I would argue that one of the hardest things about living in Brazil is its lack of a strong middle class and the overwhelming disparities between the shockingly poor and everyone else. It sucks for everyone involved.
Alexandre and I lead a rich life in Brazil: rich by most of the world's standards, in fact. We each received a good education, while many of the people we encounter in our day-to-day exchanges barely know how to read. We probably spend more on groceries and restaurants that many of our neighbors make in a month. We have most of the latest electronics, while people just around the corner feel lucky to have a fridge and a TV.
Most people get angry at the other side for this situation: the rich have a strong distaste for the poor, and the poor feel the same about the rich. The rich create ways to separate themselves from the poor as much as they can: country clubs, private beaches, gated communities, and security everywhere. The poor see this obvious avoidance, see the way they're being pushed out, and lose any remorse they might have harbored when trying to steal from or take advantage of or make a quick buck off of the rich.
The weather outside is gorgeous today, so I decided to procrastinate on my translation and spend some time at the beach after lunch. My student (who's also Alexandre's surfing instructor) insisted that it's safe for me to bring my Kindle out, so I did.
I already stand out enough as it is, with my height and my very white skin and my short, lightly-colored hair. I can try to make myself look a little more humble with a simple dress and Havaianas, but I'm pretty sure my efforts are futile. I also have a fancy pair of prescription sunglasses, a gift from my ophthalmologist father-in-law. (I could choose not to wear them, but then I'd be wearing a fancy pair of prescription eyeglasses, so it doesn't make much of a difference.) I find myself more conscious of myself than I ever have been, have ever had to be.
I made a point to sit where other people were sitting so I wouldn't be isolated (at least not physically). But it didn't seem to work. About 20 minutes in, two skinny preteen boys wearing only scraggly shorts (with no shoes, no shirts, no towels, etc) were suddenly blocking the sunlight hitting my Kindle screen. I was lying down, so I sat up quickly and turned around to face them.
"Hello," I said simply, in Portuguese.
"Hi," one of the boys said. He dragged out the dipthong a little. If he'd been ten years older and sheltered, I would've thought he was flirting.
They circled around a bit. I looked at them directly, but not with scorn or fear. They looked at each other quickly, and back to me.
One sat down next to me. He mumbled something like, "I'm just gonna sit here for a minute." The other joined him. They stared out at the water nonchalantly.
Two boys behind us were kicking a soccer ball around. They were about the same age as these boys, though slightly better dressed and probably more well-fed.
"You guys seem pretty bored," I said to the boys next to me. "It seems like a great day for soccer. Maybe you could ask those boys if you could join them."
This forced them to look back at the boys behind them, and at the people around us. After exchanging glances with his partner, the talkative of the two looked at me one more time.
"Vamos na agua," he said, an ambiguous grammar that could've been directed toward me ("we're going in the water") or toward his friend ("let's go in the water"). Then, with the same languidness with which he had sat down, he was up again, his friend scrambling up soon after. They made their way down to the shore. They entered the water slowly. They glanced back only twice.
When I looked around again, I saw that the small family on my left had disappeared, and the boys behind me had gone to sit on a bench close to the boardwalk and off of the sand.
My afternoon on the beach had suddenly lost its luster, so I packed up my things and went home.
The whole thing made me sad. I'll never know if the boys were actually trying to steal something from me, or if they were just innocent and curious about what new machine I had. I'm doing my best not to judge them, especially because they're young, but also because they're hungry, and desperate, and that is all they know. They certainly don't know enough about how the economy works to know that I have the right to possess the things I have just as much as they would if they had them -- basically, that I'm not "the bad guy," in the same way they are not "the bad guys."
There is, unfortunately, always a risk that I'll get robbed here, because the people robbing often have so little, and the things they would take from me (a cell phone, an MP3 player, a watch) can garner them so much. I think I would be most upset if my Kindle were stolen because it wouldn't even have value for the person who stole it -- even if they knew what it was, or found someone to buy it, they wouldn't know how to get past the password, or even how to use it (or likely how to read books on it). If someone stole it, it would just be a frenzied, knee-jerk attempt at Having.
I don't think the solution is to keep myself cooped up in my house; nor is the solution not to buy, use, and enjoy the things I want and that I can afford. Many people think that the problem is that some people have so much, when the real problem is that not everyone has the opportunity to have what they want, let alone to have basic things. Basically, it's not wrong for me to have a cell phone -- it's wrong that the other guy and I live in the same neighborhood, but he can't afford one.
We don't make enough to join an ever-popular country club, though I don't know that I'd want to, even if we did, because I don't know if seclusion and exclusivity is the solution for me, either (though it's a logical reaction, especially for people with kids).
For now, my working solution is to try to maintain my routine as much as possible, but to try not to look like a deer in headlights or a hamster hoarding her food while doing it, and, if faced with situations like the one I was in today, to be steady but respectful (rather than rude or skiddish) in an attempt to diffuse the tension. But I don't know what the real, big-picture solution is, and until the gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots gets a little more narrow, I don't know if I'll ever feel completely comfortable.
PS: Thanks to everyone for all of their advice on the schools. Some things are in the works, so I will have updates for you sometime next week. :)