Losing One’s Mind in the Amazon

Imagine getting an infection and having your mind taken over, at which point you find yourself in an unknown location, only to die just before a fungus that looks like a plant or a tree grows out of your head for 4-10 days.

Sound far-fetched? Not if you’re an ant or other small insect and happen to call the Brazilian rainforest your home. A few weeks back, scientists announced a new fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani has been found in Brazil, though a very similar fungus has been known about since 1865 and believed to have existed some 48 million years ago, according to fossil research.

(more photos at National Geographic)

The mind control aspect is actually the parasitic fungus changing the ant’s perception of pheromones which makes the ant climb a nearby tree or plant in order that the fungus spores can best pollinate. According to David Hughes, a professor and scientist that has led research teams to study the fungi, “whole graveyards with 20 or 30 ants in a square metre” can be found in certain areas where the fungus grows.

Paving The Way for People Who Matter

The picture above is of Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro where municipal workers are working quickly to fill potholes in the community. Ideally, this scene would be about the local government’s intention to normalize road and safety conditions for its own citizens. The reality is that such an act effectively ‘kills two rabbits with one stick’, as the Brazilian-Portuguese saying goes, since the betterment of the roads only started so that it may prevent discomfort and unsightliness for foreigners visitors.

Could it be that foreign tourists wish to get up close and personal with residents of the namesake of the hit-film Cidade de Deus? Perhaps the purpose is for foreigners to take pictures of ‘poor people’ in their native habitat, as some favela tours invite one to do. No, no. the reason has to do with an important foreign visitor’s mother who enjoyed another famous Brazilian film, Orfeu Negro, which also was (partially) filmed in Cidade de Deus. That important visitor happens to be Barack Obama, who will be in Brazil for two days on March 19th and 20th…along with several hundred heavily armed police and military.

So, readers, get ready for two things. First, for the media to get tired of Japan and look towards the next newsworthy item. Second, to see a microcosm of public works being built for 2014 and 2016. As the picture above demonstrates, improving the lives of Brazilians is easiest when precipitated by a foreign catalyst.

Bruna Surfistinha: A Review of Sorts

I read a piece in Folha today which basically said the sky is blue a prostitute’s life is far from the glamor of the big screen. With such a statement, they are giving a nod to the recent film Bruna Surfistinha (trailer), based on the best-selling book by Raquel Pacheco (aka Bruna), who was a prostitute from 17 to 21 years of age. Over one million people have already gone to see the film and as you can see from the most voted comment on the trailer page, prostitution is a dignified profession, apparently.

A few weeks ago, I saw the film and while the cinematography wasn’t bad enough to the point where I turned it off, the story imitates BBB life. When we live in a performance culture where we must post the smartest tweet or the sexiest photo to Facebook, a chicken-or-the-egg cycle is created where no one cares knows who is selling what to whom.

Traditionally, the male gaze is at play where media is concerned and when it is consumed. That is to say that the audience is shown the perspective of a heterosexual man towards the object of desire, typically a curvaceous woman. The cycle occurs when the woman has grown up with a male gaze and acts as if she were that object of desire. While there’s nothing wrong with being desired, media shows us that positive images of women should strictly be confined to that of eye-candy (Snoop Dogg’s latest music video, anyone?). In the case the image is that of a strong woman, then she must “know what she wants and how to get it”…like Bruna Surfistinha.

In one particular scene, Bruna’s character gets caught drugged out and in the car with her prostitute friends, who have all been drinking. They get pulled over and Bruna decides to show the police officer who is really in charge as she proceeds to give him oral sex. We then see her walk of shame proud strut back to her friend’s car while they applaud and cheer her abilities.

While I waited for the film’s climax, I was ultimately left without. In the end, the film is about a girl with a rather normal upbringing who decides to prostitute herself instead of deal with how she feels inside. It says you, too, can be moderately successful, physically adored and adorned…all it takes is a little bravado.

“Luckily”, Folhateen is there to parent young readers on the realities of becoming a harlot. Folha’s article (given that a teen these days can actually read the entire piece without multitasking or stopping after one paragraph) tells readers that life on the streets isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (duh!). What do you think an impressionable young woman will be more likely to enjoy, a “long” article in a newspaper or a trending film about a famous prostitute played by a hot actress?

When Capoeira Would Land You In Prison

(Source, click to see more visual references)

Between 1890, after the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil, and the final years of the 1920’s, capoeira references could be found, not in cultural literature of the time, but in the Penal Code of the Republic. The name capoeira itself became a pejorative term applied to vagrants, thieves and undesirables, but let’s return to this theme later while we take a look at the possible etymologies of the word.


The word capoeira was registered for the first time in 1712 by Rafael Bluteau in a dictionary he made called “Portuguese and Latin Vocabulary”, though its exact etymology is unknown. Several theories exist, the first of which was proposed by Brazilian author José de Alencar in his novel Iracema when he suggested that “capoeira” is Tupi for “caa-apuam-era” (a small, virgin forest). Another Brazilian lexicographer’s theory was that the word was connected to the name of a small partridge bird and the distinct way the male would defend his territory.

Yet another theory comes from author Brasil Gerson who believed capoeira referred to large baskets for saving wood and carrying chickens which slaves would transport to the marketplace. During their breaks, they would enjoy themselves by “jogando capoeira” (jogar meaning both play and throw). In much the way that the –eiro in brasileiro is associated with a profession (those who transported brasil-wood), the name of the big baskets may have been passed onto those who transported them.

While all these possible explanations are good and interesting, the most likely scenario for the origin of the word is that it’s simply a mixture of these theories. In the same way we use familiar, yet opposing phrases for just about any situation that requires a solution (“two heads are better than one”, but also, “there are too many cooks in the kitchen”), each possible explanation for the etymology of capoeira could very well have been popularly believed notions among different social groups. We have to remember, though, that these were tumultuous times for slaves in Brazil and just like the “-eiro in brasileiro” example, perhaps the slaves sought freedom upon escape in the small forested areas the Amerindians called capoeiras, and thus the slaves took the name of the areas they typically hid in.

Road to Criminalization

The resistance of the maroon communities along the northeastern coast of Brazil in the 18th century showed just how important capoeira was. As the Dutch invaded, thousands of slaves took advantage of the confusion and escaped their masters. They formed groups called “maltas” in order to defend themselves and their territory with capoeira.

Rio de Janeiro also played an important role in capoeira’s history as most slaves in Brazil resided either there or in Bahia. The Calabouço prison, located in a military installation at the bottom of the Castelo hill in front of Guanabara bay, was the landing place for any slave that misbehaved or was thought to have misbehaved. As per an agreement between the State and the slave owners, any slave could be brought there to receive a “corrective whipping” of 100 lashes for the price of 160 réis. Prison records from 1857, for example, show that 80 slaves were jailed that year for “capoeira” while only 30 were jailed for running away. A few years later, in 1862, the capoeira-related arrests totaled 404. Eventually, what may have been considered a suspicious reason for arrest became a nationwide law signed by Brazilian president Deodoro da Fonseca.

The 18th chapter of the Brazilian Penal Code of 1890 deals with the subject of “Vagabonds and Capoeiras”. Under the 487th Decree (Article 402), one can find the following:

“Decrees of the Provisional Government
Art. 402. Performing, on the streets and in public plazas, exercises of agility and bodily skill known by the denomination capoeiragem: to attack quickly, with weapons or instruments capable of producing bodily lesions, provoking commotions or disorder, threatening a specific or unspecific person, or instilling fear of harm: Penalty — sentencing to a jail cell for two to six months.”

(Art. 403. states that if a foreigner is caught doing capoeira, they will be deported after serving jail term.)

Something that may have contributed to the criminalization of capoeira is the “malandragem“, which refers to trickery, malice or deceit. As a martial art, being able to trick one’s opponent can be a matter of life and death, so if a slave could make a fight seem like a dance, that could have been quite advantageous when viewed by, or enacted against, their masters. In a way, it was the darker sense of malandragem, as seen by those in power, that led to capoeira being criminalized. The lighter malandragem that existed within the game, among players, was just one of the intrinsic values that eventually helped in giving capoeira a better name.


In the late 1920’s, times were changing and one man took notice. His name was Manuel dos Reis Machado (better known as Mestre Bimba) and by making capoeira a sport that offered all of the training and discipline that any other athletic endeavor required, he uplifted the game and gave those who played it something to be proud of.

Mestre Bimba succeeded in getting the ban lifted after he performed for the governor of Bahia and he went on to open the first capoeira school in 1932 in Salvador da Bahia where he taught Capoeira Regional. In making students wear white and earn their skill level, in the form of a belt, Mestre Bima gave capoeira a wider appeal with the public and thereby demarginalized its practice. Today, he is still spoken about with a mix of respect and emotion by the many students he taught. It could be said that our modern concept of capoeira, and the fact that it is practiced in over 150 countries on 5 continents, is because of him.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Forgive me avid viewers of Big Brother Brazil

Not that I wish to go against my new plan of just publishing my own articles, but someone sent me a good write-up from last year by Luiz Fernando Veríssimo (oops) an anonymous writer about Big Brother Brazil and I thought I’d translate it and make it an exception.


Forgive me avid viewers of Big Brother Brazil (BBB), produced and organized by our distinguished Rede Globo, but we managed to sink to the bottom … The eleventh (it keeps going!) edition of BBB is a summary of the worst in Brazilian television. It is rather difficult to find adequate words to describe the size of such an attack on our modest intelligence.

They say that Rome, one of the largest empires the world has known, saw its end marked by the depravity of the moral values of its people, especially the trivialization of sex. BBB 11 is the pure and ultimate trivialization of sex. Impossible to watch, to see this program alongside one’s children. Gays, lesbians, straight people … all in the same house, the house of “heroes” as they are called by Pedro Bial. I have nothing against gays, I think each one does for a living what they want, but I am against live depravity on TV, whether gay or heterosexual. BBB 11 is reality in search of IBOPE…

See how Pedro Bial treated the participants of the BBB 11. He promised a “human zoo of fun.” I do not know if it will be fun, but it seems quite varied in its mix of cliches and typical figures.

If I understand the presentations correctly, there are 15 “animals” in the “zoo”: the Jewish pervert, the effeminate gay, the sexy dentist, the swinging black guy, the shy nerd, the hottie with a big butt, the “I’m not a bitch but I’m not holy ” girl, the model Mr. Maringa, the confident lesbian, the intellectual DJ, the cocky carioca, the makeup artist drag-queen and the female MP who likes to get beat up.

I wonder, for example, as a journalist, documentary maker and writer, how Pedro Bial, to do him justice, covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, bows to be host of a program of that level. In an e-mail I received recently, Bial writes wonderfully well about the loss of comedian Bussunda referring to the pain of dying so young. I would like to ask him if he thinks his program is the death of culture, values and principles, morals, ethics and dignity.

The other day, during a break in Globo programming, another brainless BBB reporter said that, to win the prize of one and a half million dollars, a Big Brother member has an arduous road ahead, calling them heroes. Arduous? Heroes?

Are these examples of our heroes?

An arduous road to me is one that is traversed by millions of Brazilians, health professionals, public school teachers (indeed, all teachers), postmen, garbage collectors and many other tireless workers who, daily, spend hours exercising their duties with dedication, competence and love, almost always underpaid…

Heroes, are thousands of Brazilians who don’t even have a single meal a day and a decent bed to sleep on and can survive on that, every single day. Heroes are children and adults who struggle with very complicated diseases because they never had a chance to have a healthier and more dignified life.

Heroes are countless people, social organizations and charities, NGOs, volunteers, churches and hospitals that are dedicated to the care of the sick and needy (let’s remember our eternal heroine, Zilda Arns). Heroes are those who, despite earning a minimum wage, pay their bills, leaving only sixteen Reals for feeding themselves, as shown in another report submitted months ago by Globo itself.

Big Brother Brazil is not a cultural or educational program, neither does it spread information and knowledge to its viewers or participants, and there is no other incentive, for example, encouraging sports, music, or creativity, nor teaching concepts such as values, ethics, work and morals.

And then comes the vanguard psychologist and tells me that BBB helps us to “understand human behavior.” Oh, have pity! Look at what’s really behind BBB ($$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$): José Neuman from Radio Jovem Pan, calculated that if twenty-nine million people call each time someone is voted off, with the cost of thirty cents per vote, Globo and Telefonica make eight million, seven hundred thousand dollars. I’ll repeat: eight million, seven hundred thousand dollars each time someone gets kicked off the show.

Can you imagine how much could be done with that amount if it were dedicated to programs of social inclusion, housing, food, education and the health of many Brazilians? (More than 520 housing units could be created, or more than 5,000 computers could be bought!) These words are not for riot or protest, but with shame and indignation at seeing that such a freak show has millions of viewers.

Instead of watching BBB, how about reading a book, a poem by Mario Quintana or Neruda or anything else, go to the movies, study, listen to good music, plant flowers and work on a garden, call a friend, visit grandparents, go fishing, play with the kids, date or just sleep.

Watching BBB just helps Globo make lots of money and destroy what remains of the values on which our society was built.

A Juxtaposition of Traditions – Christmas in Brazil

This post is a bit oddly placed since it’s obviously past X-mas. I guess I’ll re-reference it in 10 months!

(Daily Rio Life – photo from her post on X-mas in Brazil)

With Christmas almost upon us and the arrival of colder days already here, we might be wondering how such a famous holiday is celebrated in warmer climes. Brazil, being mostly Catholic, is a country that has celebrated Christmas since its inception and many of its traditions are the same as those in the U.S. There’s midnight mass (called “Missa do Galo“, literally “rooster mass”, in English), carols, nativity scenes, mini Christmas trees and gift-giving, among other things.

There are also a few ways in which Christmas differs, such as one Brazilian legend which says Santa comes from Greenland and wears a silk suit (due to all the heat) upon arrival. Often on the 24th and the 25th of December you will hear or see fireworks, with larger displays in larger cities. Assuming you’ll be in Brazil over the holidays, something tells me there aren’t a lack of teenagers to gladly take care of the smaller and seemingly neverending fireworks displays on a street near you.

One of the larger differences is that on Christmas Eve, just before midnight mass, everyone gathers to exchange presents and sit down for the “ceia de Natal” (Christmas dinner). In the US, of course, these events occur on the 25th. In case you might have ever wondered why the meals are so large, I can shed some light on the matter. It turns out that Christmas dinner is an old European custom in which people would leave their front doors open to receive travelers and pilgrims. While not even our neighbors to the south eat with random passers-by, Brazilians aren’t strangers to leftovers from such large meals. A typical dinner consists of plates of turkey, fish, rice, farofa, nuts, tropical salads, regional fruits, cod-fish cakes, wine and champagne. It’s also important to mention a certain sweet, the Italian fruitcake called “panetone“, which has been popular in Brazil since Italians brought it over after WWII.

Despite the dissimilarities, Christmas in Brazil is still quite “American”, at least in the sense of seeing shops carrying a wide array of trinkets and using a variety of gimmicks to get you to buy things. Both São Paulo and Rio have fake gigantic trees that light up for your viewing pleasure and can take over six weeks to set up. Brazil hasn’t always accepted the adoption of American holiday traditions, though. There was a failed attempt to “Brazilianize” the holiday back in the 1930’s. It all happened when a few “Integralists” (politicians and intellectual nationalists) tried to make Christmas more Brazilian by creating “Vovó Índio” (Indian Grandpa) to substitute Santa Claus, but it didn’t really catch on. Researchers believe it was either the writer Monteiro Lobato or politician Plínio Salgado who invented this Brazilian Santa but since most documents from the time of Integralism (inspired by Italian Fascism) were burned, the mystery remains.

Whether American or Brazilian, Christmas is fundamentally Pagan. As such, it was celebrated as a way to praise the return of the sun after it stays at its lowest point in the sky for three days, only to rise on the 25th. Lighting candles and hanging wreaths are also pagan in origin. The modern custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s house can be traced back to Martin Luther and his wish to oppose the Catholic Nativity scene by offering up a Protestant alternative (a tree symbolizing the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden). Even the act of giving presents is attributed to an erroneous date, as legend says it was on December 6th that Nicolau (later known as Saint Nick) would secretly leave presents in the homes of good children. It is interesting that a once historical Dutch figure of legend known as Sinterklass somehow became Saint Nick and later, the Santa Claus that we all know today (whose famous outfit and appearance, I might add, we can thank the 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast for creating).

When we look past the confusing amalgamation of customs, both real and invented, what’s important is to share good moments with friends and family and let the rest be the rest. As Christmas approaches, I know I should be “dreaming of a white Christmas” and all, but I’m really wishing I were on a beach with some água de coco in hand, though I somehow doubt I’m going to find that under a pine tree.

In case anyone wishes to see the “modern” Santa, have a gander at the very first depiction of him in Harper’s Weekly, 1863. Feel free to enlarge it, too. Before Nast remade the famous character, he was depicted in a robe, as a tall and thin man and without a beard.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Escola do Frevo – Pernambuco

In the comments of my recent article on Carnival and Frevo in Recife (you can find a link to it a few posts down from this one), a video was posted about a Frevo school in Pernambuco which won 2nd place at an international dance contest in New York. Excellent stuff!

FT launches BrazilConfidential

It seems the mini-magazine/insert Brazil Preview that was launched last year in the US now has competition (in terms of inserts on Brazil) from the other side of the pond. The Financial Times, of all people, has created BrazilConfidential. The two magazines, however, differentiate in content and business model (the FT insert is subscription-based).

“Brazil Confidential is a new, premium subscription service from the Financial Times: a fortnightly digital report and accompanying website offering exclusive analysis and insights into one of the world’s most exciting emerging markets. Edited in London, Brazil Confidential brings together analysis and research from an extensive network of journalists, academics and other correspondents and sources.”

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