Column By Patrick Fitzgerald
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The other morning I went to play a little “altinha” (keepy uppy) down in the football court. I was struggling with pre-match nerves about what to write for my first Rio Times column, and I hoped a little football in such an inspiring place might open the floodgates.
The Tavares Bastos football “Quadro” itself is a cauldron of wild, colorful beauty. Its floor and walls dazzle Brazilian blue, green, white, and yellow and it’s surrounded by five or six stories high iconic red “barraco” houses.
It’s as if everything on this hill started with a football court and then they decided to build a favela around it.
Before I moved to Rio five years ago, this is exactly how I pictured it to be. I think.
Usually, the court is abuzz with kids playing football, messing on bikes and skateboards or doing whatever one gets up to when the whole favela is an extension of your house.
It’s a big beautiful noise filled mess. But this morning it’s quiet. The kids are at school.
Despite the lack of youngsters, I still found three or four partners for keepy-uppy including the local builder on his way to pick up cement and my neighbor Jhony who played effortlessly for twenty minutes while holding two shopping bags full of fresh bread, cheese, and ham from the “padaria” just down the steps.
These people can’t resist a football even when they haven’t yet had their sacred, heavily sugared, morning coffee.
An hour later, as I scaled the steps to my “kitnet” apartment to the strains of samba and BOPE training bullets, I was saturated in sweat but as yet not a drop of inspiration.
I stood panting at the door of the glorified corridor I share with my wife and couldn’t help as my eyes followed the trail of clothes, cups, flip flops, unmade beds, phone chargers, and books that littered the narrow gangway to the verandah.
I then glanced at the breathtaking view of Sugarloaf and Guanabara Bay that has greeted me every morning for five years. What beautiful “bagunça” this all is, I thought to myself.
As I tidied up, I found a piece of scribbled on paper, and I thought of the five or six half articles I’d written on scraps of paper and never-to-be-looked-at phone memos. Hopefully, they contain some truth or beauty amongst the disorganized mess.
I picked up my school bag and thought about my work. As a teacher, I try to inspire my students to appreciate the beauty of English.
I try not to over-enforce structure and think many of my office-bound students appreciate this. It’s always good fun, but I also know that classes can be a bit of a beautiful and chaotic mess sometimes.
Finding my wife’s pregnancy book under the pillow put me thinking of her impending return home after a few days with her family and also of how a child will change our already uncertain lives.
At the moment we are looking to move to a bigger place while also genuinely unsure of our future in a rapidly changing Brazil – a Brazil that we love. Our life here has so much beauty, but it’s also a disorganized mess.
While tidying the veranda and watering our plants, I suddenly stopped, smiling to myself as I remembered an old travel buddy’s “don’t just do something, stand there” catchphrase.
As I looked up, I was immediately struck by the same dazzling greens, yellows, blues, and whites as the football court but this time it was the trees, the sun, the sky, and the city’s cluttered apartment blocks.
My eyes drew closer, and I studied the unplanned bagunça that is favela construction. Each house is pinching a bit extra as the organism grows one floor higher per generation.
“Is there a more beautiful mess on this planet than Rio de Janeiro?,” I thought to myself as I drank in the sheer, naked juxtaposition of it all. And then, bang! – it hit me.
What I realized was that I am a disorganized and messy seeker of beauty. And Rio is a disorganized, messy source of it.
I am a procrastinator, a dreamer with an arty side, and Rio makes me wait, inspires me, and is a real work of art. Literally and metaphorically it’s where the weather suits my clothes, and I think many attracted here are of the same ilk.
Indeed, I often wonder if the bagunça and the beauty of Rio have a co-dependency issue. They do, after all, seem like two fierce rivals who bring out the best and the worst in each other. Would Barcelona be as good if Real didn’t exist? Would Celtic thrive without Rangers?
Does the violence, the unrelenting disaster that is politics, the atrocious transport, planning, education, and health systems somehow bring out the best in the Carioca. As the legendary footballer, Socrates, said: “A good Brazilian knows how to live.”
Because so many die unexpectedly here every day is there an unconscious desire to live more? It’s almost as if the ugly, messy sides of Rio are locked in an eternal battle with the beauty of the place for supremacy.
Even within the people, this duality exists, and many will tell you “the best and worst of Brazil, is the Brazilian.”
But this desire to defeat adversity is ever present in the hearts and words of the Cariocas. On Monday morning facebook they don’t complain about having to go to work – they say “Vamos lutar” – lets fight, let’s go onto the battle.
For millions here, life is a real and brutal struggle, but even in the face of that, or maybe because of that, the level of innovation and the desire to overcome with such positivity, warmth and good humor is inspiring.
You can’t help but learn from this unpredictable bagunça called Rio. Indeed it’s this unpredictability that can frustrate and reward. Rio will kick you in the balls repeatedly on the same day.
The next day it will pick you up, dust you down, and fill you up with positivity. You will be inspired here – you have to open your eyes and see it for what it is. If you want a predictable move to Switzerland.
This beautiful mess has energy. Absolute bags full of it. Positive energy fueled by the sun, samba, sex, rice and beans, and football. All washed down with a “cerveja bem gelada”.
Even Brazilian domestic football is now a site of conflict between the bagunça and the beauty.
The beauty of the all singing, all dancing, all colorful “torcida” can only be challenged by the messy, stop-start games, dominated by a poor officiating organization, and overall play.
And what is Carnaval if not one massive, beautiful, week long, bagunça?