Magda had to leave me in Recife. A job came up in New York that was too lucrative to pass on so we started figuring out a place for me to make camp while she broke the continuity of the trip and went home.
I might not have chosen Recifé, even knowing what I know now about the city I wouldn’t have thought about it as a place to spend a week puttering about on one’s own.
The beaches are lovely to look at but where they aren’t polluted by sewage runoff, they are plagued by shark attacks. I’m not sure these two things are unrelated. Fortunately Recife has Olinda. Olinda once was a more important city than neighboring Recife. Unfortunately the Dutch, of all people, burned it down in 1654. Don’t ask why these pot smoking clog wearing northmen did this, at a certain point in history the Dutch were real jerks. At least they were before they laid the foundations for the greatest city in the world: New Amsterdam.
Olinda never quite recovered after the sacking. While Recife went on to become a great trading city, Olinda quietly rebuilt, but it wasn’t enough. It would be absorbed into Recife’s suburbs eventually but not before reforming into a quiet 18th century village on a hill and then for a century, left alone.
I spent three days in the Recife neighborhood of Madelena with a Couchsurfing couple, Zé Cahue, his wife Cecelia and a cat with a taste for human flesh named Tigrinho. From their home I explored what little of Recife Magda and I hadn’t already discovered, which wasn’t much.
The couchsurfers were kind enough to invite me to Cecelia’s brother’s wedding so the three of us piled into the car and made a road trip into Pernambuco’s countryside. The wedding was in the bride’s hometown of ‘Lemon Tree’ (Limoeiro). It was a standard ceremony, complete with syrupy English love songs like ‘Wind Beneath my Wings’ and the unfortunate choice of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. At the reception a great amount of alcohol was on offer. A waiter was passing out glasses full of Jack Daniels and coconut water. After a couple of these I decided it was a waste of both beverages.
At some point the live band, which had been playing an excellent mix of regional favorites, started in on Diggy Diggy Doo. Right then, perhaps predictably, the whole wedding took a bit of a turn south. Cecelia’s father got into a scuffle with the band and some things were broken. There was some shouting and some tears. The next morning, some cousins asked me if this ever happened during American weddings. I told them it happened all the time. In fact we don’t consider a wedding complete without first scuffling with the band.
I was risking getting too comfortable with Zé and Cecelia. Even Tigrinho had started biting me, which meant we’d become fast friends. I decided to pack up and move to Olinda, to see what life was like it this old village, and what the famously relaxed residents there did all day.
In Olinda I drew, swam in the little pool in the Pousada, sat in shadows eating ice cream, and was introduced to ‘Tapioca’, a savory meal of tapioca flour, cheese and shredded coconut. All this was mashed into a paddy and plopped onto a coal heated pan. Tapioca became my new favorite thing. The little dish was a speciality of a place called Alto de Sé, the site of the original settlement. Strategically situated on a hill, Alto de Sé overlooks the rest of Olinda, the Atlantic Ocean and in the distance, downtown Recife. No longer a fortified town, several ancient churches crowd the hill along with an absurdly out of place lookout tower that despite its horrific profile, offered incredible views. More attractive than the viewing tower was a silo shaped observatory that looked like it had been closed for a century. The view from the top might have been remarkable if anyone was interested in opening it.
The town below was a maze of little stone streets and alleys, tree filled plazas, and stately churches. It was almost as old and regal as Salvador, but felt infinitely safer – possibly because nobody could be bothered to commit a crime. Stores were closed all day. Some restaurants never opened during the week I spent there. I frequented an ice cream parlor where the proprietor snoozed soundly behind the counter. I tried to wake him to pay, but couldn’t, so I waited and watched the shadows crawl across the cobblestones outside.
On my last night in town, feeling a bit lonely and sad to be moving on from a week of extreme quiet and relaxation, I stopped by a little bar that served liqueurs made of local fruits. I opted for a caipirinha and sat on a stool outside, watching big bugs orbiting the orange glow of the wrought iron street lamps.
Amidst the voices of the patrons speaking Portuguese, I picked out some English words. One voice said to the other, very quietly,
“Would you like to join us?”
The other voice corrected the pronunciation, and then someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Would you like to join us?” Asked a young man in heavily accented English.
I joined a table of four kids in their early 20’s, two of whom were English teachers and two who were their students. By the time we were through with introductions, we were laughing about various peculiarities in Olinda and admiring the number of beer cans they’d emptied. At some point the discussion turned to the beaches in the area and I admitted I hadn’t yet been to Boa Viagem, one of the most popular places to be eaten by sharks.
In a few moments time, we were in someone’s grandmother’s car, driving to Boa Viagem, the one sober English student at the wheel, the rest of us sloshing around in back. It occurred to me that this wasn’t the greatest idea and I may have become a victim of a typical South American kidnapping. Sure enough I was forced to drink several more beers on a dark sandy beach, under a blanket of stars. One of the English teachers went off with one of her students for an impromptu make-out session, while the rest of us stood down the beach jeering like 20 year olds and toasting their fledgling love.
I woke up with my face in my pillow, humid mid-day air pressing down on my back. Somehow I’d made it back to my pousada in Olinda, my pockets full of bottlecaps and my head full of hot cotton. In the afternoon I repacked and walked down to the bus stop that would take me back into the bustling streets of Recife, back to stay a final few nights with the couchsurfers. The uneven cobblestones were sun bleached and silent, as usual.
When Magda came back from New York, I took her to Olinda and gave her a tour of the little streets I’d spent my time roaming. I bought her tapioca at Alto de Sé, and we sat on the wall overlooking the town, dusk falling across overlapping red tile roofs. We noticed a light on in the observatory and stopped by for a look. It was actually open and we climbed to the top to look out on the orange glow of Recife and the black sea beyond.
The next day we said goodbye to Zé, Cecelia and Tigrinho, Olinda, Recife and Boa Viagem, and made our way north to the state of Marenhoa.