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Life in Recife, Northeast Brazil

How is a trip to Northeast Brazil a chance to travel back in time?

August 29, 2005

How is a trip to Northeast Brazil a chance to travel back in time?

I got an early morning train to Rome and caught the afternoon flight to Lisbon. The Portuguese airline flew out of Lisbon at 1 a.m. and touched down in Recife at daybreak.

Recife is nearly 2,500 kilometers north of Rio and the flight to Recife from Lisbon took a lot less time than any flight to Rio or São Paulo. It took me to another country.

It took me to the Northeast — more exactly to the Northeast's oldest settled states, narrow Pernambuco and Bahia, which is bigger than France — and to a sense of the Brazilian past.

The Northeast is seen in Brazil as a problem. From its larger coastal cities it can look very like the Southeast. The model is always Rio.

There are the rows of high and shoddy new apartment blocks with the name of an Italian old master painter or a culturally prestigious place in France in wrought iron script on the fortress street-level wall — built along the Atlantic beaches at the edge of the city.

They are the same in every coastal city in Brazil and it is easy to forget for a moment which particular city they belong to.

Geography and architecture and climate are all equally unhelpful. The same vast resort hotels stand at every strategic point — always doing so much less business than they were built for and showing the same underpaid figures in uniform idling out front.

But these appearances deceive. The Northeast is different.

The past is present in the Northeast. Rio and São Paulo destroy as they grow, but walk down certain streets in a Northeastern city and you might be in the 1940s.

There is the cream painted curved art deco cinema, with its turnstile and its pop-corn vendors, there is the milk bar with stools and tropical milk shakes, there are the lean men with hats over their faces, asleep, on the tray of a beat up old truck.

Walk around a corner and slavery seems not to have ended. You see black women with huge bundles on their heads and shirtless men straining to move a two-wheeled cart and not a car in sight. A bell clangs in the tower of a baroque church, the homeless clustered in its porch. A thin choir drones in the flimsy chapel of an evangelical sect.

Go through some tiny town of the northeastern outback. Pass the silent people on the stone front steps of their pastel washed and windowless one-room houses.

The interior of the Brazilian Northeast is a world apart — high, bare, hot and terribly dry. The coast of the Northeast is moist and lush and follows that eastward jutting shoulder of the South American continent that seeks the matching indentation in the west coast of tropical Africa.

Recife was built on the islands of a river delta where the Beberibe and the Pina and the Tijipio and the Jordão all flowed into the Atlantic, under the protection of that slim, but effective, line of rocks that runs along the coast line a little way offshore.

This was the crucial reef — thearrecife — that gave the city its name and protected its shipping by breaking the force of the Atlantic swell.

Recife had no splendid bay like those of Salvador and Rio, no dramatic cliffs or monolithic outcrops, just this stubborn little line of barely visible rocks. Recife didn't even have the amenity of a splendid green hill looking out over the Atlantic and cooled by ocean breeze.

Where the bus tipped me out at first light, groggy from the Lisbon flight, I stumbled into a small hotel whose modest entrance was hidden by a rank of yellow-canopied vendors booths. It was called the Nassau, after Prince Maurits of Nassau, the man who founded Recife.

The hotel was not large, but taller than the buildings around it. Taking coffee on the top floor you got an exhilarating oblique glimpse of hazy seafront and cobalt ocean in the morning sun — and a lungful of warm salt air.

Nearer by was a confusion of baroque bell towers, domes, terracotta tiled roofs and raw low-cost office blocks, their untreated concrete sides blighted by huge blotches of black tropical mold.

The big avenue below was packed with rows of buses that were hardly moving, some little cars and crowds of tiny people on foot, their foreshortened legs striding out very fast in every direction.

There were an awful lot of bars in Recife, a bar consisting largely of a few rickety folding tin tables and like chairs set up on an uneven footpath, and an awful lot of kids to service the hunger pangs that follow a few drinks. Toward the end of the afternoon, the streets filled with boys carrying broomsticks over their shoulders.

Around a nail at each end of the broomstick were suspended little plastic bags of peanuts. They came raw or roasted or steamed, ready to shell or preshelled, in large bags or small. You could also buy cashew nuts and quails' eggs.

Other children spent their evenings lugging little braziers around, made out of old paint tins and filled with glowing charcoal, like a church censer. In the other hand was a tray of long blocks of white cheese impaled on wooden skewers.

Your skewer of cheese was grilled over the little brazier while you drank your beer and waited. The cheese was the Northeast's white quiejo coalho, made from curd.

When darkness fell — and the sun dropped out of the sky in the space of a few minutes — the older youths arrived who had spent the day trudging along the sand at Boa Viagem with dishes of shrimps or buckets of oysters and now came to town to move what was still unsold.

The bafflements of Recife derived from more than the clutter of its streets and the busyness of its traffickings.

The flatness of the interlocking delta islands and the network of mysterious waterways that cut across the reclaimed land, the number of similar but different bridges, made walking around town like covering the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle.

The lay of the land gave you no help and neither did the direction of the water flow, for the rivets were all tidal — and their waters ran both ways.

I walked for hours on some early forays, convinced I was heading inland, only to end up on the waterfront on the island of São José, Recife's oldest part, where the old warehouses and the customs station and shipping offices clustered.

This was a largely deserted and somewhat sinister place after nightfall, but in the daytime you could get a man to row you out to the reef and pick you up later, and lovers used to do this.

Beyond the reef, finally, there was nothing but the ocean and Africa.

From the Book “A Death in Brazil: A Book Of Omissions” by Peter Robb. Reprinted by arrangement with Jack Macrae Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.. Copyright © 2004 by Peter Robb. All rights reserved.”