Budget versus comfort when travelling: impressions of Brazil

We were budget travellers. The team was most important and their accommodation was priority. Supporters had three choices of package – gold, silver and bronze. They paid all their expenses and many chose the more expensive gold and silver packages. Staff, volunteers, and some supporters took the bronze package.

This might sound like boring detail but I have a reason for telling you this.

Whichever package you chose determined what your impression of Sao Paulo was.

The Gold and Silver packages were in the wealthier part of Sao Paulo and that carried with it some advantages….people understood English so you were able to communicate, did not fall over homeless people sleeping on the street, you were exposed to great shopping choices and wonderful sights were within walking distance. For example, there are 96 museums and many art galleries. The Sao Paulo Museum of Art holds works by famous artists like Pablo Picasso and Rembrandt.


The only art we saw was wall upon wall of graffiti. Many of us wondered how the artists got to what appeared to be truly inaccessible places such as ten walls up. One horrible sight which will forever stay in my mind was a balcony large pieces of jagged glass pressed into the concrete so no climber could get past without seriously injuring him or herself. The amount of razor wire caused me to observe that manufacturers must be very wealthy people as sales must be through the roof.


In Rio de Janeiro we saw our first homeless person. I was talking and not watching where I was going and my shoe tapped up against an obstacle. I looked down and I had almost tripped over a homeless person wrapped in a blanket, lying on the pavement. From then on, I watched where I put my feet and from then on, we saw homeless people everywhere. Some, who were clearly newly homeless, pushed their shopping trolley full of belongings and guarded them by either placing themselves between their worldly wealth and the pavement or sitting in pairs….one sleeping, one guarding. Then you saw the long-term homeless and all they had was a blanket over which they encased themselves like a cocoon.


We took to getting any meals we did not finish packaged up in a doggy bag and leaving them beside a homeless person.


On more than one occasion, the competitors told me how much they appreciated New Zealand. Stacy said that he used to complain about Palmerston North but never again. It was paradise compared to what he and his fellow competitors had seen.


On our first night in Rio, people banging lids against pots and other instruments surprised us. Cars tooted, people banged on drums and called out something in Portuguese we could not understand. When we asked, people told us they were protesting against the Prime Minister and corruption.


There was a huge protest in Sao Paulo the following Sunday. An estimated 275,000 people crowded into the city centre calling for the impeachment of the president. This report http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/71209048/thousands-of-protesters-rally-to-boot-brazilian-president-dilma-rousseff is one of many. The parents of a competitor, who were staying on Paulista Avenue showed me their photographs. The milling crowds, dressed in Brazilian colours (yellow and green), were shoulder to shoulder for as far as the eye could see. Military Police were everywhere. There are so many police I would say it is a good career option. Not only are you likely to get in, there is plenty to do once you are in.


Brazil is known for its economic progress but it appears there is a very wide gap between the haves and have-nots. Its emphasis on developing vocational skills has assured that there are skilled people to build infrastructure. It appears to be a very long road ahead. This is, of course the perspective of someone who was in the country ten days so the impressions were fresh and perhaps after time I would have stopped seeing the things I saw in the first few days. Perhaps the freshness is exaggerating the problems. I am not sure but it was hard to ignore.


Someone once told me that the gold of the 21st century would be water. Even in New Zealand, there is some truth to that as we battle pollution in waterways from dairy farm run off and other industrial waste. I sincerely hope we never lose the battle to keep our waterways clean like Brazil appears to have. We can live without gold but we can’t live without water. This truth became indisputably clear.


In Rio de Janeiro we drove past the Lagoon where the rowing for the Olympics will take place. The lanes are marked out and rowers were training. The thing that horrified everyone was the revelation that until recently people, whose houses backed onto the Lagoon, released their waste directly into it. The Lagoon is so polluted people become ill if they touch the water. Authorities are trying to turn back the clock but they have a huge task ahead of them.


So was this an isolated observation? No. As we left Rio de Janeiro by bus, we looked out on streams and rivers discoloured by pollution in which plastic and other rubbish floated. In Sao Paulo the same was true. The closer we got to the city the filthier the rivers became until the watercourse, which fills up when the monsoons come, ran with dirty grey water. Storm water outlets released soapy, discoloured water into it and filthy brown liquid oozed like a suppurating sore. On the way to the airport, I happened to look out over some land and saw what would have once been a local swimming hole. It was still and dead. No-one could swim in that nowadays. On Sunday, people wandered through grassless parks, which became lusher once you entered the area around Parliament. Other people raced model boats on a swimming pool that had turned a dark syrupy green.


There was a fountain at the venue, which looked lovely from a distance. When we got up close we realised it was spouting green water. I saw something break the surface one day and I stopped. There was fish food in this liquid green water-feature. The fish broke the surface somewhere else but we could not see the fish, the water was so polluted and murky.


By choosing the cheap package we had accidently stumbled into an area of town where the hospitality industry never sees English speaking people so everything we asked for was met with a blank look. No one spoke English. Luckily, on some occasions we had one of the experts with us who spoke some Portuguese and this helped enormously when we tried to order meals. As most people would know, I am very much in favour of every country retaining and valuing its native language. This is incredibly important as it also means we retain our cultural connections to the past and avoid becoming some homogenous conglomerate without colour and uniqueness. Our haka is a prime example of that. Lose the haka and all that comes with it, and what is left?


However, there does have to be one universal language, which we can all understand, even if at a rudimentary level.


So the moral behind this story is:

If you want to see the facade when you visit a country take the gold package. If you want to see what lies under the facade take the bronze. I guess it’s a case of blissful ignorance or prickly truth. Sometimes I wish we had opted for blissful ignorance. Not that we had any choice.