Monthly Archives: August 2010

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Samba schools around Brazil are starting their practice sessions for next February’s Carnival shenanigans.  Still, during the off-season, many schools offer glimpses of skin and sequins for tourists and Sunday strollers.  Here’s (very rough) video of a tiny group from Rio’s Salgueiro Samba School, warming up the crowd with hips and syncopation on a dreary winter’s day in Copacabana.

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Guess where.

Flaneur – (n.) from French. One who wanders aimlessly, who roams, who travels at a lounging pace. Aimlessly?

“What I required was not exactly solitude, but the opportunity to roam around freely, meeting people when I wished and taking leave of them when I wished.”

-Gérard de Nerval

“…it is exile that evokes the sensitive intellectual, the critical spirit operating alone on the margins of society, a traveler, rootless and yet at home in every metropolis, a tireless wanderer from academic conference to academic conference, a thinker in several languages, an eloquent advocate for ethnic and sexual minorities—in short, a romantic outsider living on the edge of the bourgeois world.”

-Ian Buruma

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.  His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.  For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.  To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain free from the world— such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”

-Charles Baudelaire

Part Three of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.

We had no exact destination, but we figured that if we headed towards the area of the club from the night before, we’d find out where we could get some samba on a Saturday night. Our bus was full, not packed. Not like the buses that passed us on the way, filled to double the capacity with doors bulging from backs and shoulders and faces pressed up against it. When private companies run public transportation, law and common sense go unconsidered. A guy in tattered orange shorts got on the bus begging for money, and an old woman next to me mentioned that it was better to give him a couple reals than to have him go nuts and try to take them. Amen to that!

Our group hopped off at a random stop that seemed like it was the right one, and it wasn’t. Here I was, a 6’1 black dude walking down a dark street in Recife with two women (and their purses) and a German guy, none of us speaking fluent Portuguese; the possibility of having to fight somebody never strayed too far from my mind. Those pink neo-classical buildings look nice and cake-like in daylight, but come nightfall, they all turn into haunted houses (and not the supernatural kind, neither). None too soon, we hopped into a cab and told the driver we needed samba, stat!

We drove through the run-down downtown area of Recife, passing random off-price storefronts and retro office buildings. The arcaded sidewalks buzzed with last-minute Saturday-night shoppers snagging mops, plastic suitcases, and t-shirts that read “Look Me.” We crossed a bridge and stopped at the tail of a crowded street, boisterous women in halters and Daisies, gregarious dudes in Brasil soccer jerseys or knock-off Ecko shirts. We filed into the flow of people heading under the wash of orange street lights toward the stage at the other end of the street, upon which sambistas drummed, rattled, and sang. Before getting too deep into the crowd, I asked Estrella tentatively if she wanted to head closer to the stage. She said, “If you don’t go hard, don’t go.”

I didn’t need to hear no mo. We dove in.

The current of revelers swept us forward, awkwardly, chest on back on crotch on ass. Perfume and tobacco and sweat and popcorn and weed and funk wafted into our noses. The “ays” and “ows” of stepped-on toes and elbowed ribs punctuated the driving rhythm of the drums and the male singer’s voice, as people yelled the words of the samba in off-key unison. We didn’t know who was performing or why they were so popular, we only knew that a) there were too many damn people on that narrow street and b) our, or at least my, bullshit threshold was quickly drawing near. The deeper we got into the crowd, the stronger the current pushed us, until heads and arms surged forward and upward. People yelled and pushed back and Estrella, Winta, and Mark looked nervous. I probably would have been nervous, too, had I not already experienced Carnival in Bahia once and New Years in Rio twice. Shouting might happen, but that’s about as bad as it would get; Brazilians are pretty reliable when it comes to avoiding conflict. Fights happen, but not during a samba concert, and certainly not because of a little pushing; events with boisterous crowds occur on a monthly basis.

When one short, pushy young lady too many pushed into my stomach, I decided, executively, it was time to carry it back to Boa Viagem for a burger and the bed. It took at least another 30 minutes to work our way laterally towards another street, then out of the fray. We checked inventory next to a makeshift ambulance where three shirtless dudes were trying to revive a fourth who had clearly OD’d on something: we had our wallets and/or purses, our limbs, and our wits. We got home and agreed to hit the beach for a couple of hours before my noon flight back to Brasília.

Then, bright and early Sunday morning, we saw this:


In Olinda: churches to the left, churches to the doggone right!

Part Two of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.

The whole of the next muggy, gray morning, I spent sidelined with a severe migraine. After much urging, my friends went ahead to get food, and it was already 2pm by the time I felt well enough to drag myself out of bed.  We rendezvoused under the shadow of a periwinkle-colored church in the Praça de Boa Viagem, then hopped a bus to the historic city of Olinda, a few miles north of downtown Recife. As it was Saturday afternoon rush hour, when maids and store clerks are finishing their work-week, the buses were packed with faces in all manner of browns and hair in all manner of curls.  For a while, no one would have been able to identify Winta, Estrella, and I as different than any of the weary commuters aside from our less-weary dispositions and the English coming out of our mouths.  Soon, though, a trio of German tourists boarded the bus, giving Mark’s demographic a boost. We coursed through the commercial districts of Boa Viagem, concrete-and-glass residential towers standing sentry, as we retraced the previous night’s path towards central Recife. Skirting downtown, the size and constitution of the dwellings indicated a lower socioeconomic level than that of where we were staying, and as soon as I saw slender black limbs hanging up laundry to dry or kicking soccer balls around the pools of fetid water in muddy fields, I knew we were entering familiar territory.

I grew up on the black side of town back home in Jacksonville, so I’d see slender black limbs hanging up laundry on my way home from school in the afternoons, though the ball of choice in Florida’s muddy fields was oblong and made of pigskin. But I’d also seen this same image in Barranquilla, the city on the Colombian coast that I lived in for over two years. And I’d seen it in neighboring Panama City and Santo Domingo and Caracas; in Atlanta and Tampa and Dallas. Anyone who’s ever had intimate contact with The Hood knows what The Hood looks like, be it called a ghetto, gueto, or favela, and I had gone to school, church, and summer camp with folks from The Hood. My own street might not have been hood, but damn if you couldn’t walk to it.  And seeing palm fronds sway over low-rises made from concrete block and hand painted with gaudy campaign ads for the upcoming elections made me want to hop off the bus, run up to the nearest little corner store, and buy a kosher dill pickle and a bottle of Nehi Blue Cream soda.

But with that familiarity came the realization that in Brasília, where I live, or in São Paulo, where I frequently find myself, The Hoods are generally in areas so far away from the cities they’re connected to, you rarely see any physical manifestation of them other than in the people who pack onto buses and trains to be herded into town for their eight-to-ten hours of menial work. Except in Recife, where all you have to do is cross a bridge to see all the failures of Caribbean (i.e. ex-plantation) societies from the US down to Brazil―institutional apathy, limited education, reduced opportunity, zero motivation.

Before long, the favela gave way to the lush green of tropical scrub, then to the first set of 19th century storefronts signaling the approach to Olinda. Founded in 1535, Olinda has retained most of its colonial feel, unlike Recife, with cobbled streets and brocaded facades alternating between bright pastels and moldy whitewash.  Royal palms arched over tiled roofs that once sheltered nuns and bankers and masters and slaves.  Over a late afternoon açaí in a tiny sweet shop facing the Praça do Carmo and owned by an amiable and very tanned German woman who’s been living in Brazil for two decades, Estrella and I counted the number of Spanish or Portuguese colonial cities we’d been to (eighteen, between the two of us), whereas this was a first for Winta and Mark. It was nice to be around people who weren’t yet jaded about cobblestone and tile.

At the top of the Monte, overlooking the villas of Olinda and the unexpectedly-interminable skyline of Recife glittering in the distance and contemplating life and all that other crap people do when they’re at high places overlooking villas and what-not, we decided more dancing was in order: that night, it would be samba.

It's what?! It's still pretty.

Click here to read Part Three.

Digital StillCamera

Part One of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.

We arrived on the type of drizzly Friday night that frizzed many a head of tightly-coiled hair, and the city seemed subdued, even as clutches of commuters crowded under bus shelters to keep dry.  The plan, after dropping off bags and getting food, was to check with acquaintances in the city and find the hot nightspot somewhere near the apartment in Boa Viagem; after having worked all day, I only had a short supply of energy.  My friend Estrella, down from DC for a month-long Portuguese class, my German buddy Mark, and I caught up over garlic shrimp and ice-cold guaraná as the drizzle intensified around our local barzinho, located next door to the Vapt-Vupt Commercial Deep Cleaning Service.   The striking Winta, a Swede of Eritrean descent on a semester exchange from her undergrad program, rounded out the group and we headed towards a dance hall in the Old City.

Even with the cab’s windows up, the sour smell of marshy, unclean water wafted in as we left modern Boa Viagem for crumbling Boa Vista, passing the hospital district and the Spanish cultural institute on our way downtown.   Most cities with man-made canals liken themselves to Venice, and Recife is no exception.  There are no gondoliers or charming piazzas, however (How come everybody wanna be Venice? Be yourself!).

Built on a chain of islands at the confluence of two disease-prone rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, the city whose name means “reef” in Portuguese was founded in 1537, and fell to the Dutch from 1630 to 1654.  Recife served as entrepôt for slaves into and sugar out of the province of Pernambuco, until the country’s centers of money and power shifted south in the 19th century.  The city now functions as a regional commercial hub with one of Brazil’s highest crime rates and disparities of wealth.  This one particular truth remained with me, considering our group’s demographic.

For a couple of hours, we pulsed to tribal house, a bit of techno, some samba-reggae, and a nicely-extended set of baile funk, the booty-shaking beat borrowed from 80s and 90s Miami bass music (think 2Live Crew) and Brazilianized with favela-flavored lyrics and recognizably African polyrhythms.  Having grown up in Florida in the 80s and 90s, needless to say, I possess more than passing knowledge of the pelvic thrusts associated with dancing to baile funk.  The wooden floor of the three-story private home-turned-nightclub bounced like an ancient trampoline under the weight of the ever-swelling crowd, and we said our goodbyes to the sweaty, drunken throng just before one person too many bumped or danced into me.

Tired, we ambled to the nearest cab and hopped in without taking proper stock of the vehicle or its operator, an elderly gentleman with weathered skin the color of cardboard.  It wasn’t until we were about half a block into the ride that the odor emanating from the outwardly-modern taxi descended upon us, a heady mix of wet dog and horse rump.

“Why did we have to get this muhfucka,” I asked no one in particular.

“Because he was there,” responded Estrella, sullenly.

Once back at the apartment, my deepest fear had been confirmed: the smell had seeped into the only pair of jeans I brought to Recife.  I should have called Vapt-Vupt.

WiFi passwords come with hugs from the front desk in Recife.

Click here to read Part Two.