The first time I went to the Hotel Santa Teresa was in the sequence to a party in a venue next to the Morro dos Prazeres favela. Despite the imaginary and real dangers of partying next to a favela, this was one of the best places to organize bashes in Rio; it was called the Casa (not Hotel) Santa Teresa and was like a club at the top of Rio de Janeiro’s hills protected from the surroundings by a tall wall and barbed wire camouflaged by rows of tropical trees. On its grounds there was a swimming pool, a couple of sport fields facing the fantastic view of the far away favela huts clinging on to a Hill with Rio’s city center in the background and then the Guanabara Bay and the Órgãos mountain range at the horizon. At night, with the thousands of little lights stretching away into infinity that view was especially beautiful. That particular event was offered by an organization to protect the Amazonian natives. They had rented the place and had promoted their party by handing out fliers throughout Ipanema beach and other places where the “usual suspects” went.
The place was packed with familiar faces. Everyone loved that venue and while Bob Marley, the Police, the Cure, Billy Idol and Brazilian bands were blasting out of the sound system, we could sit on the grass and chose which side of the glowing city to contemplate from that vintage point almost inside the Tijuca Forest. Maira, the blond girl from the beach was there and this was my chance: after a lot of mutual staring in other parties, gigs and at the beach, I finally took the courage to approach her.
The straight forward approach worked and her response was much better than I had ever expected and after some small talk the passion took over and we were making out. With stars and butterflies dancing around us, we danced a bit and then we sat by the pool. After a couple of romantic hours under the moonlight taking in the blue-eyed beauty that I had been dreaming of for such a long time, I managed to convince her to spend the night together in a Hotel. Both of us had gone up to the Casa de Santa Teresa in friends’ cars so to get out of there on our own we would have to catch Santa Teresa’s tram, the only means of transport at that time at night. The last tram that was about to leave, so we had to find our friends to say goodbye and rush out of the party to catch it.
We ran down the alley leading to the main street, rua Almirante Alexandrino. The old tram was waiting there under a dim light surrounded by tropical trees. It was at its final stop, where the town ended and the forest began. The tram was empty and soon after we hopped in, the conductor approached us, charged our fare and turned on the old machine. He pulled a clunky lever and the bonde started moving and as it gathered speed, it wobbled along old metal tracks. It was completely opened to the elements and as soon as we got moving the cool and perfumed evening breeze surrounded us. I was charmed not only by the nostalgic aura but also by Maira in her flowered, hippy like dress. I could barely believe that she was there holding my hand and that I could now kiss her whenever I felt like. Halfway into the trip, just by chance, I noticed a small placard written Hotel Santa Teresa at the entrance of a parking lot. We asked the driver to stop at the Largo dos Guimaraes, walked up the cobblestone street and went to the reception to ask how much a room was.
It was different to a normal hotel, there was no barrier at the gate and we were hesitant to walk into that deserted terrain with two or three unimpressive cars scattered around. Anyway, we made our way until the old house’s reception. The clerk was awake, he was a skinny bald man in his mid-fifties wearing glasses and was watching a rubbish program on a black and white TV set. He told us that they only rented rooms on a monthly basis and did not accept overnight couples. A bit disappointed, but still dying to be alone with each other we went back to Almirante Alexandrino street and after waiting a long time for a taxi, we decided to walk down to Gloria where there were plenty of one-night rooms to rent. We went hand in hand down the steep hill enjoying the air that smelled great due to the night-blooming Cestrum trees.
The night was great but our relationship didn’t last long; there was another guy in her life, a possible wedding involved and she opted for her parent’s choice. Anyway, the hotel in Santa Teresa stayed in my mind. By curiosity, I had asked how much the monthly rent and realized that it was accessible for my English teacher job. I could imagine myself living there, close to the city center with easy accesses to the beach neighborhoods and at the heart of the bohemian life of that traditional district.
Although it was removed and very few people I knew lived there, Santa Teresa was a fired the imagination of a young carioca – a native from Rio. Although there were no nightclubs and it was not exactly trendy, it had character and was different to anything else in town. The magic of that district was that it seemed to have been frozen in the past, a reminiscence of a Rio de Janeiro that was no more, a fresh breather from the tense, economically depressed South Zone and the Americanized Barra da Tijuca.
The nightlife there was more for the older crowd; people with financial independence who could afford a car. If you didn’t live there, you needed your own means of transport to go there and back at night, as the public transport ended early and most taxis simply refused to go there because of its precarious streets and its closeness to the Morro do Prazeres favela. Rents were cheap and perhaps because of this, there were many young people, mostly alternative, moving there. At night, there were many hippy-like venues with live music and long haired waiters without uniforms, a big novelty in Rio de Janeiro. There were also a few vegetarian places – a rarity in that carnivore city – alongside traditional restaurants that had been there forever, such as the Bar do Arnaudo, with Brazilian north-eastern food and the Adega do Pimenta, an excellent German restaurant.
The opportunity to move there came a couple of years later when Mum re-married. As you already know, I could not stand Ricardo, her new husband and I needed to leave home. On the other hand, Rosa, my girlfriend, was living in a very shabby rented room with an unbearable landlady breathing up her neck. We were dying to live together, not only because of our love story but also by mutual necessity. After a month or so of looking at apartments that were either too expensive or too crap, I suggested the Hotel Santa Teresa, which was cheaper, more central and more attractive than anything we had seen. In addition, it had the advantage that the rent included three meals a day, clothes washing facilities, a pool and a lot of odd and exciting people to keep us company.
The Hotel Santa Teresa was the Brazilian version of Hotel California The guests were divided roughly into three groups: divorced middle-aged men, who occupied the best rooms, pensioners dumped by their families and the crazies and the quirky young professionals like ourselves There was a fourth group composed by unclassifiable characters who seemed to have jumped out of a parallel universe. David, an unemployed Jewish guy in his late fifties who everyone suspected had been a torturer during the military regime who would nag and annoy everyone for their left-overs after our meals in the decrepit dining room. There was also Dinho, a mentally impaired boy dumped there by his family and who we adopted as our mascot. There was also my next door neighbor an ex-psychiatrist for the air force with a very deep voice and a Rudolph Valentino look, he was gay and took an endless stream of young lovers to his bed that happened to be right behind mine on the other side of the thin wooden wall. There was also an American heavy metal guy full of tattoos, a rarity in the mid-eighties, living with his gorgeous Brazilian mulata girlfriend. He ended up leaving after a fight with the gang of divorced guys. There was also Ricardo Ramos, a direct descendant of Graciliano Ramos, one of the greatest Brazilian writers of all times, a very interesting guy and great company, especially when he was drunk and/or high.
There was also a Lula, the future Brazilian president, look-alike, who lived right beneath and who was next door room neighbors to a guy from a favela with a polio deformed leg whose rent was paid for by his high up judge gay lover. In another room there was a woman in her fifties who must have been very attractive when she was younger. Her peculiarity was that she never allowed or invited anyone in her room and never gave her underwear to wash or dry; a mystery that brought up a lot of speculation. In one of the best rooms there was a young captain who had been sacked by the army because he had denounced a general for corruption. Next to his room lived a German ex-monk and then an Argentinian art dealer, a yachting instructor, a theater producer and a guy who was later put in jail for being involved in jewelry swindling. Legend said that Arto Lindsay, a famous American dancer close to the tropicalia movement, Luis Melodia – a big name in Brazilian popular music, Rita Lee – the godmother of Brazilian rock and many other famous people had lived there.
The experience of living in what we called the Hospicio (mental house) Santa Teresa was like the one of being part of a club where different generations and diverse types of people interacted with each other. We slept under the same roof, had the same address, paid the same next to nothing rent, shared the same tables eating the hotel’s terrible food, and used the hotel’s facilities – mainly their old school card playing lounge and their pool – to chat and to play cards, chess and all sorts of other games. For the service personnel it must have felt like working in an asylum rather than in a hotel. Besides the bizarre requests they had to attend to coming from that weird mixture of people, they gossiped without stop among themselves and with guests. An event that brought everyone together was the world cup of 1986. Although the Brazil of Zico, Falcao and Socrates was kicked out by Platini’s France, the drinking and the partying made us blend almost as an extended family. After the tournament, most of us stopped going to the beach on weekends and, instead, stayed back at the hotel enjoying ourselves sunbathing by the pool.