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Five-hundred-year Fiesta



I don’t know where you are reading this, perhaps hanging round an embassy or consulate trying to get a visa, perhaps on a dreary Monday morning in a down town cab in NYC, or perhaps on a beach in the NE of Brazil, or even at work (as I am writing now) but what ever the location or demographic you and I probably share something in common. I guess that as you are reading my thoughts you and I both have an affinity for this crazy place we call Brazil. I feel comfortable with people like yourself, the fleeting encounters in crowded airport lounges, the smile, the flash of visas and the smattering of Portuguese we have picked up, the way we compare Rio and Bahia with London and Paris and they way we gravitate towards our own, whether we be in London, Lisbon or Amsterdam. People like us I understand, we are the romantics, the realists, the masochistic, but above all we love, and claim to understand Brazil.

It is the other people who worry me.

They say every journal starts with a single step and mine began one wet Saturday night at the magnificent Fortaleza airport. Its late, almost midnight and lightening is flashing across the sky, we are tired, sunburnt and the atmosphere is pregnant with unfinished business and portent. You would guess from the people around me, people I have come to love in such a short time, that I am leaving for good instead of a three-week recruitment drive around Europe. Such is the nature of the people here that I am sucked in to the culture, the place, the time and only when I have finally assimilated the wonder of Fortaleza and Brazilian hospitability will I be burped out again, and sent off on another rampant crusade across the city, or in this case the globe. For now, it’s a sad parting and even the immigration officer, who stamps my passport with flair reminds me to come back soon – as if I could forget. And then I am in Lisbon, jostling and fighting to get my next flight, I am hearing what seems to me like a bastardised form of my beautiful Portuguese and getting curious looks from people as I flirt with the pretty stewardess to get today’s London paper, and I am chatting to the man next to me passionately about Brazil, about the food and the people and he wants to talk about the political situation in London. I explain I have been away for two years, and no longer care or even need to care and he returns to his paper – disgusted. And I wonder, what is this country doing to me, why do I love it so much. And then I am escorting some Brazilians, new found friends from the flight, through immigration in London, fighting with the officials for our baggage, apologising for the delays, the rudeness, the chaos. I am fretting, London, I am your son, don’t you remember me ?. And then I am hurtling down the M25 and I am animated, calling my dad rapaz at every opportunity and punctuating every sentences with Brazilian gestures, complaining about the grey, the cold, the steering wheel being on the wrong side, and my mother is sitting in the back thinking who is this guy who once was my son, and I know, I know they will never understand my passion until they see Brasil…and I am giving out presents, talking ten to the dozen, and watching their eyes glaze over. And then I am in Copenhagen, running to get a plane, and sitting down and launching into a monologue to the poor guy sitting next to me, telling him to invest, to visit, hell -just give me the money, do anything, get to Brazil, get to the north east – quickly. And then I am in Poland and its cold and I am digging clothes out my ruck sac and complaining and missing cold beer, lobster and rapadura. I am bouncing towards Warsaw and still talking ten to the dozen about Brazil, the chances to invest, the work we do, how my students are the best and how Brazil is not a country but an adventure. And then I am lecturing and expecting a tough Q+A session: Does Brazil have roads? Does Brazil have houses? Do you really go to work in a boat? And I want to scream and to strike out, but I cant because this is my job and…I can think of no other reason.

These people are professors I console myself over a bottle of vodka – they know no better. And then the world is polarised – those of us who have tasted forbidden fruit and the rest of the world. And everything is clearer… And I am in another city experiencing the flip side of the coin. We don’t care what you do, where you do it is more important- when can we come and visit, and I am off again, giving impromptu lectures on the hideous cathedral, the food, the beaches and people are salivating to get there. For the first time in midlife I have become a hot property. ‘The guy’s work is a joke, but man look at the beaches’. And I am Amsterdam, sitting snug in a café with the love of my life, making jokes about Brazil and our friends there, complaining about indifferent services and the lack of physical contact in Amsterdam – damn, if someone doesn’t touch me soon I am going to die. And then I am suited and booted addressing a company president about the chance to invest in the NE and he is reeling off a stream of facts about Sao Paulo and I am screaming that it’s a different world and 4000 km away, and how we have it all in the NE and he asks me, ‘do you have roads in the NE which are paved’ and we are in a fancy restaurant and their eyes are lit up – take take take.

They don’t know, they don’t understand. They have never even been to Brazil. And I am up addressing a meeting in the UK again presenting a portrait of the NE, trying to convince a bunch of musty professors to come and expand my students minds, to invest in my dream and they are sceptical, they don’t know Brazil, the don’t love it, the don’t understand the unseen magnetism which eventually drags us all home, back to this land. And I want to scream and shout – about the cold, the grey the lack of compassion, but I grit my teeth and field the questions like an old pro. Is everyone black in Brasil… Do you have supermarkets… Can you buy cheese in Brazil..

And then disaster stikes…. I am in Poland and realise that next week is the 500th anniversary of Brazil. I am rushing all over Warsaw trying to change a ticket and no one knows how to do it, or why. And I am at Heathrow with a streaming cold, drinking brandy with an ancient oil-rigger who is on his way down to Mexico. He offers me a 1000 dollars for my ticket and then I am in the air, sandwiched between two nuns who look on in mild disappointment as I order scotch after scotch after scotch for my cold. And it suddenly hits me, I am going home.

The energy levels drop and my movements become more fluid. And then I am at Fortaleza, my friends are there to meet me, my cold miraculously clears, and we are in a restaurant and was it all a dream, I don’t know, I don’t care. I am home.

The next day I am edging my way through the town centre. I have my new 500years of Brazil shit on, as does my companion – who dragged me around the town all afternoon looking for one and we are cruising the bars, from beer to beer to beer waiting for the show to start. And then it does, late, but fashionably so, and with a slight drum roll the Portuguese MC steps up and welcomes us to 500 hundred years of Brazil, we cheer and clap, resplendent in our new shirts which clearly mark us out as fashion victims, if not tourists and the click click click of my friends camera becomes almost hypnotic. A bunch of embarrassed looking Indians take to the stage to in act a dance which we suspect was as old as my socks and a student protest breaks out. Paint is thrown and some anti Portuguese slogans are shouted, but of course we all know who discovered Brazil anyway. The dancers are trying not to set themselves a light on the roman candles and incredible enough my friend has them posing on stage for him – holding up the show for art. And there are some Portuguese singers and dancers, even more embarrassed, and my friend is swapping emails with the Indians and before we know it we are walking into the arena in the town centre, buying beers and waiting for something to happen. And all hell breaks loose, there are dancers and singers and crowning of the carnaval king and queen and costumes you wouldn’t believe – click click click – my friend’s camera whirls, it’s a riot of colour and sounds, and his eyes are rolling manically.

Between clicks my friend has that glazed look and I know what he is thinking: ‘This is some place and some country.’ And then they are playing the National anthem and we are all on our feet, hands on our hearts, my friends have tears in their eyes and I feel, proud, privileged, honoured to be here on this day, this special time for Brazil. I shouldn’t feel this way, I am only a adopted son, I have only been here for a fraction of the history of Brazil, but I like to think that I will be here for a lot more. And then we are off, on another adventure through the streets, in search of the improbable, the bizarre or another cold beer.

About the Author The author has been in Brazil for nearly 6 months now and is often to be found scribbling his thoughts for this magazine. His incessant desire to sleep in a different bed each night has taken him through Africa, Asia and Europe. He now lives relatively calmly in Fortaleza, with a nice view of the sea and a colourful window box. He still finds a border a temptation and sneeks out the office as often as possible. When not travelling he spends his spare time writing to the numerous readers of Brazzil who email him at philip@ufc.br. All the photos for this article were taken by Nick Kay who was in Fortaleza for the 500th birthday celebrations. The author is indebted for the use of the pictures and will be collaborating on further projects with Nick in the future.

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