A Fitting Farewell to Pelé

ageing, Brazil, Childhood home, death, Football, Minas Gerais, Pelé, Sport, Três Corações

Since I landed in São Paulo in November, the news about Pelé’s hospitalisation in this self-same city has had a feeling of finality about it. The prognosis for the ex-supremo athlete who, in his pomp, was every bit as super-fit as Christiano Ronaldo is today, was pretty bleak. I thought infirmity and Pelé do not belong in the same sentence. That it just goes to show that even the most physically gifted must one day succumb like all the other unfit has-beens.

By December, his family started to gather at his bedside in the Albert Einstein Hospital. The signals for the 82 year-old rei do futebol were mixed. The headlines ran from round-the-clock end-of-life care to he’s got plenty more life in him. Information. Disinformation. Mortal acceptance. Refusal to bury Brazil’s national treasure. It was hard to tell which way the wave of recovery would break.

A year ago, in a hotel room in Perú – while relaying giddy, sweetheart messages with a new love interest who happened to live down the road from the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sáo Paulo; who, like Edson Arantes Do Nascimento (Pelé’s birth name that we fitba’-mad lads had all memorised with customary difficulty back in the late 70s, early 80s) was a Mineira herself, born and bred in the proud Brazilian state of Minas Gerais – I watched a wonderful Kevin McDonald documentary titled simply Pelé. I was so moved by how this black man could rise from obscurity in a vast nation that had done nothing throughout its 400-year old history but demean Os Pretos, the Portuguese name for its long-suffering blacks – every one a former plantation slave, cutting sugar cane, making cachaça for the white latifúndios and their gang masters who drove the slaves on. And not only that, how he could – through outlandish ball skill topped off with a beautiful perma-smile – grow to become one, i’d contend, of only five black men who were almost universally lauded by whites throughout the entire 20th century, the others being Luther King, Mandela, Marley, and Ali.

And so it was that I came to be in Brazil when the lifeblood was slowly, inexorably draining from Pele’s mighty heart. Two days prior to his death, myself and the lovely Mineira who I flew all this way to be with, were coming down from Sáo Thomé Das Letras, a kind of hippie Glastonbury of magic mushrooms, putative alien sightings, and spiritualist retreats set among the Tolkienesque backcountry of southern Minas Gerais. Life being poetic when most you need it to rhyme, we happened to be passing through Três Corações, Pele’s home town as a young infant. To drive through without a side-stepping homage to Pelé’s first home, now a civic museum, would have constituted an unconscionable crime against decency.

It’s an unassuming place, but by no means the shack that the Western media so erroneously report. Pelé’s family, daddy Dondinho & the Do Nascimentos, were middle-class by the standards of the day. Their house, made of solid plastered walls, contained three bedrooms, a perfectly-fine kitchen, and large living area with dining table, and importantly, a big garden where his grandad kept his lenha, or firewood, which he sold to locals off the back of a horse and cart. Their old house, now a living museum, still does retain these characteristics. In fact, Pelé’s home of circa 1940 is a more affluent and dignified squat even now compared to the canvas squalor that legions of latter-day Brazilians have to exist in. Certainly, plusher than the domestic setting my infant father inherited in postwar Edinburgh. I feel it’s important to set the record straight to the untold numbers who were not as lucky as me to be able to walk into his house two days before he died.

I mentioned the garden. But what few know is what happened in that garden recently that some might construe as uncanny, or somehow prescient. We were sitting on a log on the lawn, my Mineira and I, when the curator, a little old women amiable as can be, told us the tale of the fallen tree trunk in the middle of the garden. While considered of modest size, this tree, now lying with truck snapped, was a sapling, racing to meet the hot Minas Gerais sun when Pelé was a mere 2-year old toddler tottering on the grass, kicking whatever round object that rolled along with a bit of prodding.

I remarked what a pity the trunk had fallen. She said, yes, it matured every step of the way with Pelé. They came into the world in the same year. They grew together. Then he and the tree grew apart when his father took his young family to another Mineiro town in search of a footballing contract. How did it happen? I asked. A storm blew in, she said. Unusual weather conditions for this benign part of the world, she added. When? I asked her. The other weekend, she said, without a hint of irony that the storm had put an end to the tree almost on the same day as Pelé would be admitted to hospital for the final time.

You can only know this by sitting in his old garden. All the platitudes, all the world’s scribes in all the world’s reputable journals scribbling paeans befitting this truly great individual. All looking – like Pelé against every crumbling defence he ever played against – for a tight angle to exploit. And none knowing what I learned that day: that all fates – be they of man or tree – are intimately tied. Pelé and the fallen tree could be an Aesop Fable.

We enter this world together as we leave this world together. Blowin’ in the wind.

Debunking the Myths of Travel, Fifteen Times Over

#adventure, adventure, ageing, debunking, global, myths, Travel, upside_down, world
  1. Seeing the world opens the mind (Not always – travel can have unintended consequences of reinforcing pre-existing cultural stereotypes. Travel obliges you with the power of empirical observation, but for what end? To see for yourself where narrow-minded cultural tropes originate? – Yes, Italians do gesticulate wildly; Aussies can be laconic; Chinese chatty; Germans analytic; Arabs welcoming; Russians deadpan; you get the idea. It’s when these tropes are broken, that’s when travel becomes interesting).
  2. Seeing the world gives you a new found appreciation for home – (Does it? For me, it comprehensively dismantled the whole notion of what home was, never mind where. Rootless, I’m living with the consequences to this day).
  3. Seeing the world enlarges career prospects – (Well, that’s a moot point. Providing you travel often enough, travelling to new lands will become your career at the expense of a ‘real’ one).
  4. Seeing the world fulfils a long-term longing to see the world. (If only. Whoever coined the the idiom ‘travel bug’ wasn’t being glib. Globetrotting is as psychologically addictive as pot. That big first RTW journey won’t quench any thirst you might have had. Rather, it’ll give you an unquenchable taste for more).
  5. Seeing the world is something you do in your 20’s. (Okay. This one’s a marginal call. Admittedly, one does see one’s fair share of the youth out there on the planet’s intersecting backpacker trails. It seems much of the population of Germany between the ages of 23-30 is, at any one time, somewhere out there occupying every square terrestrial metre of planet Earth, lugging a Deuter backpack around and looking confident. But let’s give a warm hand to the intrepid oldies – those who have either been honing their globetrotting skills for decades, or those who are new to the game and humbled into personal excellence by starting their adventures of a life time AFTER spending their lifetime adventures toiling year after year for da man. Deferred gratification exists, but not for everyone).
  6. Seeing the world ensures you’ll never be the same again (Don’t bet on it. That’s why, more often than not it’s so damn disappointing coming home. Personally, this scenario has happened to often to even mention).
  7. Seeing the world is so character-building that for every country visited the next will obviously be easier. (Funny you should mention that. I once knew man who had been to 173 countries. And he swore the hundredth was no easier than the first)
  8. Seeing the world is too much for old timers. (This is a deviation on point no.5 – Ye olde narrative goes rather like this: do your maddest adventures when you’re young and reckless, then when you hit risk-aversion in middle age slow down into sedate sightseeing. No, old is the new young and counter intuition is the new intuition. When one starts one’s travel career as a snowflake puss-in-boots, one can be freaked out at the slightest thing. Arriving in Hong Kong aged 22 in desperate need of work – i can testify to the fear. By the age of 50 life has grown so passé you could watch a beheading on a Friday afternoon in Chop Square, Riyadh, only to consider this spectacle a form of – albeit not to everyone’s taste – entertainment.)
  9. Seeing the world is an elaborate exercise in self-discovery. (Give me a break! Seeing the world is pure discovery. Sometimes you’re so overwhelmed with what you see, outwardly, that you kind of overlook what’s going on inside. Taking in Machu Picchu’s magnificent panorama is a case in point. It’s just a pity those pioneers got there before you. But oh well, no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants).
  10. Seeing the world exposes you to unnecessary danger (Invert that logic if you can. Staying home has a nasty habit of exposing you to a different, more pernicious, form: debt, deadening and disappointment. We can throw another dreaded D into the broth: drudgery. Anyway, the closer one is to death, the closer one is to the true meaning of life: that is, feeling alive).
  11. Seeing the world ain’t what it used to be. (that’s because the world turns on its axis through the uncharted void of spacetime, so it’s bound never to be what it used to be. Besides, it doesn’t help that the human race has an insatiable appetite for eating everything contained therein. See that boring field of soya? That used to be a flourishing rainforest containing a mind-boggling array of flora and fauna – sad emoji)
  12. Seeing the world unaccompanied must be lonesome. (No. It can be lonelier among familiars, let’s face it. Lonesome is not as lonesome does.)
  13. Seeing the world in an act of overexposure to much of what treasure it contains will tear up the conventional path through life to absolution. (Uh? Do you mean if we say hello to too many big trips, we say goodbye to that Holy Trinity of social status we call home, family and career? Well, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t the world already dotted enough with houses and kids playing computer games? Fine, I’m being trite. You can still spearhead that domestic dream by taking mama bear and the cubs with you on your peregrinations. If you want evidence of digital nomadism of the successful kind, go to the Sacred Valley of the Inca in Perú to see a neo-colonialism 21st century-style).
  14. Seeing the world makes you wiser (That’s an insult to all those luminaries who stayed at home to acquire wisdom. Emanuel Kant never left Königsberg; Nietzsche was content with the Alps; Blake’s world was London; and Socrates was no Odysseus. Having said that, it’s hard not to derive some lasting benefits from wandering in foreign lands).
  15. Seeing the world turns you into a global citizen (What a term of nobility! Pity that the best i can do is claim citizenship of nowhere. King without a kingdom. D’oh!).
  16. Can you think of another myth to debunk? Or do you need another RTW trip to experience a Eureka moment!?