13 November 2012

On TAP to Lisbon: an enormous number of wind farms and dams in Portugal, whole valleys with white rims where the water level is low. Much of the time the coast is visible on the horizon. The airport is right next to a newly developed part of town and we fly in low over ten story apartment buildings and glittering new office blocks. Lisbon is a series of bays and coastal developments. I’ve not been there and won’t see it this time around and I’m just changing planes. The ground shuttle bus to the Airbus to Brazil is like a loud bar with everyone talking and laughing excitedly.

It took 15 hours to get to Recife, but though it tiring, there is little or no jetlag because I caught Brazilian summer time and there was only a two-hour difference – the Brazilian east coast sticks out a very long way. It’s almost a straight line from London through Lisbon to Recife. Recife is close to the Equator and the heat hits you even at night, as soon as the plane door open. I was used to having a selection of fruit waiting in the hotel room on these occasions, but here I had never even seem most of the fruit before, only able to recognize mangos and thicker, stubby bananas that taste exquisite; we have no idea how a fully ripe banana tastes in Europe, but these were clearly also a different type. And the view from the 15th floor, or whichever floor it was, straight out to sea looking east over the Atlantic to Africa. Dawn at 5am a magnificent sight, the sun just peeping over the huge curve of the earth over a glimmering sea with a few intensely white clouds in front of it before bursting through in a great pyrotechnic display of intense light. Again, at breakfast, tropical food: instead of the usual selection of juices, here one had cashew juice, coconut water, hog plum juice, cherry and others I’d never heard of. As well as ham and scrambled eggs, there was jerked beef, white yam, palm, plantains, and bamboo. I was there for a week and tried them all, including a custard-like dish that the locals all had.

Recife Beach

Recife Beach

The whole neighbourhood was one of squalid slums and luxury high-rises, sometimes two blocks of slums, then a block of high-rise, sometimes a slum block in a row of luxury buildings. The apartment blocks were all solidly protected, with high walls, and a garden area at least a floor above street level. They all had guardhouses where someone watched the street 24 hours a day. Outside the pavement was broken in great slabs where the construction vehicles had broken it but it had not yet been repaired. I passed a man caning chairs in the street outside a high-rise; presumably this was where he had always worked when it was a slum and he saw reason to move. The slum dwellings were two or sometimes three story breezeblock buildings, usually with no windows; the holes in the façade sometimes netted but usually open. The buildings were indescribably battered, each wall made of something different, just assembled from what could be gathered from the streets. Power cables looped from bits of wood threaded through windows and entry spaces. Some buildings were constructed from old doors and bits of fence, bits of breezeblock and slabs of concrete from what looked like torn up paving. Everyone was sitting in the street on the shade side, watching the traffic, checking out who is walking by.

At Shopping Recife, the local newly opened shopping mall; the guards all wear quasi-military uniforms and all heavily armed. I wondered if they were off-duty troops. Many of them scoot along the hallways on Segway electric scooters. Christmas carols, “Jingle Bells” were playing in the supermarket, in a place where snow is unknown. The Christmas decorations are stylized snowflakes. There is a Santa’s Village with artificial snow on the roofs. I was conned out of 4 riaha by helping a seemingly muddled old lady who then said exactly what she wanted, the exact amount for her morning coffee – not so muddled after all. Serving staff zoomed by on roller-skates. Brazilians are the colour of cappuccino. Their cappuccinos are a mixture of chocolate sauce and coffee, very thick, delicious. You have to have water with it. All the girls in the shop laugh when I ask if they speak English, but none of them do. One are two are much applauded by the others when they hesitatingly give it a try. It sounds as if they are taught it at school, but don’t have the pronunciation. All the shops have loads of staff; wages must be very low.

I came back along the r. Fernando Simöes Barbosa, a street with an open sewer running down the middle of it. It stinks and unidentifiable objects stick up out of the thick brown water, which sluggishly heads for the sea. No-body swims because of the sharks, there are shark warnings all along the front, probably a good thing for their health. I saw no bars on my walk, even though I covered a few miles. Maybe it is just too hot to drink alcohol, or else they have other traditions around here. My interpreter was horrified to find that I had been out on my own; I could have been mugged or kidnapped. Back at the Hotel I had an India Pale Ale from Sao Paulo called Indica. I brought the empty bottle back to London. There were a lot of horses, ponies really, in the streets, being driven hard by young people, presumably from the outer suburbs, as there would be no-where to keep a horse and buggy in the favelas. That evening I ate in: chicken with bananas and honey with mashed potato with a magnificent Argentinian red. Later, in the lobby, a young woman, probably a student, joined a middle-aged pianist to murder “Hey Jude”. I read some Sherlock Holmes on the Kindle then slept.



The Fliporto literary Festival is held in Olinda, a separate town a little further up the coast, a World Heritage site, on a series of hills, filled with Colonial Portuguese buildings, lots of decorative ironwork, all painted psychedelic colours with details picked out in contrasting colours, orange and green, pink and blue, and surrounded by huge tropical plants, palms, and enormous stands of bamboo. It is a labyrinth of cobbled streets churches palms and unexpected views. Despite being a UNESCO site for 25 years or more it is still not very safe. I did a TV interview in a hotel set in the grounds of an old colonial mansion. TV camera and lights set up next to an ornamental fountain in the grounds, with carp plashing about surrounded by tropical trees with exposed roots. Dany Sylvestrir from Global TV is a writer, very good English, very knowledgeable, very good interview. They used about 4 and a bit minutes in the end, which is very good. Then a photo shoot in the press office and, as usual, standing against graffiti scrawled walls. Met Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the Boing-Boing weblog, very talkative New Age open-access freak, techno, hyper and only here for two nights before flying on to a conference in Denmark. Very much the New London East End wearing Shoreditch clothes. Said that when he publishes a book, he puts it on line the same day for free. A huge number of his fans read it on line then, if they like it, go and buy the book. Sci-Fi novels.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

Director of the Festival took a group of us to dinner in expensive restaurant reached by a small glass elevator from the street, then a walk through a tropical garden to a series of pavilions. Ours housed part of the wine cellar and had a fantastic view south to the distant towers of Recife. Fabulous regional food, octopus and shrimp in amazing fruit sauces. Most of these fruits don’t travel and I have never seen them in England. Very powerful cocktails made from strawberries, cashews, kiwi, and a kind of cherry. They were passed around with straws, clearly lethal. I stuck pretty much to wine with only a tiny sip.

Robert Danton was there, head of the Harvard Library and historian, gave me his card, said to contact if there was ever a problem in getting material from them. Old world courtesy but new age thinking. He is very involved in the National Digital Public Library, which has been set up in answer to Google’s digitization of all the out of copyright books. Google wants to charge libraries for access as part of the “settlement”, even though the books came from them on free loan in the first place. Around the table Google, Apple and co very much seen as “the enemy”, particularly the idea that you only lease a download, you do not actually own it, and Amazon or whoever can delete it electronically at will, including back numbers of magazines you subscribe to if you stop your subscription and so on. Whereas with books, its yours to keep, to loan, to give, to pass on to your children. Very interesting talk. Clearly Open Access is the future.  Digital Protection is not the answer.

Next night, Cory and I were bought dinner by his publicist at one of the famous restaurants where waiters come round with a dozen different cuts of meat on swards and carve off what you want. It was suggested we might want to get some salad from the buffet. The buffet was huge, loaded down with whole lobsters, jumbo shrimp, quails’ eggs, and plates of beef Carpaccio, piles of fruit and vegetables, unbelievable riches. Hardly needed any beef. Wine good too.

15 November 2012

Gabriella & Beatriz

Another amazing breakfast at the hotel, plantains cooked in their skin – unlike yesterday when they were chopped into chunks. More coconut water, grape juice, cashew juice, bananas, cassava – native yucca – and scrambled eggs, tastes a bit like potato and is widely used. Beatriz Brummer, my guide and translator, quotes her father ten times a day even though he’s been dead since 1978. She takes deprived children to New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Mexico City where they stay for a whole school term to improve their English. Often their parents are illiterate, or there is no father on the scene. One of her jobs is to take the mothers to the notary along with two relatives so that she can use a thumbprint to authorize the trips. It is an extraordinary jump from one generation to the next, the illiterate mother, the multi-lingual child about to fly thousands of miles. Though there is corruption, violence and chaos, Brazil seems to be improving every year, each year the number of illiterate people goes down, health care improves and a massive building program is slowly getting rid of the slums. Lunch in Olinda, with Gabriella and Beatriz, Gabriela Maximo head of press for the whole group, had flown up for the festival from Rio. Ate on a patio overlooking Recife in the distance, chopped cashews and shrimp cooked in coconut milk with pineapple, banana, spices and a touch of chili.


After a lengthy interview in the pressroom I met up with Carlos back at the hotel. He was going to interview me on stage. The main festival tent was like a big rock ‘n’ roll festival, with huge video screens either side of the stage, a wide stage with an interpreter hidden in wings and sign language translator sitting stage left. The audience all had headphones and listened to a simultaneous translation. I had them for an English translation of his questions. The translation appeared to be very good indeed. We pulled a good crowd of just over 500 people, but there was also a live Internet transmission that could be seen at home or on screens around the festival. We mostly discussed the transmission of Beat Generation ideas of the fifties, through the sixties until now. We both concluded that the bankers had won and that it is up the young people of today to continue the fight. The reason I was there was because my biography of Kerouac had recently been published there by José Olympio, and of course On The Road had been made into a film by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. I had drinks afterwards with Carlos but got back to the hotel by 9pm. We arranged to meet in Sao Paulo.


Flying down to Rio. Was that a film or a song? Another luxury hotel, this time looking out over Ipanema Beach, home of the Girl from Ipanema. Wide fine sand cleaned every morning by tractors. There is a morning mist, like San Francisco, but it clears by about 10am. The concrete steps show very little wear so maybe there are not too many storms on this stretch of coast. Fabulous view of the steep mountains. Coconut water aqua coca stalls all along the shore, the price rises from 3rs to 4rs the closer you get to Copacabana Beach, which is round the corner. There are exercise bars at regular intervals along the shore and people stop and use them. They are cleaned and polished every day by a great team of workers. There were various types of bars in the little square next to the food market stalls. Obesity is rife, I’ve seen so many fat people. They have a special sign on the sign of buses, like the one in Europe asking you to give your seat up to pregnant women, old people, babes in arms, wheelchairs, but in Brazil they also have a drawing of a fat person. It is clearly genetic in many cases, and a huge number of people are quite naturally broad in the beam by European standards. Walking along the beach; lots of great little images: a small generator in a depression in the sand, protected by a sun umbrella; endless beach volleyball nets. This is a national pastime and they have it on all the TV channels.

In Sao Paulo I did a TV interview in a performance space above a coffee bar, then an on-stage interview to a packed house in a different room. In SP even coffee bars have valet parking. There are so many people that wages are very low, there are people to open the door of the hotel dining room as well as four to open the front door. In one small plumbing supply shop selling taps and pipes, I passed in Rio there were three people in an empty shop, leaning on the small counter, looking hopefully at the street. Three people told me that ‘overstaffing is the product of slavery’; clearly a line from a book or a famous speech. I saw the very window where the abolition of slavery was proclaimed in the old royal palace, the ‘palace of the last ball’ before independence was proclaimed. The Portuguese held a lavish ball the day before relinquishing power. It is now a public museum. This was part of the tour that my publisher Maria Amelia gave me as soon as I arrived in Rio. She loves her city and showed me every possible site including where Carmen Miranda, ‘the Brazilian Bombshell’ lived.

Maria Amelia

We zoomed round various museums and churches, taking in the oldest part of town, then took to the hills, of which there are many, to see the newly developing bohemian area: cool hipsters sitting around outside bars, girls on motorcycles on steep hills with cobblestones and tram tracks. It looked great. In the more expensive areas, though, every apartment block had a two-meter high security wall or fence round it, with men, sometimes a group of men in guardhouses inspecting everyone who wants to gain access. Some of the shops also have guardhouses, and very many have guards.

Old town Rio

Police gather on corners in groups of five or six, chatting happily. I passed one group in Rio where one of them was singing to an audience of about four other cops. The people I met were very friendly, so friendly it takes a bit of getting used to. People come and talk to you on the street, cab drivers get out and shake hands, people you’ve just met clap you on the shoulder like old friends.

I wandered around my neighbourhood, a few blocks back from Ipanima Beach: bought bottled water and snacks for my room. Passed a spice-seller with an open barrow parked in a main shopping street with a lot of customers clustered around, buying for that evening’s meal. There were two little furry creatures, about the size of squirrels only without the bushy tail, living in a tree outside a ship on the main road. They had small round ears, big eyes and white patches on their faces, dark brown fur, and short legs. They were being fed by a man from the shop and had a food tray in the branches. They seemed to live there. Birdcages hung from trees in the street, some of them covered with shades to protect the birds from the sun. They seem to belong to the people working in the shops next to them.

My publicist took me for a fabulous lunch in a wine-bar: double height room and a system which seems common in Brazil where your wine glass has a little tag slipped around the stem telling you what you are drinking. It’s a good way to get to know the wide variety of wine produced both in Brazil, but also in Chile and Argentina. Gabriella explained how, because of the overstaffing, she has a live-in maid for the cooking and cleaning, something that would be impossible for someone in her position in London or New York. Her maid lives in a far-flung slum, but public transport is so bad it makes for sense for her to only go home at weekends. I noticed Gabriella takes cabs everywhere, even short distances. She has spent some time in Europe.

In Sao Paulo my interview had been translated into Portuguese, but in Rio, Gabriella and I arrived a little late and to make up the time Roberto, the interviewer, asked the audience if they really needed translation. They all said ‘no!’ quite enthusiastically. We had a wide-ranging discussion about outsiders, the underground, American dissenting literature. It was a very interesting interview with a well-informed audience who asked lots of good questions.

Throughout my visit to Sao Paulo and Rio I visited no slums even though there are some in the Zona Sul, the expensive part of Rio, hidden by the extraordinary geography of that city. I was asked if I wanted to visit but declined; I can’t stand the idea of site-seeing poverty like that, particularly as I can’t do anything about it. I got the impression that things are improving, that each year the literacy rate goes up, and each year there are more people removed from poverty and health care improves, but they are starting from such a low base point that it will take a long time.

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