The Brazilian Caribbean, Part One

The canal running through the park smells kinda funny.

Part One of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.

We arrived on the type of drizzly Friday night that frizzed many a head of tightly-coiled hair, and the city seemed subdued, even as clutches of commuters crowded under bus shelters to keep dry.  The plan, after dropping off bags and getting food, was to check with acquaintances in the city and find the hot nightspot somewhere near the apartment in Boa Viagem; after having worked all day, I only had a short supply of energy.  My friend Estrella, down from DC for a month-long Portuguese class, my German buddy Mark, and I caught up over garlic shrimp and ice-cold guaraná as the drizzle intensified around our local barzinho, located next door to the Vapt-Vupt Commercial Deep Cleaning Service.   The striking Winta, a Swede of Eritrean descent on a semester exchange from her undergrad program, rounded out the group and we headed towards a dance hall in the Old City.

Even with the cab’s windows up, the sour smell of marshy, unclean water wafted in as we left modern Boa Viagem for crumbling Boa Vista, passing the hospital district and the Spanish cultural institute on our way downtown.   Most cities with man-made canals liken themselves to Venice, and Recife is no exception.  There are no gondoliers or charming piazzas, however (How come everybody wanna be Venice? Be yourself!).

Built on a chain of islands at the confluence of two disease-prone rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, the city whose name means “reef” in Portuguese was founded in 1537, and fell to the Dutch from 1630 to 1654.  Recife served as entrepôt for slaves into and sugar out of the province of Pernambuco, until the country’s centers of money and power shifted south in the 19th century.  The city now functions as a regional commercial hub with one of Brazil’s highest crime rates and disparities of wealth.  This one particular truth remained with me, considering our group’s demographic.

For a couple of hours, we pulsed to tribal house, a bit of techno, some samba-reggae, and a nicely-extended set of baile funk, the booty-shaking beat borrowed from 80s and 90s Miami bass music (think 2Live Crew) and Brazilianized with favela-flavored lyrics and recognizably African polyrhythms.  Having grown up in Florida in the 80s and 90s, needless to say, I possess more than passing knowledge of the pelvic thrusts associated with dancing to baile funk.  The wooden floor of the three-story private home-turned-nightclub bounced like an ancient trampoline under the weight of the ever-swelling crowd, and we said our goodbyes to the sweaty, drunken throng just before one person too many bumped or danced into me.

Tired, we ambled to the nearest cab and hopped in without taking proper stock of the vehicle or its operator, an elderly gentleman with weathered skin the color of cardboard.  It wasn’t until we were about half a block into the ride that the odor emanating from the outwardly-modern taxi descended upon us, a heady mix of wet dog and horse rump.

“Why did we have to get this muhfucka,” I asked no one in particular.

“Because he was there,” responded Estrella, sullenly.

Once back at the apartment, my deepest fear had been confirmed: the smell had seeped into the only pair of jeans I brought to Recife.  I should have called Vapt-Vupt.

WiFi passwords come with hugs from the front desk in Recife.

Click here to read Part Two.

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