Mondo Kane is a mixture of traditional gangster thrillers, contemporary British street culture, ancient native american wisdom and Brazil. These four apparently incompatible elements are fused into a brilliant, daring and innovative way by George Gould in this superb book.
Although the narrative is filled with testosterone and may seem somewhat brute, specially in the beginning, the author surprises the reader with very clever insights based on the wisdom of the Lakota Native Americans, more specifically the one revealed by the legendary shaman/warrior Black Elk. With this, the book dissects the present day gangster mentality, which most western males have come across at some point or another in their life, shining a fascinating spiritual light onto this subculture.
There is also a very lively and precise description of the feel of Brazil and the mentality of its people in the story’s background which, together with the brutality of some parts, transports the reader to a disconcerting Tarantino-like universe.
Overall, Mondo Kane is a very enjoyable roller coaster, sometimes like a comic book, sometimes like a Hollywood action film it has several unexpected twists. Its interesting philosophical considerations about alienation in the western world are also noteworthy. This book has the potential of becoming a huge best seller or a blockbuster film. It is a shame Amazon does not provide more stars to give.
Rock and Roll took Rio over by storm. Everyone seemed to have a band, and those who did not wanted to be involved in one way or another. In the middle of this revolution, someone inherited a Radio station in Niteroi and transformed it into the first pure Rock station in town, Radio Flumnense. Now, no one needed to buy records any more to listen to Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, the Who, etc… This bonanza was short lived as they were approached by the big record companies demanding royalties. Unable to pay, they resorted to playing exclusively 80’s stuff; despite losing their pirate station aura they became avant-garde and introduced Rio’s youth to what was happening in the local and international rock scene.
Michel, a future work colleague, was an international air steward at the time; during his time off in London and in New York he would buy the latest releases of the latest bands and would deliver them freshly to the station. As these bands were from independent labels and had never been heard in Brazil, they were less of a problem to broadcast. No other station aired that kind of music and playing in their station became the passport to success for all the local bands. Arrepio included, did everything they could for them to play our songs. Radio Fluminense was to be the soundtrack of the eighties and was a phenomenon that will never be repeated.
Charles, the studio owner, started getting us gigs, and with the little money we got from them we started investing in demo tapes in order to who knows, finally get some air space in Radio Fluminense. This lead us to better recording studios where we came across impatient sound engineers despising us behind the glass windows. This new phase made us more aware of what we played and taught us a lot. But in a way the pseudo professionalism in those studios got in the way of us getting the best results. The tracks were recorded separately which made those sessions very different to what we were used to; sometimes the musician would get his part wrong or sometimes the engineer messed up and there were endless repetitions where the essence of the band dissipated into technical details.
Felipe joined the band through a Posto Nove bump in too. Although he was not attached to the Circo Voador he had become a professional actor with an important role in the play “The Twelve Works of Hercules”, that was to be the cradle of many successful careers in the Brazilian acting world. He was dying to be a lead singer in a band and therefore we had an easy job to convince him to become ours. His voice was good, his presence was superb and with him we gained a new dimension; also, his contacts could break us into circles that could make it happen.
The next step was to do his début gig. Through his connections Felipe arranged one in a bar in Ipanema. It was going to the venue’s first Rock gig after decades of quiet nights of Bossa Nova. We set up our gear in the patio with the staff regarding us as barbarians coming in from the steppes; there was no pre-amplifier or sound engineer; just our instruments, borrowed microphones and the power of Charle’s amplifiers. After we had done the sound check in the afternoon he manager came up to greet us. He was apprehensive about the volume and asked us if we could play lower but we answered that because the drums were naturally loud everyone had to be at a similar level.
At night the guests started appearing; as Felipe was doing a minor role in a soap opera at TV Globo there were one or two famous faces and many desirable future starlets appearing in the room. When the hall filled up, we started. In the middle of the second number, I heard a noise in my ear and when I looked around the manager was shouting that we were too loud. I told him again that we could not play lower because of the drums. He went down and after two numbers, he knocked on my shoulder again and told me that there was someone downstairs wanting to talk to me. I replied that I could not talk then. The next thing we saw were six police officers coming up the staircase, taking the plug out of the wall and killing the gig.
The Felipe days were short lived; he signed a contract for a big role in a TV series and gave up his musical career. I went back to the vocals but arguments started to break out, the rest of the band was more concerned about their technique than my over-confident self; Marcos and Melo were still taking private lessons, which for me was very un-rock and-rollish and they did not want to understand that I couldn’t do the same for financial reasons. On the other hand, I took the venture more seriously; I believed that if we found a sound to set us apart from the other bands we could make it big and I was prepared to invest all of my energies. Meanwhile the other guys took the band with a pinch of salt and regarded the band as a fun weekend activity.
The temple for goths, new romantics, quasi-punks, and other alien creatures was a night club in Copacabana, called Crepúsculo de Cubatão. The name paid homage to Cubatão, an industrial town on the coast of São Paulo state considered the most polluted place in Latin America. It was owned by Ronald Biggs, the famous British train robber, and had everything one would expect from an early eighties venue: the neo-gothic expensive futuristic look with classical overtones, girls and boys dressed up as vampires, a lot of exaggerated make up and no smell of cannabis or hint of heterosexual sex in the air. The ever-crowded door was controlled by a tiny Goth girl protected by two gigantic and un-trendy bouncers. She chose whom she would not let in by pointing at them and pronouncing the death sentence: “she/he looks like a nice guy/girl”.
Strange people started to appear in our lives talking about Post-Modernism and Nietzsche without understanding much of what they were talking about but causing a knowledgeable impression. London had become the new Jerusalem and the British magazines iD and The Face were the new Bibles; in some quarters having a sun tan was seen as a sign of belonging to the Neanderthal age. The irony about the obsession with the London standard was that coming from a semi-British background, I could have prospered big time but I stuck to my coherence and in my mind I was a defeated revolutionary who had stoically not sold out.
There was a fundamental absurdity in what was going on that I could not come to grips with: Rio de Janeiro’s natural settings did not combine with urban themes. The shallowness of the discussions about visual trends in foreign magazines and which bands and artists were free from the seventies aura had nothing to do neither with Rio’s eternal wildness nor with what I thought or intended to be. On the lighter side, it was amusing to see goths and punks walking around in black leather jackets and boots on 40 degree centigrade sunny weekends while everyone else was in their bikinis or trunks going and coming back from the beach. They looked like vampires in search of morgues to shelter in until night when they could come out and take over the city.
The Carioca middle class punks’ were another case of absurdity; the clothes they wore and the places they had to be seen were expensive and had nothing to do with Johnny Rotten screaming “no future” in London between one spit and another. The punk movement was much closer to the people crammed in buses in Sao Paulo’s outskirts and to people like me being sliced up by the economic lawnmower. We were being kicked in the face by a system that had promised a rosier world as we grew up. There was a lot of right wing talk going on about the survival of the fittest but what we saw was the survival of the ones with richer parents.
The pressure at home had become unbearable. I decided to leave for São Paulo earlier than I’d planned with the excuse of having to prepare for the vestibular, the university entrance examination. There was no drama, probably because my parents agreed that this was a good idea. As I packed my clothes and other essentials, I felt that I was entering a new and harder phase in life, that from then on nothing would be as it was.
São Paulo was only a six-hour bus journey from Rio and there was a departure every fifteen minutes. If I travelled at night, I would arrive in the morning and would then have the whole day to find the university’s student hostel. Friends had told me that getting a place would be easy, but no one could confirm this information that as it was impossible to get through by phone.
I got to the bus terminal at about 11pm. Although it was quiet, there was still a queue at the stand for São Paulo. I stood in line and out of the blue a well-dressed guy came over to ask me if I wanted a lift to São Paulo. I said no but he insisted, explaining that he had been driving for twelve hours from up north. He was exhausted but needed to reach São Paulo the following day to work in a hospital and he was looking for company to keep him awake. To reassure me, he showed me his credentials: he was a doctor. I still wasn’t convinced but he took me to the car and opened all the doors, the boot, lifted the carpets and the benches to prove that there was nothing strange. There wasn’t, he looked like a doctor, the story was plausible and, as the ride would save me the bus fare, I said, “What the hell…OK”.
In the middle of the journey, the doctor started to say that he was tired and that he had to stop. I responded by offering to drive and showed my driver’s license. He responded by giving me a strange look, grinned and with a gentle voice he explained that he wanted to pull off the highway and spend the rest of the night with me in a hotel. “No sir!” I said firmly, “Gay action was not in the contract!”. From then we engaged in a battle of nagging versus refusal. As this went on, I started to get worried when he refused to stop to let me out of the car. When dawn broke and we had reached the outskirts of São Paulo, he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere with me. He dropped me off at a bus stop on the edge of the highway next to a place that looked like a favela.
The next twenty minutes were to be a crash course on Brazilian urban reality. I had always known that people struggled, but it was still a shock to actually see, first-hand, what life was like.
It was still dark and it was freezing cold but there was already a crowd gathered around the unsheltered bus stop. The ramshackle canteens by here were packed with people having breakfast, the aroma of coffee being the only comforting thing around. It was obvious that most, if not all, of the people here had migrated from the Northeast in search of a better life. Their faces were similar to the ones that I had seen in my trip but their complexions were greyer, the lack of sun, the cold and the effects of life in this huge metropolis grinding them down. Although I was tired, feeling dejected, cold and a bit hungry, as I looked at the people here I couldn’t help but believe that a Higher Force wanted to show me the flipside of my adventures in the Northeast.
When my bus arrived, my fellow passengers and I crammed in like sardines. Without being able to move a finger, we passed by the massive factories of Ford, Volkswagen, Gessy Lever and other multinational companies. As the bus passed these isolated complexes in the periferia of São Paulo, some passengers got off the bus, but most were bound for the city centre. The entire journey that took at least an hour and a half. I could only begin to imagine what life was like for those souls who had to do that same journey every single working day of their lives. At night, they returned home from work in the same bus, enduring the same conditions. All this effort was to gain a miserable wage, to be treated as second-class citizens at work without any prospect of improvement.
I got off at the last stop and after getting lost several times in the city centre’s web of streets and I managed to find a bus to take me to the campus. All I wanted to arrange was a place to spend the night and get some sleep. However, when things are somehow destined to go bad, they only get worse. A strike was on and there were clashes between the students and the police over the dormitory where I was planning to spend my next few months. It had been shut down. Not knowing what to do, I went to the university’s administrative offices to explain my situation and ask for help. Despite my predicament, perhaps put off by my playboy aura and my Carioca accent, I couldn’t convince anyone that I was indeed in trouble.
Lacking any other option, I went to the student’s union. Suddenly luck smiled at me. I bumped into Carlinhos, a friend from Canoa Quebrada, the remote dream-like fishing village that I’d visited in Ceará. I explained my situation and after a few phone calls, he invited me to stay at his parents’ place, a comfortable and spacious apartment looking out across São Paulo’s skyline. His family’s hospitality was overwhelming. They treated me as if I was one of their own: They gave me a room for myself, invited me to eat and to watch television with them. In addition, there was Carlinhos’ attractive older sister, Alice, who I’d met up north. She was glad to see me again, but the last thing I needed was to mess things up by risking making a move on her.
São Paulo was much more sophisticated than Rio. Paulistas were more polite and better dressed. Everything appeared clean and well organized with elevators, buses, traffic lights, the metro system and the shops all working as they should. People were more formal than I was used to and intellectual standards seemed to higher than in Rio. I felt as if I was in a first world country. The people of my age were urban, not like the beach bums of Rio who behaved as though they were the royalty of the Zona Sul. Their trendy British-like punk-rocker styles suited them. In São Paulo, the 1980s made sense.
After a week with Carlinhos, I phoned home and explained where I was and what was going on. As expected Mum panicked and minutes later a wealthy American friend who was living in São Paulo rang up to ask why I hadn’t already looked him up. I knew Johnny from Bar Mitzvah classes and we had studied together at the Escola Americana the main reason for not having called him was that our friendship only existed because when we were kids my mum kept on pushing me as his dad was the CEO of the Brazilian branch of an important American bank.
Johnny had recently returned from Miami. Although his two older brothers had successfully established themselves there, he hadn’t liked the place and now wanted to go to college in Brazil. He was desperate for me to stay with him because in his mind I represented Rio and, believe it or not, his parents saw my presence as positive because they considered me a good student. The invitation had to be accepted because I didn’t want to risk overstaying my welcome with Carlinhos’s family. Both Johnny and I needed to prepare for the vestibular and with my parents’ help we ended up going to the same crammer, the Objetivo on Avenida Paulista, where most of the headquarters of banks and of the big corporations were located and where Johnny’s family lived in their huge apartment. My new situation was excellent. I didn’t have to lift a finger – there were two maids and a chauffeur, I had a room and free food and sometimes Johnny and I enjoyed hanging out together to chase Paulista girls impressing them with our carioca mannerisms.
In São Paulo, even the vestibular was of a higher level than that of Rio. First, there was a general multiple-choice test and a week later, there was a paper specifically focusing on the candidate’s chosen course involving writing an essay. Included on the test were subjects that weren’t in Rio’s curriculum and when I was confronted with four or five questions on Portuguese literature, which I’d never studied before, I knew that was the end of the road for me.
This was my first defeat after a long run of achieving everything that I had set out to do. I considered staying on in São Paulo for another year to try again but, amidst the height of the economic depression, even I could recognise that this was not a viable option. Also, things had taken a turn for the worse at home. Dad had suffered another heart attack and I knew that it was time to go back to Rio to be a good son for once.
I arrived back in Rio absolutely exhausted. But rather than being simply pleased to be home, I now found wrong so many of the comforts – a maid to tidy up for me, a room of my own and food available whenever I was hungry – that I’d always taken for granted. I felt like a wild animal caged in a zoo, my old cosseted lifestyle now feeling too limited. My parents might have thought that I’d gone through a rough time but preferred not to try to discuss it
I felt like Icarus who had fallen from the skies because he had flown too high or like Gulliver pinned down by Liliputions for being too big. I was swimming against a current of narrow-minded conformity and fear of the new decade. I felt out of touch, like a second-class citizen who no one wanted to approach both in and out of home. It seemed as if recess time at school had ended and that everyone else had returned to class apart from me. Anyway, it was obvious that they thought that my outlook needed to change and I that had to get my act together. The atmosphere was bad. Dad’s punishment was weeks without directing a word to me, a passive-aggressive manner that I had become used to.
Going back to university was tough. We were delving into micro- and macro-economic theories, calculus and other hard-core subjects. Completely out of synch with that environment, I didn’t have the concentration and the will to carry on. The experiences of my travels, my need to make sense of what was happening, my original dreams of being a film director, the lack of people similar to me around, the lack of understanding from family and friends, the lack of a girlfriend were altogether too difficult. I asked my parents to let me spend a year working on a Kibbutz in Israel to sort my head out, but the answer was a categorical no. For them, the time for fun (as they saw my choices) was over. Now was the time to pull myself together, to work hard to build a sensible future. Certainly times were economically harsh and their argument made sense but I wasn’t strong enough and was too self-absorbed to take on board such a rational position.
To complicate things further, one day Dad felt ill at work and was rushed to hospital. Although in hindsight this was predictable given the stress he was experiencing, the news came as a shock to all of us, including me. Dad was now in his eighties and his “tropical paradise” was becoming unrecognisable. Nothing seemed to be going as planned. With a monthly inflation rate of twenty percent, the country’s economy was in a state of crisis, while Dad’s business – like so many others – was only just staying afloat. Meanwhile, Dad’s family was crumbling. As far as he was concerned, I had gone mad, and although Sarah – still his great hope – was doing well in her dental career, she had got into a bad relationship and was no longer on speaking-terms with the family. The country house in Teresópolis that was to be my parents’ retirement place had become a never ending maintenance problem, yet another millstone round Dad’s neck .
Despite all the aggravation,s Dad could not allow himself to rest. He needed to continue working to sustain the family’s lifestyle. And despite the health scare, we all took him for granted. I was too self-centred to offer any practical help and, anyway, those suggestions that I made (such as selling the business and the house so that he could enjoy retirement) were dismissed out of hand. Following the 25-years of achievement for my father in Rio, Brazil now seemed to be devouring everything it had given him. At home, there was a general sense that somehow the end was approaching, and in this our condition was not very different to that which many other families were experiencing.
Although I thought a lot about it, leaving home and telling everyone to go to hell was not an option. Back then young people in Brazil lived at home with their families until they found a proper job or got married and the concept of sharing an apartment with friends was unheard of. In anycase, there were few jobs around and the ones available paid less than my pocket money. As the tensions at home became unbearable, we somehow reached a compromise. I abandoned the economics course in Rio in order to try to get a place at a film college in Sao Paulo. I reckoned that compared to making my way into the prestigious economics course in Rio, getting accepted to study film ought to be easy. In my mind this move would put me back on track with who I was.
* * *
Beyond the realms of my family’s drama, there was the intensity of life in Rio. I was still able to appreciate some of the exciting things happening out there. The star of the moment and catching the public’s imagination was the alternative theatre group Asdrubal Trouxe o Trombone (Asdrubal Brought the Trombone). In several ways it was what my generation was waiting for: a voice of their own. By breaking away from the left-wing etiquette, this was a central player in bringing change to Rio’s – and consequently the Brazilian – cultural scene. Influenced by Monty Python, and by counter-culture in general, Asdrubal was a cultural version of the surfers and the rockers. This group of largely amateur actors and directors threw all their energy into a play called “Trate-me Leao” (Treat Me Lion). Because of their fresh approach to theatre and their humerous and easy to relate themes, the play was a tremendous success with the country’s youth and toured all over Brazil. The sketches concentrated on the everyday experiences of urban kids in search of friendship, love and adventure and who had no intention of following in Che Guevara’s steps.
All this was happening while my generation was dealing with the often painful process of reaching adulthood. A constant positive of living in Rio is that it is blessed by an array of the most beautiful beaches. No matter how stressful life might be, a calm day at the beach with friends and seeing beautiful people allows one to fleetingly forget one’s troubles. One typical glorious sunny Saturday, I was chatting with Dona Isabel in the kitchen, having my usual lunch of beef, fried onions, rice and black beans before going to the Nove. The television was on and I caught a glimpse of the Asdrubal actors announcing that they were offering acting classes. I was tempted but my beach-bum instinct won out, making me think that this was for effeminate thong-wearing fake revolutionaries of the kind that I’d do anything to avoid. This decision came to be one of my biggest ever mistakes. Many of the greatest Carioca actors and rock stars of my generation, such as the band Blitz, the singer Cazuza, comedians such as Luis Fernando Guimarães and the actress/presenter Regina Case and so many others either gave classes there or emerged from that course.
Bruno, a friend of mine, joined the classes and despite not being born to act he had a video camera and talent for filming and editing. For Asdrubal, Bruno was a heaven-sent asset and they started to ask him to film their work. As Asdrubal grew, so did Bruno. A decade later, Bruno went on to win several MTV-Brasil awards for best music video director and is he now one of Brazil’s leading video makers.
Asdrubal inherited the attention once given to the Novos Baianos, the hippy queen-bees, and to Fernando Gabeira, the revolutionary-chic former exile. Their latest initiative was a veue of their own an actual circus in Arpoador, the neighbourhood linking Copacabana with Ipanema. They named their new venue the “Circo Voador” (Flying Circus), imitating one that the Rolling Stones had used for a performance in London in the 1960s. It was here that the presentations of Asdrubal and their students took place. Jokingly the word went out that the only two musical genres that bands played under their canopy were “rock as well as roll”. They opened-up the space to local bands instead of featuring weird-looking longhaired artists from the Northeast or the soon to become outdated Brazilian music stars singing about social reform.
The musicians and lead singers were no longer the frightening, hard-core junkies of the type that led the rock scene of the 1970s. Instead, now they could easily have been (and sometimes were) fellow students, friends and neighbours merely enjoying themselves. What motivated these artists was the movement (if one could call it that) of a desire to break free from the weight of the country’s realities and to simply be part of the rock ’n roll ethos, that in their minds was a universal family. This initiative rippled throughout the country and set rock as the main 1980s cultural expression, at least for middle class youth. The Circo Voador would mark the last time that Rio would be Brazil’s musical trend setter. The centre would soon gravitate to the much larger São Paulo market, where the cultural scene was more sophisticated, in tune to innovation and more in touch with what was goung on abroad.
After going to a few Circo Voador gigs, I was convinced that I had the potential for playing to that kind of crowd. With the little money that I had left from selling Blues Boy, I bought a cheap amplifier and an electric guitar. The shift from acoustic guitar to an electric one was like changing from a bicycle to a motorbike. Now I could shake the windows of my room with just a slight pluck of a string. Because no one was happy with me at home I had to turn the volume down, but on weekends, when my parents went up to Teresópolis, my sister was at her boyfriend’s place and Dona Isable went home, I had the apartment to myself. Feeling like a insane king in a wretched castle, the beast came out and the volume got turned right up, driving our poor neighbours crazy.
I started writing songs using ideas that had come up during my travels and in jam sessions. At the same time, new ideas surfaced and I felt certain that music was my destiny. My work tried to fuse aggresive rock with Brazilian rhythms. This kind of mixture had been a controversial novelty in the days of the Tropicália and continued being used by artists from the Northeast such as the Novos Baianos and Alceu Valenca. With the 1980s rock and Brazilian music diverged, becoming more “purist”. Until then artists often combined these genres, selling their “exotic” music as developments of a more “authentic” style far removed from Rio or São Paulo. Now here was me, a guy from Ipanema with a rather odd Jewish and British background, working with traditional Brazilian music and trying to make it sound heavy with contemporary rock gear. This exoticism found no sympathy amongst the narrow-mindeded new audiences who could only appreciate either ”pure” rock or Brazilian popular music. Bands with a similar outlook to what I attempted would only establish themselves a generation later, with the likes of artists such as Chico Science and the Nação Zumbi .
* * *
Pedro had also abandoned economics to do an art course in Rio’s Parque Lage, in an Italianate mansion set in the surreal surroundings of a tropical estate. The creation of a nineteenth century Brazilain millionaire, the grounds were so well preserved that behind the house they still had the slaves’ quarters, the senzala, a grotto with stone beds covered by limestone that gave you the creeps as one walked in.
The classes were in the mansion’s famous internal patio which had been featured in one of the most important 1960s Cinema Novo films, Glauber Rocha’s masterpiece “Terra em Transe”, and had been a busy musical venue in the 1970s where many memorable gigs took place. After a few years of silence, the beautiful location was re-opened as a concert hall and the place now competed with the Circo Voador to attract the coolest young hearts and minds in Rio.
The Parque Laje was consolidated onto Rio’s cultural map when the art course that Pedro was doing decided to get their students, along with budding artists from the Federal University’s faculty of fine arts, to paint the park’s concrete external walls. They came up with a lot of amazing and original creations and the result was going to define who was who in the “geração ‘80” (‘80s generation), the most important movement of that decade. Many of these artists went on to achieve public recognition, while other already established artists from elsewhere in the country placed themselves under their umbrella and adopted the new pop-like and youthful aesthetics, presenting themselves as the new expression of Brazilian art.
Being part of the “geração ‘80”, opened doors for Pedro, enabling him to circulate amongst the kind of “interesting people” he had always yearned to be like. Now that Pedro had been accepted, it was he who was introducing me into circles that I wanted to mingle in. In this way, I became a peripheral participant of the avant-garde of the 1980’s aesthetics that had spoiled the hippy feel of the places that had drawn me to the Northeast.
Fortaleza was most northerly state capital that we visited. A key reason for making the trek there was that it was very near a fisherman’s village called Canoa Quebrada (Broken Canoe), a must-go place on the Brazilian easy rider’s circuit. After thumbing a few lifts and some short bus trips to increasingly remote spots, we were eventually dropped off at the foot of a gigantic sand dune. The climb up that dune was tough but when we got to the summit and caught our breath, in the distance we made out a group of huts that resembled a lost place between the desert and the sea. We were captivated.
Canoa Quebrada’s rugged huts were separated by sand paths that abruptly ended at a massive clifftop. The beach below was wider than the ones we had seen elsewhere on our travels and its sand was harder, ideal for keeping the fishermen’s rafts – jangadas, a mispronunciation of Chinese junks. These rafts were flat-bottomed and made of tough, dried tree trunks bound together by ropes, and featuring a mast with a huge triangular sail. At sunrise, the fishermen rolled their wooden vessels into the water over coconut tree trunks. At sea, jangadas were light and easy to maneuver, and their simple elegance fitted in perfectly with the surroundings.
The locals knew how to cope with the sun and the heat: they would only expose themselves early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During the day men mended nets, sold their catches, bought provisions, or simply rested in the shade, while the women produced lace items, their technique famous across Brazil. The summer visitors, hippy-looking people from all over the country, including me, went to the beach at the hottest time of the day, from 11 am to 2 pm. When the heat became unbearable, we found shade in the kiosks by the cliffs and drank beer, listened to one other’s stories, recommendations of places to visit, gossip and expound political-existential theories.
Pedro and I rented, for next to nothing, a room in a fisherman’s hut. The accommodation wasn’t very comfortable but, after putting up with Pedro’s uncle, anything was great. The family slept in hammocks while we were in a separate room, sleeping on mats placed on the sand-covered floor. There was no electricity, the house was lit by a kerosene lamp and water came from a well. Food was cooked on a rudimentary wood-burning stove. The wattle and daub walls were full of holes that enabled the breeze to cool the rooms slightly and the gaps in the roofing were hardly a problem because it rarely rained.
Our landlord was the patriarch of the three generations who lived under the straw roof. His hair was entirely gray but his body was still strong thanks to the years spent at sea. He had the look of someone who had lived life in its plenitude in the place that destiny had assigned to him. He had a bookless wisdom and a clearer picture of where the world stood than many of my professors,would ever achieve. His questions about our way of life were sharp and we had many conversations comparing our two worlds. If people were to ever dare sneer at him for not knowing how to read or write, he could easily – and rightly – reply that he could read the ocean and the stars – indeed the whole surrounding natural environment, the accumulated wisdom passed down through the generations.
At sunset, the outsiders congregated by the dune. In Rio – as in all the states we had been until then – the sun set at the right end of the beach. But, as Ceará is so much more northerly and located on Brazil’s northeasterly hump, the sun set in land. In Canoa Quebrada the sun disappeared behind an endless plain of low, untouched, woodland that echoed with the sounds of birds. We went to see this daily spectacle from the top of the dune that separated the village from the rest of the world. The intense, orange ball shone on the sand and on our faces, creating an amazing hue that contrasted against the dark blue sky. When night finally arrived, it seemed as though the land had absorbed the day’s light and had responded by providing a different look and a more pleasing temperature.
The sense of harmony we experienced as dusk approached was like that I’d felt in Trancoso two years previously. One special evening my companions asked me to play the guitar. The atmosphere was so positive that a circle opened around me in the field behind us. That circle of people singing and dancing to the music felt like redemption for the anxieties that we were escaping from.
As I relaxed and unwound, my luck with women began to change. There was a wonderful moment that an average guy like me could only dream of. I was in a bar with a friend from São Paulo, when I noticed a beautiful blonde girl with blue eyes and dark, suntanned skin staring at me. I approached her and asked if she wanted to go to the sea. She immediately accepted the invitation and I took her by the hand as we followed the trail down the cliff.
The beach was almost empty and we laid down with the waves licking our feet. I didn’t need to talk much: we kissed for a long time while stroking each other under the moon light. I whispered the suggestion that we should go to the construction site where, by chance, my buddies from Alagoas and Frenchman’s Beach were camped. On our way, every now and then we would stop to feel each other’s skin and kiss passionately. When we arrived, there was no one there. After tripping on the magic of her sheer beauty, a hurricane of pleasure took over and then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves lying next to each other in the cool, gentle wind beneath the stars. I felt at peace with the world.
We took a train to our next destination, João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraíba. Given the scarcity of railways in Brazil, this was a rare opportunity – and tickets were cheap. The line did not pass along the coast, instead entering the Sertão – the Northeast’s dry interior. This time Pedro and I had company, joined by our Praia do Frances camping companions. With us were some seven or eight guys from the south of Brazil, all with very long hair, most of them blond and – to people who did not know them –unfriendly faces, seeming to step out of a cover of a heavy metal album.
We were in for a ride through the Sertão, a bone-dry landscape, so completely different to the lush coast a short distance away. This was Brazil’s poorest region with a subculture that was akin to that of medieval Europe. The people were deeply Catholic, with quasi-feudal class relationships, a strong macho ethos and a high degree of illiteracy. As the vegetation became even dryer and the air hotter, the towns became increasingly dilapidated. We stopped at train stations that seemed to be remnants of an era when there was at least a promise of prosperity, but now people seemed to be reduced to fighting to get to our windows to sell us all sorts of stuff, from plastic water bottles to captured wild animals. In every village we passed through, the train was the biggest event of the day, and we – the weird-looking long haired guys – a real highlight. The villagers would gather at our window pointing at us and laughing, sometimes they’d make jokes about us, while other times we’d playfully poke fun at them.
The streets around the stations were filled with make-shift bazaars and rudimentary liquor stores surrounded by rusty old cars, sleepy donkeys, scrawny dogs and barefoot children running around under the scorching sun. Loud music blared out of the record shops, not the folksy and cool acts that helped draw me to the Northeast but cringe-worthy love songs and accompanied by electric organs.
The semi-desert landscape reminded me of the spaghetti westerns that I’d so enjoyed as a child. Here, though, the population was a mix of African and indigenous origin who lived in clay huts with straw roofs, their small plots of lands struggling to look like farms. There was very little vegetation, the cattle were so thin that their ribs were clearly visible and the dry, stifling heat made even worse by the lack of even a slight breeze. All of this reflected the very hard life endured by the people the sertão.
The train’s old British-built engine and carriages were rusty and dillapidated, and seemed completely in tune with the landscape. Inside, we were alone in our carriage, appearing like a gang of suspicious-looking outlaws. Every now and then train officials approached us and a tense silence would fall. Despite their vigilance, we managed to light up our green venom and smoke with our heads leaning outside the windows. Despite the tension and the extreme poverty that we came across, it was quite trippy to take in that outlandish landscape.
* * *
In Rio, “Paraíba” was the derogatory name given to the enormous contingent of migrants from the Northeast regardless of the actual state that they in fact came from. They fulfilled the same role as Mexicans in the USA, Arabs in France and Asians in Britain have traditionally taken. Much as in those richer countries, people in Rio had contradictory feelings towards the Northeast and its population. Along with a fascination about the place and its culture came the rejection of its uneducated and poor migrants.
In reality, João Pessoa, Paraíba’s capital, had a classic sophistication with well-preserved nineteenth-century buildings, elegant avenues bordered by lush trees and old-style lamp posts. I was looking forward to our stay in João Pessoa as fortunately a friend from university would be spending her vacation there with her family. They, like many other members of the local upper class, were of Italian descent. Francesca, my friend, had been elected as the muse ofthat summer by a carioca magazine, attracted, no doubt, by her striking looks, with blonde hair and blue eyes .
Francesca came to meet us at the hostel with two cousins, both obviously part of the local elite, and Pedro and I were driven away in their expensive cars. She told us later that her cousins had taken us for a gay couple: when we tried to look smarter, in our neo-hippy clothes, we most probably gave out the wrong impression. In fact our clothes looked ridiculous and if I had been looking through local eyes, I would probably have thought as they did.
The reality was that I was looking forward to seeing Fransesca, hoping, who knows, that a summer romance would light up. Back in Rio, there had been some flirting, using my guitar-playing to impress her when we skipped classes together. However, with Francesca’s family now around – and with me looking so weird – the chances of anything happening were absolutely zero. Other than Francesca and the João Pessoa elegant architecture, there wasn’t much to keep us in the city, with even the beaches being unattractive compared to the ones we’d seen before. Slightly disappointed, after a couple of days we continued northwards to Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceará, where we knew that we could stay with one of Pedro’s uncles.
If Francesca’s cousins suspected that Pedro and I were gay, Pedro’s uncle had no doubts at all. The strange situation kicked-off with Pedro’s aunt showing us to our double bed and then continued with the uncle throwing food onto my plate instead of serving it. I can’t remember acting camply or wearing neo-hippy, fancy clothes but, through his lens, I was a communist, pot-smoking queen, leading his young and healthy nephew on a journey of drugs and perverted gay sex.
In that part of the world, the same guys who spent their money on lovers, on prostitutes and on booze, and who beat up their wives, considered the youth of the South to be degenerates. I couldn’t help imagining what would have happened if he had seen the scuba guy in Vitória come out of the bedroom with his blonde friend hanging on his neck saying that he had lost his virginity. Anyway, from an anthropological point of view, that situation gave us an insight into how things must have been for the generations before us in Rio. That world was tied around a corrupt ruling class that had been in power ever since the city was founded, and it provided an unbearable universe of oppression and hypocrisy for anyone with half a brain and a critical eye as well as anyone who did not belong to those traditional circles.
In spite of the heavy domestic atmosphere, I was able at least to appreciate other aspects of Fortaleza. It was the wealthiest capital in the Northeast and had an attractive modern buzz to it. Fortaleza’s dry, windy weather and wide avenues made the city resemble modern Middle Eastern ones, such as Tel Aviv and Beirut. Perhaps Pedro’s uncle’s demeanor was an exception for Fortaleza, as its natives had a reputation of being sharp and funny, providing Brazil with some of its best comedians, like Chico Anysio, Tom Cavalcanti and Renato Aragão.
The next stop was Salvador, where I thought we could stay with a former girlfriend who I’d met in Mauá. Michele came from Bangu, a lower-middle class neighbourhood of Rio, very different socially from my Zona Sul habitat. Michele’s mixed background gave her a complexion that could easily make her pass for Asian. She cultivated that look by wearing Indian-looking dresses and blouses and by letting her long, dark hair grow curly on the edges but straight elsewhere. She was petite and very pretty but her innocent look and her soft voice concealed a wild edge that would lead to her getting pregnant with several friends in my circle possibly being the dad.
The apartment in Salvador where Michele was staying was next to the Barra Lighthouse, one of the city’s most exclusive spots where golden middle class kids went to free carnival concerts on summer weekends. Not only were Pedro and I going to be safe from mosquitoes and have a proper bathroom, but there was a prospect for me of having some real fun at night. However, when we knocked on the door it was not Michele who opened it and we found out that the apartment belonged to her sister’s boyfriend and that there was no room for us. With the dream instantly dashed, the only way for us to hang out in that privileged spot was to sleep on the stage of the Barra Lighthouse. With summer now at its peak, there were concerts almost every night, which meant that to sleep there we would have to wait for everyone to leave. Then, at around three in the morning, we could unfold our sleeping bags on the wooden floor. To our apprehension, we found that we were not alone – there were some weird characters sleeping beneath the stage. Fortunately we never interacted, apart from early in the morning when a drunkard with a hangover emerged to do a gymnastics routine.
This sleeping arrangement ended up not being as bad as we had feared. The stage was less than a block from the apartment, and Michele’s sister managed to convince her boyfriend to allow us to keep our stuff there and to use its bathroom and kitchen. Also, for me, there was the bonus that Michele could sneak me in when the others were out to be alone together.
Behind the times though Salvador certainly was, the 1980s was beginning to make an impact. The age of the trio elétrico was fading, being replaced by new genres of carnival music. Reggae had touched the ears, hearts and minds of the city’s culturally dominant Afro community and a new way of playing the Jamaican rhythm emerged – a percussion-led samba-reggae fusion. The main exponent of this genre was Olodum, a band from the Pelourinho, an icon of Salvador’s African-based culture and the oldest neighbourhood in the entire country.
In the past the authorities used the Pelourinho’s central square as the location to punish slaves who had misbehaved, escaped or revolted. There are numerous accounts of men receiving more than a hundred lashes and then having had salt rubbed into their wounds. Now their descendants lived in the houses of their former oppressors and the area was to be listed as an UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. Olodum managed to galvanize African heritage and pride in the form of music, radiating that energy throughout Salvador. Everything that emerged in the ”Pelo” reverberated in radios and cassette players in kiosks, spreading throughout the city, blasting out samba-reggae sounds. Olodum would later make an international splash after recording alongside Paul Simon and Michael Jackson.
The other musical novelty was the more white-orientated bands with electronic keyboards and choreographed dancers on futuristic-looking vans. They were completely cheesy, playing a blend of easy to digest salsa, soca and other Caribbean styles. It was a relief that the Trio Eletrico of Dodo e Osmar – the surviving dinosaurs of Salvador’s golden carnival days – still paraded, and we had the opportunity to see them and Olodum in the pre-Carnival events.
As this was my second visit to Salvador – and now travelling as a backpacker – I felt much less of a tourist and knew what to expect. This included knowing the particularities of the various beaches, hugely important for the experience of any Brazilian coastal town. The beaches of the Northeast exuded a nostalgic aura, offering things that had long vanished in Rio. There were fishermen selling freshly-caught crabs tied to a stick, vendors of cheese that was melted on demand, stands of homemade ice cream and men walking around with sliced pineapples on tin trays. Separating the sand from the promenade were straw-roofed wooden kiosks where they served beer and exotic snacks prepared with the large range of local seafood. Fishermen with their nets and wooden boats remained from a past long before pleasure seekers ever dreamt of exposing their pale skin to the sun and, God forbid, seek a tan.
As in Rio, the beaches were the central arenas of summer. They put everyone in a state of mind that no economic crisis could intrude. The correct time to arrive was after lunch and the right time to leave was well after sunset. As the sun went down and the heat became more bearable with the beach started to attract young people seeking similar things: partying, music, interesting people and – of course – sex….perhaps even love. In a short space of time, Pedro and I soon got to know people.
Invitations to parties were frequent and always welcome. The parties, in people’s homes, were for free and entry was by invitation and hear-say. Despite the sound gear always being too weak, these parties were always great fun with joints in every room and bright people discussing political and philosophical issues. If you were not lucky to be in the bathroom having sex, the best place would be the kitchen, where guests would eat and drink. There would also always be a room where people gathered listening to a talented guitarist, and the quality of the musicians was amazing. I never understood why they never made it when so many crap rock bands in Rio and São Paulo somehow did.
Sometimes I too would play something, but I soon learned that in order to make an impression I had to stick to playing rock tunes that no one else there was comfortable to play in what was the backyard of the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the Novos Baianos. I was no competition for the kind of stuff that they excelled at, but a Carioca who played rock was seen as something acceptable and even a welcome novelty. However, people really got excited when I played Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix tunes and sang in English, something that many of the party-goers had never before experienced.
* * *
Partying, going to the beach, meeting new people, playing guitar and trying (and sometimes succeeding) to get laid, was only part of the fun. Our means of transport – hitchhiking – was also a highlight of our travels. The routine always began the same way, by taking a bus to the first gas station on the highway. Many of the drivers told us to clear off, but some welcomed our harmless, and perhaps interesting, company.
By this time, Brazil’s railway system had all-but collapsed, and also goods were rarely transported by ship along the coast. Instead, almost all transport was by road, which was why the highways had an army of truck drivers. As any other category of workers, they were heavily exploited, sleeping very little and travelling for days on end along the country’s poorly-maintained highways, in fear of thieves and corrupt policemen. Nevertheless, they were awesome guys who had their own subculture and a great sense of camaraderie. They knew all the curves, bumps and potholes ahead, as well as the good and bad spots in terms of safety, food, fun and women. All of them had great stories and the cliché girlfriends, or even families, at every stop.
Most rides were with the driver in his cabin where they normally had a good-sized bed where we could take turns in sleeping but sometimes we were in the back, experiencing the unprotected magic of the highway. Together with the feeling of freedom that the constant wind and the open highway provided, at night there were be shooting stars above the moonlit hills, while during the day there was the strong sun bringing out the sweet smell of sugar cane from the plantations on either side of the highway.
The return to Arraial d’Ajuda was an anti-climax. The paradise I had fallen in love with seemed to be another place and now its main activity was tourism. Electricity had arrived and the village had become much more structured for tourists and, of course, more expensive. Most of the fishermen had left after selling their boats and their houses in bad deals.
I found very little of the spontaneity that had impressed me only two years earlier and was disturbed by the out-of-context, Eighties-style haircuts and heavy make-up. There were a lot of people who I instinctively did not want to mix with, and that feeling was mutual. To make things worse, I began to realize that Pedro’s agenda was to blend in with the older, more ‘interesting’ and more stable people who rented the more expensive houses and ate in the better places; for him, they were a portal into the world of financial comfort and this had nothing to do with what I was looking for.
Whenever I managed to borrow a guitar the playing at night still happened. It was pleasurable and by then I was way better. I had perfected my routine and knew more songs and could easily grab the attention of people who I had never met before. I began with psychedellic and intimate songs such as Caetano Veloso’s “Terra” and Geraldo Azevedo’s “Caravana”, some Milton Nascimento songs, then I played some solid Bossa Nova’s such as “Wave”, then I progressed into happier songs such as the Novo’s Baianos version of “Brasil Pandeiro” and invariably ended with carnavalsque songs of Alceu Valenca and Moraes Moreira and closed the night with Jorge Ben.
People still liked that kind of music, but not all, and that kind of experience was already in the out as something cool. The atmosphere just was not there, and I wanted to leave. As there was still no electricity in the neighboring Trancoso and the access continued to be difficult, it would be less of a disappointment. Although Pedro could not get enough of the ‘interesting’ people in Ajuda – who actually were the ones who most like what I played – he also got fed up of being treated as tourist. If we moved there, the experience would be more like the real thing: the houses around the green were less spoiled, more affordable and there were as many people to network with, so I found it easy to convince him.
This time there would be no need for crossing deep rivers in the middle of nowhere and in the dark because we had a tent. However, things had changed there too and on our first night someone tried to steal our stuff that was outside the tent. The noise woke us up but we took too long to get out and to get a hold of the fake blond with curly hair running away in shorts under the moonlight. The next day, we saw him at the beach but as we couldn’t prove anything, we could only give him dirty looks which he pretended to ignore.
That same night, I discovered that Trancoso’s mosquitoes used tents for their general assemblies and dawn revealed a carpet of them hanging on to the nylon walls. The only way to get relief was by putting the sleeping bag on the pavement and let the wind carry them away.
Pedro was a well built waterpolo player, mischievous small eyes, caramel colored skin and curly yet blondish hair, when approaching the ladies he was completely cool and to the point and knew everything about the right timing and the right words to say. After a few days in Trancoso, insects and thieves weren’t the only thing bugging me: my lack of success with the ladies compared to Pedro’s triumphs was affecting me. Also, at night when I was not playing and while everyone was enjoying themselves near the fires, every now and then the seriousness of my situation would change the course of my thoughts. How was the future going to be? Where was the girlfriend who cared about me and liked the same things that I did?
Now my life was as if I had reached the summit of a high mountain in a beautiful landscape and discovered that on the other side there was a garbage depot. Those troubles were like the wall of mosquitoes in the tent: I could shoo them away temporarily but they would come back no matter what I did.
A lot of people were in the same boat: this was a generation of problematic, middle class kids, orphans of the prosperity of the Seventies and of the politics-of-the-body ideology, and unprotected from the economic downturn.
Some people saw us as a market niche. Everyone was talking about Rajneesh, now Osho, an Indian guru based in the US who preached that the way to spiritual enlightenment was the annihilation of one’s ego via the exhaustion of the libido. His therapies had strong sexual overtones, something that I doubted was authentic in the traditional Hindu society. His books were well written and it was very tempting to join – many hot ladies did – but the expensive fees convinced me to keep away. We came across people who had gone as far as meeting him in person in his Ashram in Oregon, an expensive privilege. They talked about falling about in tears when they saw his “penetrating and loving look” that had “liberated their soul”.
During the day people sat on the beach chatting while looking into the light blue horizon while the breeze swayed the trees and the greenery behind them. The main topic were the long bearded guru’s books and his tantric therapies to achieve enlightenment, I would stay quiet thinking to myself that this was THE product that everyone wanted: not giving a damn about anything except their pleasure and, in return, achieving a never-ending orgasm. No one wanted to talk about the anguish regarding the future and regarding what was going on in our lives. This was understandable in such a setting, but why talk without stop about Rajneesh? OK, the hyperinflation and the economic downturn were too real to be mentioned and we were all suffering inside; still my instinct told me that these bad cards were beyond our control, as were the blessings we had received in the good days. We had the power to decide what we were going to do with them but no guru or magic pill could sweeten what destiny had lay for us to swallow.