Trecker’s Brazilian Travels: Unknown Utopia

June 22nd, 2013

Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer

By Jamie Trecker, FOXSoccer.com

OLINDA, BRAZIL

The gunship flew low over the beach, heading north to Recife’s Derby Square. The protests would soon start, blocking the bridges in this city and snarling traffic to and from the set of interconnected islands.

Recife is a strange city. For two blocks along the coastline, you could be in Miami or Santa Monica, albeit with far fewer strip malls. But walk a block further inland, and you are in the favelas. Crossing the Avenue Domingos Ferreira puts you into a different city altogether. Here, the streets are unpaved, there are no windows on the cinderblock shanties, and laundry flaps from the telephone lines. There is sewage in the street, and the residents collect rainwater to wash in.

The city makes its money on tourism and textiles, and lately, it hasn’t been doing much of either. The beaches here, from Pina to Boa Viagem and beyond, have been virtually empty. The vendors who patrol up and down the sands have found few takers for the buckets of shrimp on their shoulders. The umbrella chairs were empty, and there was but one set of players on the vast tennis courts that stretch up and down the boardwalk. The beach soccer field was flooded, a product of the prior week’s rains.

Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer

To the north lies Olinda, Recife’s other main tourist attraction. An UNESCO heritage site, Olinda was first built by Portuguese settlers in the 1500s. Later taken by the Dutch, who coveted the surrounding sugar cane plantations, Olinda today stands as one of the best-preserved colonial sites in the entire country. A city of winding, cobblestone streets and artists’ studios, some of the buildings survive from the 1700s.

Olinda should be crawling with tourists. It offers a spectacular view of Recife and the ocean, has nooks and crannies filled with shops and restaurants, and has an undeniable charm that radiates out from its gaily-painted houses. Yet it too, was empty.

The untold story of this Confederations Cup is that the tourists haven’t come. Both this tournament and the coming World Cup were predicated on the notion that Brazil would be introduced anew as a destination: people would come for the football and then come back for the hospitality. That seems to be as false an idea as the idea that big stadium projects and mega-sporting events lift their cities and countries.

Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer

For the record, new stadiums almost never pay back their investments, and instead saddle cities with debt.

Why people haven’t come is open to discussion. The language barrier in Brazil is profound, but the people are very friendly, and overwhelmingly accommodating. More reasonable is the idea that Brazil is a terrifyingly violent place, a narrative that has been stoked by the Western media and has been reinforced by the scenes these past weeks in the nation’s streets. That is a bit of a trope: while Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have serious problems, we’ve walked around two Brazilian cities at all hours of the day and night and only have felt unsafe in one situation: when the police were bearing down on the protestors. We’ve been more worried about getting gassed or shot with rubber bullets by the cops than being mugged.

Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer

The problem for Brazil, however, is that what is happening here and now is going to be difficult to overcome. Peaceful and reasonable protests against a corrupted and bloated government that has made some very questionable decisions have been hijacked by a small and violent element. And that element, with their bricks and firebombs, is sucking up all the oxygen.

The real shame of this tournament is not that it has been overshadowed by demonstrations, as Sepp Blatter would like you to think. The shame is that people worldwide are watching only a part of the story on their nightly newscasts. That means many will stay away in 2014 if the Cup goes on as planned. They will be denied the chance to see Brazil and decide for themselves.

Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer