The city has its bright spots...
Chapter Twenty: São Luís
I have been looking forward to São Luís for weeks. Following the coast north of Recife, past colonial Olinda, the situation has shifted from historic to an exclusively tropical beach culture along the coastline. São Luís is the Northeast’s last significant remnant of what the Portuguese left behind when they departed Brazil for good in 1822. Given my appetite for Portuguese colonialism and its urban vestiges, with heightened anticipation and expectations, this is precisely where my time in Brazil should come to a fitting end.
Tragically, no city in Brazil boasts of more potential, yet fails to live up to it like São Luís. The “once-upon-a-time” timeless historical center could be Brazil’s greatest colonial treasure, outshining even the great historical towns of Olinda and Paraty. Sadly little of that potential is realized due to decades of neglect inflicted by both those who have resided here and those with administrative authority and morally responsible for its upkeep. The infrastructure of São Luís is by no means difficult to understand because much of it has been stripped and is exposed to the naked eye. Balconies, whose cherry-colored doors and trim have long lost their luster, overhang the streets
And Then -
much like the vines. They remain empty and abandoned. Mold grows where freshly coated paint once shone to highlight one of Portugal’s most brilliant cities in the New World. The countless decomposing roofless buildings, shattered shutters, and gutted out foyers have become the ceramic soil pots from which weeds, wild flowers, and vines either reach into the sky or hang over the rotted orange tiles to fall to the sidewalk. For those buildings with roofs, my first instinct is to climb atop each and run a lawnmower or trimmer over all of them. Nonetheless, once brought back to its original luster, it may just be this sort of leftover vegetation that would best remain untouched to recall the period when São Luís had fallen out of grace. When strolling among the simple grid of brick roads, all I want to do is close my eyes and pretend that when I open them, everything will have transformed itself back to its original splendor.
This scene is repeated in dozens of locations all over São Luís. The architectural dissolution of the city center is so massive and devastating, that is difficult to imagine it ever coming back to a shadow of
Tiles decorations through town...
where it once stood after the Portuguese took the city over from the French. A staircase leads up from the artisans market at Praia Grande and accesses a square above. In the midst of the luminescent soft yellow street lights on each side of the steps, above all at night, my eyes could be tricked into thinking I was in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood. No other city in Brazil, not even Ouro Prêto, evokes such an immediate connection to my days living in Portugal. Regrettably, the staircase rises between condemned apartments, shady characters knocking indiscriminately on locked doors, and one beggar whose left leg is swollen to the shape of beach ball.
São Luís’ leisurely disintegration has been met with forceful opponents. Ever since the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997, foreign investment has slowly begun to regenerate parts of São Luís’ most needy districts. The Reviver in the lower town sparkles as a model of what São Luís might look like in the event that billions of dollars were invested properly and kept out of the hands and pockets of Brazilian politicians. What used to be broken and cracked façades now gleam with fresh paint. Many
OK, so this is quite a piano bar...
have been converted to residences, restaurants, souvenir shops, and pubs. Above the Reviver, plastic sheets cover front walls of buildings sorely in need of attention. The tarps read the names of both European and Brazilian organizations, which have taken on the buildings’ reconstruction. A few blocks away rude scaffolding of no more than two-by-fours keep a whole wall from falling forward onto the street. However unattractive, at least it’s there as a sign that São Luis has made the crucial turn on the lengthy road to recovery.
The symbol for which São Luís is best known is the azulejo. Decorated ceramic tiles adorn the facades of the city’s buildings all over town. Decorations range from the mundane blue and yellow stripes, to a magnificent mélange of floral and linear patterns. The colors are brilliant. Varities abound and the higher the eye climbs on each building, the better preserved the tiles are. At street level, many have been torn and ripped away, yet by the second floor, the ceramic squares are glossy and flawless. These azulejos are what identify this city and it will be the one characteristic, which will sustain São Luís and make its comeback.
In the face
Outside the bar...
of the devastating odds against it, I willingly and gladly immerse myself in São Luís’ problematic challenges. For as easy as it would be to dismiss the eyesores of carelessness, I cannot come to dislike the town. In fact, in place of using São Luís as base to explore other destinations, I have willingly remained within the historical center to get a better understanding of life here beyond the superficial sweeps afforded by the casual tourist before moving on to Belém, the nearby national park at Barreirinhas, or south to Jericoacoara.
The Bar Mercantil Sena is the last place the Italian, French, or package tourist would wander into. It embodies the true state of affairs for São Luís. A nondescript corner pub catering to a very uncultured set, it is welcomes mostly men from nearby homes and shops. Faded plastic streamers hang above plastic tables and chairs. Bare electrical wires, the casing of which was been eaten away years ago, shoot off haphazardly over unwashed white (or what used to be white) and green walls and behind corroded metal support rods. Political and soccer posters, towels, and bumper stickers are but a band-aid to cover ages of disregard. Two decades
Life takes place on the streets...
of cobwebs have collected on the ceiling and cover some of the lighting. The men’s room (there is no ladies room) is simply too foul to describe.
As I scratch ideas into my notebook, the afternoon heat has yet to yield its oppressive hold on the city. I have been consistently marinating in my own sweat since I arrived and have made the half dozen or so showers I take a day a part of my routine to cool off and refresh. It has done little good. A slimy coating of perspiration creeps down my neck only to be absorbed by my already moist t-shirt. After running my hand through my stubbed hair, the collected sweat drips from my fingers to the floor. Service comes with no mat for the bottle of Antárctica which has arrived out of the freezer with ice chips on the neck. It is the coldest beer I have enjoyed in all of Brazil. Within one minute the ice is gone and the condensation from bottle and glass soon run all over the surface of the table. Many patrons seat themselves in the middle of the street where there is a breeze as opposed to the
Feeling right at home...
stagnant, stifling air inside the bar.
True characters, but not the ones you encounter in a Sidney Sheldon novel know the Mercantil. Like Salvador, patrons at the Mercantil as with the rest of the city are dark-skinned. I stand out like a police car with its roof lights flashing among a parking lot of motorcycles. The young women are pretty most of the time, even if their faces are worn from labor, unhappiness, and other frustrations they must bear. One twenty-three-year-old has latched on to me insisting the worst she has ever done is drink and smoke cigarettes. My doubts are eliminated when she tells me the same line for the fifth time. The lack of education is apparent from the look on her face to the style of her speech. The same goes for practically everyone else. This is the type of people who enjoy an audience and will make up their own if the numbers they seek do not please them, especially when ranting about problems in their lives. Some of the angry outbursts are so inarticulate that Jorge with whom I have shared a beer each afternoon cannot even tell me what they are saying in Portuguese.
What could have been...
A one-eyed man struts in with a soiled shirt and only two buttons fastened by his waist. He slaps down change on the counter to buy a pack of smokes. He utters only a few grunts and the bar lady, without emotion, pushes the pack in his direction. No sooner does he snatch the cigarettes than he is gone to lift a wheelbarrow of empty Fanta bottles and push it away up the street. A five-year-old topless boy scampers by dribbling the torn shell of a soccer ball; the piles of trash, the one-eyed man, and imaginary defenders are the competition he swiftly eludes. Another young boy directly across the street on the corner, picks up a rotten orange, and hurls it at a wall only a few feet away. His motive is clear: boredom. He continues his assault on the wall until the orange has lost any form, shape, or juice. One of hundreds of bony and famished stray cats nibbles at some of the pieces of flesh violently separated from the rind. Its two oversized green crystal ball eyes accentuate its emaciated and starving frame.
When walking back to my pousada, I select the less attractive street, the
ones full of music, animated voices, long shadows, and people who could be descendents of those who arrived from Angola. Women of retirement age bend over from the naked window sills above and cry out cat calls at me. How odd: It has to be the first time for me as a recipient and I cannot say I was all too thrilled. “Now, that’s a man! “Look how strong he is!” It must be a way for them to get back at a lifetime of verbal macho volleys they have received since adolescence. Strong, for Brazilians, is a kind way of pointing out that I am none too lacking concerning my appetite. It shows. They do not call anyone fat, chubby, or portly. They say we are….strong. I kind of like that. Other women simply continue to weave and knit as I pass by, ignoring me. I am a stranger in this neighborhood and do not really belong here. But there is no danger. The only recognition I get from the men snoozing in doorways or playing dominoes on the sidewalk is a firm and friendly Boa Noite!
Nightlife in the Riviver ranges from late night tranquil dinners in a
café to outdoor Reggae concerts. All walks of São Luís’ society descend into the dimly lit streets and grab a table for friends and family. Reggae reigns supreme in town and given Brazilians’ natural flare for dance, dozens join in and move collectively late into the night to the soothing voice of Bob Marley as if they were schools of tropical fish. As one not gifted in dance, I decide to cling on to my cold drink and nibble on olives and feta cheese sprinkled with oregano. São Luís becomes a happy place at night; it is a long way from the difficulties of the violence, unemployment, and desperation so many wake up to with the sunrise.
The taxi ride to the airport is a melancholy one. It is also satisfying at the same time. I whiz by the bus station, only a few kilometers short of the departure terminal. It is the last bus station among the dozens that I will know and pass through in Brazil. Therefore, it carries extra meaning when I see the coaches neatly parked parallel to each other along the platforms. The number of times I will have to lift my cumbersome belongings
over my shoulder is now finite. São Luís signifies the end of my penetration north. As with any living entity, every journey has its natural life cycle. Mine in Brazil has nearly reached its conclusion. Returning to São Paulo is inevitable, however much resistance and apprehension the thought of wrapping things up has caused me. I rest in the satisfaction that I did not complete my original plans to arrive at the border with French Guyana. It was just my luck: Brazil got in the way.
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