West Virginia University College of Law, 2L
June 2, 2007
Day 21 – Summation
WVU Law Students together with our Brazilian Law Student Colleagues
In the aisle seat, I can only see a small patch of the Earth out the plane’s window. As I look down on the unending city lights of São Paulo, which we saw only from airplanes, I know many of the city’s inhabitants are just starting their Saturday night as we wearily embark on the ten-hour red-eye to New York. Of our American destination for this flight, one TV cop drama always ended with the tag line ?there are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.? By that measure, there are twenty million stories below me, in Brazil’s largest metropolis. I don’t know even one of them.
Even where we did venture – the rural Amazon, and it’s frontier-style capital, Manaus; Vitória, the Pittsburgh-sized city perched on the rocky coast; and finally Rio de Janeiro, home to opulence and poverty that turned my stomach equally – we rarely could catch more than a few moments of the lives of the Brazilians we encountered. Behind every convenience store clerk, patient with my minimal and broken Portuguese, I know there is a family, a community, a nation. I wanted to follow every bus driver home, ask the waitress what she thought about the homeless man out front. I wanted to ask the beach vendor if he hated knowing that he?d never be in my shoes, sitting idly on vacation while dozens of his cohorts attempted to wring a few bucks out of my American billfold.
In a small village on the banks of the Rio Negro, the enormous Amazonian tributary that was our classroom for the better part of a week, small children played like small children do everywhere. Brothers pushed and shoved each other and little girls hid behind their mothers? legs. They had a modest school and a soccer field. I wanted to know, though, where their older siblings were. I saw no teenagers, and no one my age. Gone to Manaus, probably, looking for work and for McDonald?s, credit cards, Paris Hilton and pot. Maybe gone to college, some of them. Would they return afterwards? Did they want to help out their communities, or did they view them as hopeless backwaters, only served well by abandonment? These are the Brazilians I want to not just meet, but know. On this trip I learned more than I could have hoped for, but for each answer I found was really another hundred questions.
The chances we did get to spend real time with Brazilians, then, were precious to me. My hosts in Vitória were a man in early middle age, who sat as a local judge and taught Civil Procedure at the university we attended there, and his wonderful family: his wife, also studying to be a judge; her sister, a few years younger than I and fresh out of law school; and the judge?s elementary-age daughter, who probably spoke the best English of all, due to her instruction in an elite private school, but was so shy I rarely got more than a stare, or at best a giggle.
They taught me, intentionally and otherwise, more about Brazil than any book could. I learned about who gets to go to college and where; who becomes a judge and why; how the sleepy city they lived in had been transformed by petrodollars; and what they thought of America. Like my view of Brazil, their experience with America was a sliver of a snapshot – vacations to Orlando are incredibly popular with wealthy Brazilians. Thankfully, they realized that Disney World is no more an honest reflection of America than Copacabana Beach is of Brazil. But they loved to watch 24 and Desperate Housewives, and from the girls’ room I could often hear Avril Lavigne or some other American export.
I realize that even after 3 weeks in Brazil, I probably know less about the country than my hosts know about America. We may import a lot of oil, beef, and oranges, but we don’t import culture. We?re on the other side of that trade imbalance; America is loading virtual container ships with pop culture, policy and power, and barely a trickle is coming back to us. I now know that try as I might, I can?t truly grasp the reality of a place like Brazil until I?m in it above my head, cut free from the safety net of being a tourist, and 100% committed to sticking around through the good, the terrifying, and the mundane.
As our plane?s lights dim, the lights of the coastal cities also recede into darkness. The in-flight display shows us over northern Brazil, the mutilated but still incredibly vibrant rainforest a black expanse below us. Down there, somewhere along the river, is someone I want to really live with, to become friends with, to understand. I don?t know when, if ever, an opportunity to do that will arise. I am now certain, however, that I can?t afford not to take that chance when it comes.