10th July 2011
Heading off for another author visit to Brazil. A reminder of some images, sounds and tastes from previous visits…
I’ve been to Brazil ten times but I’ve never lived there and all my visits have been cocooned by the careful support and attention of the very capable people from the British Council or the publishers who sponsored my visits, which have been almost entirely trouble-free – apart from the occasional missed plane, power failure or shark attack (see below – it wasn’t actually a shark).
So here is a collection of Brazilian images – people, places and things – that have dazzled me, and I hope that you, dear readers, will add your own thoughts, whether you’ve been to Brazil or not. Brazil seems to be one of those places, like California, that everyone has an image of or an opinion about.
1 The north east
My first visit to Brazil was in 1984, as an actor with the English Teaching Theatre. In those days, you could fly British Caledonian Airways and land at Recife in the north east of the country. Nowadays, planes from London don’t stop in the north east – you have to go all the way to São Paulo, another three hours flying. It’s a mystery to me why no airline has a non-stop flight from London to somewhere in the north east.
So Recife was the first place I ever set foot on Brazilian soil, or rather Brazilian tarmac. The flight landed at about 2am one night in November. It was incredibly hot and humid as we walked down the steps from the plane and the first thing I saw of this colourful, amazing country was a line of immigration officers dressed in grey and white, sitting behind podia in the open air.
That they were working in the open air made sense from the point of view of the heat, but was also a bit mad, given that planes were arriving and leaving on a fairly regular basis, making ear-splitting noises when they did. When I got to the front of the queue and handed my passport to the immigration officer, the plane we had arrived on was turning away and heading off to the runway to continue its journey. I didn’t hear his questions and he didn’t hear me saying, “Sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.”
That visit took us to about ten Brazilian cities and I was delighted when the British Council told us, as we were leaving, that they wanted us back as soon as possible. And they were as good as their word, inviting us back two years later.
The first shows of the 1986 tour were also in Recife. Two of us had been before and we told the others, Lizzie, Cath and Phil, about the fabulous beach at Boa Viagem, where we would be able to swim as soon as we arrived.
Unfortunately, by this time, British Caledonian had gone bust and we had to fly first to São Paulo, then fly three hours back to the north east. Our incoming flight from London was delayed and we missed the connection, so it was dark when we eventually arrived in Recife.
Lizzie, Cath and Phil were quite miffed about missing out on the swim they had been promised. Even though it was after 10pm, we decided to go for a walk on the beach anyway.
In the darkness, we walked across the road from the hotel and down the deserted beach to the water’s edge. Of course, we discovered that the water was bath warm, so everyone decided to go for a swim.
Almost as soon as all five of us had taken the plunge and were splashing about, a black sea creature made an appearance, leaping out of the water next to Lizzie.
My memory of the moment is that I was tremendously calm and said ‘I think there’s a shark over there.’ Others claimed that I ran out of the water yelling ‘SHAAAAAAAAAAAARK!!’ at the top of my voice.
Lizzie knew enough about sea creatures to know that sharks didn’t hurl themselves in the air so she actually swam off to look for whatever it was. As she disappeared into the night, I had visions of re-writing the show so that it could be done by four actors.
The creature was actually a kind of dolphin called a boto, a very sociable creature that lurks in the shallows close to the beach at night and apparently likes nothing better than to swim between people’s legs.
If it had swum between my legs, you wouldn’t be reading this now.
The north east of Brazil has hundreds of kilometres of fabulous beaches and other great places to visit. My personal recommendations would be Fortaleza for beaches and food, Olinda for architecture and art, and Salvador for music.
Downtown Recife is a place you really need to visit with someone local to give you advice and what not to do and where not to go. And there ARE sharks near the beach now (there weren’t in the 80s, but they’ve arrived since).
Be prepared for things to move a little slowly in the north east. One of my favourite memories of BrazTESOL 2008 in Fortaleza was going out for lunch with my OUP minder Sergio, who is from São Paulo (see #3 below). He sat at the table, drumming his fingers with impatience because of the slow service. It was amusing for me to have to tell a Brazilian to chill out, wait, it’s OK, the food’s coming….
2 Brazilian Portuguese
I read in a British newspaper that, to an outsider, Brazilian Portuguese sounds like Sean Connery speaking Italian, which just goes to show how much the average British journalist knows about languages.
As someone who speaks Spanish reasonably well, I find Portuguese tantalisingly difficult to understand, but easy to pretend to speak. I spend all my time making sentences in portunhol/portuñol, a lazy mix of the two languages. One day, I will get round to learning it properly, if only to understand the fabulous poetry and song lyrics.
3 São Paulo
As I said earlier, nowadays if you fly to Brazil from London, you arrive at São Paulo Guarulhos International Airport. If you are then driven into the city, you pass along highways full of trucks belching smoke, car drivers who appear to be getting ready for a rally by practising dangerous manoeuvres, and sudden, unexpected traffic jams. It is as near to hell as I have ever experienced.
I think I’ve made this trip into the city about five times in the last ten years, and every time I think the same thing. What was it about Brazil that I like so much? However, after a few hours of sleep and a caipirinha (see #8), you are ready to explore this most fascinating of Latin American cities.
The statistic that is most often trotted out about São Paulo is that it’s the biggest Japanese city outside Japan, the biggest Italian city outside Italy and the biggest German city outside Germany. Probably the biggest Polish, Lithuanian, Irish etc etc as well – no idea.
The point is you feel this tremendous sense of vibrant multi-culturalism the minute you step on the streets in the centre of the city. It’s a bit like being in Manhattan, except that there’s a chance that people might actually smile at you in São Paulo.
São Paulo is vast – the official population of the city is eleven million and the metropolitan area has twenty million inhabitants in total. Who knows how many more millions depend on this economic powerhouse for their livelihoods?
For the sake of balance, one should add that, like many other major cities of the world, São Paulo is surrounded by dense and depressing favelas, shanty towns, which have not been reached or positively affected by the economic activity of the main city. All I can do is report that the city itself sparkles with life, day and night. I’ve also seen some great performances by actors, musicians … and it was where I saw Denise Stoklos.
4 Denise Stoklos
Denise Stoklos is the most amazing performance artist I have ever seen. I was lucky enough to see her at the British Council in São Paulo in the spring of 1994, a few months before she appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in a one-woman show about Mary Queen of Scots.
This is what The Independent newspaper wrote about that show:
With a body like a hieroglyph and a voice like a taxi hooter, the Brazilian actress Denise Stoklos storms her way through a political and personal meditation on the life and death of Mary Queen of Scots. Her tender story-telling will tug spectators to the edge of their seats, and her grotesque characterisations of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth would have Fluck and Law reaching for their sketchbooks. Between sharp historical anecdotes and bold polemic, Stoklos could (and at one point does) captivate an entire audience just by wiggling her foot. Only fools will miss this.
Fluck and Law were the creators of the grotesque puppets of famous people that were used in the British TV series Spitting Image in the 80s and 90s.
The Denise Stoklos performance I saw in São Paulo was a more personal, rather chaotic but equally memorable trip through some key incidents in her life. To illustrate a particularly dramatic (but also hilarious) series of events, she switched on a popcorn-making machine and hugged it to her body as she began to tell us the story. As it developed, the popcorn began to pop. As the story reached its exciting finale, the popcorn was banging against the top of the machine like hailstone.
When the applause for this terrific coup de theatre had died down, Denise explained that this part of the show didn’t work in Florianopolis (see #5) because the voltage is different there. When she finished telling the story, the popcorn had hardly started to pop!
I met Denise backstage and was even more amazed to discover that she was able to do the show in Spanish, French and German and well as in English and Portuguese.
I thought about Denise as I flew into Florianopolis for the first time in July 2002 for the Braz-TESOL conference. The first thing I can remember was being in a restaurant a little out of town when there was a power cut and we all finished our meal by candle-light. Electrical issues dominate my early memories of the place.
Subsequently, I decided that Florianopolis is the perfect Brazilian city, at least for a European. It’s hot without being humid and unpleasant, has great beaches nearby and is (despite the electricity stories) a well-organised and safe place full of nice, helpful people.
I’ve written too much already, so just a few notes about the other five items in my list.
6 Santos Dumont Airport, Rio
Fabulous building, at least in the 80s, where you could catch quaint little prop planes for the shuttle flight to Sao Paulo. With the added excitement when you take off of knowing that the runway is pointing straight at Sugar Loaf Mountain.
7 Astrud Gilberto
The first Brazilian singer I ever heard, and still my favourite for that liquid, perfect voice.
A drink made with cachaça, sugar cane alcohol and squeezed lime (NOT lemon! Thanks for correcting my mistake, Willy!). Just try it when you’re sitting on a Brazilian beach looking at a sunset over the sea. (I know the sun sets away from the beach in Brazil, but you know what I mean).
Like true soccer fans worldwide, I was devastated to hear of the death of Socrates, an amazing sportsman and political activist. I just feel proud to have included him here in my list of 10 things….
The 1986 English Teaching Theatre tour took place just before the soccer World Cup in Mexico. Early one morning, I was standing at the check-in desk at Rio International Airport (not Santos Dumont) with the tickets and passports of all five members of the group.
It was the days when you had multiple air tickets in the same booklet, and a page had to be torn out at check-in. I was so busy dealing with this, I wasn’t aware of a looming presence behind me. I turned round and saw that the man behind me was the captain of the Brazil soccer team. I uttered one of my favourite exclamations ever: “Blimey! You’re Sócrates, aren’t you???”
The gentle giant behind me smiled and moved to take his place at the counter. I looked around and saw other members of that team, Zico, Júlio César, Branco and Falcão. For the Brazilians waiting for planes at the airport, it seemed like the most normal thing in the world
Phil York, the other football-mad member of the ETT, came up and asked me what I thought they would do if he asked them to sign his baseball cap. I suggested waiting until we could accost them in the departure lounge. Big mistake. Although they were checking in like normal passengers, once through security, they were whisked off to the Business Lounge and we didn’t see them again.
But why have I singled out Sócrates? Not only was he the captain of the greatest soccer team on the planet, he was also a qualified doctor and he played guitar to professional standard. He could also take great satisfaction in his role in bringing in the new democracy that has served Brazil pretty well during the thirty years since the country was under the draconian rule of the military.
OK, he smoked and drank too much. A Brazilian student once said: “When Sócrates chests the ball, there is a fog in the stadium.” No one is perfect.
He’s my ultimate Brazilian hero.
10 Foot volley
The brilliant sport you can see on the beach – basically volleyball played with soccer skills. A joy to watch, and a sport invented for and by Brazilians, probably the only people who can play it properly.
* Well, NEARLY no mention of football