Carioca Cymreig – new travel writing for a precarious century
Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, New Year’s Eve 2018
It was the first time we saw the New Year in together. We stood on a balcony overlooking the city and the favela Santa Marta below: a wild garden ran down into small white buildings, bare bricks, a thousand electric lights.
Rio’s outline bloomed with fireworks, and we watched the sparkling nets raining on the city. I remembered how in Welsh we say tân gwyllt, ‘wild fire’, for these marvels, and in Japan they say hanabi, ‘fire flowers’, and I was reminded of how beautiful fireworks can be, but also of their power to lift us out of the grooves of our ordinary experiences.
‘Can you hear that?’ R said to me. He was smiling in the excitable way that means he is about to teach me something. ‘That tak-tak-tak sound?’
‘You mean the fireworks.’
He shook his head. ‘No! It’s guns from the favela. The drug cartels are shooting into the air to celebrate.’
I backed away, immediately thinking of those stories I’d been told. The one about the cleaner at R’s university who was shot by a stray bullet while working on the campus. Or the story of the woman sitting up in bed with her partner, looking at her phone, when she was shot in the head by accident.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘It’s safe here.’
Guided and taught
I turned to see R’s friends sitting around a platter of white chocolate brigadeiros, drinking cold beer out of small glasses. The stories faded from my mind.
This often happened to me in Rio: I had the luxury of forgetting, of turning away from violence and politics to watch fireworks from a balcony, taste the coconut and doce de leite, accept the sparkler that was handed to me and with which I spelled our names in the air.
I also had the luxury of ignorance. It’s one of the pleasures of travel to submit yourself to other people, to let yourself be guided and taught. Usually, you’re expected to play the adult in life, but as a visitor with only a basic grasp of Portuguese, nothing was expected of me except perhaps politeness and patience. I didn’t even know how to celebrate New Year’s Eve properly.
I’d brought a black dress decorated with colourful flowers with me from west Wales. Wearing black, I was quickly told, is unlucky. My mother-in-law – a woman half my size – cajoled me into wearing her clothes for the night: a long white skirt and a gold, glittering top that barely fitted.
Earlier that day she’d forced a tiny camisole over my head. I got completely stuck, the nylon gluing to my hot, sweaty skin, and it was only with great effort that she managed to prise it over my shoulders.
Camisole or not, I adhered to tradition. The colour you wear on New Year’s Eve represents your hopes for the coming year: yellow or gold for money, white for peace, red for passion, green for health and orange for happiness. (A year later, when R and I marry in Cardiff, I will forget to tell the Brazilians that black is unlucky for weddings in Wales. Our wedding photos show one side of the family in bright summer frocks, and the other side in black suits and cocktail dresses).
I sat down with R’s friends, joining the row of white and gold, and tried to follow their quick Portuguese while the machine guns from Santa Marta fired into the night sky.
This excerpt from Carioca Cymreig by Eluned Gramich is from An open door: new travel writing for a precarious century which is edited by Steven Lovatt.
Eluned Gramich is a writer and translator from west Wales. Her memoir of Hokkaido, Japan, Woman Who Brings the Rain, won the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2015 and was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2016. Her stories and essays have appeared in New Welsh Review, Planet, The Lonely Crowd, Stand Magazine and Wales Arts Review.
It will be published by Parthian in May. and can be pre-ordered here
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