High Steaks

I’ve been meaning to put pen to paper for over a week now, for one last chronicle from Brazil. I had planned to call it ‘Piranha or Picanha’, using the Portuguese spelling for that ravenous fish. Picanha of course is the ubiquitous beef dish that features on the menu practically everywhere in Brazil.

Although Brazil now cultivates over four hundred thousand tons of fish per year, largely tilapia, and aims to double that in a few years, the diet is firmly anchored in beef and carbs. And salt. Portugal used to be heavy on salt, which led to an abnormally high rate of stomach cancer. The bacterium Heliobacter pylori is responsible for stomach ulcers, and can cause gastric tumors. About two-thirds of the world population is infected, and the little fokker enjoys living in a nice salty environment.

Microrganisms are amazing, and this one is shaped like a helix, as the name suggests, so it can drill itself into the mucus lining the human stomach, pirouetting like a bacterial ballerina. It can also survive the acidic environment of the stomach.

Your tummy secretes HCl. Together with nitric and sulphuric, hydrochloric acid completes the trio you remember from high school chemistry. Strong stuff, required in the chemical warfare of breaking down large chunks of picanha, in preparation for the next assault. The bacteria would also perish, acidified to death, except they secrete an enzyme that produces ammonia, which neutralizes the acid in their immediate vicinity. These little belly dancers have been with us for thousands of years, so I would hazard that the ammonia may also play a role in stopping the acid drilling through the stomach wall. Although the bacteria also cause ulcers. Go figure.

No one gives any thought to how their organs work, except when they don’t. Or when they hurt. Our bits then become the focus of close scrutiny.

Eisenhower, a most unlikely member of the famous Rio soccer club, Fluminense, listed on a plaque above the trophy room.

Around midnight last Friday, I was driving down a road paved with good intentions, when suddenly, instead of hitting Copacabana, we were routed onto a diversion marked ‘Hell’. Throughout the week it had become increasingly difficult to walk without pain, due to a minor foot ailment, maybe some beach brother of the belly ballerina. The pharmacy was on a side road to Atlantic Avenue, that runs along the beaches. At that time of night, the street fauna is rather different, and several piranhas were laying in wait. In this case, they were not the fishy kind, but a different species of maneater. Rio’s transvestites are legendary, right up there with the ladyboys of Thailand.

 After a brief chat with the pharmacist, I ended up seeing a doctor. My first port of call was at the UPA24 in Botafogo, right next to the metrô. UPA stands for Immediate Consultation Unit, but the waiting room was like St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday.  A dispirited bunch at the door informed me they had been waiting for five hours, and had no expectation of when they would actually be seen by a doctor.

Time for plan B.

Private medical care in Brazil is as expensive as restaurant food, but at least I had insurance. Given the bill, I don’t know how anyone can get by. A couple of days before I’d been invited to the Iate Clube, as conservative an establishment as a London gentlemen’s club, where I was told that the firemen were going on strike for better pay. This was an issue because Brazilian firemen are part of the military. And everywhere in the world the military can only strike at things, they can’t just strike. My hosts informed me that the monthly salary for a fireman was around 1100 reais, roughly seven hundred bucks. The wage scale seems pretty shy of the cost of living. After Lula, Brazil may have grown a middle class, but it is still very much split into haves and have nots.

I always asked the cabbies two questions: who were the worst tourists, and what they thought of Dilma. On the first issue, the French won unanimously. On the second, the floor was divided, ranging from a guy who told me everything was a tragedy since Brazil became a republic (in 1889) to one who said that he used to suport her, but now:

O PT está roubando demais!

In other words, the ruling party is stealing excessively. Priceless use of adverbs.

My credit card didn’t work, so I asked if the hospital had an ATM.

“Sorry, our ATM is closed.”
“Ok, but there’s a bank across the road. I’ll go to their ATM.”
“No, the bank’s ATM is also closed.”
“No, no, I mean the ATM. The machine.”
She nodded. “I know. It’s closed.”
“It’s a machine, for cryin’ out loud! Machines don’t close.”
“They do here. The ATM closes at 10pm.”
“You’re kidding!”
“No, it’s because of robberies.”

Eventually, the whole thing got sorted.

The route taken by two Portuguese airmen, Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral. Their flight from Portugal to Brazil was the first to cross the South Atlantic. Gago Coutinho wrote extensively on the Portuguese discoveries, and mapped Vasco da Gama's "great circle" route to India, the "Golfão".

When I had first arrived at the hospital, I offered up my Portuguese ID card, and was given a form in English to fill. Bureaucracy is ten times worse than southern Europe, almost of Chinese standard. Nationality, names of both parents (both deceased, pretty pointless), various quantitative requests. Color of underwear luckily not required.

The lady at reception looked at the piece of paper, wrote something on it, and handed me a disclaimer form.

“Excuse me, do you read Portuguese?” She asked politely.
“Read it?” I spluttered. Drawing myself up to my full height, with as much dignity as a one-legged tourist can muster at 2am, I proclaimed: “Madam, we invented the language.”

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

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One Response to “High Steaks”

  1. Rui Says:

    Love the post!

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