When I typed the caption, “homeless man in Porto Alegre,” a thought crossed my mind: it was probably the first time someone was taking his picture. For a few seconds, I felt like I was giving him a place in this world where most people were simply ignoring him.
Then I realized it was complete bullshit. I had snapped an easy picture of one of the hundreds of homeless people in Porto Alegre. Big fucking deal. I had the best intentions but it had zero impact on him. The mere fact I had paid attention to him for a few seconds wasn’t going to improve his life, provide food and shelter.
Taking pictures and writing doesn’t solve issues. It can shine a light on them and offer a different perspective on life, that’s all.
That’s a lot, already, I guess—but again, homelessness and poverty aren’t exactly hidden issues in Brazil. It’s right there, in your face.
I’ve seen panhandlers and poor neighborhoods in every country I visited, except maybe in rural areas where socioeconomic gaps exist but are less obvious to outsiders—or sometime, the entire area feels like it’s a century behind the rest of the world, like in the Chinese countryside or various places in Central America. I feel for panhandlers in Ottawa who hang out outside The Salvation Army or The Mission during the winter. As annoying as they are because of their aggressive panhandling style and tendency for petty theft, I don’t like the thought of Rom kids growing up in the street in France.
But I’ve rarely seen people truly living in the street the way homeless people do in Brazil. They are everywhere, sometimes alone, sometimes as groups, sometimes as families. They are under bridges, in the middle of pedestrian streets, around bus stations and in parks. Some of them have basic furniture found in the street—dirty mattresses, table, makeshift walls made of carton boards or clothes hung and stretched between two poles. Some of them just push all their belongings in a shopping cart, half a dozen of bags filled with whatever they find in the street, I guess.
My first thought when seeing them in Porto Alegre was that most of them looked fairly healthy considering the lack of access to sanitation, poor hygiene and the fact they dug through garbage all day, in the heat. In South-East Asia or China, many beggars have an obvious disability—missing limbs, blindness, etc. In Porto Alegre, by comparison, they almost looked fit. Too thin, some of them bearing the signs of drug addiction … but fit.
I observed a few of them and the rest of the city for a moment, around the market. Most, if not, all Porto Alegrenses simply walk by and ignore them. Except for a cluster of people, mostly women with kids around supermarkets, homeless folks don’t beg. They are either sleeping or working, i.e. digging through garbage bins for food or recyclable material. Around the bus station, in the rougher part of the city, I saw them sorting out carton board, metal cans and plastic. I guess they sell them afterwards?
Everybody has heard of Brazilian favelas, slums within urban areas of major cities. Are downtown homeless too poor to even live in them?
I wish I could speak Portuguese better and interview them.
I wish I could interact better with Brazilians in general, but it’s not easy—and this is not just a language issue. I find Brazilians less talkative than Latinos in Argentina, Chile and other parts of the continent. It’s not that they aren’t polite or friendly, just extremely guarded. Except for the usual “Tudo bem?” it feels like pulling teeth to get information. For instance, I tried to find out what Dia de Iemanjá was when we were in Pelotas, as I had never heard of this holiday—FYI, it’s a tribute to the Afro-Brazilian the queen of the sea, a deity among the Yoruba people of West Africa imported to Brazil hundreds of years ago by slaves.
I asked the woman who waxed my legs. First, she was shocked I didn’t know the holiday, even though I had explained I wasn’t Brazilian—just in case it wasn’t obvious, considering my Portuguese language skills.
The conversation went like this:
“So, what do you celebrate for Dia de Iemanjá?”
“Just the queen.”
“Do you do anything special?”
Meanwhile, in Argentina, any taxi driver would have told me everything he thought about the government and current politics without even been prompted and I swapped recipes with random shoppers in the lineup at the supermarket in Santiago.
This is strange to me because Brazilians have a rather festival and friendly reputation. Indeed, everywhere we’ve been in Latin America, if you see a group of people drinking, singing and dancing, chances are they are Brazilians.
“I think there is a Brazilian law that says that any gathering of two people of more must include singing and shouting,” I joked once. “Can you imagine how fun their business meetings must be? ‘This year, the financial result are disastrous, And now… SAMBA!’”
But it feels like Brazilians were taught to distrust each other, and by extension, anyone new they meet.
Or maybe I haven’t found the way to get through people yet.
Meanwhile, here are the people of Porto Alegre!