A Stroll to the Mall

Last night I got to observe the serenata, a Friday night tradition in Olinda. Each Friday night, a group of people gather in the square in front of my pousada (Praça João Alfredo). Some play musical instruments, while others just sing. The square is small, and soon the square is filled with families. Children run in the crowd, and young couples sit on the steps of the church overlooking the square.

At some point around midnight, the group starts strolling the streets of Olinda. As they walk, they play and sing, talk and drink cerveja. It’s a moveable festa, complete with couples dancing down the cobblestones staring into one another’s eyes. Often the group stops below the window of an elderly person and everyone will sing together, while wrinkled faces laugh down from the window. Hence the name, ‘the serenade.’

In Olinda, there are two serenata groups. Inevitably they meet at some point during the evening. (Olinda isn’t that large.) The two groups eye each other, and then both begin to sing, each trying to drown out the other. Neither gives way, but eventually the groups pass one another and continue on their way. It’s a friendly rivalry, and people greet their friends and buy one another beers. (The food and drink vendors helpfully follow the groups.)

I was up until about 1am yesterday, and when I went to bed, I could still hear the music drifting in from the square. I was told that it goes all night. During the day, the streets of Olinda are almost abandoned. At night, the streets come alive as an open-air living room for the entire city.

I awoke at 7am today. The sun rose at 5am, and by 7 it’s too hot to stay in bed. My room is essentially open to the elements. My windows have ironwork grills, but no glass or screens, and the roof is about a foot higher than the walls. Breezes blow through my room freely.

I ate breakfast, and then lay down in bed for a while reading. Apparently I still needed sleep… I awoke again at 11am. Sleeping in so late usually seems sinful, but today it just seemed right. When I went out to the street, it appeared that I was an early riser even at 11.

I was devouring “‘Salem’s Lot” at an incredibly pace. I was already halfway through the 600+ pages, and I wanted to pace myself. Besides, reading a vampire novel during the daytime just seems wrong. Ideally these books should be read during a thunderstorm in a remote cabin without electricity. Alone.

As an alternative to reading, I decided to go to the mall. ‘Shopping Tacaruna’, to be precise. Everyone in Olinda asks me if I’ve been there. When I say no, they tell me it’s smaller than ‘Shopping Center Recife’. It’s certainly closer, only about 5km from Olinda. Kombi’s (VW bus taxis) go there frequently from Olinda, but I decided to walk. I had lots of time.

Walking from Olinda to Recife, you pass lots of small rivers and creeks flowing into the ocean. All of these are heavily poluted, used as sewage and trash-disposal systems for shanty barrios. I don’t have a weak stomach, but I made the mistake of looking too closely at one of these streams, and my gorge rose. Whenever crossing over one of these, I would breathe through my mouth.

It took me about an hour to get to the shopping center, and the sun was directly overhead when I arrived. The building was heavily air conditioned, and entering was a physical shock, like diving into a cold quarry on a hot day.

The shopping center is pretty much a mall in the style of the United States. There is a food court (though at one end, not in the center.) There are numerous clothing, shoe, and jewelry stores. One surprise came at the bookstore. I was looking for more English-language books, just in case my time here stretched even longer.

They had English books, but none of them were interesting. The surprise came in the ‘Art’ section, which seemed to consist of 50% erotica. Displayed on the top shelf was a tome celebrating the art of ‘Tom of Finland’. Tom of Finland is a gay erotic artist who makes Robert Mapplethorpe look like a kindergarten teacher. He loves drawing leather-clad men and Nazis in contortionist poses worthy of a circus acrobat. Inevitably his men have equipment that would put a Clydesdale stallion to shame. And one of these drawings was on the cover of this book, featured at eye level.

In the States this would be surprising. Here I found it shocking, but only because I was assuming that all Latin American countries are the same. You rarely see porn in Mexico, except for ‘sexy comic books’ sold at newstands.

I made the mistake of assuming that the attitude here towards sexuality would be the same Roman Catholic repression. It’s not. From what I’ve been told, things are even wilder in the south of Brasil.

Mall cleaning and security staff travel around on inline skates. They’re completely equipped with a helmet and assorted pads, and look like they’re about to go into battle. It’s a great idea, but probably wouldn’t fly in the States due to liability issues. (“First, kill all the lawyers.”)

While at the mall I saw the film “Space Cowboys”. It was shown (like most U.S. films) in English with Portugese subtitles. I wondered (not for the first time) if you could learn a language by watching subtitled films. It certainly wouldn’t be the worse way to learn (unless they were Jim Carey films.) Clint Eastwood is both a great actor and director, and this film was no exception. He’s getting old, and I hope I grow old half as well.

On the way home, I stripped down to just my shorts. Many of the people here walk around this way, and I wanted to see what it felt like. Taking off my shirt was simply a matter of getting over New England prudishness. Brasilians don’t seem to have any body image problems, so this seemed as good a place as any to practice.

Going shoeless was more difficult. First, the ground was HOT. The cement sidewalks were uncomfortable, and the black cobbles were painful. Secondly, I hadn’t gone shoeless since I was 12. My feet were tender. And the ground was covered with assorted trash, including broken glass. I spent a lot of time looking down.

By the time I was halfway home I wanted to put my shoes back on. I probably should have. My feet hurt, and I expected that if I looked back I’d see a line of bloody footprints. But I wanted to go the entire distance barefoot. When I got to Olinda, things got a little simpler. The black pavers were hot, but were also smooth from centuries of use. They felt silky under my feet. I climbed the hill and descended the other side to my pousada.

I sat down in the shower and washed my feet carefully. On the ball of each foot I have a 2″ wide blister, with a smaller one on the heel. I’m hoping that they don’t burst, so that I don’t have to deal with infection issues. (Unfortunately, all of my first aid supplies are in the van.) I won’t be going dancing tonight.

I was sitting in the park tonight reading the Economist (one of my treasures from the mall.) A six-year-old girl came up to me and asked if I was a woman. She thought that I must be a woman because I have an earring in each ear. (I also have a full beard, but when you’re six such things mean little.) I told her that I was a pirate, and made bloodthirsty ‘Arrrrgh!’ and ‘Ahoy!’ sounds. Her eyes widened, and she sat beside me quietly for another ten minutes until her brother came to claim her.


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