Brazil, like everywhere else, is full of contrasts.
There’s the smiling man in a yellow T-shirt who speaks slowly but not condescendingly, eager to help the young American journalists understand the traditional dance moves he teaches them. After the lesson, with a spirit of gentle pride, he quietly points out the bench and sink he carved from rough wood and polished smooth. These pieces of furniture now decorate secluded corners of a trendy downtown café, reminders of the deforestation occurring in the remote regions of this kind man’s country.
There’s the silent woman sitting upright on a cement bench in a public square in front of a busy São Paolo street. In front of her, a crowd spills off the sidewalk: teenage girls in short skirts clinging to each other and laughing loudly; grandmothers supporting themselves on the arms of their adult children, craning their necks to see the street; strangers making small talk and petting each other’s dogs; adults in athletic gear stepping over one another to take selfies and dance along with the music that fills the street. While all these people celebrate the passing of the Olympic torch, the silent woman sits alone, barely watching, seemingly waiting for something. She could own a mansion and a wardrobe of department-store clothes. She could live on this bench, owning only the clothes on her back. No one asks her story, where she’s from, if she understands the meaning of the spectacle in front of her, or if she has any friends or family members whose hands she can hold.
There are the crack addicts sleeping in tents in front of the stained glass windows of the nation’s best concert hall. There are the protestors camping in the shadow of skyscrapers. There’s the couple sitting reverently in their cathedral thronged by tourists, backpacks and cameras interrupting their view of the crucified Christ.
As I travel, all of these images get stuck in my head. As clearly as I can see the sun setting beyond the Sugarloaf Mountain when I close my eyes to go to sleep, I can see the weary shuffle of the beggar child who tried to sell us sticks of gum.
For me, traveling is always like this: an exciting adventure on one hand, a moral dilemma on the other. I think the image that’s most firmly stuck in my head from this trip is of the elevator operator sitting on a stool in a 5 foot by 6 foot metal-encased space pressing buttons all day. She rises and falls for 26 floors, carrying torrents of tourists to the top of São Paolo for a view of the city she never gets to glimpse herself.
Because of all these heart-rending contrasts, I usually vacillate between feeling euphoria and guilt on trips like this. That was certainly the case for the first week, as I did things like eagerly snap smiling selfies in front of Christ the Redeemer, then sit looking sullenly out the window thinking about the refugee crisis.
That changed today, at least a bit. We went to a museum in Rio called “The Museum of Tomorrow.” Its exhibits talked about the Anthropocene, the inevitable exhaustion of mineral resources, the pollution and waste created by humans, the megacities springing up everywhere, and the violence and crime that accompanies them. Although it featured a fascinating photographic exhibit of the diversity of the human race, the museum didn’t exactly offer a sunny forecast for humanity’s collective tomorrow.
At the end of one exhibit, however, two questions are posed on the wall in simple, modern type: “How do we want to live? Who do we want to be tomorrow?” And, suddenly, I felt relief. Because the question didn’t ask, “What are you going to do to fix all the world’s problems?” The makers of the museum know that no single person who pass through its doors will be able to solve the refugee crisis, or eradicate poverty or heal drug addiction. And so all they ask us to ask ourselves is: “How do I want to live?”
There’s a statue of Ghandi here in Rio, located in a park named after him. We saw it yesterday as we crossed into a square where plastic bags rolled like tumbleweeds from the wall of one café to another. I didn’t remember the master’s famous saying then, but I should have: Be the change you want to see in the world.
That’s something I can do – here and at home.
Victoria Ison is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.