Reflections Of Northern Brazil: The World Cup 2014 by Lucas Reckhaus
The airplane is packed with Mexicans. Oversized Sombreros, eagle feathers and
wrestling masks stick out above of the seats of the plane.
Beneath, vast fields of grass and sugarcane have given way to a deep green forest.
We’re on our way to Natal—the city of nativity—and one of the most northern
host cities of the World Cup. Getting this far already involved a missed flight out
of Newark—resulting in our missing luggage—a miraculous dash to JFK onto another
plane, and a layover in Sao Paolo before three more hours to Natal.
As the plane touches down, the Mexicans erupt like an Aztec volcano: a spontaneous
symphony of drumming, singing, screaming and clapping, all in perfect harmony. A
tear wells up in my eye…I’ve made it.
Our missing luggage turns out to be a blessing in disguise. The uncle who picks us up
is driving a car the size of a shoe-box; not remotely big enough to fit the two giant
suitcases, filled with tools, wheel-chair parts, clothes and presents, brought along by
Tony, plus the giant suitcase of his daughter Camilla, and my own bag.
The air is hot, the sun bright, the earth red, the smell is sweet. We leave the airport
along an unfinished highway—cobblestones along the edges are missing, grass and trees are yet
to be planted, unpaved earthen roadways branch off every so often—it was ‘finished’ only three
days ago. After the tournament, few expect it to be completed.
Natal is almost an hour away we’re told. There is a functioning international
airport right next to the city, but that was closed down in favor of building the new
terminal at which we arrived, far out in the middle of the jungle. Word on the street
is someone with political connections owned the land and made a hefty profit.
The towns we pass through are covered in yellow, blue and green. It is the first day
of the tournament and Brazil plays in one hour. Everyone is on their way to watch
the game. Three people packed on a motorcycle (barefoot) with a Brazilian flag
flying behind them pass us. We grace them with a loud honk!
Watching the game at at our host’s place, you can feel the excitement in the air.
Every touch of is met with groans and shouts from the neighborhood, watching in the
street. When Brazil scores, explosions sound.
Natal is changing. It is obvious as soon as you drive into the heart of town. The
center is filled with residential high rises, and our hosts are quick to point out one
of Brazil’s largest malls. Yet the city is not particularly compact, most people live in single
storey homes, protected by walls mounted with broken glass.
The stadium is dubbed “Las Dunas” for the famous orange-yellow-red dunes that
surround the city, and lead down to the sea. At night, when lit up, its resembles a
glowing sea-shell. Our game is a dud, neither the Greeks or Japanese can create any
kind of rhythm in their game. The Japanese fan block is great though, inhaling and
exhaling in a single breath with every move of their team, drumming non-stop.
Outside the stadium security is average. There are fan activities, and a Coca-Cola
sponsored charity event where poor children are sent a kind of party/care bag
signed by you, the privileged attendee… a pittance of a gift compared to the 11 billion in spending the
government chose to lavish on the tournament, instead of hospitals and education.
And then there is the rain, every day a monsoon for several hours. After two
straight days in the apartment we jump ship on an overnight bus to Maceio.
I’m sitting next to a boy of 12, he’s traveling alone to see his father. I’m impressed.
We talk through my broken Portu-Spanish about American popular culture, what video games are cool, TV
shows, etc. It’s the usual big names, though I struggle to understand his pronunciation at times. Outside the
bus passes through an endless landscape of small towns and houses along the road. Every so often people
gather together at a lone gas station or late night bar. Our own bus stops in time to watch the second half of England
against Italy in the Amazonian city of Manaus, the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
The Entire bus floods into the rest-stop, everyones eyes immediately scanning for the TV. For half an hour the place is
filled with people doing their best to watch, eat, and drink, all at the same time. The score is tied 1-1, but low and behold,
the Italians prove more cunning than the English and score. In the World Cup, history provides the guide to future success
and failure. English fans know this better than any. As we leave, I can see the waiters’ pace slowing back down to their
usual late night norm.
We reach Maceio around six in the morning. My little friend says his father will pick him up,
but he doesn’t have a number for him. He is surprisingly calm. We leave him with a “best of luck” wish.
Maceio is the chosen home of the Ghanaian soccer team. Their hotel is next to
our building. The beachfront is lined with posters welcoming them as guests. I’m
impressed by the location. After the tournament however, it comes out that their
football association had been cutting costs, and that the team was unhappy with
the accommodations, oh well.
The best part of the beach is the reef. At low tide small boats will sail you out to the
shallow water teeming with fish. The full bar and grill with swimming waiters is the
kind of genius that only exists outside of America. The interior of the city is mostly lower middle class,
but it has all the amenities one would expect. Still, the action is down by the water.
The Festival Sao Juan is taking place. There is a competition in which dance teams
from all over the north perform. The story boils down to that of a shot-gun style
wedding between a bride and groom, capped by the appearance of the bandit.
The men carry toy guns, the women knives. The costumes and choreography are
exquisite. After each show, at least one dancer falls unconscious. Medics quickly assist them.
We order kebabs. The old women promptly takes them off the serving stick…last
year someone was stabbed and now they can only be presented that way.
Our bus ride back has a layover in Recife. At four in the morning, the bus stop is a
grim place. Its hot, flies circle the people at the one open bar. Stray cats roam in
plain sight. The entire second floor is closed off and looks like its been that way
for years. The exterior of the building is covered in soot. Later I read an account
of the child prostitution going on nearby, and how allegedly taxi drivers have been
advertising to tourists they pick up at the bus station….
After a brief return to Natal we navigate our way back to the wayward airport in the
jungle outside the city, and catch a flight to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil’s first capital,
and the African heart of the country.
Salvador lies on a bay. The old city is divided into two parts, high and low. A great
white elevator connects the two areas, and is one of the celebrated landmarks of the
city. In reality, the city is not divided between high and low, so much as rich and
poor, with a middle class navigating the world between the two. The “Arena Fonte Nova” sits in the intersection of these three worlds, with favela’s looking down into the colossium on two sides, while a park and the city’s new elevated subway grace the other two. Illegal venders selling beer and water line the ramparts leading to the arena for a half-mile. Fans move in to the stadium as if sucked in along veins leading to a pulsing heart. The Fonte Nova becomes dubbed the “The Stadium of Goals.”
In the tourist center, colonial buildings stun with their beauty, and sadden by their
abject state. Often only the façade is still standing. Centuries of dirt, graffiti, and
neglect are evidence of the longstanding disinterest of the government in maintaining
the historical past of the city. Yet new buildings have faired no better. The business part of town looks
apocalyptic at night. Not a light on, no one walking the streets, not a store open.
The buildings equally dirty. We are parking our car there en route to the barrio alto
for another carnival festival. As we look for a spot, people jump out at us to “assist,”
and “guard” our car. A common occupation in Brazil, but here the competition is
In the old part of town, high up on the hill overlooking the bay, the scene changes.
We emerge into a square packed with people dancing. Beer and Caipirinas flow
along the five hundred year-old cobblestones, music is booming out from a giant
stage, while in the center of the packed crowd, an island of vendors are selling food
and drinks. We stick together in a tight pack lest we be separated.
A street leads down-hill from the main square to an open area. Another music stage is set up.
I’m told this was once the place where slaves were publicly punished. Now it’s the scene of a dance.