Tuesday, 3 August 2010


I hate travelling and explorers...is 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.

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