We went on a proper sketchwalk yesterday…left the camera at home to avoid the temptation to be lazy and use the excuse that I’m going to draw from photographs, later (really, really not the same…and you can see it very clearly in the drawings). I took a homemade brown paper bag sketchbook, a sepia felt-tip pen, a water brush and my watercolors, a white Steadtler Omnichrom pencil for highlights.
We took the 7:35 train into the Centro Historico, walked up the hill to the same mustard-yellow church, Igreja de São Pedro Gonçalves, that I’d photographed last Monday, and I found a cozy corner to sit in, right next to the Hotel Globo, a grand first subject. Kris walked off toward the train crossing to draw the little shacks and people on the other side of the tracks (European-style architecture doesn’t stir his soup, he grew up drawing castles and medieval buildings in Prague).
An hour and a half later we wandered up a cobbled street so steep that it was astounding (the aptly named “Ladeira de São Francisco” or Slope of Saint Francis) till we came to a stone bunker, the Casa da Pólvora (Gunpowder House, where they kept the gunpowder to defend the city). From this high vantage point I sketched the church we’d just left behind, looking over the brick roofs of its abandoned abbey buildings, the city, mangroves and hazy river lying behind.
I only got two drawings done…I think I was trying too hard to accurately draw the Hotel Globo, and got mired in the details of perspective for far too long. We stopped at noon, when the sun beat down on the cobbled streets and there were no patches of shade to hide under in the Historical Center. We had lunch at a little open air rodizio (you are given a plate piled high with black bean stew, rice, and spaghetti noodles…and a waiter walks around with huge skewers of various char-grilled meats, and slices of the pieces you choose. He will keep on coming around, to pile more meat on your plate, until you ask him to stop. We pay $5.50 for two)
Then we went home.
The train runs from Cabedelo to Sta. Rita, along the ancient sugarcane-hauling route; João Pessoa and Jacaré are just two stations apart. One ride on the train, from anywhere to anywhere, costs 50 centavos…that’s 17 US cents. Mass transport is heavily subsidized by the Brazilian government. The trains are old, but very clean, extremely safe (two armed military police walk the length of the train during every single trip it makes) punctual, and never crowded. With going into the city so easy and cheap, I would like to go on sketchwalks several times a week…I have found that nothing makes me happier, while here, than sitting for a few hours and drawing what I see.
I sure hope you like the colonial Portuguese style of colorful, baroque houses as much as I do…because here are some more, and I suspect there will be months and months more of these confections.
We took the train into João Pessoa the other day, and walked around the city’s Centro Historico. This is where the city was founded in 1585…not at all near the beaches on the coast, overlooking the Atlantic ocean, but a good way inland, along the sleepy banks of the Rio Paraiba, where ships could dock and load up on sugar and extremely valuable brasil wood coming from the interior (hence the proximity of the railway to the Historical Center).
Unlike Olinda, with its very narrow streets and its air of a museum and residential area, the “wedding cake” buildings of João Pessoa are actively used as business premises.
At seeming variance with the vivid colour combinations, the frilly plaster mouldings, and the wrought iron balconies, the businesses housed in this area are mostly hardware and construction supplies, industrial spare parts, automobile parts and garages.
And while there are pockets in the area where the houses have been restored and done up to please the tourists and to live up to the bright images in the brochures, most of the buildings are succumbing to a slow decay. On some streets, entire house blocks have not been touched since the houses were built, 500 years ago. These houses are stripped to bare brickwork. The roofs are gone. The doors have been boarded up (sometimes the entire house has been filled in, with rubble and concrete, to discourage squatters). Trees grow inside the houses, vines creep up the once-ornate baroque facades.
And much as I love the candy-coloured houses restored by money from benevolent societies in Switzerland and the UNESCO, I am more affected by the untouched buildings that stand as they have since they were built.
I think of what glorious, grand homes for the wealthy Portuguese traders they must have once been, and what an amazing little city João Pessoa must have been at the height of its commercial and political eminence, when it was the “CBD” of the state, and not just a patchily preserved wreck, propped up by historical societies.
You can be physically present in a new country, yet find yourself completely cut-off from anything real by several invisible barriers. Language is always the first hurdle…years of studying Spanish didn’t help me in Brazil, where too many words are dissimilar, and the few that are similar are often pronounced differently, mean something else, or are conjugated differently. It soon became clear that we were going to have to learn Portuguese.
After a week in Jacaré I was feeling very depressed: there was no one to talk to but Kris, and I was too nervous to venture into the town on my own. I was too vain to use the few words I’d learned at home in actual encounters with locals…self-conscious of the way I was sure to mutilate and mispronounce their musical, sibilant language…terrified that no one would understand a word I was saying.
Then something broke inside me…I was miserable inside this cage of my own fear, and I simply had to make contact with another human being. So I set off on my own for a day, to buy some clothes better suited to the tropics, and I armed myself with a dozen words for things I needed, and the life-saving sentence “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.”
I imposed one rule on myself: I was not allowed to ask the question “Do you speak English?” Even though it’s possible that some people do, there’s no reason why they should. I am the one who has presumed to visit their country, after all, and it is for me to speak their language (or make a fool of myself, trying).
I had a fantastic time. People were so patient with me, and corrected my pronunciation, or taught me how to say things better. They encouraged me, and tried different ways of saying something when I didn’t, at first, get their meaning. I accepted that I would sound like an idiot, banished my fear of blurting things out, and gave myself up to learning from others, instead of trying to come across as someone who knew what she was doing. I tried on and bought clothes, found some wonderful art books, a couple of drawing pens and ink, a map of the city. I got a crash course on local music from a taxi driver. I felt a little more like a normal human being (then I went to Olinda the next weekend, got happily drunk, and couldn’t be made to shut up!)
The experience filled me with hope, and I have thrown myself into studying the language with renewed enthusiasm. Most days in Jacaré are uneventful…we don’t run around doing tours or ticking all the tourist must-see-spots off a guidebook list. We do the groceries, the laundry, check the internet, cook our meals on the boat, write a few letters, and then hunker down for 2 hours of language study every day.
I split my study time between studying grammar (regular verb conjugations), vocabulary (memorizing 10 words for everyday things like the names of vegetables), and pronunciation (one Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese audio lesson per day…mainly because Portuguese has many nasal and throaty sounds that are unfamiliar to me)
Okay, I think I’m in love. With an event and a place. The Carnaval in Olinda, Pernambuco, is the sort of event that would have been high on my bucket list, had I known it existed before I actually got there. It should be on everyone’s bucket list (and, if you can manage it, try to go before you’re 25!) The following are my impressions of the day, as they occurred to me:
After two hours along sleek highways—past sugarcane fields and smog-belching factories—the minibus dropped us off along a drab industrial stretch of road. It didn’t look promising, but thousands of high-spirited young people in elaborate costumes were swarming, on foot, down an avenue to the left, and so we let them sweep us along.
Another left turn, and we find ourselves standing in the 16th century. The first thing that strikes you about the historical enclave of Olinda—a UNESCO World Heritage town—is the architecture. The narrow and steeply climbing cobblestoned streets are flanked by medieval colonial buildings.
Deep-set arched doorways and fretwork windows are fronted by curly wrought iron balconies or lamps hanging from ornamental brackets. Every house is painted a vivid pastel hue, with moulded accents in a contrasting colour. It’s as though the entire town were made of gigantic petits fours.
The next thing that hits you is the crowd. It’s just phenomenal. Thousands of people, mostly students in their teens and early 20s, throng the tiny streets. In some places we are pressed up against each other so solidly that the only progress down the street is a kind of wriggling, like maggots.
It’s twelve noon, the sun is blazing straight down, and you could probably charge admission to the space under an umbrella. Some of the town’s residents stand on their balconies with garden hoses, and spray water over the melting, grateful crowd. But the vibe is so exhilarating that you soon get over the heat…
And that’s the next thing you’ll take in: the vibe. We were told that carnaval in Olinda is more “traditional” than elsewhere; other sources used words like “intimate”, “inclusive” and “folkloric”. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I totally get it, now.
Artists, students and bohemians populate this neighbourhood, making for a creative and intellectual ambience that is reflected in the street art, atmospheric cafés, wall murals, and the ubiquitous smell of maconha wafting out of open windows.
The narrow, UNESCO-protected streets preclude the use of heavy sound trucks, spotlights, or electronic orchestra (things we saw at the more urban Joao Pessoa carnaval). The different groups (troças and maracatus) weave their way through the crowded streets all afternoon, sparking spontaneous frenzied dancing that goes on for as long as their music can be heard. There is no official parade time or route, no competitions for costumes or floats or dance groups, there are no cordons to separate the blocos from the public, and there are no entrance fees (as in Rio or Sao Paulo)…it’s just one big, open street party.
Pernambuco is said to be the home of frevo, from the Portuguese word ferver, ‘to boil’ (from the Latin fervere, which gave English the word fervour, ‘intense and passionate feeling.’)
The music is redolent with African rhythms; the dance moves are typically acrobatic and fast-paced.
Not a lot of food variety…the street food stalls offer half-a-dozen deep-fried, pastry-enclosed things that look like samosas, a dozen kinds of barbecued meat-on-a-stick things, and something called a macaxeira, which I unfortunately didn’t try. But it’s not about food, which is just a necessary fuel for these partygoers. What Olinda lacks in things to eat, it certainly makes up for in things to drink. There must have been a thousand polystyrene cooler carts selling the same things: ice cold beer, bottled water, or mixed drinks in cans; there were also bigger stalls selling caipirinhas (cocktails made with cachaça, a local high-proof sugarcane rum) and whole bottles of imported spirits like Smirnoff or Johnny Walker. The cobbles were literally wet with alcohol! They make good beer in Brazil…after 5 Skols I was dancing down the streets, instead of walking, and I had lost my Portuguese language inhibitions…to the horror and confusion of the poor vendors I approached.
Bigger inhibitions than a foreign language were being abandoned throughout the day. Groups of laughing young men would approach a pretty girl and start chanting “Beijo! Beijo!” (“Kiss! Kiss!”) One boy would offer her a drink of whetever he was carrying, and if she thought he looked okay, the girl would agree to the swap.
The crowd went wild each time a brazen couple wrapped their arms around each other and enjoyed a long, steamy kiss…a few real couples standing nearby would back them up with their own passionate displays.
It was awesome. And you never know who you might meet at Carnaval…you might find true love, when the perfect person walks out of the crowd…
Pretty young women. Handsome young men. Straight kids, just fooling around by wearing each others clothes, squeezed in with the loud, proud LGBT crowd…every blasphemy cheered, every absurdity paraded, everything “respectable” turned on its head, and a fierce celebration of the whole hullabaloo. A kind of Utopia.
When it had cooled down a bit and the beer buzz had subsided, I did some people-watching. Outrageous costumes, aliveness, youth, beauty…I tried to commit the day to memory.
By five o’clock p.m. the same river of young people drifted out of the historical centre onto the highway. For a good hour or two the buses heading out of town were jam-packed with commuters in fishnet stockings, superhero lycras, sequins, bikini tops, masks, headdresses, fairytale ballgowns, gossamer wings, leather, feathers, chains and bridal lace.
Like a six-year-old when the circus comes to town, I longed to run away and join them.
I really have no words for Carnaval…I’ve only been in Brazil for 6 days, and standing in that river of people as they danced and gyrated and sang and drank with wild abandon down the length of the city’s main street, from the plaza to the beach, was such a powerful, intense experience that I didn’t know whether I wanted to laugh or cry.
How can such a joyful night of frenzied revelry be so melancholy at the same time? Because it’s a brief week or two in the entire year? Because it is comes before Lent (the most morbid religious event celebrated by the death cult known as Catholicism)? Because we grow old, beauty fades, life ends?
Das cordas do meu violão
Que só teu amor procurou
Vem uma voz
Falar dos beijos perdidos
Nos lábios teus
Canta o meu coração
Tão feliz a manhã
—Manhã de Carnaval, Luiz Bonfá