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Fleeced by a moneychanger in upcountry Brazil

The thought that Pedrinho and Ubaldo are living there fills me with nervous excitement. From Pedrinho’s list of suggestions, I choose Maceio as an interim stop. It’s famous for its street entertainments, and has an airport. On arrival I find the hotel Pedrinho booked for me. The Deodoro is modern in materials and belle epoch in design, value for money chic. There is a parrot at the desk and flowers in the balconies. brazilian musiciansThe room isn’t ready. But as the hotel opens on a beach with sand so fine it could be air, I ask for a deckchair, and there, by a more relaxed sea, I daydream of digging deeper into , ‘the real Brazil’ of my imaginings, when two musicians approach me. They strike a chord on their banjos, and improvise a song. ‘The Doctor with the Pipe without his Lady Wife.’ I give them a dollar from my sock. They sing it again, but refuse a second note.

Emboldened by being part of the Literature of the Cordel, I take a taxi to the Lampion Museum. Virgulino da Silva was the bandit king who terrorized the land-owning Colonels of the NorthEast in the nineteen-thirties. When his band was finally wiped out by government troops his head was brought to Maceio in a petrol tank filled with salt solution, and put on display. The museum is now a ruin. All the memorabilia had been transferred to Salvador. Except the skull which thirty years after his death was given a church burial in his home village in the sertão. The taxi-driver took off his hat as he told me this.

Brazilian Tequila book coverSupper in the Porta Verde is the national dish feijoada, The rice and beans is fortified by a sinewy meat which the waiter, Fausto, informs me is cavalo. I tell him that the horse is a sacred animal in Ireland, and he says nothing is sacred in Brazil except a good dinner. And playfully offers me an emetic, which I refuse saying the alimentary blasphemy went down well. Instead, he makes me my first caipirinha. I sip the firewater in iced lemonade, and watch real hummingbirds flit in the courtyard eaves, and doze off, happy in the thought that not only am I now a cordel, but I’ve had a light conversation with a Brazilian. Fausto wakes me with a message on a silver plate . ‘A friend of Senhor Doutor Diaz looks forward to meeting you in the lobby for breakfast.’ Signed Herman Berlinger.

Herman resembles Charles Bukowski, the AmericanGerman lowlife poet: a prose version. In broken English he introduces himself as Pedrinho’s pal and offers assistance. This means help in changing dollars at the black-market rate. A trip to an out of town ‘barrio’ will be necessary. His battered Ford is parked outside. Not sure whether Herman is an international conman, or just a bored old man in sandals passing the time till the first drink, I demur.

I ask him how he knows Pedrinho. ‘I’ve had business dealings with the Doutor, and his brother-in-law Modesto, and he asked me to look out for you.’ He snaps his fingers and a burly black man appears. ‘This is my friend Joel. He has a cab. I can personally vouch for his guided tours to the historical village of Marechal Deodoro and the idyllic beaches of Praia Frances.’

Joel’s broad smile intimates golden sands with palms, reefs and a blue lagoon. I agree to go next morning (on a journey it is bad luck to refuse help twice).

In Joel’s taxi next day Herman offers me a second reason for choosing Marechal Deodoro. ‘Pedrinho said you’d want to see the Marshal’s birth-place, as the first President of the 1889 Republic, who led the Government army against the royalist rebellion in the sertão,’ and Herman disappears off to my relief. A tourist tout makes me feel like one.

The journey ends where the great Sao Francisco river meets the sea. Yes, it’s Joel’s smile. He sits in a barraca surrounded by friends and relatives, drinking cachaca. I join them. A teenage nephew from Sao Paulo talks about Paris, paradise, his ideal. One day he will go there like Giberto Gil, and meet Juliette Greco. Joel listens attentively to the Paulista’s educated talk. But on the way back to Maceio, he enunciates ‘Paris,’ twice, as though trying it out for sound, and launches into a rendering of ‘Marie, Marie,/ Paris, Paris/ Marie mon pari.’ When I ask where he learned the song, Joel merely mutters, ‘People are so stupid that I think it must be me. That boy hasn’t even seen Aracaju or Praia das Artistas.’

* * *

Joel drives me to the bus-station for Aracaju. We shake hands and an anchor tattoo on his wrist answers my question. He has sailed the seven seas. The journey breaks the tourist treadmill.

Fellow passengers, discreetly interested, ask questions around who I am and why. But they don’t linger for mutual boredom to set in. I appreciate their grace. It’s a hazard of journeys, particularly when there’s a language difference. My incipient Portuguese can only carry me so far. Before it’s reduced to grunts and grins, they turn away and I can get on with reading my book about Marechal Deodoro’s batttalion’s massacre of religious rebels in Canudas. The passengers were no doubt the off-springs of survivors. Wary as people on the London Underground, communication is a matter of politeness, and it keeps them and you going.

Aracaju is less the Paris of the Northeast than the Le Havre.
Oil rigs and tower blocks on the riverfront. The Artist’s Beach is a refuse tip. Cafe society is mainly farmers from out of town. The bar is cramped between a fisherman’s chapel and defunct public gardens, the gates barred up. However, the local intellectual in French beret stops at my table.  ‘This,’ he proclaims, ‘is the only town in Brazil where the inhabitants of favelas have civic right. Shortly there will be an election, and they will be allowed to sell their vote.’

Brazilian Tequila book cover‘At least, you’re having free elections,’ I say. ‘You Europeans, wouldn’t be at home with our democracy. Here it is obligatory, enforced by law. You’re fined if you don’t fulfill your democratic duty…’ He raises the beret to me. His bald head is tattooed, ‘Vote for Me.’

In the street a crowd gathers. I know what’s coming from the movies. Guitars, tabors and triangles strike up a quadrille for two troops dressed respectively as bandits and soldiers. They are conducted by The Captain, the leading singer. Around him dervish The Mocking Woman and The Negro Trickster. It’s the masque that Glauber Rocha used in the Idade da Terra. Everyone knows the story. Cheers and hisses greet the twists and turns of the plot. The dance alternates sedate recitative with frenetic arias. People from the crowd leap into the ring and are assimilated. Wild excursions that tell a tale of injustice, insurrection, defeat and redemption, nimbly ritualised.

In a quayside bar a fair-haired young man, who could be a Public Schoolboy, colludes with me in changing dollars on the black. The generous rate lures me up a side alley. I’m handed a large wad in exchange for dollars. But, later, flipping through the notes, gold turns to dust. The top cruzados conceal cruzeiros, a defunct currency. I’ve nobody to share the shame of being duped by my own greed. I put my hat on to hide my sins, thinking, I could do with the evil-looking carranca to save me from myself.

* * *

Squeeze a lime on the rim of a glass into cachaca, and you have a caipirinha. Drink slowly through your teeth. The crushed ice burns your palate. Refreshed, you need another. I’m waiting for the bus to Salvador in the rodoviaria. Edalinda, a doleful waitress in the station cafe, accepts a dollar to phone Dr Diaz to tell him that I’ve curtailed my coastal trip. I don’t say why. The mirage of cruzados was certainly not the oasis I had in mind.


Extracted from Augustus Young’s very excellent new book Brazilian Tequila, available direct from the publisher or, of course, from Amazon.

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