Letter from Brazil

May 27, 2015

by Richard Dawkins

I’ve been to Brazil only once before, as a guest speaker of the American Animal Behavior Society (ABS), and of my Brazilian publishers when the delightfully titled Deus um Delirio was published. At that time I also had the opportunity to visit the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland area, where I and my ABS colleagues were knocked out by the spectacular bird life. Also on that visit I attended the Paraty Literary Festival, on the coast where,  at high spring tides, the sea comes up into the streets as if washing a temporary Venice. This time, however, I am to be confined to big cities – neither of them being Rio de Janeiro – maybe next time.

I hadn’t realised until I arrived here that São Paulo is the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. Also Brazil is the largest country by area in the Southern Hemisphere. And, almost entirely because of Brazil, Portuguese is the eighth most spoken language in the world. This is a big, important city in a big and important country, dominating the big, important continent of West Gondwana. I’m here to give two talks, one in Porto Alegre and one in São Paulo, as part of the Fronteiras do Pensamento program. Past guests in this excellent forum have included Daniel Dennett, Antonio Damasio, Camille Paglia, Daniel Kahneman, Amartya Sen, Brian Greene, Ayaan Hirsi-Ali and Jimmy Wales the founder of the admirable Wikipedia. No pressure, then.

You get a good impression of São Paulo’s size as you fly in. Most large US cities have an island or a few islands of densely packed high rise buildings in clumps, surrounded by low rise hinterlands. São Paulo is the opposite. A forest of high rise buildings seems to stretch from horizon to horizon, with a few low rise clearings dotted about. And the whole scene is misty with what I am told is pollution.

I arrived non-stop from London.  A nice, smooth flight, thank you British Airways as usual. But, just in case anybody from BA should happen to see this, wouldn’t it be a good idea to hand out the Brazilian immigration forms some time before the “ten minutes to land” warning. It’s an 11 hour flight: we could have whiled away the long hours filling in the forms, rather than in a mad scramble just as the wheels come down and we might like to look out of the window.  Actually they didn’t hand the forms out at all until I went and asked, panicked by the Brazilian Arrival Regulations video that they played us at the last minute. That video said there were two forms, an immigration form and a customs form. Both forms, we were promised, were available in English and Portuguese. The customs form, as the video explained, required us to list things we were bringing into the country, including our old, used laptop and iPad. What? List my old iPad? Help? Where are those forms? Why haven’t you handed them out? Why didn’t you hand them out earlier?

The kind stewardess to whom I rushed in a panic, ignoring the Fasten Seat Belts for Landing instruction, seemed surprised that I hadn’t already got my forms. Actually it turned out that nobody had, and, prompted by my public-spirited alerting, the cabin crew then ran up and down the plane, frantically distributing them at the last minute. Only in Portuguese, by the way: no English ones were available. And only the Immigration form. Help! Where is the daunting customs form, where I have to list my Mac, my iPad and all my other possessions? The next stewardess whom I asked had no knowledge of any customs form and seemed bewildered by my question.

At this point a third stewardess, who was actually Brazilian, was summoned, and she calmly explained that the Brazilian Arrivals Video that British Airways routinely shows its passengers has been obsolete since January 2013. There is no longer a customs form to fill in, and there is no longer a rule that you have to declare your computer and iPad. “Er, in that case, why do you show the out-of-date video and send all the passengers and half the cabin crew into a flat spin ten minutes before landing?” “Oh YES, I see what you MEAN, now you mention it, it WOULD be a good idea not to show that video, wouldn’t it. Oh yes, so it would. Especially as the video says nothing else other than about the forms you have to fill in. Thank you for pointing it out.” I’ve never actually used the word “Duh” but the temptation was strong.

I had a comfortable changeover to the smaller TAM plane to Porto Alegre in the south of the country, where I was to give my first talk. I was met at the airport by Francisco de Azeredo, the organizer of my whole tour. Porto Alegre is a pretty big town in its own right, but it doesn’t get the same variety of speakers as São Paulo or Rio, so (as in the southern United States) the citizens turn out in force when they get the opportunity. Francisco moved my talk to a larger arena and I ended up speaking to about 3000 people and then signing a massive quantity of books, including lots of copies of the first volume of my autobiography which has just been published in Portuguese. The Q & A  session was a bit tricky because the moderator’s booming loudspeaker drowned out the interpreter’s dulcet tones in my headphones. But between us we managed somehow. It might have been better if I had been standing and the moderator sitting, instead of the other way around. In any case, memo to self: I must school myself to improve my answers to questions that I’ve heard a hundred times before.

Flew back to São Paulo yesterday with Francisco, who has been extremely helpful throughout. After an interview with Galileo, a Brazilian science magazine,  we went to dinner with about twenty guests, including some of the sponsors of my lectures. Delightful evening, very interesting company including several scientists, and I was next to the Editor of Brazil’s leading newspaper. We were arranged around four tables and I felt a bit bad about condemning my table to be the only one obliged to speak English. However, they were so effortlessly fluent, I don’t think it mattered.

This evening is my second big lecture, on Evolutionary Arms Races. http://www.fronteiras.com/saopaulo/conferencia/richard-dawkins

The venue is much smaller than in Porto Alegre and it is expected to be full. Tomorrow I have a press conference, then fly out to Los Angeles to begin my swift and hectic tour of North America.

3 comments on “Letter from Brazil

  • I praise Richard for his public spirited attempt to resolve a problem.

    It’s not always easy to raise these issues, as some people can be very touchy, or even just completely baffled by your intentions. There also seems to be a curious phenomenon where many people will knowingly continue to do something in a wrong or unhelpful way, so I often wonder if it’s worthwhile even bothering. But there’s no chance of improving things if you don’t try!

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  • Dearest Dr. Dawkins,

    I´d like to kindly invite you to consider visiting Argentina the next time you get that close in your trip. I´m not a soccer fan myself, but I suppose your argentinian followers will get quite moody if they notice that Brazil will be beating us “3-0” with regard to your visits. 😉

    Of course, if a visit to our country ever happens to become possible, I would like to invite you to give a conference at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, where a huge bunch of our scientists and students would be extatic to have you as a speaker.

    Best regards for your upcoming North America tour.



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