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.

2 comments:

cabobranco said...

Ola Amigo

Pernambuco a violent state throughout, don't know if you have seen this very good website before:
http://www.pebodycount.com.br/home/index.php

Just in Caruaru alone the numbers are high. All the same group of people again and again.

Did you hear any tecnobraga in belem do para??? i.e the new musical sensation unique to belem DO PARA!

Whats with the old?

All the best
cabobranco

zack said...

Whew, that was a bit of a roller coaster ride/read, my friend.

Last week I was in a relatively obscure region of Oaxaca, on a quest to find a choice snorkeling bay. I was riding in the back of an eldery Mercedes Benz diesel whose transmission longed for a final and peaceful retirement. As we wound our way down a mountain road, places washed out from long past rains, and ground our way up and down sand dunes to our destination, our driver Chewy, (well he quite clearly was called Chewy whatever the appropriate Spanish spelling should be) showed no mercy to the gears of this once dignified Teutonic vehicle.

Despite the truck's protests, Chewy, with determined macho attitude, found ways to jump from first to third gear and back again with only a passing shrug at second gear.

My reading of this entry put me in mind of that for some reason - not sure why.

I am not making light here please understand. I do feel your outrage at this whole Pernambuco violence thing.

You know, I think this culture of permissiveness (or fatalism ?)when it comes to this level of violence is perhaps partly due to a very basic lack of trust or faith in the capacity for social order in Recifé. What I mean is that I do not think there is any level of trust that the social structure of this community is such that one can count on the police to contain violence in an impartial way - the courts to demonstrably meet out punishment in a just manner.

I think there is a basic distrust in the inherent goodness one citizen feels for another citizen. At least beyond one's family and circle of trusted friends. I am not suggesting the goodness is not there, people just don't trust enough to have faith in it. I think there is a basic corruption or erosion of trust.

I also think that that this societal attitude you describe so well, and struggle with, is something that all thickly populated urban areas are at risk for.

I do think that for many cities in many countries there exists the institutional checks and balances, perhaps more 'broke' in Recifé, that also can and do break down in times of stress.

Take for example rioting and looting in a time of great stress on the system caused by a natural or man-made disaster. It is just that some places are a bit more broken and the dog breaks out more often.

Oh dear I think I am beginning to preach at your pulpit, please forgive me. I just wanted to say I felt the gears grinding a bit on this entry.

best regards..........zack