Letter From Brazilnby Geoffrey WagnernNo PedestriansnThe last time I visited Brazil I arrivednon a Ladeco flight from Santiagonclutching a copy of Chile’s best newspaper,nEl Mercurio, wherein I wasnmuch impressed by an exclusive fromnthe ever-erudite pen of Thomas Molnar.nHis article dealt with the architecturalnrape of modern cities, of whichnPei’s monstrosity in front of the Louvrenis one example, and it applied closelynto South America, alongside the morenpublicized pillaging of that continent’snnatural life.nEverywhere one travels there todaynthe eye is depressed by the suddennurbanization, the eradication of historynvia hideous high-rise buildings of annanonymity more relevant to insectsnthan human beings. One after anothernthe old colonial centers are beingnsqueezed out in the interests of soullessnsmall apartments, geared to the couchpotatonlife of washing machines andnTV. In some of these cities (Brasilia,nSao Paulo, La Paz, Caracas, evennSalvador-Bahia, Brazil’s former capital)nthe pedestrian is an anachronism. It isnnot merely unpleasant, but dangerous,nto amble about. Quito and (to a degree)nAsuncion may have retainednsome of the dignity of their past in thenface of this industrialization, and BuenosnAires is still a city you can strollnin, with pedestrian malls like the famousnFlorida, but Lima and Rio arenswamped with appallingly impoverishednsectors, some still without lightnand water, all crying out to city fathersnfor translation into high-rise horrors.nRio, whose glorious setting redeems itsntourist facade, actually offers sight-seeingntours of its shantytown slums (favelas):nTo its honor, Quito is alone innsequestering its old town, grouped withnglorious baroque churches about itsnIndependence Square, well to one sidenof its modern city with busy shoppingncenters, or centros commerciales.nA little more than halfway up thenAtlantic coast from Rio to Recife,nBahia’s hotels are jammed with touristngroups. A small relic of the old town,nwith its colonial churches and convents,none made into a graceful hotel,nis walkable, but almost anywhere younwant to go involves a (cheap, honest,npolite) taxi ride, and up here Braziliansndon’t speak Spanish. The Sao Paulonchurch is a glory of gilt baroque, whilenthe chapel of Nossa Senhora do Bonfimnhangs from the ceiling of its atriumnthe limbs and heads (some embellishednwith bloody wounds) of the miraculouslyncured. As the same sculptornseems to have been responsible fornthese it is like being in some grislynorthopedic operation room. But thenfaith is there.nTasteful folkloric handicrafts are not,ndespite the hype of brochures and tournbooks. The Modelo market by thenpiers has floors of wood carvings andn”peasanty” offerings in the style of anrather crummy South AmericannWoolworth’s. This prompts thenthought that tasteful indigenous artifactsnarise in those regions — Mexico,nPeru, to some extent Ecuador—wherenIndian art has poured into and borrowednfrom and even enriched thenCatholic; though Brazil has its celebratednAmazon Indians, they do notnseem to have found any vital channelninto high art.nFor tourism, least of all group tourism,ndoes not enhance aesthetic confidence,nand seaside Brazil is first andnforemost a resort today. Nobody wearsnanything much. Informality is suchnthat I twice found myself chauffered byngirl taxi-drivers in short-shorts. Alongnthe kilometers of beaches of Rio andnBahia the string bikini puts whatnShakespeare termed “the afternoon ofnthe body” on display. Satin-sheenednrolls of sulcal skin roast on the poolsidenspits while, as for their jeans, the localnteens must triple-sew them at thenseams, unless they put them on with anspray-gun.nThe currency continues to collapse.nThe attempt to match the new cruzadonwith the dollar, obliging you toncancel three zeroes on each note, doesnnot seem to have worked. The customaryndollar panic was on when I lastnarrived, shingles held up in the airportnadvertising advantageous change ratesnfor anyone possessing greenbacks,nwhile my hotel, the Meridien, had anrate for anyone paying in dollar billsnthat was nearly half what would havenbeen listed on a credit card check. Incashed $100 on arriving, to find itnworth $60 the next morning, and $20na few days later. I left with a handful ofnnnbills which I simply tore up and put innthe garbage back in New York.nBut perhaps the acme of local contemptnfor their own currency camenwhen I watched some of the magnificentncapoeira dancing outside thenModelo market one Saturday noon.nThis is a truly remarkable mixture ofnacrobatic kung-fu and break-dancing,nsaid to have come down from thenAfrican slaves who were denied anynmartial arts or arms and who substitutednthe capoeira to keep their overseersnquiet. Today these dancers always attractncrowds and invariably pass aroundnthe hat at intervals. I contributed whatnI thought I had translated as an appropriatencruzado bill, only to have thendancer decline it.nFinally, South America stands badlynin need of an open-eyed guidebook. Innthe last listing of best hotels in thenworld, in Investors Chronicle, therenwas not a single hotel in the whole ofnSouth America within the first fiftyn(Bangkok’s Oriental invariably wins,nthanks to its army of servants). Fodornand Myra Waldo are either hopelesslynout-of-date (not always their fault onnthe peripatetic restaurant scene), ornludicrously sentimental: of Bahia thenlatter writes, “As the dark-skinned mennload heavy goods, the cheerful Negressesnsell anything and everything,nhappy voices are raised, often innsong …” Fodor specializes in commentsnso generalized they arenundatable since they could apply anywhere.nThere is the South AmericannHandbook (to which I confess to havingncontributed details). It is certainlynthe most comprehensive, so long asnyou have a microscope handy withnwhich to read the print, but it is levelednat the British (who can’t get to thenArgentine anyway) and apparentlynmore direcfly at the indigent Britishnbackpacker. A typical entry might gonsomething like this: “The five-day busnride to Santa Inertia (bring your ownnseat) costs 72 cents. At Los Pueblosnyou can rent a room with kitchennfacilities at Mrs. Lopez’ over the abattoirnfor $1.50 a night (bring your owfinmattress and mosquito repellent).”nThe continent needs its Michelin.nGeoffrey Wagner’s latest book is RednCalypso (Regnery Gateway), a studynof Cuban adventurism in thenCaribbean.nAPRIL 1990/43n