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

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.

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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.' "

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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.

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