Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Pint of the black stuff and top of the morning to yer and the snakes are gone begorrah the snakes are gone and the furthest one would ever think of getting from St. Paddy’s Day is Recife, and while there is a merciful drought of Irish bars in a city of four-ish million people (a tip perhaps for recession breakers everywhere), one can never get far enough, and sure as more rain follows rain there are a couple of overly enthusiastic English As A Foreign Language Teachers (one of them the aforementioned Girl With The Biggest Smile In The World) ready to pick up the slack by wearing big green hats and pointy foam Guinness fingers (beer not dog). But bollox to all that because surely the best way to spend such a foolish occasion (forgive the bitterness but for any right thinking Protestant school kid in 1980s Belfast the only thing St. Patrick’s Day meant was the Catholic school kids getting a whole day off while we got diddly) is to spend a few hours at a private English school wine tasting event before getting royally hammered with an American and an Argentinian.

And none of that is the half of it (as it never is) because the half of it involves getting a night bus all the ways to Cais De Santa Rita (probably a much better saint than pious oul' Patrick if I had even the faintest idea of what she did) at two in the morning on a Tuesday and then waiting for the bus to Olinda. It is a well known fact that 67.35% of Brazilians on late night buses engage in animated conversation and this was no different and as we all rolled off the bus it was like Party Time in Party City! if this means anything at all (and it doesn’t to me). But there was something about it all – the buses nuzzling up to each other like sheep in a pen as they waited for their 2am departure time – the drivers standing around exchanging idle banter with chubby prostitutes – the pipoca sellers swarming about smoking cigarettes and trying to, well, sell pipoca – that got me all stirred up and had me gripping hard on the railing as the bus rolled out of the station. And best of all – it went a different way! Not chewing up past the city council offices and over the bridges to Cruz Cabuga and Santo Amaro but dawdling about in the city for a while and then up Cruz Cabuga and on to Olinda.

And then – about half way to home – the rain decided to come hissing down and as Travis Bickle is becoming a bit of a theme then why! it really does wash clean the streets – and as I walked along the sea front under the moon and then up the hill and there was not a car in sight then it really was all a bit cleaner and newer and better than it ever has been before.

And what a brief thrill all of that was, and one that got me thinking that the worst thing that anyone from Kazakhstan can do is to think he knows it all about Uzbekistan despite not knowing quite the half of it, and even worse is the man from Kazakhstan who doesn’t even know any of it at all and treats the whole place like the swings in the local park (a good place to drink and smoke and meet girls/boys) and worse even than that is the man from Kazakhstan who knows more than half of it again but still doesn’t know anything about the part he doesn’t know about and doesn't want to. There may be many who disagree about such a diagnosis but for me I have chosen the route of knowing as much as I can about Uzbekistan and as many people who live there as I can whilst still acknowledging that I know absolutely nothing about anything. If you know what I mean.

Anyway before all of that is Friday night, and Friday night is Friday night, and although I do not work on Fridays the pull of Friday night, carried from the past of the old drizzly Londonish working week, still has its magic. So on Friday night when the wife of The Friend From The Small Caribbean Island calls, I go out. Only before that, all tied up in knots from teaching and translating and buses and supermarkets and bank balances and dog food and things that cannot be mentioned here, I have a moment. It is a moment that all of us who have abandoned everything we once knew and had must have every now and again – the moment when you remember why. I stood in the garden and drank a beer and looked up at the sky and remembered – I am in South America, the sea that I see from here is the south eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean, the balmy night sky above is the velvet night of the Southern Cross. And as I thought this the heavy weight of responsibility and the boredom of ordinary life left me and I felt blessed in a small way.

I tried to take the feeling with me – and it worked. Our group was – The Friend From A Small Caribbean Island, his wife, her eight year old godson, and THFASCI’s friend from Mexico. I thought about it – this is my life now - Mexicans and Argentinians and Brazilians and Porto Ricans. I felt happy and exotic.

We went to a restaurant and ate macaxeira and carne do sol. I became angry because the restaurant had run out of bottled beers and only sold cans. We went to another bar, but the bar charged a R$5 cover charge because there was a very bad samba band playing. We argued about football – and I remembered why I believe that people who profess to support teams enjoying periods of success but who do not match that claim by actually going to watch their team are sometimes like very rich men with very small penises in that it is an odd kind of pleasure that comes from mocking the suffering of others on a subject you personally care very little about and can take no credit for – and then about politics.

The argument about politics might be of some interest to anyone who is still reading and who has not died of boredom in that it involved someone from a now relatively wealthy country (albeit one that used to be the very watchword in a European context for misery, poverty and ultra violence and that may now be doing its level best to get back to the good old days) advocating undying support for a socialist government and its welfare state and two people from what are often and erroneously described as “third world” (and I’ve never quite worked out where the second world might be) countries rejecting such policies as cynical vote grabbing. I have no explanation for this, other than that I am an optimist and an idealist now and even what a friend from the old part of my life who we might call Ignatius J. Reilly has mockingly described as Che Jimbo - even though despite once being a little bit middle class I have never become a doctor or ridden a motorbike around Recife or started a revolution, though I have sometimes sported a two or even three day growth of beard,and having once filled my head with such trivia as wondering whether Blink 182 are better than Linkin Park or not, I now concern myself with much deeper thoughts such as will Santa Cruz play in Serie C or Serie D next year and just why is cheese so nice. Really though, I am merely someone who was bored of one life and has beome reasonably happy leading another.

And then the best part of all – the long walk home along the hot blustery seafront and the late, private beer in the garden – when this limited moment of inspiration strikes. And then the battle rages between memory and reality – how long can I remember any of this, given almost twenty years of impressively-ish hard drinking? Must I run and scribble it down somewhere before it fades? Can I trust memory to last even until the morning? Then I feel it slipping away already – Guinness The Dog eats a bush, I tell Guinness The Dog to stop eating the bush, I smoke a cigarette, I look at the moon drifting behind the clouds, I read one page of an Andre Dubus story – and it is gone, all of it. Only I still trust in something and so I sit, and I wait, and I hope that it will come back, though it is not very good or interesting at all, and then I wait some more, and I wait some more, and like a match that has almost gone out it comes back, and here it is, now.

And finally in tribute to all things green and papist, a tribute to the Catholic church in Brazil, who a couple of weeks ago made the entirely sensible decision of attempting to ban the legal abortion of the unborn twin foetuses (foeti?) of a nine year old girl who had been made pregnant through being repeatedly raped by her stepfather. The good old boys from Rome via Sao Paulo weren’t successful, unfortunately, but, undaunted, have continued their heroic struggle by threatening legal action against the damnably evil state of Pernambuco (for murder, apparently) and excommunicating the doctors who performed the operation and the mother of the girl who consented to it, all of whom in my book thoroughly deserve such punishment and moreover should burn in the hellfires of eternal damnation for a very long time or even eternity - along of course with those other monstrous crimes against nature, homosexuals.

And puppies, for every puppy was born to sin.

But I'm feeling charitable, so God bless ‘em all, and God bless buses, because buses make me happy when nothing else will.

And now an entirely unnecessary disclaimer in that disclaimer implies that there might be readers somewhere out there: whilst a few of the sharper toothed images contained in this bit of blarney may appear to be connected to some of the people mentioned herein, this is entirely not the case at all and any such spiteful thoughts are, in fact, and in tribute to the late Harold Pinter, aimed at vague malevolent prescences lurking somewhere offstage.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Carnaval plods boringly past, all the usual talk of biggest blocos in the world, and escolas de samba and so on and so on, but it all feels a bit shallow this year, mainly because I make a bollox of the whole thing and try to rent out the house in Olinda and spend the holiday with the Potential New Light Of My Life (Number 463) who lives 2,345,678 kms away from Recife in Belem de Pará (when talking about the city it seems to be compulsory to explain that you’re talking about Belem in the state of Pará – as though there are hundreds of other Belems scattered around Brazil - there aren’t). I rent the house to a supposed friend for a few shiny coins and a couple of mangoes and a lump of wood carved in the shape of a lump of wood (or hard currency equivalent). The Supposed Friend returns the favour by giving me R$230 the night before I travel and telling me it’s r$280, and by then demanding a discount after carnaval because it rained a lot (The Supposed Friend has previously told me that after a few years spent away from Brazil she has no real friends here in Recife anymore, only now I begin to see that the years abroad might not be the only reason for this). Carnaval in Belem de Pará is throat-gaggingly boring, and while there are no complaints over Potential 463, it becomes joltingly obvious that the distances involved mean that for now things won’t get much beyond the potential. I come home early and try to whip myself into a carnaval frenzy, but it’s drizzly in Recife and all carnaval seems to be is a lot of people getting very drunk, and in once glorious Salvador, home of the Filhos De Ghandi and all that, Claudia Leite, a woman who makes Britney Spears look like Socrates (philosopher not chain-smoking midfield genius), encouraging a crowd of 500,000 people to kiss each other in order to break the world beijo na boca record. Which is a shame, because for two years for me Carnaval was the greatest thing on earth, as exciting maybe as one of Santa’s less important midweek games, and now, to put it bluntly, I couldn’t give a bollox.

And it all comes into sharp relief the week after carnaval when on the way back from Jordao I spy a handwritten sign scrawled on the back of one of the big advertising hoardings on the avenue - Leticia and Paulo Santos two more children dead where are the works on the Jordao canal governor? All this a reference to the fetid trickle that oozes its way through Jordao and points south bringing with it infection, disease and death. This is not violence, though it is very Brazilian in its sadness and pointlessness and sense of stasis, of nothing ever changing. In the Brazilian consciousness, and the consciousness of anyone who lives here, violence and pointless death is the big black dog barking behind the door, and if Taxi Driver is the great Arthurian legend of the decay of the modern city then Travis Bickle should come and shave his head in Pernambuco – 4,000 homicides a year works out at about 11 a day in a state with a population of around eight million. And while the vast majority of these deaths tragically are isolated in the periferia and the favelas and the often lawless interior (while the endlessly whining urban middle classes live swaddled lives of gilded luxury), it is still there, it is still present in the mind.

For me the only way to deal with all this is to make the threat of violence not present - to treat violence and crime as an abstract concept – it’s out there, of course, but until it happens to me (it hasn’t yet), then it doesn’t really exist. And to a certain extent this is true. Though you’d think the opposite, someone like myself – aging, white, gringo – makes an unlikely target for street violence (street crime – muggings, pick pocketing – is a different story). I have stood nonchalantly in the middle of rioting Inferno members and barroom rucks in shadowy cellars and as the chairs flew over my head I came to the refreshing conclusion that I don’t really exist. Why would any of these young brown and black kids want to kick seven bells out of an old gringo? Where’s the fun in that? They want to kick seven bells out of young brown and black kids from the neighbourhood down the road. This is why I have no fear of football or Galo Da Madrugada, but my younger black friends from Jordao and Bomba De Hermeterio do – because they have grown up with mindless, sickening violence and are targets for mindless, sickening violence every day of their lives.

That being said the big black dog seems to be barking more loudly these days. Last month I took the bus home after a Santa game. It was about 7 o´clock. The bus was full of Inferno but everyone was happy enough, because Santa hadn’t lost (it’s not as common an occurrence as it sounds). We were rolling through Encruzilhada when the first stone struck. The window smashed. Everyone screamed and dived to the floor. I stood my ground (I can do this because I am an Irish donkey, as Tom Wolfe puts it, and therefore believe my head is made of concrete and that I am entirely indestructible) and looked around. Relax, I said to the cowering girl on the floor, it´s just kids chucking stones. A stone whizzed past my ear. I hit the ground. Another hail of bricks. By now most of the windows on the bus were smashed. I looked up at the bus conductor. He rubbed the back of his head. He looked at his hand. His hand was covered in bright red blood. I hate Sundays, he said. Someone at the back of the bus started smashing the metal handrail into pieces. When the next hail of stones hit (by now there were no windows left and most of the bus (and the passengers) were covered in glass he stood up and threw the metal poles at the stone throwers. Every few hundred yards another hail of stones. By the time we got to Olinda there was no glass left anywhere on the bus. I staggered off groggily, needing a large glass of milk (perhaps with a little cachaça infusion).

The week after I am at the beach with The Supposed Friend (something that will not be happening again, needless to say). We are drinking beer and watching the plastic bags and the food wrappers bob up and down on the waves. Eight policemen run onto the beach with machine guns. They dive on top of a group of four men and hit the men over the heads with their batons and make the men lie on the ground and put the machine guns to their heads. The Supposed Friend starts gathering up our things, her face a mask of panic. Relax, I say, I don’t think it’s dangerous (it’s obviously not, unless someone decides to shoot at the policemen). Two of the policemen are staring out at the water. They point their machine guns at a fat man swimming. The fat man stands up and puts his hands behind his head. His tiny swimming trunks look silly, I say to The Supposed Friend. The police leave, marching the five men ahead of them. The waiter comes over and collects our glasses. Another beer? he asks.

And then the week after that (crikey!), I run for the bus downtown, only it pulls away and the driver ignores my frantic waving (I may or not make a rude sign at the driver). A few minutes later another bus comes. As we pass Santo Amaro and start to come in towards Derby the bus stops. A lot of people get on. Hijacked the bloody bus, grumbles one man. That, I presume, would be the bus I have just missed. The woman behind him shakes her head. Third time this month, she says (this can’t be true – or if it is she is Recife’s unluckiest citizen), another bloody cell phone gone!

Though just when it seems the barking is becoming too loud to bear and the big black dog will smash through the door any minute….nothing happens. Quieten down there, big black dog! Which kind of proves the point. I could work myself into a paranoid frenzy (anyone could), but really the chances of becoming a victim of crime are just that – chances. And while the chances might be slightly higher here in Recife than say, Malmo, until someone puts a gun to my head and says give me your money and your Santa Cruz Member´s Card, gringo, best to treat them as such.

And (and, and, and) what’s worse is that it can even become addictive, all this talk of violence. Wandering round the gloomy streets of Belem one night looking for somewhere to have a refreshing soft drink, I ask three old men for directions. Down there, first left, second right, one says. But be careful, the other says, it’s dangerous, and you’re not from around here are you? No, I say, I’m from Recife. The old man looks at his friends. Ach, he says. Don’t worry about it then. You’ll be alright. Oh yes, I think as I walk away, yo the man sho ´nuff.

And (and, and, and, and) to finish a quick tribute to Mark Fossey, founder of The Idiot Fund, everyone’s personal savings account for money squandered, lost, foolishly spent. Suffice to say that (no disrespect to Potential 463 intended) my carnaval wanderings to Belem de Pará (2,345,678 kms, two days, R$ = one third of a 2009 Honda Fan motorbike) represent perhaps my largest ever deposit in my own Idiot Fund. Though it might be said that almost four years in Brazil could be counted as a deposit of a different kind in an Idiot Fund of a different stripe…

Finally apologies to anyone reading this before March 8th (today), when I happened to notice that the first paragraph had been rendered utter gibberish, either because I had written utter gibberish or because of something unfathomable to do with computers and the ceefaxintercybertextweb.