Thursday, May 24, 2007

Street life

Most days a group of haggard guys gathers on the corner of our street, either against the wall of the Catholic church or right across the way, as in this photo.

They are inveterate devotees of cachaça, the Brazilian 'firewater' distilled from sugar cane pressings. Judging from the leavings to be found along the wall, their favorite brand is "Caninha da Roça," or "Little Cane of the Field," which comes in a squat plastic bottle and costs probably a dollar for a half liter.

Often they are much more closely huddled than in this photo, and sometimes I imagine they are telling cool stories as they squat together in the dirt. But I can't romanticize the passed out, half-naked bodies we often see lying in the shade of this tree or another one just up from it. Grace, when she was first learning about death, would ask if the guys were dead. No, we'd say, they're passed out because they drank too much alcohol.
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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Street vendors

Gum and sweets occupy a different semantic space in Brazilian culture than they do in American culture, as might be expected. Just to give one example, Halls, which seem to me as a native informant of American culture to be mainly things we grudgingly buy when sick because we want to breathe, in Brazil are basically breath freshener/candies. There are many flavors that don't even have menthol.

The girl in the photo seems to be pointing to the Dori raisin or peanut snack (the yellow package), or possibly the Freshen-Up gum next to it. That would be a surprising choice, though, since it seems to be marketed more to adults who are worried about their breath (the refreshing gel center sets the germs running, I guess).

The number of small vendors like this in Rio Branco is very large. Most corners have someone selling little mouth-toys like these, sometimes cigarettes. Their carts close neatly up and uniformly have wheels to take them away; some are even built around a bicycle so they can be ridden away.

Surely some are registered, but the size of the informal economy is also very large. Most Sundays, for example, some lady takes over the bus stop we use most often to sell her baked goods and coffee to passers-by. And on any given night, between here and the park down the hill we'll encounter three or four folks selling sidewalk bbq skewers for fifty cents or a dollar, cooking them often in converted auto wheels. I am sure none of these folks have permits.

And enforcement of licensing is sparse. Heck, some guy who built a 15-foot brick smokestack in the middle of the sidewalk had it there for a few months before the city made him tear it down.
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Monday, May 07, 2007


Brazil, like the United States, is full of discourses of equal opportunity and affirmation of diversity. Only the buzzwords are different: "inclusão" for one.

One of the major goals of now ex-governor Jorge Viana's "Government of the Forest" was to get Acreans to feel pride in being from the state, to turn the tables on the feelings of inferiority imagined to reside in the hearts of riverine peoples, rubber tappers, and city slum dwellers alike. For some critics this is a knock against Viana, whose actions are occasionally dismissed as mainly cosmetic.

But who knows the deeper effects of a t-shirt?

Now, I'm not saying these are government issue, but I think of this campaign to boost Acrean self-esteem when I see these shirts, and I know that the government did put out a t-shirt toward the end of the year, when Viana left office. The shirt said, like these, "Acre" on the front, but it also had an indigenous feather-crown radiating from the collar out. It turned out to be highly sought after, mainly because only the well-connected got one.

Anyway, it is basically impossible to go anywhere in Acre, or at least in Rio Branco, without running into multiple wearers of shirts like these. The ones in the photo in fact are Evangelical spin-offs of the trend: under the state's name is written "Aqui Cristo Reina Eternamente," making "ACRE" an acronym for "Here Christ Reigns Eternally." Acre is, in fact, one of the states where Protestant churches have made the most inroads in the 'battle for souls' with the Catholic Church; perhaps as many as one-quarter of its residents are "crente."
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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Regional Tobacco

In Acre the most desirable tobacco seems to be that grown in the Juruá river basin. The two main basins, belonging to the Purus and Juruá rivers, have long divided Acre geographically, socially, and culturally, because of the difficulty of travel perpendicular to the flow of water.

This tobacco is not from Juruá, it's from Sena Madureira, a town that is in the middle of the state's long SE-NW axis, towards the end of the paved part of the highway, planned for decades, that is to link the two basins.

The tobacco is wrapped, after a short treatment, into these staves with strips of bark. Tobacco in this form costs, if I remember right, about 30 dollars per staff. I bought a 14-inch piece the day I took this photo, and I don't think I'll finish it in the next two years at the rate I smoke. This piece cost about 4 dollars. The tobacco is densely packed in its wrapper, and the usual way of removing it is slicing off little bits from the end of the staff with a knife (I use a cheese grater).

I was once shown the proper way to prepare this kind of tobacco by Altino, Acrean blogger and roll-your-own smoker extraordinaire. He would even put it in a pan to heat it up on the stove and "open the flavor," before fluffing it up until it was nice little ribbons hanging together like shredded wheat.

Altino, when he rolls it, also likes the lick the paper he rolls it in before most of it has been used up, so the extra can be torn off.

Mar sometimes says it smells like cigar smoke.

I asked this guy if he had any Juruá tobacco, but he said it's too expensive to bring it from there.

Ah, but I would have bought some!
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