La Niña Barro in Uruguay

After our brief stint in my hometown of Santana do Livramento, we took LNB to Uruguay, to participate in Muestra Perimetral, an international showcase of theatre in the towns of Las Piedras and Ciudad de la Costa, near Montevideo.

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We were there in winter and for those who always picture South America as a year-round warm continent, you should not underestimate the southern Uruguayan climate. Temperatures were below freezing for the week we were there and our accommodation had no heating and limited hot water. I do recommend checking out the festival – we had a fantastic time overall and made so many interesting connections, but if you do, bear that in mind and bring extra layers and warm blankets.

To me, one of the most exciting things of taking part in that festival was hearing the different kinds of Spanish spoken around the breakfast table. There were participants from Spain (my girls, obviously), Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico (there were Brazilians too, but I was only counting the native speakers of Spanish there) and the linguistic range was so rich! It was not just the accent, but huge differences in idiomatic expressions and slang words, or simply everyday colloquial language, a real feast. One of my fondest memories was when one of my Spanish performers was struggling to explain the meaning of something to an Argentinian actor and I intervened to help them, as those are two variations of Spanish I am very familiar with. The Argentinian actor then felt the need to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that they were both native speakers of the same language, but they needed a Scottish-dwelling Brazilian to ‘translate’ for them. It really was fascinating stuff.

It was also very touching to share our work with all these colleagues and with the community in both towns where we performed. There are always people who cry a bit at the end  of the piece, but in Ciudad de la Costa I saw a girl sobbing uncontrollably, which made me wonder what buttons we might have pushed. Again, like with the reactions we got in Livramento, it’s when I see these things that I am reminded of why I do this. And I confess to choking up a little when I introduced the show and thanked the wonderful people at Teatro Acuarela and La Sala for giving me that opportunity to show my work in my homeland. That made an Argentinian playwright wind me up, saying I managed to show I was human after all. This is a guy who had known me for 3 days and already realised that I have a complicated relationship with my own emotions. Bloody writers.

It was a great and intense week, sharing our work and lives with other creatives from various backgrounds in a remote area of the world. Friendships were formed and we hope to see some of those people again and potentially collaborate in the future.

I travelled back to Montevideo with Eli and Alex, and from there they followed on to Buenos Aires, Bolivia (in a somewhat eventful journey), and Spain. I got my bus back from Montevideo to Rivera, where cruel reality awaited. The envelope sent from the UK Consulate lay on my bed, unopened. It was 5am when I got in and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I left it until the morning. The envelope contained my passport and other original documents and a letter informing me that my Tier 4 Student Visa application had been rejected. But you’ll have to wait for my next blog post to find out how I handled that.

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A wee break in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo is huge. It contains 4 times the population of Scotland in its metropolitan area. I had been there a few times visiting relatives before, but they stay just outside the city, so I hadn’t actually seen Sao Paulo until I visited my friend Leandro in 2012. He lived in the city centre then, and gave me a detailed guided tour of Paulista Avenue and its surroundings – on which he had written his MA dissertation, so I did get a five-star tour indeed.

As per my previous post on applying for a US visa in Brazil, you have to choose a consulate to attend an interview. You can pick from Rio, SP, Brasilia, or Recife. Brasilia and Recife are further away from my native south, and therefore, more expensive. I then opted for SP because it was the closest of them all and friendlier than Rio, in my experience.

Leandro doen’t stay there anymore, and my relatives, as I said above, don’t actually live in Sao Paulo, so I got in touch with a friend who had offered his couch a couple of times before (word of warning: don’t invite me to your house if you don’t mean it, because I WILL turn up eventually!) and decided to take a wee break to enjoy Sao Paulo for a week.

I was staying near the neighbourhood known as Vila Madalena, one of the coolest (albeit hipster-tastic) parts of town, so I took the opportunity to explore it on foot.

Vila Madalena can be quite pricey, but if you’re feeling lush, I do recommend eating at Lá da Venda, a charming retro grocer’s and restaurant with a delicious menu of typical Brazilian food and gorgeous coffee. In fact, if you are a coffee lover, Vila Madalena is packed with the stuff – I also had a coffee stop at Livraria da Vila (a brilliant bookshop) and bought a bag at the Coffee Lab (the funkiest cafe I’ve ever been to) to take home.

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Your own filter coffee served at the table at Lá da Venda

Now, if you’re a bit broke and just fancy a wander, it’s worth getting down to Vila Madalena to see Beco do Batman – an impromptu graffiti gallery outdoors. It’s pretty straightforward to find and you can easily spend a couple of hours there looking at the graffiti made by local artists.

Apart from Vila Madalena, I also went to MASP – Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Again, if you’re travelling on a budget, it’s free on Tuesdays and on Thursday evenings. There will surely be long queues, but they move fairly quickly. You’ll probably have to brave hordes of people taking selfies with the pieces, but once you get past that, it’s worth it, particularly their collection of Brazilian modernist art (I fucking love that shit!).

I was lucky to be in Sao Paulo when the LGBT Pride parade happened – one of the largest in the world, it gathered around 20,000 people this year and it was bloody FABULOUS! Homosexuality is not a crime in Brazil and same-sex marriage is legal, but it’s also one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against homosexual and transgender people (with 13.29 LGBT people suffering some form of violence per day in the country, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Federal Secretary of Human Rights, available here in full in Portuguese). It was great, then, to be able to witness a day of celebration, which was also marked by intense political protests.

The one thing that left me a bit disappointed was, ironically, the theatre. I took a tour around the Municipal Theatre (an opera house, rather than a theatre), which was stunning, but didn’t attend any shows there. I went round Rooselvelt Square, where the fringe-y theatre types live, but nothing in their programme that week caught my attention. I watched one play that had been highly recommended to me, A Alma Imoral, which was good, but not mind-blowing. I was more impressed by one very simple, yet highly effective, street show by Catalan performer Joan Català, who was participating of the SESC International Circus Festival. What left me a bit disheartened was that I was looking for something that I knew I would not be able to find in the UK or in Europe, something more rooted and unique, but I realised with some sadness that about 80% of what gets put on Brazilian stages are adaptations of European or North American classics. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of new writing in Brazil, and devised theatre seems to be constrained within academic walls.

Other than that, my week in Sao Paulo was excellent. It’s not usually considered a tourist destination (or at least not as popular as Rio and the northeast), but it’s such a great place for a city break. There is loads on offer, and although it is generally more expensive than other Brazilian cities, it’s easy enough to adjust your plans to your budget. The public transport system is rather civilised (compared to the experience in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, for example) and I felt safer walking around there than I do in the south these days.

So there you have it. If you’re planning a trip to Brazil, do consider including Sao Paulo on your itinerary.

 

A USA Visa in Three Acts

ACT I
scene i

Santana do Livramento. A large living room, Flav sits at the laptop and types.

Typetypetypetypenotaterroristnevertraffickedhumanoranimalswholeorinpiecesnotacriminalneverbeenneversupportednevernevernocheckallthenoboxescheckcheckchektypetypetypesignsubmit.

I do wonder if anyone ever answers ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I mean… you’re kinda fucked either way, aren’t you? If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you say so, they’re not going to let you in their country. If you are, or have ever been, a criminal and you deny it, they’ll find out you’ve lied and they’re not going to let you in their country.

scene ii

Same. A few days later.

Currency exchange rate win – US dollar down – thumbs up for cheaper fee! Book appointment – they say Brasilia is never busy, but I don’t have free accommodation there. It would be cool to go to Belo Horizonte for the first time (remember that time when I wrote a BH travel guide without having ever set foot in the place? Lol), but again, no free couch. Rio or Sao Paulo, then? Not been to Sao Paulo in a while (remember that friend I keep promising to visit there?), aye, go on then. Booked. Flights. Booked. Ouch.

Facebooks friend in SP.

O hai, remember how I said I would come visit at some point? So how about this date? Yeah, I mean 31st May, June doesn’t have 31 days. Yeah, already booked flights. Oh… crap. Chile, huh? That’s… awesome. Love Chile. Beautiful country. New girlfriend? Oh, fab. In Chile? On the 31st May? Excellent. Ach, well. (surely there will be hostels in SP) Flatmate? Ok. Sorry… but thanks!

ACT II

scene i

Porto Alegre. Big glass building on busy avenue surrounded by corporatey-businessy-type buildings. USA flag, motherfucking bald eagle staring down at you.

No queues at all. Really nice, polite people. Open bag, lemme see, rummage, rummage, that’s great thank you, on you go. Metal detector, no beeps. That’s lovely, thank you, on to the first desk, please. Appointment? Yes, everything seems to be ok, would you like your passport posted back to you or to collect here? Collection is quicker and you can do it on Sundays. Postal services not guaranteed. Collection it is. Thank you, please take a seat and they will call you shortly. Shortly. Please, look into the camera – click – thank you for your soul. Please, fingers on the pad – BRIGHT LIGHT – thank you for your identity forever. Sticker on passport, appointment in Sao Paulo confirmed. Kthxbye.

ACT III

scene i

Sao Paulo. Paulista Avenue, outside the Art Museum, phone in hand, confused look, wandering back and forth to the back of the Museum esplanade.

How the fuck am I supposed to get down there to get the bus? Flying?

scene ii

Gets off the bus, follows the various signs indicating ‘American Consulate? Park here’, ‘American Consulate? Take passport photos here’, ‘American Consulate? Have a coffee before you go in here’. Finds American Consulate. Takes a while to find the entrance.

DOOR LADY: Good morning, do you have an appointment?

FLAV: Yes, I do. Here’s the confirmation. Hands sheet with printed bar code over.

DOOR LADY: Great, thanks. You are not allowed to go in with any weapons, lighters, or electronic equipment, including mp3 players and your phone.

FLAV: Can I just turn my phone off?

DOOR LADY: No, you’re not allowed to go in with your phone on you.

FLAV: Ok. Do you have lockers?

DOOR LADY: No, sorry.

FLAV: Right… I can’t go back home and re-schedule this, so what do I do?

DOOR LADY: There are lockers outside that you can rent.

FLAV: Fine. Where can I find them?

DOOR LADY: Sorry, can’t tell you.

FLAV: Fantastic. Turns around in despair and sees the parade of ‘American Consulate? Rent a locker space here’ signs across the street. Chooses one of the garage spaces, places phone inside a mini locker and pays R$ 10 to the girl at the makeshift table with a card machine.

scene iii

FLAV: I’m back. No phone.

DOOR LADY: Lovely. Scans bar code on paper. In you go.

SECOND DOOR MAN: Can I have a look in your bag, please? Ok. Go ahead.

THIRD DOOR LADY: Do you have an appointment? Scans bar code on paper. Thank you, please join the yellow line.

Stands in the yellow line for 45 minutes.

FIRST DESK LADY: Can I have your passport, please? Any other passports? Thank you, please join the security line.

Stands in the security line for 20 minutes.

SECURITY MAN: No jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no phones, no lighters, no jackets, no jewellery, all papers in the plastic folder, no phones, no weapons, no jackets, no belts, no mp3 players, no lighters, papers in the plastic folder, nothing in pockets, no jackets, no phones, no jewellery, no lighters, no weapons, no jackets… ad infinitum

X-Ray. Metal Detector. Clear. Go.

scene iv

A bunker in the back garden of the American Consulate SP.

SECOND DESK LADY: Can I see your passport, please? That’s great, thank you. Please join line number 8.

Stands in line number 8 for 10 minutes, eavesdropping on people’s interviews.

LINE LADY: Please go to window number 3.

WINDOW MAN: (in Portuguese with an American accent) Bom dia! Mão direita aqui, por favor. Sim, direita. Obrigado. Qual é o motivo da visita aos Estados Unidos? Oh, do you have an invitation letter or something? Boston? February? What kind of conference? Art? But the computer says you’re a translator. Hm, ok. What type of art? Theater? What type of theater? Hahaha. Present a paper on what? Oh, that makes sense! How long did it take you to pick up a Scottish accent? I can’t understand it sometimes. Married? Ok. Well, good luck. Your request has been approved and here’s some more information. It will take about 10 days for your passport to be returned.

scene v

Three days later.Still in Sao Paulo. Email pops up on screen.

Your passport is ready for collection in Porto Alegre.

Collect passport with visa a week later. Celebrate. 

THE END

A Trial Run of Curitiba

I had been to Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, only once before, roughly 12 years ago. Back then, I was at uni in Porto Alegre, studying to become an EFL teacher, and the reason of my visit to Curitiba was a TEFL convention. I didn’t remember much about it, as I was only there for a weekend and spent most of my time at the convention, but the few memories I had were of the good kind. I started paying attention to the city again in the past few years for a number of reasons: a couple of my cousins moved there, their official twitter account is absolutely hilarious (Portuguese speakers only, soz), and they have the largest and oldest theatre festival in Brazil, Fringe included. In addition, it’s famous for having a colder climate than the rest of Brazil year-round and for having a decent public transport system. It sounded like a good place to live in if I ever decided to move back to Brazil, so I thought I would give it a trial run. I got a job as a venue manager at the Fringe and went to Curitiba for a month.

I stayed with one of my cousins for the first week and couchsurfed the rest of the time. I was in charge of Solar do Barão, a gorgeous listed building that houses the Museum of Photography, Museum of Engravings, and a comic books library year-round. This 19th-century manor house was the family home of Ildefonso Pereira Correia, Baron of Serro Azul, whose intriguing story I learned from the staff and some audience members while I worked there. A yerba mate lord back in his day, the Baron once saved the city of Curitiba from being pillaged by rowdy gauchos (my ancestors), but entered a complicated political tangle that got him assassinated on a train en route to Rio. After his death, the Baroness moved next door and donated the manor to the Army. It was used as a barracks until about 30 years ago, when it was passed on to the Curitiba Cultural Foundation.

As cool as the story of the venue is, it has its problems as a place to host fringe theatre shows. Having to create a performance space where there isn’t one wasn’t the issue – building the truss and putting the dance floor down was the easiest part. The hard work included shifting a baby grand piano (which allegedly belonged to the Baron and no one is allowed to touch) and accommodating pieces that involved liquids being spilled on stage. The venue regulations stated that the use of liquids, food, and fire was strictly prohibited, due to the risk of damaging the historical structure. Also, with no accessibility, no trained first aiders anywhere to be seen, no emergency lights, and only one possible exit down a wooden staircase, the venue was a death trap.

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We took a group of 20 blind people and one wheelchair user up and down these.

Thankfully, we didn’t have any emergency situations, but I was kept on my toes throughout the full run. I was also fortunate to be working with a tiny, but very good and attentive team.

What of the result of my experiment? Well, it’s unfair to compare this with the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s unfair to compare anything with the Edinburgh Fringe. Some negative aspects of the festival were the relative dullness (it was way quieter than I expected), unclear relationship with performers (a few of the ones we worked with didn’t seem to understand what a ‘fringe’ was), difficulties with the venue (they have an interesting festival-funded venues system, but it’s full of restrictions), and the ‘Ticketless Movement’, which seemed like a good idea at first, but annoyed me to no end, and could be used in a more productive way. On the plus side, I met lots of interesting people and got a dose of some good acting. As for my expectations regarding the city, it was all lies. I think it rained only once in the whole month I was there, temperatures stayed between 30 and 35°C, and getting a seat on a bus is just impossible (well, having enough room to breathe on buses was a laborious task). It has its perks: it’s pretty, it’s clean, and it’s cheap, but I have stopped considering it as a possible base. I would definitely like to go back to visit, though, and potentially to participate in the festival again.

Couchsurfing

About a week after I came back to Brazil, I journeyed back to my hometown of Santana do Livramento, on the border with Uruguay. My mum and my sister were going to Rio on holiday and I agreed to house and pet-sit. I was quite looking forward to having the house, the dogs and the cats to myself – it would feel like a much needed break. I’ve been freelancing as a translator since I left Scotland in 2012 and although I’ve travelled a fair bit during this time, my life has been so erratic that it’s easy to forget to simply have time off every so often.

Staying at home in Livramento in the summer now doesn’t have the same feel as it did when I was younger, though. Most of my old friends have moved away and the entertainment options are very limited. I tried to organise a group reading of a play, the South American version of a project run by my Edinburgh peers, but no one turned up. It would be a long month, even though it was February.

Then it occurred to me: my couchsurfing profile had been on the “I can’t offer you a couch” mode for a while – what if I turned it back on? I switched it to “yes, I have a couch for you”, thinking no one would request to stay there. People who can locate Livramento on the map are generally just coming from Porto Alegre or other parts of my home state to buy cheap booze, cosmetics and clothes in the Uruguayan duty free shops – not really the couchsurfing type. To my surprise, I received a request a couple of days after that, from an Australian dude.

This poor lad had probably met someone with a wicked sense of humour while visiting Buenos Aires, for this person recommended Rivera/Livramento for a fabulous Carnaval experience. You see… my border isn’t exactly famous for its Carnaval festivities. In fact, we were not even going to have a street party this year. You can imagine why, exciting as it was, his request confused me. I told him he would be welcome, but tried to warn him that he’d be underwhelmed.

It wasn’t a complete disaster after all – Freg was an awesome guy, really easy to chat to, involved with art, theatre and politics. As it happens, Rivera had a bit of action to offer and we managed to see some of their street party with samba and candombe groups. I shipped him away to Rio to see the real thing after a few days, and he drew me this lovely thank you card, showing a pair of candomberos and a funny numbat eating a golden butterfly:

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Transculturalism at its best

Then the requests kept coming in. I never thought Livramento would be this popular. One of the many things I like about couchsurfing is that it attracts the artsy community. So after my Aussie friend Freg, I hosted a pair of lovely Uruguayan backpackers: Alicia, who was just getting started with her travels, and Kobe, a tango dancer and excellent baker. They only stayed for one day, but had great chat.

A few days later and already into March, I got a beautiful birthday present: couchsurfers Rodrigo and Gabriela (no, not those ones), two talented filmmakers based in Curitiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraná. I remember the moment I spotted Gabriela’s big smile outside and (cheesy at this may sound) knew we would become good friends. Again, the time they spent in Livramento was very short, but the hilarity was immense. Rodrigo and Gabriela overlapped with Cristóbal, my last couchsurfer of the season. A music producer hailing from Chile, Cristóbal had been travelling around South America collecting data about each country’s folk music for his Latiendo America project. He’d been to Argentina and Uruguay and decided to enter Brazil through Livramento. I helped him contact local musicians and took him to a radio station to be interviewed about the project, it was all rather cool. He moved on, travelling across Brazil all the way up north and as I type this, he’s on his way to Paraguay.

Some people are a bit suspicious of couchsurfing, but I’ve only had good experiences with it, both hosting people and being hosted by them. I have made new friends, learned about their countries and others they had visited, and have encountered a handful of interesting journeys and projects. In spite of the surprising popularity when I switched my couch back to available, the practice is still not widespread in Brazil. My friends from Curitiba have recently worked on a documentary about their own experience, which might help people trust couchsurfing a bit more over here.

I left Livramento after that month and went back to being in a different place every couple of weeks, so I’ve turned the availability of my couch off until I have a more permanent base again. If you’ve considered using it at some point but weren’t too sure, go for it. It’s a great way of making new connections and expanding horizons.

Synergy – When the Universe is Stage Managed

I’ve long now stopped being a mystical person or a believer in any sort of dogma – which, contrary to what some might think, has made me much happier, calmer and more understanding. And despite a recurring in-joke that I make reference to in the title of this post, I do not believe in fate or that “things happen for a reason”. I mean, they do happen for a reason, but generally that reason is right here, in our world, and it tends to simply be other people. People make good and bad things happen (well, nature does as well, but we all know by now that people have influenced nature an awful lot). So I’m writing this post about one particularly good week I had in Edinburgh, when some of the good people in my life provided me with much needed positivity at that point.

I was supposed to leave Scotland a couple of days after the Referendum, but considering that my Visitor Visa allowed me to stick around for six months, I decided to change my flight back and stay until January. I wasn’t allowed to take up employment and the money I had brought with me for my time away since I left for Spain in June was running out, but with the help of my ridiculously generous friends and some cash I made from working for a translation office back in Brazil, I managed the extra months (the internet is a wonderful thing). And this week at the start of November made the effort worthwhile, because everything felt normal for the first time in ages.

To begin with, I got to direct a short piece for Collider, an event organised by fellow theatremakers at Discover 21. I hadn’t planned on taking part, but I was asked to stand in for a friend who was ill, and I had no idea that a short, simple thing would make such a big difference. It was so refreshing as well, as I hadn’t worked with scripted theatre for a couple of years and it was great to flex those muscles. A couple of days later, I was invited to participate of the audition panel for Charioteer Theatre‘s upcoming show, A Bench on the Road. Again, it was something I hadn’t done for a while and it was incredibly gratifying – particularly because I got to meet dozens of talented Scottish actresses of all ages. Finally, I had a special friend visiting from London at the weekend and we had a great time out and about in Edinburgh, during which the photo below was taken. This is relevant because I posted the photo to facebook and it was my all-time most liked picture there, with many comments stating how happy I looked. It’s just a photo of me drinking a cup of tea, but I think facebookers were right – I did feel very happy then, and I think it just showed.

Choosing to stay a little longer in Edinburgh was the right decision. I spent a lot of time at the computer working on my translations, which I could have done back in Brazil, but there is a massive difference in being able to do it while Jen throws Jaffa Cakes at me and Mark makes endless cups of tea, and then signing off to go meet Pam and Jenni for dinner and cinema, or Dawn and Leila for drinks, or Julia for coffee, or drop by Fiona’s work, you get the gist. Synergy is when different parts combined achieve an effect that is greater than the sum of their separate effects, and that is definitely what I experience when I am in Edinburgh with these people.

 

tea

 

Moors and Christians

Growing up in the “colonies”, we have to study the history of the coloniser. That means that when you go to school in Brazil, you learn about European history before your own, mostly that of Portugal and Spain. I remember studying the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, and seeing their legacy when I first visited this part of the world back in 1996 with my parents. I was impressed with the stunning Moorish art and architecture of the Andalusian cities, fortresses and gardens.

What I did not know until this visit to Spain was that the tug-of-war between Moors and Christians that extended for centuries is now celebrated with large festivals in Alicante and surroundings, which happen at different times of the year in towns, villages and neighbourhoods. Eli had been talking about it since I arrived and her parents had very proudly shown me photos of their latest participations in their local festival. Paco, who helped out with the costume for La Niña Barro, makes most of his living out of fashioning outfits for the Moors and Christians parades. Everyone that I came into contact with seemed to be involved with these festivities somehow, but I only began to understand them better when I witnessed the Moros y Cristianos parade of San Blas, the Alicante area where our lovely photographer Sandra is based. See, the people behind the festival organised a shop window contest in the neighbourhood and Sandra decided to enter. In order to create an exciting window display for her studio, she wanted to dress up a model as one of the Moors, photograph them and then arrange the photos with props borrowed from the Christians. And this is how I ended up being a Moorish Queen for a day (make-up by Eli):

moros6Sandra came 2nd in the competition and won tickets to watch the street parade from the VIP stands. She would be working, photographing the event, so she gave me and Eli the tickets. We went with Eli’s dad and watched as people paraded their fantastic costumes to the sound of exciting live music, each club, group, and association looking prouder as they went past. It reminded me of the Brazilian carnaval, and I was surprised that I had never heard of something as big. The festival generally happens over two days – one dedicated to the Christians (which we saw) and the other, to the Moors. There are battle re-enactments and a model castle is built to be invaded by the Moors and then taken back by the Christians. The whole celebration is really interesting, not only because of its historical background, but also because of the way history and culture gain new interpretations. You don’t need to have Moorish ancestry or necessarily identify with Christianity to choose which side you want to be on. Instead, people gravitate towards whatever aesthetics takes their fancy, and although there are some clear symbols that must be respected, creativity and imagination are highly encouraged when creating costumes, make-up and floats.

It was yet another enlightening experience of diverse cultures coming together quite nicely, and the use of art to transform a rather gory past into a beautiful and more tolerant present.

Alicante: Politics, Desert and Theatre

I arrived in Alicante, but my suitcase did not. Not a great start. But ok, at least I had made it this far, I was back in Europe and felt one step closer to get things back on track. No stress. I was also lucky enough to be staying with friends that could lend me clothes for the first few days until the luggage arrived. None of that was a problem.

Alicante is an interesting city. Of all places in Spain, I thought it was hilarious that I ended up in the one that kinda looked like Edinburgh, with a similarly shaped castle on top of a rock towering above the city centre:

Edinburgh Castle, by Duncan Smith, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html.

Edinburgh Castle, by Duncan Smith, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html.

Castillo Santa Bárbara, Alicante, by Juan Carlos Soler, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html

Castillo Santa Bárbara, Alicante, by Juan Carlos Soler, lovingly stolen from http://www.lastminutecottageholiday.co.uk/visitedinburghscotland.html

The two cities are also about the same size, even though Alicante has a slightly smaller population but looks slightly more like a big city with its shiny shopping centres and beach resorts. Alicante is also a popular spot for Brits, so it’s common to hear English spoken on the streets and see English menus in bars and restaurants. Similarities end there, and the biggest difference is: it NEVER rains in Alicante!

In fact, when you get out of the city and go to the surrounding towns or villages (like the one I was staying in, San Vicente de Raspeig), what you see is a desert with dunes and mountains of red earth that are much more akin to a Moroccan than to a Scottish landscape. It is still beautiful, in spite of all the problems caused by the constant state of drought in the region.

Politically speaking, Alicante is part of the Generalitat Valenciana, and therefore somewhat removed from Madrid-centered politics. Most of the people I spoke to were very much in favour of a Spanish Republic, a feeling strengthened by the recent abdication of King Juan Carlos. However, there didn’t seem to be an organised enough pro-Republic movement there, and even less so a movement for independence like in Catalunya. Curious thing I learned: Valencian and Catalan are pretty much the same language (which I can sort of understand when spoken and written, but haven’t learned to speak).

So it was in this new context that I was reunited with Eli and first met Alex in person, the two performers working on my (now itinerant, but still officially Edinburgh-based) theatre company’s new piece, La Niña Barro. Sociopolitical and cultural contexts shaping artistic creation is a rather obvious thing, but less discussed and perhaps more intriguing is to analyse how a geographical context can influence devising a piece of theatre (that is not site-specific). We hadn’t thought about that until the three of us got together in real life – Eli and Alex were born and bred in Alicante and therefore stopped noticing their surroundings. I had never been there before and therefore couldn’t have a clear idea of what the place looked like. Inevitably, the sensations gained from long, warm, dry afternoons spent on the porch of Eli’s house gazing up at the mountains and arid land of red clay around them, made their way into the aesthetics of the piece and helped us define colours, movement and sound.

This might be the best argument against the digital/virtual, theatremaking that we initially used, flagged by a few peers as a potentially detrimental thing to our art, and something that could easily become a good excuse for the issuing of even fewer artist visas. There are, of course, many successful theatre productions that make use of technology, and in our case, it was the only possible way of getting the project started, but I agree that it shouldn’t be seen as a suitable replacement for presential work. After all, this is theatre/performance’s “unique selling point” against film – it is the live experience that makes it so special.

Singing gauchos

About a week after Sophie left, another accordionist that collaborated with my theatre company came to visit. Gwennie worked with me in Fronteiras Explorers last year, when she first came into contact with the gaucho culture of southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. She became highly interested in this, as someone who works with Scottish folkloric dance and music back in the UK, and wanted to come back to my home state to do a bit of research on the gaucho folk music festivals we have. Her folk group, The Nest Collective, have a radio show in London and her aim was to do a radio special about gauchos, highlighting an aspect of Brazilian culture that is little known abroad – seriously, hands up who doesn’t automatically think of samba, capoeira and carnaval when they hear ‘Brazil’. Our own bloody fault, but yeah… I thought so.

Anyway, she flew to Porto Alegre, where Patricia and I met her. We also met her friend Phil, a photographer that also had an interest in doing some work about gauchos. Phil had decided to take the BUS down from Rio, and after 27 long hours, we picked him up from the bus station and shoved him in the car for another 3 hours to São Lourenço do Sul, where a folk music festival awaited. São Lourenço is a small town south of Porto Alegre, sitting by Lagoa dos Patos, the largest lagoon in Brazil. Despite being historically important and culturally diverse, it isn’t a highly popular tourist destination. Few non-Brazilians know this, but there was a civil war between 1835 and 1845 during which my home state of Rio Grande do Sul declared itself an independent republic from Brazil. São Lourenço was a strategic point during that war, where Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (look him up, he’s a super cool dude) set up his shipyard to build the fleet that would be used against the Empire. In addition to this nautical history, the town also offers an interesting insight into immigrant cultures in this part of Brazil, including the amazing contrast between Pomeranians from Germany, encouraged to migrate to find work in the New World, and Africans brought by the slave trade.

The festival itself, Reponte da Canção, is a long-running event and one of the largest in the area. We watched all three nights of the festival, spoke to a few musicians, organisers, local government representatives, and TV hosts. We were interviewed by the TV guys too, you can watch it here (warning: it’s all in Portuguese). Throughout the weekend, the project became to unfold into several projects, as we discussed the many layers that there are to gaucho culture and traditions – don’t worry, this is way too long a discussion for a blog post and I won’t bore you with that, but feel free to get in touch if that is something you’re interested in.

After São Lourenço, we headed back to Porto Alegre to dig a bit further. We took Gwennie and Phil to the Gaucho Institute of Folklore and Tradition, and to a nearby farm to see some gauchos in action. Phil wanted to see even more action, though, so we ended up heading north to the region of the Italian colonies up the mountains, to the even tinier town of Flores da Cunha for a rodeo (special thanks to Pati and Mateus for being delightful hosts over there).

The state of Rio Grande do Sul is bigger than Scotland. There were other things we wanted to do but didn’t have the time, like going to a mate/chimarrão festival. We managed to gather enough material for a couple of decent projects though, and you can see the first of these here, just published by the BBC. I think we did alright taking the road less travelled there, aye?

The City of Lights

Don’t you just love it when you find a well-hidden gem in a familiar place? Well, I had one of those discoveries a couple of months ago.

I’m telling you, one of the best distractions when you’re waiting for important, life-changing decisions, is visits from friends. This time, it was Sophie who came to visit from the US. I first met Sophie back in our beloved Edinburgh in 2012, when she was out busking with her smokin’ squeezebox. I loved her rendition of Lady Gaga and Queen songs so much I invited her to perform live as part of my Fringe show that year. As it happens, both Sophie and I had to leave the UK shortly after that, going back to our respective native lands. But another thing we both have in common is the complete inability to spend long periods of time in the same geographical position, so I received an email from her saying she was planning to travel around South America  for a few months and would like to come see me. Yay!

So after trekking across the continent from Ecuador to Peru to Chile to Uruguay (apologies if I’m missing out any countries you’ve been to), Sophie arrived in my border hometowns for a few days of relaxed fun. I’ve got an already established tour route to show people round Livramento-Rivera, but I always try to find something new and exciting (which can be really hard sometimes). This time, I thought we could just tweak the route a bit and take her to a vineyard that no one in the family had been to yet. We have quite a few vineyards around here, so there are plenty to choose from. After doing a bit of research, my sister and I opted for this small, family-run place on the Uruguayan side.

We had a quick look at the map, shoved Sophie in the car and set off. And this is how we found out that the FlavNav does take wrong turns occasionally. The road signs were unclear, and we got to a dirt track ending at a crossroads. I suggested going left, we did. After driving for a few miles of nothing but empty fields, we spotted something to our right side. We were driving right on the border line and this thing was on the Brazilian side of the road. As we approached, we could see it looked like some sort of newly-built condo. It was fenced off, which wasn’t surprising as it’s a common thing to do around houses and flats here. What was unusual about it was that each corner of this isolated area was *ahem* decorated with a red spike with a cow’s skull, also painted red with black horns, on top. We slowed down to have a better view of the place. We passed a few houses and a small gatehouse with something written in German across the top. We continued on until we saw a large gateway with a futuristic-looking tower flying the Brazilian flag, and an arch which read “City of Lights” in Portuguese (Cidade das Luzes). The strangest thing was the last big building we saw near the other end of the fence, which looked like a temple, or place of worship. Its architecture seemed to mix and match Islamic and Judaic characteristics, but it also featured a cross in there somewhere. And outside on the porch and all around it, there were hundreds of garden statues of everything you can think of: gnomes, happy frogs, Snow White, saints, Orishas…

Anyway… we figured out the vineyard was NOT there, took a u-turn and eventually found the right way. We got there and woke up the poor owner’s son, who had decided to hide in his car for a siesta and was startled by seeing three random girls wandering into his wine-making sanctuary (he’s probably trained to identify alcoholics), and ended up giving us a lovely tour. Word of advice: book your vineyard tour in advance if you’re ever in these parts. People like to be prepared for visitors.

No, we never found out what the “City of Lights” actually was. Not even after the wine. Suggestions on a postcard.

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