Unleashing the Inner Neanderthal

I never entered a gym until I was in my late twenties. In my teenage years running around a pitch pretending to catch a ball, but actually just hitting people and being hit, sufficed to keep me in reasonable shape. At university for my undergrad I maintained my rugby-level boozing, supplemented it with poor diet, and omitted to find a replacement exercise regime, resulting in a physique which could most attractively be described as “Regency.” Starting in my final year and into my early twenties, it all fell off rapidly because of lack of money with which to booze, a job which required me to be on my feet all day, and those goddamn hormones that young people have. (You wait, oh my twenty-something readers. You just wait. You will hit thirty and that effortlessly firm and lean physique will suddenly require twice as much work just to stay the same.)

As my twenties progressed, the chub returned to a degree, due to working in publishing: an industrial machine whose human gears are oiled by the frequent and excessive application of alcohol. An attempt to address this by the enthusiastic though utterly incompetent playing of squash resulted, late in my twenties, in a herniated disc in my spine, three months off work, and the general pain that comes with this most unattractive of middle-age’s precursors.

Once I had slowly edged my way back to mobility, I resolved never to let this happen again, and to that end joined a gym. This, despite my firm conviction that gymnasia were horrendous sweat-pits of hypertrophied masculinity, and that picking up heavy things just to put them down again was an existential epic fail, and probably a grotesquely unnecessary messing with entropy to boot. To my immense surprise I found that gyms are really rather ordinary places, that entropy can look after itself, and I additionally realized that nothing else I do in my entire life will have any cosmic consequence at all, so my inevitably, ultimately wasted years might as well be spent inevitably, ultimately-wastedly buff. This was enhanced by the discovery, led on by an exceptionally awesome trainer in Oxford, that I particularly liked picking up stupidly heavy things. I found my Inner Neanderthal, and I embraced him.

A few years of not unreasonable almost-buffness ensued, but of late the chub has returned again. The distance, it is true, from my house in Bath to the nearest gym was not conducive to fitting in a quick session. But I also have been worrying that I have lost the enthusiasm. I had of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my thirst, foregone all custom of exercises. Could it be that I am, horrifyingly, just past it?

So why am I relating this now? Well, after a couple of days in Picinguaba—a village in Brazil with no gym, but substantial quantities of beer—I realized today that the situation was hardly going to improve. So, as my friend Peter was driving into Paraty—the nearest decent-sized town—today, I hopped in the car to go to the gym there.

I used to live in Paraty, sporadically, some years ago, and was a member of a gym there, so I went back to Corpo em forma—where I was pleasantly surprised to discover they remembered me—paid the day-rate, and went in to try and ameliorate the belly situation. Let me describe this place to you. It is cheap. It is on the upper storey of an L-shaped shopping precinct, the front of which is open-air except for a lightweight awning to keep off the direct sun. The inside of the gym has fans, but they are never on. The mats on the floor are so elderly and abused that one suspects that what little cushioning they have is less retained from an earlier, more bouyant, phase of their existance than it is simply the accumulated absorbed sweat that has dripped down on them. The weights are shameless lumps of iron with occasionally visible numbers on them, and there are no clips with which to hold them in place on the bars: if you can’t maintain them stable, they will fall off and you will look a fool. The guys who work there are Brazilians, and therefore were born buff even before they started putting decidedly suspicious compounds in their bodies, and wouldn’t conjugate their verbs even if they knew how. It is a horrendous sweat-pit of hypertrophied masculinity and, secretly, shame-facedly, I love it. I rediscovered my Inner Neanderthal today, and tomorrow is really gonna hurt.

There is a coda to this story, and one which will justify and even form a kind of absolution for my confession of secret ferrophilia. I did no CV in the gym, because (a) it was 30 degrees in the shade, and (b) I just hate it so much. Instead, after I’d finished, I went to the rodoviária to get the bus back to Picinguaba.

I now need to supply you with a little geography. Picinguaba lies halfway between the towns of Paraty and Ubatuba; the former is in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and the latter the state of São Paulo. Picinguaba is about five miles into the São Paulo side so, because local buses operate upon a state-level system, you have to get two buses to get back to Picinguaba: one from Paraty to the divisão, and one from the divisão to Picinguaba. Additionally, Picinguaba is not actually on the main road between Paraty and Ubatuba, but down a long, badly-kept, and extremely hilly road. There is a bus-stop at the junction. Some of the buses to Ubatuba from the divisão take a detour down into Picinguaba, others do not. It’s not an extremely long road, but it is about a twenty minute detour for the bus, because the road is only just wide enough, pot-holed, and so steep in places that it is not unknown for the bus to actually roll over as it attempts to make a particularly vertiginous turn.

There was a bus waiting at the divisão, and so I asked a guy also waiting whether this one went into Picinguaba. No, he replied, it did not. I thought about it, and decided to get it anyway, as I could always get out at the junction stop and either wait for a bus coming the other way, or start walking into Picinguaba and flag down a lift from anyone passing.

So we arrived at the junction, I rang the bell, and disembarked. The bus pulled away and immediately swung around, went back up the road for twenty metres, and took the turning into Picinguaba.

Do you know that feeling when you drop a freshly-poured gin and tonic, quite possibly due to it being far from the first freshly-poured gin and tonic that has passed your way already? How it descends in slow-motion to shatter upon the floor, and how unreasonable it seems that you can’t simply unwind time just a few seconds to undo what was obviously a minor, uncosmic error. That. Off it merrily, but slow-motionally went, down the road that led to Picinguaba, leaving me on a sun-struck, boiling highway with no-one else at the stop, and no indication of when the next bus would be.

Reader, I walked it. Someone would come. Someone would pass me. My face is known in Picinguaba, people are generous and friendly, and it is a given that if you are going down the road and they have space in their car they will pick you up.

No-one came.

No-one picked me up.

I walked all four fucking miles of it, in the afternoon heat, already exhausted from my over-enthusiastic gymming. Up steep hills, on an uneven road, passing en route the ditch with broken trees where, Peter had coincidentally pointed out to me on the way out, the latest bus-overturning had taken place. I did my CV after all.

Of course the bus was ahead of me, and had to return, and I passed the bus coming down the steepest stretch as I was coming up it. (Hoffnung, anyone?) The guy who had told me it did not enter Picinguaba was still on it, of course, and sat on the side facing me. The bus was moving slowly, for it had pot-holes and inclines to negotiate, so I had time to look him full in the face.

Brazilian men largely operate on a combination of testosterone, boundless optimism, and a total, utter, bloody-minded refusal to admit that they are ever wrong. I have been coming to this country for about ten years now, and I have finally seen an expression on someone’s face that I never thought I would.

Contrition.

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