PUC

I like to talk about the American higher education system.  I am proud of it, in all its diversity, chaos and achievement. I am not an expert, which is helpful since I usually get only a short time to talk.  I don’t exhaust my knowledge in that limited time and I can make it reasonably interesting; I cannot go into the more esoteric and boring details, since I don’t know them, and I bring a lot of enthusiasm into the endeavor. I am a well-informed layman. In the last two years I have had lots of first-hand experience with the system, visiting dozens of universities and community colleges and talking to hundreds of educational leaders. I also get to do focus groups with returning Brazilian students.  They describe the U.S. system through the prism of their cultural experience.  Anyway, I think I have something of value to share and so I do the talks whenever asked.  

We had a good crowd.  Something like seventy-five people signed up, I am told from sixty-three universities, although there was never a particular time when they all were there.  Some came late and others left early, but at the end of the day, we still had around fifty participants. They came from all over Brazil and were all in charge of recruiting and/or foreign students, so I think we got the right people.  

Anyway, I think it was worth my time, besides it is never a waste of time when you can be in Rio.  

My pictures are from around the Loyola Center. The third one down shows a couple eucalyptus. They are not native to Brazil, but the Brazilians have developed good varieties and they are all over the place.  The bottom picture is a little steam and wall in back of the Loyola Center. 

Rio port, again.

I have been trying to get to know Rio better by talking to people around here.  There are lots of good contacts here and lots to do.  In Brasília, we talk mostly to government officials and work to leverage big projects.  I am very proud of our work in this area.  We are doing great things.  Our operations in Rio and São Paulo are different.  They do more programming, i.e. speakers outreach etc.  I have to balance the needs of the leverage with those of the outreach.  The choices are not easy, which is why we get the big bucks, I suppose. 

Today I went over to see the Rio port project, again, called Operação urbana Porto Maravilha.  It is a really big deal, which will include lots of housing, shops and hotels, including docks for cruise ships and a new Trump Tower.  They have a really interesting exhibit showing how this will work.  We are involved in this with our international visitor program.  We sent one of the leaders of the project to the U.S. to meet and exchange ideas with Americans who were involved in similar big projects.  This came from a visit a couple years ago. The picture below is an old slave market. They found it when they were digging for the project and made a monument.

You can see the video of what the project will – is supposed to do at this link.  

On the video, you see that they plan to demolish an elevated freeway, as they did in Boston and other places.  The irony is that these highways were thought to be the sign of progress, the solution of the past.  You can see the old highway in the top picture. There was a lot of dust in the air from the construction. It gives the picture a kind of old fashioned looking patina.

We are working with Brazilian partners on this project, but it is hard to measure success in public affairs.   The guy we sent on the visit to the U.S. says that he has made dozens of sustainable contacts with Americans.  This has already led to exchanges of ideas and may lead to exchange of goods and services.  We hope American firms and individuals will benefit.   We can put some numbers to the analysis, but I don’t know exactly how to interpret them.   The port project webpage went from ten visitors the month before the tour to 9,500 visitors the next month.  This is a big change, certainly unlikely to be the result of random chance.  But I have been unable to find a good way to measure the practical value of internet connections.  

Anyway, look at the pictures and use your imagination to picture the future.  The picture above shows the digging  a tunnel that will replace the elevated highway.  This actual hole on top of the tunnel will be an underground parking garage.

Life is good

I am in Rio holding down the post.  All three of our American PA officers are out.  Our Brazilian colleagues can well handle most things, but we need to do the representation and sign things, so I am here this week.  It is also a good way to get to know the posts.  I have responsibly for all of Brazil, which implies I need to know about all of Brazil. In any case, I can’t complain. My big work of the week was finishing EER and getting ready for the Biden visit, both things can be done just as well from Rio as Brasilia.

Rio is truly a marvelous city.  I take the shuttle from my hotel to the consulate and today I got off about a mile early and walked along the ocean.  On the way are lots of little places where you can get a tap beer and look out over the beach and the ocean.  I stopped today.  It was nice.  This is Copacabana after all. 

My reverie was broken a few times by people selling things.  I was offered a selection of hats, blankets, bags and little statues of Christ the Redeemer that flashed alternatively in yellow, red and blue.  I bought a hat I didn’t want from a guy who told me his kids needed the money.  I didn’t really believe him, but I figured I could afford it.  A few minutes later, a different guy showed up selling the same sorts hats.  I told him that I already had a hat but didn’t really want it so I gave it to him to sell to some other sucker.  

The waitress laughed at me and told me that if I wanted to waste my money it would be used to better purpose by giving her a bigger tip.  These kinds of “transactions” used to bother me, but they don’t anymore.  Brazilian beach salesmen are usually light-hearted.  I told the guy with the plastic Jesus that nobody in his right mind would buy such a thing.  He laughed and pointed out that his little statues would light the way to heaven, but admitted that he didn’t own one himself that he wasn’t trying to sell.

My picture is the view from my seat.  Brahma is really good on tap, and tastes even better in situations like this.

Reverie – that is my word for the day.  I am usually not an Emily Dickinson fan, but her short poem is kind of nice here.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

The revery alone will do

If bees are few.

Chrissy & I visit Rio

Chrissy and I are in Rio.  We went here from São Paulo.  It was Chrissy’s first time in São Paulo and her first time in Rio for more than twenty-five years. We got to stay at Marriott.  The above picture is taken from the roof. The first time we came here in 1985, we stayed at the Debret Hotel. To my surprise, it is still here, as you can see below.

Rio is looking good. Chrissy and I went to the botanical gardens. The pictures below are from there.

Above is the palm arcade and below is the interesting root system.  Tropical plants in moist soils produce these buttressed roots to prop themselves up.

Thinking about tomorrow in Rio

Today I am in Rio following the Smithsonian folks and I got to go with them to the Fundação Roberto Marinho. This organization works throughout Brazil broadly speaking on educational projects and knowledge creation and dissemination.  This includes museums, which have a strong educational component.   Its mission is similar to Smithsonian’s in these respects.  They were proud of their new Museum of the Portuguese language and Soccer Museum in São Paulo. Both this museums explore the social implications of their subjects and are both creators and disseminators of knowledge.

A ground-breaking museum to be opened soon is the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã).  It will be in the area of the Rio port district, which I wrote about before. The museum is different in that most museums preserve the past; this one will be aimed at the future, as the name implies.  It will be about  the science of a sustainable future.   Organizers know this hard to do.  It is very easy for a museum of the future to become a museum of futures past. It might just become quaint.  If you visit, “Tomorrow Land” in Disney World, for example, you can see what people of 1960 thought it would be like today. It is quaint and funny, but no longer “future”.   Actually, Brasília is a bit like that, a 1960s version of the future.  Foundation people hope to avoid this fate by commitment to constant renewal.  Let’s hope. You can see the projections of the Museu do Amanhã in my photo nearby.

I learned a few things about conservation of collections. It makes sense once you think about them, but you usually don’t think about them. First is that the big enemy of most things is humidity.  It tends to encourage the growth of fungus and mold. Heat doesn’t matter nearly as much. Heating in a cold climate also tends to dehumidify as does air conditioning in hot weather.  Our guests told us, however, that in Brazil they sometimes still turn the air conditions off at night.  It is logical. Air conditioning costs money.  Nobody is around and night and it gets fairly cool anyway, so why waste the money?  If heat were the problem, it isn’t much of a problem at night. 

Our Brazilian friends thought they could teach Americans a thing or two about surviving crisis.   When American institutions face “hard times” they might have to cut hours or slow acquisitions.   Brazilian crises have sometimes meant shutting down vital functions.  Yet they have adapted, improvised and sometimes even prospered.   There are usual lesson that can be drawn from that experience.

Brazilian institutions are different from American ones in the extent that they are almost entirely government funded and they don’t make much use of volunteers, which are a big deal in the U.S.   Smithsonian, for example, has around 6000 employees and a similar number of volunteers.  And these volunteers do substantive and important work.  Few American institutions could operate if their volunteers went away.

Smithsonian is an example of public-private partnership.  The government funds 62% of the budget and the rest is raised from corporate or private donors.  There is an important division of labor between the two sources of funding.  Government funds cover buildings and basic operations, the things that you really need to make any institution function but don’t usually see or notice as long as they are working.  Private funding is concentrated on the things that show.   Private donors want to fund things they can see and/or things they have passion about.   Nobody wants to fund search and destroy operations for fungus or bugs, but these things are crucial.  The same usually goes for hidden assets like plumbing or wiring.  You need something cool to attract private funders.

What the government funding essentially supplies is the box or the venue into which privately funded expositions go.  It is an effective model.   The U.S. has great museums and more importantly cultural instructions are spread throughout our country.  One big reason this works like this is the funding mechanism I talked about above plus the fact that we DON’T have a Ministry of Culture. 

Our system essentially decentralizes cultural decision making.  In a county like France, which prides itself on culture, decisions are made by erudite professionals in Paris and it is no surprise that Paris is full of great cultural institution.  Not so much the smaller towns.  The American system distributes money and decision making power.  It is the best system in our very large and diverse country.   I observe that Brazil is more like the U.S. than it is like France and our experience will be useful.

Brazil often tries to be centralized but doesn’t always succeed.  There are historical and cultural obstacles.  Brazil, like the U.S. is just very big and then there is the drift of history.  The U.S. was lucky (& leaders like Jefferson and Madison were foresighted) in that the financial & cultural center was not also the national capital.   This makes it more difficult and less natural to concentrate everything in the capital.   In the U.S. the most money, best brains, most important culture and political power never pools up in the same place.

America’s financial capital was in Philadelphia and then New York, never in Washington.   The United States has never had a cultural center the way France does.  New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and lots of others can claim to have the best of one thing or another, but none predominates, and you can find world class cultural offerings all over the place, in Milwaukee, Kansas City or Minneapolis as well as New York or Washington.  Even when there are troubles, the system is strong.

Things are not so dispersed in Brazil but the principle holds. Brasília is certainly not the financial or cultural capital of Brazil.  Even when the capital was in Rio de Janeiro, there was a strong rival in São Paulo and there were alternative centers in Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and Bahia.  Much political power could be officially centralized in Brasília, but Brasília, like Washington but unlike Paris, Rome or even London did not have the force of its own cultural and economic gravity.  This works to the benefit of a big country because it includes many more people in decisions and takes better advantage of diverse conditions and the imagination and intelligence of people all over the country.  

Anyway, I believe that the contacts fostered between Smithsonian and various Brazilian friends will pay dividends for everybody involved.  Knowledge is a wonderful thing.  It actually increases when shared and the more of it you “consume” the more you have.  We took steps in the creation of more knowledge and understanding.

My picture up top shows the model of the Museum of Tomorrow; below is rain outside the Foundation.

The Marvelous City

Espen and I are in Rio de Janeiro. This is the first time for him. I have been here a few times, but never really as a tourist.  So this time we went up to the Corcovada to see Christ the Redeemer, the iconic symbol of Rio. It seems very peaceful and serene in the pictures.  In real life it is teaming with people. 

You have two options. You can take the train or take a car to a parking lot and then take a van to the top.  We took the car-van option.  I think the train might have been a better option.  There was a big line at the place where you get the van too.  I suppose that there is no way to avoid the crowds if you come on a weekend.

It is worth seeing at least once. The statue is as massive as it seems in the photos and the view from the top is spectacular. The day was a little hazy, but it was still good to look out over Rio. Espen commented that the city below us looked like the kind of thing you see in a game like Sim-City.

Sugar Loaf

I never yet visited Sugar Loaf, Rio’s iconic hill, so we decided to take the cable to the top.  It costs R$53 per person, worth the trip. The lines were not long. The view from the top was very nice as you can see from the picture above. 

The weather held while we were up on Sugar Loaf but it rained hard soon after we got back to town. The outdoor cafe where we were eating was less pleasant with the rain spraying in. 

Taxi drivers in my experience in Brazil have been honest, but when we wanted to go to tourist places like Sugar Loaf, Corcovada or even the airport, the drivers quoted a “fixed price.” I don’t know what advice to give. I understood that the prices were too high. I complained, but I cannot help looking like a tourist at the tourist locations. It is important to reiterate that I have not had this problem throughout other parts of Brazil. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised when cab drivers almost always round the fare down and not tried to get tips. In fact, even in Rio I have had good experience when in town on business. It is evidently just around the tourist places.  

Tentative Peace in the Complexo de Alemão

This is another of my out of order posts.  It is from my trip to Rio a while back.

National Basketball Association (NBA) players came to work with kids in the Complexo de Alemão, which just a few months ago was one of the worse and most violent favelas in Brazil. It requires the sustained intervention of the Brazilian army and police to push out the drug dealings and retake control of the neighborhood. They are employing a kind of counterinsurgency strategy that I recognize from Iraq. It is the “seize, hold, build” strategy at work.  General Petraeus would understand.

The back story is interesting, as one of the top-cops explained it to me. There was a political reaction against the police and the military after the end of military rule in the middle of the 1980s. One of the dominant modes of thinking explained and to an extent excused crime among poor people as a reaction to the violence and disrespect of the authorities. There were obvious problems with the police at the time and there was merit to the idea that the police should act less as an occupying force and more like members of the community, but what amounted to a partial withdrawal of the forces of order had a negative result. Of course, this is a simplified explanation and nothing ever happens for one simple reason, but this is part of the explanation.

In any case, the favelas were effectively out of control. Movies like “Tropa de Elite” show the situation, no doubt with some cinematic exaggeration, but the fact is that nobody would enter the favelas in safety and the crime spilled out into all regions of the city.

Crime was oppressing not only favela dwellers but spilled into other parts of the city. Some commentators almost seemed satisfied that the quality of life for “the rich” was declining because of the fear of violence, but a storm that wets the feet of the rich often drowns the poor. The rich retreated to walled compounds and hired guards. The poor just got robbed and killed. 

The Rio authorities decided to pacify the favelas. They started cautiously, trying to bring services into the favelas, building sport complexes. We had our NBA event in one of those complexes. It was/is a nice facility, but until the police established order, it was a used as drug emporium.  

Anyway, even the limited pacification efforts annoyed the drug lords of the favelas, who wanted to keep things the way they were. Evidently to show their displeasure and get the government to back off, the drug gangs started to attack and burn cars and buses outside the favelas, but instead of backing down, the government doubled down. It was a heroic moment. State, local and Federal authorities cooperated to retake the territory from the drug gangs. The Brazilian army literally invaded the favelas, taking them back from the traficantes. Following the forces came services. It was the “seize, hold & build” strategy.

Today police presence remains strong and obvious, but the big story is the return of life and vitality to the favela.  I was able to walk freely in places were heavily armed police could not tread just last year. 

The authorities have no illusions about wiping out the drug trade. There will always be criminals. But there is a big difference between crime that goes on in the world and actual control of territory by criminal gangs.  It was important to secure the authority of the government. When they raised the Brazilian flag on the high point of the favela de Alemão at the end of November last year it was a proud day for the Cariocas and all Brazilians. 

So far, so good. The streets of the favela are now crowded with people and the shops have products in them.  There is a chance now. The security has been established, the essential first step. Now the government is making investments in infrastructure. You can see all the workers in the pictures. It is also an auspicious time because the Brazilian economy is growing and providing jobs. But perhaps the most surprising development, one unpredicted by experts, is the dropping birthrate within the favelas. This will give Brazilian authorities and people of Brazil a breathing space to make the changes they need to make in the culture and nature of the favelas.

The pictures are from the favela. You can see the closeup of what it looks like. The favela is a kind of vertical city. It crawls up the hill. It reminds me of those Pueblo Indian dwellings, only much bigger. One guys roof is another’s front yard and walking the streets near the top means climbing stairs and even ladders.