Monday, 30 August 2010

I go out drinking with the Louth Media Mafia and The Pampas Goat and as is the way of things deadlines slide past and I am left with two options home – a R$25 taxi ride or one bus and then another via the storied Cais De Santa Rita. Like any right thinking wastrel/scribe/human being I choose the latter and so I wander off towards the bus stop thinking I will catch an empty late night bus home.

Only the bus when it comes bears the fruit of Recife´s other rush hour – that of the waiters and the pot cleaners and the floor scrubbers of the city´s (or As Republicas) better restaurants. It is packed and it is very loud because everyone is talking to one another which is remarkable in itself because they are all getting off twelve or fourteen hour shifts. I am immediately aware that I am the only person on the bus who is not like the other people on the bus.

There are no women because Recife´s restaurant staff are almost exclusively male (women deemed perhaps too susceptible a prey to the machisto clientele) but the chatter rolls on undaunted. The men themselves are a mixture – ugly and beautiful and fat and thin and young and old. All of them are wearing plastic sandals and sleeveless shirts and most of them are wearing baseball caps. I am both sadly and happily acquainted with lives such as theirs – happily because they are good lives to know and be a part of, sadly because they should be better than they are.

They are travelling miles to small houses on unpaved streets in distant neighbourhoods such as Sitio Novo and Janga and Agua Fria and Chão De Estrelas where they will creep into tiny living rooms and then on to bedrooms where the stale breath of wives and girlfriends and children hangs sweet and heavy. It is a life that I once considered I could be part of and who is to say that I could not or if I would be more or less happy than I am today. It is also a heroic life because these are men who work to buy clothes and food for their families and not much else and it makes me feel heroic (but also, with my relatively pampered life, slightly false) to be close to them.

The bus stops in front of the Cais which is or are being redeveloped so there are red plastic fences everywhere and great holes in the pavement and the street and it is even more chaotic than usual. Across the river is the Paço Alfandega shopping center where a t-shirt might cost R$400 which is most of a month´s salary for most of the people getting off the bus.

I wait for another bus which at two o’clock comes and it races through the downtown streets and over another bridge with the black water glittering underneath. Then we are on Conde Da Boa Vista and caught in this reverie I almost miss my stop and only at the last minute do I manage to pull myself up and ring the bell. The bus stops and I get off and wander home through the beautiful and amazing streets of Boa Vista which are amazing because they are neither the streets where my fellow passengers boarded the bus nor the streets to where they are going to, but are instead the streets where I live.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

It is Sunday and it is odd to be out in the spectral Recife dawn – at the taxi rank beery cab drivers hoot obscenities at a pair of drag queens traipsing their way to home or somewhere better and a gaggle of hardcore drinkers stare morosely at the pavement in front of Zita´s. I am old enough now for the thought of approaching the dawn from their side - the nighthawk side - to no longer appeal much and I am happy enough to be up and about and to feel reasonably at peace with the world.

The reason for all this early morning activity is that later on today Santa Cruz will play a very important game four hours or so south of here and I am going to the game and in an hour or so I must be outside Arruda where I will board a supporter´s coach with a group of people (men, mostly) I do not know. The Argument has wisely declined my invitation to spend a romantic Sunday with the Inferno Coral. And while I know that I have promised not to write any more about football on these pages this story is about the journey, not the game, so please, quiet at the back.

It is not always very Brazilian to do things on your own. The unloveable tools of my (paying) trade – English grammar books – occasionally make the mistake of suggesting student conversation topics along the lines of do you prefer to spend time alone or with other people. This provides the cue for amateur night at the local church theatre where auditions for “terror-struck victim” are in session. Mouths hang agape, eyes widen and bulge, hands are raked through hair. Practising English is no longer an option - the very idea of going to the cinema or a bar or restaurant on one´s own is just too horrendous to contemplate.

But there is a good side to all this emotional dependency. I manage to get through about half an hour as lonely as a cloud until the bus breaks down somewhere near the Wheel Of Fire favela (we are about 20 minutes into the journey and still in Recife) and I have no choice but to engage my neighbours in conversation while we wait for another bus.* Once I do that within minutes I have been invited to be best man at the wedding of the chap behind me, to be godfather to the newborn son of the chap beside me, and to marry the minxish 19 year old daughter of the chap in front of me (she goes like the clappers, he almost says but doesn´t), the last of which would seem to be the more pleasureable of the three duties. Whatever happens the five of us (six including Lolita) will eat and drink and frolic and carouse the streets of Maceio until the early hours, or at least until the bus leaves again which will be at about seven o´clock. All of this is not something that easily happens in chillier climes.

Then the second bus turns up (or rather doesn´t turn up – we must stomp along the margins of the BR101 for twenty minutes before we find it) and we are on our way. Turn the music on, someone shouts, and three men jump up and try to crank up the DVD and the TV. This proves more difficult than you would think. Every time there is some progress – someone manages to turn the TV on, or the red standby light comes on on the DVD – there is riotous applause.

Brazilians love music as much as they love rice and beans and they love rice and beans a lot. Just the week before I had watched the Libertadores final in a bar near home. There had been a forró CD playing. The waiter turned the sound down on the stereo and the volume up on the TV. What the hell do you think you´re doing, a woman with a tattoo on her shoulder demanded. The waiter explained that people wanted to watch the game and that he would turn the music back on afterwards. The woman was flabbergasted. No music? In a bar? Long after the game had started I looked over at her. She sat disconsolate, every so often giving a troubled, unbelieving shake of the head.

And then – and this has nothing much to do with anything – I had a very interesting conversation about music with a friend of mine who we might call Steffi because she loves tennis. We are looking at one of the unloved tools I mentioned earlier and the book is asking Steffi which she thinks is the more difficult and admirable profession to dedicate one´s life to. The choices are scientist, musician, dancer, or athlete. Scientist, says Steffi, because the Brazilian government doesn´t invest enough money in science. Anyone can be a musician – just look at the bands that are famous today. And it´s true. While huge groups of Brazilians love to jig about to such witless toss as Aviões Do Forró (The Forró Planes), and Garota Safada (Naughty Girl, led by the Ziggy era Bowie of the age, Naughty Wesley), and Calcinha Preta (Black Underwear), no-one really gives much of a monkey’s as to who is who, or really holds them up as being artists. Music is music, it´s not hard to do, everyone does it, and no-one makes even that much money out of it (piracy is rampant so most of the money comes from touring).

It´s all a far cry from the days when demi-gods like Chico and Caetano and Gilberto and Milton and the rest strode the land, and it´s even different from places like the First World (tm), where clueless pop stars achieve such levels of fame as to remove themselves entirely from the common herd. Here pimple brained Wesley might be famous, but he´s not that different from the pimple brain who parks his car in front of Zita´s every night and blasts forth Wesley´s obras primas from a set of twelve storey speaker stacks.

When it comes to art (music and films mainly) Brazilians generally speaking have not yet developed the cynicism that other places have (some might say thankfully) and so if the song is alright, and you can dance to it, then that´s pretty much all that matters. It´s a love of music in the general rather than the specific sense. All this in some way goes to justify the truly dreadful cacophony that will issue forth from the coach´s speakers over the next four hours, once they get the DVD player working.

And then in grey slicks of rain we roll out through Recife´s hideous industrial outskirts and then further out into the interior. It´s a strange interior this one – heading south towards Maceió rather than west into the more storied sertão. In the rain everything seems more miserable than it might do in the sunshine. Men sit gloomily in village bars staring out at the rain as toddlers skip over puddles of mud. Teenage (or pre-teenage) girls in skimpy clothes promenade half-heartedly in front of disinterested boys. It is a life the living of which is hard to imagine.

The poverty is terrible in places – on the edge of the sprawling fields are clutches of mud hovels where the sugar cane cutters and their families are staying or perhaps even living. Many of the houses have been destroyed by wind and rain and the residents are throwing more mud at the walls to strengthen their defences. This is the kind of rural poverty that has been stayed at least but not much improved by the government´s social welfare programmes – nobody dies of hunger anymore, but life is still pretty miserable and there is no chance of it getting much better.

It´s not the fault of the social welfare programmes themselves of course, which by and large do what they are supposed to do. It may be that there is no real solution to lives like these – a life eked out in backbreaking, unprotected, manual labour, earning barely enough to live on – other than huge investment and the attraction of new business to these areas, massive land reform, or everyone moving to the cities. The first two are a long way off and as for the last the cities are pretty crowded as it is.

We drive through the town of Palmares, wrecked by the recent floods in which over a hundred thousand people lost their homes. The town is astonishing – a river of mud crawls sluggishly down the main drag, and upon closer inspection the buildings are simply façades – everything from the front door backwards has slid into the river. The flood water has gathered up mountains of trash and shit and spread it, as unpretty as two day old snow, over the town. Broken, abandoned things – bicycles, chairs, hatstands, lie everywhere and lost, gollum like figures creep from alley to alley. The people on the bus are amazed – everyone crowds to the window and photos are taken, which just goes to show that even poverty has a heirarchy – none of these people are rich at all and many live in relatively impoverished neighbourhoods in Recife. But they have never seen anything like this.

And we drive on, bumping across the terrible roads. Towards Maceio the skies clear and the rain stops and the roads get better and we pass other cars and buses bearing Santa Cruz flags and badges (around 4,000 people are making the same journey). And then we are there, and the music is turned off and people begin to clap their hands and sing football songs, and we are off the bus and into the soft balmy air of Maceio on a Sunday afternoon.

* Brazil´s interstate buses are by and large as safe and as comfy as travelling business class on a 747 (though there are rickety exceptions, such as the line from São Luis to Belém) but the football supporters, church groups, and university students on their way to or from the interior who rent private hire buses take their lives into their own hands. I´ve taken three such trips now and every time the bus has broken down, which is better at least than crashing into a tree.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Bowing to public demand, the team behind Your Life Is An Impossibility is pleased to announce the launch of a new blog/diary/waste of time entitled, devoted to all things related to Santa Cruz Futebol Clube. It goes without saying, of course, that it will most likely be unfeckinmissable.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body...the colour, or at least a hint of the colour, of the indigenous people of the country or the negro. Along the coast, from Maranhão to Rio Grande Do Sul, and in Minas Gerais, principally the negro. The influence, whether direct or distant, of the African. So writes Gilberto Freyre in his masterpiece of Brazilian social anthropolgy, Casa Grande e Senzala, or The Big House and The Slave Quarters (or The Masters and The Slaves in its English language edition).

Such a declaration horrified many Brazilians when the book was published in the 1930s, and there are even some today who would be affronted at the idea of even a spot of black blood flowing through their veins. A Disney (more of this later) loving acquaintance once stared, appalled, at a gringo produced text book that showed black and brown Brazilian children playing in a park. What, do they think we´re all like that in Brazil? came the cry. It´s not entirely her fault – there are very few black or brown people in As Republicas Independentes (where everyone is eggshell or off eggshell, or at least believes themselves to be) or in Brazilian soap operas. When they do appear on the novela das oito they are either sultry damsels or poor but ‘appy. Go out to Ibura or Jordão, on the other hand, and there is hardly a white face to be seen. But then said acquaintance, being a good burgher of As Republicas Independentes, wouldn´t have much call to go out to Ibura or Jordão.

In truth its hard to count just who is what in Brazil – I once sat around a table at the Bears´ house, the table littered with beer and cachaça bottles, and asked each person to say what they thought number the other people around the table would be on the Dulux colour chart. Well he´s black, Lighter Skinned Bear said, pointing at Papa Bear. Am I fuck, said Papa Bear, I´m moreno. Are you bollocks, said Lighter Skinned Bear, I´m moreno, so how can you be moreno? You´re moreno claro, dipshit, came the reply.

An open ended survey question on colour in the 1970s produced 135 different colour categories, though pity the poor soul who described himself as purple. Numbers change according to the vocabulary – no-one really wants to say they´re pardo, but change it to moreno and the numbers skyrocket. Races move in and out of fashion, so look out for a big jump in black and brown in this year´s census – there are positive discrimination university places at stake. Interestingly, the most commonly used term in ordinary conversation, moreno, has never appeared on the census forms. Its day to day popularity might be because it allows people to play down racial differences (I´m moreno, he´s moreno, she´s moreno, everybody´s moreno!) and so allows the continuation of the great Brazilian myth of the country as a non-racially divided society.

What would put the browny-white cat amongst the slightly darker shade of brown leaning towards black pigeons would be if the census takers adopted the terminology of the Afro-Brazilian movement, which asks people to simply decide if they are black or white. But even though wily old FHC was a fan, it probably wouldn´t work in Brazil – black and white is the system of racial classification in North America, where protestant settlers thought mucky-touching their slaves would mean burning in the hellfires of eternal damnation, hence no morenos in sight. Down in Brazil however, whites, slaves and indians were all at it like rabbits, resulting in the heady racial brew described by the Bears above. And for all that it can appear otherwise, Brazilians are a conciliatory bunch, who generally prefer intermediate to extremist terms – all well and good when it comes to a quiet life, but not so good when it comes to addressing the fact that blacks earn about half as much as whites and get around five years of education to their counterparts´eight.

All this is wandering off the point (to the extent that there ever is a point, of course). Casa Grande E Senzala is a beautiful and fascinating book, as well as being a very nordestino one. It´s the kind of book you don´t even need to read in order to love – instead you can hold it close to your face, and smell it, and weigh it´s heft in your hands. And slightly nerdy Gilberto Freyre was a very clever boy indeed. Reading the book, I can´t help but wish he was alive today to hold a mirror up to modern Brazil, particularly the Brazil of As Republicas. He isn´t, of course, so it is up to Your Life Is An Impossibility, another epic anthropological work, to carry his torch from the past to the present, from The Big House and The Slave Quarters to The Apartment On Avenida Boa Viagem and The Area De Servicio.

The modern day engenhos (sugar cane plantations) are much smaller than their ancestors, though no less luxurious. Most will boast three or four bedrooms, a sala or two, at least two bathrooms, and a large kitchen. Estate agent literature will also list the number of vagas, or car parking spaces, the apartment owner is entitled to in the big parking garage downstairs – essential information for any three or four car family. There will probably be a swimming pool downstairs, and a mini football or basketball court where the children of Mr Casa Grande might frolic. There will be a balcony too, with perhaps a view of the milky green Atlantic stretching (ironically enough) towards Africa. There will also the infamous area de servicio, which may be as simple as a space with a sink and somewhere to hang clothes, or might be grand enough to also boast a shower and a bedroom for one´s, ahem, maid, to sleep (disappointingly for would be Donos e Donas da Casa Grande such splendour is hard to find these days). Of course the area de servicio isn´t necessarily for one´s maid – one might very well wash one´s smalls oneself. But Mrs Casa Grande wouldn´t, on the whole, dream of such a thing.

It is an odd thing for one to get used to, coming from a country where the market in servitude is a disappointingly pale shadow of its former self – the fleets of muted figures who hang around apartments and company foyers, obviously in the employ of someone though no-one seems to know who. They are the maids and the cooks and the cleaners and the nannys and the drivers of the more affluent chunks of Brazilian society – occasionally smiling, generally silent, always deferent, always brown or black. Many is the gringo who when dining in the house of such a well to do Brazilian family as the Casa Grandes has asked the host and is she your cousin/sister?, referring to the silent figure lurking in the kitchen. No, comes the answer, accompanied by hoots of laughter, she´s our maid.

Though of course the life of the pampered (one might say spoilt) modern day maid is nothing like the slavery of Gilberto´s book. She will be permitted, a few times a day, to nip downstairs for a quick fag, if she feels like it, where she might even chat with the other maids. She will be allowed home at the weekends to see her own family, and will even be paid a small salary. When the Casa Grandes sit down to dinner, she will be allowed to eat the same food, though of course she must eat it in her own quarters, or perhaps in the kitchen, where she might be permitted to sit on a bucket. Other than that, hers are the normal workaday tasks – washing Mr Casa Grande´s socks, preparing Junior Casa Grande´s morning juice, making lunch for all the Casa Grandes, cleaning the Casa Grande´s bog, taking the Casa Grande´s poodle for a walk. And at night, when she gets her few hours of rest and settles down to watch the evening soaps on a little TV in her room, it´s a pity she doesn´t have a copy of Gilberto´s book, because if she wasn´t so knackered and had the energy to flick through it, she might recognise a few things.

Finally, a quick note of thanks to The Argument for spending most of her monthly salary on Casa Grande, and for thrusting it into my sweaty hands as a undeserved birthday present, so condemning me to six or so months of trying to wade through its 700 or so pages before giving up and going back to Parsons.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

I hate travelling and it worth my while taking up my pen to perpetuate such a useless shred of memory or pitiable recollection as the following: ‘at five thirty in the morning we entered the harbour at Recife surrounded by the shrill cries of gulls, while a fleet of boats laden with tropical fruits clustered round the hull´?

So writes Claude Levi-Strausse in the opening to Tristes Tropiques, and it´s hard to imagine a more thumping kick in the kneecaps to the world of travel writers, gap year Indiana Joneses, and of course indefatigable fluffers of the gigantic virtual erection that is known as the blogosphere, an entity of which Your Life Is An Impossibility is both ashamed, surprised and guiltily pleased to find itself part.

What Mr Levi-Strausse is trying to say though is not that travelling or even travel writing is in itself a sin more worthy of spending the afterlife in the hellfires of eternal damnation than being the possessor of a ticket for the upcoming Cranberries* show in Recife, but that any such tales of adventurous derring-do can only really detract from the true work of the anthropologist, which is of course the study and recording of the behaviour and culture of the human species in all its stripes. This admirable theory, of course, is worthy of further consideration – how can we properly evaluate a place if it will always be filtered through the goggles of our own very particular and very idiosyncratic world view and by our own human experience? Or in other words – if we are tired, fighting with our Arguments, and suffering from a gigantic cachaça hangover we might not enjoy a day spent walking the streets of Olinda, but if we are well rested, have recently quenched our sexual thirsts and have just finished a nice hotel breakfast of manga and mamão and bread and cheese and cake and pineapple juice and coffee, we might just have a very pleasant time indeed.

I, for example, hate João Pessoa with a burning passion and hold the place up to be a truly dreadful example of all that modern (or really in the case of João Pessoa not so modern) society is capable. I feel justified in saying this as I spent a year living there. But then that year was a particularly unhappy one for me – I had no friends, no The Argument, and fairly miserable career prospects. I had just moved from Belo Horizonte and the provincial calm and Deliverance airs of João Pessoa chilled me to my soul. With all this negative psychological baggage, can I then be trusted to give an accurate impression of the place? Probably not. What I do know is that I´ve been back to João Pessoa and found that it is not really so terrible. Indeed it´s quite a pleasant place, where the visitor might happily while away thirty or thirty five minutes without getting even slightly bored.

But back to Claude. Although his travels amongst the Indians in Brazil are legendary the posthumous adventure he enjoyed on Saturday might have put them all to shame (which of course is quite a machadian idea in the first place). As The Argument was spending the evening drinking heavily with her friends The Bears, I had the evening to myself. I did not really feel like drinking heavily, because I was saving myself for Santa´s big game on Sunday (and watch out for a new, entirely Santa Cruz related blog coming soon from the author of Your Life Is An Impossibility). But at around ten I felt a stirring in my throat if not my loins and I wandered out into the gusty streets of downtown Recife in search of a drink (I had a craving for whiskey, if that matters). I took Tristes Tropiques with me.

The first bar I tried, just around the corner, had, in a novel marketing move, erected a giant TV screen on which were playing a selection of live forro shows at deafening volume, and as forro is to music what João Pessoa is to urban life I resolved to move on. I decided to wander down to Patio Santa Cruz, because Patio Santa Cruz is decrepit and quiet and does not have giant TVs. But on my way past the little kiosk bar on the corner of my street (I have not tried here because I´m pretty sure they have no whiskey) I am accosted.

Stranger! someone shouts, in a kind of English, pronouncing the a like in granny. I walk on. Stranger! comes the shout again, come and have a drink with us! This part mercifully in Portuguese. There are three of them – old friends from the sertão in various stages of matrimonial difficulty getting together on a Saturday night to slake their thirsts. I try as hard as I can to escape – I´m metting a friend somewhere else, I have swine flu, I don´t like Lula very much and I think Brazil needs a more educated, more middle class President from the south east. But they are undaunted and I am strongarmed to the table and forced to drink whiskey, which the bar surprisingly serves. At the end they – we might call them Larry, Curly and Moe - pay the bill, which is the kind of casual, unthinking generosity that Brazilians have that other places don´t and that still, even after five years, makes me swoon, just a little.

But before that there is Claude´s great journey. We get onto the subject of religion, and as is usually the case, things get heated. At least I restrain myself from the roaring religious politics of my childhood and refrain from suggesting that the Pope is in fact the anti-christ. But the other three are in full swing. Larry is evangelico (which makes a bar a strange place for a get together, but never mind) and is suggesting to his colleagues that he will go to a far better place than they when celestial last orders are called. Curly and Moe are indignant. What, cries Curly, do you think that all that crowd that walk around with their Bibles under their arms like this - and here he borrows Claude and tucks it under his perhaps aromatic, perhaps not aromatic armpit - do you think they´re all going to heaven? No, says Larry, taking Claude and putting it under his aromatic (and so on) armpit, I don´t think they are. It´s not about walking around like this – here he takes Claude and puts it under his other armpit – it´s about believing in God and following His word. Whatever, says Moe, let´s have another drink, and he takes Claude and puts it on the table, and when the beer comes he puts the bottle on top of it.

At which point, of course, the argument, bizarrely, starts again, with Curly tucking Claude under his arm and saying pretty much what he said the first time around, and Larry rebutting his arguments (with Claude under his arm) in pretty much the same way as before. I don´t really mind – it´s all very anthropological, in the end, so I`m sure Claude would approve – and I drink three whiskeys courtesy of Larry, Curly and Moe, and then I wander home, another Saturday night in Recife left to settle in the dust of memory.

*Brave pioneers and torchbearers these, battling against the local forro, axé and sertanejo hordes, and following in the footsteps of other bright young things from the vanguard of popular gringo music, such as A-ha,McFly, Alanis Morrissette, Tony Bennet and Simply Red.