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.

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