One of my students asked me the other day: „What do you think is the worst thing about Brazil?“ I knew to be careful when answering this questions, Brazilians like to talk bad about their country but they don’t like it when foreigners do this. But we know each other long enough so I could talk openly. But the truth is: I didn’t know what to answer. What I don’t like about Brazil is what everybody has problems with: the annoying crime rate, the shameful corruption, the embarrassing poverty. But my student didn’t mean that, he wanted to know what I as a German find annoying about Brazilians. I ended up saying, that the Brazilian way of planning is what really bugs me. But that is not the worst thing. His question made me think. Some people say, that the worst thing about Brazil is the brutal inequality: But what I find worst about Brazil is the bike rental system in Santos called BikeSantos and it stands for a more general fact about this country: it is a country of lost dreams.

Riding a bike in Santos

Did you see the picture on top? That is one of the bike lanes on Canal 1, that stretches through half of the city. In case you are wondering: it might seem as a bike lane for one direction, but it is not, you have bikes going both directions here. Do you see the guy sitting on the little wall blocking some of the lane? That is common. Do you see the canal, a concrete riverbed about 3 meters lower than the street? Does it seem very easy to get caught with your bike on the wall and fall down into the canal? I thought so. Do you see the guy walking his dog on the bike lane? Also not unusual. Did you realize that the trees are leaning into the bike lane, making it easy to hit your head on them, when you are not very careful or trying to get out-of-the-way of another bike? All of this is true, but this is not the best or worst bike lane in Santos (try going through a tunnel without lights and a wall and a fence on the side of the bike lane, small than this one). And I don’t even want to complain about them – just point out that German bike lane standards do not apply here. (“Driving on bike paths in non-permissible direction is an often occurring misconduct with a high risk and hazardous potential.” And of course it is prohibited in Germany and you are fined for it.)

When I visited Santos for the first time I was pleasantly surprise by all the bike lanes and bicycles in the city. It reminded me of Europe and especially of Berlin. Santos is almost perfect for riding a bike: except for the very few hills the city is flat like a pancake. Now imagine my euphoria when I found out that there are rental bikes in Santos, the rental stations spread over the city so you can go to and from one of these places, and that all you need to use these bikes is a smartphone-app or a phone to talk to an operator. Sounds too good? There is one more aspect: it is financed by advertisement and free of charge for the first 30 minutes, which is enough to cross the city completely, if you want. To me it seemed like a bike-heaven on Brazilian grounds. And that was, when the disappointment started.

First: the service is in Portuguese only – ok, I could handle that. Secondly: the procedure to sign up is utterly confusing, neither my wife nor me knew in the end, if we had successfully signed up or not, and we had to go through almost 4 telephone numbers, before we were able to finally start the app (turned out you had to sign up online for an account and then for an app separately, unfortunately your online password was not accessible on the phone). I ignored the fact that most of my data (including my credit card data, which you need to register) were stored unencrypted because I was too happy to finally be able to roll through the city on a bike for free.

A bike service in Santos is a perfect. Imagine: you want to go some blocks or even cross the city, you only check your phone for the next bike station, go there, pick up a bike, ride where you want to go – that is often faster than going by car – put the bike back in the bike station and that is it. I would even pay for this service, even better that it is free. Or not. Because with many free things, nobody seems to care if it is working or not. The poor maintenance of the BikeSantos bikes is an ongoing joke and ongoing annoyance in Santos. From the 10 times I wanted to take a bike, I was only able get one 3 times. If you are lucky you can get a brand new bike, but in general the state these bikes are in is sad. Flat tires, missing seats, broken chains and useless brakes are not only annoying, they are dangerous. More than once I arrived at a bike station only to find out, that there were bikes, one of them even in a state you could ride on, but the system was not working, or the bike station was not working, or everything seemed to work but still you could not unlock the bike from the station. For me BikeSantos is a symbol what I think is the worst about Brazil: the poor realization of great plans.

Brazil: the country of unfulfilled dreams

In 1941 and only one year before his death in the State of Rio de Janeiro – where he lived his las years and where his memory is still held high at a museum (Casa Stefan Zweig) – the exiled German author Stefan Zweig published a book, an introduction to the at this time almost unknown Brazil. He had been intrigued by its amazing beauty and the remarkably friendly people. The book was called “Brazil, country of the future” and it is this promise for a better future, that Brazil seems to impress many people with. This country has a bright future, it should have a bright future, it might have had a bright future. Brazil is full of dreams and ideals and wonders and good ideas. But again and again the reality in Brazil is far from these ideals. And this, I have to say, is the worst thing about Brazil. Everywhere in this rich and unique country you can sense the possibility of what might be, and the big disappointment when only a fraction of it is realized, and this maybe even in a bad way. This may sound like one of the many usual complaints, Brazilians have about their country, when before the World Cup 2014 many people complained, that Brazil would never be able to organize an event like this – but they did and in an amazing way. I am irrationally optimistic and I think that so much is possible in this country. And it brakes my heart every day to see it failing. Not only when it comes to riding a bike in Santos.

PS: On February 22nd 1942 Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide in their little house in Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro. Many see this as a symbol for the individual desperation in the dark days of war.

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