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Nowtopia in Brazil

I gave my Nowtopia talk in front of Cafe Bonobo in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Sunday, February 9.

I gave my Nowtopia talk in front of Cafe Bonobo in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Sunday, February 9.

I decided I should read the excerpts from Nowtopia in the new Portuguese translation... wasn't easy, but I'm pretty sure I was at least understandable, though no doubt I mangled a lot of words as well as the proper rhythm/emphasis.

I decided I should read the excerpts from Nowtopia in the new Portuguese translation… wasn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure I was at least understandable, though no doubt I mangled a lot of words as well as the proper rhythm/emphasis.

The Brazilian edition!

The Brazilian edition!

Just wrapping up a fantastic 12 days in Brazil which started with flight delays and lost luggage as I arrived in Sao Paulo, only to rush on to Porto Alegre with borrowed clothes for the release of the Brazilian edition of Nowtopia. The publisher, Tomo Editorial of Porto Alegre, who I didn’t really know much about before arriving, turned out to be a very well organized, intelligent, respected small publishing house there, and I am very happy and proud to be associated with them. João Carneiros and Nazareth and Krishna and the rest of the staff were wonderful, and did a great job on book production and setting up a couple of events for me to launch the book and handling sales. And we had very good results: over 200 books sold in a little over a week of its availability!

I was in Porto Alegre for the 1st World Bike Forum in 2011, which was held on the 1st anniversary of a mad businessman driving through Critical Mass at full speed along this street. There is now a dedicated, separated cycletrack on this same street. Looks like progress to me!

I was in Porto Alegre for the 1st World Bike Forum in 2011, which was held on the 1st anniversary of a mad businessman driving through Critical Mass at full speed along this street. There is now a dedicated, separated cycletrack on this same street. Looks like progress to me!

My friends at Café Bonobo hosted me and the presentation in Porto Alegre, and I had a great time trying to read the translated version of Nowtopia excerpts in Portuguese. Apparently I didn’t mangle it completely because many people told me they were very happy with my effort, even if I knew I did a pretty terrible job on pronunciation and emphasis. I was asked during the question-and-answer period about my attitude towards veganism and I suppose that left a bad taste in a lot of mouths in Porto Alegre. There are a lot of vegans among the cycling crowd there who were the natural constituency for Nowtopia, but some at least are disgusted by my alleged “hypocrisy” for not being vegan. I explained that I was a liberal on this question—people are of course free to choose what they want to do in terms of eating and ethics. But that was not an adequate answer for the neo-Calvinist vegans in the crowd, for whom their choice is the only ethical choice. I tried to explain how some of my friends who were once vegan had stopped for health reasons (in some cases) and the last person to ask me a question instead launched into a diatribe about how those friends of mine were “not failed by veganism! They failed veganism!!” Wow! Between that, and a facebook commentator by the name of Waldimir Evangelista Vegano, I don’t think there’s any response at all. They have strongly reinforced my first comment, which was that too many vegans are somewhat authoritarian about their attitudes, which seems to be rooted in a puritanical neo-Christian moralism. Not all vegans are like that, and my hosts are lovely people who do not impose their principled veganism on those around them, by contrast. In any case, I love Porto Alegre and look forward to more visits in the future.

I was surprised and honored at Vulp bikeshop and cafe in Porto Alegre where they had this quote from me hanging outside their door! "Our pleasure is more subversive than our anger."

I was surprised and honored at Vulp bikeshop and cafe in Porto Alegre where they had this quote from me hanging outside their door! “Our pleasure is more subversive than our anger.”

Here we are inside Vulp, with Sergio and Ieve, Isa and her partner...

Here we are inside Vulp, with Sergio and Ieve, Isa and her partner…

Anyway, that was the first stop, and I saw quite a kerfluffle on facebook after I left, but I decided to let the folks there have at it without my participation. I don’t have much to offer, except I do recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a more interesting lengthy rumination on eating and ethics than what for me is the all-too-narrow agenda of veganism.

The area under this highway overpass will be turned into an architecturally wild DIY bike kitchen by the time I get back to Porto Alegre again...

The area under this highway overpass will be turned into an architecturally wild DIY bike kitchen by the time I get back to Porto Alegre again…

This is the public bike system in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities, funded by the big bank Itaú.

This is the public bike system in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities, funded by the big bank Itaú.

There is a big bus strike going on in Porto Alegre, and I was asked about it by every media interviewer. My regular point in such situations is to emphasize the power the workers *could* have if they would continue to run the buses but refuse to take fares. The population would immediately be strongly in support and great solidarities would be created between workers and riders. And most likely the owners and managers would rush to settle the strike as soon as they could. Oddly, both the Sunday newspaper Zero Hora that ran a big spread on my book and visit, and the statewide television clip on TV Globo in Rio Grande do Sul, included these comments about the bus strike! Here’s a poster attached to the wall where Mona Caron passed by last year and painted a mini-mural.

Transit strike poster, Porto Alegre.

Transit strike poster, Porto Alegre.

Mona's girl on the bike wraps around to the big weed with bike pistils floating from the top.

Mona’s girl on the bike wraps around to the big weed with bike pistils floating from the top.

Close-up on the seeding flower at top.

Close-up on the seeding flower at top.

Next stop: back to Sao Paulo. I stayed with old friends, saw a lot of people I’ve known for some years now, and met many new friends too. I managed to pull off my impersonation of a reader/speaker of Portuguese for a second night, and again we had a spirited discussion afterwards, minus the descent into moralism. Later in the night we passed cachaça around the table a half dozen times at a nearby restaurant before I drunkenly walked home to my friends’ house near Vila Madalena. I love Sao Paulo. It’s like New York or Mexico City: huge, chaotic, unmanageable, ultimately unknowable for the visitor, but also welcoming, exciting, mysterious, and full of promise. It’s a city I will return to again and again.

I'm at Labiorosa89, a new incubator space for alternative culture in Sao Paulo, here doing question-and-answer after my talk.

I’m at Labiorosa89, a new incubator space for alternative culture in Sao Paulo, here doing question-and-answer after my talk.

While I was in Curitiba for the Forum Mundial da Bicicleta III (next post), I enjoyed visiting the Oscar Neimayer Museum, a point of great civic pride in Curitiba (and a site for some of the Forum’s panels and parties). It’s a trippy building, and very photogenic like a lot of his works. An architect friend I was standing with said, “yeah, he makes great sculptures, but he hated people! He made them go inside his buildings!” Hah! High Modernist Hell I guess you could say.

I was just arriving at the Oscar Neimayer Museum and a guy I didn't know jumped out of his car and offered to take my photo. He had seen me speak and knew my name!

I was just arriving at the Oscar Neimayer Museum and a guy I didn’t know jumped out of his car and offered to take my photo. He had seen me speak and knew my name!

Very cool look at night.

Very cool look at night.

About a dozen of us also got treated to a ride out of town to Curitiba’s “City of Industry” where there is a squatted community with strong political organizing going on. It’s called Nova Primaveira (“New Spring”) and it’s a typical Brazilian favela made of scrap lumber and corrugated metal, tapping nearby electrical lines and water supplies for basic services (without paying).

Nova Primaveira

Nova Primaveira, in the shadow of a big Toshiba factory. Not far away are Volvo and Electrolux and other multinational industrial giants.

Flyer on the wall in Nova Primaveira explaining their occupation, highly politicized.

Flyer on the wall in Nova Primaveira explaining their occupation, highly politicized.

This flyer announces a meeting of the Movimento Popular por Moradia (Popular Movement for Housing) next to a flyer celebrating their one year anniversary.

This flyer announces meetings of the Movimento Popular por Moradia (Popular Movement for Housing) next to a flyer celebrating their one year anniversary.

This community is quite organized though, and our hosts Bruno and Rodolfo went to great effort to help us meet some of the inhabitants, including Doña Isufina who is official leader of block F, and Chocolate (pronounced in local Portuguese as Chocolahtchee), who is a big neighborhood organizer and also an incredible craftsman. He has taken the flip-tops of aluminum cans and made extremely rugged, durable chains from them, a full curtain of which is hanging in a local gallery in town. At some point these folks, who live in view of a modern Toshiba factory (nearby are Swedish multinationals Volvo and Electrolux among others), resisted a plan to run a road down the middle of their community, refusing to allow themselves to be divided in Nova Primaveira 1 and 2. They are part of the Movimento Popular de Moradia, or the popular movement for dwelling, and they meet every Friday night, apparently routinely carrying on well into the early morning. They are focused on getting a particular apartment design to be adopted by the local officials, and are already recruiting additional families to join the community so that when the first wave gets properly housed, there will be others to keep the political movement alive (recognizing that most people, once they’ve gotten their new apartment, tend to demobilize politically). They are also seeking a “social rent” which is kind of like the U.S. Section 8 subsidy for people who can’t afford prevailing rents.

Bruno and Dona Isufina at block F of Nova Primaveira.

Bruno and Dona Isufina at block F of Nova Primaveira.

Rodolfo introduces us to Chocolate in Nova Primaveira.

Rodolfo introduces us to Chocolate in Nova Primaveira.

(l to r) Rodolfo, our host and guide, Carlos Marroquin from Guatemala's Bicimaquinas project, and Chocolate, community leader in Nova Primaveira.

(l to r) Rodolfo, our host and guide, Carlos Marroquin from Guatemala’s Bicimaquinas project, and Chocolate, community leader in Nova Primaveira.

These are the chains Chocolate makes from discarded pop tops from aluminum cans.

These are the chains Chocolate makes from discarded pop tops from aluminum cans.

To get to this neighborhood in the far reaches of the industrial suburb we had to drive by a ridge-top develop of high-end apartment highrises in an area with no sidewalks, wide one-way streets with high-speed traffic, and a Bus Rapid Transit line running down the middle. This calls itself “Ecoville”!—you’d be hard put to find a less ecologically sensible design than this car-centric development, BRT notwithstanding. Apparently about 60% of daily trips in Curitiba are made on public transit, so the efforts of previous administrations to create a network of high speed buses were somewhat successful. That said, Curitiba is also the city in Brazil with the highest per capital car ownership, and the streets are full of barely moving traffic for hours every day.

A BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) stop in downtown Curitiba, with a huge mosaic mural behind it.

A BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) stop in downtown Curitiba, with a huge mosaic mural behind it.

Road widening, freeway building, airport expansion, and other infrastructure projects are underway everywhere I went, trying to get ready in the next few months for the big influx of visitors expected for the World Cup. Brazilians are getting ready for that in a variety of ways too, some planning protests that they expect to be quite large when the world’s attention is directed at Brazil during the tournament. The government is also quickly passing new laws to criminalize further various types of public protest (the same Workers’ Party government that has been so offended by U.S. NSA snooping on Brazilian internet and telephone communications). We’ll see what happens in a few months!

Curitiba is a great mix of old architecture and new.

Curitiba is a great mix of old architecture and new.

We wandered around and found a lot of beautiful pedestrian zones and plazas largely free of cars.

We wandered around and found a lot of beautiful pedestrian zones and plazas largely free of cars.

A huge pedestrian zone fills the center of the city.

A huge pedestrian zone fills the center of the city.

After the Forum wrapped up in Curitiba, we went on an amazing group bike ride, busing some 20 kilometers to the top of the Serra da Graciosa road. It was built originally in the 1870s, when Brazil was still a slave culture. The road in large stretches is made up of granite bricks and since it is in original Atlantic forest (Mata Atlantica as they call it here), it is also quite wet, often inundated by heavy rains. And that’s what happened to us on this ride, as we slowly made our way down the long descent over the slippery bricks.

Monument to the building of the Serra da Graciosa road in the 1870s, here with one of our 70+ bikes in front.

Monument to the building of the Serra da Graciosa road in the 1870s, here with one of our 70+ bikes in front.

Arbitrary petty authority by the Brazilian federal police held our ride up for two hours at the head of the road. No laws were in play, just the opinion of a couple of cops who thought they had the right to ban  bicyclists from making the ride down the hill! They finally relented.

Arbitrary petty authority by the Brazilian federal police held our ride up for two hours at the head of the road. No laws were in play, just the opinion of a couple of cops who thought they had the right to ban bicyclists from making the ride down the hill! They finally relented.

This is where we were going.

This is where we were going.

But before we could make our ride, we were stopped for nearly two hours by the Brazilian Federal Police, sort of the highway patrol, but they have a checkpoint at the starting spot, and they simply would not let us go. Somehow the three or four cops who were there decided that some elaborate bureaucratic permission was needed—and missing—and thus we would not be able to ride. Our ride organizers spent a lot of time negotiating and cajoling and after an hour the cops relented a bit and let us all sign a roster with our names and ID numbers. I of course just made up a random number. Another 45 minutes went by with the cops wasting time on the computer and just being arbitrarily authoritarian and obstructionist. Finally we were allowed to proceed, and about 75 of us poured on the road.

We finally begin!

We finally begin!

It felt great to be in the forest, and before long we were winding down a steep incline into fog and mist, everyone grinding their brakes down to nothing. About halfway down heavy rains started, and I got so utterly soaked it was funny. I haven’t been so wet in memory.

After we paused along the road here, the rain really came down and we all became completely soaked.

After we paused along the road here, the rain really came down and we all became completely soaked.

Riding through the rain deep in the forest on the Serra da Graciosa.

Riding through the rain deep in the forest on the Serra da Graciosa.

Unfortunately my backpack is not that waterproof and some of my papers and wallet were not in plastic and got quite soaked too. Anyway, by the time we rolled out at the bottom of the hill, we still had another 15 kilometers to go on a long straight relatively flat road to get to our end point at Morretes. After another heaping Brazilian buffet, we rushed to catch our 3 pm train, a train built also in the 1880s, an incredible ride up through the dense rainforest to a bridge that is considered a remarkable engineering feat for its time. The onboard tour guide also told us the tunnels along the way had been built with only black powder, thus making progress through the dense granite cliffs very slow. Ruins along the way illustrated how vibrant this train line must have been in its heyday, a line bringing Yerba Maté from the coastal plain up over the mountains to Curitiba. Of course the train and the road were both built by slave labor in their time. Amazing to think they’re still functioning, though now purely as tourist experiences.

You can just make out the remarkable bridge in the middle of this photo, built 1880-1885, and still in use.

You can just make out the remarkable bridge in the middle of this photo, built 1880-1885, and still in use.

Here we are crossing the bridge.

Here we are crossing the bridge.

Incredible views, this one down to the Iribamba River in the canyon below.

Incredible views, this one down to the Iribamba River in the canyon below.

Massive granite massifs towered up out of the Atlantic Forest too.

Massive granite massifs towered up out of the Atlantic Forest too.

Wild to see wild forests stretching as far as one can see.

Wild to see wild forests stretching as far as one can see.

Love riding old trains!

Love riding old trains!

We had a book salon at the end of the Forum and once again we had a lot of fun, selling books like mad, while I sat signing them for all my new Brazilian friends with great pleasure, and having an amazing number of photos taken too. I loved visiting Curitiba. Of course I was being feted the whole time, and was surrounded by a lot of wonderful people who made sure I lacked nothing. Not a bad way to travel, to tell the truth! I look forward to reciprocating the hospitality for my Brazilian friends when they come to San Francisco in the future.

Wandering around Curitiba we came upon this garage with wonderful stencils.

Wandering around Curitiba we came upon this garage with wonderful stencils.

A full-on stencil library!

A full-on stencil library!

Dead fish follow the currents... on TV!

Dead fish follow the currents… on TV!

 

 

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6 Responses to “Nowtopia in Brazil”

  1. 1
    Carlos:

    Dear Chris,

    I can`t actually believe that you reall believe in this affirmation you`ve mada: “people are of course free to choose what they want to do in terms of eating and ethics”.

    Following that principle, it is acceptable to mistreat women, like in some african and arab cultures, in which mutilation and phisycal punishment are acceptable according to “their ethics”.

    There is no ethic in mistreating anyone whether they are human or non-human.

  2. 2
    ccarlsson:

    I do believe it, and I reject your analogy. I am against factory farms and the widespread mistreatment of animals, as I am against wage-labor and the widespread mistreatment of human (animals). There is not much about the organization of life as we know it that I think is fair, sensible, or worthy of defense. But I live in this world, not in one of my choosing. Do I think I can make meaningful changes to this world through my consumption choices? No, not really. Do I think it makes sense to make the best choices you can, when you are faced with them? sure, why not? But I’m not a perfectionist, and I don’t seek to be morally pure. It’s of no interest to me to be a saint… Then there’s my health: I actually feel 1000% better on a largely meat/paleo diet, low in carbs, with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. I do not digest beans well, actually seem to have some kind of allergy to them, and really detest tofu/soy… (it’s so boring!). So I eat for pleasure, and do my best to buy meats that are produced by humane and sustainable farmers.

  3. 3
    Carlos:

    Very easy to just reject the analogy without any justification so you don’t need to question your values and habits.

    I’m not trying to be morally pure when I don’t steal, don’t spank children, don’t discriminate women or homossexuals and don’t eat meat. I’m just doing all I can not to hurt others.

  4. 4
    ccarlsson:

    very nice of you to appoint yourself my moral judge… you know nothing of any thoughts I have had, or time I have spent thinking about these issues. You just assume that since I don’t agree with you, and don’t want to take the time to exercise a very long and very old philosophical debate, that I am taking the easy way out… think again!

  5. 5
    Klaus Stefan Volkmann:

    Hello Chris, how are you?

    I coudn`t participate in Now Topia release and the Curitiba Bike Forum. I really missed miself in both events. So nice that Tomo Editorial edited your book, I`m a good friend of João and Naza and admire their work. They say that they are a small publishing house and if every thing goes right, they will remain a small publishing house jejeje 😉

    I was in Cuba riding a new bamboo bike. In Cuba people doens`t have much acess to supply of material and they have to invent and build a lot of things from scratch. I think that`s why people liked so much the hand made recumbent bike that “uau! , even the spokes were made with bamboo”.

    There are a few pitures of the new bike (I call her .Shiva) in my website: http://receitasparasalvaromundo.com/

    In this moment I belieave that our exemple is very powerfull, especially of people that are admired by many. Maybe we humans base our habits in other human habits and if that is somehow right we can start a chain effect that can inflence the community we live in. My hope may be childish but it keeps me a happy person.

    This impression is because I receive a considerable amount of blackmail and threats in my website were I whrite not only about bikes and knowledge that empower but also about animal rights. I do it without any kind of violence, just pictures and nice words and I get a lot of violent messages wich I deleat before it goes on-line. Some black mail seem to be so good that it seems that the person who is writing have a good knowledge of human psychology. In facebook there is a group to discourage people that are vegan, using all kinds of black mail, very good blackmail, making people afraid, you know, the culture of fear. Once they got a picture of myself 6 years ago and now and compared the two pictures saying that I was loosing hair and a lot of nonsence. My brother in my age had much less hair then myself and he eats animais and all.

    Why would some one do that? Maybe it is because I was influencing a few people, no to think like me, but to think by them selves and some people were making certain changes in their habits and even worse, thay were talking about it and that is not good for the multi billion dollar industry that exploits other animals. For them it is nothing to pay people to work on the internet to undermine initiatives that could be bad for business. Of course, it can also be just people with nothing better to do.

    You are totally right, tofu is disgusting, there are a few entire books that only have vegetable chease recipes, cashew nuts chease, manioc chease, etc none of them with soy and all deliciuos. I also eat for pleasure, totally understand.

    That is not the point in this moment. In the opinion I have right now, there is a big difference between religious moralism and activism related to things that are actually happening, what is your opinion?

    I`m constantly changing the way I perceive the world, it is only that in the last 6 years, in so many different points of view, there was no point in which slavory was acceptable. Some times I read and think about that the majority of food grown on earth, in wich so many are hungry, is destined to feed industrialized and “free” range animals, if there is some truth to it maybe we could work together to find all kinds of different and delicious ways in which all kinds of people can live in a more simple way. It may be a matter of keep trying, to fail and try again and again, we are so creative, so inteligent.

    Right now I think that we do have to accept reality as it is but actively and not passively. That we, the people, have a lot of latent power, what do you think in this moment, if we begin to unite and fight in favor of every one, do we have power to change the world, to change the predator / capitalist way of living?

    Everything I write is only a momentary point of view, I feel free and I like this sensation so much that I wish that every one can live in freedom and equality but maybe some are more important then others or maybe there is no right and wrong, right? jejej 🙂

    I wish to see you in the next bike forum here in Brazil or in other part of our mini planet.

    Wishing you all the best,
    Klaus Volkmann

  6. 6
    ccarlsson:

    Hi Klaus,
    great to hear from you. A mutual friend showed me photos of your amazing bamboo bike in Cuba.. wow! really impressive!… I hope we cross paths again before too long too, maybe in Medellin, Colombia in 2015 at the next Bike Forum… I certainly agree that there is a big difference between religious moralism and political activism, but of course many people conflate the two and draw lines that cannot be crossed as “political” statements when they are really moral stands. Of course morality and politics are never easy to separate, and probably shouldn’t be in general, but the issue of veganism, and animal rights more broadly, seems to often bring a moral self-righteousness into the heart of politics. Too often I’ve met animal rights folks who are much more concerned with animal rights than human rights; too many have slid down the slippery slope that equates animal treatment with the treatment of humans. This is not to defend the barbaric practices of industrial agriculture which I do not, nor is it to insist that animals don’t have rights to be treated with humaneness and kindness as much as possible. But I like to eat meat, it suits my health and my taste, and I know it is possible to humanely and sustainably grow farm animals for eating. That said, I would be glad to engage in a more global conversation about how we reproduce ourselves as human cultures. What is the proper balance for life on the planet? What kinds of agricultural practices are sane and justified and which ones are crazy and backwards? I know land use and water use are huge issues going forward in the next years, so making our best plans on how to best use land and water, not to mention our own time and effort (human labor), is essential. Maybe if there was a democratic process we would all decide together to eat many fewer animals because of the difficulty of sustaining them on land and water resources. But I think we’d find that there are many landscapes on which livestock is the best way of converting weeds and sunlight into protein, better than clearing the land and planting soy or corn or wheat, or even well-balanced vegetable gardens…
    Anyway it’s a complicated discussion and one that doesn’t lend itself to ironclad moral rules in my opinion.
    best to you too!
    –cc

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