It was the suddenness of the squall that took me by surprise. One moment the tall, unfamiliar tree’s and abundant fauna outside my office seemed perfectly still but wild with bird song and the occasional chattering of monkey’s, and then without warning the sky was black and those same trees were now lithe and athletic, dancing and gyrating violently in the wind. It lasted only minutes. I walked from the office to the hotel on roads that resembled small tributaries and on sidewalks that were now densely carpeted in red and purple blossom, covering the treacherous and ugly concrete path I was familiar with.
As usual, I had arrived in Brazil four days earlier to a pure sky, where large circling birds stared down at the favelas abutting the road, and the traffic moved for a mile or two before slowing and standing still allowing me to stare at the motorcycles weaving in and out at precarious speed, the same kind of spectator sport that draws people to Formula One events, one half in awe of the bravery the other in anticipation of being a witness to catastrophe. My driver pointed at the large black birds through the dirty windshield and said they are vultures searching for dead animals, and I was too tired to contradict him. Grateful that he left some space in the stilted conversation as we passed the grey concrete prisons to both our left and right, he saw me in the rear view mirror gazing at them and maybe to distract me from this ugliness he said that there is a joke in Brazil saying that you should be careful if you see those vultures above you when you go to the doctor, providing some insight into the grim, gallows humor of the Brazilian people.
I’ve been doing some version of this trip for twenty five years, normally twice a year. Recently it is more of a Ground Hog day feeling as I take the same Sunday night 10.05 United Flight out and the same Thursday night United flight home, I travel almost 10,000 miles in these weeks. The taxi service knows in advance when to pick me up exactly at 8.50 and 4.30 yet it’s still uncomfortable and disorienting. The flight itself is nerve-wracking because so much of the journey is across the Caribbean Ocean and then the vastness of the rainforest with absolutely no population below, no large cities that we could stop at should a mechanical failure or passenger emergency take place, just emptiness for four to five hours at a time. And I do think of these things during the long flight. On one recent occasion a nervous flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board as a passenger was in a diabetic coma. Looking at the flight map in front of me I didn’t see the likelihood of a good hospital within 1,000 miles and selfishly hoped they wouldn’t turn the plane around.
Maybe it was the time of year, or maybe my state of mind during early visits in the 1990’s, but Brazil seemed to me a black and white world, impoverished and joyless, counter to every outsider’s perception. If you were to ask most people how they imagined Brazil it would be sun, sea, soccer, beautiful people, but Mary would have to cajole me into a yellow cab outside of our apartment as I was ready to phone in sick or threaten to quit to avoid the trip. Sao Paulo was not quite the international city that it is today that has multiple, world class choices to eat and drink. There was just the remarkably inexpensive choice of beer and pizza or the infamous rodizzio’s which were both a theatrical and an edible challenge. Here there would be a group of waiters bringing out a sword of meats to your table in rapid succession while you still had a tile showing green and which you would turn it to red once you are incapable of eating more.
In those days our office was unremarkable, a former 1930’s house that had been converted into a run down but workable solution for housing about 30 or 40 staff. The company was managed unpredictably by a timid English expatriate who spoke good Portuguese and had married a Brazilian woman. He was a small person, balding and seemingly dressed in the same clothes each day, I remember different colored laces in his worn shoes and he walked a flimsy line between a homeless person and a junior account clerk. He moved slowly with a stoop and seemed to be searching the ground in front of him. His cheapness was legendary and laughed at behind his back in the corporate office yet he was aware of it and thrived on this reputation, showing me his illegal tires on his old car with amusement, a plastic wallet that rarely saw the light of day and his lunches that he begrudgingly took us too in a local store. In one of these I once helped myself to a scope of beans and rice only to find out that the beans were chicken hearts.
I confess I had a fascination towards him, there was something particularly English about this timid external façade and underlying person who at least superficially seemed to be conventional and unexceptional but might have contained something more. Did I recognize cultural phenomenon when I looked at him across the table over a dinner of overcooked steak under bright electrical light? It may seem strange, but I recalled a children’s cartoon program that I was a little too old to be watching during 1971 and 1972 but which I loved anyway called Mr. Ben, which I felt at the time said a lot about our national identity over its brief fourteen episodes. Mr. Ben was a conventional guy who had a steady office job and lived alone in a suburban house. But he had a secret, when he went inside a local fancy dress store he would be transformed into a different world based on the outfit he chose, Indian tribes at war, an astronaut, a gladiator, a big game hunter: Thrown into other worldly situations, in danger, but one requiring a pragmatic solution by an outsider, at which Mr. Ben clad in some improbable outfit would oblige. He would return with a modest souvenir and go about his regular life. The show was devised by a writer and cartoonist called David McKee who came from the South Coast of England and I now learnt via the Internet that he has a home in the South of France with his French-Algerian partner, an art dealer called Bakhta and its impossible not to comment on how apt, how consistent and satisfying, this is for me. I suppose this identification with this particular character at such a young age is revealing, at a time when male identity was beginning to be important, critical, and where boorishness seemed to be everywhere.
I’m still not sure this is the message the young should be absorbing, to be modest and live in subterfuge. Yet it was also the theme of Alec Guinness’ 1953 comedy film with Yvonne de Carlo and Celia Johnson called the Captains Paradise. It was the story of a ship’s Captain who sailed between Morocco and Gibraltar. In Gibraltar he was married to a serene and dotting English woman who made him dinner and existed at home for him, but of the Africa side he had a wild wife who took him dancing and to exotic restaurants. They lived without knowledge of the other and it says something about this almost schizophrenic pattern of wanting both excitement and domesticity. And it was Alex Guinness who played George Smiley in the adaptation of the John LeCarre novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy as the most romantic of English hero’s. Burdened by all too human failings, an inability to handle his poor marriage, fading eyesight and an aging body he was everyman. But behind the ordinary facade he was the extraordinary spy who had worked undercover during the Second World War, handled the cold war years and unraveled the Soviet spy network.
There was something of this in the English Brazilian Country Manager or was I projecting it on him? I imagined wildness in his life outside the office, a passionate wife if that is not an obvious, even racist, cliché? Maybe a jungle adventure or two, if that is not too optimistic? I cannot remember exactly why I had this impression but it might have been the story about a motorcycle gang, who also acted as couriers, who decided to occupy the main courtyard of the office without any consent. He let them do this until one day the head office told him to move them on which explains several bullet holes in the façade and through a window, which he was too cheap or perhaps too evidentiary to repair. On a subsequent visit I put my finger through one of the bullet holes and imagined this small English suburban guy, in this most tropical city, standing up against a large group of seriously frightening guys on motorcycles telling them to leave and probably feeling a long way from home.
Then he was mysteriously gone, replaced by a local guy who was rather surly and who I attempted to avoid as much as possible. It wasn’t until an unlikely event at a conference in some forgettable part of the world that we bonded. This was due to the organizer telling all the delegates to put two of your interests on your name badge which sadly had to be worn prominently. I had “art” and “motorcycles” on mine, for once truthful in the workplace, which I anticipated would prevent anyone talking to me but astonishingly he had the same, and we spent the rest of the conference inseparably talking at one moment about Betrize Milhazes and at the other about the new Ducati Scramblers.
The only real sense of being in this country are the walks in the morning and in the late evening, both typified by belligerent traffic and sidewalks better suited to fell walkers. In the evening it is cool and apricot light falls from the street lights onto the broad leaves of tropical trees casting long shadows onto the ground and in the morning the sunlight catches the upper fronds of palm trees and I walk amongst the remaining small, once pretty houses, which are now all but prisons thanks to the high walls and bars at the front. But these short meanderings are nothing I hear you say, you cannot know anything about the country from this, and my response is yes and no. In some ways I am walking in the shoes of the locals. I see what they see week by week, the trip to an office, a day in the air conditioned space and the rules and standards imposed by bureaucrats in Germany. The hike to the Mall when a swift meal is taken and a night watching TV, innumerable soccer matches, local news. Sometimes this view, which is rarely seen by a tourist, tells me something, it’s insightful to have this micro rather than macro view of a place and I imagine what it is like to live here, and I also note that the people I see on the streets in Brazil are disappointingly not so different from ourselves.