Thursday, February 10, 2005

Crowds and Culture

Okay, I have been very bad at blogging this year. Part of it is just my general busyness, and part is the desire to actually have something to write about. Today, I can think of two things, but I will save one for next week and hope it helps me get back on track.

I just went last Friday night to a Carnaval Party at Panama Reds, a local bar/club which hosts Samba Bom, St. Louis and Chicago's own Brazilian samba specialists, once a month. Usually it is on a Saturday night, so, because of my work at the church early Sunday, I don't get to stay, but this time, I was there until 3 a.m. when things wound down. That took a while. The band stopped at 2:25 and I assumed we would all head to our cars, but people just started talking and mingling all over again. I was irritated because my host wanted to leave like 1:30 and so I got my coat and the coat of our Brazilian friend ready, because I figured we would soon be leaving. My Brazilian friend saw me with the two coats and ignored me, while others looked at me as if I was some fool who couldn't enjoy himself. Then the host who wanted to leave sat there and did nothing to gather up the rest of our group. Finally, at 2:15, I told our mutual friend that the host was waiting to leave and waiting on her. My Brazilian friend said: "She needs to tell me that, not you." And went back to partying. More annoying, when it finally was time to leave, she walked past and told me she was riding with someone else but our host was waiting for me. I went back to our host, who was really the Brazilian friends' friend and hardly new me, and she acted surprised I needed a ride, because she thought I was going with my Brazilian friend. So I just gave up and caught a ride with other friends who were headed my way. To say I was annoyed was a bit of an understatement. I considered the behavior of both of them to be inconsiderate of me. And I don't think it is necessarily a cultural thing. I personally think rudeness like this transcends culture. I mean, I have thought about it a lot since then, and I can't imagine that anyone else wouldn't be offended by it in any culture. What do you guys think?

Another interesting thing I noticed was that the place was almost twice as crowded as it has been past samba nights I have attended. And people were acting very Brazilian about it. What do I mean? When I rode the public buses in Belo Horizonte this past August, I found that at crowded times people walked around and pushed their way through as if it wasn't. Sitting practically on top of you or shoving past you. No "excuse me" or "please let me through" like we are accustomed to in the U.S. (Except rude, mostly urban teenagers who act that way on public transportation along with obnoxious laughter, talking, cussing, and berating anyone who looks at them funny!) They just pushed through and went where they needed to. When the doors opened, no matter how many got off (always at the back) or how crowded the bus clearly was, people boarded (at the front). It was crazy. I would have waited for the next one myself, except I was already on it and pushing my way out along with the three or four others with me, did not seem to be something I could easily accomplish so I stayed put. At the club, people brushed past me, walked through, etc. in the same way.

Now, I can admit, I am not big on the club scene. I don't go out partying a lot or stay up late drinking. Just not who I am at 36 years old (this coming Sunday) and never something I was that fond of. I will dance with someone whose company I enjoy and enjoy the music, which I very much did on Friday night from a bar stool. In fact, I spent a lot of time listening to the rhythms and instrumental arrangements and words to see how it all comes together, as a musician. I did try dancing but found my clumsiness and the fast pace challenged each other. But I honestly was not drawn to the dance floor to rub up against complete strangers, many drunk and disorderly. It just wasn't appealing to me. I did dance off the side with friends and move to the rhythms where I was. I did chat with some interesting people and make some potentially useful contacts. I met more Brazilians from Belo and from Ouro Preto and other places I had been. But trying to get to the bathrooms was a nightmare and someone would see you coming and just move in the opposite direction as if they owned the right of way. Another time, I tried to just go with the flow and move past people, not worried about bumping and such. But was accosted by a drunk accusing me of being rude and arrogant. So again, I am confused about how to navigate this cultural phenomenon comfortably.

I have noticed similar crowding on public transportation in Ghana, West Africa also. Perhaps the rest of the world is just more comfortable with body contact that we are in American culture. Perhaps the realities of cost of living negate such concerns. Perhaps you do get used to it. I think the bombardment of noise and smells and shifting bodies is not at all something I could get used to, but if I live with it for a while, who knows. I do recognize it as startlingly different from what I am used to, though, and also in a setting that I am not commonly accustomed to. I did ride the Metrolink for six months, daily, last year, so I have some idea of the realities of public transportation and some of the manners and customs/etiquette do indeed seem cultural. I also noticed that in Ghana, when I rode the tro tros (minivans and such acting as taxis always stuffed to the brim with people) I was offered the front seat frequently, presumably to allow me not to be crushed in amongst the Africans in the back. At the time, I kind of felt like they were denying me the full experience, now I guess I am not so reticent about it.

Anyway, how people in America and Africa and Brazil deal with crowds is certainly interesting. Perhaps I have not provided a very deep insight on the topic here, but it is something to think about as we all live and move and observe this aspect of our cultures and other cultures as well.