PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1987 - MARCH
Sunday 1 March
The days dawn bright and blue, the weathermen forecast a sunny carnival, promising dry weather until Monday. Which doesn’t disclude the possibility of rain Monday night. Last year a rainstorm lasted the length and duration of Beija-Flor’s desfile, yet everybody danced non-stop. Now it is Sunday, my excitement rises - the newspapers are full of information about the various escolas, the music plays in the cassette. Claudio [young friend from Belo Horizonte] points out that in the samba playing right now Beija-Flor uses a melody from Charlie Chaplin’s film ‘Limelight’ - the samba is called ‘Limelights’. Claudio knows the melody because Maria Bethania sings a Brazilian version of the music.
The first group to parade tonight will be Unidos de Jararezinho. Last year, it came first in the IB group and was promoted. The school will have 25 wings made up of 2,700 people. Each of the allegories will have a flower, which is a symbol of a woman. The central theme revolves around the composer Lupicinio Rodrigues. Most of his songs were about women. The samba opens: Entra, meu amor, fica a vontade; Para homeagear; O grande artista e poete popular; Que se faz vestir; De rosa e branco; E por aqui a vida e obra de Lupi; De bar em bar; E de amores em amores. Which reminds me of my poem ‘From bar to bar, from port to port, from court to court, desiring of love . . .’
Whereas Unidos de Jararezinho is a rising star having risen from group 2A in 1982 to 1B and this year to 1A. Imperio de Tijuca, the second group tonight, has done poorly in group 1A for the last three years. This year the school presents the theme ‘Viva o povo Brasileiro’ based on the story by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro. It tells the history of a small Bahian town, from native indians to modern day. Some 2,800 will parade in 37 wings. Estacio de Sa’s parade has 39 wings and 3,800 participants. The samba has a catchy tune and sings about a fruit called sopati which just happens to rhyme with tititi (slang word for gossip). The tititi smels of sapoti. The fruit was imported centuries ago and remained unknown until Don Joao and his wife ordered it to be exported all over the world now: ‘Isso visou tutti-frutti; Tutti-nacional; Virou goma de mascar; Roda pra e pra ca; Na boca de pessoal.’
Almost two o clock on Sunday and the press passes aren’t ready yet. Tomas just rang to find out - they said ring again after 3pm. One begins to doubt we will get in at all, and that the excuses have been made up. Such a lazy day. Rosa will come soon to lie with me a bit. Claudio sits around doing nothing - he ought to go to the beach. Chris has left and will be back in the UK tomorrow. In just two weeks I too will be back in the UK, yet I am not discolouring these days with too much thought of the future - there is carnival all around, and after a trip with Rosa to Minas, there will be time enough to worry about the future in the future.
Friday I worked liked a maniac, writing four stories as well as the market reports. The whole world chose to talk to me the same day. Monica called and talked her neurotic head off. Edna called and invited me on some outings. Catesby called. Tomas called. Sergio at Reuters buttonholed me and released a lecture of dissatisfaction with Brazil. Why does he always leave me breathless even though I don’t say anything?
In the evening I am exasperated by trying to combine with Claudio, Chris and Rosa and with Tomas and Danish friends. As it happens, I succeed, and we all meet up at Amerlinhas in Cinelandia, but there is so little happening on Rio Branco that Rosa and I come early leaving the others to go off and drink batidas. The Danish couple - a boy and a girl, not a couple - are battered. They return to Denmark after only one month when they planned to stay three. The reason: the girl’s best friend was killed in a truck between Boa Vista and Manaus. What a nightmare. The lorry, which was carrying logs, careered off the road, hit a tree and the logs crashed through the cabin. The driver and one girl are killed, but this girl flew through the windscreen, and was relatively unhurt. She then spent a week at the Danish embassy, and the other girl’s body was flown home. Chris tells me he has killed a woman. During his trucking days he was bowling along the M2 one night when a woman appeared all of a sudden in his path. He drove right into her. For a while he was alone in the middle of the night with the pieces of a body and his (presumably) blood-smattered truck.
Streamline says that most press passes have still not been issued. Tomas reports that there is utter confusion, and that some effort has even been made to reach President Sarney to solve the crisis. Tomas will come soon, and we will go to the Rio Palace to see what the hell is happening. It is very difficult to imagine what is gong on behind the scenes, but it has to be some sort of political manipulation, a fight of some sort that has not been resolved. If the credentials don’t get released soon then certainly there will be news stories about it all. You can’t mess journalists around without exposing yourself to adverse publicity.
Meanwhile, Claudio mopes around the flat, disappointed that I am not giving him more attention. Claudio it seems has invented a romance with me. He has admitted that being here in Rio in my flat the relationship has only arrived at a half of what he had hoped. We have a long talk. I feel like an indulgent father, and try to make him understand that he has sought me out, I have done nothing to encourage his fantasies. He has needed these fantasies. The way I see it is, that being the oddball in his family of eight children, being the bright spark, the intelligent one, he lost all respect for his father, who is a butcher, and is now seeking a model for a father. He toys with homosexuality, reading Jean Genet. I warn him Genet can be bad for the health. We talk extensively about homosexuality too. Claudio is on the fence. He came here prepared maybe for some affair with me, although he had not concretised the idea in his head, nor did he believe I was homosexual. I tell him he should not pre-occupy himself with being a virgin - I think it will help him to know I was still a virgin at 24 - and that what is more important is that he has work that he enjoys and in which he can become absorbed. Girls and relationships will follow, although these might come slower and with more difficulty than if fell in with the gay world.
I feel Claudio is a little jealous of Rosa, and when I know Rosa is coming to visit in the afternoon, and he has been in the flat all day showing not the slightest wish to go out, go to the beach, explore Rio, I force him to - kick him out as subtly as I can. He comes back in much better spirits having walked miles. But again in the night I have to provide the force, the energy to see him leave the apartment to try and get into the parade ground. He harbours a mild resentment that I didn’t get him a ticket. I feel he was beginning to push his luck with me, as though looking for a reprimand, looking to be hurt by me. But he goes, and when I return at 8:00 in the morning he is not here. He comes in some time later, and now at 7:30pm he is still fast asleep.
Ah! carnival. What a magnificent show! Truly it is a phenomenon. The greatest theatrical show on earth - perhaps the greatest that has ever existed. What other place on earth shuts down for four days so that the population can dress up in fancy clothes if they want to.
Carnival is mostly over. Tonight came the judgements. Salgueiro is in the lead, Portela and Mociade are also high up. On Saturday, there will be a parade of champions, but last year I did not go, the event was over, it no longer had an edge. At least this year, I persevered the whole night through. The first evening Tomas and I went to the Streamline office at the Rio Palace hotel about 8pm, several phone calls had left us bewildered because the passes were still not ready. When we arrived, though, my credential was ready, but that of Tomas had still not been released. Scores of journalists were milling around impatient at not having been treated properly. Tomas and I marched off to Degrau to eat a hearty meal - to sustain us through the night. When we came back, there was still no sign of Tomas’s credential so I left him there to return home, but back at my flat, I was too impatient, too excited to delay going any longer.
I arrived in time to see the second school and stayed right through to the 7th, and then saw most of the 8th (Mangueira) before it entered the parade ground. Tomas arrived at about 1am, and we moved slowly together into one enormous spectacle of feathers, coloured plastic, naked bodies, incredible fancy dress, huge floats of colour and vibration, thousands of people dancing, singing together in chorus, streamers and confetti flying through the air. The sound of drums filled the air, never ending, going on and on in repetitive cycles of the eternal samba.
I walked through the backstage areas, after the second group had finished, to see if I could find any photo possibilities but there really wasn’t enough light for my camera. Estacio de Sa were preparing themselves, almost ready to leave. As I passed by one wing, I heard my name called, and there was half the volley group - Sonia, Rosangela, Roberto and his girlfriend (who got them all in by knowing the president of the wing). Bob had opted for a lesser costume and a harder job, that of pushing one of the floats.
Following several polls, it seems that Salgueiro is favourite. They came on fifth, but I barely remember their parade nor do I remember why I do not remember. One float, of a flying saucer, I recall seeing backstage, but hardly any of the others. I remember not liking the theme - why not? positive energy, energetic pyramids and all that - so perhaps it was then that we went into the press office in search of a life-preserving beer, and I collapsed on the floor in a desperate state of tiredness. We emerged a while later to the sound of Zum zum zum zum zum zum a baleria; Zum zum zum zum zum zum a harmonia; Hoje e dia de festa; Hoje e dia de folia. Very catchy tune of Imperatriz Leopoldinense. No, I tell a lie, Beija-Flor came first, but I was neither enamoured of their samba or their floats, there seemed to be no difference between all the wings of fancy dress, no imagination, no invention. The same was also true of Portela the next evening.
Mangueira, the last group, came on parade about 90 minutes later than scheduled because of the inevitable delays. I could barely keep my eyes open. The sun was already shining forcefully adding discomfort to tiredness. I went backstage to have a look at the floats and fancy dress, what a mass of green and pink - the traditional Mangueira colours - very lush. I took a few photos, including one of Chico Buarque who had joined the Commissao de Frente and was rehearsing movements in line.
The best photos were taken just after dawn with gorgeous metallic blue skies as a background to the fancy dresses.The following night I didn’t take the camera, but regretted it, again when it was light and the Mocidade school was waiting to come on - the school being so colourful and imaginative. I think Mocidade will win with their theme, Tupinicopolis, a modern city inhabited by Amazon indians.
Monday evening I came back about 8am and slept through till late afternoon. On the telephone I talk to Rosa and Tomas, later I chat with Claudio, he only wakes in time for the 8pm news. Together we watch ‘Roda de Fogo’. I then go back to sleep, which proved to be the right thing to do. I woke about 1am in a panic at having missed so much of the night and drove on the moto quickly to President Vargas. I parked in President Vargas - what confusion at the entrances, all these thousands of people are hungry and thirsty, a whole industry emerges overnight to profit from the market and climate of thriftless festivities. All along the backstage avenues, people and their costumes are pressed into one another - a veritable dangerous journey picking one’s way through the heavily disguised wire spikes and pointed rods. Another danger is that of puddles of urine - the avenue fences become the world’s largest urinal for men and women.
Two of the schools on Monday night took on the theme of communications - Imperio Serrano with the enredo ‘Com a boca no mundo quem nao se communicar se trumbica’. The parade consisted of giant telephones, satellites, giant scissors representing censorship; one float was dedicated to Chacrinha, the old fool who hosts a Saturday afternoon show on TV Globo with lots of dancing girls and famous singers making appearances. The girls dance non-stop with the TV cameras making regular visits to their bums as close as they can get, the girls almost sitting backwards on the lens. (Rosa tells me the samba title is an expression of Chacrinha’s.) Chacrinha was there on the float, and his girls too. The top model for Dijon at present also displayed with Imperio - not topless like many other models but in a dress reputed to cost $15,000. ‘Alo alo alo alo alo, nao se communicou dancou’. But the enredo of Uniao da Ilha I felt was better, more imaginative - called ‘Extra extra’; ‘Olhea ai, olha eu ai; Vim botar a banca na Sapucai.’ The idea came from the Carnavelesco Alexandre Louzada. He was originally with Imperio and then moved to Ilha and thinks the fact that Imperio evolved a similar theme was no coincidence. ‘Quem tem amor pode dar; Quem nao tem vai achar.’
I hardly remember Vila Isabel which came before Ilha, and on came Portela with the best samba of both nights; ‘Voa voa voa; Deixa a tristeza de lado; Voa voa voa; Vai levar o seu cecado. . . Amor e bom, amor e bom; E bom demais, e felicidade; E sinonimo de paz.’ The enredo tells of the imagined flight of a carrier pigeon called Adelaide that carried the message of peace. But the floats and costumes, like Beija Flor, were a disappointment.
And coming home in the morning, the real world feels like a fantasy, the aterro parks, the beach, the few people in the streets, it is all so unreal.
Friday 6 March
Morning has broken over this beautiful town of Ouro Preto. Mists hang in the valleys, broken clouds scatter across an otherwise blue sky. Cocks still crow. Birds twitter. From this small room, in our lovely hotel, which has windows on two sides, I can see up to churches and down to the busy commercial street. While houses with tiled roofs, speckled earth and black in colour, are scattered in bunches and singly across the hill sides.
We arrived here late on Wednesday afternoon about six hours after leaving Rio. The good road with barely a single troubled stretch meant a comfortable easy journey. The over-riding impression, though, of travelling anywhere by road in Brazil is the emptiness of it all. Much of the land is covered in scrub of varying degrees of thickness. Occasionally, the rolling hills show they have been cleared once upon a time because they are only covered in grass. But there was little evidence of farming activity, of villages, of industry of any type. When I think of what I see when travelling six hours in any direction from London.
Looking through a list of hotels in the Quatro Rodas guide book I remembered the name Pouso do Chico Rei that a friend had once given me as the most delightful place to stay in O.P. We found it immediately on arriving, and although only very small with six rooms, it had vacancies. Leaving Rosa in the car I went in to have a look, chose a room, and came out saying it was a ‘delicia’, ‘linidissima’. It is an old house, clearly loved for and cared for by its owner Donna Lily. The woodwork painted in maroon and mineral blue makes for striking images throughout, but the rooms are full of old and preserved furniture, tasteful pictures. The bed springs are so ancient that they seem to protest and squeak even when lying perfectly still. Attempting to make love on them - for there are two widow-sized beds (in Brazil there are single, double, and widow beds). . . attempting to make love on them discreetly, with every sound echoing through the house, is like trying to make love discreetly on the altar of a church during a communion service. In the lounges and hallways, icons rub shoulders with local artefacts, a spinning wheel, a soapstone candlestick, a wooden sculpture. In the TV lounge, the sofa and armchairs are modern, ugly.
Sunday 8 March
Back in Rio and only eight days to go before I leave this place for ever. I feel disconnected to the change, it is taking place physically but my mind doesn’t know what to do to cope. It thinks of the cold, my house, my bicycle, Barbara, but they are light unrealistic thoughts. I look around me, in this flat, out across the bay, and do not take in that it will be gone so soon. One reason for this is that I expended a lot of emotional energy and excitement back in January, when making the decision, but have deliberately filled up the interim with trips in order to disperse the impatience of waiting for the last days. Now, I can barely complain of impatience with eight days to go and plenty, plenty to do. One thing I must do is trek back in mind over the last four days and record my impressions of the historic trail, Rosa and I took through Minas Gerais
Rosa tells me the Mineiros are famed for being religious, and she found it unsurprising that everywhere we went we encountered a surfeit of churches. From any given point in Ouro Preto, you can probably see six perched on hill tops. In Sao Joao del Rei, standing in front of one, you could see a second directly behind and two more on your left and right within 200 metres. We asked one of the young and pushy adolescent guides, that almost seem to infest these places, why there are so many churches: because each family wanted its own. And it is the churches which are the main attraction. Externally, they all present a very similar architecture, mostly baroque, painted in white with yellow framings. Internally, the overall style is also largely similar, though varying from an intense overpowering impression of much intricate wooden sculpture painted gold, to a lighter, less rich, impression created with bright white and blues. One striking fact about the Ouro Preto churches is how the main icon above the altar is always the virgin Mary, while Jesus Christ on the cross is but a tiny figure almost invisible way below Mary. Away from Ouro Preto, this is never the case, JC is the main icon.
The first cobbled streets we climbed led to churches that were closed, but the walk proved good training, and the views from the hill tops were always worthwhile. Once organised and with a modicum of information from the tourist office we planned our visits more carefully. The first church we entered was Santa Efigenia - really the walk was long and steep. Rosa, I could see, wondered why we hadn’t come by car like all the rest of the visitors - but, later, back in Rio she confessed it was much better to have walked. One must walk, I told her, in order to feel a place. The main image inside, Rosa learned from a guide, was of Santa Efigenia holding a tiny silver church in one hand. She had apparently died in a church that had burnt down, and a new one was built in her name. Efigenia, indeed! I’ve never heard of such a saint’s name (neither has the EB). Returning down the hill we passed groups of schoolchildren making their way home beneath a hot persistent sun - some walk to do every day!
Nossa Senhora da Conceicao de Antonio Dias, built in a valley and strikingly different from all the other churches for having its white painted walls framed by orange instead of yellow, proved to be the most ornate of the city. Here, at last, we found some works by the famous little cripple sculptor, Aleijandinho - a sepulchre or two, and in the museum behind the church were four rich-wood lions used for support. Best of all, there was a suffering Christ-figure. Despite being called the Aleijandinho museum that was all we all could find of his. The church with which A’s name is most associated - Sao Francisco de Assis - was closed. The guide leaflet - teasingly for us - called it one of the most beautiful churches in Brazil. Well, I took a photograph in any case, with a common flower and vegetable market in the foreground.
And so the churches went on. Nossa Senhora of mercies, Nossa Senhora of mercies and pardons, Nossa Senhora of mercies and pardons and pities; how they must have competed against each other in the 18th century to build a bigger, better, finer church. Vila Rica it was called in those days only becoming Ouro Preto in 1823, by which time the gold rush in the entire region had turned it into one of Brazil’s most important cities, and the capital of Minas Gerais.
No visit to Ouro Preto is complete without taking into consideration the ‘Inconfidentes’. As early as 1789 this group of brave fellows aimed at independence of Brazil from the Portuguese colonists. One of them was executed while the rest fled to exile in Africa. Centuries later the remains of these conspirators were returned to Brazil, and a mausoleum built in what is now the Museum of Inconfidencia. It is a special palace, pleasingly designed with lots of symmetry, housing any items relating to the conspirators: documents, a carriage belonging to one of them, a diverse set of things. Most interesting of all, though, are four mini-statues by Aleijandinho - they are just the right size for my house and I would have loved to have taken one of them away with me. One of the leaflets says that in his work, A managed to visualise the cherished dream of the Inconfidentes. His work reflects the self-assertion of the local populace, living from the mines, and the religious fervour of that period.
We are busy during the afternoon. We visit the mineralogy museum, and gaze at hundreds of fantastic and fabulous rock forms, all the major jewels and metals are represented. How astounding it is to see the same compounds so often appearing in so many different forms. I did not realise, for example, that agate and amethyst and quartz were exactly the same compound, just as diamond and coal have the same chemical base. Hard to imagine two environments more different: the old dusky, spacious, religious feeling in the church naves and the modern air-conditioned, square, scientific room of mineral exhibits.
But of all we saw at Ouro Preto, I must confess to liking best the old opera house, now the municipal theatre, and dubbed the oldest continuously-operating theatre in South America. I loved its simplicity, it reminded me of drawings of Shakespeare’s Globe. Apart from the stalls, which held perhaps 100 seats, two narrow balconies ran right round the oval space in a u-shape. As far as I remember, the theatre boasted not the slightest ornament - so very different from the churches. Of course since then, since that age, secular culture has grown rapidly, while religion has declined, at least in our Western world.
A fantastic road runs from Ouro Preto to meet the main highway further along. Some stretches narrow to a single file barely manageable by a bus or lorry, and yet there is no way of knowing on entering one of these stretches whether something has already entered it from the other end. On the way out, late afternoon, there was massive confusion with 20 or so cars and buses shuffling around in both directions trying to find a solution to total blockage by random movements. Finally, one bus gave way and reversed past all the lines of cars that had been waiting behind it, and which were not blocking the way, in order to allow us and the rest of the stream of impatient drivers to hurry along.
The only gold mine in the world that was working and open to the public stopped working a year ago after several hundred years of continuous existence. In the first place, in the 18th century, I think, the Portuguese had some 35,000 slaves working the open cast pits, now there’s some 11 square kilometres of tunnels and rabbit holes where the rock has been systematically cut away and crushed and washed with water. Officially some 90 tons of gold has come out of the mine since . . . since when? I think since the English took over. All the machinery is English and dates form the last century; it was in continuous use until last year. Now a Brazilian family owns the mine rights, but doesn’t believe it is worth investing in new equipment. There is supposed to be just 3gm per ton of crushed rock.
Having been used to paying Cz3-5 for entrance tickets, we were suddenly hit by a Cz75 per person charge for entering the mine - a visit barely lasting 15 minutes. Yet the experience was sufficiently strong and different to the rest of the day for the cost not to leave a bitter taste. I kept wanting to say to Rosa ‘What a rip off’, but any attempt at explanation or translation would have been too serious, too important for the simple exclamation. So, I desisted saying it aloud, just repeating it to myself. There is no adequate way to say the same thing in normal English - it is a quite unique and super-useful expression. (The Chambers Dictionary defines ‘rip off’ as slang and ‘to steal, exploit, overcharge etc’) I could say ‘they are charging too much’ but it has no tang, no zip, no comedy to lighten the humiliation of being taken for a ride. (The Chambers Dictionary defines ‘take for a ride’ as ‘to give someone a lift in a car with the object of murdering him in some remote place, to play a trick on, dupe’.) Thanks Sterne but back to Minas Gerais.
A ten or twelve seater trolley, controlled by an enormous cable and winch, carried us down a narrow and wobbly gauge into the mine through one of its many entrances. We travelled 200-300 metres into the depths. There was not much to see, a lot of rock, a lot of tunnels, pools of water, so still, so clear that rocks four metres below the surface could be seen perfectly.
After the mine we drove on to Mariana arriving just before dusk. The town is smaller, quieter, less important, less hilly. We stroll gently around, entering one church, stopping for a few minutes in one green square, and a few more minutes in another square, the two sides of which are bounded by almost identical churches at right angles. I take a photograph trying to exaggerate the similarity (although the bell-towers of one fall to the ground making it distinctly wider than the other whose towers fall into the body of the church) suggesting a certain symmetry and the possibility of reflection. I take another photograph of a church on a distant hill seen along the length of a narrowed cobbled street - in a foreground doorway two women talk.
Back at Pouso Chico Rei we shower, rest naked on the squeaky beds, and make love a little. Later, we walk around the centre debating whether to see a debatable Brazilian film, examining restaurant menus - there are many restaurants and bars though most are empty. We return to the same place we ate on the previous evening for it was clearly the local favourite. I try the Mineiro dish tutu - slices of pork, beans mixed with lumps of pork, a sausage, greens - all a bit luke warm, and my tiredness hinders full enjoyment of the meal. Back at the Pouso, I fall asleep immediately but wake later for a series of squeaky tosses and turns.
On Friday morning, I spend an hour or so at the primitive telephone office. I call Richard at Mundogas and Rubems at Tradex and extract sufficient information to obviate the need for calling others. I write my few lines on the same scrap of paper I’ve taken notes, but, when I call London, no one responds. I take advantage of being alone to rush around the tourist shops and buy a tiny animal of ouro preto, black gold, an iron compound. The whole region is rich in iron ore and littered with iron ore mines. The gift is for Rosa and proves to be a good choice since she has a collection of little animals. I also buy a necklace of the heavy black beads for Barbara.
Before leaving Ouro Preto (not named after the heavy black rock used for jewels and ornaments but because the gold in the region is mixed with silver which turns black in contact with the air) I must record one more impression - the strongest and most lasting perhaps. After arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, we felt no hurry to leave the Pouso, indulging in rest and soft kisses, but the sound of music, of a band, approached bit by bit, growing louder and louder, until we felt we really ought to see what was happening. We dressed hurriedly and raced out following the sound of musicians. Nearby the Pouso, an alleyway of steps led down to the main street, which seemed to be in the right direction, and as we arrived in that street we were suddenly in the midst of crowds of people dancing, banging drums, shaking tambourines, waving foliated branches in the air. Everyone followed the small group of drummers filling the crowded streets. I felt as though I was in that famous scene from ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’.
We did not like Congonhas much - apart from one jewel it is an ugly little town with little to recommend it. The midday heat didn’t help to endear us to the place. The one jewel is its chief church on a hill overlooking the modern-day centre. I don’t recall the inside, but in front of the church, lining the zig-zag of steps, are full size soapstone sculptures of the prophets, standing in blissful ignorance of the heat or the tourists. They were carved once upon a time by our famous Aleijadinho - indeed according to various leaflets it is he who first started the fashion - now so popular as tourist knick-knacks - for sculpting soapstone. Landscaped down the hill, a few metres on either side of a cobbled and garden area, were six small chapels painted plainly white. In each was a mise en scene of life size or almost life-size wooden figures carved by you know who. Each scene displayed a story connected with Jesus’s crucifixion. According to the guide book, the figures were painted by another important artist of the time, Athayde. My only carp is that the faces of many of the soldiers were very similar - the same was true of the disciples of the last supper scene. Aleijandinho must have been very fond of huge noses with a bone protruding, almost breaking through the skin, halfway down the hypotenuse. Later in the day we saw a person with that exact nose, but only one - the mise on scenes were full of them.
The road to Sao Joao del Rei was extremely uninteresting, there being nothing to photograph or investigate.
A ferry boat springs a leak near the Belgium coast, turns onto its side, and nearly kills 500 people scrabbling for their lives inside a boat the wrong way up. Some 50-70 have actually lost their lives. Reagan accepts all the blame for the Iragua affair but manages to hold onto power - his prestige is on the upswing again. ‘The Economist’ says he should choose his aides better; other papers run a story about him denying that his wife makes decisions for him. A sad state of affairs.
Wednesday 11 March 1987
So close now, within a few day I’ll be gone. I’ll be back in the UK with my future never so uncertain for more than six years. This morning, Lions Transport came to take my three crates of goods. They are packed densely with books, clothes, ceramics and other artefacts. A satisfying process, packing. I just hope they arrive safely at Tilbury. Yesterday morning I ran around town determined to buy more things to take home. I bought, for example, $100 worth of books (all the books that I have thought about buying this last year but for which at the time seemed too costly). Then I took the plunge and spent $160 on a wooden sculpture - I felt it was overpriced but that I wouldn’t be able to buy it anywhere else. For a few painstaking minutes, I could not decide between the slightly cheaper multi-coloured ceramic of a woman soldier and the subtler wooden carving. I had long coveted the woman solider, and only resisted because of the $100 price tag; now that I was about to buy a more expensive piece I realised how difficult it was to choose. Then, fortunately, I noticed the soldier’s physical form was rather poorly sculpted, the artist had not the skill of forming human form - only the brightness of the colours and the glaze had diverted my attention from the details. In fact, the piece is just a well modelled copy of a typical design and has no spirit. The carving, by contrast, overflows with spirit and with the personality of the artist. Also packed into the crates are some shirts I had made at the magic tailor. What a delight to wear shirts that fit me well! When I tried one on, and saw how well it fitted, and how fine the collar was - just how I like it button-down and soft - I wanted to order another hundred.
So the boxes are gone and the flat looks empty and sad. Bit by bit, papers get thrown away or put into boxes for collection or delivery - telephone directories and files for Tomas, ‘Metal Bulletin’ books for Diane Kinch, market report papers for Mike Kepp.
Maria hardly spoke all day yesterday - she will miss me more than anyone I think. Even Rosa, who might miss me more acutely for a while, with the deep stirring emotions unlocked by sexual intimacy, will wrap herself up with university and her new job and remember me as a fairy tale. Maria has worked here two full days a week for two years (and most other days has spent half an hour or so in the flat). I have become an intricate part of her life - which is not true of Rosa - and she will miss me long after Rosa has accustomed herself again to being alone during those early hours of the morning when forbidden fruits become all.
A wave of strikes turns the country into a mess. First of all there have been ongoing strikes by distributors of LPG - cooking fuel - and this has led to angry responses from people in some states. Then sailors and tugboat workers went on strike creating havoc at all the ports and delaying the loading and unloading of all vessels; and now refinery workers have also joined the wage protest. In response, the government has sent the marines into the ports and the army into the refineries - having first declared the strikes illegal. But how long can the situation last? How much do soldiers know about running a refinery? Within a few days, fuel of all sorts will begin to become scarce and then the place will be in a real mess. Hell, I hope they keep the production of aviation fuel going!
Late Friday afternoon, we arrive in Sao Joao - historic town and birthplace of the heroic Tancredo Neves. We drive through some unhistoric and unheroic parts and come to a standstill outside Hotel Colonial. Although the room on offer is small and a distinct comedown from Pouso Rei, it seems churlish to refuse and hunt around for another place. I say to Rosa that in all my years of travelling I’ve, at least, learnt that a hotel in hand is worth two in the bush. Mid-evening, we go out walking along the canal which cuts the town in two. It is a canal of grass banks, the waterway being but a metre wide, the rest of the channel being taken up by a lush grass sloping carpet on each side. I tell Rosa about the system of waterways in the UK, about locks and leisure on the canals.
We stroll past a couple of churches but see nothing special about the town, yet something is wrong, being Friday night there should be more activity, the few restaurants are all empty, no bar has any life. Having encircled what we felt was the town, we were nearing the hotel when I spotted, up a narrow alleyway, a procession, a crowd of people. Continuing along the same street, we thought we would head them off, but when we took the next alleyway, we saw no one at all. A strange moment, at least until we spotted, between here and there, so to speak, but set back almost out of sight, a church and the crowds spilling in. We arrived at the tail end of a service, and left again before the crowds crushed out - actually there weren’t so many people but more than could sit down. Outside in the street, the chase over, we could notice how freshly painted every house seemed, all variety of colours - here was the historic Sao Joao, four churches within a few hundred metres of each other and a whole bairro of single and two-storey houses painted as though they were on show in a model exhibition.
I finish my first book by Olivia Manning. Her heroine, Ellie, comes to London determined to be an artist. The book charts her misguided love of an older man, her attempts to be somebody in the great city by virtue of her work, her fall into total poverty and misery, and her sudden salvation through finding the right man and marriage. I like the ‘Doves of Venus’ because it is about real people, real common people. My main criticism is that Manning gives Ellie a conversational level above her intelligence and background. She does this to give some reality to her relationships with older men, to show why they might have liked her. But I remained unconvinced. Yet she does write clearly about the opposite - the lack of respect that the older men feel for Ellie when their plans are thwarted or their dreams of her rumpled. The book gives the reader a picture of a grimy post-war London - poky bedsits, smoky pubs, a run-down furniture-painting business.
Julian rings to tell me the paperwork on the flat he is buying has still not been resolved, so we will be four in Aldershot Road when I return. Mum rings to tell me she has taken a week off work to pick me up at the airport. She sent a cutting from the ‘Ham & High’ to Frederic about the good old days of the Cosmo group. He promptly rang her at work, and said he would send a follow-up article which he hoped the editor would print, and, if it was indeed published, he asked her to send him the following six editions - presumably to check for letters. I asked Mum if she told him about his grandchild, but she didn’t.
Tomas tells me about a Norwegian girl who came to Brazil, met up with her ex-lover and her son. When the ex-lover went on holiday, she went to the consulate with her son, pleaded that they had both lost their passports, and wanted to hurry back to Norway. Many years ago, when the girl was very young, she had had this affair with the Brazilian and given birth to a child. She left the child with the Brazilian not wanting it to spoil her own life. He returned to Brazil. Tomas says this Brazilian is fighting mad and believes the Norwegian consul colluded with the girl. Now he can do nothing to get his child back.
Roberto tells me that Wendy, with whom he lived for 10 years and from whom he separated four years ago, is now pregnant by a man she wants nothing to do with. She rings Roberto, reverse charges from Canada, saying she loves him and wishes he were the father. She was pregnant once before but Roberto didn’t want the child. Wendy's doctor advised seriously against an abortion this time, and now it is too late for happiness with Roberto. She is 33.
I could have told that story longer but it serves its purpose, compact like that. The purpose: I love to collect stories that, by their sadness, pathos, mismanagement of human life, show up my arrangement with Barbara in a positive light. However, such purpose demonstrates my own lack of conviction, lack of security. Damn right. I’m insecure, collecting stories of so many sadnesses, any one of which might occur to us, when the forces are unleashed.
I lunch with Silvio at the Albamar restaurant. Finally, finally I get to visit this acclaimed fish restaurant in the round. We share dishes of pescadinha and namorado. Excellent. As usual, after a few beers, Silvio begins to attack everything I say in his comical inimical style. I can make no defence of any attack because he then attacks the defence without weapons just force of will. He and Rogerio, he says, are going to London in May, they want to take a trip to Greece and then to Egypt. I say nobody does Greece and Egypt in the same holiday. The logistics are all wrong. He says he doesn’t want to spend more than 10 days in Greece. Then spend them in England or France, I say, to get to know these countries a little better each time. He, like other Brazilians making the expensive trip to Europe, feels they have to cram in as much as possible - even though they go there every year now. Do one country at a time, I suggest. Here speaketh the man that once DID Pakistan in three days.
The eve of my departure: from sun to rain; from work to no work; from a light clean airy apartment to a dusty terraced house; from a passionate affair with youth to parenthood. Yet no emotions filter through. I look out of the window across the bay; I lie with Rosa in my arms; I joke with Maria as if I will be here next week. Surely, I must cry something out, must feel something sometime.
Visitors and telephone calls during Saturday: Catesby comes by to say goodbye, as always his head is wrapped up in the politics and economics of Brasilia. We talk about the ensuing involvement of the armed forces in government. I say there is no way the forces can be seen to be doing anything too manipulative to democracy, because the dictatorship of 20 years is still too fresh in the minds of the people, and they are yet a long way from any real discontent with the current rulers. Catesby points out that the trouble in the refineries should have been handled by the federal police and not the army, and the fact that no one in government, or elsewhere for that matter, criticised the move, is indication enough of the army’s involvement.
Mucio, my landlord, comes to examine the apartment. He tries so hard to be a conscientious businessman that both Maria and Rosa think he’s horrible, but it is a front, because the facts are different. He has been anything but a hard landlord. My rent has been very cheap, and he has given me no hassle. Now, he wants to put the rent up to Cz25,000 - I've been paying 2,500, that’s a ten-fold increase. He manipulates my balance down to Cz3,000 - his minute examination of the flat is to try and reduce this further. What landlord wants to devolve money to a tenant; and I've already lived here rent free for four months. But that telephone business - he ought to pay me a lot more but has dwindled the total away by increasing the rent for the last three months. Now, I shall leave him a telephone bill, which will upset him no doubt.
Roberto and Armando come for tea. Roberto is not interested in the computer because it is old fashioned; had it been flashy looking he might have gone for it. We talk about AIDS for an hour, I attempt to instil some seriousness into the conversation. Roberto suggests that if the chances of catching AIDS grew to 3 to 1 then he might desist. I say, this is death we are talking about. Two factors are the basis of all the confusion and allow paranoid people to believe the worst and optimists to not give a damn: 1) There is no exact knowledge of how the disease is transmitted - blood and sperm are sure bets, but what about saliva - not knowing leads to people believing what they want to believe; 2) The lack of any accurate statistics on how many people have, or are carriers of, AIDS, and the probability of catching the disease from a chance encounter.
I’m annoyed with myself for not selling the computer. I sold the printer yesterday for $240 and . . .
20 March, London
. . . I find I can buy the same model for $170, but I will buy a better model for about $300.
All the final days in Rio, Rosa remained by my side. On the last night (Sunday) she told her parents she would stay with a girlfriend, and for the second time only spent an entire night with me at the flat (the first time being on our return from Ouro Preto when her parents expected her the following day). So Rosa helped me with my final shopping, did errands for me, generally was happy to be by my side. Once, in Ouro Preto, she cried, and we cried a little at the weekend. I have not had time yet to miss her, but sitting writing now brings her back to mind and I cry. At the airport, it was difficult - how hard, a dream, a fantasy shattered, destroyed, finished.
I can hardly bare this parting, I want to cry unrestrainedly but then feel it my responsibility to control the proceedings, the parting can be light and reasonably sane, or we can indulge in emotionalism. Difficult to find the balance - is too much weeping too much for such a short relationship. Rosa is very sad. She tells me she cannot remember the last time before Ouro Preto that she cried. I feel her connection to me deeply. I feel guilt. I warned her at the beginning I was dangerous. I try to tell her it is my fault, I have enjoyed her love and affection and intimacy through tricks that older men learn. I do not want her to harden her heart. I do not want her suffer, but feel arrogant if I say these things to her - perhaps she won’t suffer at all. She returns now to university and to her new job; she will return to seeing her friends; she will be very busy. Oh, but what a lovely time we had. She says it was all good. And it was - all good. She says it was a film. Yes, remember it as a film - only now, here at the airport we have to take different exits. We part slowly, she walking off, her back to me. I wait for her to go, to disappear before entering passport control. Once inside, I realise how late I am, and I have to rush through the corridors (with the damn computer in hand) to the plane. And then, once on the plane, a compulsive talking Irish woman distracts my attention so that I have no chance to cry, to savour the exquisite pain of being conscious that I am unlikely to see Rosa ever again - and certainly not as a lover in this dream-like romance.
Sunday 29 March
I have been back two weeks now, and hardly written a thing in this book. Brazil is already so far behind, so far away. I have not even finished the account of my trip with Rosa to Minas Gerais. As I write here, my mind feels no depression, but tears well up in my eyes. Perhaps I overestimate my own ability to control my emotions. My life was pretty damn good out there, and the last few months with Rosa so lovely.
But back to Sao Joao del Rei. I nipped out into the streets at dawn, but found it strangely difficult to find good photographs despite the streamers of pink in the sky blue. Later, we trotted around the town together, both of us liking it for being less touristy and ostentatious. Tancredo’s tomb could not have been less ostentatious. Looking across the small churchyard, there were dozens of tombstones and sepulchres that stood out, but Tancredo’s was just a slab with a few words as though he were an ordinary citizen of the town. A small hut at the yard entrance manned by a postcard seller is the only clue that this cemetery is a little different.
From Sao Joao we took an old but well-preserved steam train to Tiradentes - the half hour trip runs along a river valley and is quite delightful. The Tiradentes station feels deserted although it is well preserved; nearby, a well-gardened and upkept square also feels under-used. The town centre lies a kilometre or so from the station. It is midday, hot and dusty. There are so few people to be seen in this town, so little going on. Furthermore, it is a Saturday in March, and we see so few tourists. It feels like a ghost town. We climb the hill to the main church, swearing that this will be the last church ever. I recall absolutely nothing about the church’s innards, but, at the back, behind, we found a group of people gathered round an open grave. One tall lean man held a long thin bone, at his feet there was a human skull. All the town seemed to be in the churchyard. What was going on? Rosa made enquiries while I took photographs. Apparently, the tall lean man had found his brother dead in a ditch. He had been missing for two weeks. It was assumed that he had been drunk and fallen into the ditch and died. But the tall lean man, anxious to bury his brother before he decayed any further - and the corpse shrouded round the corner stunk badly - had a problem. He could not remember which grave held his father and, consequently, which one could be re-used for his brother. Strange that no one else knew either. He had, therefore, resolved to open up the grave he thought belonged to his father and examine the femurs - for his father had a plate. We arrived just as he was showing the assembled company the femur. It was the right grave, and he proceeded to remove the bones of his father to prepare the grave for his brother.
What did I do the last week? I packed three crates for shipment to Tilbury - clothes, shoes, books (the old postcard book, the other Marc Ferez book of photographs, Baroque Brazil, and a book of paintings by Portanari). I bought a bunch of ceramics and wooden carving. I had a final lunch with Richard of Mundogas, and an excellent fish lunch with Silvio. I saw not Neco, nor Edna, nor Eliane, though I left presents for the first two. Monica disappointed me again with her petulant behaviour. She rang just before I left to justify, rather than apologise, for her behaviour. I had no time to chat. I should write her a card. Catesby came round to say goodbye, and I saw Tomas a couple of times, once on Sunday night at Circo Voador. Rosa and I went together and we did actually dance despite my reluctance. By the end, had come to feel quite close to Tomas. He will come through London in April, with his woman and child Henrique.
What else can I say. I must shift to London, write about Barbara, about Laura, about my house, about my life, now and here.
Bye bye Brazil, you gave me perhaps the two best years of my life.
Paul K Lyons
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