Usually when you go on vacation, and I mean leave for vacation, you go somewhere far away to get away from it all — the work, the stress, the economy, the furloughs, the layoffs, the bickering and the general consternation of our current day-to-day dealings.
At least that’s what a vacation is supposed to be.
Last week, I traveled to Brazil to get away from it all and hopefully see something new. You know, increase my worldly perspective. It was my first time overseas and it managed to be a grand opportunity. Turns out, the Brazilian city of Fortaleza was another lense into sport, life and inspiration.
Fortaleza, or “fortress” in English, is most definitely a tourist town. It’s where Brazilians go when they don’t want to trek to Buenos Aires, Argentina or Miami, Fla. The city of 3 million thrives off the service industry. Although not as popular as Sao Paolo or Rio de Janeiro, its beaches are well known to those looking for an experience in one of South America’s most thriving countries.
It was pretty laid back for the most part. I got a chance to witness a Muay Thai fight and got my fair share of soccer until the next World Cup. The local newspaper gave me plenty of ideas on design for our sports section. I even got into an argument about the US women’s team being better than what the Brazilians think. (I didn’t dare bring up the men.) But there were some things that started to irk me after some days wandering the city. For starters, the masses of people sleeping on the streets, the huge favellas (shanty towns) and the overly ambitious solicitors of goods. It was tough to get in a day without spitting out the universally understood “no” at 20-something strangers.
This, from what I am told anecdotally and by the economic realities of the day, is the norm in most Central and South American countries. I didn’t want to believe that or feel so disturbed by it, but I was.
After a while, I began to pick up on how things really were. I could tell the social classes by what people wore on their feet. If you had on shoes, you were high class. If you were wearing sandals, you were just middle-of-the-road, like Joe Nobody. And if you had nothing on your feet … well, you get the drift. But it wasn’t like I was back in San Francisco, where the folks who are homeless are obviously beyond their prime in life and thus disregarded by the public. These were teenagers and children in the midst of the struggle.
One day, I was approached on two separate occasions by little girls. One must have been 4 years old and the other about 7 or 8. The older of the two came by my table at a beach restaurant and tried to sell some gum for one real (Brazil’s currency). I don’t understand Portuguese, but that didn’t stop her from putting on her spiel and following it up with a big puppy-eyes look to seal the deal. I was taken aback. And before I could respond, she was shooed away by my server. I could tell he scolded her in Portuguese by his tone and her expression.
The younger girl was far more innocent. In fact, she was simply hungry. She came into a restaurant where I was dining to ask for some money. She wasn’t selling anything like the others. She was shooed away, too, before I could respond. Restaurant owners don’t want mendingos (beggars) messing up their business.
All I could think about after that day was how broken the Brazilian economy must be if children are walking around during the day and asking strangers for money and food. At that point, the exchange rate was about 2.28 realis for every $1. It struck me how close and yet how far away we are from the same reality. California’s budget impasse comes to mind.
But everywhere I turned, I saw enthusiasm for life that surpassed anything the economy or politics could ever achieve. Last week, Brazil’s national soccer team played Italy in a friendly match. Everyone watched and every newspaper and TV station plastered the game on their respective medium. All this for the equivalent of spring training game in Scottsdale, Ariz. But don’t tell that to the Brazilians. Watching their beloved national pastime is a release. It’s an escape of sorts for the masses. At least for a short time.
It’s the same here in that sense. No matter what’s going on in the world or how messed up life can be, we all stop come Super Bowl Sunday. Or on opening day in spring, life stands still. At least for a little while. People need an excursion from this cold world and sports do for us what no stimulus could ever really do: Give people a break.
It helped that Brazil beat the current World Cup champs 2-0.
This column originally appeared in The Union.