A Very Individual View Of Rio
Fábio Sombra is a man who lives, breathes and encapsulates Rio de Janeiro. He’s a writer, artist, magician, musician and gourmet. And he still lives with his mother. A day in Fábio’s company is a day spent on a very individual view of the city he loves. We start in one of his favourite parts of town, among the characterful, slightly faded glories of Santa Teresa. It’s a neighbourhood, or bairro, which has seen fortunes come and go. In the nineteenth century it was a place of comfortable mansions, overlooking the city and built largely for newly wealthy coffee barons. In 1892 a tunnel was pushed through the mountains below, connecting two sleepy fishing communities called Copacabana and Ipanema with the rest of the city for the first time.
The rich and successful moved down towards the newly accessible beaches and Santa Teresa’s heyday was over. After years of neglect it has undergone something of a rebirth. The old timbered houses remain, some creaky and skeletal, glimpsed on the hilltops through dusty trees, together with some Art Nouveau touches on the streets lower down. Most Cariocans still ignore the area. It’s overlooked by seven favelas and they don’t think it’s a safe place to live. But its architecture and the distance from the beach have attracted an arty interest. Santa Teresa has become cool and bohemian. Yellow open-sided trams rattle through the streets and the shops and restaurants are small and curious. It has the feel of a rambling, overgrown, free-thinking village.
It’s wholly suitable then that our first port of call is the headquarters of the grandly named Brazilian Academy of the Literature of Cordel. It’s in a lock-up garage halfway up a steep hill. Inside the garage, just wide enough for a single car, are shelves and tables full of books and, at the back, a typewriter, printing press and paper. Its hawk-nosed, thick-spectacled proprietor, Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva, who looks like a thin Dr Kissinger, gets up from his table and comes to welcome us. Cordel literature, a phenomenon of north-eastern Brazil, has its roots in Europe in the Middle Ages, when minstrels would travel the land singing verses to entertain people who could barely read or write. In Brazil this was taken a stage further and small books, all in verse, were produced as cheaply as possible and sold on strings in the villages of the back country. Hence the name Cordel, from the word for string.
Producing these books is an old art, and Gonçalo’s garage is probably the only place where it’s currently practised. And practised with enormous enthusiasm. He produces his little offerings, more leaflet than book, on any subject he thinks people will be interested in – or, more to the point, any subject he thinks people should be interested in. Gonçalo has produced edifying works on Darwin, Gandhi, Newton and Copernicus, whilst keeping an eye on the popular market with ‘Goodbye Princess Diana’.
It’s all admirably low-tech. In the back of the shop he cuts and folds sheets of the cheapest paper into thirty-two-page books. Many of the covers are made from wood blocks. It is a labour of love, but he is encouraged by figures that show that Brazilians are the biggest consumers of poetry in the world, and by his own deight in versifying. Above the garage is a balustraded terrace on which he and his fellow poets gather once a month to eat, drink and recite. Gonçalo will recite at the drop of a hat, and he gives us a fruity rendition of his own poem ‘Ode to a Book’. ‘Obrigado Senhor Livro…’ Thank you Mr Book. Every line charged with feeling.
Santa Teresa is something of a haven for eccentrics and lost causes. As we walk around Fábio points out an open-fronted grocery store, eye-catchingly decked out in blue and white azulejo tiles, whose owners are so rude that if anyone stops to take a photo they shout abuse at them. Almost next door is the Bar do Arnaldo, Ronnie Biggs’s favourite restaurant, where he would retell his version of the Great Train Robbery to anyone who would buy him a meal. The only thing that’s missing today is the yellow trams. Apparently there was a serious accident only a few days before in which several people died when the brakes failed. Until questions can be answered satisfactorily all the trams have been withdrawn.
Fábio likes surprises and on the way to our next destination he shows me a uniquely Brazilian accessory, called Pocket Percussion. The samba rhythm seems hard-wired into every Brazilian. As those of other nations might unselfconsciously scratch their heads or pick their noses, the Brazilian will begin to shuffle a step back, a step forward, sway the hips a little and go into their own private samba. Pocket Percussion consists of a tiny box with two ball bearings in it, which, when shaken, gives instant accompaniment for your samba habit.
What he wants to show me next is one of the regular fruit markets that are held weekly in neighbourhoods all over the city. The one we end up in is Laranjeiras, a comfortable middle-class area. Stalls with striped awnings stretch halfway up the hill. I’ve never seen fruit sold in such abundance and variety as here in Brazil. For a papaya fan like myself the sight of succulent piles of them ten or twelve deep is like some mild hallucination. Passion fruit and mango, limes, oranges, custard apple and coconut of course are all in perfect condition. Fábio is keen to show me the more exotic varieties like the small red, cherry-sized fruit from the Amazon called acerola, in demand around the world now as a ‘super fruit’, with a hundred times more vitamin potential than any other. Jabuticaba is a black olive-like fruit which only grows in the area of Rio, Minas and São Paulo. Its name has passed into the language to mean something quintessentially Brazilian.
The throng of people, the insistent thumping of a drum and accordion one-man band and the consumption of fresh-made cheese pastries washed down with a cane juice and lime chaser has rendered me a little weary and I gladly take up the invitation to drop in on a young couple who are friends of Fábio.Marcelo, in his thirties I should think, is a graphic designer, and his wife Carol produces interactive visual displays for exhibition spaces. They have two young daughters and a fine view from the eleventh floor of a well-kept 1930s apartment block. They look like the perfect modern Brazilian family, but when I ask them about the way the country’s going, with the economy expanding by leaps and bounds in a way that makes us at home green with envy, I don’t get the answers I expected.
Everything in Rio is expensive. Their rent has gone up sixty percent in the last year. Foreign buyers are snapping up property, hoping to make a killing when the World Cup comes to Rio in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Marcelo and Carol bemoan the dire state of public education in Brazil, echoing what I’d heard up in Salvador. Both their daughters are in private school, which is also expensive. Boom, it seems, can be as cruel as bust, if you’re not among the fortunate few. But all is not gloomy. The children love Fábio and his books and his tricks and he makes a very good passion fruit caipirinha, which we drink on the balcony.
Only as we’re about to leave do I get the hint of another anxiety. I’m admiring the extent of thick, green forest which climbs up a steep, rather impressive mountain side close by them when Marcelo points out a structure at the very top of a V-shaped pass. That’s the favela, he tells me, it’s reached the top of the hill behind them and their fear, everyone’s fear in this pleasantly affluent neighbourhood, is that it will spill over the top and spread down towards them.
Fábio takes me downtown where the big modern office blocks have sprung up. On the way we stop to see something very much older, and no less impressive, the Arcos da Lapa, the Lapa Arches. They carry an aqueduct built back in the sixteenth century to bring water from the slopes of Santa Teresa into the centre of Rio. It was all constructed by Indian slave labour. According to Fábio the indigenous Indians were accomplished builders and engineers, but they were hopeless agriculturalists. Only the women worked the fields. So when the sugar plantations needed intensive hard labour it had to be brought in from Africa.
We end the day at the house Fábio shares with his mother and his new Czech wife Sabina. He shows me his latest paintings, lovely bright evocations of the good life of Rio. The only thing I’d quibble about is that in Fábio’s paintings the sun is always shining. Tonight, as we look out from the balcony nursing jabuticaba caipirinhas, a thick, grey drizzle is falling all around us and the Cidade Maravilhosa is like Rotherham in November.