25 March 2013

Trials of the Decade

Headline-grabbing, shocking, all-consuming, gripping, engrossing, hypnotic, riveting . . . these are just some of the adjectives that describe the murder cases we’ve followed these past ten years in Brazil. From the moment of the crime to the moment the defendant is either freed or sent to jail, these stories have taken up chunks of our lives and our daily conversation. Woe to the person who isn’t "up" on the latest plot twist, because it’s sure to be argued and discussed ad nauseam at the corner grocery. Here’s a wrap-up of the most compelling cases . . .

Isabella Nardoni
The all-time shocker is "the Nardoni case," from 2008. People still talk about this one. Isabella Nardoni, the adorable, smiling 5-year-old shown here, was found on the ground underneath her father’s sixth-floor apartment by a building employee who had heard a "thump." One neighbor attempted futilely to revive her. Another called an ambulance. Passers-by stood around wringing their hands and lamenting the tragedy. Minutes passed — too many — and then all of a sudden Isabella’s father and stepmother were running around screaming, "There's been an intruder, there's been an intruder." So began their desperate attempt to divert everyone’s attention from what actually occurred, which was painstakingly pieced together by police, forensic experts, the prosecutor and, finally, a judge and jury. Isabella had been strangled in a moment of pique by her stepmother, and then to cover the first unspeakable crime, thrown out a bedroom window (still alive) by her father. If all that isn’t shocking enough, what chills the spine is the deliberateness with which her father took the time to cut through the window guard before throwing his child out the window. Plus, his next act was to call his father for advice. (God bless cell phone records, a real boon for prosecutors.) The intruder scheme was a good try on the part of the grandfather to protect his son, but nobody bought it for a nano-second. Using logic and a plethora of DNA evidence, a jury found Isabella’s father and stepmother guilty. They are both still in prison.

Suzane Richthofen
The 2002 "Richthofen case" is a classic "kill-your-parents-and-throw-yourself-on-the-mercy-of-the-court-because-you’re-an-orphan" story. Suzane von Richthofen, 19 years old, and a distant relative of the German World War I ace fighter pilot, planned and helped carry out the murder of her wealthy parents with her then-boyfriend and his brother. The two boys bludgeoned the couple to death in their bed while Suzane, who had turned off the security cameras in her parents’ mansion, waited patiently downstairs. Her brazen attempts at getting the court to show her some leniency as the orphaned daughter have been in vain, as if no one could see that all she really wanted was her slice of the von Richthofen family fortune. No, Suzane, your younger brother, orphaned thanks to you, gets the money. You get to stay in prison, along with your boyfriend and his brother.

Bruno Fernandes
Eliza Samudio
Brazil has its own version of the O.J. Simpson case, known as "the Bruno case," involving a famous and talented soccer goalie, Bruno Fernandes. Back in 2010 his sometime girlfriend, Eliza Samudio, disappeared, along with their small child. Eliza’s family began to question her whereabouts, and knowing there was bad blood between Eliza and Bruno they got the police involved. Sure enough, the child was soon found in the care of another of Bruno’s girlfriends. And where was Eliza? Bruno had no idea. Maybe she moved to Portugal? Long story short, this was indeed a murder case, with several of Bruno’s friends and cousins enlisted to do the actual dirty work. Arrests were made, and eventually those involved began to rat each other out. Eliza had been abducted to one of Bruno’s properties, held hostage, strangled, quartered and thrown to dogs. After two years of denying everything, Bruno’s trial has just ended with his admission that "yes, he did imagine that his friends had killed Eliza, and that yes, he accepted that." He was given a 22-year sentence, and continues to maintain from prison that he didn’t really do anything, or order that anything be done. Right.

Michael Kanaley
And then there’s one case that didn’t grab any national headlines, but remains a compelling topic at our dinner table. It’s an unsolved case involving the 2010 murder of Michael Kanaley, a young American software executive, right here in Búzios. Kanaley lived in Rio with his common-law wife and their two daughters. He had come out to Búzios with his daughters to spend the New Year holiday, and had already sent them back home. A few days later, on his way back to Rio, he somehow ended up shot to death on a lonely, rarely-used road. His rental car was later found torched two towns away. Mark and I always think about this case when we drive to and from Rio — after all, there’s only the one road in and out, and it passes right by the road Kanaley ended up on — and we wonder how he was enticed so far off the beaten track, especially in high season, when the main road is heavily trafficked. Makes no sense. But without a single clue or a single witness, the police have more or less given up. On the Brazilian version of Crime Stoppers (Disque-Denúncia) they’re still offering 5,000 reais ($2500) for information.

18 March 2013

Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay

There are three piers in our bay, though as best I can tell only one is used as a pier. That’s the Fishermen’s Pier, so-called because it juts out into the bay from the fish market and was originally meant to make life easier for the fishermen. This pier, a real tourist attraction here on Manguinhos Beach, sits off to the left of our house. To the right of our house is a private pier built by Barracuda Resort, a once-glamorous but now rather faded, resort hotel. Their Web site advertises this second pier as "a private jetty for your boat and for fishing." In ten years we’ve never seen anyone use it, not for tying up a boat, not for fishing, not for walking, not for sitting. Right between these two structures, and almost directly in front of our house, are the remains of an old rock pier built by slaves, which had been used for loading bananas during the period in which all of Búzios was a banana plantation. It’s only visible at low tide, when visitors and residents alike often walk out to its farthest point to hunt for crabs, take pictures, or reflect on its history. We never stop taking pictures of these piers. Here are but a few:

The Fishermen’s Pier

The Barracuda Resort Pier

The Rock Pier

11 March 2013

More Lost Tribes?

We keep reading in the innumerable news stories about the Emeritus Pope and the soon-to-be-Pope that Brazil is home to the largest Catholic population in the world. I don’t doubt it, but I have seen a lot more people wearing crosses around their necks on Fifth Avenue in New York than I’ve ever seen here in Brazil. The Brazilians Mark and I cross paths with on any given day are no more likely to be Catholic than Methodist, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Zen Buddhist, spiritualist, atheist or Jewish, or of some made-to-order set of beliefs that takes a little from Column A and a little from Column B, and sprinkles in the stardust of the candomblé and umbanda that slaves brought with them from Africa. One thing for sure, whatever religion a Brazilian may or may not profess, there’s a universally-held belief that God is Brazilian. (Among the Catholics, there’s a glimmer of a hope that the next Pope will be, too.)

Given my own background, I have, I admit, been especially curious about the Brazilian Jews. If you judge by the number of Stars of David worn around necks, or the number of mezuzahs affixed to doors, you might think Brazil is an overseas extension of New York’s Lower East Side. But there's a simple explanation. For many Brazilians the six-pointed star has no Jewish resonance at all. It's just something fascinatingly mystical. The mezuzahs? They’re considered to be good luck amulets. Take a stroll some Sunday afternoon through the hippie fair in Rio, and watch as mezuzahs and other Jewish ritual objects are snapped up at this stand or that.

But how did all these mezuzahs and menorahs and Stars of David and kiddush cups get here in the first place, before being turned into "finds" at a fair? Well, there were many, many Jews among the first Portuguese explorers to the New World (the so-called conversos, or New Christians, fleeing from the Inquisition) and they've been flourishing in Brazil since the late 15th century. Interesting to note that it’s from these conversos, like Gaspar da Gama, Fernando de Noronha, and João Ramalho (all of whom fathered countless children) that many Brazilians feel themselves descended, both in spirit and in blood. To this day there are practices among Catholic and Protestant families in the northeast of Brazil which clearly resemble Jewish traditions, though they don't know it.

Gaspar da Gama
João Ramalho

Fernando de Noronha
For example, many years ago Mark and I were in the state of Pernambuco. We went with a friend to pay a call on a family in mourning. I was astonished to see that the mirrors had been turned to the wall, which is one of the Jewish customs observed during shivah, the period of mourning. But for this Catholic family, it was just a pernambucano custom! I've also noticed in my years here that Brazilians of all religions bury their dead fast, generally with the same speed as the Jewish custom of burial within 24 hours of death. (I confess, I don't know whether this is another leftover trace of Judaism, or merely a concession to the tropical climate.)

Everyone's New Year tradition
There are other traditions that persist in Brazil that appear to have Jewish origins. Do the Brazilians wonder, for example, why they eat pomegranate at New Year? Because the Jews have been doing that for thousands of years, specifically on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And do the Brazilians wonder why there are a few Amazon jungle tribes that light candles on Friday night and refrain from eating pork? If that didn’t come from the Moroccan Jews who emigrated to the Amazon basin in the 1800s, where could it have come from? Anecdotal, but compelling.

04 March 2013

100th Blog Post

Judging by what I’ve seen on the Internet, "the 100th blog post" seems to be a real milestone. Most bloggers, flushed with their achievement, celebrate it in some way or another. Some do a recap of their favorite blog posts, but if you ask me that’s really testing your audience’s patience. Other bloggers offer prizes to the lucky person who signs up as the next follower, which strikes me as a bit needy. I’ve even seen several self-congratulatory videos. Really, you can Google "100th blog post" yourself.

I decided to take questions as a way of commemorating this pivotal moment in history.

Question — In your very first blog post published on October 9, 2011, you said that by writing this blog you hoped to find an answer to the question of why you and Mark live in Brazil. Can you give us that answer now?

Answer — You’re kidding, that’s your first question? No, of course not. I was just trying to be intriguing.

Q — Oh. Well, you also said you would have something to say about living abroad in ones 60s that went beyond the AARP’s "retire abroad" articles. Can you share that with us?

A — No. Actually, the AARP has a good handle on the subject. I have nothing to add.

Q — So why did you start blogging in the first place?

A — I wanted to contribute to world peace. (Remember those ridiculous Miss America interviews?) No, come on, I started blogging for reasons of vainglory, of course. Why does anyone blog?

Q — Having now reached the 100-blog mark, do you see a legitimate stopping point before you reach the 200-blog mark?

A — Let’s see, at my current rate of publishing one blog post every Monday, I would reach my 200th post on February 2, 2015. Ask me then, if I’m still around. Or if you’re still around.

Q — Do you frequently find yourself up against deadlines?

A — Absolutely. Of course the deadlines are self-imposed, so I can move them or ignore them at will.

Q — In what ways do you think you could improve your blog?

A — Hire Gail Collins as my ghost-writer.

Q — Very funny! Okay, how about sharing some blog stats with us?

A — Sure.

Q — What are the five countries where your blog is most read?

A — United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, Russia and Canada.

Q — What are the five most-viewed blog posts?

AWhy, Oh Why, Oh Why, Oh (about the amusing consequences of Brazilians not pronouncing the letter Y); followed by Our Dr. Seuss Plants; Feijoada; London, We’re Watching You (about Rio’s close study of how London handled the 2012 Olympics); and Christmas in Brazil.

Q — Which of your posts has received the most comments?

ARio’s Eight Minutes, about the short segment of London’s Olympics Closing Ceremony that introduced Rio to the world. I’m including all comments, the ones on the blog as well as comments I have received via Facebook and e-mail.

Q — What’s the most memorable comment you’ve received so far?

A — I was told my blog was boring.

Q — Who told you that?

A — My mother.

Q — That’s a joke, right?

A — Don’t I wish.

Q — What’s the total number of hits you’ve received to date?

A — 23,012. But it’s constantly changing, and some of the hits are what’s called "refer spam," so that’s not a serious question.

Q — You want serious? You haven’t exactly been very serious about this interview.

A — Oh, as if conducting an interview with oneself could be serious.

Hard at work on my next blog post