Marcus, the driver whom we had hired to drive me to Sao Paulo, arrived promptly at 10:30. He is wearing both mask and gloves and I am grateful for how seriously he is taking the pandemic. We knew him well. He was the taxi driver who normally ferried Elaine and I to the airport and any other errand where driving our car proved problematic. We knew that for the last few months he had been unable to work driving his cab because he had some preexisting medical conditions that made catching Covid 19 a possible death sentence for him. This trip gave him a chance to earn a fair amount of money (about ½ of his monthly income) in relative safety but would provide me with a safer way to get to Sao Paulo than by plane. It was a good deal for both of us.
Saying goodbye to Elaine is among the hardest things I have ever done. I had spent 55 years of my life looking for the love only she could provide and now I was leaving her with uncertainty and loneliness on both sides of the equation. Have you ever wept with a cloth mask covering you from nose to chin collecting tears and snot, where catching breaths from sobs is made that much more difficult due to the fabric? Have you ever had to figure out how to kiss through a mask?
Since March 17th I had left the confines of Jardim do Itanhanga only 3 times. And, then only to go a little bit more than a mile away to get money from the ATM machine. Getting onto Ave das Americas, a major thoroughfare near our home, I was struck by the fact that while that outside world had almost completely faded from my conscious thoughts, it had, in fact persisted. The Downtown Shopping Mall had not collapsed into a pile of rubble. Brazilian drivers still drove with the heart of Aryton Senna though not always the same skill. The world looked as if nothing had happened, or was happening and that struck me as odd, to the point of irony, because, of course, the world had completely changed since my quarantine had begun 3 months previously.
And then I laughed.
Not because of the ironic nature of the world but because of a sign. And not one from God. As we entered, the Yellow Line (a highway within Rio) I saw an electronic sign blaring out the message “Use Mascara”. The expression was not unknown to me. It means use masks. I heard Elaine using it enough when we, while walking through our neighborhood, would encounter maskless people. But I read the sign using my English brain and thought it funny that the Brazilians, ever conscious of their beauty, would inform the public to maintain beauty by applying eye makeup. It really wasn’t that funny but it reminded me that one of the more important things in life is to find humor in it. God certainly did. And it allowed me to relax despite the 6-hour car ride still ahead.
The Yellow Line takes you through many of Rio’s tourist attractions. Not Cocovado, Christ the Redeemer or even the storied beeches of Ipanema and Copocabana. The tourist attractions I am talking about are some of the city’s most notorious favelas. These areas of the city, populated by the poor and working poor, are unregulated by the government and mostly run by drug lords. The residents live in apartments that were either built by them, or some earlier squatter out of brick and tin. They manage to steal all of their utilities including power, sewage, cable, and water. The buildings are often on top of each other, the streets narrow and where the police fear entering as they are largely run by drug lords who rule with a modern-day noblesse oblige. In fact, the drug lords have acted far more meaningfully to contain the pandemic here than has the government. They have passed out masks, enforced social distancing rules, and other methods designed to slow the spread of the disease often ruthlessly and backed by guns.
It has not been enough. The favalados live on the money they make every day. If they do not work, they do not eat. Faced with a decision of a disease that may kill them or starvation the 1.5 million (24% of the city’s population) who live in these slums flood the city looking for ways to earn a few dollars. They take mass transportation; they line street corners selling trinkets and snacks either taking the disease with them to the rest of the city or bringing back to the Petri dish of the favella or both.
The consequence has been, despite the good efforts of the drug lords to stem the tide of the disease, it has spread faster than gossip. It’s spread has been accelerated by a government run by a mini Trump named Bolsonaro. He is a populist who appeals to elements in the middle class and poor who remember fondly the days of the dictatorship when things were less messy than the democracy they now have. He has gone out of his way to belittle the disease including appearing (and coughing) in public without a mask. Suggesting Brasileiros are immune to the disease saying ““They never catch anything. You see some bloke jumping into the sewage, he gets out, has a dive, right? And nothing happens to him.” He has fired two health ministers during the crisis because they would not recommend hydroxychloroquine. He refuses to do testing on any mass scale because, similar to his orange idol in the United States, he believes that testing will just create more cases and you don’t want that. He has instituted no public bail out to support those who help those must work or die. Instead he pushes an agenda that puts the economy and business on the back of the hundreds of thousands who will get sick and die.
The only mitigating factor in the gross incompetence of the Federal Government of Brazil is similar to the United States where the power to enforce social distancing, mask wearing, self-quarantining and other disease inhabiting actions lie with the Governors of each state. Sadly, many of these men are weak and most of the states are horribly poor not even knowing if they are going to be able to make payroll on a month to month basis. Add to that political corruption scandals (e.g. The federal police raided the Governor of Rio De Janeiro’s office last week on an investigation that he had misappropriated Covid 19 funds) and you have a near perfect recipe for an epic disaster.
But it doesn’t end there. This morning, before I left the sanctuary of our home in Itanhanga, I read that on the previous day 22, 000 persons had been diagnosed with Covid 19. This is a country that does not test people for the disease except if you present yourself at the hospital. That is more casualties than occurred during Operation Market Garden in WW2 or Gettysburg. The Brazilian Health Care system was overwhelmed long before the pandemic with patients waiting for hours and sometimes days for treatment and if admitted often had to bring their own bedding with them. It is a bit better for those who have health insurance, but the disease has overwhelmed them as well with patients who show symptoms often have to “shop” for hospitals.
God would not dare to laugh at such tragedy.
We pass RIOgaleo Tom Jobim International Airport. I have always loved the name of the Airport as “The Girl from Ipanema” had been a favorite of mine long before I met my beautiful Carioca. Jobim managed the impossible. He captured the essence of Rio with word and lyrics.
Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes
When she walks she’s like a samba
When she walks, she’s like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when she passes, each one she passes
Oh, but I watch her so sadly
How can I tell her I love her
Yes, I would give my heart gladly
But each day as she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at me
Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, I smile, but she
Doesn’t see. She just doesn’t see
No, she just doesn’t
It is the place where Elaine and I reunite when I return to Rio. Her effervescent smile and fierce embrace wiping away the weeks and occasionally months of solitude and longing. It is where I have spent endless hours in sadness and near tears waiting for an airplane to return me to the States, alone. It is where I had hoped to leave from to return to the United States with Elaine. But now it is dead. No flights departing. Aircraft neatly lined up on the runways side by side like books on shelf speaking volumes about missed trips, stranded people, and plans destroyed.
God tee hees.
[Part Three on June 1, 2020]