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July 27, 2007

Brazil's Jeitinho

In a country larger than the continental United States, and in many ways almost as diverse, there is one common thread that ties all true Brazilians together: The ability to “dar um jeito.”
   
“Dar um jeito” translates to something along the lines of “find a way” in the sense of finding a shortcut or just a way to get something done.  The more Brazilian you are, the better you can “find a way,” and in Rio de Janeiro in particular the “jeito” is a way of life. 

“Everyone in Brazil knows exactly how to ‘dar um jeito’,” said one Pan Am volunteer to me the other day.  “But we in Rio have elevated the ‘jeito’ to a whole new level.” Whenever you find yourself in a sticky situation, it usually is worth your time to suggest that rather than pay that pesky traffic ticket, or wait for four hours for the next bus, perhaps you could “find a way” around the problem.
   
My theory that the jeito—or jeitinho as it’s affectionally called—was born out of the real necessity to cut through the miles of ridiculous red tape installed by the socialist government and instead find a back channel and do things in a roundabout, semi-legal or sneaky way.

My favorite example involves the ridiculous rule barring one from wearing shorts in the federal police building.  This is a very informal country, where flip flops with heels are considered upscale attire.  But for some reason in exactly one building in the city of Rio de Janeiro, you may not wear shorts.  This is also a tropical country, where the temperature often cracks 100 degrees in the summer and shorts are de rigeur for all but the fussiest of dress codes.  

But this is also a place with delusions of grandeur that date back to their colonial roots (think classical music on public buses--it’s actually quite nice.)  Anyway, the no shorts rule really trips up the tourists who have to go to the federal police building to renew their tourist visas.  In the three months they’ve been in Rio their Portuguese has progressed beyond “give me another beer, please,” but even a native would be stumped to hear the guard deny you entry for your cut offs.  But never fear, this is Brazil. Yes, you can “find a way,” and if you look at the guard closely, she’ll nod you in the direction of the man on the corner, doing brisk business renting long pants out of a shopping cart for $2.50 a pair.  See?  There’s always a way.
   
I experienced tons of these little victories when I was down here last time, usually dealing with saving money. A friend of mine once got out of a traffic ticket by giving the police officer his can of coke.  Why pay your annoying electricity bill when you can just splice your electric cable into the main line that serves your neighborhood?  Heck, there’s even a ladder resting against the telephone pole waiting for you to climb it. Sick of paying for long distance or international calls?  Never fear, some fellow from the phone company probably rigged a phone in your neighborhood to call the Amazon—or even Australia—for free a few hours a day—you just need to find out which one and when it’s working (here’s a hint- look for the phone with the line.) 

When a huge electrical storm left neighborhoods across the city without power, my working poor neighborhood was without electricity for three days, low on the list of priorities when places like Ipanema and Copacabana were dark.  On the fourth day, after the food in the fridge was sufficiently spoiled, my roommate called the power company for the tenth time and told them that the transformer box was on fire.  Within half an hour a crew was up the pole getting our lights back on.
   
But you have to ask for a jeitinho, because if not you’ll end up paying that inflated electricity bill or that stupid fine.  I was reminded of that quid pro quo today at the press center while awaiting a taxi. 
   
For the last few weeks, every time I was set to hike across town to my apartment from the distant press center, my buddy at the information desk insisted on calling me a cab, saying she did it for everyone.  Now, I have my own cell phone, and I am perfectly capable of calling a cab, but this is a big city, and I’m just as happy to let her call a local company and save on my expensive cell minutes.   Plus, it’s certainly easier for her to explain to the driver which of the dozen highly-secured gates a cab may enter, because I still don’t know.

Tonight, after finishing up my work at 10 p.m. and knowing full well I had a half hour ride across town, I just wanted to leave in a hurry.  But I arrived at the information desk to see that my friend was gone, replaced instead by a pleasant gentleman who was also very happy to help.  My buddy took down my name and cell phone number and called over a friend.  It took several minutes for him to explain that I needed a cab, and he insisted over and over again that I was American.  Make sure the driver knows she’s American!  By now I’m thinking, good lord, give me the number, I’ll call him myself.  

So then peon #2 disappears with the piece of paper for a full five minutes while I’m skimming some propaganda and learning about how the Brazilian postal service is sponsoring the Pan Am Games, trying to figure out why the Postal Service should really need that much publicity.  Finally Peon #2 returns, and I ask him how long my cab will be.  He kindly informs me that “she’s calling right now.”  Who’s calling right now?  Are only women allowed to call cabs now?  This was a full ten minutes after I originally wanted to leave, six hours after I arrived at the press center to do my work and just eight hours before I had to get up and do it all over again.  So he disappears and returns a few minutes later, asking where I’m going, and I tell him, and he disappears to deliver the message, which somehow is instrumental to getting a taxi to arrive.
   
Finally, a full 25 minutes after I first asked the guy behind the desk if he might please pick up the phone next to him and dial the number, peon #1 starts to tell me how there’s a line of cabs waiting out front.  Why didn’t he tell me that in the first place, you might ask?  Because they’re not necessarily safe--maybe they’ll charge you way too much money, or take me a strange route. For some reason the normal cab he called for me, not even a company he knows, probably just the “official cab of the Pan,” as they call it here, would be safe. 

I thanked him, fuming, and started to say that although I appreciated his concern, I could handle myself thank you very much, and there was no way some cabbie was going to rip me off.  After all I’d cabbed my way around the city before and always managed to keep the drivers in line.  I wasn’t exactly your typical tourist—during my first trip down here I learned the word for gunfight before I learned the word for napkin. 
   
But just as I’m starting to ask where the cabs are, peons #2 and #3 come out from an office, perhaps the Office of Taxi Summation Services, to tell me that peon #4 has called a cab, and it will be here at some point, but it’s going to be a little while.  So, for the second time in the week, I lost my patience and excused myself, hardly saying goodnight and thanks but no thanks.  I muttered “stupid Brazil…..stupid taxi…stupid stupid,” and some other choice words as I hiked over to the entrance where 25 cabs waited.  A friendly and helpful cab driver asked me which route I’d like to take and off we went, half an hour after I originally wanted to leave.
   
If only I’d asked if there was any way to get a cab faster, if there was any way to “dar um jeitinho” I’d have been off like a flash so much faster.

Mollie Bailey