Tuesday, 1 June 2010
The sky is big and bright and blue and it should be a perfect day, and in a way it is but in a hundred other ways it is not. The Argument and I resolve to lunch at our favourite restaurant out in the bucolic bliss of Olinda. On the way we discuss art and the role of the artist. The Argument sees the role of the artist as central to the solving of society´s ills in a general sense and I am forced to remind her of Chekhov´s letter to Alexei Suvorin, where he wisely stated you are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that it is obligatory for an artist. This point thus being settled, we move on to discuss whether Spicy Chili Doritos are tastier than Original Doritos. Without Chekov to help us we remain locked in an unsatisfying stalemate.
This is about where things start to go wrong. We have, it seems, taken the wrong bus – this Olinda bus, rather than taking a hop, skip and a jump along Avenida Agamenon Magalhäes, grinds its way through the city traffic down near Avenida Dantas Barreto, then back up to the grubby urban oasis that is Parque Treze De Maio, then along Cruz Cabuga out to Olinda. And it´s Saturday afternoon in Recife and everything is jammed solid and nothing is moving and it gets very hot on the bus and we are very hungry and so tempers start to fray. Lean forward in your seat, The Argument suggests, the bus will go faster. I oblige, and it turns out she is right.
When we get to the restaurant, perched on a little rocky outcrop just in front of fabled Olinda literary haunt Amaro Branco, things start looking up. A great feast is ordered – casquinha de siri, caldinho, bolinhas de charque, prawn stroganoff, beer, cachaça. Magnums of champagne are considered but rejected. Only our waiter is unimpressed. Three times the order is forgotten, the beer arrives warm, and we are generously allowed to pay for a few extra helpings of everything that have been erroneously included on the bill.
Undaunted, we head for home. Except the only thing the bus stop is lacking today is a man waving a big chequered flag, scantily clad pit girls and foaming bottles of champagne. Buses scream past at never less than 120km an hour – I see at least two roar by in the far lane heading for our destination – Brazil´s Left Bank of the Seine, or in other words Boa Vista, Recife. In the end we wait half an hour, during which time I draw up plans for a new Guerra Dos Mascates (Recife vs Olinda spat from way back in the era of the Pernambuco Capitania).
None of this is in any way serious of course, and it all sounds very much like spoilt gringo whinging, I know. But that´s not the point. That the bus took a long time and that the service was terrible is not important. What is important is that nobody cares, ever.
That nobody cares, ever, is perhaps the greatest challenge to anyone from the Old World seeking love, life and happiness in the New World. I could complain to the manager about the terrible waiter, but he probably wouldn´t care, and if he did he might sack the terrible waiter, which no-one would want, even though the terrible waiter is, of course, terrible. I could call the Bus Company Customer Hotline about the speeding bus drivers not caring about whether there are passengers waving plaintively from the bus stops, but I know I probably wouldn´t be able to get through (a representative of the Federal Police in Recife once told me that they don´t answer their phones because they ring such a lot, and if they spent their time answering them then they´d never get anything done – faultless logic, I suppose), and if I did get through, nobody would care.
The not caring goes so far at times that it seems the victims of the not caring are actually colluding with their not caring aggressors. The Argument gives me a stern telling off for getting angry with a bus driver who eventually deigns to stop for us. I get angry because when I suggest that he has a word with his Wacky Races colleagues back at Bus Driver HQ about their not caring he responds by shrugging his shoulders and saying what do you want me to do about it, or, in other words, I myself am equally partial to a bit of not caring every once in a while. It appears, therefore, that caring, as opposed to not caring, will earn you a swift trip to the doghouse.
It´s not, of course, that there is a whole lot of caring in other countries and other places. But in some places there are at least consequences – the not caring bus driver will quickly find himself with a P45 in his hand or a formal warning, the young man playing Calçinha Preta at decibel 10,000 on his car stereo, complete with Bootsy Collins heel size speaker stack, with the boot open at midnight on a Sunday might find that the policeman next to him is caring enough to give him a clip round the ear and tell him to stop it, instead of being sufficiently not caring as to not give a monkey´s and ask him for a cigarette. I´m not quite sure what would happen elsewhere to the well-heeled not caring men and women sitting next to us in the bar, merrily buying armfuls of pirate DVDs from the street-hawkers circulating around us, with nary a thought to organised crime, struggling video shop owners and staff or hopeless cause sponsors of local cinema. Not much, but they would probably, at least, care enough to do their counterfeit shopping in a stealthier fashion – here a rather jowly fellow yells angrily at the DVD hawker – the last DVD I bought from you was a joke – the picture was terrible, and I am put in mind of a forlorn crack user complaining that the last batch he bought wasn´t really up to scratch, and could he please have a refund?
And of course everyone knows why no-one cares. No-one cares because no-one else cares, and it´s pretty much impossible to be the only one who cares, because you might just end up blowing your brains out. And the government don´t care (so goes the thinking – personally I believe they care more than they used to, and at least as much as other governments in other places), and the police certainly don´t care, so even if you do care it won´t make any difference in the long run.
But does all this mean that if you are for caring, and are trying to live in a place where a great many people, it seems, are for not caring, are you, or we, in fact, all entirely doomed?
On the face of it the answer is a resounding no. As I write it is another perfect autumn day – the sky is a flawless blue, a few white clouds drift around in the breeze. I have just got back from taking the dog for a long walk along the beach, I might have an ice-cream later, and I live in the best place in the world, downtown Recife, a neighbourhood so rich in urban harum-scarum-ness that it makes New York look like Coventry.
But on a more profound level there is a sense of doominess when one ponders one´s long term fate – to spend the rest of one´s life pretending that the not caring isn´t important, to pretend that the things one loves about one´s new country far outweigh the things one doesn´t (they don´t), to pretend that the endless grappling with the Brazilian system of jealousy´s weights and measures (and the accompanying terrors of Brazilian straight-line-thinking) is a joy - The Argument will spend Valentine´s Day with a group of The Argument´s female friends (The Tantrum, The Pre-Menstrual Cramps and The Good Cry At The End Of A Romantic Film) in the meat market / slaughterhouse atmosphere of Recife´s biggest São João show, where any unattached female assumes the role of a gazelle grazing innocently at the hyenas´ favourite watering hole. I don´t care, though Brazilian society is outraged.
Maybe it´s old age, maybe it´s modern life, maybe it´s stress. But I am tired, tired, tired, and it is you who are tiring me out, man-who-runs-beer-kiosk-and-who-sneers-at-me-when-I-attempt-to-buy-r$5-worth-of-goods-with-a-R$20 (not caring enough to go to bank and get change), and boy-in-photocopy-place-who-smilingly-tells-me-they-can´t-make-copies-today-because-they-have-no-paper (the smile telling me that the lack of paper is one of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe and the ways of the Almighty rather than just all concerned not caring enough to go and buy more paper). Maybe I should just not care myself.
Legal note: Standard apologies for mass generalisations apply – of course lots of people care, it´s just that lots of people don´t. And just to be clear, the not caring here is not caring in the sense of not caring about one´s responsibilities and obligations as a member of society, rather than not caring in any kind of emotional sense – if there is anywhere in the world I would want to faint in the street it is Brazil, because I know I would immediately be assisted by a hundred concerned citizens. There are places, believe it or not, where the word assisted in that sentence could easily be replaced by trampled on or stepped over.