Tuesday, 9 December 2008


Arguments often rage in Brazil over which particular region of this fantastically diverse country possesses the richest local culture. Is it Rio’s rich history of Chico and Tom, bossanova, samba (appropriated from Bahia, but who’s counting?), and the country’s gaudiest carnaval? Is it the Teutonic Brazil of Santa Catarina, with it’s blonde haired blue eyed Ocktoberfests and sauerkraut?* Bahia’s mixture of Gilberto and Caetano all chucked into a heady afro-brazilian sway? The Gauchos of Rio Grande Do Sul’s rodeo and country and western ?* Or is it Pernambuco, with Recife and Olinda’s wonderful carnaval and frevo and Italicmaracatu and Chico Science’s mangue-bit and even forro pe da serra, and a literary culture that encompasses everyone from Gilberto Freyre to Clarice Lispector to Ariel Suassuna to Nelson Rodrigues? (Not all born here, of course, but Recife can lay claim to at least part of their hearts).

*God help us all if it's either of these.

This doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, because Recife in 2008 is in the midst of a new cultural revolution that will put all the above in the shade. Today’s Pernambucano has cast aside the fripperies of art, and music of style and beauty and imagination, and writing, replacing it with a thrilling cultural movement that involves standing beside your car with the enormous stereo speakers turned up to 3000 playing mind-rotting forro eletrico and the back door open so anyone within 5kms can hear, and drinking a can of warm lager with your top off and your obese belly sprawling down over your belt. As if that were not enough, there are the rival maverick splinter groups of those who engage in the art form of knowing what a queue is for but assuming that the people in the queue are waiting for something different from you and that they do not really want to be served at all, and of propagating the belief that there are still only two countries in the world, Brazil and everywhere else and that everywhere else is a bit strange (an odd echo of 1980’s Belfast, actually, when it was held that some of the English are alright but generally they’re a strange bunch. Obviously – the good burghers of Norn’ Iron spend 30 years killing people on the basis of whether you pronounce “h” as aitch or as haitch – and the English are a bit strange), and also the entirely male discipline of trying to involve yourself with as many women as possible at the same time and running a country mile should any of these women become pregnant with your child, and trying really really hard to make sure everyone knows you aren’t homosexual, even going as far as refusing to say who is your favourite footballer in case it makes you seem a bit gay.

It is a dazzling mix and one that surely puts the city and the surrounding state at the head of Brazil’s current art and culture scene. But as if that were not enough, Recife has one more artistic movement, the city’s most popular and most vibrantly visible – that of throwing rubbish wherever you bloody well want to. The effects of this passion on the city cannot be understated, for everywhere - unspoilt beaches, idyllic praças, parks, streams and rivers, tiny streets and houses, enormous gleaming apartment buildings - has become covered in a spectacular, multi-coloured mosaic of newspapers and advertising tat and coke cans and grubby paper napkins and crisp packets and plastic bags and beer bottles. It is a truly dizzying sight, one that makes Recife an unmissable stop on any tourist’s itinerary, and something of which all Recifenses should be justifiably proud.

This culture has even stretched as far as Greendalio, which smart readers will remember as being the name given to the little neighbourhood in Olinda where I have come to live. Art does not always bring benefits, though, and even a rich cultural scene can turn ugly. As Glasgow had its ice cream wars in the 1980s, now in 2008, in Greendalio, we have our plastic bag wars.

Brazil is home to many nice things, but one nice thing it lacks is wheelie bins. What you do instead is you put your rubbish in a plastic bag and leave it in a pile in the praça, and then the binmen come and collect it (on a daily basis – get on that, First World!). Thing is – they only collect it if it’s in the plastic bags. And there are some people in Greendalio – the alley people – who sometimes forget to put their rubbish in plastic bags (it may be a more complicated thing to remember than it seems). And the rubbish pile in the praça is in front of my house. So sometimes, often, always, the binmen leave a little pile of detritus behind – pizza boxes, coke bottles, chicken hearts – that has not been put in plastic bags, and this is the first thing I see every morning. Neither I nor Guinness The Dog like this much.

One day there is a pile of newspapers left behind, and I snap. So I put the newspapers in the alley. And Old Mother Hubbard (one of the alley people) comes out of the alley and sees the newspapers. And swears. And throws the newspapers into the praça. And I leap out from behind my tree (Supergringo!) and pounce on Old Mother Hubbard. What the hell are you doing, Old Mother Hubbard? I say. Bah! says Old Mother Hubbard, some filho da puta put these papers in the alley. I think it was the binmen, I say. They don’t take stuff without plastic bags, you know (thinking, GET THE MESSAGE OLD MOTHER HUBBARD!). Humph, says Old Mother Hubbard. I’ll get some plastic bags, I say, and help you pick them up.

And we get to work.

It is a brilliant stratagem, I think. Direct confrontation would not have worked. But now, Old Mother Hubbard will know that (a) I am on to her and (b) I am a nice person and not to be taken lightly. And everything will be peachy again in Greendalio!

Or so I think. Only the next day the detritus is there again, sans plastic bags (broken glass this time). I march up to Old Mother Hubbard’s house. Is this yours?, I shout. What did we talk about last time? Old Mother Hubbard denies everything. You’d better stop accusing me, she says, or there’ll be trouble. Well, who is it then, Old Mother Hubbard? Who’s the culprit? I ask. She waits. Points a bony finger. Him, she whispers. And she points at a little house on the other side of the alley. Matheus’s house. Old Mother Hubbard and I agree to conspire against the evildoer.

The next night I am walking home and I see the alleged culprit. Matheus is with his dog. Is it you, Matheus? The rubbish without the plastic bags? Matheus smokes a cigarette. He thinks for a while. Not on your life, James The Gringo, he says, and walks away.

The night after that I am confronted again by Matheus. I’m angry with you, James The Gringo, he says. You’ve upset Old Mother Hubbard. She’s like a mother to me. She’s a good person. We’re all good people here. It’s a nice neighbourhood. We don’t like people coming in and stirring up trouble. You upset her – you upset me.

I think about telling Matheus that Old Mother Hubbard told me it was him that was throwing the rubbish. I decide not to.

Matheus tells me that here is Amaro Branco and that I should be careful – not that he is threatening anything of course – because Old Mother Hubbard has a son and the son is not a good person and if anything needs to be sorted out it only takes a phone call and there is no shortage of killers in Amaro Branco.

No, I want to say. No Matheus! Here is not Amaro Branco! Here is Greendalio! And really Matheus, I already know that Old Mother Hubbard’s son doesn’t much like his mother and is more likely to be organising mafia style hits against her than against me, and also that here in Greendalio is not exactly Afogados or Ibura or Santo Amaro or Casa Amarela or Rio Doce or any one of Recife or Olinda´s hundreds of genuinely dangerous neighbourhoods and that you’re more likely to get hit by the spray of a water pistol here than a lost bullet. And that I’ve already been feeling a little bit bad for accusing Old Mother Hubbard – though she may be the trash chucker as much as Matheus – because she’s old, and so I’ve bought some chocolate for her two granddaughters, and as everyone knows you don’t hire a contract killer to take out someone who buys you chocolate.

And that is where things stand. For now the detritus has ceased. But we will see. Alliances are being formed – on my side – Mother Sururu, Joao 1 and 2, William, Guinness The Dog. On the other side – the alley people. And with Old Mother Hubbard the Tony Soprano figure whose favour must be courted…

But I must go now, because I am due to meet number 457 (see entry dated 25th September), and I am very late. Things are not so bad here, still, because I can take a shower in the garden and watch the sun make little rainbows from the falling water. And who knows? Maybe number 457 will so fill my heart that there will never be a need for a number 458. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Just a last note – if the Plastic Bag Wars are not to be recorded for posterity, can just one phrase be remembered? Please? A phrase that sums up so much of history and colonialism and mistrust and exploitation and fear of the other? Want to hear it? It’s a good one…

You gringoes with your fancy plastic bags, says Old Mother Hubbard.

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