Friday, October 10, 2003

Alex Welsh: Two Reis in Sao Luis 

Alex Welsh is an electronic artist/musician. About five years ago, he teamed up with Bilwa to form the experimental music group Hoopty Heaven- making their own scene in Philly with their monthly Rashoman gigs. Alex & I collaborated on a few projects, notably the forthcoming Frequency CD zine from Magdalena Zurawski & CA Conrad. He's a 260 veteran who's deejayed a number of our parties & shared much of his wit & many late nights with the Philly Sound folks. He moved to Brazil this Spring, & sent us this next message from Sao Luis.


I met Leo at one of the museums, where he was a guide. We met for a drink afterwards. He was a nice kid, about twenty, and though he didn't say anything I assumed he was gay. Everyone he knew seemed gay, flamboyantly so. We passed a table of queens as we left the bar, and they all waved.

"Hey Leo," They yelled "who's your uncle?"

A girl called my hotel that afternoon. I didn't pick up, but she kept calling anyway. More on that later. I left for the shady square. Leo wasn't around but the hippies all were. Things started to happen very quickly. Franklin Roosevelt asked me for rolling paper. I didn't have any. I talked with a hippie from Belem and Matthias, a German kid who had been in Brazil for two years.

"I'm not a hippie" Matthias said. "My parents were hippies."

I walked with them down to the river. It was warm and the sunset was beautiful and the river was big enough so that you couldn't see Alcantara on the other bank. There were just the four of us, I think. We passed a joint around. These three were different from the others. They are not too timid to show their bad intentions. They don't harbor any bad intentions. I felt comfortable for the first time in a week and it felt like joy. I felt so happy that I began to speak
Portuguese for the very first time. I could use slang and I could tell jokes. They could understand me and I could understand them.

By the time we walked back to the shady square I was good and stoned. Franklin Roosevelt showed me an ID with a picture of a much younger and heavier Franklin Roosevelt, and I'll be damned if that wasn't his real name, too. He looked younger than a Franklin Roosevelt should look, in the picture. In the flesh he was wiry and had a wild man beard and bad teeth. He sat me down and placed a necklace in my hand. How much? I asked. Fifteen reis.

The German Matthias came and fetched me. Sit with us. We will make you a roach clip. Five reis. Yes of course you want one. I'd make you a necklace but you already have one. Do you want to drink a beer? Two-fifty. Do you have a cigarette? Here take a friendship bracelet. Two reis. Do you want to buy weed? 30 reis. Yeah I can get some for ten, but you get a lot more for twenty. Here's your roach clip. Can I have another cigarette?

Leo was very sorry that he was late, as well he should have been. He was about three hours late and I was
almost broke. I had something very important to ask Leo. I had to know about the girl who had been calling my hotel. I
told him I had met her at the beach, at Olho d'agua, the working-class beach near the favela. She had approached me first, and had been extremely forward. We shared oysters, and she told me that oysters put her in the mood for love. We had a date to go dance the Forro, but I had a bad feeling about it, so I didn't go. She called me many times that evening, and she even had the hotel clerk wake me up so she could talk to me.

"So what do you think, Leo, is she a prostitute?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Is it normal for a girl here to be this forward."

"No, it is not normal."

I told him that she was ugly. She wasn't really, but she was simply the most convex person I have ever met. Every part of her bulged out, even the insides of her ears. She looked like a cute overstuffed Ewok doll, but I did not know how to explain this so I just said she was ugly.

We were joined by a friend of Leo's who was gay of course.

"I think she is just looking for a good time." He said.

"Yes I think so too." Said Leo

"So you don't think she's a prostitute anymore?" I asked him

"Tell me, Alex, your girlfriend in Curitiba, what did she look like? Was she blond?"


"Was she a morena?" He asked.

Morena is a word with many meanings. The first and most common translation is simply "brunette". Morena is also used to describe a country girl. But in the regional slang, in the sense that Leo meant it, the word has no easy translation.

In one sense, a morena is a good time girl. She is not a prostitute. She's a girl who likes to go out and party, and she likes to find a man to pay for it. She prefers a man with money and no strings attached and for that reason she likes foreigners. She is not selfish with her body and for her sex is just part of an evening out. This is the innocent explanation, the one people are most likely to tell you.

The deeper and darker questions have to do with money and social status. How does she survive? She doesn't
work. Convex, for example, told me she was studying to be a hairdresser. If you're poor and you don't work here you need someone to take care of you, like a lover or a parent. Why doesn't the morena have a lover or a parent? I don't know for certain, but I think something must have happened to her to make people shun her. Maybe her husband is in jail. Maybe she fell madly in love with a foreigner once. Maybe she was raped by her father. There has to be some kind
of shame or fear which is keeping her from living the normal life of a poor brazilian woman. To look at the morena is usually to see a pretty, charismatic, flirtatious girl. But I think she is also a social outcast.

I told Leo about the late-night phone call and I told him she had said she wanted to give me a kiss on the mouth, a kiss of love. He told me that's brazilian slang for sex.

"What did you say?" He asked.

"I don't want one!"

As I told the rest of the story Leo was laughing and so was his friend. I thought 'shit this a real good story'. I found out later that most of what they thought was funny, besides the fact I was a gringo getting worked on by a morena, was that I kept getting the genders confused. Every time I referred to the morena as a "he" the gay guys eyes would widen and Leo would crack up.

Dusk passed and the stars came, eventually, and my friends, the hippies, were all around, and the tourists were starting to arrive. Every night in Sao Luis I saw the same tourists in the shady square. There was a rock n' roll looking dude with a kind of mullet-ponytail. He was by himself drinking and, later in the night, he would be drinking with the
prostitutes. I didn't know it at the time, but this guy was actually a spirit. More about him later.Another hippie, a dark-skinned man from Belem, approached me in the square.

"Come with me." He said. I had talked with him before, and he had asked me about buying some weed,but I had said no, but he said, maybe later, and I said sure. Now he wanted to sell me the weed.

I excused myself and followed him into an alley. He stopped and looked at me with these weird sort of bulging eyes.

"You want something?" He asked. "The man is here. If you want something I can get it for you now."

"I don't want anything." I said. "I am just talking to my friend."

"He has good coke."

"I'm not looking for coke"

He was doing the thing with the eyes. He was whispering, too. I didn't know it at the time, but he was trying to practice this certain kind of magic they have in Brazil.

"You've talked to me every day" He hissed. "You never buy anything. Just give me money for a beer."

I gave him two reis, which is all I had left. He smiled a sickly smile: he had won. That was all he ever asked from his "magic".



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