Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the category “short stories”

The First Chicken in Copacabana


My parents emigrated from the UK to Rio de Janeiro in the late 50’s. If the countries are different now imagine back then; it was a completely different world. A good illustration of this  was their first purchase of a chicken on Brazilian soil:

In those days they were sold alive. The way it worked was that you chose one and it was delivered to your home a few hours later. It was adventurous enough for Mum to go to such a shop and it was a given that she would not take it home herself. No one would ever expect an elegant “madame” to walk around with a freshly killed chicken in the stylish Copacabana streets.

It was the maid who received the poultry packed in newspaper pages at the back door of the flat. After bringing the future meal in and lying it on her bathroom floor, she went to my mum to try to explain something that seemed urgent. In her very poor Portuguese, Mum understood that there was a problem in cutting the head off. The bulk of their cutlery had not been cleared by customs yet  and only knives they had at home were butter ones. This was unexpected because she assumed that the chicken would come from the shop plucked gutted and ready for stuffing.

Without thinking much about it, and delighted to have a maid to boss around the logical orders were to pour boiling water on its neck to soften the meat and then re-trying with a bit more strength. That would have certainly worked had the chicken not been alive. The shrieks coming from the maid’s quarters made her realize that there was something wrong. When she got there to check out what was happening she understood the morbidity of the situation. The bird was in agony and being dealt by an equally horrified maid, who must have thought that the “gringa” was mad but that orders were orders.

After disposing of the poor chicken, and without the option of buying a ready-made meal in a take away by the corner, they were obliged to eat out in a restaurant . The recently arrived couple must have laughed a lot about the event during their enjoyable evening out by the sea. I never thought of asking about the destiny of the was-to-be meal and would like to think that the maid took it home and provided a feast to her children in the favela.

The early gangster days of Computer Graphics in Rio de Janeiro – part 01

ZonaSulThis was already in the nineties.
I had come back from Europe after the storm of the Fernando Collor years to begin my career as a computer graphics artist. In my luggage was the strange experience of being a salesman/semi-legal smuggler of visual effects equipment travelling between France and the UK and then as a Sales Manager for the same sort of goods in Portugal, this time in a bigger company where I wore suits and had a secretary. I promise to write on those crazy times in another post but this only comes in because it shows an unusual background for a Carioca at the time.
I had fallen in love with those image manipulation and three-dimensional softwares and my mind was made up to be part of the circus. However, succeeding in Computer Graphics in Rio de Janeiro was a steep mountain to climb: in 1994 one could count on the fingers the people who were doing it professionally. I didn’t care and reckoned that if I came back home, bought a PC and ran after my dream the chances of making it were higher than in the European market where the absence artistic or computer related training were a serious handicap.
My guess was spot on; I began calling production houses and most of them were happy to talk to me. As expected they had state of the art video editing equipment and were starting to open their eyes to the possibilities of Computer manipulated images. This was happening abroad and was bound to happen there sooner or later. The people I met were evasive about a possible partnership or about having me as a computer graphics department in their premises  However something struck me: all the studios I visited had signs announcing that they had been recently mugged by an armed gang and asking for any possible leads.
In one of the houses, I bumped into an ex-colleague from University, she had studied art in London and had actually worked at Framestore a facility that would become one of Soho’s biggest. She was on her way out and with her recommendation the doors opened and I got my first job as a CG artist. The owner was the son of the Teresa Rachel theater, see my post about the venue, and it was not by chance that the studio was in the same shabby gallery in Copacabana. The job would not last long, the owner was into video art and had no patience for the slowness of what I wanted to introduce.
Magnetoscopio was quite a trendy place, they had done several music videos with the biggest pop names of the time: Renato Russo, Blitz, Titas and many others. The highlight of my three months there was an exhibition he organized with the american videoartist Bill Viola, for me the greatest artist of the end of the 20th century. It is not that I had an important role in the show, I was there helping to hang things from the walls and from the ceiling and making sure that the equipment had not suffered from the journey. Anyway I made some new friends there and one of them, Marcos, got interested in what I did and promised me to put me in contact with more people.
In the meantime my dentist sister talked about me to one of her clients who was a big shot in one of Rio’s biggest advertising agencies, Artplan. It was a thrilling invitation but in a few days I discovered that this was all about bringing in an extra computer for free to the office rather that doing anything related to footage for commercials. To my luck, the time as a useless artist for tests that the cocaine head art directors asked for was short-lived; one day I received a phone call of a guy calling himself Hoarse Duck (Pato Rouco) saying that Marcos had recommended me and asking me to come in to discuss about a commercial to be done in Computer Graphics.
Nervous, with a demo-reel containing the few experiments I had done with the software I went to meet the guy in his studio that was in one of the worst parts of town; the Feira de Sao Cristovao. As I came into his office the bearded muscular guy in his early forties who seemed to have popped out of a Honcho magazine was sitting with a fat man from Sao Paulo. He got up from his chair and greeted me as if we knew each other for a long time. He presented me to his client and said.
“This is our computer graphics artist!”
The next thing I knew was that I was working on a thirty second commercial for an English course in one of the roughest areas of Rio de Janeiro, and a few weeks later I was seeing my work on TV screens all over town.
Things happened so fast that I never stopped to think what I was getting into. After the second commercial, work went quiet and I started to observe better what was around me. Computer Graphics is a profession known for late nights and going home was one the unsafest experiences I have ever had; I had to walk alone through a unpoliced area famous for having the highest mugging rates in Rio. My work colleagues were all from the most modest areas of town and were street wise rough and kept on insisting that I bought a gun. Their stories were horrific, one of them had witnessed a gang war in a favela where the rival faction hung the head of the defeated leader on a post. On another occasion some others were stranded for three days in a favela at war.
The only two other guys from the South Zone were the editors. One of them only appeared occasionally, he lived in Sao Paulo and liked to brag about how much money he was making. The other one, Luis, was a more shadowy character who lived in Botafogo. He was my age, big and looked like a corrupt police officer, we got along well and were lunch companions; he was curious about Computer Graphics and I was curious about the crazy stories he had to tell. It must be said that I was considered the lovable nerdy guy and the conversations between me and my peers never went further than talking about computers, football and women.
One day one of the runners said that he had heard that Luis and his brother were part of the armed gang that was stealing the other production companies and that the owners had found him out and were going to kill him. Not sure of what to do, we approached him and said that we did not want to know if this was true or not but we had heard this, this and that and that he should be careful. His reaction was to laugh about it and get back to work.
However, a week later he received an urgent phone call while working, asked someone to finish what he was doing and rushed out. Two days later he was on the front page of one of Rio’s crime dedicated newspapers, dead with his body full of bullet holes. After that the owners of other studios left town while Hoarse Duck productions was in a pandemonium.
I over heard conversations about cameras that only went from his house to shooting sessions and back and other creepy stories. I though to myself that I had been introduced to the CG world through a very bizarre door and that now my new mission was to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

The Chimpa

ChimpaI knew Herbert from before Uni, we had both studied at the Colegio Andrews and belonged to the same group of friends. In our freshmen’s class, as we started to meet new friends we ended up belonging to the same crowd again. When the group started to frequent each others’ house we discovered that, differently to everybody else, he lived alone with his older brother in Copacabana.

His address was close to the neighborhood’s main traffic artery, the ever congested Nossa Senhora de Copacabana Avenue. Although a bit uninviting at first his flat was very unusual; it had originally been the porters’ premises and was built like a house on top of its roof. As Copacabana’s construction laws stated twelve as the maximum floors a building could have, his “house”was inserted in a bizarre landscape of rooftops and tv antennae with vertiginous drops to the street down bellow. This madness was surrounded by untouched hills on one side and by the presence of the ocean on the other. During the day it was like being in the country; the serenity up there contrasted with what went on bellow. Far away “ neighbors” carried on with their lives: we could see women putting clothes to dry, guys looking after their bird cages and children playing football and flying kites. At night it was as if we were the only ones in a deserted village free from the city down below.

It didn’t take long for the mixture of that unusual setting and the absence of intruding parents to transform that magic spot into the “gang’s” meeting point. After class, nothing serious to do? where should we go? Herbert’s house. In a night with no parties, where should we go? Herbert’s house. The party is no good? Let’s phone Herbert to see if he is in. Had a row with the girlfriend? where to go? what to do? phone Herbert… You get the picture.

As Cannabis became more popular,  the fact that the house was on the last floor and that the illegal and strong smoke went up unnoticed by unwelcome noses made it even more popular. This was a time when Rio’s South Zone’s youth was discovering Bob Marley, and that fell down like a glove on a frozen hand. It was our  ritual to go to the “house in the sky”, put on Reggae as loud as possible and stay admiring the surrealism of that place.

On one special afternoon I visited Herbert for our usual Marley session. While feeling the cannabical “enzimes” acting numbing our thoughts, we had a revelation and noticed the Cantagalo hill in a way that it had never been seen before. It looked like a Chimpanzee’s face!!! (see the picture above). We had a Cheech and Chong epiphany that has lasted until the current days. From then on his house became called the “Chimpa”. It became a code we used in every second phrase, “Let’s meet at the Chimpa”, “You won’t believe what happened at the Chimpa last night!” “This new Bob Marley song! So good… we have to hear it at the Chimpa.”

After so many years, with all our friends having all sorts of successful careers, some living abroad, we still hail Copacabana’s sleeping giant Chimpanzee.

Adventures in the Hotel Santa Teresa – Part 03


The next sign that we were on a wrong path was more tragic. On Christmas eve, Kadu was celebrating with his mother and his son when went to the bathroom for an extra-long line. As the powder hit his circulatory system his heart did not resist the artificial over-stimulation, which resulted in a cardiac arrest that killed him on the spot bringing tragedy to his family, spoiling the Hotel’s festivities and making everyone think twice about what they were doing.

Not long after that, the negative wave hit me again, but this time in full. I was about to deliver the precision scale that had been in my room for weeks back to its owner. Because I was late for a class at the university I had to take a taxi. On the way there we came across a police “blitz”, where a policeman stopped us and asked me to get out of the car. I left the scale in its bag inside but he told me to get it out and open the bag. As soon has he saw what was inside he asked for my I.D. card and called his colleagues. After I was surrounder by four or five of them, I showed my documentation as well as my university card.

“Why are you carrying a precision scale?” asked one of them.

“I use it for my studies, officer; I am a student at the Federal University.”

“Let me see that, student card again” He examined it “Hmmm.. what do you need a precision balance for if you are studying economics?”

The policemen stepped away and talked for a while until the first one came back to me. “Where do live?”

The next thing I knew, I was in a police car surrounded by cops with other four police cars following behind us, heading to the Hotel. When we got there it was a sunny and, as this was on a weekday around lunch time, most of the other tenants had gone out. I was in the captain’s vehicle, and when we stepped out I could see that he liked the place, and while he tidied his clothes, his body posture expressed the satisfaction of having caught a good kill.

“Nice place to live at, rich boy! Let’s go into your room and see what you have there.”

The policemen stormed into the hotel unceremoniously; they didn’t say anything at the reception and we went straight up the stairs and into to my room. With nine cops inside the space where I lived, slept and did my things I was very worried about how that day was going to end. Although they only had a scale as evidence, they could invent anything they wanted and it would be my word against theirs. Ever hear of planting evidence?

As one would expect, they began a game of good cop versus bad cop, one of them telling me that the captain was a cool guy who only needed some “collaboration” to let me go, and his nodding back saying that I could get five years.

“You know what they do to young rich boys like you in prison, don’t you?”

The captain and a few other officers sat on my bed while others searched the room. Soon my “friend” a big black cop, who almost got me believing he was nice and that I could trust him, came out of the bathroom with a vase in his hand. He looked very happy and started to rub his butt on to a colleague’s crotch and said.

“OK, have fun with this black hole!”

I was even more confused about his reaction but he showed me the vase I realized that they had found the weed seeding that I was planting outside the bathroom.

He gave me a wide smiled and said, “I promised him that the day we found one of these he could do whatever he wanted with my backside!”

The others laughed. Now that they found had hard evidence and didn’t need to resort to planting some, I was a lame duck. They reconvened and after a few minutes the “good” cop called me to the side and said.

“Look the captain told me that he will let you go if you pay the team five thousand cruzados (about a thousand US dollars).” He looked at me in a patronizing way, lifted his shoulders and continued. “There is nothing I can do; he is the Captain.”

I didn’t have that kind of money on me but I knew that a neighbor, a rich guy from the south of Brazil did. They let me go to his bedroom accompanied by the “nice” cop and when I knocked he opened the door and I was relieved that he was there. With an officer standing next to me and four police cars in the Parking lot, it didn’t take much for him to guess what that was about. After telling him how much I needed and guaranteeing that I’d be able to pay him when I received my salary, he was superb, accepted my word and handed a check without hesitation.

With the bribe in hand, we went back to my room and after the Captain examined the check, the cops left telling me to be careful with drugs as they were bad for my health. It took some time form to hear their cars leaving the hote. I just sat there completely dumbfounded. Relieved for not going to jail but gutted by what had just happened, a knock on the door took me out of my state of shock. It was the manager telling me that Olavo, the owner of the hotel, wanted to talk to me. I knew him well enough to say hi every time I saw him, but we had never stopped to have a conversation. He was in his early sixties and had the air of a playboy, legend said that he had lost, and was continuing to loose, all his money in gambling. He was sitting on a comfortable leather chair behind a classical office table in his office, the only air-conditioned room in the hotel. He invited me to sit down, asked the manager to leave the room and began to talk. He was not angry, but he was firm.

“So your name is Richard, right?”

I reclined in my chair, weighing the shit I was in and replied. “Yes, I live in the room next to the staircase on the third floor.”

“I know, you have been living here for a year and a half already, it’s all here in the papers.” He gave a deep sigh and the pleasantries were over. “Well… As you know, the police were here in the hotel. While most of them were in your room three of them came in here to talk to me about you.”

“Oh… I am sorry about that!”

“No… No need to be sorry, it is what it is, luckily you are still free.” He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “The fact is that they threatened to close down the hotel because I was harboring a drugs dealer.”


“Look, I know that you are not a drugs dealer and that they were after your money. You are just a good kid hanging out with the wrong people. The reality is that the officers who were here asked for nine thousand cruzados to keep their mouths shut and keep the hotel’s reputation. Now that is a lot of money.” I was going to say something but he cut me short. “I won’t ask you to pay me back this money, although if I called in a lawyer I could, the only thing I am going to ask you to do is to leave my establishment by the end of today.”

There was no argument against his request.

Rosa and I had to move that same night to Tania’s, who was living in the worst address of Copacabana, the infamous Galeria Alaska, but his is another story.

My saga became famous; from all the crazies who had ever lived there, I had been the only person to be expelled from the Hotel Santa Teresa. An accomplishment that will never be repeated as the hotel was bought later on by a French group and is currently one of the most exclusive and best ones in Rio, where rock stars such as Amy Winehouse and other big shots stay when they go to Rio.

If you don’t believe it visit their site: http://www.santa-teresa-hotel.com/


Adventures in the Hotel Santa Teresa – Part 02


After a year, the hotel became a mixture of home, club and circus; we enjoyed that neighborhood as if we were in a village and only left Santa Teresa for work or for special occasions. Whenever we could. and the weather permitting, we’d hang around appreciating the view, chatting and making music. Meanwhile, as in any human gathering, groups began to form and, perhaps because of our financial limitations, Rosa and I stayed stuck with the bohemian one but continued to have good relations with everyone else. On meal times, all factions came together and greeted each other in the lobby, where the old folk played cards, the divorcees showed off their latest girlfriends and Rico, a pianist/actor played tunes on the hotel’s old piano.

These were the mid-eighties, and cocaine consumption was rampant. When Luis Melodia’s producer, Sergio, came to live in one of the better rooms the partying became heavier. The girls who served us in the dining room lived in the Morro dos Prazeres favela so the supply of the white stuff was never a problem. It didn’t take long for our noses to be constantly running while we locked ourselves together in each other’s rooms, talking like crazy before going out to town to party. Rosa and I were the youngest of the group and it was great to hang out with our new well-connected and more experienced friends. Because I was very skinny and somewhat green, there were many attempts to snatch her from me, but as far as I know, no one ever succeeded.

A few months down the line, a heavy surfer type called Kadu moved in and it did not take long for him to join the gang. He had split up with his girlfriend and for some reason he shared his room with his mum and his young son. He was two years older than me, 27, and his brother was a proper drug dealer who constantly went to New York on “business”. As we had similar backgrounds; both of us were exiles from Ipanema. Soon we became mates and the friendship was blessed by his mum, an upper class lady who felt comfortable to tell me how horrified she was with the level of the people in that hotel. With him, my consumption became serious and as money started to become an issue, strange ideas about buying and selling the white powder began to cross my mind.

Meanwhile, at college a colleague came up with a “business” deal he was trying to set up with an American who wanted to buy a large quantity of blow to take back to the U.S. In my naivety, I thought this was a good opportunity to make some extra cash and asked around in the Hotel if anyone had a contact who could get me 250 grammes of cocaine, a respectable amount. Petit, a famous illustrator from Sao Paulo whose leg had also been affected by polio, lived with his straight girlfriend in one of the good rooms. He was one of the most popular characters in the hotels who despite his handy cap was always in a good mood and drunk. He put me in contact with Gamba, a toothless black guy from the Sao Carlos favela with Mike Tyson’s build but taller. We met in the car park one night; I gave him a thousand hundred US dollars and he said he’d be back with the stuff in two days.

The goods took much longer to arrive than he had promise and my friend at university and I began to get nervous. We put pressure on Petit but he did not know where nor how to find, Gamba. When the stuff finally arrived, we got a precision scale to weigh it and there was only about half of what we had ordered, one hundred and fifty grammes. We made a desperate attempt to find him, but that night there was a raid and the streets around the hotel were alive with police cars and with officers stopping everyone who dared to pass by. We did mage to circulate, knocked on a few doors but as soon as we mentioned the name Gamba, they turned away or closed their doors in fear.

There was no other option other than mixing the stuff with something else. The next day we bought vitamin C pills and boric acid and added them to the content. As we sat there like junky scientists doing our thing, it was hard to convince the rest of the guys not to dive into the pure stuff and I almost got into a fight with Kadu to make sure this didn’t happen. Anyway, we refrained from consuming our merchandise and managed to get the mixture convincing and ready. In the end because the coke wasn’t as good as our customer expected we had to give the American a huge discount and barely broke even. Our plans to commemorate our debut as dealers were reduced to finishing up the small portion we had kept for ourselves.


Signs from heaven began to appear saying that we were doing the wrong thing.

The first one was a car accident. I was about to graduate in Economics at the UFRJ and to do so I needed to complete obligatory the university’s Physical Education program. I had left this problem in the back burner because of my heavy life style that involved living at the Hotel Santa Teresa tenant, being an English teacher, a college student and guitarist in a rock and roll band all at the same time. As the graduation date approached this issue became serious because if I did not get the credits, I simply would not graduate. A chance came up; they organized a hike to the Pico da Tijuca, the highest point in the Tijuca forest and whoever went on it would get the grade and pass. This was just what I needed, but there was a problem: Getting there. The closest bus stop was a one-hour walk away and without a car I would have no means of meeting the group at the assembly point at the beginning of the trail which was located deep in the forest.

Maria do Carmo, a quiet journalist and psychologist who lived in the hotel was volunteered to lend me her beetle for that morning. I was very grateful for her being kind enough to save my academic life despite not knowing me very well. Not only on from the academic point of view was the outing good news; this was going to be an amazing trek through Rio’s dense forest on a sunny day, a healthy break from all that craziness. I arrived there in her blue beetle at seven-thirty am and by ten we were already had already reached the peak. The air was clear, the sky was cloudless, the weather was perfect and the view was magnificent and up there everyone was ecstatic for seeing Rio de Janeiro in all its glory. We all came back in a great mood and I was looking forward for lunch and an afternoon by the hotel’s pool.

Santa Teresa a half an hour drive away through the forest. After signing the teacher’s roll call, as soon as I got back into the car I took out a joint and put Bob Marley on the cassette player and drove through the narrow roads. As I was about to arrive at the place where tourists go up to the Christ Statue, I went round a curve while a coach was coming in the opposite direction. It was an awkward moment because the road was very narrow and I had to squeeze between the tour bus on my left and the rock wall on my right. While we were crossing each other, it felt like driving in a narrow corridor. At that moment, a car overtook the bus and we had a frontal collision. Although both of us must have been going at twenty kilometers an hour, the crash was strong enough for me to break the front glass with my forehead, and made a significant dent on Maria do Carmo’s car’s bonnet.

I got out of the car fuming and trying to think what I would tell when I got back to the hotel. I was OK, no bones damaged, but the site of the car in that state made everything go red, so I went up to the driver preparing to beat the hell out of him but could not believe when I saw that he was a friend of mine.

“Rique, it’s you?! Sorry man!”

“What a prick! It could only be you! What the fuck was passing through your head man?!”

He could only admit his fault and apologize. On the positive side he agreed immediately to pay for all the expenses.

Then there was the case of the borrowed bass guitar. Out of the blue Heitor, our drummer, called me up to say that Charles, our manager and mentor, wanted to hook us up with a great singer. The sixteen-year-old vocalist happened to be Tim Maia’s nephew, Tim Maia being the godfather of Brazilian Soul and Funk a tropical mixture of Barry White, by competence and looks, and James Brown, by attitude.

As our Bass player, Duda, was travelling it fell on me to replace him. I had to ask around for a borrowed bass and managed to borrow one from my English course colleague, Erwin. It was a fake Brazilian made Rickenbaker but with a heavy and jazzy sound. I took it to the hotel, showed it off and trained with it a bit until my fingers got used to the thicker strings and I was ready for the rehearsal.

Tim Maia’s nephew, Ed Motta, would grow to become a big name in Brazilian music, also singing funk and soul, classier but less charismatic than his uncle. For us in the Charle’s studio in the Morro de Sao Carlos favela, he was just an overweight but massively talented teenager looking for a band. The rehearsal went really well with us playing known songs, some of our funks which he improvised over and simply jamming. However, we never heard of him again. it must be said that Duba, our guitarist, was great at solos but not as great with rhythms, in particular funk, that was my specialty, so perhaps the band may have been too heavy for him.

When I got back to the hotel, I put the bass in the room and found Rosa playing cards with some old ladies at the reception. We were late for a concert I had got free tickets for at the Circo Voador, Rio’s coolest venue in neighboring Lapa. She excused herself and we left for Barao Vermelho’s concert which was great. The house was packed, the energy was perfect and the band was inspired which allowed for a fantastic Brazilian Rock night.

When we got back to the hotel the room door was open and Erwin’s bass was missing. We searched like crazy, a friend from the hotel drove me up and down Santa Teresa to see if we caught anyone walking around with a bass guitar case, but neither helped. The next morning, we asked the hotel manager to search in people’s rooms but he refused, which annoyed me but there was nothing I could do. We asked around but nobody seemed to know about my colleague’s instrument. The end result was that I was forced to buy him a new bass and that I began to mistrust people in the Hotel.




Adventures in the Hotel Santa Teresa – Part 01


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.


Adventures in the Favela – Part 02 – Tania became a prostitute.

Rosa was from Florianopolis in the south of Brazil, a city known for good waves and for beautiful women. Marquinhos lived there and only came to visit us on weekend. When I met her she had just arrived in Rio with a friend, Tania. To be honest the night we met at a party of the Green party, I had fancied Tania’s wild looks. She had curly hair a small backside but breasts way bigger than the Brazilian average. Rosa was prettier but quieter and less sexual. However, she was more receptive that night and after a short courtship we fell deeper for each other and ended up living together.

I soon discovered that Tania was in fact too sexual. Every week she told us about a new guy: a waiter, a tourist, a surfer, a rich guy, a poor guy, a guy from another state; she was very democratic. The two girls continued to be friends and I got to know their story. They knew each other from Florianopolis and had come to Rio for the same job, subscription salesgirls for a left wing magazine. Tania didn’t last a month in the job and was fired after having a huge argument with a boss who tried to have sex with her. Now, jobless, without any money to pay her rent, with drug habits, with a great sexual appetite and knowing no one except Rosa in town, she ended up in the oldest profession in the world; prostitution.

With money coming in, she lived in several places, but everywhere she landed, she managed to argue with someone, be hated by everyone and being kicked out of the house. She would come to us when she was in a crisis, after so many bad experiences we ended up having pity on her and allowing her to rent a spare room.  In the beginning it was pretty cool, the friends she started brining to visit us in the Favela flat were actually interesting. One day she appeared with two legitimate Italian mafiosi, a scrawny pale guy wearing a heavy ring and the other one was a huge guy with a beard, together they resembled a duo that had starred a series of western comedy films called Trinity, with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. The Italians were cool and had plenty of money, they took us out for many times dinner and were very generous with their never ending supply of cocaine. Another time she turned up with a South African yacht man who was touring the world and who was happy to find someone who spoke English when he met me. To my disbelief, he ended up confessing to me in tears that he had fallen in love with Tania, who perhaps because of this had a deep disrespected for the poor fellow and kept loathing him in Portuguese. Then there was Pierre Alain, a Swiss guy on a sexual safari through Latin America who ended up becoming her boy friend and a personal friend of mine to this very day.

Because I was her best friend’s boyfriend nothing ever happened between us and I became a kind of paternal confidant who gave her a lot of advice. Our friendship made me take her to work every evening. Her “point” was in a night club next to Lido square on avenida Atlantica, Copacabana’s beach promenade. This was the the place with the best girls on the entire strip. I would leave here there and watch girls of all sizes colors and ages swarm over rich and strange lookimng tourists from all over the world. As a gesture of gratitude, she not only paid the rent and for the gas, but she also constantly supplied us with generous small plastic bags filled with white power.

On her spare time, Tania had a talent for reading tarot cards and was into Umbanda the Afro-Brazilian religion. She sometimes gave us reading sessions “incorporating” a demonic spirit called “pomba gira” – turn-around dove -; and sometimes she guessed some pretty amazing things. When she was not doing her sessions and got drunk, the “pomba gira” business got heavy and stopping her was a problem. Things got worse when she started calling her work colleagues for card sessions and partying after work at dawn. I began to get pissed off with the whole thing because, despite living on the border of the Favela I had a job and had to get up early to give English classes.

On one occasion, she was going to travel that same morning with a suitcase I had lent her. She arrived with some friends at four in the morning and started doing her Umbanda stuff. That woke me up on the wrong foot. I got very angry and I went in to the living room to tell her to cut it out because I had to work in a few hours time. The “entity” didn’t like that and started swearing at me, at one point she started calling me a dirty Jew, and that was it, I got my suitcase back and told her not to come back after her trip.

It took a long time for me to hear about Tania again, a few years later someone told me that she was working in the sex business in Switzerland and was buying a house for her mother in Florianopolis. The old woman thought that she had found a great job as a secretary there.

Adventures in the Favela – Part 01 – The Body


From far away it looked like a drunkard who had stumbled and fallen asleep on the dried up football field but as we got closer, it became obvious that this was not the case. The body was still fresh and dressed in shorts and Havaianas, and was lifeless in a fetal position, abandoned in the open for everyone to see. He was around 25, a northeastern mulato. The shot had been through his anus and although the blood had already coagulated, it was clearly visible.

As we approached in silence, the sun falling behind the hills was making the sky look orange. This, and the emptiness of that open space gave a tragic film-like feel to that solemn moment; the cars in the distance and the noise of the children playing far away were the sound track. There was some kind of celestial peace in the air; we felt the serenity of the breeze that seemed to comfort the corpse and take him to a more serene world. However, there was no way ignore that anonymous man’s silent cry of anguish and pain. Our day had been fine until then: Rosa and Marquinhos, her 9-year-old son, and I were in our beachware coming back from an entire day in Ipanema, under the sun and in the sea. Although we were in shock, we tried to hide it from Marquinhos who began to laugh thinking that this was a drunkard who had let his bowels loose before fainting. We changed the subject and walked away wondering how safe our new address was.

We were living next to the northern exit of the Reboucas Tunnel; the lush forest at the end of our street had made it a respectable spot in the past, but now a favela had crept in and reduced the old mansions into empty ruins. Only one of the original luxurious constructions had retained its opulence as the owners had been smart enough to transform it into a popular venue for wedding parties and other expensive occasions, the Le Buffet. The football field where we were was in front of it, on a valley that separated the expensive cars in its garage from where we lived. That open terrain ended at a river, the Rio Comprido, which gave the name to the neighborhood down below.

Our three-storey building was the only middle class enclave around although two hundred meters uphill on the stood was the Scuderie Le Cocq, better know as the Esquadrao da Morte, or Death Squadron. This paramilitary brotherhood was famous for making political dissidents vanish during the military dictatorshiop. Now, in the eighties, it had turned into a gun-for-hire organization focused on eliminating criminals. Above its gate under lush trees was its infamous insignia with to guns crossed behind a skull. Beyond that sinister house there were favela’s huts, alleys, a small commerce and the poor people who lived there.

Who found me the flat was the university clerk who used to sell me dope, which made us marginally part of the “context”. Because of this introduction, we were able to circulate untouched and even feel safe in an area where Rio’s middle class would not dare to set foot. I occasionally used the phone booth in the Favela, bought beer and other small things in the grocery and was wise enough to said hi to the guys of the “movement”, which was good politics. What also helped was that we were friends with Josimar, a gigantic and cool black guy who lived in the street and who was friends with Barreto, the guy who had told me about the flat. Josimar was a navy deserter and had a girlfriend from Ipanema, he had grown up in that street and was a childhood friend of our next door neighbor. Soon after we arrived, he told me that the best politics was to keep it friendly with the armed guys, and not let them know that I was a potential customer. By no means should I get too close.

Soon after the body incident, he told me the story of how the body had appeared on the football field. As I had imagined, it had been the gang who I said hi to every day who had knocked him out and had left the body exposed there as an example and a warning. The dead guy had wronged the owner of the boca – or drug den –he had ran away without paying a debt but had decided come back to put things straight. The reason he had re-appeared to talk to the traficantes, was that he had managed to get some money was back to pay his debt and ask for forgiveness. However there had been no mercy and they executed him on the spot. The gang did not fool around: one Sunday at lunchtime, when we about to leave for the beach, we saw a policeman crouched inside our entrance hall aiming a machine gun and making a sign for us to get back into the flat. After that, his team moved on and soon we counted eighteen police cars storming up the hill while two helicopters covered them from above. That same night Josimar, told us that the operation had happened because a police commander had discovered that his daughter was living with the “boss”. On other nights we saw the police exchanging shots with dealers on the other side of the river. Marquinhos would say that we didn’t need to watch TV because the action happened outside our window. Still, in some bizarre way, that place felt more connected to reality, friendlier and safer than the South Zone where we had come from.

Adventures in the time of the Cruzado – part 02


Divine Justice touched the ex-director, as well as the bank, a few years later. Before anything, we must know that the Cruzado plan, as the others before and after it, was a disaster and that a few months after the incident the economic nightmare was back with a vengeance. Because I missed the time to take my money out, I learned that I was not a stock market genius the hard way and lost everything I had put in. Experiencing inflation was bizarre: on average, prices rose around thirty percent a month, although the peak was sixty percent. The rising prices were like a collective illness corroding everything: salaries, revenues, serenity, hope, good judgement and I guess moral standards too. Prices just went up, and up and up again; in the turmoil no one knew how much the simplest of things; a bus fare, a packet of cigarettes or a sandwich would cost the next day.

Every now and again, after the prices of common articles had reached the tens or the hundreds of thousands, the authorities were obliged to come up with a new currency. The original Cruzeiro, became the Cruzado, and from there it went to the Cruzado Novo and so on. What they did was to cut off three zeros from the previous currency, which together with the “plan” that came in parallel; gave the illusion that stabilization was on its way.

This is where my ex-bank director “friend’s” fate comes in. He had gone on a business trip to New York, and on the day previous to his return flight the government had announced the change from Cruzado to Cruzado Novo. In other words they had cut three zeros from the Cruzado so no that now one Cruzado Novo was worth a thousand Cruzados. He took a taxi from the Galeão Airport to far away São Conrado, a handsome forty minute to one hour fare for the driver. After the gorgeous ride through Rio in an air-conditioned cab, he arrived at his luxurious condominium’s gate, passed the security and stopped in front of the Hollywood-like entrance. As in a commercial, the grey haired gentleman got out of the car, took out his suitcase, took his checkbook and a pen out of his hand luggage, wrote out the value, tore off the paper and handed it over.

If only his day had ended with the taxi leaving the gate… In the torpor of his jet lag, inflation, dollars and a new official currency melted in my “buddy’s” head and did allow him to realize that he had written out a check of one hundred and fifty thousand Cruzados Novos still thinking in Cruzados. His check was worth one thousand times more than what was on the meter, which was not a small amount. By any standards this was a respectable amount of cash; enough to spend a couple of years without working. Hardly believing his luck and probably as fond of his passenger as I was. Knowing that the old bastard was an ex-director of ABN Amro’s branch in Brazil because he always used the same taxi company, the driver not hesitate: he went immediately to the bank to withdraw the money.

There was not enough in his account but as this was an ex-director who was friends with all the important people in the board of directors who was known to be “difficult”, they released the money, in cash, without his authorization. The driver had his merit; he was convincing and smart, and vanished without leaving a trace.

This was still fresh when an ex-colleague told me about it, Apparently the lawyers had stepped in, but I am not sure how this ended. The only thing I know is that he was never rude to a trainee again, at least not in that bank.

previous part

Adventures in the time of the Cruzado – part 01


I left University in 1987; now the time had arrived to take life “seriously” and to begin climbing up the tree of success. I had left the fun job as a teacher and had managed to find a job as a trainee in a prestigious international bank, the Dutch ABN AMRO, on Rio Branco Avenue.

I began at their leasing agency, which I chose because it offered prospect of being transferred to the idyllic Northeast region of Brazil – the Nordeste -, which I loved and where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. However, in the middle of the program, someone dropped out of the main trainee group in the Bank itself and I was selected to join in. Everyone, including myself, saw this offer as a promotion and because of the change of status, I had to buy new suits and smarter ties to look good next to my ambitious and square colleagues from elite families.

An international Bank was an entire new world which I was not too sure about, the status of walking around in a suit and being treated as someone inherently better than the rabble around me was seductive but went against my gut instincts. Although secretaries, receptionists and other working girls looked at me with different eyes in my new uniform, I felt that I had sold out. There was also the issue that I was left wing to the core, my beliefs were anti-capitalist, my university was against neo-liberalism, I hated Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, my heroes were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and all the Brazilian militants who had picked up arms to fight the regime only a decade and a half before. On the other hand, as far as mom and her circles were concerned, I was doing what was expected from me, which at an unconscious but deep level, gave me a sense of comfort. There were more superficial advantages; although the pay was not great our lunch vouchers gave us access to the culinary world of the city centre. Now I went for lunch at sushi places, the new trendy vegetarian restaurants and cheap barbecue houses. One of my favorites was a place on the second floor of an old building on Ouvidor Street that was proud to serve steaks that dropped off both sides of the plate. If they didn’t, the owner would personally take your plate back to the kitchen and come back with another one.

The most alluring part of that universe inhabited by the privileged and rotating around raw money was the stock market. Due to Brazil’s never ending hyperinflation, at different times the Brazilian government launched shock policies to try to stall it. Some were electoral stunts and others were sincere efforts, it would take fifteen years for them to get it right and finally come up with an effective way to end the inflationary spiral. What these plans had in common was that they created spasms of optimism and a temporary false sense of regained stability. Of course, these changes affected investors and made share prices soar. Outside Brazil, these were the days of the yuppie, the casino economics years, when “Wall Street”, the film with Michael Douglas, hit the screens and making easy money was almost a divine commandment. After witnessing a friend buy a Ford Escort, the coolest car available, from stock market money I decided to join the herd. I got the little money I had and put into a fund and was extremely lucky. I got into the market right after a serious plunge, two weeks later the government came up with the Cruzado plan, which “froze” prices and promised that, this time, they would recuperate the economy. The value of my stock more than doubled, I won tons of money in one month and considered myself a genius.

Meanwhile at the bank, everything was going fine until the day I answered the external phone line in the investment department where, as part of the program, I was learning the ins and outs of its operations. It rang shortly before leaving time and there was no one else in. I cleared my throat and answered the call with one thing in mind: the clear guidelines not to give clients’ balances no matter what they said. However, my Botafogo supporter’s luck dictated that this was exactly what the stressed out voice on the other side of the line wanted.

With politeness, I explained that I could not do that and that he should call his account’s manager the following day. With a bit less politeness, he replied that he knew this but that he needed to know his balance immediately.

“I am sorry Sir, your account manager will be glad to do this tomorrow morning but I am not authorized to give you your balance.”

“I can’t wait until tomorrow, I need to know it now; can’t you do me this favor? I know you have access to the information.”

“I won’t lie to you, I actually do, but the rules are strict and you can only know your balance through your account manager”

“Come on, do me a favor, just go to the list and tell me how much money I have in my account, no one will know about it.”

“I am sorry, I can’t, call back tomorrow morning.”

This continued for some fifteen minutes and his tome went from bad to worse, I could not hang up but I was losing my patience with that arrogant guy. The conversation ended as follows:

“Listen son, I am tired of this shit, give me my f…ing balance now!!”

“Listen my friend, number one: I am not your son, number two: why don’t you go f…k yourself?!!” and hung up the phone.

OK, I lost it, but come on… this was not exactly my fault. Anyway, my “good” star ensured that this guy was an ex-director of the Bank who knew all the relevant people who could decide my future in that establishment. It is not hard to guess what happened next, when the program ended everyone else got a job, and I went back to giving English lessons. Another factor that contributed to this sad ending was that I hung out with the only international trainee in bank, a Dutch guy who decided to make me his guide to drugs and prostitutes in Rio. He was pals with the son of the American consul, who asked me in a rather impolite way who I was when we went up to his luxurious apartment. The only thing Diederick had learned in Portuguese was “caralho” – the male sexual organ – end the only thing he said in the local language was, “Caralho man!!” – the equivalent “of shit man!” – and he did not stop saying it. This was funny, but the down side of the friendship was that did not care about boasting about his carioca adventures and saying who had taken him there, and this ended up falling into the wrong ears.


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