Latin America
5:08 pm
Wed September 18, 2013

Brazil's Traffic Is A Circus, So Send In The Clowns

Originally published on Wed September 18, 2013 8:01 pm

On a busy avenue in Olinda, in northeastern Brazil, two men in wigs, big red noses and full clown makeup are squeaking horns and making a good-natured ruckus.

"Where's your helmet?" shouts one as a motorcyclist whizzes by. "Fasten your seat belt!" calls out the other.

Uncle Honk and Fom Fom are traffic clowns, or palhacos, hired by the city to make the roads a bit safer. They lean into traffic, making exaggerated gestures, like the sweep of the arm to mimic fastening a seat belt, and a mimed reminder to never drink and drive.

"We try to bring peace to the traffic," Uncle Honk tells NPR's Melissa Block. "Respect the driver near you."

"Our motto," adds Fom Fom, "is, 'Kindness breeds kindness.' "

The clowns have their work cut out for them here, where cars, trucks and motorcycles share the road with rickety horse-drawn carts. And as millions of people here move from poverty into the middle class, "people who always dreamed of having a car are now able to buy one," Uncle Honk says.

That means a tremendous jump in the number of cars on the roads, more inexperienced drivers and a big traffic mess — making plenty of work for these traffic clowns.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Melissa Block is in Brazil this week, bringing us stories about the upcoming World Cup and the Olympics and about the rapidly expanding middle class in Brazil. Well, now Melissa brings us an audio postcard from the streets of northeastern Brazil where traffic, public safety and performance art collide.

UNCLE HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So we're here on a busy avenue in the city of Olinda, outside Recife in northeast Brazil. This is Avenue President Kennedy. And I'm here with two gentlemen who are wearing brightly colored clothes. They've got multicolored wigs and hats, sunglasses, red noses.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: What are your names?

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: (Foreign language spoken)

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Uncle Honk. Why is he named...

FOM FOM: (Foreign language spoken) Fom Fom.

BLOCK: Fom Fom? Fom Fom.

FOM: Fom Fom.

BLOCK: Uncle Honk and Fom Fom are traffic clowns.

FOM: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Where's your helmet, they shout as a motorcyclist whizzes by.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Pull down your visor. Fasten your seatbelts.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: These clowns, or palhacos, are hired by the city of Olinda to make the ever-growing traffic here a bit safer, or at least more fun.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: We try to bring peace to the traffic, Uncle Honk tells me. Respect the driver near you. The bigger car should look out for the smaller one. And Fom Fom chimes in.

FOM: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Our motto is kindness breeds kindness.

FOM: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The clowns lean into traffic on this four-lane, divided road, giving exaggerated clowny gestures: a big thumbs up for a helmet, a cross-body sweep of the arm to mime fastening a seat belt. And then there's the clown semaphore for don't drink and drive.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Aha. OK. So you hold your thumbs up to show, like, you're drinking and then you use your thumbs to show a steering wheel and then your wag finger in air to say don't do that.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: OK. More or less. So when you make a gesture to a driver, do you get some gestures directed back at you?

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: There are always some drivers who aren't educated or aren't polite, says Uncle Honk. So sometimes they do respond with obscene gestures. But he says, we're not here to argue or fight.

FOM: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Uh-oh. Trouble. Fom Fom spots a girl jaywalking against the light and clutches his heart.

FOM: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Oh, my God, he shrieks. You're trying to kill me. That was a scare.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: As we're talking, horses clop by, pulling farmers on rickety wooden carts filled with vegetables. They trot side by side with the zooming buses and trucks. Brazil is a country with one foot in the agrarian past, the other planted firmly in the industrial present. And as millions of people here have been lifted out of poverty into the lower rungs of the middle class, many are now buying cars for the first time.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Uncle Honk explains, a few years ago here in Brazil, the government cut the tax on cars, so people who always dreamed of having a car are now able to buy one. What that means is a tremendous jump in the number of cars on the roads, more inexperienced drivers, a big traffic mess and lots of work for these traffic clowns.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: (Foreign language spoken) Fom Fom, muito obrigada. Thank you so much.

HONK: (Foreign language spoken)

FOM: Thank you. (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: Our co-host Melissa Block out with a couple of traffic clowns in the streets of Olinda in northeastern Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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