It may seem strange to begin a tale of romance talking about capoeira (Brazilian “martial art”, a form of fight / dance) but if it hadn’t been for capoeira and more specifically for the Amazonas School of Capoeira* with whom I trained, then this romance would never have happened.
I was 38 when I discovered and began training in capoeira, I wish I’d come to it earlier, about 20 years earlier in fact, as I think it fair to say that it’s more common for people to retire from capoeira at 38, rather than take it up. Capoeira became a passion, one that was to help me through a difficult time and show me doors through which I could make amazing changes in my life.
Christmas and New Year were strange that year, my husband of 23 years was making a huge effort to be nice, too much of an effort, something was not right. In mid January that strange feeling I’d had took form, when I discovered that he was having an affair. It was a bad time and I felt terribly hurt but we agreed for the sake of our children to try and make our marriage work. Three months later I found out that he had not ended his affair, instead it was our marriage that was over and we separated.
It was painful but once I’d recovered from the shock I realised that I was better off, my life was less stressful and I was free to do as I chose, my concern was for my children who were, as children always are, the innocent victims. They were very young (12, 7 and 4) and I could see their pain was huge, they were confused, hurt and scared for the future.
My teachers at Amazonas had announced a series of workshops to take place in January 2002 in Prainha do Canto Verde, a tranquil fishing community 120 km south of their native city of Fortaleza in the north-east of Brazil. It was a place they had frequently visited in childhood and where they still had many friends.
It struck me that by offering my children this trip as a future event to focus on, it would take their minds off the situation at home. It would be a lot of money for me to find and I didn’t earn very much (I worked as a support assistant for children with special needs, in the same school my children attended) but where there is a will there’s a way.
I explained it wasn’t a definite but if I could find the money, would they like to go. I can still see their excited faces as they screamed “YES PLEASE!”.
I knew that if I was to take part in the capoeira workshops, I would need help looking after the children, so I suggested to my mother that she might like to come too, thankfully she agreed and we decided that as the main expense of this trip would be the air fares, it made sense to go for longer than the two weeks of the workshops. I spoke to the head of the school and got permission to take unpaid leave and remove my children for 8 weeks, we were going on the trip of a life time.
I took on extra work, sold my camper van, borrowed from relatives and had an unexpected windfall. Some what to my surprise I found I had the money, I’d managed it, we were going to Brazil!
Brazil January 2002
On January 12th 2002, Amazonas teachers and twenty students from a variety of international backgrounds, several children, my mum and her partner took off from Heathrow. For my children, now aged 13, 8 and 5, this was there first ever flight and a very long one it was. We flew first to São Paulo, from where we got a connecting flight to Fortaleza, a journey time of roughly fifteen hours. There was a tremendous wind as the doors from the air-conditioned interior opened onto the outside world but it was gratefully received, without it the heat would have been overwhelming. We were in BRAZIL!
The beach front was enormous, tall buildings lined the road overlooking the beach, which in turn was lined with beach bars and market areas. Street entertainers performed for the tourists and locals who were milling about, enjoying the cooler evening air. My five-year old son asked me why there were so many Brazilian flags everywhere? I laughed and said it was because we were in Brazil silly. He rightly pointed out that in England you don’t see English flags everywhere.
The following day we shopped for provisions in the centre of Fortaleza, a busy area packed with shops and shoppers, dodgy pavements and lots of traffic. Everything was so different, full of hustle and bustle, new smells, sights and sounds, masses of clothes shops, people buying, people selling, juice bars and cafés with snacks and food I didn’t recognise, stalls with pirate goods and street venders selling freshly sliced pineapple or corn on the cob. My children looked like they were melting in the heat but were soon revived by cool drinks of delicious fruit juice or coconut water.
That evening we took a coach to Prainha do Canto Verde and two hours later, in the dark of the night, drove down the one road into the village. Once off the main road, we drove through pitch black until we reached the village, there the orange glow of the street lamps illuminated the few low-level houses under them. The road ended, the street lights ended, the houses seemed to end, the coach pulled up, we stepped off and entered another world.
Underfoot was soft sand, a bit difficult to walk on carrying heavy bags but it was wonderfully cool and there was a lovely sea breeze. It wasn’t that late but I don’t remember there being anyone around, fishermen go to bed early. We carried our gear and provisions down to the house on the beach where we would be staying and looked out on to black, no moon but zillions of stars and the sea roaring at us from the dark, magical.
The next morning, having taken in the sight of the glorious beach and enjoyed a swim in the warm sea, our teachers introduced us to the family who lived in the house next door, our teachers had known them for years and were close friends, particularly with Neu, who I was told, was one of the most honest and trustworthy people they knew. I didn’t speak Portuguese (although I had been trying to learn) so it was hard for me to talk with any of them and had to rely on others to translate, especially my older son, who studied Spanish at school and picked up Portuguese quickly. I smiled a lot and would nod my head in what I hoped was a meaningful way, praying they wouldn’t think me an idiot.
Capoeira training took place in the mornings and evenings but in our free time, often with Neu as our guide, we explored the village and it’s surrounds, visiting lagoons and forest with the stunning scene of rolling white sand dunes everywhere.
It was exciting and exhausting, life in the village was so different and there was always something new to be amazed by. The often empty beach was huge, stretching on and on for miles. The sea was wonderfully warm and great for playing in the waves but the heat of the sun took some adjusting to. The children loved their new found freedom, playing on the beach or swimming all day and I was pleased with myself for having made it. They say pride comes before a fall.
A week later, I played a game of capoeira with one of my teachers, I thought I was playing quite well but then I saw a video someone had taken and was so disappointed, it was the trigger for a massive emotional crash and I took to my room and cried in frustration. One of my teachers came to see me, she pointed out I that I hadn’t been playing for very long, she said she could see capoeira was in my heart and that my game would come with time, but time was something I feared I didn’t have. Later I realised it was a year to the day of finding out about my husband’s affair and that could explain why I felt so delicate. For the whole of the previous year, when I wasn’t working or at home with the children, I was usually training. After our break up I’d been full of rage and disappointment but also relief and it was terribly confusing, training was one way of keeping all those feelings bearable, almost buried. I hurt emotionally and I pushed my body until I had a physical manifestation of that pain, I knew I was doing too much but it was my way of coping and I didn’t want to stop. I was fitter than I’d ever been but now I was paying the price with physical and emotional exhaustion.
As I sat enjoying a cuddle with my children, an enormous butterfly came through the open window and in trying to escape, began to fly violently into the walls. I held up my hand and to my amazement the butterfly settled on my outstretched fingers. Opening the door to release it outside, one of my friends saw and smiled at me, he said “In my culture we believe that a butterfly carries the spirit of a dead loved one, when a butterfly comes to you, it is telling you that you are being watched over, that things will be all right” It was such a lovely thought and brought tears to my eyes again. I hoped he was right.
I was to continue feeling fragile for the rest of the workshops but they were fantastic. We learned and did so much, including a return trip to Fortaleza for a day, visiting two projects run by capoeira teachers in the favelas. At the second project a drumming session turned wild as night fell and the heavens opened, the drummers played an intoxicating rhythm while the others danced in the pouring rain, fantastic, spontaneous fun.
Back in Prainha we had more drumming sessions, instrument making and training, training, training with a variety of teachers and styles. We did as much as we could in our spare time and got the chance to go out on a jangada with Neu. It was one of the bigger boats and was like riding a roller coaster as we went out through the waves. I loved being on the boat and going deep-sea swimming was a wonderful experience.
Having contact with all these extraordinary, ordinary people gave us an insight on the realities of life in Brazil, the good and the bad.
One day I sat with one of my friends in the school refectory, looking out at the view down to the sea. He asked me if I thought I could live in the village, no shops to speak of, no cinema, very little in the way of any kind services. I said that if I was with the right person then I was sure that I could. I like wild and isolated places and had for a time lived in rural Ireland, if anything it had been more remote and wild there, we’d had no telephone, no TV, intermittent electricity, cooked on a range, were 20 minutes drive from the nearest shop and telephone box but I loved it; though it did tend to rain a lot, here there was the advantage of glorious sunshine. Thinking nothing more of it I stood to take a photo of the view.
The workshops came to a close and sadly it was time to leave Prainha. We packed our goods onto the coach with mixed feelings, my children had made friends with some of the local children and were sorry to be saying farewell to them, we were also saying goodbye to some of our group, but we had new places and adventures to look forward to. Neu and his sister stood at the doors of the coach where there was much cheek kissing, shaking of hands and slapping of backs as each student said goodbye before climbing on board. When I reached Neu, he looked so sad and I was a little taken aback by the tight embrace he gave me, I had barely had any contact with him during our stay as I couldn’t communicate with him, but my elder son was very fond of him and so I assumed that was why I was getting such a hug, he was as everyone said, a really nice guy.
We went with some others to spend a few days in Ubajarara which I loved (National Park up on top of a mountain, cool lush cloud forest, incredible views with beautiful scenery, water falls everywhere) and Jeriquaquara (or Jericoacoara) which although very beautiful, I didn’t like so much (expensive and very touristy).
The rest of our group were now going back to England and in discussing with my friends and teachers where we would go next, it was suggested I return to Prainha for a couple of weeks to rest. This seemed a good idea as it was hard on my son having to translate for me all the time, the people in Prainha would help us, it was relatively cheap to stay there and I wouldn’t have to worry about the children, who made it clear they would be delighted to go back. My mother was travelling off elsewhere with her partner and so it seemed the most sensible thing to do. We said goodbye to everyone and headed back to Prainha, intending to stay for a week, rest up and then decide where we would like to go next.
Back in Prainha we moved into a small guest house, a little further up the beach from where we had stayed before. The children immediately ran down the beach to see Neu and his sister, they returned later saying that Neu was out fishing but his sister had been over the moon to see them and had invited us to go down for dinner. Having passed the message on, they ran off to find their friends. I sat at the doors of the guesthouse watching the activity on the beach, feeling glad we were back.
Some time later Neu appeared, he was smiling shyly and said something which I didn’t understand but I assumed was about us coming back, not knowing what else to do I offered him a beer.
We sat, sipping our beers, looking at the beach, Neu would occasionally say something which sometimes I understood but more often than not, it had to be explained with gestures or forgotten about. It was a little awkward at first but he didn’t seem in a hurry to leave and so we sat, mostly we sat in silence.
I was relieved when my children came back and I asked my son to try and find out if Neu wanted something, I hoped he didn’t feel obliged to look after us, surely he had better things he would rather be doing. Neu shrugged his shoulders, which didn’t really tell us anything but one of the children suggested a game of cards and the need for an interpreter lessened as laughter reigned.
Everyday when Neu got back from fishing he would come and visit us, often with a gift of fish. We’d never been great fish eaters before so it was a little overwhelming to suddenly have so much of it, my children would look in the fridge and cry “Oh mum, not MORE fish!” but it was so kind of Neu, I really appreciated the gesture, he wouldn’t take any money and didn’t want to offend him by turning it down.
Our week in Prainha came to an end, the children asked if we could stay on for another week, after all we still had three weeks left. I was in no hurry to leave and so we extended our stay.
By now Neu and I were getting better at our communication, well sort of. He would say something, I would spend ages looking it up in the dictionary while he gesticulated or drew pictures. My Portuguese was slowly getting better but it took such an effort to have a conversation that we only bothered saying the things that were important, which is surprisingly little at the end of the day. I became more comfortable in his company and looked forward to his visits.
We extended our stay once again.
Neu had asked me if I would like to go to the celebration, this turned out to be Mass and as I’m not catholic I’d said no, but the second time he asked me to go I felt it would be rude to refuse again.
After the service Neu and what seemed like a dozen other adults and children walked us back to the guest house. They all trooped in and stood in the tiny kitchen, I was not sure what was expected so offered them the only thing I had, which was a drink of water, thankfully it seemed to satisfy everyone. Having drunk the water the crowd began to file out, each one shaking my hand as they left, until there was just Neu.
Neu gave me such a strong look then took my hand, much to my surprise a bolt of energy shot from him through me, made me go weak at the knees and took my breath away, I looked into his beautiful eyes and realised that I didn’t want to say goodbye to him, I was stunned.
I wrote in my diary that I knew I was in trouble, we were going home in two weeks.
Everyday my feelings for him got stronger and stronger but I had no idea how he felt about me. I tortured myself, “Your fifteen years his senior and with three children, why would a young man of 24 be interested in you? You’re imagining things.” and on and on and on but I couldn’t help how I felt and it was getting worse. We would sit on the step outside the guesthouse, me sitting as close to him as I dared without actually sitting on him and tingling all over. Every time we accidentally touched I was fit to scream but I still couldn’t bring myself to say anything to him about my feelings, I didn’t want to embarrass him, or myself.
I heard a voice I recognised asking if there was room at the guesthouse, my mother and her partner had come back to Prainha to end their holiday back where they had begun it. I hadn’t known they were coming back, my mother said she hoped we might have stayed but assumed we would have moved on, it was good to see her.
One afternoon, as my mother lay resting in the hammock and Neu and I were watching the children playing in the sand, a huge four-wheel drive came tearing down the beach and parked up in front of the guesthouse. The back of the vehicle contained an enormous sound system, which seemed to be turned up full volume and was deafening, spoiling our peaceful scene. I hoped the man would go as quickly as he’d arrived but he had other ideas and came up the steps to ask me a battery of questions, only some of which I understood. He asked me if I was German, I said I was English, he asked if I was French, I said I was English, he said American? Neu said rather forcibly that I was English. Then began another round of questions, to which he didn’t seem able to hear the answers, not surprising as he probably had defective hearing due to his sound system being so loud. I was getting really fed up with him and he was getting creepier by the minute. Then he asked me if Neu and I were lovers or friends, in a split second I responded “Lovers” I hoped it would make him go away and it had the desired effect but as he went back to his car I was aware that Neu was staring at me and I cringed inside, wondering if I’d said the wrong thing.
When Neu went home I said to my mother that I hoped I hadn’t upset him, she said “Don’t be silly Claire, he’s quite obviously in love with you!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Some of the local children were showing off their dance moves on the beach, I asked Neu if he liked to dance, he said he did and if I would like to go out with him that night, he would be back to pick me up at ten past six, which struck me as an odd time. I asked why ten past, he looked confused and asked if that wasn’t a good time, I giggled and said no it was a fine time, which did nothing to relieve his confusion or mine, our conversations were often like that.
He arrived all spruced up, just after six. I said goodnight to the children, leaving them with Grandma and we went up the beach to a bar run by Neu’s friends. There was no one else there but the sound system was playing at full volume, deafening. Neu ordered a couple of beers and then asked me to dance, much to my embarrassment his two friends sat watching us. After two incredibly self-conscious dances we sat down, a young boy of about seven years came and sat at the table with us and despite Neu telling him repeatedly to go away, he refused to leave. If I’d thought we were going to have a romantic evening I was quite clearly wrong.
The boy kept asking Neu to ask me things, which owing to the music I couldn’t hear, then staring at me like he’d never seen the like before the boy would fall about laughing, making me feel even more self-conscious. As though he had read my thoughts, Neu said we should leave.
It was a night with little or no moon and as we walked down the beach. Away from the few street lights of the village we were swallowed by the dark. The tension between us was almost unbearable and then Neu turned me towards him and kissed me, I felt as though I was melting into him and exploding all at the same time.
And so began our love affair. If I’d nursed any thoughts of having a discrete relationship with Neu, they were quickly banished. Gossip as I have since learned, is a fine art in Prainha and we must have provided such fuel, I’m surprised there weren’t reports of spontaneous combustion, those tongues would have been wagging at speed. Knowing now how much Neu hates gossip, I can only assume he was past caring then. Normally very reserved, Neu came out of his shell and became a demonstrative, passionate lover overnight. When he found out my star sign was Pisces, he said I was the best fish he had ever caught and he was so proud.
Total confusion ruled in my head. I wanted to be with Neu every possible moment but I was very aware that my children, only last year, had seen their father leave to be with someone else, lord knows that was hard enough for them, how would they deal with me and Neu? I had never felt for anyone what I was feeling for Neu but we would soon be leaving. What if this was just a momentary thing and then again what if it wasn’t? I knew how much I loved him, but did he really feel the same way about me? Every day I blessed the fact that I’d met him but every day brought us towards having to say goodbye, which was a thought too dreadful to dwell on.
Neu saw things very much in black and white, for him it was simple, he loved me, I loved him and we would be together, end of story. For me things were very much more complicated.
The days passed as they must and the last day dawned, we went down the beach to say good-bye to all Neu’s family and from there get a lift to the top of the road to catch the bus. Neu looked how I felt and having said our final goodbyes I told Neu to go into the house, I couldn’t bare to see his face as we drove away.
So began the long journey home, a bus up to Fortaleza then a plane down to Sao Paulo, where we had a long wait for a connecting flight to Heathrow. On the second plane we had to fly back in the direction we had just come, following the coastline of Brazil up towards Fortaleza, before heading out over the Atlantic, I was tired and emotional and fell asleep almost immediately after take off. I woke some hours later with a terrible pain in my heart, on looking at the flight navigation on the small screen in front of me, I saw that we were right over the area of Prainha, I rushed to the window but it was dark and we were high above thick cloud. I wondered if I would ever see Neu again.
Back in England, one of my capoeira teachers told me that during the workshops, when Neu had taken us all to a lagoon, they had sat together watching the mad Gringos playing in the water and Neu told him that I was the woman he was going to marry, of course my teacher hadn’t taken him seriously. Neu later told me he had loved me from the first moment he saw me, I would probably never have known had I not gone back to Prainha.
In 2002, even though the exchange rate was not great, the cost of living in Brazil was low compared to England. I still had the money I’d expected to spend on travelling in Brazil and was delighted to find I had just enough for us to go back out for the summer holidays, I would probably spend less there than in London, even with the cost of the flights. Did the children want to go? Yes please mummy!
In July we went back to Prainha for the six-week summer holiday and camped in Neu’s parents garden, then at the end of the year I made another trip out on my own for two weeks. I was certain by the end of that trip that, while I would like for Neu to visit England, if we were to live together it would have to be in Prainha. I believed that I could adapt to life in the village, whereas I wasn’t sure he would adapt to life in London, the sea was in his blood, it was a vital part of him.
I asked Neu to visit us in England, to help him understand how different my life was to his. I was shocked when he said he would ask his father. I had left home at sixteen and could not imagine asking my father permission to do anything aged 25 as Neu now was. On reflection I realised he wasn’t seeking permission, he was asking for his father’s council. Neu had never even been to the city, let alone take a plane to a foreign country where he couldn’t speak the language, it was a huge thing for him to do.
Neu’s father’s advice was that he should follow his heart.
Neu had to get his passport, get his flight booked and take a plane, which he would have to change in Portugal, it’s all relatively easy when you know how but the whole process was a steep learning curve for Neu.
In June 2003 Neu landed at Heathrow after a 15 hour journey and got held at immigration. The first immigration official spoke in Spanish, Neu hadn’t understood what he was being asked, he was tired, hungry and scared. I went to find out why he hadn’t come through the arrivals gate and was told that they were thinking of sending him back to Brazil, they believed he was intending to stay illegally. I begged and pleaded with officials and explained our story for what felt like a hundred times, eventually after several hours they relented and let him go. We were given strict instructions that if he didn’t leave the country on the date that his ticket stated, he would never be allowed in the country again, that wasn’t a problem, after what he’d been through I doubted he would ever want to come back.
When they released Neu he was suffering from a tremendous headache and looked dreadful, we didn’t know it then but this was probably due to his blood pressure being sky high and was a symptom of his undiagnosed kidney disease.
Neu spent three months in England, during which time I became pregnant; I had said I wouldn’t have any more children but, on reflection I felt it would be unfair on Neu, he loved children and although he said he didn’t mind if we didn’t have any, that he loved my children, I felt that he may well change his mind in a few years and I knew that as I was now 41 I couldn’t afford to wait.
By the time Neu returned to Prainha, we had a rough plan that I, with my two younger children would go out after our baby was born. My eldest son had decided not to come with us to Brazil, he had one year left of statutory schooling and wished to finish it in England but he said I should go and he would stay with his father. I would have preferred to wait another year, to have seen him through his exams but my daughter was at the end of her Primary education and I knew that if she started at Secondary school, she would not wish to leave a year later. It was a terribly hard decision to make but I felt like it was now or never.
My first husband and I had separated but not divorced, that now had to be dealt with and it was never going to be a fun experience, especially as it included the added difficulty of agreeing terms by which the two younger children could be removed from the country and the care of our elder son. It took many months of negotiating and was as I’d feared, very stressful but finally terms were agreed. Meanwhile I began packing or getting rid of the contents of my flat, so I could decorate it before renting it out. It was hard, I missed Neu terribly and felt the strain of doing all this while pregnant, working and looking after my other children but I had great friends who helped me and my wonderful mother without whom non of this would have been possible. Slowly, slowly we ticked things off the list, one step at a time.
April – 2004
Neu came back to England for the birth of our son, arriving just four hours before the baby did, poor Neu another stressful start to his England experience. Father and son got over their journey’s together.
When I went back to work, Neu was a stay at home dad for a few months, looking after baby and helping sort the flat out, then he returned to Brazil in July to prepare the house there for our arrival.
For various reasons our move to Brazil happened in stages, the first being in August 2004 when we all traveled out, including my eldest son and my mother who came for a holiday, it was important that my eldest son feel included, to know the house, to know where we were. We celebrated his sixteenth birthday and then they returned to England, parting from him then was one of the hardest, most painful things I have ever had to do.
In November, after a bureaucratic nightmare, Neu and I were finally able to marry. The service was held in the town hall in what felt like a broom cupboard and I still think it was one of the funniest weddings I’ve ever been to.
A few days after the wedding, I returned to England to give the children a month with the parent they had been separated from. We went back to England again in March 2005, returning to Brazil in April with our newly issued Permanent Foreign Resident identity cards. In July of that year my eldest son came out with his father for a few weeks and we then travelled back to England in November and again the following July. We now try to visit once a year or have family from England come here. Saying goodbye to friends and family is something we have grown used to, though it is still never easy.
Three years ago my middle son returned to England to finish his education, recently getting an A* in his Portuguese language exam. My daughter now lives and works in São Paulo, her job requires that she speak English and Portuguese on a daily basis. They tell me they are very glad they came to Brazil and feel equally at home in both countries. My eldest son still lives and works in London.
Neu and I have had a lot to deal with, for me it was learning the language and adjusting to a new culture in a small village, but I’d expected that. What neither of us had known when we met, was that Neu was suffering with kidney failure. Within three years of us moving to Brazil, Neu underwent (it seemed to me) a dramatic personality change, becoming bad tempered and withdrawn. I refused to believe that he had stopped loving me, as his behaviour would seem to indicate, I was certain there was something wrong with him. After some serious arm twisting he agreed to undertake blood tests, kidney failure was confirmed and after a period of treatment, the man I loved came back to me, the doctor later confirmed that kidney failure can cause this kind of personality change as the body becomes overrun with toxins.
Coming to terms with Neu’s illness, his treatment and it’s significance on our lives has been a hard road, but he is now well (within the limits of his illness) and since beginning daily dialysis at home, has been able to return to occasional fishing trips, which has made a huge beneficial difference to him.
I still get that feeling when he kisses me.