Square Fifteen

“Learning how to multiply is fine, but you never use it. That’s what calculators are for. So you shouldn’t fail exams for not knowing your tables,” the driver declared. He tapped his left temple. I grunted from the back seat as I watched the Av. Infante Dom Henrique, named after the early XV century Portuguese navigator, flash by at ninety miles an hour.

The cabbie was busy entering data into his GPS, occasionally swerving the Fiat back into his lane or honking at one of the other F1 drivers vying for pole position. He was attempting to verify my claim that we were actually headed for the Praça XV de Novembro, rather than just Square Fifteen.

“Are you sure?” he had asked doubtfully. “November? I never heard it called that!” He eyed me suspiciously in the rearview. Weird guy, wierd accent.

“Well, it’s when you guys became a republic. I think you’ll find it’s a public holiday.”

“Really? I’ll check.” Still fiddling with the satnav, he pulled up his left knee to steer, gunned the engine round a deep bend, and used his free hand to flip a calendar. The big red number jumped out at him, slap bang in the middle of the page. The GPS also showed him the name and the route. Score one for the foreigner.

The Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, a library in Rio's historic central district that houses a quarter million books.

We went down off the Perimetral, on the east side, by the sea.

“That’s where the last imperial ball was held,” he pointed. “Before the Portuguese went home. I’ll drop you off over here, it’s safer.”

I walked off toward the market square. Above me the traffic thundered on the Perimetral. Below the elevated beltway, another kind of traffic hovered. Markets, ferry terminals, and freeway underpasses always seem to draw in the indigent. An old Dylan line came into my mind: “when you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”  

Safety is always on your mind in Brazil, or at least it should be. Rio has gotten a lot better recently, since the UPP, the Police Pacifying Unit, has been going into the favelas, the ever present slums of Rio―but it wasn’t that long ago that armed gangs occasionally blocked the airport expressway, the aptly named ‘Linha Vermelha’.

Along the coastal highway you drive southwest past the emblematic beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. A high end apartment on the Avenida Atlântica will set you back thirty million dollars. Up on the hill facing Leblon, the infamous Favela do Vidigal, still a huge problem for the local government attempting to clean up the city for the 2014 soccer world cup. Behind that, the largest slum in South America―Rocinha is home to one hundred thousand souls.

The favela Chapéu Mangueira slum, on the hills behind Copacabana.

São Paulo is considerably worse, twenty million people and six million cars. Traffic is heinous, and violence is much more serious. I was driven around by an ex-cop who told me that he’d been knifed, shot, and attacked with hand grenades during his ten year tour.

“Shrapnel. Three plastic surgeries,” he told me. “Just to rebuild my face.”

I had already noticed how smooth the skin was, no traces of stubble.

“Well, you’re in the right place for it,” I joked. Brazil is the nip and tuck capital of the universe.

Back in 2006, São Paulo was brought to a standstill by a criminal outfit called PCC, or Primeiro Comando da Capital. 15.3.3, as it’s also called, was formed in prison, after the Carandiru jailhouse massacre back in 1992. There’s a movie about the riot, and the subsequent killing of 111 inmates. My driver told me he was there, as part of military police special ops.

“The movie’s good, but the Carandiru riot was much worse than the film showed…”

Before all that he’d been up north on the Colombian border, swapping potshots with the FARC.

“You need to write a book,” I told him.

He just shook his head.

After Carandiru no one would hire ex-cops, not even security firms. Brazil has changed a lot since then, all for the better, but it’s still a country of haves and have-nots.

The old Rio architecture is in the style ‘Portugal tropical’, and ‘Square Fifteen’ is home to the imperial court, the ‘Paço Imperial’. Opposite, the state parliament, and across the street, the beautiful church of  Carmo.

The bookstore followed the general trend in Rio. The road signs are great as long as you already know where you’re going. Livraria Arlequim is hidden on the southwest corner of Praça XV, inside the old court building. I looked in vain for a sign on the door. But the books inside gave the game away.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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