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Recife – dark and light

Carlinhos is small for his age, which is eight or nine. I meet him one sticky afternoon in the Parque Treze De Maio, where he is selling chewing gum. No thanks, I tell him, but I give him a little money. He tells me he used to go to school, but not anymore. Not when there is money to be made, money which is needed for food. He is wearing a Santa Cruz football shirt, and I ask him if he is tricolor.

“From the heart”, he grins, and runs off.

The next time I see Carlinhos I am on a bus on the way to the stadium. From the back of the bus comes thunderous singing and everyone is pounding their fists on the seat in front or the windows or the roof. Carlinhos is on the outside of the bus, the fingers of both hands clinging tightly to the window frame. When he sees me he grins and frees one hand to give me a precarious thumbs up.

“The little bugger’s going to fall off”, a woman says. But Carlinhos doesn’t fall off. He hangs on, grinning.

When I get off the bus he is waiting. He asks for money for a ticket for the game. I give him one real.

I ask him about the bus surfing. Isn’t it dangerous?

“Nah”, he says, grinning, “it’s a buzz”.

And he runs off to find his friends.

Carlos is very recifense, I decide.

Recife is a city for walking. The downtown neighbourhoods, Boa Vista, Santo Antonio, Sao Jose, are the best places. The city’s bridges criss-cross two rivers, the Beberibe and the Capibaribe, though as they wind and twist their way towards the sea, and the bridges cross and re-cross the rivers, it feels like more. It is a city of surprises and the intrepid are always rewarded. Along any garish modern shopping strip you might turn a corner and find yourself in front of a seventeenth century church or convent, the gold-leaf ornamentation inside a tribute to the wealth of the city’s sugar cane past.

Such wealth is long gone now, and much of today´s downtown Recife is a faded, crumbling relic. But not only that – it is a city that pulses with human life. There are people everywhere, whether buying fruit and vegetables, fresh mamaõ and macaxeira brought in that morning from the parched countryside, or talking, for recifenses love to talk as much as they love to do anything, or eating, which is the one thing recifenses love to do more than talk. The street food is the best, caldo de camarão, prawn soup with a couple of succulent quails eggs dropped into the mix, or dobradinho (a stew of various mysterious types of meat and bean), or mão de vaca (cow’s hoof). All of these sound bloody and earthy, and all of them are, and all of them are delicious.

Recife is a city for drinking. On every corner there will be a few plastic chairs and tables flung out on the street, and from somewhere, a hole in the wall or a kiosk or simply a bicycle with an ice-box, someone will be running a bar. There will be music too, the garish racket of modern day forro, or a more plaintiff and more beautiful samba.

Most people who visit Recife go to Boa Viagem, where the beaches and the big apartment buildings and hotels are. But Boa Viagem isn’t really Recife. Boa Viagem could be almost anywhere in Brazil, or even Florida.

Real Recife is downtown, where beauty and ugliness lean tiredly against each other, where light changes and shifts over the city as the wind moves clouds in from the sea and the sun rises and dips in the sky over the squares and the rivers. Darkness comes as a relief from the heat and when it comes the restaurants and the bars light up and the peanut and grilled cheese sellers come out into the streets.

Patio Santa Cruz is a good place to sit and watch people on their way home from work or simply going for a walk because it is too hot to sit at home in a small airless house. To get there you walk across Praça Maciel Pinheiro, a small leafy square with a golden fountain splashing in the middle. Homeless children sleep under the fountain, beside the statue of Clarice Lispector, who once lived here. The statue has the writer sitting in an armchair, reading – behind her is a stone standard lamp so the stone Clarice can see. Neither the statue or the armchair are ever vandalized, as far as I can see.

One night I sit at a bar in the Patio Santa Cruz and have a beer and watch the people coming and going from the Coelhos favela down by the river, until I notice a man watching me. Although he is a couple of tables away, I see he is muttering something. I brace myself, ready to run should trouble arise. Then he begins to sing, a soft, mellifluous baritone. His voice carries across the square and the prostitutes leaning against the police hut turn and look.

“I came back to Recife”, he sings, “Saudades took my hand and brought me back”. Saudades is the uniquely Brazilian word for the grief felt by the absence of a person or a place. The song is the city’s anthem. He closes his eyes. Sweat condenses on his brow.

When he has finished the other drinkers stand and clap and he shuffles away into the night, to what – a lover, a family, a lonely bedsit, I do not know. For those who stay, the drinking and eating and talking will continue long into another night thick with heat and the breath of the sea and of history and of the city.

More by James Armour Young on his blog.

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