Although Brazil is officially my favourite country in the world, I’ve only ever actually spent about three weeks there, which kinda puts me in the same category as that fabled tourist who ‘loves Brazil, but has only seen four square miles of it’. In my defence, I do have a Master’s degree in Brazilian and Portuguese Studies, which she almost certainly doesn’t, but then again, to be scrupulously fair, she does have the unfair advantage of never having existed, so she sort-of wins.
I existed in Brazil in November 2010, but apart from this, and this (and, er, this), I’ve never got round to writing about the country, partly because it’s such a vast, complex and dynamic place that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’m starting at a fairly random point by writing about three people I happened to meet on my holiday, all of whom just so happen to be men and all of whom taught me something remarkable that has stayed with me. That doesn’t mean that these are the only or most extraordinary people I met, but as they almost say in Portuguese, when it comes to both writing and scratching your arse, the difficult thing is getting started.
The first was a middle-aged German who had set down his roots there and who was therefore, annoyingly for me as a self-appointed expert on Brazil, a self-appointed expert on Brazil who actually lived in Brazil. I got talking to him in a tiny bar in the Pelourinho in Salvador de Bahia, where travellers stroll around to the sound of practising Oludum drummers and small children plaintively asking for milk powder which they can then sell to buy crack. In the course of our short conversation the German kept reaching out to touch my arm, just above the elbow, almost falling off his barstool to do so. It suddenly struck me that I’d witnessed Brazilians performing the same gesture thousands of times, to the point where, without realising it, I’d started doing it myself. The fact that he made the gesture in a way which drew attention to it, whereas when I did it I did so without even noticing, gave me some hope that I was managing to fit in (it is my lifelong ambition, along with fathering a child with a perfectly round head (tick!) and winning the Nobel Prize for Blogging, to be mistaken, just once, for a Brazilian). I found it curious that it had taken another foreigner to teach me something so basic. Touch is very important in Braxil – it can be intrusive or seductive, and sometimes both. It’s part of that willingness to connect which I personally find extremely endearing. I once read about a study of how many times friends make physical contact over a coffee in different countries. The statistics were remarkable: for Brazilians it was roughly 100, in the UK about ten, and in Japan (a culture ostensibly very different from Brazil, although I tend to think there are certain unacknowleged points of comparison) zero.
On a beach somewhere to the north of Salvador I met a guy who lived in a house made of plastic bottles. I don’t remember how we got got talking; maybe he asked me for the empty bottle I was holding so he could start to build an extension. He made a living-of-sorts selling handicraft to tourists, of whom on that undeveloped stretch of coast there were few, although there were a couple of fledgling resorts. (Also, in an encouraging sign of an upturn in economic activity, two suspected drug dealers had been shot dead the previous week just next to where the bus stopped on the coast road (or so I was told by the taxi driver who kindly advised me not to walk up to the village but to allow him to let me pay him to transport me instead)). My new friend had taken full advantage of the subsidies that various PT governments had provided. He was extremely enthusiastic about the changes that Lula had wrought in his life and vehemently insisted on taking me to see where he lived. Sadly, partly because it was getting dark and partly due to a near-death experience I’d had in Salvador a few days previously (nothing to do with the German), I declined, although we did drink a bottle of cachaça and I did pay him over the odds for a couple of carancas and various other nicknacks, so we both stumbled away materially replenished and very, very drunk.
In Rio, within a couple of hours of my arrival in the country, overlooking Lapa with a jetlag-relieving drink in my hand, I fell into conversation with the young guy manning the hostel bar. He must have noticed my Portuguese accent, one which to Brazilians sounds distinctly yokelish. Moving on from the icebreaking topic of how unwittingly hilarious Portuguese people are, we got onto the related subject of colonialism. It turned out that one of my favourite Brazilian films (‘Central do Brasil‘) had been the subject of a thesis he had written. It’s the story of an older woman (whose surname is Guimarães, which is significant, as that’s the city where Portugal was ‘born’) living in Rio, where she witnesses the accidental death of the mother of a young boy from the Northeast. She takes it upon herself to rescue the young boy from the dangers of the streets and takes him to track down his father up north. It’s therefore mostly a roadtrip and (my new best friend explained) an exploration of the tangled relationship between the spinsterish colonial power and the orphaned colony, and thus about identity, my very favourite subject. It was a joyous hour or so of intense conversation, a meeting of rapidly addled minds as the Brahma bottles clinked and the maconha fumes fumed. I didn’t know at that point that my nbf was to lose his job the very next day, sacked by the expat owner for spending too much time, er, fraternising with the clientele. At the time, gazing over the undulating contours of what was clearly the friendliest and most picturesque city on earth, I found myself thinking, this is going to be the greatest holiday of my life. It wasn’t, for various reasons, but still.