The man on the sidewalk opens ten brightly colored fans. Each is a different color, but they are all fans. The same, but not the same. He sets up the same display each day, in this neighborhood called Catete in Rio not far from my birthplace on Copacabana.
Other faces appear next to me to watch: their facial features are blended and my synapses struggle to place them in ethnic categories. The woman next to me must be Japanese, but something in her face says this is an over-simplification. Another young woman with dreadlocks strikes up a tune on an instrument that looks like an upside-down wok. The music is like bells, but not like bells. I try to place it, but I cannot, just as I cannot place this woman's facial features. Does she have a native Indian background, or is she descended from the Portuguese? Both, neither. I don't know.
Why is it so important to my mind to be able to place people? It seems a strange and unproductive reflex in today's world, on the streets of Brazil where all faces are a fascinating blend of many different influences. Streams of immigrants have left their mark here, not just in one or two faces, but in all of them. The old categories on the census forms seem increasingly irrelevant, like trying to jam undefinable shapes into circles and squares.
At an art museum in Sao Paulo I observe a painting of the first Portuguese to set foot on a Brazilian beach and meet the shy Indians. They look bold and white, whereas the Indians are a consistent milky chocolate brown. "I have the blood of both in me," says my geneologist companion, Rodnei. There it occurs to me that to face the complex reality rather than the usual simple myths about ourselves is to bring peace. I am not one or the other; I am not this rather than that. I am one: a totality with the tracks of a million immigrants reflected in my face.
Too often in history we have made the myths about ourselves into the reality: such as when my grandparents duped themselves into arguing they were pure Aryans in heaps of SS forms as watertight as a sieve; or the time when Catholicism in southern Europe demanded that its priests demonstrate they were free of Moorish blood. Freedom from the wrong blood is a lethal myth.
Tomorrow morning I will caste one last look at the faces in the streets before I return to my home in Sweden, which still struggles with the reality of being multi-colored. I take the memory of Brazil with me. Despite all of its corruption and poverty, it is still a beautiful place in the faces that defy my efforts to categorize them.