Friday, 29 April 2011

Japan and Haiti have their earthquakes, Thailand its tsunamis, New Orleans and other sweaty southern parts of os estados unidos their hurricanes and floods. No such wreckage in the balmy tropics of the nordeste, you might think, only you´d be wrong.

In place of proper natural disasters Recife, and plenty of other parts of Brazil, have their rain. Deadly, apocalyptic rain. When it rains in Recife, as its doing now and will do for the next three months or so, it really rains. And this is from someone who comes from the world capital of rain, Norn Iron.

But Belfast’s endless dreary drizzle doesn’t have much in common with rain in Recife. When it rains in Recife it rains for five, or six days without stopping. And it rains hard. If it starts to rain at 11 o´clock in the morning, a thick grey thunderous curtain, it will rain all day and far into the night.

Worse, Recife is built to withstand rain like houses of straw were designed to withstand big-lunged wolves. Within half an hour or so most of the main thoroughfares in the city are flooded to knee height, due to a combination of blocked drains (a result of prehistoric engineering practices and the recifenses favourite sport of throwing litter in the street) and the city’s altitude (or lack of), crouched as it is a few metres below sea-level.

Unfortunate pedestrians gather on street corners, peering doubtfully across the watery expanse. Just how deep is it? Are there rats under there? How many infectious diseases will I catch if I risk it? The social heirarchy is reversed. In the watery kingdom the man in cheap plastic sandals is king, while those in shopping mall bought leather moccasins are marooned.

Mammoth queues form at bus stops as the hardy wait for buses that are stuck in monstrous traffic jams several miles away. Everything grinds to a halt – stories of journeys that normally take 30 minutes turning into Odyssyean quests of five or six hours are common.

Never the most stalwart of characters, the locals soon switch into panic mode. Someone calls the radio station to report that gangsters are taking advantage of so many trapped cars and robbing drivers at gunpoint, and 200,000 motorists cower behind their steering wheels. No matter that it was probably an opportunist kid with a water pistol, miles from here.

Traffic lights fail, there are energy blackouts, houses flood, horses eat themselves. Recife goes into meltdown. Though creativity and the entrepeneurial are never far away – on Avenida Recife the locals remove the concrete blocks that separate the two traffic lanes, allowing desperate drivers to perform U-turns and head for home. Though there’s no such thing as a free U-turn in Recife – if you want to get through you´ll have to pay, R$5 for Brazilian made cars, R$10 for imports.

Not funny at all is life in the periferia when the rains hit. Recife is not overly blessed with vertiginous favelas but there are plenty of ramshackle houses perched on towering cliff tops, particularly out towards Jordão and Muribeca, and the Altos of Pascoal, José Bonifaço, José Do Pinho, and the Morro da Conceição.  After enough water has poured from the sky the earth starts to move, and mudslides and tumbling masonry and roof tiles kill dozens every year.

None of this jars well, of course, with the gringo stereotype of endless beaches and blazing sun. Interestingly enough, Recife has around 2,000mm of rainfall every year, while in the godforsaken uplands of County Tyrone the total averages out at around 1950mm a year.  So it’s official – it rains as much, if not more, in Recife as it does in Norn Iron!

Only it doesn’t really. Because it only rains, as thick and heavy as treacle, for three months at best in Recife, whereas in the Killeter Forest it rains every single day, for ever and ever. Which makes things worse for Recife – all that rain in three months is hard to stomach. During the first 21 days of April, for example, it rained 503mm, and it felt like truly the end of days had arrived.

Though maybe it’s a good thing. Pernambucanos are a blasé lot when it comes to the weather. When it doesn’t rain, which is nine months of the year, the skies are a towering, endless blue, the sun a blazing gold, and the temperature never drops below 30c, not even at night. Worthy of comment, you might think, at least to the chilly northern European. What a beautiful day, YLIAI has ventured, every now and again. Mmnnyeh, is the usual disinterested response,  which roughly translated means, is it? I hadn’t really noticed. Isn’t this what every day is like? Don’t you have weather like this where you come from?

No ,I bloody don’t, you complacent oaf, YLIAI thinks about saying. And the influence of all this good weather cannot be understated. You’re all so cold and unfriendly, runs the argument, you should be like us, more relaxed and easy-going, more friendly. To which YLIAI wants to respond, you´re only so bloody friendly and relaxed and easy-going because it’s sunny! Try living in the chilly grey murk for a year or ten, and then see how cheerful and fun-loving you turn out to be!

So when there is proper weather, the kind of weather that tears the roofs off houses and throws trees around as though they were matchsticks, YLIAI thinks happily of Flaubert, and his mutterings after a hail storm wrecked an outdoor party. Gustavinho, the eternal cynic, declared himself pleased. The sun isn’t just there to help the cabbages along, goes the gag.

So to finish- sun and blue skies encourage nothing more than flopping on the beach and sucking down Skol. Keening winds and steely blue temperatures stimulate the writing of Russian style novels. Or in other words, good weather bad, bad weather good.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Warning: the following contains far too much national stereotyping.

Not much irks the average Brazilian (street crime, potholes and thieving politicians aside) than being lumped in with the sorry bunch known as the third world. Rightfully and unrightfully so – rightfully as carving the globe up into only two groups is as foolish an idea as milk cartons, unrightfully so as all good Brazilians spend their time telling everyone about what a disastrous mess their country is and then complain furiously if it’s described as such by anyone from a fora.

It’s a nasty term, anyway, the third world, even if we ignore for a moment the big question elephant in the room, or in other words – whatever happened to the second world? It rather sounds, in fact, that while we don’t much need a New American Language*, we could certainly do with another way of describing countries, given that First World or Third World, Developed or Developing, BRICS or Floor Tiles don’t quite seem to cut the mustard.

And who better than Your Life Is An Impossibility to step into the breach? From this moment on then, there’ll be no more First World or Third World but instead we’ll have Crap Countries, Countries That Think Themselves (which might only make sense to Portuguese speakers) and Countries That Are A Bit of A Waste of Time, All Things Considered.

Countries That Think Themselves is easy enough, though experience of having grown up in, or at least having spent a long time in, a country that doesn’t think itself is generally essential if you’re going to identify one that does. USA! USA!, obviously, Germany, Ingerland, France and so on. Funnily enough people from these countries aren’t always aware that they’re living in a CTTT (or a CTTI). The Ingerlish, for example, often see themselves as long-suffering and downtrodden, at least in comparison with parts of Europe, and even talk every now and again about reducing poverty in parts of the country, even though from a Brazilian perspective poverty in Ingerland generally means having an I-Pod that’s not quite the latest model.

Countries That Are A Bit of A Waste of Time, All Things Considered is harder to pin down, though is perhaps best summed up as everyone who is neither a CTTT or a Crap Country and inspires great amounts of neither love nor loathing. Australia, New Zealand and Canada spring to mind.

Which brings us to the Crap Countries, a group of which Brazil is undoubtedly a proud member. Before anyone gets all steamed up, it should be explained that being a Crap Country doesn’t mean that the people in that country are crap, or that the scenery or the food or the culture is crap, or that it’s crap to live there. What it means is that given the premise that a country, or at least a government, should be able to take care of its people by organising decent public health care and education systems, by guaranteeing at least a minimal level of public security and safety, and by building and maintaining things like roads and public transport systems, any country that doesn’t manage to do that, or at least doesn’t do it very well, is pretty much a Crap Country.

No cries either of neo-imperialist European running dog, if you don’t mind. As regular readers will know Your Life Is An Impossibility is from Norn Iron, one of the Crappiest Countries of them all, given that a Country That Thinks Itself threw zillions of pounds at it for decades and it still couldn’t sort itself out. For those who are wondering Oirland, home of the Louth Media Mafia, is a Crap Country too, though it managed to clamber into the Countries That Are A Bit of A Waste Of Time division for a few years back before recently tumbling back to its rightful level.

Brazil is trying hard to not be a Crap Country these days, and is even getting it right in some places – new hospitals spring up like daisies, the previously calamitously cracked and fissured BR101 motorway here in the nordeste is now (almost) as smooth as an Oscar night red carpet, social welfare programmes mean not many people die of starvation anymore, and there’s even the odd bit of public housing here and there.

This talk of countries being crap or not leads to an interesting question about gringo life. Even putting aside for the fact that most Brazilians don’t distinguish much between one stripe of gringo or another, which countries prepare one best for living in Brazil in general, or Recife in particular?

It depends, is as always the quickest and best answer, but there are gringo tribes just like there are tribes everywhere else. There are the ex-pat retirees littering the beaches of the nordeste (particularly João Pessoa), who are almost always British or Estadunidense, and who consider themselves fully immersed in local culture if they manage to buy an agua de coco in front of their apartment buildings of a morning without getting shot.

There are the pousada and restaurant owners, who very often (and no-one knows why) are Dutch, Scandinavian, Spanish or Argentinean), and the hapless teachers of English As A Second Language, a tribe which unfortunately includes YLIA, who obviously enough are mostly English, Oirish or Estadunidense. Then there are the scheming property developers (again almost always English or Estadunidense), roaming Recife in their 4x4s, heart-broken (or overjoyed, who knows) at the rampant real and the limp libra or dollar.

Certain national characteristics go well with living in Brazil, and plenty don’t. Being English (a bit aloof, a little too concerned with punctuality, slightly snooty) is probably more of a hindrance than a help in knockabout, intensely intimate, always late Brazil. Ditto being German.

Vested interests apart, when travelling YLIAI has always felt slightly blessed to be from Norn Iron, in marked contrast to how he feels about being Norn Irish whilst at home.Growing up in the Black North during the 80s and 90s taught a person to laugh at the things that otherwise shroud life in darkness, and also, in marked contrast to the mindset of upper middle class Brazilians, that whatever danger lurks around the corner should be looked steadily in the eye, and should not be allowed to drive one inside to hide behind electric fences and locked doors.

There is, between the Brazilian and the native of other Crap Countries, a certain shared knowledge that Bad Things Have Always Happened And Always Will Happen, which helps. This is unlike the experience of, say, the Canadian, who arrives in Brazil and is immediately appalled to find that there are countries where poverty exists, hundreds of people are murdered every week, and people don’t put eh? at the end of every sentence.

And the more liberal breed of Estadunidense in Brazil must undergo his own Road To Damascus moment. Shocked to find that everyone in Brazil and South America, generally speaking, sees him or her as a millionaire neo-colonialist warmonger, our Freedom And Democracy loving chum must declare himself or herself ashamed to be American, proclaim that Bush/Obama/Clinton/Kennedy/Bieber is the devil, and leave odd Facebook messages saying how they think that Mr Amadinejad seems to be quite a nice fellow really.

Someone somewhere should make a list of the Top Ten Gringos ever (YLIA feels a future piece coming on). Peter Robb, author of A Death In Brazil would be on it, as would super-Serb footballer Petkovic, after over eleven years of playing in Brazil.

Maybe top of the list, though, would be a certain Bernard O’Brien, an Irishman who shipped up in the Amazon in the 1600s, around the time when the Portuguese were chopping Indians up for fun. Rather than join in the slaughter, O’Brien chummed up with the Aruã Indians, trading mirrors, combs and axes for a few jars of the local moonshine. O’Brien ended up defending the Aruã against the Portuguese at Fort Tauregue in Amapá, before being defeated and imprisoned. Eventually exiled to live amongst the supposedly man-eating Cururi Indians, O’Brien instead made bestest friends with the cannibals, learning their language and exploring the “rivers, forests and medicines and secrets of the Indians.”

Top Gringo!  

Note: Information on Bernard O’Brien taken from John Hemming’s fantastic book Tree Of Rivers, lent to me by the Louth Media Mafia, to whom thanks are due. 

* I have no idea who the people in this video are, but they seem quite nice, despite being Estadunidense, and watching it gave me a strange feeling of nostalgia, as though I was watching people that I had once been close to but no longer knew, or worse, people that I had once known but who were now longer alive.  

Monday, 11 April 2011

Those wishing to understand the soul of the urban monster that is Recife waste their time reading Gilberto Freyre, seeking out cordel or trailing Mestre Brasão round Olinda’s cobbled streets. 

Really the heart of any city is to be found in its witless FM radio stations, pouring out dreadful US imported pop and even more dreadful Brazilian Blink 182 cover bands. The banal yelpings of the presenters are perfectly in tune with Recife’s white middle-class youth, and as Wacko taught us the children are our future, and Brazil is turning middle-class, and so on, and so on.

The problem is that more than 10 seconds of the stuff makes your brains bleed out of your ears, and so an alternative guide is required. And where better to look than the local rag?

Newspapers reflect the identity of a city as well as anything else. Manchester’s Manchester Evening News used to be a proud, gritty journal, matching its proud, gritty home. Now it’s a vapid plate glass and aluminium Danish theme bar of a newspaper, matching the identikit Ikea urban renovation of the city. London’s Evening Standard is as infuriatingly conceited as the place itself, or at least it was before it transformed into a throwaway freesheet.

It’s the same in Brazil. São Paulo has its weighty and serious-minded Folha De São Paulo, BH its slightly less weighty and slightly less serious-minded Estado De Minas. João Pessoa is served by its appropriately mind-crushingly provincial Jornal Da Paraiba.

Recife is not much better off. Both the Jornal Do Commercio and the Diario De Pernambuco are dispiriting affairs, concentrating only on the very worst things in recifense life – people getting killed (more correctly the middle-classes getting killed, unless a poor person gets killed in a particularly salacious way, or a lot of poor people get killed at the same time), roads flooding, workers going on strike, the failings of various public service sectors, political graft. And football, of course. There are also supplements of biblical proportions dedicated to the buying and selling of cars or apartments.

They are kept company by scurrilous scandal sheets Aqui and Folha De Pernambuco, which dispense with all of the above except for people getting killed (the category is broadened to include the poor) and football. In compensation pictures of semi-naked women and soap opera gossip are included, not to mention some of the most graphic photographs of the bodies of the recently murdered you´re likely to see this side of

Still perservere we must. Our research will include a quick scan of the front pages of JC and the Diario over the last few weeks to see if Recife’s pulse can be accurately taken.

A lot depends on what day you buy your jornal. On Monday or Thursday half of the front page will usually be dominated by the previous day’s football – The Sky is Tricolor! shrilled a recent headline after Santa Cruz had beaten Recife’s Unmentionables, Sport.

On this day it’s business as usual. A couple of shootouts in a couple of bars, the kidnapping of a business man in Muribeca that ends up with two kidnappers dead. A bus runs into a lorry out on the highway near Caruaru – three dead. There can seldom have been a country where so many people find so many different ways to die.

Any positive article will automatically be tinged with salt. A park opens up in Boa Viagem, named after Dona Lindu, Lula’s mum. No matter that it’s 917 days late, or that it’s another concrete monstrosity from the deadening hand of Oscar Niemeyer. A park’s a park, surely. Not in Recife – the newspaper runs a story revealing how you can’t buy any water inside the park but have to go outside (a walk of about 50 metres) to get some. It’s all que absurdo, screeches the war cry of Recife’s professional moaners (or in other words, almost everybody).   

Recife’s papers also love stories about fear and terror amongst the general public. A few months back a wonky plug caused half of the nordeste to lose power for the night. Once again all of us are hostages to darkness, klaxoned the Diario, a night of darkness, isolation, panic and violence. Lazy jokers might argue that this pretty well describes every night in Recife, but there’s a serious side. Jittery media hysteria drives the upper middle classes further into their warrens and leaves the streets to the spooks, the ghouls, the spectres...and everyone else who’s none of those things.

Still, the papers can sometimes get it right, and last Friday the Diario De Pernambuco wrote something that, for once, touched the heart. Fourteen dead, ran the headline, and one hundred and ninety million wounded.