No zouking way

It was the phrase, “You know how to lambada, right?”, that should have rung the first alarm bells. Tonight I had a language exchange coffee with a very sweet if somewhat snaggle-toothed Brazilian guy – an hour spent talking in Portuguese, in which we covered such key issues as what I had done yesterday and, um, how to pronounce words in Portuguese, and an hour in English, in which, shall we say, the conversation was more wide-ranging in subject matter.

Depois de nossa aula de portugues, uma aula de Zouk. For the uninitiated – of which I am a proud if recent non-member – zouk is a lambada-based modern dance, in which music from all over the world is blended with the base 1-2-3 of lambada to create a deeply sexy, hair twirling frenzy of impressiveness. I’m still unsure how verb conjugating segued into this, but still, Sunday night at the Buena Vista club is zouk night, I now know.

Suffice to say zouk doesn’t flow naturally in my British veins. Which is doubly hard because on that side of the pond I’m an OK dancer. What I lack in ability I make up for in energy and a remarkable recall for crappy 80s songs, enabling me to look like I’m reacting well to the beat when in fact I’m simply responding to deeply entrenched cues from my otherwise-useless memory. That trick is proving less useful over ‘ere.

So I’ve been bumped from centre-of-the-floor showoff to footshuffler by the wall, and man is it a bumpy ride down. Still, I loved the Buena Vista: the dancing is so good it is half-club, half-show, and the atmosphere was brilliantly vibrant, with everyone loving the beat and there just to dance. (And maybe flirt a little.)

And all sober. Wow, that’s a difference to clubbing in England – the wonderfully patient Joao couldn’t see any logic behind my initial refusals at 9.30 to go dancing because ‘I had work in the morning’ – and indeed, I’m home sober at 11.30 and as fit for work as I otherwise would have been. Sure, many people had a beer or two, but far from everyone, and absolutely no-one seemed drunk. Joao was driving, and saw nothing strange in that.

Also, while Brazil is rightly famed for its obsession with beauty – drogerias are everywhere and packed to the ceiling with face creams and hair products and lotions and potions – that comes second to dancing. So some real specimens of unloveliness – cross-eyed, bulging belly, and such an unfortunate penchant for bandannas that he was wearing three, was my fave – could easily dance with some beauties of girls if they could produce the moves. And while it is sexy it is not sexual, something every fibre of my British being really struggles to compute.  At the end, the guy kisses the girl’s hands, they both smile and say thanks, and that’s that.

However, I’m not sure I like the model that the girls who want to dance but are partner-less hang around the edge of the floor waiting to be asked. I mean, I see that the zoukers have to go in two by two, but the firm gender roles not only mean I had to bring out the no-need-to-elaborate excuse ‘obrigada, nao, sou ingles’ on a number of occasions, but also just feel wrong. That’s Latin America, I guess.

So now as well as Portuguese, I should learn samba, capoeira, and zouk.  I desperately want to be able to do this stuff – standing helplessly at the side of the floor is just not my thing, even with a gentlemanly local guide – and so my only option is lessons, and perhaps a lot of praying. If only there was some way I could download all of the Bangles lyrics and fill that freed-up mental space with the magical knowledge of how to follow gracefully (yes, I know), “feel the music in my hips”, and not duck out in overwhelming embarrassment after 15 seconds. I hope they have good teachers.



The first settlers of São Paulo may have been Jesuit missionaries, but the city was made by bandeirantes, Portuguese slave-hunters, responsible for both pushing Brazil’s boundaries junglewards, and thus making the country as it is today, and for recapturing millions of those escaped from the worst conditions imaginable, and sending them right back. These are the country’s original entrepreneurs, having found the gold mines which put Brazil on the map, but also having enf0rced the social strata which has created one of the most unequal societies on earth.

History inevitably judges them, but I have a new-found respect for them: quite apart from the familiar different-time-different-standard argument, the plant which is grown along the pavements here is one of the least hospitable I have ever seen, thick as anything, with five or so leaves at the top of such a tough, spiky stem that it seems frivolously defensive. Without wanting to, you know, endorse slavery, if this stuff is as indigenous as its prevalence in the 21st century city implies, hacking your way through it for a living cannot have been fun.

And settling this country, backed by a selfish, competitive but poor colonial power, must have seemed overwhelming.  The Portuguese policy – very different from the Spanish – was to shag everything and one here: while in Hispanic Latin America, a Spanish gentryman may have had his mestizo wife and kids, but very much in background, for the Lusophones interracial marriage was a survival policy – a version of divide and conquer. Settling this wild and enormous land was impossible otherwise.

It has created a beautiful, and beautifully mixed, race. Brazilians are every colour under the sun – entirely giving lie to the idea that after a few generations of interracial sex we’ll all end up like cappuccino dregs. Here, they’re every shade of black, brown, yellow, beige and white you can imagine.

Brilliantly, someone mistook me for Brazilian today, refusing to believe I was English not local (admittedly, I hadn’t opened my mouth and was utterly oblivious at this point – only when called over by my friend to speak did they believe, and rapidly, that I was UK born and bred). This means nothing of course other than the fact I’m somewhere between lily white and darkest black, but it gives me a kernel of pride. I’m so loving exploring this place that being seen as from here, for now, gives quite the frisson.

But I don’t feel settled. I don’t feel uncomfortable – in fact, I have a kind of energy that can only be born of a secure base – but am I settling in? Hell no. That means I struggle with the well-meaning questions of friends at home: no, I’m not settling in, but that was kind of the point, no?

Maybe this is an unsettlable place, and the questing spirit of the bandeirantes remains. Someone asked me today if I would have kids here, and I can’t imagine I would – if London seemed a non-kid-friendly city, then this place fills me with admiration for the many many young mums I see struggling in traffic and up hills and to the park. It can of course be unsettling – sometimes I find myself in situations, as the light fades or my determined foot-exploration takes an unforeseeable wrong turn, which make me clutch my bag to my side and scan for taxi lights. But I’m at the stage where leaving home at 8.30am equipped with nothing but a map and a dictionary to learn and explore, and coming home 14 hours later, seems a light day. To quote everyone’s favourite cheerleading movie, bring it on.

City planning

My new (read: only) friend in São Paulo works for the US State department Latin American desk in military security. He’s here learning Portuguese because they kinda figured someone in his department should, Brazil being, you know, quite big, and they had some cash left in the budget so they thought, what the hell. Governments….plus ça change.

He’s a brilliant exploring buddy, though. Not least because he shares my determination to walk this unwalkable city – we were equally delighted by the tumbledown colonial buildings scattered amid the shiny highrises, the locals picking and sharing fruit with us, and the bar in a garage (why not?). We together admired the patchwork pavement, created by a simultaneously brilliant and bonkers municipal rule that the owners of each building are responsible for maintaining the pavement in front of it – the most inspired of which was hundreds of keys embedded in concrete for no reason: really beautiful, if inexplicable. But of course, those that can’t be bothered, don’t, meaning those looking up at the highrises can suddenly find themselves in a hole. In flip flops.

He also led the charge into the most backstreet of fringe theatres, determined to bring our communal Portuguese to bear in finding out from the beheadscarved and diminutive old lady at the front desk what was on, and when – a poetry reading Friday night at midnight (perhaps not), but more promisingly a film by a new Brazilian director on Saturday afternoon, which we’ve promised the friendliest crone I’ve ever met that we’ll attend. Equally promisingly, as we found ourselves in a less than beautiful area of the city as night fell and I began to feel a little uncomfortable, I remembered I was with a large and burly guy who tells stories which start, “When I was part of the forward troops invading Iraq…” and worried less.

But the scale of this place utterly overwhelms me. We walked in a more or less straight line for hours, crested a hill, and ahead of us more and more and more tower blocks. This city has no end, it seems. No-one knows it, I swear – this huge, amorphous, seething megalopolis has to be essentially unknowable, which makes the populace’s often-voiced frustration with the city government both deeply hypocritical and utterly understandable. How do you plan for anything this informal and…slippery? But if the government can’t, who can?

The change I would make, in magic-wand world, would be to preserve those colonial buildings – they’re beautiful, and mostly rotting, albeit entirely impractical in this city whose only choice to house its ever-growing and largely ungrateful populace is upwards. Back-seat governing: the last resort of the under-important, perhaps. And it isn’t as if I can speak Portuguese either.

The weather

At least there’s one thing I can fall back on – my weather vocab seems to be holding up better than more useful forms of communication, and there’s something about my pronunciation of basic Portuguese which makes most Brazilians respond with “voce e ingles, nao?”. Then I’m allowed to talk about the weather – I don’t want to challenge international stereotypes, after all.

And it has been a glorious first weekend, meteorologically speaking: blazing sunshine, 30ish degrees, but cooling in the evening so it is still comfortable to sleep. Or would be, if my new mattress didn’t have wood in it. Honestly, its a wooden frame with thin padding, covered to look like a normal mattress. That’s just cheating.

In other ways, my flat seems to be determined to balance out the weather. My Brazilian flatmates keep complaining about how dry it is at this time of year, but inside, the walls are seeping enough moisture to ensure I have little need to cover myself in the body lotion the girls keep telling me is necessary during these inter-seasonal months. Its a blessing, really.

Still, my return to student living means offering my roomies a beer bought in the supermarket has me marked out as one of the most generous people alive, which isn’t a bad start. If only I hadn’t bought the beers at the end of a four-hour-long exploration of the city, necessitating a fairly pricey cab ride back, I’d be reais-in right now.

Of course, the taxi journey was further complicated by me (duration of time here: 36 hours) arguing with the cab driver (duration of time here: 24 years, and he had satnav) in broken Portuguese because I knew where we were going and he, I decided, didn’t. I was of course wrong, but it was relieving to see that nothing really changes.

In more ways than one. I may have got more obstreperous in my old age, but when I happened across an awe-inspiring view across this amazing city, some impromptu samba in the park, and a Sunday market selling inordinate amounts of crap (which is of course my idea of heaven) with a few minutes of each other as I wandered around today, the thrill of it took me right back to my travelling days of yore. I would have loved it, even without the sunshine.

On familiarity

Brazilians make friends everywhere. While waiting for our bags at Rio airport – a process so interminably long I can only imagine the crates of cigarettes the baggage handlers must have got through in the meantime – my fellow passengers chatted and joked with each other, with guys comparing just how many suitcases their girlfriends seemed to need, one older woman playing happily with someone else’s child (until he quite vociferously threw up on her, when she decided to pay more attention to the baggage carousel) and young women comparing just how tired and ugly they felt after the flight. Years of solid English training – particularly on the tube in London – has taught me to studiously avoid eye contact with strangers, and if approached, be polite but, whatever you do, don’t engage. I think I have some re-learning to do.

This is very strange. I’ve probably spent more time than most in various Latin American airports, so I’m not particularly fazed by the fact that in London they told me my bags would be checked to Sao Paulo, and here in Rio I’m informed by an officious and impressively moustachioed man than in fact I need to collect and re-check them for my transfer. The unidentifiable vileness of my breakfast sandwich – which my ailing Portuguese tells me is ‘cheesy chicken’ but my taste buds tell me bears more resemblance to some kind of coleslaw-based paste with added chicken-related products – is at least familiar in its grossness, for I’ve been this hungry and choiceless in airports before. In fact the airport itself is hardly a new experience – I was delayed here in March when I came on a business trip, and I’ve looked around the shop selling only Brazilian items before at length, and realised it is just as boring as that shop hawking teddy bears in Beefeater costumes, jingoistically overpriced tea, and pictures of Princess Di in Heathrow. But this is new.

Because this could become home. So it is worrying just how rubbish my Portuguese is, though in a classically self-justifying fashion I’m putting down my inability to conjugate the most basic of verbs to the sleeping tablets on the plane. I must stop speaking bloody Spanish – ‘gracias’ just springs to my lips that much more easily than ‘obrigada’ – although I’m determined that the linguistic dislocation will not be permanent this time as it has before. But for perhaps the first time in Latin America, I feel out of place in a weirdly disquieting way – like I need to find out how I fit in here, as opposed to simply being able to experience and enjoy the strangeness. Will I be one of those people able to chat at length with strangers? Can the instinctive snap away from eye contact be overcome? This familial nation has a whole new set of rules, and English reserve just doesn’t cut the mustard here.

I seem to have finished the sandwich, and feel better and worse in equal measure. At least the sky is a little taste of home – thick grey cloud, just like the one I left London languishing under. I can only hope the weather in Sao Paulo is as welcoming as its people.