Stranger Than Fiction

By Goering, Laurie | Hemisphere, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Stranger Than Fiction


Goering, Laurie, Hemisphere


Often, it seems, covering Brazil comes down to a test of stamina. Take the forest tires that roared through Brazil's northern Roraima state last year, blackening rainforest and parts of the country's main Yanomami Indian reserve.

For the better part of a week I and other journalists made forays into the tire zone by rental car and small plane on the days when the smoke wasn't too thick. We interviewed fire-fighters, local victims and Indian agency officials. We scorched our shoes and drank warm soft drinks in the stifling heat.

Finally, it came time to leave for other stories. The problem was, we couldn't.

Thick smoke that made a joke of the capital's name--Boa Vista, or "Good View"--had downed all flights for days. With each cancellation, the lines at the airport grew.

Finally, desperate, several of us climbed aboard the only transportation out of town, a bus to Manaus arranged by the airlines. Only 13 hours, on "mostly" paved roads, the ticketing agent promised. Once there, we'd have priority status for flights out of the Amazon.

We got the last seats on the bus, next to the toilet, which quit functioning less than an hour into the "flight." During frequent rest stops the driver lurched back to visit with us, whiskey bottle in hand. At river crossings, ferries failed to appear. A live sex act took place in the seat in front of us.

Finally, 14 hours later and with midnight approaching, we pulled into Manaus, covered head to toe in thick red dust.

"Let me guess," joked the airline agent at the counter. "Boa Vista?"

Writing about Brazil--and the rest of Latin America--has its own set of pitfalls, and in four years of living in Brazil I've found most of them.

This country, for instance, does not have the kind of comprehensive open records laws journalists routinely depend on in the United States. Getting government documents is mostly a test of patience and charm, not a matter of submitting Freedom of Information Act requests.

I once tried to get a set of property records at a government office in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, as part of an investigative series. I was met with suspicion by the woman behind the counter.

Of course I couldn't see the documents--not that she had them anyway, she said. Why did I need them? What was my motive? The fact that I was a journalist wasn't good enough.

For a few hours I sat with her and chatted about her job, her kids, my job, Chicago, the weather and the latest soccer results. She served me a bowl of homemade candied cashew fruit.

Eventually, after a bit of looking, she found the records and let me see them. She hadn't given them to me, she emphasized, and I couldn't photocopy them or record them in any other way.

We chatted a while longer, as I glanced nonchalantly through the documents. In time, she decided that perhaps I could copy them after all, just as long as I promised never to use her name in connection with my story. I did, and we both left satisfied.

Encounters with Brazil's notorious bureaucracy don't always go so smoothly. Last year, it took me nearly a year to renew my working visa, including a standoff with a clerk who opined that my letter of application wasn't detailed enough and insisted my visa wasn't ready, eight months after it had been granted. Along the way the customs authority threatened to deport my furniture and my cat.

Eventually I got the visa--one day after Veja, Brazil's leading news-magazine, ran a story about my plight. "You're famous," said the chief of the visa section, when I walked into the office. He gave me a big hug and the desk clerk gave me my visa--after insisting that I make a new photocopy of a key document, as the current one was 23% too large.

Magical realism is alive and well in Brazil. Sometimes the smaller issues of journalism in Latin America, however, are just as thorny. …

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