By Ricky Skelton
Much as you can tell a British workman by his hands (they’re always in his pockets), so you can always spot Brazilian workmen: they’re always watching somebody else work. Whether it has been working on home improvements, roadworks, building houses or huge construction sites, I have only ever seen one man working at any one time. He saws the wood while anywhere between one and ten other men stand by staring intently. They don’t seem to help or advise in any way which makes me wonder if that is what they are paid to do. Watch. I have a rubbish theory that two gringoes arrived at a Brazilian house long long ago to do a job. The owner asked why the second man had come:

He’s my assistant. We always work with an assistant in England.” – came the reply.

“What does he do?” – asked the Brazilian.

“He assists.” – was the logical response.

The owner thought “He assists” and translated literally into the falso amigo “Ele assiste”. This then grew to become part of the working culture in Brazil.

Rubbish maybe, but it explains why you can have a whole day of work on a house from four men that results in just three new floorboards laid, or one wall painted. Nothing else does. Admittedly bad choice of materials doesn’t help speed things up. Witness the obras in Rua Augusta in São Paulo that have closed the pavements for months. The surface is being relaid, no pipes, no tunnels, no cables underground, nada. But when you see four men watching their friend put down coin-sized blocks in a mosaical grid, you’ll understand why.

Obviously the heat could be one way to explain the slow progress but I don’t buy that because the pace of those type of workmen is in complete contrast to that of the binmen. I love watching them work, and it’s the same all over Brazil. No matter how hot it is, they are always running, picking up binbags, throwing them in the back of the truck, shouting ‘Vai!’ and climbing on while the truck sets off again. Maybe they’re on piecework and so get paid per kilo of rubbish, which is why they zigzag down the street faster than I can walk. I sweat just doing that, but they never stop moving, bending, carrying, throwing, and I’ve never seen anybody leave bags behind out of laziness. They pick up everything worthless. Including me. I got too close in my admiration once, and got thrown in the back of the truck too. They never stopped dropping things on my head long enough for me to get out. We eventually stopped at some roadworks. One man was painting a white line in the middle of the road with a tiny brush. He wasn’t blocking the road, but the six men watching him were. I climbed out and crawled home to shock myself in the shower.

You can visit Ricky’s blog at

Previous articles by Ricky:

Around Brazil: Praa Pateo do Colegio
Around Brazil: Porto Seguro
Around Brazil: Rio de Janeiro to Porto Seguro
Around Brazil: Cristo Redentor
Understanding Brazil: The Sellers
Around Brazil: Ilha de Gigoia
Brazil Journeys: São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro
Understanding Brazil: Dogs Part 2
Brazil: A Lie-In in Downtown São Paulo?
The Best Job in Brazil: Ankle Specialist?
Understanding Brazil: Dogs
Brazilian Places: Ilha do Santa Catarina (Floripa)
Classic Brazilian Journeys: South to Florianopolis
Understanding Brazil – The Shower
Brazil: Boats on the Amazon
Brazil: Understanding Novelas
Brazil: Bus fires in São Paulo – always a bad thing?

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