Recycling People

Grandma died on 17th January 2010 at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The following day, which the pundits refer to as ‘Blue Monday’, the most depressing day of the year, I went to her home in Croydon.

This house, of which she and my grandfather were the first, and thus far the only, owners, has, with the exception of the occasional minor decorative adjustment or ornamental addition, remained exactly the same for my entire life.

And bar one or two anomalies, this is the first time I have been to the house without her greeting me at the door. I mope around the rooms. Her spectacles have been casually put down on the kitchen table. Upstairs, her bed is unmade. It is all gut-wrenching.

I suppose I had expected the objects in her house, for which I have developed a deep affection over my own 37 years, to yield up some truth. But without her, they too seemed dead. Somewhat reluctantly, I take out my camera and set about trying to record the rooms of her house. What the lens is drawn to are the patterns on the carpets and curtains, the wallpaper, the tiles, the tablecloths.



These designs, which have been so influential, their colours and shapes, their flocked and embossed textures, have witnessed my life. They are my heritage.

After an hour or two my elder sister arrives. She has brought champagne and her own attempt at Grandma’s speciality: yellow potatoes. We sit in the kitchen and toast Grandma, doing most probably for the last time what we have done at this table since we were tiny children: we eat and drink.

We go to the cabinet and get out some albums. Looking at the photographs, what we remember most is doing just that: bringing out the photograph albums, sitting on the sofa, and looking at the images; most of which were taken before we were born, or before we can remember.

Grandma Photo Album

We shut the door behind us. My sister pats the brickwork as if it were a small child, and then we walk down the hill.

The following day I board the plane for Brazil.

So I have returned to the São Paulo heat and tropical rain. In the space of 10 days my own little world has gone through the profoundest of shifts. Saying my eternal farewell to Grandma is the absolute end of a family era, as we all move along the conveyer belt of our own mortality. It is not only sadness. As one friend and colleague wrote to me, “lucky Grandma and lucky you for your lives together”. It is true. And Grandma has been visiting me in my dreams these past few nights, in such a visceral way. Always chatty, alert and calm, it is difficult not to consider these meetings with her as something more than the ramblings of my unconscious.


I am really trying to get back to work. My presentation is on 4th February, less than two weeks away. It is then that I will present some of my research and the proposals that I have been working on. Although I will be in Brazil for a further two and a half weeks after the presentation and my work will continue, the idea is to get it over with before everyone enters the Carnival atmosphere (13th-16th February) which apparently is so all-consuming that anything non-Carnival related is an impossibility. Besides which, I could do with some Carnival atmosphere myself and am aiming for the big one with a trip to Rio de Janeiro.

On the suggestion of an environmental lawyer who I met some weeks ago, I tracked down and watched the National Geographic TV ‘Megacities’ programme on São Paulo. This account of Brazil’s waste system is the kind of slick advertisement a government would commission. The oppressively upbeat narration and pounding graphics hammer out a utopian vision of the world leader in recycling. The facts cannot be denied but as I have discovered they only tell half the story. In the São Paulo of National Geographic, the catador that they interview is wearing the spotless pink and white apron of a domestic to the upper classes. Not exactly what you see on the streets.

The documentary does, however, highlight some of the tremendous successes here, especially the integration of technology and person-power. One fantastic fact is the number of days it takes to turn a can into a can: 33. You could throw out your ‘Guaraná Antartica’ can on the 24th January and be drinking ‘Coke Zero’ from it again on the 26th February. That’s pretty impressive. It goes something like this:

1. The can is collected by a catador. (Don’t forget that 100% of municipal waste here is landfill but at the same time 90% of aluminium is recycled, which means that the catadores or private schemes, are entirely responsible for the collection of cans, and are doing a brilliant job.)

Can 1

2. The cans are taken to a sorting plant, either directly or via an intermediary. Here they are cleaned and crushed.

Can 2

3. Crushed cubes of aluminium are then transported to the factory.

Can 3

4. Here they are melted down and made into a giant ingot. (This picture is of a river of molten aluminium.)

Can 4

5. The giant ingot is heated up and pushed through a series of rollers until it becomes 2mm thick. These giant sheets are coiled and then sent off to the canning factories.

Can 5

The process can be repeated again and again. And so somehow the history of your drinking is also the history of those people who drank from the same metal container in the past.

It is the 33 ‘can to can’ days that have given me the number of proposals I am going to present. 33 proposals for São Paulo. It’s been very liberating coming up with ideas without having to think too carefully about the pragmatics of how they might actually happen. But now that I have a collection of proposals, I am hoping that someone who comes along on the 4th February might actually want to commission something.


Of course being back in Brazil means being back to marvelling at the number of ways to ‘do’ bananas. In the years of my life before I discovered Bananinha, I would buy dried banana in health food shops in the UK. These ‘Banana Passa Orgânica’ are pretty much what I am used to.

Organic Banana 1

Super chewy 100% banana. Lovely but ugly. (No wonder they put them in an opaque wrapper.)

Organic Banana 2

These badly photographed tropical nibbles are chocolate covered pieces of dried banana. Nice idea, but as neither the chocolate nor the banana was actually that good, it scores poorly.

Chocolate Covered Banana

One unexpected banana happening made itself known on my kilo lunch plate. Kilo restaurants are very popular here and very affordable. Basically it’s a buffet and you pay by weight. (A godsend for fussy eaters.) Notice the oblong rust coloured thing at the bottom of the plate that looks like a slightly misshapen fish finger.

Kilo Lunch 1

Well, it’s a banana fried in breadcrumbs.

Kilo Lunch 2

Actually it was delicious. Banana ‘frita’; a perfect accompaniment to salad. Who would have thought?


One non-related banana fruit-fact: I thought people that haven’t seen it before might like to be introduced to the fruit of the cashew tree. Next time you buy a 250g pack of salted cashews think of this. Each one of those nuts once sat on top of the most delicate of fruits that looks somewhat like a human heart. The flesh is very fragile and has an extremely short shelf life (which is why they only appear in markets close to the trees). It makes an extremely refreshing juice, something like a cross between apple and lychee.

Cashew Fruit

This morning I went to see the Boxing Academy that has sprung up underneath one of the many flyovers in the centre of the city. Exclusively for the use of the extremely poor or homeless, the sign on the gate reads: boxing not drugs.

Boxing Academy 1

It’s not the most conducive of environs for keeping fit, wrapped, as it were, by fast moving traffic, but the equipment seems of the high standard you would expect in any ‘regular’ gym and there is a lot of it.

Boxing Academy 2

Boxing Academy 3

The guy that set it up describes himself as a ‘recycler of people’. I found this a very provocative statement. Ultimately we are all subject to the fragility of our corporeality but while we can, we can use our physical matter to effect a personal transformation.