Part Two of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.
The whole of the next muggy, gray morning, I spent sidelined with a severe migraine. After much urging, my friends went ahead to get food, and it was already 2pm by the time I felt well enough to drag myself out of bed. We rendezvoused under the shadow of a periwinkle-colored church in the Praça de Boa Viagem, then hopped a bus to the historic city of Olinda, a few miles north of downtown Recife. As it was Saturday afternoon rush hour, when maids and store clerks are finishing their work-week, the buses were packed with faces in all manner of browns and hair in all manner of curls. For a while, no one would have been able to identify Winta, Estrella, and I as different than any of the weary commuters aside from our less-weary dispositions and the English coming out of our mouths. Soon, though, a trio of German tourists boarded the bus, giving Mark’s demographic a boost. We coursed through the commercial districts of Boa Viagem, concrete-and-glass residential towers standing sentry, as we retraced the previous night’s path towards central Recife. Skirting downtown, the size and constitution of the dwellings indicated a lower socioeconomic level than that of where we were staying, and as soon as I saw slender black limbs hanging up laundry to dry or kicking soccer balls around the pools of fetid water in muddy fields, I knew we were entering familiar territory.
I grew up on the black side of town back home in Jacksonville, so I’d see slender black limbs hanging up laundry on my way home from school in the afternoons, though the ball of choice in Florida’s muddy fields was oblong and made of pigskin. But I’d also seen this same image in Barranquilla, the city on the Colombian coast that I lived in for over two years. And I’d seen it in neighboring Panama City and Santo Domingo and Caracas; in Atlanta and Tampa and Dallas. Anyone who’s ever had intimate contact with The Hood knows what The Hood looks like, be it called a ghetto, gueto, or favela, and I had gone to school, church, and summer camp with folks from The Hood. My own street might not have been hood, but damn if you couldn’t walk to it. And seeing palm fronds sway over low-rises made from concrete block and hand painted with gaudy campaign ads for the upcoming elections made me want to hop off the bus, run up to the nearest little corner store, and buy a kosher dill pickle and a bottle of Nehi Blue Cream soda.
But with that familiarity came the realization that in Brasília, where I live, or in São Paulo, where I frequently find myself, The Hoods are generally in areas so far away from the cities they’re connected to, you rarely see any physical manifestation of them other than in the people who pack onto buses and trains to be herded into town for their eight-to-ten hours of menial work. Except in Recife, where all you have to do is cross a bridge to see all the failures of Caribbean (i.e. ex-plantation) societies from the US down to Brazil―institutional apathy, limited education, reduced opportunity, zero motivation.
Before long, the favela gave way to the lush green of tropical scrub, then to the first set of 19th century storefronts signaling the approach to Olinda. Founded in 1535, Olinda has retained most of its colonial feel, unlike Recife, with cobbled streets and brocaded facades alternating between bright pastels and moldy whitewash. Royal palms arched over tiled roofs that once sheltered nuns and bankers and masters and slaves. Over a late afternoon açaí in a tiny sweet shop facing the Praça do Carmo and owned by an amiable and very tanned German woman who’s been living in Brazil for two decades, Estrella and I counted the number of Spanish or Portuguese colonial cities we’d been to (eighteen, between the two of us), whereas this was a first for Winta and Mark. It was nice to be around people who weren’t yet jaded about cobblestone and tile.
At the top of the Monte, overlooking the villas of Olinda and the unexpectedly-interminable skyline of Recife glittering in the distance and contemplating life and all that other crap people do when they’re at high places overlooking villas and what-not, we decided more dancing was in order: that night, it would be samba.