Tuesday, 16 March 2010

On the floor there is a dead cockroach (and why is it that you see so many more dead cockroaches than live ones?) surrounded by hundreds of tiny scurrying ants. The ants, I presume, are lunching on the cockroach, though it´s all a bit small to make out. Outside, bats flit amongst the trees – if I sit in the garden I can hear them whipping past my ears. At around five o´clock when the sun begins to sink down behind the lighthouse the chirping of the cicadas is as loud as the whine of a jet plane. And when I remember to water the two bougainvillea plants I bought a couple of years ago they burst out into a tumble of bright pink blossom that curls around the gate.

It is a bucolic enough spot, with a stretch of dull green sea to the front and the hill and the churches and the Alta Da Se behind and up the hill. This part of Olinda resembles a forest that has been built on – perhaps because it once was a forest and has now been built on. And while the building has strangled away a lot of the greenery it is still thick and abundant and rich considering the 4,000,000 or so lives that have sprouted chaotically over and around it.

It attracts the waifs and strays too – gringos in their droves, obviously, sucked in by carnaval and history and the sea, and more than a few aging hippies.

What is also interesting is how even within the same general social classes various bairros in Recife and Olinda possess their own strong cultural identities. In Jardim Jordão, for example, no-one ever goes anywhere, other than Jardim Jordão, or maybe Prazeres or Jaboatão – mention of a trip to another neighbourhood or Olinda or Recife proper is likely to induce nosebleeds or panic attacks. This doesn´t happen in other places that are just as hard-knock as Jordão – you will run into people from Casa Amarela or Santa Amaro, for example, all over the city.

I experience the phenomenon this week when I invite The Big Black*, burgher of Jordão parish, to a social event in Boa Viagem Uber Alles. Hopefully it can be understood why discretion is important here, but the social event involves a cultural celebration at an education based establishment. The Big Black refuses to enter the social event. It´s like a bloody wedding, he moans, looking doubtfully at his Bermudas and havianas. Later, he refuses to come for a drink. I don´t earn R$2000 a month like you, he says, which is ironic enough given firstly that the bar we are going to in Boa Viagem Uber Alles charges the same for a beer as they do in Jordão and secondly that The Big Black has never, as far as anyone can remember, paid a bar bill. (Though I make jokes there is of course a darker reality at play here – while The Big Black is a truculent enough individual at the best of times, such are Brazil´s continuing endearing prejudices that were he to enter the social event he´d be the only black face there apart from the cleaner, and some of the other people at the social event might start looking around nervously to see where their handbags and wallets were).

Anyway the speciality of Amaro Branco, where I am blessed enough to live, or at least this particular bit of Amaro Branco, is a kind of well-honed, sleep-soaked indolence. Of the nine or so houses that circle this one, including the beco, approximately four people seem to work. When I leave the house, whether it´s in the morning or the afternoon, people are draped across hammocks or leaning on gates or standing in the middle of the scrubby square chatting. When I come back they in the same position, frozen as though in a sub-tropical Hopper painting.

Of course economic hardship plays a part – but not always. A new arrival, who rents one of the bigger houses with a garage, offers me the use of the garage to keep my car. Only R$100 a month, she says. R$100 is quite a lot, I say. Yes, but I don´t really want to work at the moment, so the money will come in really handy, comes the devastatingly logical repost. I elect not to sponsor this potential Oblomovinha.

There is something uniquely sleepy about the place - just as with Jordão’s splendid isolation, there are bairros as downtrodden as Amaro Branco all over Recife and Olinda with double the sense of activity and industry. It´s not necessarily a bad thing, just an odd thing.

This of course remains one of the greatest mysteries of Brazil to the foreigner: just how people manage to sustain themselves, to a reasonable if not spectacular level, with no form of visible income. I´m not talking about those at the very bottom of Recife´s social ladder, more those on the third or fourth rung (there might be ten or twelve rungs in total – twelve would get you an apartment on Avenida Boa Viagem). These are people with houses, and enough money for beer and maybe an old car or even an internet connection, but who don´t seem to actually do anything to provide for all this giddy extravagance.

In reality, though, it´s not that impossible to understand – perhaps a small pension or maintenance cheque from somewhere or other, a few government welfare payouts, or perhaps one or two minimum or just above salaries. Maybe the odd loan or donation from somewhere or other, and a house that is owned not rented. The manufacturing and selling of some kind of homemade tat or other is another favourite, as is various family members living in the same house and chipping in when possible. Larger material goods can be purchased in infinite installments now that ordinary Brazilians have discovered the joys of personal debt. It´s all nowhere near enough to be rich or even particularly comfortable, but enough to get by and have some of your day free for pondering upon the meaning of existence, or alternatively whether it will be rice and beans for lunch or beans and rice for lunch.

Anyway, all this nothing much to do can intrude a little on the life of someone who has, or at least believes he has, quite a lot of things to do. Lengthy pleasantries must be exchanged with between two and six people every time I leave the house, which, though it gives the heart a warm glow, taxes the patience of someone whose time management system operates on two levels – late and very late. One happy idler has a taste for translating names. What´s Thiago in English? What´s Guilherme in English? Wait, let me get a pen and paper! I glance feverishly at my watch, calculating whether it will be possible to drive from Olinda to Boa Viagem in lunchtime traffic in seven minutes. Though the lesson here, of course, is that nothing we really have to do is ever so important (assuming the exception of a few things such as open heart surgery, court hearings, giving birth, etc) that it can´t start a few minutes late. Once you learn that, you´ll be a much happier man. Or woman.

Bill lives in Amaro Branco, and as I live in Amaro Branco too and as Amaro Branco is not very big and as I spend a lot of time walking around Amaro Branco with the dog it seems inevitable that we´ll meet. When we do Bill tells me his plans – and what plans they are! He smokes four cigarettes in twenty minutes as we talk, and the sun burns the back of my neck. Bill has eschewed the learning of English or Spanish or the businessperson´s favourite, Cantonese. Instead Bill has learnt Esperanto. Wait – Bill has not just learnt Esperanto. Bill is recording music in Esperanto. Bill is thinking about product lines in Esperanto which will make Bill very rich indeed. I tell Bill that I think the Esperanto ship may have sailed. Nonsense, Bill tells me, it´s just taking a while to get on its feet - this is the year! Bill peers at me through his glasses. He has straggly white hair and a shirt with the four or five top buttons open. He looks a bit like the ex-manager of a 80s rock band – the one that was dumped before the band hit the big time. Bill invites me to come to his house one day to listen to his records in Esperanto. I tell him I will. And then he wanders off along his way and I wander off along mine, thinking about how the sun seems even hotter today than it did yesterday.

*A vaguely racist, though extremely common, Brazilian linguistic anachronism, this one, and not my own.

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