Wednesday, 28 April 2010


Whereas in Olinda the neighbours were good stolid Amaro Branco folk such as A Gata Do Bairro and Dona Maria and Galego and Bigode and Joãos One, Two and Three, all of whom could be invariably found not more than a metre or ten from their houses, here in the city the locals are a more diverse bunch. The first shock is that there seem to be even more of Recife´s lost souls now than there were eighteen months ago - the same clan of homeless transvestites still flits around outside the supermarket in their ragged fishnets and torn mini-skirts, and the little bunch of glue-sniffing strays still sleep in the doorways around Praça Chora Menino. Whether their numbers have increased or not I don´t really know, but it feels like they have.

The best judges of life in the city though, might be dogs. The balmy air of Olinda no more, the dog that is closest to my heart finds herself in a dizzy whirl. Pavements that have not been cleaned in months, or years, or decades boil off a heady stew. There are smells of shit – of dog and human and bird, and piss, also of dog and human and bird (if birds piss – which strikes me as an area deserving of further scientific investigation). And of sex – again of dog and human and bird (if birds etc etc etc). There are frothy aromas of drink – beer and coke and guarana and coffee and all of them mixed together and splattered and spat on the tarmac. There is the rich perfume of every food imaginable – shrimp and fried and boiled and roasted cow and sheep and goat and onion and bean and chunks of garlic and handfuls of rice and the peel and juice and pith of fruits I cannot begin to identify. There are used condoms and cigarette butts and snot and ear wax and peeled off skin and dandruff and corn thrown to appease the gods of candomblé and soiled water oozing from overflowing drains and, of course, blood – ladles of it. All of this – and one small dog nose to decipher it all. So while I stand and wonder what this building might be or once have been and why these people are standing in a very long line for no apparent purpose – the dog is reading pages and pages of human history and joy and sorrow through two neat black nostrils. Dogs one, humans nil, I think.

And though there really is no other way to live than to be able to look out over the rooftops of a great city (and while Recife may be cracked and creaky and – one must face the painful truth – occasionally a little provincial when compared with the world´s great metropolises, it is still and always will be a great city) there is still a period of acclimatisation to be experienced. Drinking, for example, is not the restful experience that it was in sleepy Olinda. For a special treat I take the dog for a drink at Cadu´s – a grimly appealing little bar down near the incongruous bulk of the Boa Vista shopping mall. After a few minutes a heavy set young lady asks if she might sit with me for a few moments. I give her a look that implores mercy and explain that I will only be staying for a minute or so. This makes no difference at all to my not-so-bashful friend and she sits down next to me and begins to explain how much she enjoys talking to people. I await a meaty hand upon my knee which does not come but within five minutes she is singing along to a popular Raul Sextas song on the radio, and the words, which I try not to understand, seem to be directed at me. I make rapid excuses and leave. I seek solace in the kiosk on the corner of my new street. Here things go well enough until a young homeless gentleman asks me for change. Immediately hurled into the endless gringo dilemma – to give or not to give (gringo dilemma, as Brazilians generally adopt a much crustier view on such things) I rummage around and find 50 centavos in my pocket. The young man is so grateful that he lies down on the ground in front of me and offers the dog a piece of chewing gum. I quickly learn a human truth which is that only dogs and small children are truly blind to prejudice, for while everyone around me looks away the dog and the tiny daughter of the bar owner happily jump over the homeless boy´s legs. I search for the middle ground – not wanting to be openly rude, but really rather hoping that he goes off to wherever he might be going pretty soon, because conversation is hard going (given that we have absolutely nothing in common), and really I´d rather just have a quiet drink alone and then go home to bed.

And that is really it for now. While I walk around Recife like Ricardo Reis walked around Lisbon I see that It is a harder life in the city, this much is clear. There is less easy human kindness flowing around, and it makes one think that perhaps the lowest form of misery is to be found here, far from any form of community or family or joint suffering. Though on the flip side the argument is easily proved wrong, because here at least there is a steady form of income for those who have nothing, whether it is from begging or thievery or some kind of menial labour, whereas in the sertão and even in other parts of the city itself there are places where there is no money or food at all and no way of getting close to the places where money or food might be found.

Finishing, as always, with the fortunes of Santa Cruz. Things will come to a head in a couple of hours, when O Mais Querido play Nautico in the second leg of the Pernambuco championship semi-final (Sport have already booked their place in the final). Santa´s team has come to resemble a rather bizarre musical supergroup – dashing young midfielder Elvis is not half the player he is when bound-for-much-better-things teammate Léo (Sayer) is injured, as he is now, while faded veteran Jackson (first name unconfirmed though unlikely to be Michael, Joe, Janet or otherwise) is a ghost of his former self. It thus will fall to fullback Gilberto (Gil) to supply the crosses and creativity, and, hoping against hope, striker (Al) Joélson to finish Nautico off. If not, another year in Pernambuco football will be put to bed for Santa, and, as Roger Angell puts it, the laurels all are cut, the year draws in the day, and we´ll to Arruda no more.*

* Really it´s we´ll to the Fens no more, the Fens being Fenway Park, but then Fenway Park wouldn´t make a whole lot of sense in a piece about Recife.

Monday, 19 April 2010


Time passes both slowly and quickly and the only thing really certain is that it passes one way or the other and we grow older and more forgetful, which is a roundabout way of apologising to anyone who might care for the epic lack of fresh material in recent weeks.

But I have good reason, for some serious thinking has been done and some weighty decisions made. I have decided, like all things good and bad, that all of this – that is to say, my time here, in this most exotic and sundrenched and quixotic of places - must come to an end. I gave it a pretty good shot, I think – it lasted a hell of a lot longer than the scant months that most predicted in the beginning. But in the end the place where I chose to try and begin a new life – this place - was just too different, too alien. We try everything, don´t we, to integrate – we date, or even marry, a local girl, we learn the language, we even imitate dialect and slang, we stake out our favourite places, memorise maps. All to help us try and fit in. But sometimes you have to hold your hand up and say – I tried, I gave it my all, and it didn´t work. No shame in that.

I don´t know what it was, finally, that broke this camel´s back. The people here are different to what I am used to, that much is for sure – a little more obtuse, slower of thought and even deed, more in synch with the rising and setting of the sun, the shadows of the late afternoon, the ebb and flow of the tide (at times the world seems to stand entirely still here – I can leave my house and return a few hours later and the same neighbours will be leaning on the same garden gates, or talking in the shade of the same mango tree).

Though really – and this is the crushing truth of the matter - it is not any one of people, culture, or language that has brought me to this decision. It is a combination of all these things, and most of all the knowledge that I am not from here and I never will be.

And so, finally, I will go home, back to people and places I know and cherish. Back to familiar things – bustle, roaring buses, frenetic activity. Ironic enough, of course, because when I left I rejected all of these values and sang the praises of a more pastoral life. But perhaps this is how we learn about ourselves – through lying and self-deceit. I tried to tell myself that I could adapt to life in this new place, and by doing so attempted to fool myself into thinking that I am a different person to whom I actually am. But truth will get to you in the end. There is sadness too, as I back my bags, though the sadness is lightened by the thought of seeing those who once were close to me and who I have not seen now in years.

And truth be told, of course, it´s not all that far. A twenty minute bus drive, really, from Olinda to downtown Recife, though it´s miles and miles, spiritually and psychologically. It´s not that there´s anything wrong with Olinda. It can be a wonderful place. But Olinda is not a city – it is a town, with an achingly beautiful historic old neighbourhood on a hill, and some great restaurants and bars along the beach. Recife – with its gaggle of football teams and thousands of seamy bars and teeming, raucous downtown – is a city. And is there anything more thrilling than taking a dog for a walk along deserted city streets, still wet with rain, as the dawn breaks and the only activity is a few hardy street traders setting up their stalls? The dog loves it here, of course, for she is a keen sniffer of detritus, and there can hardly be many places with pavements more pungent (or fetid) than downtown Recife. The Argument too, loves it, for even though downtown might not seem to represent a great leap in social standing, Boa Vista was once one of Recife´s more nobre areas, and there are pockets of leafy, faded glory to be found, if you know where to look.

And so it is back to where I once lived, an odd experience in itself – how strange to see the same girls working in the supermarket and the bakery, the same three brothers running the sweets-and-fags-and-newspapers-and-everything-else stand where I will buy overpriced palavras until I get myself a bike (and the necessary courage) and start to cycle into the Coelhos favela, where palavras can be found at a more reasonable price. This maybe, is memory – external memory, where the world provides the visual stimulus to jog our own tired mental circuit boards into life, long after our own lembranças of the past have withered and died (or been dulled into oblivion by booze).

Downtown is, as has often been mentioned, a wonderful, exciting place, full of crumbling old buildings and dripping gutters and odd, lost souls. I will buy my cheese at the Mercado Boa Vista, and maybe have a drink or two there too, under the trees, on a Saturday lunchtime. And speaking of drinking, there can be few better places in Latin America to drink than downtown Recife – from the Praça Manuel Pinheiro with its human flotsam and jetsam to the Patio Santa Cruz where a few neighbourhood kids started O Mais Querido ninety five odd years ago, and on to the Beco Da Fome and Cadu´s and all the rest. It is a writerly place too, with all human life teetering on the doorstep, and for this writer, at least, urban inspiration might, in the end, count for more than restful breezes and bucolic vistas. And hope too then, for the readers of this blog, because let´s face it things were far more interesting in the old Boa Vista glory days, what with the Ex-Girlfriend and pei-pei-pei and all that, than they were in Olinda, where the most pei-pei-pei things ever really got was when a particularly large mamão fruit fell into the garden from the tree next door.