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Day 28: Olinda and Recife

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Nuns outside the rain-stained Cathedral in Olinda.
Michael Palin - BrazilBasil looks a bit hollow-eyed at breakfast. Encouraged by my account of my first morning's walk, he got up very early to take some pictures on the Circuit of Churches. Seeing a column of nuns processing into the Cathedral, he set up his camera to catch the shot of a lifetime when they re-emerged. Everything was right – the light, the location, the white walls of the Cathedral. He waited over an hour before tentatively taking a look inside to try and estimate how long they might be. He found the Cathedral empty and a door at the back faintly ajar.

Street art is all over the place in Brazil. It's unselfconscious, expressive and seemingly tolerated however obscure it might be. Opposite an immaculately painted Baptist church in the tidy streets of Olinda is a wall covered with a mass of graphic images created by a twenty-four-year-old artist called Derlon Almeida, known, as most celebrities are in Brazil, only by his Christian name. Derlon is not an angry graffiti artist. He sees his work as urban art, using walls instead of canvases. His surreal images remind me of Brennand, he of the Crystal Column, or Picasso with a sense of humour. There's a striking image of a fish with a man's body sitting on a chair holding a huge bottle of Pitú, the popular local brand of cachaça. Drinking like a fish is what it's all about. Fish is a big thing in Olinda/Recife, as is drinking; so, he says, he's just put the two together. Derlon is almost mainstream now. He has a studio, and takes on commissions, but at the weekends he still likes to get on his bike with his paints and look for some walls.

Derlon's inspiration comes from the legends of Pernambuco, which spark off his own fertile imagination; but in everyday life Brazil delivers all sorts of odd, surreal and striking images. On the way into Recife, I noticed a line of six people waiting for a bus, all standing in a perfect diagonal one behind the other, and occasionally shifting an inch or two to the right. Then I realized they were all sharing the thin column of shade cast by the bus stop. A little way further along a busy, fairly anonymous road, I was brought up short by a magnificent pair of wrought-iron gates, set in high walls above which I could just make out strange shapes of cracked and bulging stonework. I asked Paulo and he told me that this was the British Cemetery. Evidently a lot of British came out to Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century to help build the railways which, after the abolition of slave labour, became the most efficient way of bringing the coffee, cotton and sugar out from the interior.

Another eye-catching sight is a fine station in the heart of Recife. It was built 150 years ago for the EFCP – the Estrada de Ferro Central de Pernambuco – with British steel and French style. The railway network, up here in the North-East particularly, has been superseded by road transport and there's no longer any traffic into the station. But a team is now at work making a very good job of restoring the dashing exterior, with busts of the engineers who built the railway, heraldic company emblems, and a magnificent semicircular window with a pattern of wrought ironwork fanning out across it. Inside, under the original Victorian canopy, are a few chunky steam engines bearing the letters GWBR – the Great Western of Brazil Railway Company. In recreating the station industrial archaeologists came across steel beams with the name of 'Dorman Long, Middlesbrough' stamped on them. The man who showed me the work at the station seemed surprised I knew the name.

'You know them?'

'Oh yes,' I said, with a touch of Yorkshire pride. 'They built the Sydney Harbour Bridge.'
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Drinking like a fish. With graffiti artist Derlon Almeida beside a fine example of his work.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 28: Olinda and Recife
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Olinda
  • Book page no: 121

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