Tuesday, 16 December 2008


People shouldn’t complain as much as they do. At least, some people shouldn’t complain as much as they do. In leafy Boa Viagem, I listen to teachers at a private English school, well, complain. And when they’ve finished complaining, they complain some more. The source of the outrage? The teachers haven’t received their 13th salary yet (every worker in Brazil receives an extra month’s salary at Christmas – it’s perhaps the country’s greatest invention, other than the aeroplane (for the uninitiated Santos Dumont vs The Wright Brothers is up there with Pele vs Maradona, Red Sox vs Yankees and Fla-Flu in The Big Brazilian Book of Rivalry) and caipirinha and having a lot of public holidays on Thursdays and declaring the Friday an “honorary” holiday for good measure) and one of them is going on holiday to the US in a week, and doesn’t know what she is going to do if she doesn’t get it in time. Use her credit cards, I suspect.

After that, I catch the bus to Jordão, and teach, and I am struck once again by that which remains so elusive, so hard to capture, about this country, or at least about the nordeste. It is not Brazil’s infernal noise levels – the ear-popping music, the bellowing barfly debate societies, the honking car horns, the roaring traffic – but, in quiet streets and neighbourhoods, the silence. Teenagers walk past on their way to night school, talking quietly, children chase a punctured football amongst the dust, two elderly women sit outside their homes chatting in low voices. The only other sounds are the rustling of the palm trees above with the white moon drifting behind and the soft whisper of the sea breezes moving the warm air around.

Anyway, if no-one in Boa Viagem should ever complain much about anything, people in Jordão are entitled to complain a lot. At the bar afterwards we drink from plastic cups and my friend Edilson tells me that the bairro has been without water for three days, and so all the glasses are dirty and unusable. Someone was killed for their cell phone in front of the school here a few weeks ago. And beside the bar children play in front of a huge pile of rotting trash (if the plastic bag wars are Argentina and England scrapping over las malvinas, then that would make this pile something akin to Hiroshima). We discuss how is it that a certain type of Brazilian mind thinks that throwing rubbish in front of one’s house where it will never be collected is a good thing. And it is at moments like these, we agree, that Brazil appears to be, well, royally fucked, not to put too fine a point on it. We become sad. We drink to make ourselves less sad. Edilson talks about God. Thinking about the rubbish, the murders, and the lack of water, I tell him I’m a sceptic. And then – maybe because it’s almost Christmas, or maybe it’s divine intervention, a rubbish truck comes trundling down the hill, and three binmen jump out, and, putting their counterparts in Olinda to shame, shovel the whole lot, rotting fish, soiled nappies, used toilet paper, into their truck. No fussing over plastic bags here. They may even have hosed down the street afterwards, but I could have imagined that part. Someone from the bar brings three cups of cachaça over to the men, and when they drive off, a halo of light surrounding the truck, people clap.

The rest of the night’s entertainment is supplied by a man with no teeth who swallows a lit cigarette, hums the national anthem, spits in a bucket and then rolls the still burning stub out from underneath his tongue. For an encore he sucks in his stomach so that his body looks as though large parts of it have been cut away with a cleaver. When he goes, and when the group of adolescent boys at the table next to us leave too, the silence descends again, and the only sound is the clink of bottle on glass and the nightly soaps playing softly on the TV.

I'd like to try and write more about this, but I need to go, because the queen of Brazilian daytime TV, Ana Maria Braga, is on. Ana Maria Braga spends most of her air time talking to a large animated parrot (or at least I think its animated - it may be a puppet). Ana Maria Braga is very good on insights into crime and the problems facing Brazilian society. Today she is telling us about an armed gang who have been robbing expensive clothes stores in Sao Paulo. "Some people," Ana Maria Braga says, wringing her hands, "they just have nothing to do, and they spend their time sitting around thinking of ways to be bad!". "It's true!" cries the parrot puppet. Ana Maria Braga looks at the parrot puppet. They both look solemn for a moment. "Anyway," Ana Maria Braga says, "let's not worry about that! Let's talk about - cakes!" And sometimes I think Ana Maria Braga is the political advisor to the majority of Brazil's upper middle class.

5 comments:

zack said...

Okay, I have just discovered your blog and have only read the first page. This will take some time to read through (to get to the bottom so to speak) because you do use a lot of words, James.
It is James, correct?
At any rate, I like what I have read so far. There were three times on this first page that I chuckled and giggled - to no one's hearing but my new Dell 20 inch monitor - I enjoyed that, I rarely chuckle or giggle reading blogs.
I wanted to say something really witty, with this, my first comment and will try to do better in the future as I wade through past pages.
I will leave it at this- for now - I am enjoying it.

James Young said...

Zack - thanks for the nice comments, I think you should persist, it gets better the further back you go! Which I suppose means its getting worse as time goes on....do you have a blog? I couldn't access your profile....

My Castle in Spain said...

i think i would love this Ana Braga! she sounds quite hilarious...

i'm with you regarding the moaning syndrom...but it doesn't keep me from complaining about the cold though..

Enjoy the holiday with or without the 13th month..
:-)

and..thank you for the kind comment. Your blog sounds great. i didn't have time to go through all the archives but congrats ! i'll be back..

zack said...

hi James, you are welcome,

No I don't have a blog and yes,I will persist.

Your blog (I don't like that word, I prefer your diary) has several things that interest me:

- it's about living in Brazil, I like that

- it's about living, or, perhaps surviving in Recifé is more accurate? I like that even more

and you write well and do not take yourself too seriously, is that fair? That I like best of all.

James Young said...

Hello Zack, yes, its about living in Recife - sometimes you can feel that even the strangest, most exotic places are where you are meant to be, and that's how I feel about Recife, even though it's chaotic and disorganised and occasionally filthy and very often suffers from extreme levels of violence. That being said I don't think survive is the right word - for millions of people here, in neighbourhoods like Ibura and Santo Amaro and Coque life is about survival, about not being killed, even about not dying from starvation, but not for me, because I'm lucky enough to have a decent job and live in an ok-ish neighbourhood. I suppose that's one of the ongoing themes of the diary (a much better word than blog, I agree) - that the people in Recife who are in a position to make things better, and who enjoy a high standard of living, do absolutely nothing except complain, whereas the people who have so many reasons to be unhappy try their best to live good, dignified lives.