The first porto-alegrense I noticed were the homeless people wandering around, working (i.e. collecting trash to recycle) or just sleeping hidden in plain sight. It’s impossible not to see them, although sadly, you’ll quickly get used to zig-zagging between makeshift shelters—usually old mattresses, plastic chairs or supermarket carts as walls and blankets as doors. For instance, the Viaduct Otávio Rocha is “home” to a dozen of souls. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to walk by bodies lying on the sidewalk, everybody does. It’s disturbing at first. You’ve probably been taught to give street people a wide berth and avoid eye contact because they tend to ask for change or cigarettes you don’t want to spare because some of them look strange, high or drunk, because they make you feel guilty for having a job, a roof over your head and some disposable income. But in Porto Alegre, if you start walking quickly in the other direction every time you see someone going through garbage bins or sitting under a cardboard box, you won’t go far.
The homeless are a dramatic feature of the Brazilian urban landscape. Sure, I don’t know any major city without homeless people—and kicking them out of the downtown core to pretend they don’t exist doesn’t count. But what struck me in Porto Alegre is how vulnerable they looked. They don’t ask for money or food. They don’t beg. They’re busy trying to survive. They’re probably more scared of us than we are of them.
And this made me mad—seeing people living in the street, not a glimpse of hope left in them. They seemed resigned. Homeless people have every right to be angry. Wouldn’t you be? Wouldn’t you be mad at the world if you had to eat leftovers found in the trash? If you were sleeping with rats under a bridge? When do you stop being angry and accept that this is your life?
I offered food a few times. It was always accepted with many thanks and simple greetings were always returned. Yeah, I didn’t save the world, I know.
Lost faith in humanity? Read this, the second anecdote coming up. Last Monday—confusingly known as segunda–feira in Brasil, the week apparently starts on Sunday here—we were desperate for a laundry service. We don’t travel with many clothes, as you can probably tell from the pictures, and I was down to my last pair of underwear. We needed a place that could wash and dry two loads the same day since we were about to leave. We found the place and handed out our dirty laundry. When I picked up the large plastic bags of neatly folded clothes in the evening, I was delighted. Mission accomplished and apparently a job well done! That’s when the employee handed me an envelope. I must have looked as confused as I felt because she quickly explained it was “my” money. In the envelope were 25 reais (about US$8). I must have left them in the pocket of my shorts—when I go for late-night walks, I don’t carry my bag but just enough money to buy a snack or take a taxi if needed. I’m not sure how much a laundromat employee makes in Porto Alegre, but I think I can safely assume she probably needed these 25 reais more than me and I really appreciated her honestly and kindness.
Finally, an anecdote illustrating what I call “Brazilian logic,” i.e. things Brazilians make more complicated than they should be and mostly, that we don’t fully understand because we’re dumb foreigners. On our first night in Porto Alegre, I went to Zaffari, the local supermarket, to buy the usual snacks—most of the time, we have a fridge or we stuff the minibar with our food. Once back at the hotel, when Mark claimed he was starving, I opened the bag to discover half of my shopping was missing—two yogurts, ham, sliced turkey, cheese and a can of Coke. “Shit… must have forgotten the bag at the supermarket!” And I should have noticed too since I walked home with only bread and bananas. My excuse? An employee bags your stuff and I’m not used to this, I didn’t realize I had two different bags.
It was 9:40 p.m. and Zaffari closes at 10 p.m. It was about one kilometre from the hotel. If you saw a white chick running in the streets of Porto Alegre that night, it was me, thank you for not calling the police to report “suspicious activity”.
I walked in and went straight to the cashier who had rung up my purchase. “Glad to see you came back!” she said. “Go to the customer service counter.”
Phew. I explained the employee that I had forgotten some items, could it be the plastic bag just over there? The security guard grabbed it and was about to give it to me when the customer service employee stopped him. “No, not that bag!” She entered something on her computer. “So you had… one iogurte desnatado Batavo…” I nodded. “One iogurte Danino…” I nodded again. “And ham, turkey and cheese,” I completed.
“Perfect. I’ll write it down for you just in case.”
Now, I was getting confused. Could I just, like, get my bag and go home? She probably wanted to clock out too.
“Well, yes, you have to pick it up in-store again,” she added as if I was a bit slow.
What? If I hadn’t returned that night, I could completely understand putting the food back on the shelves. But I had left the bag less than twenty minutes earlier.
“But… I bought ham, turkey and cheese at the deli,” I argued. “I can’t remember the exact quantity and price.”
“I’ll write it down for you.”
And so she wrote down my original shopping list, down to the exact weight—ham, 86 g, turkey, 42 g, etc.
“Mais ou menos,” the security guard tempered amicably.
Who looked like an idiot asking the deli employee who had seen me minutes earlier 86 g of ham?
The best part? This was on our first night, I had to shop there for a few days since it was the closest supermarket…