Friday, 25 December 2009


Travel broadens the mind, so they say, though it probably depends on the destination and the purpose - you might not always learn that much about Mexican culture, for example, by spending ten nights in a four star resort in Cancun (though you’ll probably have a very nice time). I think about this recently as the plane dips its wings and southern England - black, grey and white and looking very Russia-following-scorched-earth-retreat-in-1812 - weakly swims into view through the gloaming. It also looks like the kind of place where the only form of life that is possible is one where people creep as quickly as possible from their beds to their cars to work and back again, and somewhere where it must be quite difficult to experience very much joy. Though I'm sure it's not that, of course.

Anyway. A month ago or so The Argument and I visited Belo Horizonte, my personal Brazilian Plymouth Rock and scene of many an exciting adventure involving Celine, The Ex-Girlfriend and others. We had a marvellous time, The Argument and I – lunching in fine fashion at bea-gah’s spectacular Mercado Central, drinking with Celine, visiting Bar do Jaime. We even spent three nights in Ouro Preto, which, with its chilly climes and gloomy mountain backdrop casts a far more historic and mysterious spell for me than parched and tropical (though also beautiful) Olinda. Though maybe that’s because I live in Olinda, and so am thoroughly used to its cobbled streets and 3562 colonial churches and jaw dropping views across Recife and the Atlantic, etcetera, etcetera.

Anyway, what I learnt on this trip was the following:

1) People in Belo Horizonte are, generally, taller than people in Recife. Though there are of course people in Recife who are taller than many people in Belo Horizonte.

2) People in Minas talk really loudly. Here’s a funny story for you, I said to The Argument when we arrived. And I told her about The Ex-Girlfriend From A Very Small Town In The Interior, who, following my suggestion that Belo Horizonte would be a fine place for her to live (she had recently graduated nursing school and was casting her career net far and wide), retorted not on your life, my impressively endowed* gringo pal, the people in Minas talk really loudly! Talk really loudly! How The Argument and I laughed at TEGFAVSTITI’s charming backwoods ways! Until, after a couple of days, we realised we had taken to flinching and leaning backwards a little every time a Mineiran chose to talk to (or rather shout at) us, such was the deafening verbal onslaught we knew would soon be coming our way. And what strange accents they have! I was even on occasion forced to correct their brutal massacring of the Portuguese tongue. You don’t pronounce it Fe-rrrrr-nando, I told Ana Galocoura, friend of The First Brazilian Ex-Girlfriend, it’s Fe-h-nando. Who knew that only nordestinos know how to speak proper?

3) Those employed in the customer service sector in Minas are somewhat more diligent than their counterparts in Recife. When paying a bill in Ouro Preto I chance a question or two with the rather fetching waitress, who is hunched over her calculator (The Argument is in the bathroom). Does it always rain this much? I ask. Silence, apart from the tapping of calculator buttons. Unperturbed, I try again. There aren’t many tourists around at the moment, are there? More silence. Hum. I appreciate that these aren’t the most interesting questions in the world, but is such coldness really warranted? And then the girl finishes her hard sums and looks up and gives me a big smile and starts answering my questions. At which point The Argument comes back and starts giving me the fish eye. We leave. The lesson learned being – in Recife chit chat comes before work and work should never be allowed to interrupt chit chat, whereas in Minas work comes before chit chat and chit chat should never be allowed to interrupt work. I know which I prefer, though my opinion may change based on whether I am the one working or the one being (or not being) attended to.

4) Other than in the nordeste, the Brazilian climate is almost as overrated as, say, French cuisine. Though admittedly in the nordeste, with its nine and a half months a year of cloudless skies and 33-36 degree temperatures (and two and a half months of 26-29 degree temperatures, slightly cloudy skies and the occasional heavy shower) we might be somewhat spoilt. In the norte it’s always hot but almost never sunny, and it rains a hell of a lot, and in the sul and sudeste it’s sometimes very hot but also quite cold a lot of the time. Now hot and cold is relative – for me even when Ouro Preto hit a chilly 18 degrees at night, while hardly as pavement-crackingly hot as Hellcife in mid-summer, it was still warm enough for big crescent moons of sweat to bloom across my back when hiking up some of the more preposterously steep streets. The Argument, a good pernambucanan, however, imagines herself to be on Scott’s expedition across the Antarctic. Three sweaters, a scarf and a woolly hat are hardly enough to brave the brutal weather. Sleeping hunched up against the cold, she develops a stiff neck. And when nature calls during the night, and she creeps off towards the bathroom, I am sure I hear her saying I am going outside and may be some time.

I do not know if this is a lot or a little to learn from a week’s holiday in another city. I did not come into contact with any lost indigenous tribes or find an untouched idyllic beach far from the beaten track. I did not marvel at the simpler way of life and the strength of the traditional family unit in Belo Horizonte. Perhaps then, I am just not a very good traveller, and must try harder.

Though really perhaps the most important thing I have learnt through recent travels I did not discover on this trip to Belo Horizonte but on the journey I am on now, home to Norn Iron for Christmas. What I learnt is this – it’s bloody hard work travelling in the Third World ™. Flying Recife to Belfast, as you might imagine, involves a number of connections and changes of plane - a precarious operation at the best of times, harder still the day before Christmas. Somewhere en route one of my connecting flights is delayed from 15.10 to 17.00. And then delayed again to 20.00. Weather conditions are blamed, though where and what the weather is no-one seems to know. The flight is delayed again, to 22.00. Passengers surround the airline information desk, but there is no-one there from the airline, just an airport information lackey who doesn’t really seem to know anything. Things are often this way here – customer care is rarely a priority. Also, people in this part of the world are not always patient and are quick to anger. The mood grows ugly. The flight is delayed again to 22.45. People make comparisons with other countries and ask each other if such things happen in places with better organised transport systems. Everyone is shouting and waving their fists. A baby starts to cry and the atmosphere is of general civil unrest. Finally at 2.00 am the flight is cancelled. Someone from the airline appears, accompanied by security guards. Meal vouchers are handed out though given inflated airport prices the vouchers will probably only be enough for a bottle of water and a packet of crisps and anyway most of the airport restaurants have closed. There is token mention of hotel accommodation being offered but the airline representative says we will have to wait for our bags to be unloaded and for a coach to arrive and it is already 3.00 am and we must be back at the airport to find another flight at 5.00 when the airline sales desk opens. We sleep on benches or on the floor. When the desk opens we are booked on the few other flights which still have seats (it’s now Christmas Eve). I am booked on the 11.05, only the airline has decided that even though the mysterious unfriendly weather has passed it’s no longer going to fly to where I want to go to and I will have to fly instead to another city two or three hours away and then get a bus to my destination. The plane is delayed three times and finally leaves at 13.30. On the plane there is no meal service but a girl comes round with a trolley. I ask for a coffee, because I am exhausted and very cold and have been waiting almost 24 hours for the flight and even then once we land I’m going to have to sit on a bus for three hours to get where I wanted to go in the first place. The girl asks me for two pounds or two euros and fifty eurocents. I tell the girl that I am very surprised that the company which has kept 200 people waiting 24 hours for their plane is now charging those same customers for a cup of coffee (I may or may not sprinkle my answer with a few words that I cannot repeat in a family orientated piece such as this). The girl shrugs and says there’s not much she can do about it. So I tell her that next time I need to travel from London to Belfast I’ll swim the feckin’ Irish Sea before I fly with a bunch of evil shysters like Father Dougal Airlines, more commonly known as Aer Lingus, again.

Happy Christmas!

* She might not really have said this part. Though that’s not to say it isn’t true, of course.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


When I wake I open the door and then the gate and look at the murky green or blue of the Atlantic there is nothing between the tip of my nose and Africa except miles of ocean. It is important to remember this when bank queues and traffic and the rudeness of ordinary life get you down – that a person from a small drizzly greenish grey rock in the North Atlantic (it would be pushing things to call it Europe) can live in a city (a busted but still shiny in parts jewel of a city) on the bony right shoulder of South America. This is easy to forget and remembering it still brings a little gasp of wonder to the lips. But then when I look down over the wall what I see is a small hilly range of shrapnel and shingle and gravel which a neighbour, building a second floor to her house, has dumped. Other people, walking past the gravel, have thought it an excellent burial ground for unwanted objects, so that now on top of the gravel there are plastic bags of rubbish, and old car tyres, and broken fans, and plastic coke bottles and old trainers.

In the same way if I walk up the hill towards the house late at night the cobblestones, smoothed by traffic and feet, gleam like gold under the orange street lights. But during the day there are pits and holes between the cobblestones where underwater pipes have burst, pits and holes big enough to impale a car tyre. The holes are so bad that someone (a local resident, obviously, because it’s unlikely that Olinda’s Oblomov-esque town council will ever stir themselves into action) has laid down sand and stones to smooth the way, or at least make it passable.

The Ferrari is in need of a wash, and after a few hours sitting in the burning sun is as hot as Hades. One of the plastic stripes that run along the roof has cracked and peeled off because of the heat. I put an extra t-shirt on the back seat (the one I am wearing now will be soaked in sweat by the time I arrive) and get in the car. Driving to work I bump over the pits and holes, and then onto the Rua Do Sol, which is divided in two because work is going on over on the other road which runs along the sea. The road by the sea was redeveloped recently, but the redeveloped road, made up of cobblestones in order to preserve the area’s colonial heritage, collapsed. I bump along Rua Do Sol, where there are some manholes without manhole covers.

After that things get better, and the road becomes a smoothly tarmaced four lane expressway (or carriageway), but by the shopping centre something is happening. Large groups of people are standing by the side of the road. On one day, it is because a boy on a motorcycle has been knocked down and killed – I drive past, the traffic has slowed, and see his body, covered by a blanket. All I see is a small patch of hair, exposed by the blanket. His hair is covered with blood.

On another day, when I take the bus, there are also crowds, but crowds of a different type. The traffic slows. The people – mostly young, all dark skinned and brightly dressed, maybe a couple of hundred strong – run into the road. Some boys throw tyres in front of the bus. The bus skids and stops. When it stops some other boys throw stones at the bus. To the left is the shopping centre, covered in Christmas lights and advertisements for plasma TVs. The bus roars forward and almost hits one of the boys. The boys, I think, do not want to rob the bus (it does not feel like a robbery, and there are far too many people involved) but want to protest about something, though there is a distinct lack of leadership or direction. The girls and women and older people by the side of the road jump up and down and cheer when the bus stops. The driver curses angrily, and someone behind me says, again? Later I find out that the ragged bunch of protesters are residents of one of the favelas that run along the side of the avenue, and who are likely to lose their homes in the near future because of construction works. This, obviously enough, is what they are protesting about.

At the traffic lights, at night, many car drivers (particularly drivers of newer, expensive cars) do not stop because they think they will be robbed. I have never been robbed at traffic lights, so I stop generally, believing that until I am robbed robbery in a personal context does not really exist or will not happen to me. Today, in the bright blue sunlight, I am immediately surrounded by black boys with no shirts or sandals. I am friends with one of the boys, to the extent that he asks me for money and I give him money and he washes my windscreen. Today I am lucky – he gives me some sweets that have burst from the bags that he also sells.

In front of the big public hospital in Derby, on another day, another bus, I look out the window and down at the car next to the bus. We are stopped in traffic. The car is small and battered and an old man is sitting in the passenger seat with his shirt open and his eyes closed and his mouth opening and closing like a fish. The driver, who I take to be his son, leans over and takes his hand and holds it close to his mouth and kisses it, then he puts his other hand on the old man’s chest as though feeling for something. After a few seconds of watching I understand that the old man is dying.

Then I drive on and over the flyover and the office buildings and the apartment buildings and the boys selling pirate football shirts and bottles of water and oranges. When the car stops in traffic or at traffic lights and the breeze of the sea drops away it is gruesomely hot. I reach Boa Viagem and drive along the avenue that takes me to work. The avenue on the other side, the one leading into town, is filled now with workers and people going to the beach, though at night it will be crowded with teenage prostitutes doped up on crack or booze or maconha or boredom or poverty or all five. I get to the school where I now work which is a school for upper middle class children. Many of the children have I-Phones and other expensive electronic devices. When I leave the school at night a woman is rooting through the trash cans of the apartment building next door. Two of her children are helping her.

In the newspaper – murder rates in Recife are down by 10%. Though the newspaper is filled with grisly murder stories from the preceding days (I count six). All the victims are poor and are killed for reasons that seem unbelievably cheap – suspicions of sexual betrayal, a used bicycle, twenty reais of maconha. On the TV news - a few decades of stable democracy, sustained economic growth, 14 million barrels of oil found under the sea. And a man filmed stuffing wads of 100 reais notes into his underpants in the office of the governor of the Distrito Federal.

This is the country where I live - not understood by most Brazilians any more than it is understood by foreigners, interpreted by most people (as things usually are) only by predictable and repetitive and self-serving and well-used stock opinions – Brazil’s a shithole that will never improve, Brazil is getting better, all politicians are corrupt, everyone is a thief, it’s all the Americans fault, it’s all the Portuguese fault. All of such opinions, of course, exclude the role of the individual, and the possibility that everyone is different and lazy stereotypes and generalizations do not always work. Really Brazil, like most things, is like a coin, filthy and broken and scratched on one side, shiny and bright on the other. Which is a very obvious thing to say, but perhaps what is not obvious is that it is impossible to see the whole coin, which is a mixture of both sides, by looking at only one side. Maybe the secret is to try and identify the narrow edge of the coin, where you can glimpse both sides at the same time, and then to realise that both the filthy and the broken and the scratched are part of the same thing as the shiny and the bright, and to try and understand things that way. I wouldn´t be so brazen as to suggest that I always manage to look at things in this way, in fact I rarely do – but when I remember I try, which in a life of some wonder and happiness but little obvious success or achievement is about as much as I can say about anything.