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Hans Durrer

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» In Uruguay
» In Thailand
» In Bangkok
» Swiss Travels
» Rio de Janeiro
» Kung in Pattaya
» Brazilian Travels
» On Brazilian Identity
» Searching for Schindler
» Susan Meiselas' Nicaragua
» China: Portrait of a Country
» Alex Harris: The Idea of Cuba
» On the Road in Rio Grande do Sul
» Waiting for my Bus in Porto Alegre

In Uruguay

In July 2008, l spent two weeks traveling in Uruguay.

My starting point was in Brazil, in Santa Cruz do Sul; my first stop was Tapes, a small town on the shores of the "Lagoa dos Patos", a giant freshwater lagoon, south of Porto Alegre. I spent the first night in the "Pousada da Lagoa" where the following note was posted on the wall of my bathroom: "Por favor: Não utilize a toalha de rosto ou de banho para limpar os sapatos." This seemed to indicate that guests of this establisment routinely used the towels to polish their shoes. Where do your guests mostly come from? I asked the receptionist. I was the only foreigner in the six months that he had been working here, he said. Probably a regional custom, I concluded.
The next day, I moved to a resort hotel outside of town. The room rate was a bargain. However, the young lady at the reception informed me, the restaurant was closed due to a local holiday. Could I get a sandwich? Of course, she said. I was convinced they would charge me excessively for it - I'm Swiss, this is what I'd expect in Switzerland - yet they didn't. When, some time later, I told one of my Brazilian students, a business man in his late thirties, how this had impressed me, he smiled and said, "Well, in Rio or São Paulo that would have been different."

In the Uruguayan town of Maldonado, the receptionist asked whether I wanted the room with or without breakfast. What is the price difference? I asked. 520 Pesos without, 650 Pesos with. Aha, I said. Breakfast is only 60 Pesos, she said. 60? Didn't you just say 520 repectively 650? Yes, 60 Pesos. I was baffled. And asked her to please jot down the numbers. $ 60.-, $ 520.-, $ 650.- she wrote, and then, inquisitively, looked at me. Well, the difference is not $ 60, it is $ 130.- I said. Unmoved, she kept on staring at me. I haven't the foggiest idea what went through her mind but I settled for the 'without breakfast' version.

In Minas, a town surrounded by rolling hills, I buy Juan Antonio Varese's "Historia de la Fotografía en el Uruguay" that informs me that the daguerrotype, that was publicly demonstrated for the first time in Paris on 19 August 1939, reached the then small town of Montevideo already by the end of February 1940. How come? A group of Belgian and French businessmen decided to send their kids, who behaved badly and did poorly in school, on a trip around the world - the kids should practise commerce, navigation, and languages. One of their instructores was the French abbot Louis Compte, who had been personally instructed by Daguerre in the use of the machine, and who, apart from his religious functions, was in charge of taking pictures of the places they visited.

In a pharmacy in Piriápolis, on the Atlantic coast, I found myself in an animated exchange with the owner who eloquently described how supermarkets destroy whole neighborhoods and how he now patronises the small shops nearby. Whenever in the following days I entered a supermarket I did it with a bad conscience. Also in Piriápolis, the owner of a restaurant that didn't look like much but served good food told me all one needs to know about journalism: the journalists' job, he said, is to keep the media owners happy. And that's it. It had never occurred to me that a restaurant owner would give much thought to the workings of the media

In Nueva Helvecia (or Colonia Suiza as it is also called), a small town of 11 000 inhabitants and, as the tourist brochure says, "una limpieza en sus calles que ya es proverbial", the young saleswoman in the bakery wondered where I was from? Switzerland, I answered. Tell me about it, she said, I love to hear about foreign places.
In a restaurant in Colonia, a journalist in his early forties wanted to do a cartoon of me (my part time job, he said), for 50 Pesos. It took him 10 minutes.

In Mercedes, the lady at the reception charged my visa card $ 650.-. Only after I had signed it did I remember that the receptionist of the night before had said that the room was $ 550.-. I informed the lady at the reception. In this case we have to do it once again, she simply said. And did it. In Switzerland, I'm certain, this would have been impossible. In Switzerland, the receptionist would very likely have said: How can I know if what you are telling me is true? And I would have agreed. For this is how I was culturally conditioned. In order to free myself from my cultural conditionings (yes, this is precisely why I travel) I need to experience other cultural realities.
Between Salto and Artigas, it rained heavily. The roof of the bus was leaking, the woman in front of me had to change seats twice until she found a dry spot. A young woman from Vancouver Island on a school outing in Costa Rica came to mind. It had started to rain and we all ran for cover when the young woman (no, she was not on drugs) dreamily said: I just love weather.

Then I was back in Brazil. In Santa Maria, I asked a taxi driver for a good hotel. He showed me one and asked to give him a call if I needed a taxi. Well, I need one tomorrow, at twelve o'clock, to go to the bus station, I said. He was there on time. And charged me 12 Reais. Didn't you tell me yesterday that the fare would be 10 Reais? I inquired. Twelve, he said, but then, without further ado, gave me change for ten. "Never ever could that have happened in Switzerland" I told one of my private students a few days later. "I mean he knew that most probably he would never see me again but ..." My student, a young Brazilian woman, smiled and said: "The same thing happened to my boss when he was recently in the US. He had paid too much for lunch and the waiter returned him the money. This however would never happen in Brazil." Now I smiled and said: "But in my case it did happen in Brazil." "Well" she said, "maybe it did because you are a foreigner here."

In Thailand

In Chiang Mai, I saw a billboard that said: "Fruit Juice, 100 percent artificial, guaranteed no natural ingredients added."

"Are they handmade?" I asked the street vendor who had traditional garments on display. "No, no, machine, very better", she replied. It took me a while to understand what she meant: that the machine had made her work easier.

There was no taxi at the airport in Pitsanoluk. "How can I get to town?" I asked the young lady at the information booth. "My master will drive you", she said. The master turned out to be the director of the airport. "And how do you plan to go to Mae Hong Son?" he inquired. "I guess by bus" I said. "Bus no good" he replied. "You should do it like the Thais do it". "Aha, and how do they do it?" "Take it easy, fly." I flew.

Prachuap Khiri Khan. I explored this small town and the beaches on the back of a motorbyke. "Here eat drink", my driver said while pointing to a restaurant. "Here sing a song" - that was a disco. After a while, I felt I should also make a contribution. "Look at this beautiful bird", I shouted. "Bird", he shouted back. Thais have quite a remarkable ability to state the obvious.

In Bangkok, I bought a wallet. It was a Gucci imitation, plastic, and very cheap. A week later it broke apart. When I passed by the same shop, I decided to stop for a chat. "Look at this", I said to the salesgirls. "This wallet I bought here only a week ago and already it falls apart." "How much you pay?" the girls asked. "60 Baht", I smiled. They smiled back: "60 Baht one week, 80 Baht two weeks."

During a Thai class, somebody mentioned corruption. Our teacher, a gifted entertainer, the most important qualification for teaching in Thailand, said: Corruption? We don't have that here. And then, with a big smile, added: Well, come to think of it, that is our system.

In Bangkok

Should you plan a visit to the Thai capital, I recommend The Bangkok Survivor's Handbook by Robert Hein, a treasure trove of useful insights, and fun to read, not least because this author has the right attitude: "Living successfully in Bangkok is a matter of adjusting your attitude, exploring your imagination, and keeping an open mind. It may be complicated at times, but it is rarely boring if you look at the experience as an adventure and arm yourself with plenty of patience, tolerance, and goodwill."

Here's an excerpt:

"Thais believe in Karma and reincarnation; that they will not die before their time and then they will be reborn. This faith is clearly demonstrated in their driving style ... Here, how close people come to having an accident doesn't count. A vehicle cutting in front of another vehicle is not a reason for road rage. As a taxi driver explained it: "He must belong there since he is there." Karma. You are where you are supposed to be or you wouldn't be there ... If, when crossing a street, a vehicle passes within inches of you, don't get angry at the driver. He's long gone and thought of you as only an obstacle. Instead, feel grateful that you weren't hit. When you are crossing a street, anger is a luxury not a survival instinct ... As an unwritten rule, the ranking order of fault in an accident is determined by the comparative sizes of the vehicles involved using the premise that the larger vehicle is at fault. A truck or bus that runs into a car is at fault. A car that runs into a tuk-tuk is at fault. A tuk-tuk that runs into a motorcycle or bicycle is at fault. Anything with wheels that runs into a pedestrian or an elephant is at fault."

I surely wandered with a changed mind through the streets of Bangkok after reading this helpful book.

Robert Hein
The Bangkok Survivor's Handbook
Expat Publications
ISBN 0-9740502-1-0

Swiss Travels

Some weeks ago, I watched a report on Swiss television that elaborated on how Unterterzen, a village on the Lake of Walenstadt (close from where I live), had developed into a tourist destination for Dutch families. What caught my attention was the mentioning of a newly created small beach. I went to have a look. Well, there wasn't really any beach to speak of - just a few pebbles on the shore. The lesson, as always: Don't trust TV-reports!

Then I visited the Safien Valley, the bus climb from the train station up to the village of Versam offered a spectacular view. After about half an hour, the young bus driver all of a sudden stopped and informed us that we all had to get off and walk until we would reach the next post bus. Why, what is going on? I asked her. The road is under repair, she said. Many of the passengers (most were retired and some not so good on foot) reacted in the typical Swiss fashion: What? I do not believe this. Why is it that we were not informed about this beforehand? About fifteen minutes later, we reached the waiting post bus. After another twenty minutes on the bus, it was the same procedure all over again but this time we had only a couple of minutes to walk. It was no big thing, really, it is just that if something of that sort had happened to me in, say, Africa, I would very likely have thought to myself that this surely could never happen in Switzerland.

Some other day in this summer of 2009, I met an elderly lady on the train who told me that, since she retired twenty years ago, she was doing bus and train trips all over Switzerland almost daily. What was her favourite destination?, I inquired. Chiavenna, she said. Isn't that in Italy?, I asked. Yes, she said, but very close to Switzerland.

So I went to Chiavenna. By train to Chur, then by post bus to Splügen, and then on a blue Italian pullman over the Splügen Pass to Chiavenna, that an art historian had described to me as a "little Firenze" - and it indeed looked the part. I then returned to Sargans via the Bergell and St. Moritz.

In retrospect what comes to mind is this: how wonderfully wild the Italian side looked, and how proper and over-civilised, almost like a gated community (especially around St. Moritz), the Swiss side appeared.

Rio de Janeiro

Let me start with a confession: I love Brazil. I know parts of the Northeast, and I know parts of the South yet I've never been to Rio. Nevertheless, I've approached this book with the intention to like it. And I did because I thought the youngsters portrayed beautiful. However, I do not think that it is a book about Rio, it is about a fashion photographer's obsession with young bodies. Moreover, I totally disagree with what the Brazilan poet and composer Caetano Veloso says about this work: "What makes Mario Testino's photographs stand out from those of other inspired visitors is that Mario captures the city's essential inner being." Since I've never been to Rio, and since I'm not even Brazilian, how dare I disagree with such a well-known Brazilian native?, you might rightfully ask. Well, have a look at the book, I'd say. It primarily shows lots of well-built young men and women, either nude or semi-nude. Don't get me wrong, they are all a pleasure to look at but that these photographs should show, again in the words of Caetano Veloso, "a complex, rich and multilayered love, overflowing with intimacy and the lucidity of dreams brought to life" seems to me, well, a bit of a stretch.

The fact that not only Caetano Veloso ("Not only does Mario have Rio inbedded in his own name") but also the TV-presenter Regina Casé ("The moment MaRIO sets foot in RIO, as soon as he steps out of the airport. jet-lagged or not, he becomes one of us") stress that Mario Testino, who hails from Peru, is at heart a Carioca (how the ones living in Rio are called) still does not make this tome one about Rio but one about Testino's fascination with young and beautiful bodies. To be fair: there are also a few shots of the city to be found in this book.

But isn't Testino's Rio what Rio is all about? Sex and lust? If we were to believe Regina Casé, it indeed is: "Horniness doesn't languish at the bottom of the ocean but flows freely over RIO." And over MaRIO, one feels like adding.

The most enjoyable text in this book is by Gisele Bündchen, who is from Horizontina, a small town of about 18,000 in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and who writes: "Rio existed in my head long before I ever went there. Soap operas are huge in Brazil, and Rio is where they are made. When I was young my absolute favorite TV show was called Xuxa. I loved the show's heroine of the same name so much that I named my dog after her ... For me Rio was like the stage set kind of place where soap operas were made, where Xuxa lived and where healthy people ran on the beach every day and drank coconut water. It's this dream-like place, only you can go there for real and it doesn't disappoint ... Mario is brilliant at capturing Rio; the sensuality of its people and their happiness in their bodies - the fact that they are at ease with their sexuality, and not afraid to reveal everything about themselves. I don't just mean in terms of wearing few clothes, though that too, but more the way they are authentic and upfront about who they are. I think Mario is like that himself, and that's one reason why he is so great at capturing the people of Rio."

The people of Rio? Must be an extraordinarily young city for none of the people photographed looks more than 22. And so I truly hope Mario Testino's phantasies can be found in the real Rio de Janeiro that I hope I will one day be visiting.

Mario Testino
Rio de Janeiro
Taschen 2009, Cologne

Kung in Pattaya

When, in February 2009, I climbed the stairs to Mike's Shopping Mall in Pattaya, Thailand, a woman in her forties who was selling clothes next to the main entrance stormed towards me and exclaimed: "You name Hans? You name Hans?" I said yes and assumed she mistook me for somebody else for I was certain I had never seen her. "My name Kung, Soi four", she said, "Soi four, in Bangkok." I didn't know anybody in Soi four. And, I didn't know anybody by the name of Kung (the Thai word for shrimp) either. "Sell clothes", she said, "You come see Sai." She pointed to a young and pretty woman of about twenty. All of a sudden I remembered.

Many years ago, I spent much time in the Thai capital where my regular walks also took me to Asia Books in the Landmark Hotel. Kung had a stall near the Landmark on Sukhumvit Soi four. Sai, who was around eight at that time, sometimes followed me into the Landmark. I started to buy her ice cream, sometimes I just sat and talked with her for a few minutes (my Thai is virtually non-existent but I distinctly remember telling her one day that I soon would go the airport whereupon she insisted on coming along). Unsurprisingly, Sai has no such recollection.

The three of us sat for a while, smiled, and chatted. "Where is your husband?" I asked Kung. "He die", she said, "he drink too much". It is one of the explanations for a variety of mishaps (the other one is "have accident") in the land of smiles. "You have email?" Kung wanted to know. When I wrote it down for her she said "I have no email." I didn't ask her why she wanted mine if she didn't have one herself. "When you come back?" she asked. "I don't know" I smiled. It all felt supremely casual, and it all felt good.

I doubt that I would have recognised Kung outside her (for me) typical environment. She however seems to need less context than I do.

Brazilian Travels

Since Friday, 18 December 2009, I`m on a bus trip through Southern Brazil.

The time table said that the trip from Santa Cruz to Caxias do Sul would take 2 hours and 50 minutes. Well, it took 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Sitting on a bench on the main square of Caxias, I was approached by a young woman who asked me to participate in a survey for a chain of drugstores. That is probably not for me, I said, I am a tourist. Ah, where from? Switzerland. She smiled and said she was from Torres. Did I know Torres? I said I did. Where will you spend the New Year? I don`t know yet. Well, Torres is the place to be, she said, it has the third biggest firework in Brazil. By the way, Caxias is great. I am here with my husband. Just the two of us. His daughter from another woman is with her mother. So it is just him and me here. Fantastic. We both work. Here it is easy to find work, in Torres it is very difficult ... Okay, gotta go, see you. And off she went. Such chatting - that may seem somewhat personal to a European - is fairly common in this country for Brazilians simply love to chat, with whom is secondary.

I walked around the center of town, got hungry and had a not very good "pastel". I returned to my hotel, asked for a place where they served good "pastéis" and then had a good one. Later, again on a bench on the main square, I watched the world walk by. Caxias has a center that I instinctively liked, it has a big city flair but is still not too big and that makes for good vibes. At 18 hours sharp, it was sunny and warm, loudspeakers in front of the cathedral filled the air with "Ave Maria" - it felt terrific.

A guy in the Internet Cafe was convinced I was from Uruguay. When I told him I was from Switzerland, he just laughed and said for him I was from Uruguay. I assume this has to do with my Portuñol, a mix of Spanish and Portuguese mainly spoken at the border of Brazil and Uruguay. No, I have not picked it up there, I have developed it myself and added a Swiss German accent.

Brazilian men, when saying hello or good bye, often tap other men on the shoulder, Brazilian women often kiss you on the cheek. In a bookstore, a woman in her thirties suddenly turned around and bumped into me. "Desculpe", she smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and left the store. She was beautiful, I would have preferred a kiss.

On the bus to Lages, my neighbour explained that he had lived for 30 years in Porto Alegre but was originally from Santa Catarina. People in Rio Grande do Sul are arrogant, he whispered.

In Lages, a gentleman in the hotel elevator, after he learned where I was from, told me he was from Santa Cruz and started to speak German to me.

In the bus from Florianópolis to the island, a young man behind me threw up - I was lucky that his vomit was all over the floor and not on me.

At the island junction, people were standing in line for the bus to the South of the island. When it finally arrived, many young men literally stormed it. One youngster pushed me, I got hit on the head, lost my sun glasses, stumbled. A young women with her son on her knees shouted at them ("são terríveis, são mal educados") and offered me the seat next to her.

After my first night at the Praia da Armaçaõ, my arms were covered with mosquito bites. The dona of my pousada said that only yesterday the government had anounced that there was no dengue on the island. Up to that point I had not worried.

I am aware that quite some men seem to love making contact in public toilets at train and bus stations yet it eludes me what kind of kick these guys at the bus stations in Lages and Florianópolis expected by trying to get a glimpse of my dick while I was standing at the urinal trying (unsucessfully, of course) to pee ...

When I got to the beach in Bombinhas, I suffered a shock: I had so far seen photos of over-crowded beaches but had never experienced such a scene in reality where one could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I decided to leave the place immediately that however was not an easy task for buses on Christmas day do not run frequently from Bombinhas to Itapema and when they eventually run then they move a few meters every couple of minutes. Once in Itapema I found the hotels considerably more expensive than in Florianópolis and decided to move on to Itajaí which, I was told, was not a tourist place. The first night my room cost 85 Reais, the second 119 Reais. The reason given was "temporada alta".

The next day, I went to see the famous Balneario Camborio. The man in his fifties sitting next to me on the bus introduced himself by saying that he worked as a mechanic at Brinks, a company originally from Chicago, he explained (he was suprised that "Brinkis", as he pronounced it, was unknown to me), and showed me his card to prove it. Where should I get off for the beach? I asked. He would show me where, he said. And so together we got off. He mentioned that he lived around the corner. When we reached his home, a five story apartment block, he asked if I wanted to come up for a juice? Was he gay? I wondered. Was this a trap? I was just about to excuse myself when he rang the bell, stepped back to the pavement and conversed with a woman on the second floor. Your wife? I asked. He nodded. I followed him up to the second floor where I was introduced to Sueli, who hailed from Mato Grosso and told me to be careful in the border region of Paraguay, and their two-year old daughter. João prepared the juice (a tasty carrot-orange-lime mix), I exchanged a few words with Sueli and played with their daughter. When the juice was ready, João turned on the TV, we sipped our drinks and chatted for a while. Did I want another one? No, thank you, I now feel like exploring the beach. "Vai com Deus", he said. The beach was almost as crowded as the one in Bombinhas (I later learned that there are many beaches in Bombinhas but all of them "bem lotadas" during the festive season) and full of colorful umbrellas. Not my idea of a beach.

On Fox news, a passenger of the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that a young Nigerian had tried to blow up said that while the whole thing happened (he sat three rows away from the Nigerian) he did not really feel scared but later, at home, it really hit him. It was worse to imagine what happened than actually experiencing it, he said.
A security expert on the same program: we spent billions of dollars and we could not stop this guy. It seemed beyond his imagination that money could not be the solution.

How long do I walk to the beach from here? Ten minutes? Fifteen, the guy from the hotel said. After I had walked for fifteen minutes in the direction indicated, I asked again. Ten minutes? The two guys smiled, twenty are more likely. They were right. In the end, the original fifteen minutes had turned into close to forty-five.

The most used words in Brazil are probably "talvez" (maybe), "pode ser" (can be) and "legal" (cool). Given the fact that when Brazilians are confronted with a law their natural impulse is to find a way around it, it seems rather peculiar to use "legal" for "cool".

Where you from? asked the lady in charge of the internet at the bus station in Itajaí. When I told her she said that she was familiar with my accent, she had heard it from missionaries.

How do I get to the Niemeyer museum? The lady at the tourist information in Curitiba made it sound like a long and rather complicated undertaking. I decided to walk into the direction she had indicated. At the Praça Tiradentes (surrounded by quite some signs advertising the services of dentists) I was supposed to find a city sightseeing bus but it had just left and so I asked an elderly man how far the Niemeyer Museum was? On foot about fifteen minutes from here, he said, at a leisurely pace. I knew by then that this probably meant a good thirty minutes at a rather brisk pace - and I was right. Unfortunately, the Niemeyer Museum happened to be closed from 25 December to 31 December!?

Standing in front of the museum, I could see the sightseeing bus speeding by - I have so far never seen a sightseeing bus at such speed, the tourists on the open top deck appeared to desperately cling to their seats, I was glad I had not joined them.

A shopping mall near the Praça Tiradentes had toilets for men, women, and families.

The back pocket buttons of my pants are loose, my shoes are falling apart. I walk into a tailor shop, the lady in there puts herself immediately to work and asks for one real after she´s done ("para um cafezinho", she says). The shoemaker thinks that my shoes were made in Italy. Zimbabwe, I tell him. Good work, he comments. We chat for another couple of minutes. He says they will be ready by two o`clock. He didn´t recognise me when I showed up at twenty past two but the shoes were ready.

Curitiba also meant: a quarter pounder at McDonalds, a Subway sandwich, Chinese food, sushi (twice), mousse de maracuja in the Confeitaria Neuchatel (the waiter said it was a complicated story how the confeitaria got its name; the waitress said, well, the owner had once been to Neuchâtel) and visits to bookstores. Books are expensive in Brazil, in one store they had a table with special offers for 9.90. I leafed through some of them, on the front page of one the original price was mentioned as 5.90. I asked whether it cost 5.90 ot 9.90. Everything on that table is 9.90, the lady said. I did not buy it.

Edson is 44, trained as an accountant and works in the tobacco industry; he is also one of my students. Before he left Santa Cruz for his Christmas holidays in Iratí, he said that I should keep him posted about my travels for we might meet in Curitiba. I never thought we would but actually did and went to see the botanical garden together - the city skyline in the background made me feel like I was in New York City´s Central Park - and to a churrasco, together with his extended family who lives in Cuitiba. A Brazilian churrasco means that you sit at a long table and the waiters and waitresses do their rounds offering you all sorts of meat, polenta, pasta ... actually almost everything that you can put on a fire ...

I had quite often heard of Iratí (where Edson and his wife hail from) during class and was curious to get to know the place. Iratí is a two-hour drive from Curitiba, has a population of 60´000 and feels very much way out there; I was introduced to Edson´s parents and the family of his brother-in-law and enjoyed animated conversations over excellent fish from "pesce e pague". I had never heard of "pesce e pague" (fish and pay) and this is what it is: you go to a fish farm that has several ponds where you then fish your own fish that you can eat in the restaurant there or take with you.

As usual, I do not know what I want in the padaria in Guarapuava and also do not always know what I am looking at. I ask the young and very pretty woman: What is this? And that? The young woman smiles and explains and, I all of a sudden realise, is flirting with me - and I feel enchanted. Your are not from here, right? I am asking because you have an accent. I let her know that, a few days ago, my accent had been qualified as a missionary accent and that I had not known that there was such a thing ... she bent over the counter and whispered that people who are closer to God have it. The expression on her face made clear that she did not mean it too seriously. Eventually I made up my mind what to buy. She was all smiles, wrapped up my pastel and my chocolate croissant, wished me a good trip and a Feliz Ano Novo and I felt just great.

The young man at the reception of my hotel says that the Portuguese spoken in Paraná is the most pure of the country. No wonder everybody thinks I speak with an accent for here everybody who is not a local has one. I did of course argue with the guy. In other words, I lectured him that there is no such thing as "the purest Portuguese" (who would define this anyway?). I am however not sure whether I was successful. I am a foreigner after all and foreigners, as we all know, do not really count.

Do you have internet in the hotel? On the first floor but it is very slow, said the young woman at the reception. That must be terribly slow, I smiled, when a Brazilian (who usually says it will take a few minutinhos when it takes half an hour or more) says that it is slow. She smiled back and said: I think it is better to tell the truth because it is really slow. And it was really slow indeed.

The next day, it was windy and cold and I needed to put on a sweater. During the first part of my bus ride to Cascavel, it was beautiful and sunny and I listened mostly to classical music on my iPod, the second part was rainy and overcast and my iPod music seemed out of place - it never ceases to amaze how profoundly the weather influences my soul.

My hotel in Cascavel is right in the center of town; it is spacious, functional in a sixties-style and reminds me of the Riviera in Havana. "Só alguns minutinhos", the receptionist said when, after twenty minutes, I got impatient waiting for my taxi that after another ten minutes finally arrived - I would not call that "minutinhos".

A waiter in Cascavel, who had previously worked in a hotel in Foz do Iguaçu, said that Foz, at this time of the year, would be almost empty and that the high season was in June/July. Well, Foz was almost full and it was definitely the high season when I got there. It goes without saying that we all live on different planets and some are so different that I am not really sure that I want to contemplate that.

Iguaçu Falls. The trail felt like a sauna. The young couple next to me is from Paraguay. Very hot, they comment. I assume that is not very different in Paraguay, I say. Yes, indeed, they moan. What impresses them about Brazil is that it is very well organised. I had never associated Brazilians with organisational skills but the entry to the Iguaçu Falls is indeed well managed - once you had payed however, it became a different matter: the long queues to get out of the National Park were, well, pretty impressive.

Never again I will do one of these must-do tourist trips. To be herded around with thousands of others is definitely not my thing.

Rozeno is 70, works for a tourism agency and offered to drive me around - for agency rates, I eventually learned - when I could not find a taxi at the Rodoviaria. He drove much too fast for my taste. I told him to slow down. I used to drive an ambulance, he said, and I have never had an accident. That is not because of you that is because of the others, I told him, after he had almost overrun a dog - had I not shouted, he would not even have seen it.

Before he started working for the tourism agency, Rozeno had been a taxi driver. Four times he was assaulted - he showed me the mark the bullet had left on his neck. All assaults happened in the night, one was by a woman in her mid-forties who attacked him with a kitchen knife.

Some Brazilians have a disconcerting habit of jumping the queue. At the travel agency in my posh hotel in Foz, I was in the process of obtaining information from the agent when all of a sudden a guy approached the desk and started to speak to the agent who in turn responded - it seemed that I simply did not exist. It had happened to me many times before and so I knew what to do: I simply turned around and left.

At the Highway Police posts in Paraná battered cars that were involved in accidents are on display.

The lady sitting next to me on the bus to Cascavel was in her sixties and asked whether I was Italian. She was a "Paulista" and had lived in Italy and in Argentina and thought both countries much more cultured than Brazil where people were only mindlessly running after money. When I told her that I had worked in Rio Grande do Sul, she asked: is your wife from the South? No, I said, my ex-wife is from Cuba. In Curitiba there is a whole street full of Cubans, all dreaming of a Cuba that never was. I once had a Cuban lover, she whispered. So what do you think of Cubans? I inquired. "Péssimos", she said. In what respect? "En todos. São mentirosos." Well ..., I interjected. Not all of them of course, she said.

On the bus from Foz to Cascavel I felt occasionally like being on a road in the US - straight highways as long as the eye can see in wide-open landscapes.

Brazil is a hot place - apart from the winter in the South, of course - and many people in the cities dress as if they were either going to, or coming from, the beach. The only other place where I noticed that was Havana.

I have never been to a country where so many women sported tattoos - or is this because you see more exposed flesh in Brazil than in quite some other places?

A good Brazilian hotel is one that serves a good breakfast. Here's the one of the Copa Verdes in Cascavel: a buffet with various types of bred, dried meat, ham, cheese, melon, water melon, mango, papaya, pineapple, bananas, grapes, scrambled eggs, sausages in tomato sauce, a variety of cereal, yoghurt, waffles with maple syrup, cookies, a wide selection of cakes ... this is what I remember. The only thing Brazilians do not seem to start their days with is ice cream.

At the Ibis in Curitiba a couple - he was in his late fifties/early sixties, she in her mid-forties - arrived at breakfast strategically prepared. She put a mid-sized round metallic box (that consisted of two boxes, one on top of the other) on a table next to the buffet, unscrewed the upper box, placed the two halves neatly next to each other, checked whether there was any staff nearby, went to the buffet, came back with large quantities of fruit and lots of crackers, put them in the two boxes, screwed them together again and was now ready to go for her regular breakfast.

At the bus station in Passo Fundo, a man in his thirties, with an athletic build and a double-chin, wears a T-shirt that says: Psycho Surfers.

"É obrigatório o uso do cinto de segurança", it says in some buses (maybe in all of them but I only noticed it in some) but I never saw anybody wearing it save for one woman sitting next to me from Passo Fundo to Lajeado. I had made the mistake of asking her where she was travelling to: she gave me such a detailled account that I dozed off after a few minutes.

Due to an accident near Lajeado, my return to Santa Cruz was two hours late. I called Ricardo (who, together with his wife, Takako, runs Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas), who had offered to pick me up at the bus station, that I would be late and take a cab. I hardly ever go to bed before eleven, Ricardo said, so just give me a call once you arrive. I did and a couple of minutes later Ricardo picked me up. Takako had put a cold tea and a sandwich into my fridge and my place so thoroughly cleaned that I had quite some problems finding my things - it felt like coming home.

On Brazilian Identity

Tracy Novinger's Communicating with Brazilians (University of Texas Press, Austin), as I mentioned in previous posts, is a book worth spending time with. The other day, I came across these ponderings on Brazilian identity by Lauro Moreira, a Brazilian career diplomat, that Novinger sums up like this:

"The Brazilian is psychologically mercurial, alternating easily between euphoria and depression. This is neither good nor bad. It is Brazilian. Although the Brazilian may have momentary outburts of anger, lasting hatred is not part of the Brazilian psyche. Moreira states that the Brazilian is very hard to rouse to fanaticism, which he thinks one of the most important aspects of the Brazilian psyche."

I had heard this - that Brazilians are not prone to fanaticism - before, from Ricardo Schütz (of Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas in Santa Cruz do Sul). I had asked him how he would characterise Brazilians and Ricardo responded with a story (which is, I find, the best way of conveying ideas): In his student days he once had to drive an internationally operating Brazilian business leader from Porto Alegre to Santa Cruz. This is a two-hour trip and there was lots of time to talk. Among other things, the business executive told him that Brazilians were spiritually healthier than many others. Interesting, I thought, but how would you prove that? Ricardo said: mass suicides, as in the US, for instance, do not exist in Brazil.

There are many reasons why I like Brazil but this absence of fanaticism is surely one of them. ______

Searching for Schindler

In 1980, Tom Keneally (author of "Schindler's Ark") was looking for a briefcase when he came to a halt in front of a store called the Handbag Studio in Beverly Hills: "I hesitated, always a nervous shopper. But the shopkeeper soon appeared beside me, having stepped out from within. He had a stocky Slavic look, and resembled the great character actor, Theodore Bickel – a touch of Tartar in the cheeks, a barrel chest, powerful arms, a wrestler's neck. He wore a white shirt, a conservative tie and a good jacket with an Eagle Scout pin nested in its lapel. There was a glitter of fraternal amusement in his eyes. Even then, I believe I preceived that he had dealt in markets beyond my knowing." Excellent visual writing, isn't it? It immediately produced strong pictures in my mind.

The shop owner, a Polish Jew by the name of Leopold Pfefferberg, introduced himself as Leopold Page (the name was foisted on him at Ellis Island in 1947) but Keneally soon took to calling him Poldek. Poldek had a story to tell and he wanted Keneally to write it for him. Poldek told him, "It'sa story for you, Thomas, It's a story for you, I swear." Keneally reflected on the fact that "every writer hears that exhortation. People without any idea of how long a book takes pass on the tale of an amusing uncle or aunt, along with the strange addendum: I could write it if I had nothing else to do. The suggestion is sometimes made tentatively, sometimes with the sincere expectation that the writer will answer, Wow! That he will drop to his knees and embrace this jewel of a story."

However, in the case of Leopold Page/Pfefferberg/Poldek it was all different. "He opened two filing cabinets, selecting documents – a piece on Oskar Schindler from the Los Angeles Examiner, copies of postwar speeches by former Jewish prisoners made in Oskar Schindler's honor, carbon copies of letters in German, and documents partly yellowed, old enough for the staples in them to have rusted somewhat even in Southern California's desert climate." Of Schindler, Poldek said, "This guy Oskar Schindler was a big masterrace sort of guy. Tall and smooth in his suits … the cloth! He drank cognac like water And I remember, when I met him the first time, he was wearing a huge black and red Hackenkreuz, you know, the Nazi pin." Well, it is of course a Hakenkreuz, and not a Hackenkreuz. Moreover, labor camps are Arbeitslager and not Arbeitslagen, and the destruction camps are Vernichtungslager and not Vernichtungslageren. The worst mistake in his German expressions probably occurred when he said, "The cinema, when we got there for the premiere, was in chaos, and Judy, Jane and I were manhandled to our seats by a muscular security woman yelling, 'Das Buchauteur.'" To be correct, he should have said "Der Buchautor." The version Keneally employed is a mix of German and French and suggests that the author is a thing. Well, why pretend to understand German (or whatever) if you don't?

"Searching for Schindler" (Vintage Books 2008) is a memoir. When Keneally set out to become a writer, Australians thought that writing and the arts "were something which happened elsewhere, in Western Europe." However, when Keneally met Poldek (in October 1980), he had already "been a writer for some seventeen years or so."

Upon returning to Australia from California he told his family that he "had encountered the most wonderful story imaginable," but didn't know if he was able to write it. Ultimately, he decided to give it a try. "Back in Sydney's northern beaches, from the desk in my office, I began composing an account of Schindler's activities, the basis of a possible advance from Nan Talese. I could see the husky, non-verbal surfers riding their boards on the beach below." I had never given a thought to where"Schindler's Ark" had been created, but knowing now, it feels somewhat strange that it was begun at an Australian beach.

Keneally goes to see former Schindlerjuden (Jews saved by Schindler), first in Australia, and then together with Poldek in the US, Poland, and Israel. "I knew…that I would try to write the book in the spirit of Tom Wolfe, in what Truman Capote or his publisher called faction. I knew, too, that things that were said by one interviewee would have to be matched or weighed against what the historic record said, against context and the memories of other former Schindlerjuden."

However, this is not only a book about how "Schindler's Ark" was written, it also discusses the Booker prize, American book tours, and the writing of the screenplay of "Schindler's List" (Spielberg eventually sacked him). Moreover, it reveals Keneally's involvement with rebel Eritrea and with a new republican movement in Australia that wanted to turn the country into "an official republic with its own head of state," teaching at UCI, going to film premieres in Washington, New York, London and Vienna and so much more. It makes for supremely entertaining, interesting and informative reading.

I especially warmed to the following varied and telling tidbits:

* "Even at meals Spielberg was always asking questions. He liked having people around to discuss things with, even while the technicians changed the lighting or the camera crew set up for a new shot. Many of the survivors who visited the set were astonished by the extent of the questions Spielberg asked them. Part of his strength as a director, says Palowski, was his willingness to seek input from just about anyone who had any connection with the story."

* "In lunchtime conversation we revisited the issue of where in Oskar altruism ended and opportunism began. I made the claim that it was actually important that that question could not be answered, that the abiding attraction of Schindler's character was wrapped up in the very conondrum."

* "The plane taxied past the sign on the runway that says No Turn Before the Ocean – a sign which always rather disturbed me, since I thought that any pilot worth his salt might already know that."

* And last but not least, when Keneally asked Spielberg whether the film could be called "Schindler's Ark," Spielberg replied he'd do it "except that he wanted to use lists throughout. Lists were visible, metaphors weren't."

Thomas Keneally
Searching for Schindler
Vintage Books Australia, 2008

This review was originally published on, January 2008

Susan Meiselas' Nicaragua

Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua was first published in 1981 and reprinted by Aperture in 2008. The book is divided into three parts: The Somoza Regime (June 1978); Insurrection (September 1978); The Final Offensive (June 1979 – July 1979) and introduced by the following declaration:

A year of news,
as if nothing had happened before,
as if the roots were not there,
and the victory not earned.
This book was made,
so that we remember.

Already the first photo – some rural place, in the rain, a pig on (main?) street, strangely timeless – demonstrates impressively that this country, like any other country, has a past and a present, whether noticed by the rest of the world (who noticed this particular country only when a civil war was going on) or not.
The colour (that is rather unique for pictures from war) photos radiate something magic although I couldn’t say why that is. I don’t think it’s the subjects (labourers at work, groups of people in uniforms, burned out cars, political demonstrations, street fighting, dead bodies, barricades, tanks etc) but maybe also. There is a strange presence about these pictures, they made me feel like being there.

One photograph, at first glance, doesn’t seem to fit at all: a black limousine at the bottom of stairs that lead (one supposes) up to the entrance of some official building, a chauffeur in a white uniform with a white hat, who holds open the car door; men in white suits who climb up the stairs; in the background formations of soldiers, all in white uniforms. What is this? And, how come it is to be found in a book about a civil war? The caption (on the last pages of the book! No, I do not even want to know why the captions were put there …) informs that: „President Anastasio Somoza Debayle opening new session of the National Congress 1978“. A bit thin, I’d say.

A very famous photograph shows a young woman running on a road with a near-naked little boy hanging from one arm and a bag slung over her shoulder. The caption explains: “Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.” The caption says: „Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.”

Years later, in a documentary about her work in Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas comments: “That photograph is taken by at least five different photographers, at different points during her journey. She is literally vultured by us. No one is thinking to help her, including myself.”

That is indeed the question/problem, not only of war photography, but of journalism in general: It lives off the misery of others. As Janet Malcolm famously wrote in „The Journalist and the Murderer“: „The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the ‘public’s right to now’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

The war photographer and the ones who simply look at these pictures share the same dilemma: both know that these photos should not exist and both are glad that they do.

Susan Meiselas
Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979
Aperture, New York, 2008

China: Portrait of a Country

When thinking of China, what first comes to my mind is the semester I spent in Fujian Province as an English teacher in 2002 (lots of discussions about the Asian concept of „face“ which basically translates into: what your neighbour thinks of you is most important), and the Olympics of 2008 when Chinese officials felt compelled to have a nine-year-old girl lip-synch "Ode to the Motherland" during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies because the seven-year-old girl who had actually sang the song wasn't considered cute enough. And so, when glancing through China, Portrait of a Country (Taschen 2008), a huge and heavy tome, edited by Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Liu Heung Shin (he and his AP Moscow colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1992 for their reportage documenting the collapse of the Soviet Union) that reveals China from 1949 to the present day, I was expecting a fair amount of propaganda-material on display. And of course there is (and it is made clear that it was once used as propaganda) but there is much more to this book and it makes for an interesting reading of the last 60 years of Chinese history.

The variety of scenes displayed is impressive – from Mao relaxing on the beach at Beidaibe together with his daugther in the company of other leaders’ children in 1954 to senior party leaders of Liaoning province being humiliated in a public denunciation rally in 1966, from peasants in rural Hebei province outside Beijing who power a manual water pump to Pu Jie, younger brother of the last Qing emperor, Pu Yi, who sat for a portrait at his former residence, the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1980; below this photo one reads this formidable quote by the writer, philosopher, and inventor of the Chinese tywriter, Lin Yutang (1895-1976): „In China one does not have to learn to become a realist: here one is born as a realist.“

Thankfully, the book comes with illuminating texts. In other words, this is not a picture book, this is documentary, good documentary, in the sense that it documents Chinese reality, that it explains what we look at, that it provides historical context, that it helps us to put what we see into perspective.

The editor, Liu Heung Shing, was born in Hong Kong in 1951 (then under British rule) and went to New York in 1970 to study. „In the final year of my studies, I took a course in photography with famed Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili. This one semester was to shape the rest of my life: upon graduation, I followed Mili and took an internship at Life magazine. This put me in the right place, at the right time, for following the normalization of Sino-American diplomatic relations in 1979. Then I was given an assignment in China, which made me the first Chinese foreign correspondent to be sent to Beijing by Time magazine, and later joined the Associated Press.“ In other words, he’s Chinese and lived abroad and thus looks at China at the same time through Chinese and foreign eyes

„Since 1976“, continues Liu Heung Shing, „a number of photography books about the People’s Republic have been published by both foreign and domestic publishers. The paradoxes of China do not seem obvious in these books. China has been an elusive subject for editors in New York, London, or Paris. Editors well versed in the language of photography nevertheless encountered a „Chinese wall“ when dealing with official institutions in China, and with ist myriad socialist doctrines …“ This tome however, one needs to conclude, is different for 88 Chinese photographers contributed to it. This in itself is remarkable and likewise are the pictures. I personally look forward to a tome that shows photos of China as seen by Chinese and by non-Chinese photographers.
Spending time with this book is a lesson in history, and it is a learning experience.

Here are some of the things that I’ve found particularly interesting.Photography was introduced to China in the 19th century by European explorers. What the Chinese who took up a camera interested the most was landscapes and portraits. How come? „For thousands of years the Chinese aesthetic was molded by Taoist principles of man in harmony with nature: an aesthetic that was honed in particular in brush paintings and landscapes“ explains the editor Liu Heung Shing. Mao himself acted as photo editor „in deciding which photographs of the historic handshake in 1972 between Nixon and Zhou were to be released to the press.“ „As the 1990s unfolded, a preference for investigative photography emerged.“ In other words, this was the beginning of Chinese documentary photography. „Jiang Jian portrayed ordinary people from small communities in rural areas or small towns. Wu Jialin looked at life in the provinces, in mountain regions, and outlying towns, and Yang Yankang traveled the length and breadth of the country seeking out religious communities in rural areas.“ „In the year 1996, photography found itself commandeered by the contemporary-art scene … By 1998, the art world had become obsessed with photography.“

The photos in this book appear in chronological order; they show scenes from the spectacular to the mundane, from workers at a rally to the aftermath of a flood in the city of Wuzhou (most of the Chinese teachers in Fujian, where I taught, came from Wuzhou – it feels strange to look at a picture of their devasted city and to learn that such floods occur every year), from Shanghai’s famed Xiangyang market to victims of a traffic accident using their mobile phones („to report the accident“, the caption says but who knows?)

For most of the last 150 years (since photography came to China, that is), Western photographers, anthropologists, travelers etc. who took photos of China „tended to see China as an exotic, oriental Muse“ writes Karen Smith, an art critic based in Beijing. That is certainly true yet I’ve felt that for quite some pictures in this tome that was likewise true. Anyway, is there something wrong with that?

China, Portrait of a Country
Edited by Liu Heung Shing
Taschen, Köln, 2008

This review was originally published on in December 2008

Alex Harris: The Idea of Cuba

A convincing photo book is often based on a convincing idea – and this is the case of The Idea of Cuba: When in May 1998, the photographer and writer Alex Harris was on his first trip to Cuba, he observed almost everything on the island “from the perspective of the backseat of 1950s-era American cars. I went to Cuba that spring with a specific plan. I wanted to use my camera to explore how people in the United States and Cuba see each other, and the view through the windshields of these aging American cars seemed to be an ideal approach.”

Indeed, and an intriguing, and a persuasive, idea at that: to look at a new country through the windshields of the cars of one’s childhood. Most visitors to Cuba do it the other way ‘round – they have their picture taken with these old North American cars. There is of course nothing wrong with that except that it may strike Cubans as a bit silly – I at least thought it rather strange when my Cuban ex-wife, on her first visit to my native Switzerland, insisted that I take her picture next to a number of totally unremarkable (but new) cars. Until I realised that this is precisely what visitors to Cuba normally do.

Photo books usually show pictures without words, they rarely come with an accompanying text, often however without captions, or with captions we could easily do without – such as Mexico 1934, or Dog (when the photo shows a dog), for instance. While such an approach – “I do not want to influence you, trust your eyes, judge for yourself”, the photographers seem to say – might be okay for art photography (whatever that is), it is inappropriate for documentary photography or for press photography that should come with words that are not limited to (hopefully) informative captions but include narratives that inform the reader about the coming into being of the pictures. Thankfully, this is the case of The Idea of Cuba in which the texts help one understand what one's eyes register.

Let me illustrate this with two excerpts:

“In my first days in Havana I wondered how Cubans felt as they drove through their daily lives inside these symbols of capitalist triumph. Whatever can be said about failed U.S. policies toward Cuba, surely the continued existence of these cars on Cuban roads was a testimony to the North American way, to the success and durability of our political system. Yet the more time I spent in Havana, the more I realized that every car I rode in had been completely rebuilt from the inside out. Many of the parts were borrowed from Russian or European models or manufactured by Cuban mechanics who could not legally import anything from the United States. These 1950s-era cars may have had North American shells, but the fact that they continued to run was proof of Cuban ingenuity, determination, and the kind of sacrifice that José Martí admired.

Under the May Havana sun, I might as well have been working in a sauna. Sweating inside these cars with my view camera, film holders, tripod, battery pack, and lights, I sometimes worried about my sanity. And as I saw the richness of life on Havana streets unfolding outside my window, it seemed crazy to limit myself to this narrow view of the city. But as a photographer I recognized that the greatest depth of field is achieved by setting the smallest aperture on a lens. After almost thirty years of making pictures in the American South, New Mexico, and Alaska, I knew another kind of depth could be achieved by narrowing the subject of my focus as well. For the time being, I would continue to photograph Cuba from inside cars.”

Alex Harris had never heard of José Martí when he first set foot on the island but soon became interested in him (("I traveled to Cuba to make landscapes, and discovered José Martí") for photographers sometimes travel with open eyes (and – in this case – with an open mind) and Martí is difficult to avoid in Cuba for his statues are everywhere. “Martí had a kind of nobility. He was stoic and wise. He seemed to know a secret I wanted to learn.”

By describing how he went about his work, what he experienced, where he went, and why, and what went through his mind, Alex Harris lets the reader participate in what he learns about Martí, and about Cuba.

“My larger problem was how to begin to encompass in a photograph something as complex and cerebral as Martí's idea of Cuba. Near the end of his life, in the early days of photography, Martí anticipated my dilemma in a question jotted in one of his notebooks: "Who could photograph thought, as a horse is photographed in full gallop or a bird in flight?"
As I made my first photographs of his memorials, I saw Martí's words at the base of many statues. These aphorisms had been extracted by Cubans themselves as the essence of Martí's idea of Cuba, then chiseled into stone or stamped onto copper plaques. In one of the first I read, Martí seemed to predict his own future role. A nation that honors its heroes strengthens itself. I began to copy every Martí adage I saw. These words of wisdom read like agnostic Cuban cousins of Solomon's proverbs. With all and for the good of all; To be cultured is to be free.
Of all Martí's writings, these brief sayings became a kind of compass I used to find my way around the island. If I couldn't photograph Martí's thoughts, at least I'd have his most important ideas in mind when I decided to snap the shutter. This seemed a way for me to look at contemporary Cuba through the lens of history, to see the present in relation to Martí's imagined future.”

Documentary photography, the way I understand and like it, is about making discoveries. And this is what Alex Harris’ Idea of Cuba is: the document of a personal discovery that transcends the personal - for the more personal an approach, the more universal the result often becomes.

“I know much more about Cuba now than I did when I made these photographs. But I do not believe that I could now make better pictures. This book is an act of faith in myself as a photographer to discover something in my pictures I didn't already know or feel, something I wasn't already looking for.”

Alex Harris
The Idea of Cuba
University of New Mexico Press, 2007

On the Road in Rio Grande do Sul

Cidreira, three hours by bus from Porto Alegre, is windy, very windy, and not my idea of a week at the beach. And so I decided to go to Torres instead.

On the spur of the moment I ask the taxi driver on the way to the bus station how much the trip to Tramandaí by taxi would be. I thought his fare reasonable but nevertheless asked for a ten percent discount. He agreed, and so we took off.

Sérgio was 58 and had not always been a taxi driver. Most of his life he had worked as a musician. He played contrabass, first classical ("There are too few people in Brazil interested in it; you can't really make a living") then more popular tunes, and finally gaúcho-music. His music took him all over Brazil, and also to Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. "What about Paraguay? I thought every Brazilian here in the South has been to Paraguay ...". "Well, I do not count shopping trips as visiting a country" he said.

At the bus station in Tramandaí I learned that there was no bus to Torres for several hours. I decided to continue my trip with Sérgio (again ten percent discount on his regular fare). Just outside of Imbé we almost collided with two horses that ran across the highway (had I not shouted ... !?) - they had broken free from wherever they were strapped to (they still had their cords around their necks).

From time to time, Sérgio slowed down because of monitoring cameras or because of traffic police. For the latter he put his glasses on. I looked at him in bewilderment. "My driving licence says I need to wear glasses" he explained. "However, I need only glasses to read, this is why I do not put them on. Except for the police for, well, you know, they check my driver's licence and there it says that I need to wear glasses and so I do, for them." He added: "Um jeithinho brasileiro, tudo é um jeithinho no Brasil." A "jeitinho" stands for Brazil's creative way of dealing with life's various challenges and includes breaking the law and feel virtuous about it.

Waiting for my Bus in Porto Alegre

Identity is not only how we choose to see ourselves, it is also how others choose to see us.

Recently, while waiting for my bags at the bus station in Porto Alegre, I was, in the course of about ten minutes, three times approached by fellow passengers with questions regarding their bags. Why do they ask me? I wondered. How come they assume I work for the bus company? I mean, I do not even remotely look like a bus driver or a ticket controller. I know, I know, not all of them look the same. But still: I simply do not look like a bus driver. Brazilians seem to see this differently though. Some Brazilians that is. And so I thought about it. And suddenly I knew. It was because of my light-blue shirt and because of my dark-blue pants. Every bus driver in Southern Brazil wears this combination, and every ticket controller. And it is like that in Thailand (at least in Bangkok), and in Switzerland (at least in Zurich), and in ...

The combination black pants/white shirt can likewise be fatal. Not when travelling but when going to Italian restaurants. In a Pizzeria in Basel I tried to get the attention of the waiter who hurried once again past our table ("Hey, you, sorry, but could we please order !?" I shouted impatiently). "I'm a guest here", the guy retorted, not very pleased. I could easily see why: Contrary to the waiters who all sported some red flower bouquet around their neck he actually wore a black tie.