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Even if you know Brazil and its language reasonably well, being away means that you forget nuances and idioms. In my case, what brought it home to me is the phrase, fazer questão, to make a point of something. In this series of blogs I will fazer questão of not treating Brazil as a strange foreign place, which of course it is. What strikes me just as much are the similarities, perhaps structural similarities, with the UK. Colonisation, imperialism if you like, reproduced the features of the society of its day, sometimes in grotesquely caricatured forms, but some issues in Brazil today have parallels in Britain: inequality, corruption, decaying infrastructure, even the role of sport.
But back to some simple contrasts. Obviously the climate, with temperatures in January ranging between a minimum of 26o and a maximum of 30ºC, has an impact on the way people organise their lives, how they dress, and so on. When I lived here in the 1990s, I remember being struck by the way people formed queues for buses, diagonally across the pavement. Then I realised that they were taking advantage of the shade of a lamppost, pencil thin maybe, but precious in 30 degrees. That was a very important lesson.
In Recife, especially the older parts, the streets tend to be lined with trees. They provide welcome shade, break up the pavements, and since many are mango trees, also perfume the air, as well as providing a snack for the more agile. There are less pleasant smells, particularly from blocked drains, but how many blocked drains did I curse in London last month?
In Recife there is water, water everywhere. The city is situated on the estuary of two rivers, the Capabiribe and Bebiribe, which crisscross the city, forming three islands – Santo Antônio, Recife and Boa Vista. From where I am staying, on the Avenida Conde da Boa Vista, I can walk down across one bridge to Santo Antônio and continue across to Recife Antigo, the old port area. The process of restoring some of the grand 19th century offices and warehouses is gradually advancing. Around the Marco Zero by the waterfront, a splendid office building has been transformed into a cultural centre, and opposite it former warehouses now showcase arts and crafts from Pernambuco(Recife being the capital of this state).
The other day, the craft centre was full of visitors, though how many would buy the higher priced items at over R$500 (£150) may be doubtful. The old customs office is now a high-end shopping mall, with next to it an elegant glass and steel bookshop of the Livraria Cultura chain, a very welcome addition to the city’s older bookshops, which tend to be narrowly specialised.
The Livraria Cultura stays open till 10.00 p.m., and as I walked back over one of the bridges about 9.00 p.m. I passed fishermen with nets at the ready to cast into the river below. If the rivers, the sea and their culture penetrate Recife, so do elements of rural life: horses and carts can still be seen among the 21st century traffic, though fewer than ten years ago. This is one example of how Brazil, with its immense rural hinterland, still has the possibility of developing a different and more sustainable relationship with the natural world than a country like England, where so much of the surface is covered in concrete. This is not something the current government shows much interest in, as the plans for huge hydro-electric schemes in the Amazon show.
The current ruling party, the Workers Party or PT, suffered a reverse in last October’s municipal elections, when it lost control of the city to the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), which is strong in Pernambuco, where Miguel Arraes, the party boss, was also an opponent of the dictatorship. Arraes’ grandson, Eduardo Campos, president of the PSB, is governor of Pernambuco and often mentioned here as a member of an opposition ticket defeating Dilma Rousseff in the presidential elections due in 2014. Campos is formally an ally of the President at national level, and has promised to be loyal while not ruling out running as a candidate next year. Whether anyone outside Pernambuco thinks Campos has a chance, I am not sure.
Nationally the economy seems to be slowing down to British levels. And there is talk of power shortages. One sociologist has talked of the ‘end of Lula-ism’, by which he seems to mean that the scope for continued above-inflation increases in the minimum wage may have come to an end, and that Dilma lacks Lula’s talent for being a ‘universal mediator’. Dilma is by no means the Gordon Brown of Brazilian politics – she did win an election – but she lacks Lula’s jeito, his way with people.
Much construction work is also being done all over greater Recife to extend bus lanes, with raised, sheltered platforms at each stop. This is justified in part by the 2014 World Cup, which the city will host on a site being constructed 19km from the centre. The road leading to the stadium is to be widened, and a hospital upgraded, at an estimated total cost of R$3 billion (£900 million). According to the state government, all these projects were planned, but had not been funded until the advent of the Cup. While some of the infrastructure will undoubtedly be useful to local people, the long-term value of the site itself, once the fans have gone, may be open to question.