Sunday, 31 May 2009

A bright, blustery Saturday in The Murder Capital of Brazil (*, and good things are afoot. Heavy winter, which is still an average six or seven degrees hotter than the UK basks in 23° temperatures headline I saw somewhere yesterday, but which also means Atlantic storms and weeks of hissing, cloud bursting rain – a pisser for all who like eating grilled cheese on the beach, slurupping down a few cold sherberts in a dark nook of a street corner bar, dreaming of better days at O Mundão Arruda, or generally doing anything at all in Recife, which is a city which lives and breathes out of doors, on its beaches and in its streets and roofless bars and football grounds.

But no rain today, only glimpsy blue skies and cotton puff clouds, and so everyone, it seems, is in a good mood. On the way into town, the bus driver blaps his horn to warn the driver of a careering juggernaut that he is careering faster still - blap blap – blap blap blap – blap blap blap. And has he passes the driver of the juggernaut supplies the punch line – blap blap! And I'm in a good mood too , because it’s Saturday, and I’ve already been up and around the Alto Da Sé with Guinness The Dog and looked down on the city and the white tipped sea and handed out a few cigarettes to The String Man, and last night after teaching the kids in Jordão (exactly the type of “sprawling slum” mentioned in The Independent article, of which more later), I went out and stood in the street and watched a quadrilia junina, or traditional São João dance group, only this being Jordao it was the hip-hop variety of quadrilia, with boys in Inferno and Jovem Sport t-shirts and girls in tiny shorts and tops, all dark skin glistening under the street lights, all spinning and whirling and jumping in a way that would make Beyonce’s video producer offer all concerned a million bucks to relocate to Beyonceworld as soon as possible.

And how not to be in a good mood? The sun is shining, it’s Saturday morning, the bus is speckled with a few smokin’ hot chicks, and I´m on my way to meet The Fanautico Girlfriend, recently promoted from the rank of Potential New Light Of My Life. And a side note - The Fanautico Girlfriend, it seems to me, would not mind the reference to smokin’ hot chicks on the bus, being a smokin’ hot chick herself, and not only that – a smokin’ hot chick who likes football - Nautico (hence the name), not Santa, but at least it’s not Sport - and drinking and lying around on the sofa doing nothing.

It is a good thing to do, to go and meet The Fanautico Girlfriend downtown (another bonus! Downtown is the best of all the good places in Recife – bustling and noisy and ripe and thrilling) on a sunny Saturday, because it stops all the alone time, and while alone time can be good, it can also be bad, because with too much alone time comes too much thinking – thinking about Brazil, thinking about Recife and all the things that are wrong here, thinking about the stupid things people say (a recent favourite: blonde shiny toothed teenage burgher of glittering Avenida Boa Viagem, whose parents have spent a fortune on a luxurious apartment on the city’s most glorious seafront avenue, says she likes the beach, but not the beach a few metres in front of her house. She likes the beaches outside the city, down the coast, because the beach at Boa Viagem is full of negroes, arf, arf), about all the things I have done and not done and said and not said. The prospect of meeting The Fanautico Girlfriend downtown stops most of that (thought not all), and makes one think of other things – carne do sol and macaxeira frita washed down with a cold beer in The Banguê in Patio São Pedro, for example, and maybe a movie-with-popcorn after that.

But before all of this there is more important work to be done. There are many milestones in a man’s life, it seems to me – the first time he refuses to wear the vest his mammy has laid out for him, the first time he spatters the curtains with up throw following too much exuberant sauce guzzling, when he gets his first job, crashes his first car, uses a large bank loan to buy his first overpriced one bedroom apartment, etc, etc, etc.

A relic of 37 now, I have passed through many of these milestones (excluding any of the important ones, obviously, like getting married or having children). Many have brought joy, many sadness, some only sleepy indifference. But now comes the biggest one of all.

A small shopping arcade just off a side street near Avenida Conde Da Boa Vista. I walk up the dank stairs. A rat scuttles away into the shadows. The throbbing music from the street fades to nothing. It is dark inside, and the seven heads – all male, all youngish, all dark skinned – swivel and glare at me as I hover nervously. I go up to the counter. Is it here?, I ask. I have been waiting – long, dreary weeks. Just a minute, comes the answer. I wait some more while he checks. He comes back. It’s here, he says. He gives it to me. I hold it in my hand – a small, white square of plastic. I sense its weight, its warmth.

I walk out of the shop, back into the sunshine. I feel complete. Though also a little foolish – maybe the first almost 40 something member of the Inferno Coral, and certainly the whitest. But now – pennies and pounds, as they say – I´m Inferno até morrer. And who knows what it is - love, sunshine, or a small plastic card bearing the legend Grêmio Recreativo Torcida Organizada Inferno Coral - but my juices, creative and otherwise, have begun to flow again, and that can only be good news for me, if not for the handful of people who read these words.

* A generally witless article, it seems to me, that could have been written about almost any other major city in Brazil or the developing world in general. The central themes of the article are correct but obvious – that (a) there are a lot of homeless children in Recife, (b) there are a number of militias organised by unscrupulous, corrupt police officers, who for a fee can be hired to remove any pests from the streets, (c) Recife is a city that suffers greatly from violence and all the other social problems that arise from poverty and massive inequality of wealth. What is most objectionable is the lurid use of language - death squads, the killables, murder capital (probably not any more, actually, as such title changes hands pretty much every year - my money´s on Salvador or perennial heavyweight Vitoria (ES) to claim back the crown this year), the factual inaccuracies and lazy clichés (Recife is not Brazil’s fourth biggest city, it’s number six or seven, and what the hell has carnaval got to do with any of this?), the probably entirely fictitious conversations with unnamed “sources” - he had a silver handgun in his belt which he took out and carefully ensured it was unloaded before he laid it on the seat between us – oh no he didn’t! oh yes he did! oh no he didn’t! etc.

Most blackhearted of all, I would think, is that this article appeared in the same week as a recent publication of statistics showing that violence in Recife has been declining for the last three years, albeit slowly, since the introduction of various governmental social programmes (Pacto Pela Vida for example) and the general improving of things for the lowest social classes in the city (and the country as a whole) through an expanded welfare state and rising minimum wage. For a truer, more complete picture of how things were and are in Recife and Brazil, read Peter Robb’s A Death In Brazil, and not lazy one-off soundbites by feature journalists on a deadline who, with nothing much else to write about, use the lives and deaths of Recife´s lost souls to generate a few blood soaked headlines.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Turning winter now, which in Recife means slate grey skies weighed down with rain and occasional bursts of blue gold skies and dizzying sunlight. The temperature tips a little lower than in high summer, but it’s still as warm as socks drying on the radiator. The waves break tipped with white out on the ocean and at night as I step off the bus the air tastes of salt and sharp metallic rain. Uau-uau tired (as everybody knows Brazilian dogs don’t say woof woof but uau-uau) I walk up the hill in the blustery darkness, dreaming only of a cold beer or seven in the garden before bed.

Huddled on a step in front of one of the small white houses sit three men, a rangy black Baiano named Moises who lives in the alley that runs beside the house, Manuel, an eager and bespectacled Recifense, and Manuel’s cousin Marcio. (Manuel is also the husband of the famed donator of food, dogs and subsequent unwanted dog parenting advice, Mother Sururu (see entry dated 9th November 2008). Marcio looks a bit like Marcio Barros, famed centre forward of Santa´s almost but not quite glorious campaign in the Pernambuco State Championship.

Manuel is talking, loud and fast and his voice is cracking with emotion, though when I walk over he stops and looks up at me and smiles.

All good, I ask, which is what you ask here, and Manuel and Marcio and Moises confirm that all is good, and then they ask me if all is good, and I say, yes, all is good.

And then Manuel goes on talking. He leans forward as he does so, and the street lights glint orange on his glasses. He is not wearing a shirt and his chest is covered in thick whorls of black hair.

They killed him, he says, they killed him.

He is talking about his father, and there is not much really that any of us can say.

I watched him die, and there was nothing I could do. Moses lights a cigarette and, looking away towards the ocean, makes soft grunts of agreement.

There is a moment of silence, when we all hang, waiting, and then Manuel is talking again, his voice in the half-darkness now becoming gentler and more resigned, and he is telling us how he became friends with an orderly at the hospital, and how he had asked this orderly, finally, what was happening, if they were treating his father well, or, if, in the creaking Brazilian public health system, a world of endless queues and terrible overcrowding and patients beached and groaning in corridors, but one that functions, just, despite everything, and that needs to function, because it is the only option for millions upon millions of people, his father was being pushed aside, forgotten, treated as already dead.

I’m going to do something I shouldn’t do, the orderly told him, and now Manuel seems to be relishing the intrigue of his story, decorating it with pauses and gestures and turning what in less verbose countries would be a functional two minute narrative into something much grander and more dramatic and even beautiful.

Something that had better not come back on me, you understand? Because I’ve seen the way you care for your father, and Manuel branches up another conversational alley, telling us how he spent day and night at the hospital, and took his father to the bathroom and only called the nurses to administer medicine, because it was his father and he owed his father everything.

So I told him, Manuel says, of course it won’t come back on you, I understand. And he pauses again, for yet further dramatic effect, and then delivers his punch line - then the guy told me, yes, they’re screwing with your father.

And there are other stories then, all interlinked and spinning around and fluid and hard to follow, and while I occasionally lose track of the chattering Portuguese subjunctives and medical terms and Pernambuco slang, it is clear that Manuel, an honest man who works in one of the souvenir shops up on the Alta Da Se, is angry and hurting. There are stories of how the wrong medicine was prescribed, medicine that had put his father into a state of toxic shock, and of disinterested and overworked doctors, and of how no-one would give him a straight answer to a straight question.

Manuel’s face grows dark then, and he tells of how he is going to the hospital tomorrow, and he is going to find his father’s doctor, and how he is going to tell him that he is responsible for the death of his father, and how he doesn’t know what he is going to do after that.

Standing listening in the silence we know Manuel is not going to do anything stupid or criminal, for he is too good a man for that. And anyway in Brazil most stories of bloody revenge arise out of sweaty boy on girl action and hot ‘n’ heavy pawing and mucky touching (sex, in other words), and not the incompetence and brutalities of state organs, which are handled rather with a combination of impotent anger and complaining and finally resignation. And so in the end there is nothing really that anyone can do to help Manuel, only listen and maintain a respectful watch in the gathering night, before all decide, suddenly and with an odd mutual understanding, that it is time to go to bed.

The next day I am walking down the high street with Guinness The Dog. We pass behind a car parked on the pavement at a 90 degree angle to the road. The car starts reversing. Guinness The Dog stops and looks at the car. It’ll stop, I think. It doesn’t. I rap hard on the back window. The car stops. I walk on. I hear shouting from behind. The driver of the car, a gordinho, a porky, gloopily sweating man of 50 or so, is gesticulating furiously. I search my immense bi-lingual vocabulary bank for just the right retort before settling on prick. A few hundred yards up the street, I hear a screech of brakes and the car jumps onto the pavement and skids to a halt in front of me. It’s all a bit Starsky and Hutch.

And then it starts. A good few minutes of tedious outrage and shouting and pretending that a healthy scrap is in the offing (though I doubt Starsky (or is it Hutch) could haul himself out the door let alone the window). In the passenger seat lurks Starsky’s thick-necked son (or, as we’re living in modern times, possibly his life partner), clutching furiously at his door handle as if to say one more word sunshine and I’ll be out there before you can say A Puppy Is For Life Not Just For Christmas.

Thing is I’ve not been in that many intellectual debates ultimately settled by a good smack in the mouth but I’ve been in one or two and I’ve seen a few more, and in my humble experience people who are going to hit you generally hit you pretty soon after the event which made them want to hit you in the first place, and don´t sit around discussing the moral rights and wrongs of said event. So I´m not too worried, especially given Starsky’s tremendous girth and the general air of dutiful dullness that surrounds the son/life partner (though this being Recife there is always the slight possibility someone might pull out a water-pistol or two). So I tell them to find peace in the Lord, my children (or something similar though possibly rather more profane), and ease on down the road.

There’s something very Brazilian male about the whole thing – the machismo, the shouting tantrum, the loss of reason, and something especially Pernambucanan about it too, because Pernambucanans are bravo, and get very het up about things sometimes. That’s alright too, because we all get het up about things, though I’m glad to say I get less het up about things than I used to, maybe because the weather is generally nice all the time and I have enough money for food and a few cold sherberts on a warm night and enough friends to keep me from blowing my brains out and of course The Potential New Light Of My Life (Number 464), who is enough of a bundle of fun to make anyone get less het up about things.

Anyway as always it has become apparent that this has nothing very much to do with anything - only that there was something admirable about Manuel’s silence and grace under pressure in the blowy warmth of the night, and not very much admirable at all in Starsky and Son’s ludicrous huffing and puffing the day after.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

All is right with the world – or at least if not all is right, then almost all is right. A late summer Friday afternoon, Guinness The Dog pootling around the garden, the sun etching shadows between the trees and the little white painted houses. The trees themselves have turned a smoky kind of green, as someone has lit a bonfire nearby, and the ocean laps idly back and forth a couple of hundred yards away and below. There are even a few sailboats drifting across the milky horizon. I’m smoking cigarettes because after years in the amateur game I’m thinking of taking the sport up professionally. And although if I’m the only one to think so (the national media and my collegas in Boa Viagem certainly do not) Brazil seems to me to be getting better, though agonisingly slowly of course, and in good one step forward three hundred and forty six steps backwards fashion – cocking it’s snook at global economic crises through a dizzying variety of consumer credit and loan schemes and massive government investment programmes (at the same time indebting its citizens to enormous, almost British/North American levels, but who cares about that?). And anyway after the tragi-comedies of Northern Ireland in the 1980s and early 90s Brazil never seemed to me to be as otherwordly bad as some people seem to think – just another very fucked up country in a long list of very fucked up countries.

Santa Cruz are putting to bed another trophy-less Campeonato Pernambucano, but it has been a two months to be remembered fondly – particularly no end of hi-jinks with the Inferno Coral and the otherwise atrocious full back Adilson`s last minute equaliser against Sport at a packed and rambunctious Arruda, sparking the tricolor masses into delirium, volleys of fireworks mingling with the chant of 40,000 people singing o dono daqui sou eu for a very long time without stopping. (The approximate translation of this is: yes, you might be in Serie A and on your way to winning your fourth consecutive Pernambuco championship AND even playing in the Libertadores, and we might be in Serie D and probably the world’s most shambolic football club, but the owner of this house, my friend, has always been and always will be Santa Cruz, and I’ll thank you to show some respect when you come to visit). Then everyone stopped singing that and started chanting ooooh vai morrer, ooooh vai morrer (translation: ooooh you’re gonna die, ooooh you’re gonna die) at the few thousand Sport fans huddled nervously in the far corner of the stadium. Less poetic, admittedly, but a nice throwback to Belfast Big Two derbies and chants of you’re going home in a ****ing ambulance...

And yes, I am thinking about starting another website entitled Your Football Team Is An Impossibility in order to remove such tedious sporting romanticising from this one. If so, it’s fitting to go out on a last tribute to our anti-hero Adilson, perhaps the only professional footballer to have his wife write to his club requesting he be kicked off the team. I love my husband very much, said the letter from Senora Adilson, recently printed in the Diario De Pernambuco, and he is a wonderful father to our children. In our lovemaking he is tender and passionate and gives me much pleasure. But for the love of God get him off the team. He’s a bloody awful footballer – even a blind man can see it – and he’s royally fucking up Santa’s chances in the Pernambucano.*

There is even another Potential New Light Of My Life (Number 464), one that shows no signs of being a surreptitious reader of private correspondence or an occasional eater of small birds (ok, there hasn’t actually been a secret eater of small birds yet, but the way that things have been going it was surely only a matter of time), one that likes the odd sherbert or two, football, and goes like the clappers (NB – that last bit, whether true or not, is an appeasing joke to the Maxim oriented readers of this site, and should not be considered in anyway an appraisal of PNLOML 464’s sexual appetites or otherwise).

The only thing is that, as the cultural output of the south of France in the 20th century confirms, such contentedness breeds sloth and a thorough lack of inspiration. Whither the angst, Mr X? Even The Ex-Girlfriend is safely ensconced in dilapidated suburban Recife, playing house with The Ex-Girlfriend’s New Boyfriend, rather selfishly supplying a disappointing lack of pei pei pei drama and excitement to these pages.

Maybe the trick is to look closer to home for essays on life and all its rich foolishness. Maybe – gulp – the trick is to stop thinking of oneself all the time, and to consider for a while the lives of others. And in the unheard of neighbourhood of Amaro Branco, huddled on the slopes of old Olinda at the foot of the lighthouse, there’s probably enough material to knock out a couple of dozen A La Recherce Du Temps Perdu.

Wander up the hill from the house, for example, and then hang a left as though heading back down again, and in front of the Igreja San Franciso you’ll find a small leafy square with a hefty stone cross plunked in the middle. There are a few crumbling houses perched on the muddy banks around the square, and in the square itself, or maybe in a little wooden hut or beneath a tree behind one of the houses, lives a gentleman known only as The String Man. The String Man seems to be impossibly aged (though he may not be), and his skin is all brown and as dry and wrinkly as old leaves. His hair and beard are ash grey and his eyes twinkle like broken glass and he is as small and hunched as a twelve year old boy (though I appreciate that twelve year old boys aren’t usually hunched). When I walk past him on a morning ramble with Guinness The Dog he comes bounding over and kneels down and puts a small piece of string in front of Guinness The Dog. Guinness The Dog looks at me, as though to ask "What’s all this horseshit, papai?”, for Guinness The Dog is not an easy tolerator of fools. The String Man laughs and pushes the string closer to Guinness The Dog, who has spotted a cat somewhere off to the left and is much more interested in that (though Guinness The Dog is in fact scared of cats and when faced with one simply darts manically from left to right in front of him/her, tail wagging furiously). I don’t think she really understands, I tell The String Man (wanting to tell him that I don’t really understand either). The String Man laughs and pockets the string and in the same movement fishes a half smoked cigarette out of another pocket and offers it to me. I don’t smoke, I lie, and he nods and then we shake hands and I wander off to wherever I am going with Guinness The Dog and he wanders off to wherever it is he wanders off to.

Another day The String Man comes leaping down from the bank with an important mission in mind. He carries a small white piece of wood. Stand on that, he motions (The String Man is a man of few words). I stand on it. He pokes at my foot with a small stick. Measurements of the most bizarre variety are imaginarily taken. Ha!, The String Man shouts after a few minutes, apparently pleased with his findings. He solemnly shakes my hand and wanders off again, thinking hard about impossible things.

The last time I see The String Man is on a rainy day when I am in the bakery buying bread and dog biscuits (dog food and dog biscuits now account for exactly 49.64% of my monthly income). The String Man is at the counter smiling beatifically at the bakery woman (who we might call Iris). Iris is laughing hard, her eyes shining behind her thick glasses. The String Man doesn’t laugh – just smiles. When he sees me he smiles and picks a toffee out of the box on the counter and gives it to me. I eat the toffee. The String Man buys his cigarettes and leaves. I overtake him on the way up the hill – his legs are as thin as twigs and his feet are bare and black and sore looking and progress is slow. When I see him I decide to go back to the bakery and buy him a toffee (The String Man will accept neither bread nor money – and I’ve tried more than a few times). I catch up with him again and give him the toffee. He smiles and puts it in his pocket, and shakes my hand, and when we reach the top of the hill he goes left down to the square and the big stone cross and I go on up the hill, to the Alta Da Se from where you can see all of Recife – all of 3,000,000 or so lives being thickly lived - spreading out in the drizzly haze.

*All a total lie, of course, but a good one, and it was April last month, so it’s still kind of Liar’s Day, isn’t it?