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.

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