Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

Brazil! What fantasies, mainly erotic, are conjured up by that word! At Salvador airport, as promised, leaning over the rail bearing a sign with my name on it, was a man sent to drive me to the hotel. I gave him a nod (I was too tired to smile) and without further ado he led the way outside to his car, a taxi, baking in the 30-degree heat of a Brazilian afternoon.

It was a very small taxi. The knuckles of his right hand shoved my knee aside as he pushed the gearstick into third. Hanging from the rear-view mirror was a crucifix with a tiny Christ figure realistically convulsed in its death agony. Once he'd turned on to the expressway into town, the taxi man turned to me and began to shout at me in Portuguese.

The voice was deep and gruff, but the face was kind. I shrugged at him. He shouted louder. I shrugged again. 'Portuguese - no?' he roared.

'No, ' I said. He looked surprised, incredulous, even a little hurt by my not speaking his language.

'Francais?' I said, thinking this might be a solution. He looked at me as if the suggestion were preposterous. 'Deutsch?' I ventured. If my first suggestion was preposterous, my second was pure madness. He looked pityingly at me. 'Swahili?' I said, my last throw of the dice. 'Swahili!' he yelled. Now his exasperation turned to amusement. He turned away and shook his head sorrowfully at the passenger in the car moving parallel with us. The kinds of people he was forced to do business with these days!

The expressway between Salvador airport and the city centre passes through high-rise housing, with the occasional shopping mall and filling station on either side. Nearly every car on the expressway was a compact car.

He started shouting at me in Portuguese again. 'Hotel! Hotel!' he yelled. I gathered that he wanted to know which hotel I wanted to go to. I took out my phone and located the relevant email. Possibly the Convento do Carmo, it said. Or possibly a different hotel. Nobody knew for certain, it said. All would be revealed, however, on my arrival at the airport, where I would be met by someone who would probably know. I showed him the email with my thumb underlining the Convento do Carmo.

I tried to convey to him, in mime, the sentence, 'But I thought you knew! …

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