Fabulous Nature Hike Just Outside of São Paulo Capital – Trilha do Índio (The Indian’s Trail)

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View from the bridge of our final destination off in the background. We came from the trails on the right and slept near the tunnel on the left.

Escaping the brick and concrete jungle which is São Paulo does not always require traveling that far outside the city. Both this year and last I went on a hike down the Trilha do Índio (The Indian Trail) organized by my good friend John. It is a roughly 30 km trek that begins on a Friday evening in one of the southern-most neighborhoods of São Paulo, Barragem, and ends in Itanhaém, a beach city on São Paulo state’s south coast.

This hike is requires more stamina than physical agility, as it starts in the highland and makes its way down the mountainside to the beach. It also requires a guide, and there are Forest Rangers situated throughout the first leg of the hike to turn lone hikers around.
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2016 we went in the winter.


On Friday night we meet up somewhere in São Paulo City and make our way down to Terminal Paralharelos and take another city bus from there to the neighborhood of Barragem. We arrive sometime between ten and eleven p,m. and wait for our guide, an indigenous fellow named Geraldinho. Geraldinho also acts as our liaison when we reach the Rio Branco indigenous village at the foot of the mountains. They don’t always like many visitors on their land and usually ask for food donations and candy for the children as “payment” for us letting us stay or pass through.

Once the group is settled in Barragem, we begin the hardest part of the hike. It is a roughly 10 – 12 kilometer walk to the mouth of a tunnel where we camp out for the night.
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Old Evangelista Train Station which is now completely in shambles.

The path begins on a dirt road situated about a ten minute´s walk from where the bus let us off at its last stop. We walk this road for about an hour and a half until we reach a railroad.

We take a quick break to eat and drink something there before hopping onto the tracks and heading left towards the now defunct Evangelista train station. From there we walk on to one of the tunnels where we will camp out for the night.

It´s important to note that walking on train tracks is illegal and we are only allowed to do so because of our guide´s deal with the Forest Rangers. We have been stopped on this path before, but Geraldinho has taken care of any issues every time.  
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There is nothing good I can say about these tracks.


I’ll be blunt, walking on train tracks in the middle of the night is not very enjoyable. The key is to have a good pair of shoes on, a comfortable backpack, and a flashlight. T
he first time I did the railway section, I felt like my feet were going to fall off as I kicked rocks and the occasional loose pieces of iron. Worse is when one steps into recesses between the wooden planks of the track that catch one by surprise in the pitch black night.

It takes about two hours to get to Tunnel 24, our resting spot. The first year we managed to get there in good time – around two in the morning. This time the trip took a bit longer because we were slowed down by the higher amount of trains passing by. They are very long and required us to step off the tracks and wait for them to pass before continuing forward. We arrived after four a.m. at the tunnel, but I was equipped with better footwear and a lighter bag, so the whole trek was a bit more manageable.

At the tunnel we are afforded some time to rest our legs. Some people choose to sleep under the bridge while others camp out by the mouth of the tunnel by the tracks. With a train passing every thirty minutes to an hour, sleep wouldn’t be the exact word to describe the experience – it’s more of a body rest.

 

The joke that goes around among the hikers is that if one makes it this far on the journey, the rest will be a cake walk. The railroad track does indeed separate the weak from the strong and this year it caused enough of a knee injury to one of the hikers to make him have to turn back when the morning came.

 

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From atop the bridge we spy our final destination in the background.

Day two, Saturday, means setting off at about 10 a.m. to reach a rest spot by a river to have lunch. We have a quick breakfast and marvel at the views from a top a bridge that lies just before the tunnel then cross the to the other side of the tunnel where just a bit ahead lies the entrance to the mountainside.

 

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Going down the mountain. It begins very steep and then slowly levels off.

We make our way down the steep slope for about twenty minutes before it becomes a bit more level to walk down – but it’s still a one way journey down with plenty of slips and falls. The mood is generally lighter, though, and people love to shout out “Selva!” (Jungle!) when someone makes that inevitable splat on the dirt.

After about an hour, the sound of the river roars below us. This is a hopeful sound which means rest is coming. We walk on for about another hour before we find a rest spot to lay out our tarps and make some food.

 

The courageous ones, namely the younger crowd, waste no time to take a dip in the ice cold water. This year I took my small cousin, Jose (13), and his friend, Seba (14), and they wasted no time jumping right in.

After about an hour we get back on the trail. It was time to head over to where two rivers meet to find a place to camp out for the evening. Crossing this river is always exciting. Due to the heavier currents, slippery rocks, and water that goes up nearly to the knees. One must measure their steps as there are places that seem like stable footholds but are actually very slippery rocks that can cause a rough tumble.

 

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Hanging on to each other so as to not fall.

Last year we made this crossing  but decided to continue on to the indigenous village. This was a mistake, as we ended up walking through the forest in the cover of moonlight for nearly three hours, in what felt like circles, before reaching the village. The pain that rushed through my body on that night was from another world, and I needed to take some muscle relaxants in order to get some sleep. This time around we played it smarter and stayed for the night.

 

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Our 2017 group where we camped out for the night.

The group set up their tents and I made a tarp to protect my cousin, his friend, and I in case it rained. We slept fine, but the rain did fall and it poured down hard and consistently nearly all night. In fact it rained so hard that the bottom of the tarp fell from the branch where it was hanging and the weight of it landed on my face. I woke up punching, kicking and screaming thinking I was being attacked by someone or something. I also let out a savage yelp that brought the whole camp out of their sleep.

Once I reassured everyone that I was not being eaten alive we had a good laugh. I was certainly in kill or be killed mode.

The next day we hung a bit by the river, had a big community breakfast, skipped stones, and took some pictures. We left around ten a.m. with the intention of reaching the indigenous village at midday.

 

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Where two rivers meet.


What a relief it was to do this part of the trail by light of day. It was an absolute breeze, with the last difficult part being a wide section of river so cold that it hurt my toes for about ten minutes after crossing.

 

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Entering the Rio Branco indigenous village.

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In 2016 we slept at the school inside the indigenous village but it took a little negotiation.

At Rio Branco village we spoke to the indigenous residents, who were quite friendly. With them I am never sure if they are putting on appearances or plotting to kill us. That is why respect and politeness are paramount and entering their land without a guide is not recommended.

Last year, for example, we arrived at their village around 9 p.m. and there was some confusion as to the agreement to let stay there for the night. It took some convincing on the part of Geraldinho (and perhaps a few extra Reais from our group leaders) to smooth the deal out.  This time around we simply hung around for a little while and waited for a van that would take us back to São Paulo.

 

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Our 2016 group suffering on the dirt road.

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The 2016 group fatigued but finally at the end of the hike.

This brings up another important change in plans: We didn’t walk the nearly 15 kilometer dirt road which leads to a small bar where we waited to take a bus to the Itanhaém beach last year. This dirt road was my undoing. I had decided to donate the shows I had been wearing to the indigenous people and then I put on a pair of shoes that weren’t quite as worn in as I had imagined. It only took about a kilometer or two of dirt and rocks before my right knee succumbed to the pain.

 

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The endless dirt road and it´s banana plantations.

My friend John lent me his walking stick, and I trudged slowly on until after another few kilometers my left knee gave out. I was a no good and slowly gimped the rest of the journey with the help of the stick and a friendly lady who lent me her shoulder for support. I also tied a scarf for around my more busted up knee to stabilize it. It was ten kilometers of torture – not counting the ride back home. 

 

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Last year we made it to Itanhaém beach.

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Fighting the pain.

Fortunately, this year I did not have these issues. Whereas the previous year I had to take Monday and most of Tuesday off to recover my knee, this year I was up at 6:30 a.m. to begin a day that ended at 7:30 p.m. As I write this on the bus ride home I feel great. Proper shoes and managing weight are two keys to survival on these hikes. Take only what you need and a few items in case of emergency.

The hike itself is probably at an intermediate level. Like I said, I took my two kids with me and they did just fine. The year before many more kids from my friend John’s church’s
 scout group went and they fared alright.

São Paulo city is mostly known for its concrete jungle, but the southern and eastern points of the city are marked by more green than the average traveler can imagine. And one only needs to slip a few kilometers outside the city limits before being swamped by seas of Atlantic forest. I highly recommend exploring this wilderness that surround the urban jungle.

If you know of any great hikes that are easily accessible please leave information about them in the comments below and let me know if you ever want to join me on one of mine.

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Safety Tips for São Paulo

With nearly 60,000 homicides in 2014, there’s no debating that Brazil is a very dangerous country and São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest capital city, is no stranger to violent crime. With more than 20 million people (if one counts the greater metropolitan area) it´s natural for someone to feel uneasy and have safety concerns when first arriving to the city.

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A view of downtown São Paulo.

So what can a traveler or a new resident do?

The bad news is that in many ways one can’t do much to prepare or predict how or when crime is going to happen in São Paulo. An incident can spark off anywhere and at anytime. At the end of this article I will talk about possible ways to react during a criminal act.

The good news is that although São Paulo leads Brazilian cities in homicides in absolute numbers, it actually drops off the list of dangerous cities when one considers per-capita murders.

So yes, if that is of any consolation, chances of being killed in São Paulo are not as high as in other places around Brazil. Unfortunately, other types of crimes such as rape, robbery, and theft have seen a sharp increase in the last few years.

With that reality in mind, here are some practical tips from someone who has been around the big city of São Paulo for a while and has experienced both its highs and lows.

1. RELAX A BIT AND ENJOY THE CONCRETE 

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Avenida Paulista is closed off to cars on Sundays so people can enjoy the strip.

I don’t like to sugar coat the living experience in the city, but the fact is that statistically speaking you are safer in São Paulo than in most other regions of the county, so don’t let the scary homicide figures or crime rate scare you off. Although crime can and does happen anywhere – it’s more apt to happen in certain dodgier areas in the suburbs of São Paulo.

If you walk around São Paulo like someone is going to jump out of a bush and put you in a sack, chances are you are going to attract criminals. This is not some, “The Secret” or “Law of Attraction,” type of advice, it´s simply the honest truth – criminals like easy prey – don’t play that part of one and make it easier for them.

If at first you feel unsure about tackling the city alone then go out with a friend or group of friends. Enjoy your time out and get to know your surroundings. On top of that, always walk with your head high and with an air of assurance. Don´t be a victim before you are one. 

2. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

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Paraisópolis is São Paulo´s largest favela. Its proximity to this posh area of Morumbi makes the neighborhood a bit dangerous. But unlike Rio de Janeiro, most of São Paulo´s favelas are segregated off in the far away suburbs of the city. 

São Paulo’s poor and rich are mostly segregated. There are but a few examples, like the Paraisópolis favela in the heart of the very rich Morumbi neighborhood, where the poor of the favelas interact directly with the upper classes or tourists. And even in places like Morumbi, residents manage to keep themselves separate enough to mark a noticeable difference between social class and neighborhood conditions.

What this means is that if you are in an area that looks sketchy, you will most likely realize so before it gets to be too sketchy. Pay attention to the quality of the roads and houses as you wander about. Look for deprecated walls or accumulated rubbish on the streets, and the all around exterior of a place, to tip you off that you may be entering a more complicated area.

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This Gas Station on the corner of Rua Peixoto Gomide and Rua Augusta marks the start of Lower Augusta – where anything can happen.

One clear example of this is the popular night-time hangout, Avenida Augusta. The first section of it, which is close to Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main strip, is relatively nicer – but as one slowly makes their way down Augusta towards Center City the landscape changes and it gets grittier and rougher. The touristy area at the top of the street with a bunch of open air bars and restaurants turns into a red light district called “Baixa Augusta” (Lower Augusta) with whore houses and dubious night clubs on each block. This is not to say you can´t have fun in this or other less posh areas of São Paulo, but it matters to know where you are and how you got there. Pay attention when walking so that you’ll notice the shift before you are in the lion’s den. Here´s a tip about where Baixa Augusta starts – it’s after the gas station on your right.

3. DRESS APPROPRIATELY FOR THE LOCATION

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Shoppers at the famous early morning fair at Brás – a neighborhood famous for its textile district. Brás can be a complicated area to navigate based on volume of people alone. But though the street shoppers are casual, they don´t dress completely down.

Before you move to São Paulo find out about the city and its different neighborhoods and districts. Every neighborhood and district, or “zona” (zone), is quite different than the other. Knowing how people interact, dress, play, and get around is of key importance with fitting in and staying safe.

In Brazil, crime is mostly committed on a “I want what you have” basis. If you are moving into (or visiting) a poorer or middle class area, than don’t wear those designer shirts all the time – you are telegraphing your social status to every bandit in the region.

This doesn’t mean you have to walk around like a bum. São Paulo likes to think of itself as a chic city (rightly or wrongly), so even the bandits will be dressed reasonably well.  I had a friend who was mugged in one of the city’s large business districts (an area called Berrini) by a guy on a motorcycle wearing a suit and tie. You’d be surprised how even in the favelas Paulistanos (what the residents of São Paulo are called) do their best to look their best – for better or for worse.

So take a moment to look around and fit in to your surroundings – every area of the city has its own style. You don´t have to trade in your sneakers for a pair of sandals, but designers tags and expensive sports watches aren’t necessary everywhere you go.

4. LEARN SOME PORTUGUESE

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Keep Calm and Speak Portuguese

This should go without saying – the more you know about what people are saying (and especially about you) the safer you will be.

Portuguese is not the easiest language for some foreigners, but if you had some basic Spanish as kid, or have been around or speak other romance languages, you may be able to pick up the basics pretty quickly.

Not only bandits, but shop owners and merchants, love to target foreigners who haven’t a clue as to what is going on around them. In this respect being in São Paulo is no different than being in many foreign countries – but Brazilians in general are infamous for their “malandros” (tricksters) who will waste no time in trying to get one over on someone who makes themselves an easy target for a scam or worse.

5. WATCH YOUR BELONGINGS

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São Paulo is not a city where you can lackadaisically pull out your mobile device in the middle of the street to check messages or make sure Google Maps is taking you in the right direction. If I have to go somewhere new, I check the directions on my computer and take a picture of the screen to check quickly on my phone later. And unless I am completely confident about my surroundings, when I do check my messages, I make sure to look around and hold my phone with both hands near my chest or my lap if I am sitting down.

Many areas of São Paulo are too crowded and don’t offer quick and easy escape routes for traditional armed muggers. Although this means that you may avert having a weapon pointed at you, there are a lot of snatch and run incidents to compensate – not to mention the unavoidable pick pockets.

All it takes is a moment of your distraction looking in another direction while your phone is your dangling in your hand for a kid to come dashing by on their bike and take that phone with them. Surely this is less traumatic than an armed mugging, but it is a pain nonetheless.

Like in any big city, keep your wits about you and your eyes open – and depending on the area, be extra wary.

6. DON´T GO ALONE IF YOU DON´T HAVE TO

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Night tourists in São Paulo. They don´t look too scared.

After a while, getting around alone in the city won’t feel like a major undertaking. I have friends of all ages, sexes, and builds who go just about everywhere in São Paulo by themselves. But at first, it’s always good to have a travel companion – especially at night.

Criminals are looking for easy targets, and two or more people makes their job harder.

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Pedestrian Bridges on Raposo Tavares. These can be perfect spots for assailants nearly any time of day.

Even when you are alone, though, you can try stay with the crowd. For example, I live near a big highway and to get to the other side I need to cross a long pedestrian bridge. Depending on the time of day, I prefer to wait for a group of people (or even just one other person) to hitch a ride with to the other side. One never knows what can happen – and I have even been involved in a few incidents on these pedestrian bridges before (more on that later).

Safety in numbers is something we are taught since kindergarten and it´s a great tip for getting around São Paulo. 

7. GET TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD “STAND-BYS”

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Your friendly neighborhood cigarette salesman may know more about your neighborhood than people who actually live in it. 

Nearly every neighborhood in São Paulo will have what I like to call its “stand-bys,” which are people who work on the streets standing there selling an assortment of things like cakes, corn, cigarettes, and even drugs. Other stand-bys will watch parked cars for a few Reais or they are paid by members of a community to be official watchmen. Stand-bys usually don’t have much money, live in poorer areas, and bust their butts every day working, which normally affords them protection from the gangs and thieves.

Although some may consider these people a nuisance, it’s not bad policy to drop them some money every once and/or greet them with an, “Oi” (Hello) or, “Como vai” (How are you?).

If you form a genuine camaraderie with your local stand-by, word gets around – as they don’t like their clientele messed with.

I escaped a mugging in my neighborhood once by yelling at the thugs and telling them that I knew all the guys who watch cars in front of the shopping mall (and I really did) and that I would always drop them some extra change when I had it or even some food.

Although my intent when helping the car watchers was genuine, it payed off in the end when the thugs left me alone. The general rule applies that criminals shouldn’t shit where they eat or mess with people who are either from the favelas or help others in the favelas. Creating this network with your stand-bys is not a full-proof way of evading trouble, mind you, but in this case it worked.

Another friend of mine, who lived many years in the heart of dangerous downtown São Paulo, would always make it her business to help out the street lurkers in her neighborhood with a few Reais. In return, they would always watch out to make sure nobody messed with her when she was on her way home late in the evening.

One hand washes another – and ten or twenty Reais every week or so is worth the price of not having to buy another 800 Reais cell phone.

8. DON´T STOP TO TALK TO PEOPLE YOU DON´T KNOW

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Be smart about talking to strangers. Not everyone is out to do you harm, but not everyone is out to do you good either.

One way criminals operate in the very busy city of São Paulo is by finding ways to stop you in your tracks. As I mentioned before, the more crowded streets make it harder for a bandit to pull a weapon out on you and then get away without being beaten down – and I have seen the beat downs before and they are not pretty. So, instead they will ask you to stop for a minute or try to ask a you question. Unless you feel completely certain that that you are in control of the situation, don’t do it. Say, “Sorry, I´m in a rush,” (Desculpa, estou com pressa) and keep moving.

One minute of distraction is enough for someone to reach into your purse or bag or to snatch a belonging and run.

It’s also not a smart idea to follow anyone who is asking for help. Sometimes the sob stories you hear will be Oscar worthy and the criminal will want to show you where their starving family member is sleeping, but this is only a ploy to get you to go to a less crowded area and rob you. Children are used a lot in this type of operation – don´t be fooled by their innocent faces. If you want to help a kid on the street (and São Paulo has a lot of them) then you pick them out and bring them some food, clothing or money – not the other way around.

Your mission on the streets is to get from point A to point B – don’t allow anything to come in the way of that. Remaining in the driver´s seat in São Paulo will save you from a lot of trouble.

9. ACKNOWLEDGE A PERSON THEN GET OUT OF THE WAY IF YOU SENSE DANGER

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Catch someone before they do something.

If you are walking down the street and see an individual or group of people coming your way, don’t look down – let them know you see them. Criminals prey on fear and having your head down will either be read as a submissive act or as being someone who is distracted – both easy targets for them.

When I see a group of people coming my way, I keep my head up and see where their hands are while doing my best to assess the situation. I don’t necessarily make eye-contact, but I keep my destiny in sight while not breaking stride.

If I sense that the people may be altered in some way or just too raucous and unpredictable for my taste, I do one of two things (especially when I am alone at night) – stop and wait for them to pass me or cross the street.

If you do this, always remember to do it with purpose. There is no need to be afraid – you are simply stating to the other party that you see them and would prefer to not be part of whatever it is that they are a part of. There is no shame in that.

You may also be surprised that when you acknowledge someone on the street it is sometimes they who change directions. Always remember – street criminals are mostly cowards and they don’t want to work harder than they must to get over on someone.

10. HAVE 360º VISION

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Spin that head around and look all ways before proceeding.

São Paulo is full of noise and distractions and things and people can sneak up on you quickly; the least you can do is try to prepare for it. Being able to turn your head 360º, Linda Blair style, is a must.

As you get off the bus or leave your home, look left, right, front, and back – be fully aware of everything and everyone around you.

I have avoided some possible incidents by simply looking behind me and seeing someone there that had not been there a second before. In those cases, I may cross the street or speed up my pace. Maybe who I saw was not criminals but maybe they were. Why should I want to play Russian roulette alone on a dark street at night?  

In fact, the two times I have been mugged in São Paulo where a direct result of not having 360º vision.

The first time it happened was when I had just arrived in Brazil. I left a club downtown at three in the morning drunk and with my head in the clouds . A guy approached me while I was staring into space and demanded that I give him my cell phone. I was a bit dazed but told him I didn´t have a phone only some money.

A few seconds later his much bigger cohort came up from behind asking him what was taking so long. I gave them about 40 Reais while they searched my bag. When they were sure I wasn´t hiding anything extra they said, “Thanks,” and walked off. I went off in the other direction. Fortunately, I had remembered to stuff my cell phone in my underwear.

The second time I was mugged is when I had just come back from a trip to Europe and again was walking around with my head in the clouds. This time two guys approached me and started a conversation on one of those pedestrian bridges I had mentioned before. They accompanied me to the other side and once there they switched their friendly tune and demanded my belongings. I had an old cheap cell phone that I handed over and that was that.

I was shocked. I had come back to the city on a Thursday only to get mugged on a Sunday. How could I have been such easy prey? Perhaps my spirit was still in Paris. Needless to say, my brain reverted back into São Paulo alert mode very quickly after that.

The moral of these stories is that both incidents could have been easily avoided if I had been more alert (which is not to take away the culpability of the culprits).

Looking back, I can see that the first mugging was a result of my not having been in the city long enough to utilize my “spidey-sense,” and the second mugging was a result of having been away from the city long enough to have forgotten to turn my “spidey-sense” back on once back. Both times the criminals were in plain view. I simply did not look beside or behind me to see them coming at regular pace from a mile away.

WHAT IF I AM BEING MUGGED!!!!!

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Traffic jammed roads are easy targets for assailants. Sometimes many assailants will join forces and rob various people at once. This is called an “arrastão”.

Unfortunately, things being how they are in São Paulo and in Brazil, crime is not something we can always avoid. So what do you do if you are being mugged or worse?

The most important thing to do is to stay calm.

As I stated above, most criminals want your stuff and not your life. If a bandit is pointing a weapon at you, you really are at their mercy depending on how prepared or unprepared you are to combat that attack.

Becoming anxious or agitated may only aggravate the already tense situation.

Remember that some of the small-time thieves may be just as nervous as you when committing the crime – nervous criminals pull triggers. Conversely, the more seasoned criminals will be as cold as ice and will have a ball trying to scare you – don’t play into it. It’s part of the act. Let things proceed and move on.

TO REACT OR NOT TO REACT

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Reacting during an mugging is a decision which carries many risks, yet, some people come out on top.

The majority of news organizations, politicians, and even crime specialists in Brazil will always tell you to never react during a armed assault. Although this is good advice – a cell phone or even a car isn’t worth your life – there are times when people react and come out the winner.

That said, I cannot be responsible for your individual choices nor their consequences; therefore, I will not tell you what you should do in this circumstance. I can only speak from my own experiences and I have been in situations where I have reacted and others where I haven’t.

Simply stated, reacting to a crime in process requires reading the criminal and seeing whether or not you can get away with fighting back or not – this assessment must be made quickly and assuredly. 

As a rule of thumb, if the perpetrator doesn’t show a weapon then screaming, hitting, or running is not an unreasonable gut reaction. If the criminal is showing a weapon, then you should think twice about your next move.

Again, reacting is up to you – I cannot stress enough that I am not responsible for what happens if you make this decision. I am only presenting possible outcomes based on my experiences (and some experiences of others) here in São Paulo.

I will say this first, though, I strongly believe that the more a population pushes back, the more a criminal with think twice before deciding to walk around unfettered to terrorize our lives.

So, if you do choose to react to a crime you must be quick, assertive and decisive. Showing any sign of strong resistance usually makes the average street punk run off to look for easier prey. The more experienced criminal may fight you back, in which case, you must be prepared to take them down or offer enough resistance to make them give up and run off.

Something you should always consider when reacting to a crime is that bandits rarely work alone. Although you may be facing one individual, another bandit (or more bandits) can show up and hurt or kill you.

It’s also important to note that Brazilian law may favor the criminal if you hurt one badly enough or take their lives. You can be charged with assault and battery for using excessive force or  homicide if they die. It becomes a question of legitimate defense and whether or not you should have stopped hurting them at some point in your reaction to a crime.

In the case that you choose to not react and the criminals run off with your stuff,  get out of the location if you can and ask for help immediately.

Also, make a police report (B.O. in Portuguese). If there is not a police station nearby, police reports can be filled out online here. Depending on the region, the police will redouble their efforts at monitoring for crime if enough reports are filed. So although it may feel like police reports go into some deep dark Brazilian bureaucratic hole, they are not a complete waste of time.

Whatever you choose to do, remember to always be calm and focused. Criminal acts happen quickly and no criminal is like the other. Some of them may be drugged up and others may really be out to hurt someone. Your best option is usually to trust your gut instinct and do what you can to come out the other end with a story to tell.

LAST THOUGHTS

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A common bar scene in São Paulo in Vila Madalena, one of the city´s most frequented spots to enjoy the endless nightlife. 

When one comes to São Paulo they need to come with their city mentality and street smarts in tact and on full alert.

This city is huge and its varying landscapes, which range from tall buildings to quiet residential neighborhoods with with houses and squares, will require different thought patterns and wits.

Although, most of these tips can be utilized in many large cities, one must consider that the vast social and economic inequalities, moral turpitude, and all around disorganization of São Paulo blows everything up a notch. São Paulo may be Brazil´s richest city and boast some rather lavish locales, but it´s still very much a city of the developing-world with developing-world problems.

If you feel you are New York City or London tough than be New York City and London tougher. Always remember that unlike some first world cities that do have their crime problems but which are mostly restricted to gangs and inner cities, São Paulo is a place where violence and crime can happen anywhere. So, always be on watch.

Lastly, this post is meant to used as a tool. My intent is not to scare anyone away from the city.

I have been fortunate to travel to a few other places in Brazil – and I continue to enjoy the city of São Paulo the most despite its problems. Perhaps that is a sign of a mental disturbance, but I like to think it´s because the city has its fair share of laid back neighborhoods and hidden spots to get away from the madness. I have plenty of friends, both foreign and national, who have lived here longer than I and have never had a bad crime experience.

São Paulo is is a very diverse city. It is a place where you can have some wonderful experiences. I have walked these streets at all hours of the day and night and with all sorts of people. Bars and restaurants are always full and Paulistanos are always busy on their way somewhere. If you live in a state of constant fear, you will not enjoy yourself here. Not living in a state of fear does not mean living in a state of obviousness, though. Play is smart and stay safe. In the end São Paulo is what you make of it. Be Smart. Be Aware. Be Alive.

Phil Ray.

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What I Am Watching: Werewolves, 80s Fantasy Movies, and a little Taboo.

I love werewolves and I hate that, aside from yet another Underworld movie, they are mostly left to the back burner or watered down as the Zombie craze continues to capture the current main stream horror imagination.

I love werewolves so much, in fact, that I spent nearly two hours of my life finally getting around to watching New Moon – the second movie in The Twilight series and one of the main culprits in the watering down process. My review of this movie is short and sweet – if you are into hot, muscular, semi-nude young men running around, then this is a cinema classic. It wasn’t an impossible movie to get through and there is an awesome Tom Yorke song to be found on the soundtrack, but I came dangerously close to the passing the limit of brain cells I have allowed myself to turn off for a movie experience.

After finishing New Moon I went in search of other werewolf movies that might scare the pants off of me and which included a little less teen angst. I searched a few online forums for titles and spent a weekend binging. Here are some of my take a ways.

The Wolfman (2010)

Production-wise this movie was great. It’s an homage/remake of the original Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Cheney Jr., while adding some modern day visual spark. The problem is that neither the story and even the great Benicio del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins were enough to entertain me for the full running length of the film. The movie tried too hard to be epic while it should have just focused on practically – it would have been shorter and scarier to boot.

After a bit of a stutter start with The Wolfman I then ran through some 80s werewolves movies because the 80s was the heyday for werewolf cinema culminating with An American Werewolf in London and Teen Wolf – I skipped both for this little foray.

I began with The Howling (1981).

This is a movie about a reporter that goes to a secluded retreat to try to recoup from a traumatic ordeal with a stalker. It ends up that the people at the retreat get a little wild on a full moon. This movie looked and felt dated and I honestly can’t remember much from it. The werewolves weren’t particularly scary nor were the set ups for when they showed up. Although the transformation sequence is alright, it’s nothing one hasn’t seen a million times before. I would skip it unless you are a werewolf film historian.

Silver Bullet (1985)

This was a slightly better film, but not by much. It’s based on a Stephen King novela and like in even the worst of Stephen King movie adaptations, it manages to have some bits of intrigue – just not enough. The movie does star Gary Busey who manages to be entertaining only because he looks as if he showed up for the paycheck and a few drinks. The hero is an annoyingly geeky kid in a super power wheel chair he calls the Silver Bullet. Halfway through the movie I felt like putting a rock on the road where this kid tread – I sincerely hate movies that try to endear us to characters who go beyond curiosity and instead enters the realm of stupidity by foolishly veering themselves into danger (in this movie rather literally by way of pimped out wheelchair) at every turn. The werewolf is scary in parts, but looks very cheesy in others.

Last, I watched an Angela Lansbury vehicle from the 80s called The Company of Wolves (1984).

It’s actually not one long story, but a series of vignettes about classic fairy tale themes – albeit with a sinister twist. The werewolf story is the first and it’s short, bloody, and sweet. This movie looks completely aged but it is worth watching for the werewolf fanatics

Although most of these 80s movies probably had scare power back in their day, they mostly felt aged and corny. Their pacing was also ridiculously slow. And though I love practical effects, some of them left me with too much of a “guy in a suit” effect.

I sprung out of the 80s and into a few more modern tales.

Skinwalkers (2006)

This is a low budget movie that tries to marry Native American lore with the werewolf myth – it fails miserably. I managed to get through about thirty minutes of this flick before getting distracted. Apparently the bad werewolves have to capture some little boy who is the key to continuing the werewolf bloodline while some good werewolves would rather be done with the whole werewolf curse business – there’s a gun fight and there is a chase and then there was me falling asleep. It’s total B-movie cheese but without enough “so bad it’s good” charm to be interesting.

Now there were some better werewolf films in my little binge.

Red Riding Hood (2011)

This was not a great movie and their werewolf is just a regular big wolf with werewolf transformation powers, but it was earnest and didn’t try too hard to be something more than it was – which, essentially, is a visually fun movie with likeable characters fashioned for the teen crowd. The soundtrack and smart action sequences makes it worth the hour and half you’ll spend dazzled by the colorful village. Oh, and Gary Oldman shows up – that can almost never be a bad thing.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

This is a British film set in Scotland that trumped most of the American ones I had seen when it came to pure scares and fun. It follows a group of British soldiers who end up getting more than what they bargained for while training in the thick highland forest. The first half of the movie had me totally hooked, but as the werewolves begin to show up in greater number, the movie tends to fall apart a little and plays off of a more campy horror angle. It’s still pretty good though, and it offers enough ridiculously funny dialogue and creative swearing from these no nonsense soldiers that I recommend it.

Wer (2014)

This movie had me going for about 3/4 of the way until it falls apart under its own weight. It treats the werewolf myth as a real psychological illness as a defense attorney tries to prove the innocence of a man who has been accused of a brutal animal-like attack on a vacationing family in France. This investigation keeps you guessing as to where it will go for most of the movie – and provides enough tension for some legitimate jump scare scenes. When it all just falls neatly into predictable patterns it destroys what could have been a much edgier conclusion – but it was still the best of the bunch.

I did mention way at the start the I saw the new Underworld movie, Blood Wars (2016).

Watching Underworld sparked my binge so here is a little more of what I thought of the film. Although it brings nothing earth shattering new to either the werewolf mythology nor the Underworld franchise, it still manages to entertain and move along a steady clip. Selene is still one of the best movie heroes out there and  Kate Beckinsale, who plays the character, proves she still has the look and the moves to kick some serious butt. Different than the last few Underworld films, Blood Wars left me willing to see more.

There are plenty more werewolf movie to see, but I felt I was going to have a transformation if I didn’t switch modes, so I decided to go digging into movies I remember as a child or teen but had never actually sat down to watch start to finish.

My two victims were two 80s Fantasy movie: Willow (1988) and Legend (1985).

Willow came first as I only recalled seeing clips of it as a child, but I never had too much patience to sit and trudge it out. It seems my childhood self and my adult self haven’t changed much. It took me about a week to finish this movie with many pauses to go do something else in-between. I found it beautifully filmed and the costumes and set pieces charming – there is also little to fault in both Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis’ performance – but it seemed to be trying to built a universe that was lacking a main ingredient: real heart and real magic.

This article here gives a pretty good break down as to why Willow wasn’t a bigger hit in its day. It essentially boils down to George Lucas trying to remake Star Wars with dwarfs and medieval castles  – been there, done that, and most importantly, done it better even in Return of the Jedi. Ron Howard is behind the camera, and though I do like some of his films, this one lacks any central theme, style, or emotional buffer.

I know this movie has a cult following, but unless you really like to nourish your inner eight year old it’s a waste of film.

Legend was next. I used to catch this one late at night on cable and Tim Curry as the Satan-liķe, Darkness, would make me turn the channel – he is genuinely scary.

This movie is pretty insane. It’s a Ridley Scott film, so expect great set pieces and camera shots, but the story is all over the place and you need a bit of patience to get to the good parts. Mr. Scott overplays the start of the film a bit in trying to push the “goodness” and “innocence” angle so that the shadows of the latter half of the film have more zing to them – it makes for a boring “throw up in your mouth” beginning that is too sweet for its own good.

However, if you can get through the first twenty or thirty-odd minutes, the story manages to both scare and entertain. It also manages to be one of those 80s style kids movies that weren’t afraid to give the little ones genuine nightmares – I can value this movie on that aspect alone; kids are too soft these days.

Other notable parts of the movie are a young Tom Cruise, who is not embarrassed to show off his legs and crotch nearly every shot, and Oskar Matzerath (of The Tim Drum fame) who plays a sidekick elf named Gump which bad dreams are made of. Although he is one of the good guys, he upstages Tom Cruise at nearly every turn by being nearly as creepy and unpredictable as the movie’s main villains.

And of course there is Tim Curry who masterfully steals the show as Darkness. His rich voice and sly innuendo makes his splendid costume and make up combination reach devilish heights. He appears to be having real fun with the character and this movie is worth its lagging moments only for the pay off which is his appearance on screen.

I recommend Legend. It’s totally off kilter in parts – especially the start – but the practical effects, the sinister characters, and Tim Curry alone are worth the price of admission. It makes you wish kids movies had a little bit more balls these days – this movie goes a long way to prove that innocence may only be an illusion and that the temptation of darkness is right around the bend – welcome to adolescence kiddies!!!!

Finally, I recommend Taboo (2017) – although I have only watched the first three episodes.

This is a strange tale of a man who was thought to be dead but who has come back to London to claim his part of his deceased father’s will. What his father has left him is something of great import to the British – who are not so keen about letting him have what is legally his. The show is set in the early 1800s, in the midst of a conflict between newly formed America and the British, and it tows a fine line between the possibly supernatural to the strangely historic. Although I have not seen the last three episodes I am anxious to see what the pay off of this bizarre story of one man’s fight against the system to get what is properly his.

 

This has been a very long post! Stay tuned for more – as I have also spent some time watching some stuff that came out this year!

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Brazilian Social Justice Warriors Strike Again -the story of a white girl and her turban.

postthuaneA young white girl wearing a turban is at the station. Like many other people, she is minding her business and going about her day. Suddenly she is met with hostile stares and is then confronted by a group of black girls that go up to her and explain that she has no right to be wearing that turban because she is not black. She removed the turban and explained to them that she wore it to cover up her bald head – a result of chemotherapy. The girl posted her account on social media and quickly other militant social justice warriors came in like hawks to defend the actions of the black girls who berated her, also accusing the girl of cultural appropriation.

These girls and their partners are clearly in the wrong not because cultural appropriation doesn’t exist but because like many other real things such as racism, sexism, homophobia, feminism etc, the extreme leftists and their social justice warrior (SJW) militants have bastardized the meaning of the term and turned it in against itself – blocking the road towards real progress and meaningful discourse between peoples.

Real cultural appropriation is truly dreadful. It is marked most clearly by an interplay of power, as in, the powerful take what they consider to be the best elements of a conquered or weaker people for themselves and discard the rest.This has been the modus operandi of conquering nations since the beginning of time – regardless of race. One can even find examples of it in scripture. In the First Book of Maccabees 3:48, the author explains how during the Greek conquest of the Isrealite’s lands the Greeks had destroyed and defiled many cultural and religious areas and artifacts. To add insult to injury, they even went so far as to attempt to paint their images in the Isrealite Holy Books.

This show of dominance by the Greeks of attempting to destroy any vestige of a prior culture is the first step towards cultural appropriation. The second step is taking what is worthy enough to be assimilated into one’s own rewritten history. This sort of action is no doubt the inspiration for many science fiction villains, notably one of Star Trek’s most popular foes, The Borg, who assimilate only the “useful aspects” a culture’s identity and make it their own in a show of force and superiority. Christianity is also replete with mythology which mirrors almost exactly that of other prior civilizations like the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and the pagan Romans. This is because as the Catholic Church rose to power it became the proprietor of the agglomerate cultural and religious history that came before it, and still is to this day even with the various off-shoots of Christian theology. But again, this sort of appropriation is not specific to the people who ruled during the rise of The Church, as there is no doubt that the cultures that came before also stole from each other as each one overtook the next.

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No doubt these ancient cultures also appropriated from each other.

Cultural appropriation is a far cry from cultural exchange, which happens when two people are on equal ground and actively make an trade cultural knowledge which can extend to dress, food, religious practice and the arts. Cultural exchange benefits both parties, cultural appropriation does not.

 

As the world is no longer in the business of empire building, at least no openly, and shifted more towards the notion of globalism and oneness, cultural appropriation is less evident. This does not mean it still doesn’t exist.

One example of modern cultural appropriation can be found in America in the the use of Native American iconography for non-indigenous run and operated sports teams. This appropriation is only possible because Native Americans remain at the bottom of the rung in terms of societal status in the country. Certainly no sports teams today not run by blacks could get away with a mascot in black face with stereotypical big lips and nose calling themselves The New York Blacks, or imagine a non-Jewish run team with a yamaka-wearing mascot spinning a dradle for a team called the Pennsylvania Jews. And I definitely can’t fathom a slant-eyed mascot with a bowl of rice on hand for a the California Yellow Skins. So why are the latter examples not going to happen while the prior one does? There are two big reasons.

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First, it’s distasteful and people of all walks would most likely make a scene about it.

Second, and most important to the discussion of cultural appropriation, is that these other ethnic groups (different from Native Americans) have managed to implant themselves firmly enough into American culture to garner the respect to demand that their likenesses not be appropriated and used in such fashion by other peoples. In short, they have power and equal footing under the law.

And that is where modern cries of cultural appropriation fall apart – the power interplay.

Black people in the West have risen up from their days of being nothing more than property and second class citizens under the law, despite the struggles which they still face. They have assimilated into their slave capture’s culture, many have thrived in it, but all while still keeping their identity. Blacks are as much their own ethnic group as they are American, or Brazilian, or Cuban, or Jamaican – one does not need to be exclusive from the other.

While Africa may still be the original home of Western Blacks and fueled the need for some of them to approximate themselves to the continent, it is more a symbolic home than anything because tracking one’s family heritage is nearly impossible. Here in Brazil, the records for blacks were so badly kept that a friend of mine recently told me he wasn’t sure if his great grandmother was a slave or not (although given the time table for when slavery ended in Brazil, 1888, chances are she was).

If one can’t even go back a little over a hundred years, think of the  hardships of trying to find one’s village back in whatever country his and her ancestors were ripped from.

This is the most likely reason why Black people of the West have adopted their capture’s flag – not out of want but out of necessity to have a home. But in this meantime they have also made much of themselves – becoming prosperous, influential, and world changing.

So this raises the question of equal footing and where blacks were versus where blacks are as a people.

In The United States, for example, the appropriation of black culture ran rampant for quite a long time, as blacks weren’t afforded all the legal rights nor the means to assert themselves. It took quite some time before it was popularly understood that Elvis did not invent Rock and Roll (although he still retains the crown of King) or that the Nicolas Brothers were true pioneers in dance and Fred Astaire’s heroes. It was a slow and arduous process, but Blacks began taking back their identities – or even creating new ones.

This freedom to explore ones identity and history – and more importantly, share it with the nation – is what gave rise to personalities like Malcolm X and, later, certain factions of The Black Panthers who proclaimed loudly that black was beautiful, strong, and just as much a part of the fabric of America (and all the rights that entails) as anyone else.

This message was vibrant and was adopted by everyday people. It traveled through the nation and the world, having a big impact in Brazil, where the slave trade had brought in an estimated 4 million souls from Africa’s shores. Popular singers like Tim Maia (who spent some time in America as a youth before being deported from the country) and Jorge Bem Jor began infusing their music with the iconology and rhythms from American blacks – and dressed the part too. There was also a rise in Brazilian style soul and funk groups that sang about pride in their people in the vein of Funkadelic and James Brown.  In short, blacks not only shouted out “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they shared it among their peers – of all races, colors, and creeds.

 

I often marvel at this era which encompasses most of the 1970s but there is a big difference in how it manifested in Brazil versus in America. In America, blacks were finally being able to assert themselves both in popular culture and in daily life, but it was not done from a place of fear but from a place of self-realization, strength, and force which opened the doors to a healthy exchange with others. It’s no coincidence that nearly no one screamed of racism or appropriation when a white person grew an Afro or donned “black garb” – it was not generally viewed as a sign disrespect, but rather, an acknowledgement of of black beauty.

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Cher and her wild hair with The Jackson Five

For the first time, black culture, fashion, song, and a myriad of other components of black life could not be stolen – they were seen as a something to be aimed for and given. This was a historic shift for blacks, because in the same way white folks had dominated nearly every aspect of what was the right and proper way to appear in public and present oneself to society for so long, blacks had managed, through much pain and struggle, to enter into that conversation – and even dominate it in some aspects. To be in this capacity and have this ability to share one’s culture without fear is to be in power of one’s destiny and to feel firmly about ones history.

Here in Brazil the same shift happened but with a few kinks. Although blacks did play with power, they never truly harnessed it in quite the same way as their American counter parts. One could argue the many reasons for this, but I find that it is mostly rooted in the oft-told fable of racial harmony in Brazil. Blacks here were not persecuted as violently as American blacks and many even managed to hold on to a lot of aspects of their African roots, namely their religions and music. While expressions of institutional racism and personal prejudice in Brazil are not as obvious to spot from an outsider’s viewpoint, the mechanisms to keep blacks on the outskirts of society were and continue to be firmly put in place.

So while blacks had somewhat more freedom of mobility, that mobility never sent them on a vertical axis. And since life on the horizontal plane isn’t always bad (even though it isn’t great either) black people seem wary of raising their voices to loudly as to not bite the hand that feeds them and keeps them on their even keel. Furthermore, when black folks do speak up about racism in Brazil, whites tend to get quickly offended. They are fast to change the conversation from racism to classism – Brazil’s true ailment. They make it a point to explain how Brazil is not like the horrid America that hanged its blacks from trees across the nation. Unfortunately, all this hyperbole or lack of conversation has created a sort of black stasis in the country. A complacency set in which, as we all should know, is the enemy of any real progress. Black people in Brazil never fought for their space in society in the same measure as American blacks, because they believed that no space was being taken away from them. Black people never saw themselves as a different people because everyone told them they weren’t.

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Anti-Racism campaign in Brazil inspired by the one at Harvard. Blacks wrote comments they frequently hear. This one stating, “Racism doesn’t exist. Remove this thought from your head!!”

Of course it becomes clear to anyone who spends any considerable amount of time in Brazil that this racial harmony fable doesn’t match reality. Black people in Brazil today live a life far different than their white counterparts, making up the bulk of the poor communities, receiving the worst health care, attending the worst schools, and naturally (as a logical progression from horrid living standards) occupying most of the the jails and prisons and being responsible for the majority of the criminal element in the country.

Things seemed as if they would change for the better in the last decade or so as black movements (some that had existed for decades beforehand) did start to rise to prominence in the country by riding the wave of the leftist PT government which promised them exposure and funded their organizations. These black militant groups expressed the importance of black pride, education and preservation of culture. This is all well and good, but there is a dark side. As any good leftist government does, PT used these groups as pawns for their own political agendas and as way to generate votes among a people who had historically always been left out of the political dialogue. Before many of these black movements could truly be black movements of influence they became leftist or PT movements.

As part of PT movements, black people also succumbed to another specialty of leftist governments – the creation of dependence to the state. Black people under this regime didn’t learn to applaud themselves for their own hard work and achievements, but rather,  to thank “Father Lula” and “Mother Dilma” for allowing them to enter into a University based on the color of their skin; for allowing them to get easy credit to buy their first refrigerator, automobile , or home simply because they were poor; and most worrisome of all, for allowing them to express their blackness in their appearance when in fact that wasn’t a right for the government to give nor was it one that had been taken away. Black people were fooled into receiving something that was already theirs. They did not affirm their own identity, they were granted it – thus it is not truly theirs to command.

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A black medical graduate who spent more time thanking Dilma for her degree than her own hard work and determination. Her sign read, “The big house goes mad when a field negro turns doctor.”

The above relates directly to how these black girls acted when they saw a white girl wearing a turban. Blacks have been brainwashed into believing a narrative for themselves which was not written by them. It is harmful and destructive.

But before I go into that, let me be clear about how ignorant these girls were to taunt this girl – regardless of any social and political backdrop. The turban is not an exclusively black invention. Many people in Africa and throughout the Middle East, and other regions, have worn turbans and other types of head coverings for a very long time.

It’s also important to note that blacks living in the west do not always have a clear path back to their roots in Africa. Just as many American blacks have adopted Egypt as their culture heritage, many blacks here have adopted dress and garb from cultures that may not be part of their direct lineage.

Just because one’s skin is dark does not mean they are from the same ethnic tribe. Black people like white people come from various backgrounds. I imagine and Englishman would no better like to be confused for a German based on his skin color than an Ethiopian with someone from Ghana. So before Western black folk begin accusing others of cultural appropriation, they should take a hard look at themselves and where that Ankh they wear around their neck, those dreads they tie so tightly on their head, or that colorful dashiki they wear to work came from – and if they truly have a blood connection to these very different places and people.

So how does these girl’s action and government brainwashing, dependence, and fed narratives negatively affect the progress of black people in a free society? The answer is simple. Blacks diminish both their place and importance in society when they proclaim that their culture is still one which is able to be appropriated.  Black dependence falsely calling itself independence is a slow acting poison that kills the soul of a people and creates victims and monsters.

This is sad to see because although I think Brazilian blacks are still far behind American blacks when it comes to societal progress, they still have managed to come a long way. Per the Brazilian Constitution they have equal rights and can come and go, buy and sell, work and study as they please. Their treatment in society as it relates to their full rights is another issue, but it doesn’t take away their full equal status in democratic Brazil.

By crying about cultural appropriation of any form these black movements and social justice warriors take society leaps backwards and not forward. They may not be aware of it, but they are shouting loudly and proudly that, “WE ARE WEAK AND THE BEST OF OUR CULTURE CAN BE TAKEN, MANIPULATED, AND USED ANY WHICH WAY THE WHITE MAN PLEASES!!!” This is sad, regressive, reductive, and slightly sick.

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When we are in power no one can take it from us – unless we give them the opportunity to do so.

When I walk through the streets of Brazil, I assert myself on a daily basis. Sometimes I wear a knitted cap I bought in Ethiopia, other times I wear the button up shirts that Europeans taught us look nice, and other times I wear light loose fabrics that a friend who visited a Caribbean or Middle Eastern nation may have given me as a gift.

I dress and express myself with respect and with respect to those whose culture I borrowed from.

People who love themselves, who are proud of their culture, and proud of what it stands for, do not get offended when an outsider wants to join them, respectfully. They instead use that as a time for teaching and discourse – where they can transform perceived appropriation into a moment of cultural exchange.

As I stated at the start – cultural appropriation still exits because in 2017 there are still people on this planet who truly do not have a voice. Black people in the West, despite all that we still have to go through to get the same slice of the pie, are not one of them. Our voices are strong, vibrant, and clamorous – in fact, they echo from the mouths of the social justice warriors nearly everyday. Too bad, that the words they speak only serve to make us weaker and create a deeper divide.

 

P. Ray

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Ranking The Best Picture Oscar Movies

It’s Oscar Time! Although I usually skip the show, I do like to watch the movies nominated for Best Picture and discuss their merits or demerits.

The first thing that needs to be said is that this year’s crop is not the strongest – and that the crop has steadily become weaker over the years – the creative balance seems to have moved over to the small screen. Although every one of these 9 films have redeeming qualities, and some are even very entertaining, they didn’t strike me as anything worthy of marking 2016 as a particularly great year in film making (with the exception of my top pick).

It’s important to note, though, that the Oscar’s have never been the greatest tool for truly gauging adventurous and groundbreaking film making (Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction for Best Picture, Hitchcock never won a best director Oscar, and Do The Right Thing was simply snubbed from the top categories). But at the very least the films that took home top prizes were memorable in their own right and carried with them some cultural significance, albeit with a lighter tone – after all, Driving Miss Daisy (which won Best Picture the year that Spike Lee’s seminal work was swept aside) also deals with race relations in America.

With that big preamble out of the way let’s get to my ranking of 2017’s Best Picture Oscar nominees.

9. Manchester By The Sea

Starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man struggling with past demons who discovers that he has been granted guardianship of his nephew after his brother’s sudden death, Manchester By The Sea tries its best to be a character study, but it only succeeded in boring me to bits. For a story to be interesting we must be willing to root for the main characters and rarely is a writer gifted enough to sketch a protagonist as gripping as they are unlikable – screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has proven to not be that guy on this film. Casey Affleck spends nearly two hours brooding, mumbling, getting into fights, and having flashbacks so as to reach his final decision on how he is going to take care of his nephew – which (to compound the miserableness of this film) was also an uninteresting, irritating and soulless little boy. Halfway through I really spaced out. I, like Lee Chandler, started wishing the brother, who is played by a much more captivating Alec Baldwin, hadn’t died either – then perhaps we could have had a more entertaining movie about Baldwin’s character dealing with his asshole brother who can’t manage to get his life straightened out after being directly responsible for a great personal tragedy. This movie deserves an Oscar for somehow getting nominated despite how immensely bad it is.

8. Hacksaw Ridge

This movie was lauded as the Mel Gibson’s triumphant return to film making, although the trailer fails to mention him by name and goes with the much savvier “From The Academy Award Winning Director of Braveheart” to remind of us of past glories. I can’t say this movie wasn’t entertaining. But although Hacksaw Ridge had some classic Gibson action sequences (the actual fight on Hacksaw Ridge is excitingly and expertly blocked and filmed), the movie is also bogged down with whole sections that make it feel like a Hallmark Movie Special in that it is overly glossy and even cheesy in portraying its cardboard deep characters. This creates an uneven dichotomy which never allowed me to settle in and appreciate the profundity of what this story was trying to tell me – or if it was even trying to tell me anything. In the end, Hacksaw Ridge takes what could have been a very powerful study of what it meant for of an unarmed man to become a great hero in the middle of last century’s greatest armed conflict and turns it into a US Army propaganda film – the type of movie I could imagine my 6th grade teacher popping into the player (after asking parent permission of course, as there are some scenes with blood and violence) to shut us kids up for two hours. Mel Gibson, despite questions on the veracity of the historicity of most of his films, has proven that he is a great director who knows how to work tone and character. Perhaps his long time away from the job has made him lose a bit of his touch as these characters all seem to come out of the “Cliche 101 Manual.” This film is worthy of some popcorn, but not of any golden statues.

7. Moonlight

This film had received some much critical acclaim that perhaps I built my expectations too high before watching it – thus making it a let down. It is by no means a bad film, in fact it has everything in it to be considered a great or even groundbreaking film. The problem is that those bits of excellence don’t make Moonlight the tour de force concentrated whole that it really should have been. The film centers around the story of a young man in three important sections of his life: his youth, adolescence, and young adulthood. He lives in the ghetto, his mom is addicted to drugs, he has no father, which is pretty much a rehash of almost every other film about “the realities of Black America.” The game changer is that he also questions himself sexually. This element, a delicate study on the state of black male sexuality, has rarely (if ever) been seen on the big screen and in somewhat mainstream fashion. The problem is that the film poses many scenarios in its protagonist’s life but never offers questions nor answers about how he is dealing with these scenarios. I think this is mainly due to Chiron, the lead, not saying much – and the supporting cast not adding much more. And although this silence is intentional and reflects the reality for many black men having to live the stereotype of Alpha Male when in fact they are hurt and confused inside, none of the three actors who played the character of Chiron through his various life phases is able to transmit that to the screen. Their silence feels more like a screenwriter and director who isn’t able to work a theme rather than one who is skillful enough to give us more with less. This movie may take home a best adapted screenplay Oscar on the merits of what is was trying to accomplish (although it will probably lose to Fences), but it felt like unfinished work and gave me nothing to ponder once the final scene rolled around.

6. Hell or High Water

The best way I can describe this entertaining but lightweight pseudo-western is “a poor man’s No Country for Old Men“. It had all the same elements of the Cohen brother’s classic: the desert backdrop of Texas and surrounding areas, an old hardened law enforcement officer nearing retirement who could barely be understood above his mumble, and wild outlaws striking from place to place for no discernible reason. What it lacked was the prior film’s depth, nuanced acting, and true moral ambiguity of why people do bad things – not the sort we are force fed here about the real reason why the two antagonists are on their crime spree. That said, I can’t say this movie didn’t entertain me. It moves at a pretty nice pace and the two duos of Ben Foster and Chris Pine (the outlaws) and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham (the rangers) gelled well. Their interplay was both fluid, revealing, and comic. The problem with Hell or High Water is that beyond the surface of a tight script and workable dialogue, I felt nothing for these character’s deeper thoughts and lives. For example, Jeff Bridge’s play Marcus Hamilton, a ranger who is about to hang it up, yet, the character feels like he has been on the job long enough only to come off as experienced – there is no weight to what his many years on the force nor impending retirement represent to him. In fact, some post-retirement scenes at the end of the film make his personal position on the matter even more ambivalent. Because of this lack of depth to the character, his retirement comes off seeming more like a plot device of him trying to close the case before he has to hand in his badge than anything else. There were many missed opportunities to dig deeper into the four main players in this little cat and mouse drama, but the movie was more secure in moving its plot along – which it does beautifully. Hell or High Water, is more even toned than Hacksaw Ridge and more sure of its story than Moonlight (which is why I rank it higher), but it (like Gibson’s entry) is more worthy of popcorn than awards.

5. Arrival

This is sci-fi with a heart and a brain, it’s just sub-par compared to past excursion into this territory – namely, Contact and Interstellar. Amy Adams plays a linguist who is called in by the government to help communicate with some ETs who have landed their ship on American soil – there are eleven others spread out throughout the globe. This movie is tight and the cinematography crisp and pretty, but I felt the acting was unable to overcome the lack of soul in a script that appeared more concerned with its “gotcha” pay-off than exploring the mixed emotions one would have when dealing with such an otherworldly event – I think Adam’s character may throw up once, but I honestly can’t recall and that’s not a good thing. Again, the repeating theme on this list is entertainment value – and this movie has a lot of it. The idea is alluring, the story well produced, and the special effects done with class and style. The missing ingredient is the “after-effect.” There isn’t one scene, or one thematic question in this movie which left me pondering my life or the world after its end credits. In a regular film this can be almost forgiven, but in science fiction (and I am a huge sci-fi buff) this is a nearly unforgivable sin. The best science fiction questions our very nature and relation to the world around us (and if this movie is being nominated for Best Picture I assume it is being put in the pantheon of “the best science fiction”). Arrival simply does not do that – unless telling us that communication is important is some sort of revelation. I watched Contact two decades ago as a teen when it came out in the theatre, and its questions about life, death, space, God, and humanity are still with me – likewise, Interstellar, which is a lot more recent did much of the same. Arrival, on the other hand, simply arrives with a solid script, good directing, passable acting, and flatness of thought and profundity. This movie could have been so much more (and would have left a great impression in both the mind and the heart) but it sure was entertaining.  It deserves to win some technical Oscars for sure.

4. Lion

Is the true story of Saroo, a young man who was raised by adoptive parents in Australia who comes to the realization that he wants to find his biological family from whom he was accidentally separated when he was only a child in India. The first half of this movie had me transfixed and I quickly bumped it to the top of my Oscar favourites list, unfortunately the second half is a bit of a letdown in both style and scope and goes into melodramatic sulking mode. The melodrama and sulking is mostly the fault of the lead actor, Dev Patel, who is given little emotional scope other than being depressed about the notion of finding his real home. And although, I can understand how an individual may have mixed feeling about wanting to rediscover their roots after knowing only one reality their whole life, the writing and direction didn’t do enough explore this tricky notion. A better example of this emotional paradox is in the movie Antwone Fisher, where going home means dealing with a past that may not be as pretty as the present. Director Denzel Washington made sure we as an audience understood this perfectly. Another strike against the second half of Lion is that Dev was mostly upstaged by the younger version Saroo, interpreted masterfully by eight year old Sunny Pawar. Saroo’s trajectory through the dizzying and dangerous streets of India are harrowing and hard to watch at times, but his resourcefulness of spirit shines through in the performance. I rooted for the younger version of Saroo to make it out alive even knowing full well that he would. In contrast, I was impatiently waiting for the adult version of Saroo to get on with finding his home even knowing full well that he would. This film suffered from so much weight and power in its first half that it unsurprisingly couldn’t sustain itself all the way through. That said, it did a fine job of getting its plot points down and ending on a touching tear-jerking high moment. I just wish that the movie could have explored Patel’s adult character more in depth – growing a beard and letting one’s hair get a bit more tousled is not my definition of character development or struggle. I don’t know if this film will take home any awards, but it is a nice addition to the nominated group.

3. Fences

Fences had nearly all the elements in place to be a memorable entry into the canon of important films about the black experience, but it’s missing something very essential – cinematic scope. One of the most difficult tasks in cinema, I would guess, is transferring a play onto the big screen. Live theatre relies almost exclusively on the delivery of words to express meaning, character development, and emotion – an audience member may be sitting so far from the stage that an actor’s face and gestures cannot be relied on to express what a character is feeling or thinking. Film, on the other hand, is a visual medium first – there were moving pictures long before spoken words. Movies require movement, gestures, and at times, many less words to do the same job that a play would do. Fences, although it tried desperately not to, felt stuck on the stage while doing its best to be taken seriously as a film. This created a few awkward moments of overly talkative scenes, or even scenes where the actors seemed to explode with unnecessary bouts of emotion. An example is Viola Davis’ argument with Denzel Washington’s character by the clothe lines, It is a scene which is tailor made for the stage, where theatre goers would be transfixed on her voice and dialogue, but it felt completely overblown and overacted while I was sitting close enough to see the snot coming out of her nose. That said, Fences felt more “Oscary” than most of the other films on this list so far. I mean this to say that it came off as hard, thoughtful, and profound – and mostly because it truly was. It’s clear that Denzel (who has performed in the stage play) has a real love and care for these characters. He allowed each one to develop and add the spices to the story of a man who is simply trying to hold everything together when he may not be all together himself. Each scene added a new layer to this drama, and each layer felt richer than the last. This film is up for best adapted screenplay and it will probably beat out critic favourite Moonlight. It deserves it though, as it may have failed in parts to present itself as a movie, but the story is strong and it stays with you after the credits roll – I was half expecting the cast to come out for a curtain call, though.

2. Hidden Figures

This movie somehow managed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. I am not sure how this happened as it doesn’t do anything very special or groundbreaking as far as movie production goes, but yet, I loved every minute of it. It tells the story of three black women who worked at NASA at a time when America was still very much segregated. Although the movie deals with serious issues, it does so with such an upbeat and hopeful spirit that it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with it. It also doesn’t attempt to preach to its audience, it instead present each woman with a problem and offers us with their solution to said problem. These women weren’t victims and didn’t sulk, and we as audience are gifted with their indelible strength. This strength shines through in the upbeat music, performances, and plot trajectory of these three women – the tone never leaves its hopeful stride and the spirit of the film is bright. Could the movie have taken a darker turn, or delved deeper into the psychology of what made these women so strong? I suppose. Perhaps this deeper turn would make me think it were more worthy of such a top honor at the Oscar’s. But the producers made a pretty clear decision to not go down that path, and I choose to not question their decision given how great the finished product is. Hidden Figures is worth sitting your kids down to watch while reminding them of the power of persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It doesn’t really deserve a Best Picture nod, but it was without a doubt one of my favourite films of this bunch to watch – and I may go back to revisit it.

1. La La Land

Yes, the musical that I was dreading to watch because, “I am not really a big fan of musicals,” was the most delightful and well made film of the bunch. Considering the less than stellar competition of this year compared to other years, I think it is deserving of every one of its 14 nominations, but I think it would have easily garnered half of those even in a strong year – it’s simply a wonderful film. The story centers around two young people who meet and fall in love. The girl wants to be an actress and the boy wants to bring jazz back to main street. Both their dreams drive them and both their drives change them. The opening sequence of the film can be a bit of a turn off for those who are not into musical theatre, as it is an outlandish (but ticklishly fun) tribute to old style musicals where everyone within a camera angle’s reach decides to get up and dance and sing – in this case, while stuck in traffic on an LA highway. But once that is out of the way, the movie takes a more personal approach. Most of the music is sung between the two leads, and it is done with class and doesn’t distract from the main story and dialogue, it only enhances it. Musical expression here is treated as a force beyond spoken words to transmit the truths inside of each person and it gives that truth impulse to become reality. The catch is that sometimes the fantasy of a song lyric, and its wild declarations of love, hope and desire, can’t find a place in the hardness which is reality, though. Writer and director, Damien Chazelle, explored this theme on a smaller scale in the imperfect but gripping Whiplash, but in La la Land he seems more poised to take on this theme full force – and it is stunning, spectacular and heartbreaking. La La Land is not only my favourite film in the bunch, but I also believe it will win most of the categories it is nominated for. And it will win not because it has some schmaltzy Hollywood elements that the Oscars judges love (I felt it was much more focused on its jazz side, though) but because Mr. Chazelle has managed to make a spectacular movie that moves the bar ahead for other filmmakers. His talent is most evident in that even while La La Land is unapologetically a musical (tap dancing and all), it doesn’t try for any Moulin Rouge type gimmicks to attract modern audiences. Mr. Chazelle relies on his writing and direction to keep the movie fresh and updated and with its eyes pointed squarely forward. La La Land will be a deserving Best Picture winner.


 

Well folks, that’s my list. I hope you agree and disagree a bunch. I was hoping for a better movie going experience this year, but I was left a bit dry with the exception of La La Land and Hidden Figures – and good chunks of Fences and Lion. Let’s hope next year Hollywood can pump out some better fare.

P. Ray

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Conversations With a Prospective Client – a Brazilian Saga

When it comes to setting up shop in Brazil, one must be prepared for the hard “maybe” that Brazilians tend to give. It requires patience and a certain level of knowing when to wait and when to move on. My example below is based loosely on various interactions with prospective clients in the teaching sector, but from my many conversations with other foreign business people, it’s clear that it extends into other areas.

Note that most of these conversations take place via Whats App or E-mail before any phone or face to face contact is even made. They are also generally in Portuguese.

The Players: 

Brazilian Solicitor: BS

Me: Me


 

The scene opens on any given day of the week – or weekend. I see a message on my phone from an unknown person.

BS: Hi! Are you the English Teacher?

(Although I am almost certain that my name was given along with my phone number, I understand that names are easy to forget. So I respond politely.)

Me: Yes, that’s me. Phil.

BS: Great! My friend “so-and-so” gave me your number.

(I try to remember how long ago it was that my friend had mentioned that they had given my number to someone.)

Me: That’s not a problem. Let’s see if I can help you.

BS: I need to learn English now. It’s urgent!

(Urgent is to mean their boss is going to give someone else a promotion because that person can speak the language, or they want to impress some family member who is visiting from abroad. In either case, they have known this for some time but only thought of starting classes now.)

Me: I see. Well, I give classes. (I explain a bit of my methodology) I’m available in-person or via Skype.

BS: How does Skype work?

(I am barely sure of the mechanics of how Skype works myself. I just know that when I press the little icon it turns on.)

Me: Either I call you or you call me and we have regular classes. It’s not much different from a regular in-person class. (I add a few bits about the advantages of the Skype platform – most importantly the fact that it’s less expensive.)

BS: Oh.

(Long Pause. I take this opportunity to adjust my underwear.)

BS: And how much are the classes?

Me: I charge X amount per hour, paid up front at the start of each month.

BS: Is there a discount? See if you can help me.

(I consider their request but first think about whether I should call my landlord, my internet company, water and electric, and the various bars and restaurants where I eat to see if they could help me out first.)

Me: No. If you do more than three hours a week I can perhaps try for something.

BS: What if I pass your name along to my cousin’s wife’s aunt.

Me: The price I am giving you is about as low as I can go and still manage to eat.

BS: Can I pay you at the end of the month?

(I thought I had already answered that.)

Me: No, at the start.

BS: I see. English is so important right now for me. I really have to learn fast. How many classes do I need to take to speak well?

(I am asked this very often and evil me wants to say, “Five times a week for two hours,” and sit on a fat paycheck from just one client. Sadly, I have morals.)

Me: It’s not always a matter of how many classes, but how well you utilize the classes.

BS: Oh, then I think I will do four times a week.

(When someone sets too high a goal for themselves like this, I am nearly certain that they won’t last a week – that’s if they start at all.)

Me: Do what feels best for you. (Who am I to argue, though? Some people can manage it and my bank account number is ….)

BS: I just have to look at my budget. When can you have classes with me?

(Because I do absolutely nothing all day, I understand how this is a pertinent question.)

Me: I think it would be easier for you to tell me your availability, and then I can tell you if I can fit it into my schedule.

BS: Great! But do you think that in one month I can talk?

(I think that in one month you can either waste both of our times or come out better than you went in. If payment is made by the 10th, I’ll be happy either way.)

Me:  It depends on how much you exert yourself. Dedication is key.

BS: Okay, but if I do four hours you can give me a discount, right?

Me: Yes.

BS: Alright. I’ll look at everything and get back to you.

(And now begins the long period of hearing nothing from the prospective client who urgently needed to learn English. This period can extend anywhere from one week to one month. Since I have been down this road before, I don’t make much of an effort to make contact with them either. Then from out of the blue, after I had nearly forgotten about them, I will receive a message.)

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BS: Listen, I want to do one hour a week on Sunday at 10 a.m.

Me: Hi. I neglected to get your name and I don’t work Sundays.

BS: (They tell me their name.) Oh. Can you come to my office before work on Mondays? We can start at 6:30 or 7 am.

Me: Where is your office?

BS: Where are you located?

(I asked first damn it!)

Me: I’m on the west side of town.

BS: My office is on the east side of town.

Me: It would take me more than two hours to get there. I can’t do that.

BS: What about in the evening?

Me: Depends on the day. It’s not entirely impossible.

BS: Do you think you could help me a little with the price?

(I already had when you said you were going to do the four hours per week!!! Remember!!! Back to level one damn it!)

Me: You’re only doing one hour a week now, though. We are back to the original price.

BS: Yes, but maybe other people in the office will want classes.

(Tell them to call me.)

Me: Let’s focus on just the two of us for now.

(Long pause – may last hours or days.)

BS: Can we start tomorrow?

(Again, my world revolves around this person’s sun.)

Me: How about next week, so I have a bit of time to prepare?

BS: Okay.

(Thus begins the short period of time where I prepare some material for a first meeting with the client. It’s also the short period of time where, considering the content of our previous conversations, I expect a message.)

BS: (Monday afternoon.) Teacher! I can’t have class tonight. Let’s start next month.

(That was the message I was expecting. Not surprised – are you?)

Me: Okay. (I just play along. Much less stressful.)

BS: I’m so sorry. Things at work are crazy.

Me: I understand. You should try Skype.

BS: Yeah, that may be a good idea. Is it less expensive? (Refer to the beginning of the conversation.)

Me: For sure.

BS: Okay. So next month we can start. No problem. I will pay you next week.

Me: Great.

(Thus begins the period of time where I wait for the first day of class to arrive. I get home at the scheduled time for the Skype class and wait for a call that never arrives.)

BS: (The next day.) Sorry, I forgot about the class.

(I didn’t, but I either watched another episode of Star Trek or some porn to kill the time. Money’s in the bank already so your loss not mine.)

Me: Okay. Remember I explained to you that you couldn’t cancel on short notice, so yesterday counts as a given class.

BS: Oh, so we can’t make it up?

Me: Unfortunately, no.

(The following week I show up at the scheduled time for the Skype class and wait for a call that never comes. And thus ends the start of a beautiful relationship. I can tell you that somewhere between Season 3 and 4 is when Star Trek series usually starts to get very good – can’t help you on the porn end.)

P. Ray

Although, there are plenty of these types of stories to go around, if one digs deep enough they may find a core group of people who don’t jostle them around and get to work right away.

Tell us about some of your experiences doing business here in Brazil, either good or bad.

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What I am Watching: Twin Peaks and Star Trek: Voyager (the back-end of season two)

Twin Peaks – Seasons One and Two: A classic series that still holds up.

I am a big David Lynch fan, but sadly I was a bit too young to catch his and Mark Frost’s much lauded television series Twin Peaks during its first run. It’s the story of the investigation of a murder of a young woman named Laura Palmer, in a the sleepy town of Twin Peaks, by F.B.I. agent Dale Cooper. While this seems like a straight-forward premise, the town, Laura Palmer, and Agent Cooper, have strange layers to them which lead to a mysterious underbelly filled with dark turns and supernatural undertones. With the advent of a third season, which will premiere on May 21, 2017 on Showtime, I decided there was no better time than now to catch up on the two seasons which aired from 1990-1991.

My first impression is that the show has stood up to the test of time. When I did a series rewatch of The X Files a few years back to prepare for Season 10, I was amazed at how aged the early seasons looked compared to later seasons. Twin Peaks manages to look fresh even with some of its 90s wardrobe and hair choices. It helps that the show is mostly set around nature, so the 1990s could very well be 2017 in a sleepy town that doesn’t feel it has to be caught up with the times.

Although the long pilot episode is very cinematic and intriguing, it also felt clunky in spots – there was way too much stuffed into it, making it difficult to follow every character thread and sub plot. Perhaps a certain level of uncertainty as to whether or not the show would be picked up for a whole season forced Lynch and Frost to lay as much out on the table as possible in the time allotted. For this very reason there is a closed ended version of the pilot where Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, which can create even more confusion if you are a first time viewer – I know because I started with it by mistake.

Once the first episode begins it’s clear that Twin Peaks received a better production budget and zeal. The look of the show is sleeker and there are more visual details added to each scene. The characters also feel more rounded and nuanced. Gone is the barrage of information fed to us at once in the pilot, and we are left with a series that takes its time to unravel.

There is very little to fault in Season One of the Twin Peaks. My only big criticism is of David Lynch’s heavy use of the same stylistic themes of his earlier film Blue Velvet, where he explores suburban American melodrama with sarcastic winks and nods scattered throughout. It’s a persistent joke that sometimes doesn’t find the right balance with the earnestly comedic aspects of the series and the darker themes which are present – more specifically the murder of Laura Palmer and the dreams, evil undercurrents, and visions which accompany the tragedy. I also wasn’t so interested in the romances that were blooming; they felt forced and “too dreamy,” but again, that is Lynch playing with his satire of American soap operas – and going a bit overboard.

Season Two is where things get controversial. Even before watching the show, I knew that it was a general consensus that the second half of Season Two was horrible. The story goes that ABC famously pressured Lynch and Frost to reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer, when they in fact wanted to keep this a mystery for a very long time to come. Although the episodes that lead up to the revelation are just as satisfying and creepy as the bulk of season one, what comes after is a show that changed tone completely.

This doesn’t mean that the show became “horrible,” though. Twin Peaks simply became a different show with a lot of the same mystery themes. The difference is that there wasn’t a foreboding shadow hanging over the town anymore, so these mysteries that were unraveled felt much more tangible – in essence it became a bizarre sort of soap opera instead of lampooning one. The meat of the show were now the back-stabbings, and double crossings, and FBI raids, while still retaining a good dose of humour (both David Lynch and David Duchovny in their respective guest spots are responsible for the latter). Again, the weakest link of the series was its attempts at romance – the love stories felt flat and inconsequential to the main story line. There is a great article from Slate that makes a good case for season two being a mini-treasure. You should check it out by clicking here.

I am fairly certain that for someone back in 1991, who had to wait a week for the plot to move ahead at slug’s pace, the apparent lack of focus of the show after mid-season became frustrating and resulted in the ratings drop which killed the series. With the benefit of the internet and binge watching, the back end of Twin Peaks doesn’t feel as ploddingly slow. A new villain, who had been foreshadowed before, adds a thread of suspense – although, he is much less threatening when he finally shows up than the allusion to him. And the original antagonist of the show does play a heavy role in the last few episodes.

In short, season two of Twin Peaks didn’t rub me the wrong way. Despite a handful of inconsequential sub-plots, it felt like it knew where it wanted to go with the main story, and it got there resolutely. David Lynch came back at the end of the series to wrap it up in his iconic surrealist fashion, and we were left with on of television’s biggest and longest cliffhangers.

The series as a whole is a real pleasure to watch. Twin Peaks is a true master class in how television could be way before it became what it currently is. It’s nearly impossible to find a show today that somehow hasn’t been influenced by Lynch and Frost’s mini-masterpiece. The effects of the show are felt in the wave of serialized storytelling, quirky characters, spooky backdrop, conspiracy theory story threads, supernatural mythology, and of course, cinematic scope brought to the small screen. Twin Peaks is truly the grand daddy of modern television. I recommend the series to anyone on a retro trip or who loves television, it will probably make you appreciate the shows you watch today even more and make you catch the various nods they give to the series – the final scene of Stranger Things being one of the most recent.

 

Star Trek: Voyager (second half of season two) – better than the first half.

 

Star Trek shows usually take up to three seasons to get rolling on all cylinders and Voyager is no different. I was getting frustrated by the first half of season two, because with a premise as great as the show has (two very different crews stuck on the same starship on the other side of the galaxy) it very rarely plays on it. The Voyager crew and adventures should have the friction and other-world fascination of DS9, but they trade it off for the chumminess and familiarity of TNG and TOS.

But just as I accepted that Voyager isn’t trying to work a long story arch angle, like the fabulous DS9, or stretch itself beyond it’s cruise control limits, it seemed the show responded with better offerings. The episodes are story-of-the-week type material and the reset button is firmly pressed at the end of each adventure, but at least there was some good adventure and some gripping drama. There was also an episode where we discover that humans will eventually evolve into slugs and Captain Janeway mates with one of her officers while in slug form – not a highlight.

Speaking of Captain Janeway, though, she finally made me have a few excited geek moments this season as she showed her might and fearlessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Her meeting with herself and dealings with a hostile alien race in the episode “Deadlock” solidified her in my mind as a worthy Trek captain – although some of the stupid decisions that she makes to put Voyager and its crew right on death’s door loses her some points too.

Sometimes Janeway is too trusting of the alien world around her, and mixes her Starfleet love for exploration (and discovering new life and new civilizations) for the urgent need to get her ship home as quickly and safely as possible. I am curious to see how she is portrayed as the series goes on, and if any of the crew question her decisions to make pit stops.

The back end of season 2 of Star Trek: Voyager also produced one of the best episodes in Trek history, “Death Wish.”

The story is about a Q (later named Quinn) who wants to leave the Q Continuum so he can  commit suicide and thus seeks asylum on Voyager. Captain Janeway must preside over his fate while the Q that we already know from earlier Star Trek, played fabulously by John de Lancie, pleads against the asylum, as killing oneself is against the Q order.

Lt. Commander Tuvok acts as a defense attorney for Q/Quinn in a court room drama unlike many seen before. Not only does the episode tackle the serious real world issues of suicide, capital punishment, the relative meaning of suffering, it also gives us more insight into the Q Continuum. Above all, it exemplifies how much the Star Trek philosophy values freedom of choice and independent thought above collectivism.

The speech that Q/Quinn gives to explain how his suffering is warranting of suicide stands as one of the most powerful things ever filmed for a Star Trek series. Here are bits of his dialogue from that powerful scene extracted from The Voyager Transcripts web page. :

QUINN: When I was a respected philosopher, I celebrated the continuity, the undeviation of Q life. I argued that our civilisation had achieved a purity that no other culture had ever approached. And it was wonderful, for a while. At the beginning of the New Era, life as a Q was a continuous dialogue of discovery and issues and humour from all over the universe. But look at them now. Listen to their dialogue now … it has all been said. Everyone has heard everything, seen everything. They haven’t had to speak to each other in ten millennia. There’s nothing left to say.

Q: Well, I don’t know about you, but I appreciate a little peace and quiet now and again.

QUINN: It’s ironic, isn’t it, Q. … That you of all people should be arguing their case. You, who were banned from the Continuum and made mortal to pay for your crimes? … in many ways, that life inspired me. You see, Captain, Q rebelled against this existence by refusing to behave himself. He was out of control. He used his powers irresponsibly and all for his own amusement. And he desperately needed amusement, because he could find none here at home.
But for a moment there, you really had our attention. My attention. You gave us something to talk about. But then you surrendered to the will of the Continuum like a good little Q, and may I say that you’ve become a fine, upstanding member of the Continuum. But I miss the irrepressible Q, the one who forced me to think. … I continued to speak out in favour of self-termination. … I was the greatest threat the Continuum had ever known. They feared me so much they had to lock me away for eternity. And when they did that, they were saying that the individual’s rights will be protected only so long as they don’t conflict with the state. Nothing is so dangerous to a society. My life’s work is complete, but they force immortality on me, and when they do that they cheapen and denigrate my life and all life in the Continuum. All life. Captain, you’re an explorer. What if you had nothing left to explore? Would you want to live forever under those circumstances? You want me to prove to you that I suffer in terms that you can equate with pain or disease. Look at us. When life has become futile, meaningless, unendurable, it must be allowed to end. Can’t you see, Captain? For us, the disease is immortality.

I am on to season three of Star Trek: Voyager. I surely do hope the series gets a bit stronger. I know that there is one busty new cast member awaiting me in the near future.

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