Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Guanabara Bay”

Lost Samba – Chapter 16/02 – Adrenaline and a miracle in Rio


The best night venue in Rio, the Noites Cariocas, was located on the first hill of the Sugar Loaf, the morro da Urca. The place was fantastic for concerts; the artists performed in an open-air theatre overhung by trees while the audience sat on the ground and on the surrounding platforms. During the intervals and after the shows, they turned on the sound system and transformed the whole place into a dance floor. By day it was filled with tourists, but on Friday and on Saturday nights the place used to be pack-solid with Rio’s party-goers.

The starry nights, the wonderful ocean breeze, the cold beer, the subdued lighting and the reliable effects of our special cigarettes made the place dreamlike. There were several paths around the lightly forested leading away from the central stage and dancing area, all of them took us to places with breath-taking views of the city’s lights. From there we could see on one side of the hill the silhouette of the Tijuca mountain range and of Christ the Redeemer reflected onto Guanabara Bay’s calm waters, and on the other side the open ocean reflecting the moon. Rio looked like a wonderful work of art with rows of lamp posts highlighting the coast and its dark hills surrounding the outlines of streets and buildings. Altogether, this was the perfect setting to woo the opposite sex. The atmosphere and the visual alchemy made the girls look beautiful up there; not all of them were from the Zona Sul and most were on the non-adventurous side so we had to keep a low profile. Even so, when it came to chatting them up, the romantic aura of Noites Cariocas was irresistible and a bit of flirting and buying them drinks performed miracles.

The frustrating side of all these discoveries was that my modest pocket money could not keep up with all the expenses involved in paying for concert tickets, joints, nightclubs, beer and movies. The most expensive item on the list was precisely the Noites Cariocas and the wise guy’s solution was to skip the entrance charge by climbing the hill instead of taking the cable car. Although the path wasn’t lit, the trek was doable.

Like poachers waiting on their prey, policemen and bouncers hid along the way, watching for guys like me to appear, hoping to extort a bribe. In the case of the security guards to allow us to continue our trek and in the case of the police officers not to take us to a delegacia where they would charge us for possession. If they caught you and you had no money, they were merciless. A group of them had caught some mates from school and, instead of detaining everyone, they had forced them to go back down the hill naked.

Climbing into Noites Cariocas that way had always had gone well for me until one particular night. It was the end of the month and my allowance had dried up, but one of my favorite bands, A Cor do Som, was playing. The only option was to take the trail, so, along with a friend, Marcio, we headed up under the light of a full moon. Midway up, we crossed a group coming down who told us that the path was ‘dirty’, meaning that there were policemen hidden somewhere further up.

Undeterred, Marcio and I decided to take an alternative route, one normally only used by experienced climbers. This was not a wise decision, but at least this path would be ‘clean’. We only realized the risks when it was too late: as if out of nowhere, we suddenly found ourselves having to cross a steep stretch of the trail with a sheer drop of 200 meters immediately alongside.
When we were almost there, my party-shoes lost their grip and I slipped. Miraculously – and I mean absolutely miraculously – there was a sapling sticking out of a rock just below me. That was the only small piece of vegetation protruding out of the rock within a radius of fifty meters; had I slipped a few centimetres before or after that point, that would have been it for me.

With the Noites Cariocas immediately above, I could hear the music and a small crowd shouting that someone had fallen down the rock. Looking up there was a four-meter wall of rock, while looking down there was a precipice. With my feet barely touching the root of that blessed and tiny trunk, I forced myself to look up and only concentrate on how to emerge alive, a reflex that I’d learned from dangerous situations in high-wave body surfing. I put my shoes into my pockets and managed to climb up the rock with my bare feet.

As I emerged and was putting my shoes back on, a bouncer made his way through the crowd and grabbed me by the arm saying that he was going to hand me over to the police. I pushed my arm away and challenged him, saying that I refused to go, and received the vocal support of everyone around us. In the face of this opposition, he backed down and instead escorted me to the cable car and out of Noites Cariocas. Given the circumstances, I just thanked the Almighty for still being alive. Beyond scriptures, priests, rabbis, mullahs, books and reasoning, I believed then – as I still do now – in the existence of an omnipotent God, a divine being who had decided this was not my moment to go.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 05 – Part 01 – The British School of Rio de Janeiro.


Happy face second down central row.

As was the case typical for most expatriates in Rio, my parents hovered on the fringes of the upper class society. However, while they lived and worked alongside with what they regarded as their local equals, had similar ambitions and even the same prejudices, they were not members of the same clubs, did not share the same interests nor had the same outlook of life. On the other hand, this local privileged minority never really accepted my parents, but then, they were also not interested in being so. The matter of the fact was that Mum and Dad had no aim in becoming Brazilian, only in living an idyllic life with as little contact with reality as possible. It was my sister and I who would have to do the job of adapting ourselves to the new country. My journey as a foreign leech (my parents’ view) or as a foreign caterpillar striving to become a local butterfly (my view) began at school. The logical choice was the British School. This was an establishment with a proud history of serving generations of expatriate British and Anglo-Brazilian families, fighting – and increasingly losing – the battle of insulating their children from the scourge of Brazilianess.

Most of my schoolmates’ dads were either diplomats or worked for British companies. Unlike my parents, none of them had come to Brazil on an independent existential adventure, nor did any of them share their religion and age. My classmates either knew this or sensed there was something different, and saw me as being in some way different. Freedom from convention awarded me a certain charisma, and that in turn gave me command of the fun both in and out of the classroom. I ruled by consensus and perhaps because of this I made two enemies who directed an incomprehensible unpleasantness at me. Worse still, luck decreed that they seemed to follow me everywhere: their families were members of the same social club, the Paissandú where my family were also members, they had attended the same kindergarten as I had, and they were to be the only others in my class at the British School who would remain in Rio until adulthood.

One of these boys, Nicholas, had been toughened by two older brothers, and despite having an Irish surname he by some means was, and looked, Italian. The other boy, Garreth, looked like the typical cute kid so favoured by advertisers, with blond hair, blue eyes and freckly skin. Despite this, he never smiled, and of the two he was the meanest. Together, they turned everything sour. Out of nowhere, I’d suddenly receive a push, with one of them on all fours behind me, or they would ridicule my jokes and my games. In the classroom, they made a point of competing in anything I did. I would always win in the mental and creative duels but would lose the physical ones, the kinds of confrontations that are the most important for boys. No one liked them but, when fighting became the only option to maintain dignity, everyone else just cowered away and I was forced to stand alone.


Even at a tender age being the vindictive bastard that I was, on one of my birthday parties I invited the entire class except for Nicholas and Garreth. Disgusted at this, a teacher tried to teach me a lesson. On the day of the party, she took me off the school bus and gave me and the other two boys a lift home. On the way, she kept asking me about the party. Although this was embarrassing, it didn’t work: in no way would her plan browbeat me into having them spoil my special day!

Later they took revenge when I invited a class buddy to come to the Paissandú club. In the pool, they tried to drown me. Holding friends under the water was a common enough game but this time the intention was for real, and to survive I had to fight my way up. I went completely berserk, lashing out wildly with kicks and punches and to everyone’s disbelief – including my own – I beat them both up. However, the victory was to be short lived and the situation carried on.


The Payssandu Club in the 1960’s, the natural destination for a British expat family.

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Lost Samba Chapter 04 – Part 03 – Rio’s Beauty.


Photo by Custodio Coimbra

To paraphrase a verse from Gilberto Gil’s hit “Aquele Abraço”, when Mum and Dad arrived, Rio de Janeiro continued beautiful. There was no doubt that this was one of the best places to live in the world; apart from its generous coastal line with exuberant beaches, the Cidade Maravilhosa – the marvellous city – boasted the largest urban forest in the world – the Tijuca National Park, a place so vast that helicopters would sometimes spend days searching for lost hikers. With my parents’ British habit of going on walks and not much patience for spending the entire weekend sun bathing on crowded beaches – nor any friends to do this with them- they got to know the park very well. As soon as my sister and I were able to follow them, they took us along regularly. Exciting as they were, the outings were never dangerous. Sure, the forest was home to venomous snakes, but we never came across any and, as far as wild beasts were concerned, the city’s growing population had hunted them to extinction long ago. Nevertheless, a magical feeling always infected us in the silence of the dense, primeval forest, only broken by the noises of insects, by bird calls and by the crystal-clear water cascading down small streams.

Every trail eventually led up to a massive rock that was usually hard to climb. It took some effort to reach their summits, but these exertions – that very few cariocas undertook – were always worthwhile. From up there we could marvel at the breathtaking views of the city, of the bay and of the coast, a reminder to my parents of what it was that first attracted them to Rio. Mum would unpack the picnic and serve her egg mayonnaise sandwiches, which rather than leaving it to Maria, she always made a point in making herself.


On one of our many walks, I heard a rattling coming from the trees above us. I looked up and saw the foliage moving in a strange choreography: there was a monkey jumping around the branches as if playing in a funfair. The monkey was not alone – he was followed by at least twenty others, including babies clinging onto their mothers’ backs. They stopped for a while and stared at us with curiosity. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared back into the timeless forest.

Mico2Photo by P&C pictures

The city that stood in our – and the monkeys’ – background spread out along the coast beneath us resembling one of the forest’s butterflies’ enormous pair of wings. From our vantage point, we could see the huge Guanabara Bay opening out to the Atlantic ocean. On the opposite shore was Niterói, an important city in its own right, and behind it there was a never ending sea of hills and beaches. To the north was the Ilha do Governador (Governor’s Island), the location of the airport; my parents’ introduction to Brazil.

On our side of the Bay was the ocean-facing Zona Sul with its picture-postcard places: Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the Sugar Loaf Mountain. Following the coast we could see the – then deserted – beaches of São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca which were only visible from the highest points in the forest. Closer to us stood the church spires and office buildings in the city centre and the seemingly endless sprawl of industrial buildings, low-rise housing of the Zona Norte. This was where the poor and the lower middle class lived and in our snobbishness, we considered those two thirds of the city as being on the “wrong side” of the forest, somewhere unworthy of our attention. The only recognizable feature there was the Maracanã Stadium: the supreme temple of Brazilian football.


At the feet of the forest’s hills there were favelas marking the boundaries between the city and the thick bush. This was where the poor lived. Some of them had originated as small quilombos – hiding places set up by fugitive slaves who chose these precipitous mountainsides as they provided the perfect shelter from patrols in search of escaped “property”. The favelas had developed into agglomerations that looked like anthills, where chickens, pigs and dogs roamed in the mud alleyways around the inhabitants’ wooden huts. Crooked electricity posts, television antennae and clothes drying on strings added extra layers to the seeming chaos.

Their inhabitants wore torn clothes and old Havaianas flip-flops and had curly hair, dark skin, loud voices and open laughs. Children ran around barefoot, their mums trudging up and down the steep alleys that curled along the hills balancing tins of water, or sacks of dirty laundry, on their heads. Although many of the favelados were white, this was a Brazil derived directly from Africa.


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Lost Samba – Chapter 04/01- The birth of Brazil


Photo by Custodio Coimbra

It has been a common pattern for people to set off across the oceans in pursuit of an imagined destination – an idealised shelter where all their dreams would come true. In this, my parents were no exception. Like so many other adventurers arriving in Brazil or in any other “tropical paradise”, they were to discover that the “jungle” behind the gorgeous beach could be a carnivorous soul-devouring morass. In an attempt to restructure their lives and fearing that a nuclear conflict between the West and the Soviet Union would follow the Korean War, the couple had sought refuge in the remoteness and the neutrality of Brazil. However, if one were to take away the safety aspect, as well as the colourful exotic one, what they saw in their new country was a land without a past, where their war-scarred selves could start over again and re-discover happiness.
In this light they considered Brazil as a place rather than a country and their emotional and cultural compasses never stopped pointing towards Europe. As far as they were concerned, the old continent was – for good and for bad – the undisputed centre of world history. Therefore, they never truly understood Brazil and never managed to connect to its deeper layers, rather they saw their new home as something close to a canvass upon which to paint their fantasies. In this they were wrong, in reality the canvass was not blank, Brazil was also like an artist that painted upon its newcomers.
While I do not have any intention to write a history book and acknowledge it is impossible to be accurate in condensing a country’s history into one chapter, in an attempt to give the reader a clearer picture of the background to these pages, I will try to describe what was there before my family arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
This story begins with the indigenous peoples who lived around Guanabara Bay spotting strange vessels far-off on the horizon. Those ships, with their huge sails bearing incomprehensible signs and intricate woodcraft, were nothing short of UFO’s sightings, and when the first apprehensive low rank sailors rowed out to meet them, the face-to-face encounters were like coming close to aliens.
The natives may have seemed primitive to the arriving Europeans, but the feeling was surely mutual. Stepping ashore in bizarre garments were a group of strangely clad, pale and hairy men sickened by weeks of appalling conditions at sea. Wherever they came from, it was clearly a world with no knowledge of basic hygiene. As time went by and more and more of them arrived, the “Indians”, as the Europeans insisted on calling the native peoples, would never really understand why they had travelled so far nor what was wrong with their world to do so, perhaps it was the intolerance that they would end up experiencing first hand.


It is not certain who those naked people at the beach were, nor where they came from, some argue that they were offshoots of complex societies encountered in the Andes and in the Northern part of the Amazon forest, we may never know.  What we do know is that the relationship between the hundreds of different tribes spread along the Brazilian coast was complex and that they were in the midst of a civilizational process of their own. By looking at their descendants closer we also know that they were connected to the environment in ways that the world transported on those caravels could barely understand, let alone appreciate. The natives bathed daily, were extremely healthy both in body and in spirit and had no notion of the meaning of social inequality. The indigenous inhabitants of Pindorama, as they called the world, not Brazil, experienced their existence in a way that was incomprehensible for a civilization that was leaving religious obscurantism and beginning to embark in an era where economic ties would become an impersonal God presiding over almost all aspects of life.

The so-called Indians did not need to strive for a heavenly after-life in the Garden of Eden, they were already living as one with the landscape. The integration with their surroundings was so intimate that they could sense, for example, the presence of an animal or of a person approaching from a considerable distance without having to see them. Only now, do outsiders appreciate and take seriously their knowledge, with big pharmaceutical corporations beginning to investigate their understanding of their forests’ varied medicinal properties.


Women were responsible for agriculture while men hunted and fished. It was also a male responsibility to deal with the demanding preparations for their religious festivals: to complete the shaman’s – or Pagé’s – headdress, they would roam the forest for days on end to find a specific feather from a specific bird that only lived on a specific mountain. On their way back to their settlement, they would collect herbs and roots to produce potent hallucinogenic drugs that they ingested to learn the secrets of the jungle. Our rational western knowledge system is still to explain the precision and the mystery of these visions.

The natives’ world floated above good and evil. Every year, alongside nine months of carefree living and not much work to do, they dedicated three months to war. This was fundamental to their very being. They needed to be good at fighting because they and their enemies kept no prisoners: they ate them.

On the shore and hinterland of Guanabara Bay, including what now we call Rio de Janeiro, the Tamoios, Tupinambas and Puríi peoples believed that the flesh of a brave man was imbued with his physical and spiritual strength, which could be acquired by its ingestion. Brutal though they certainly were themselves, the Portuguese had a hard time coming to grips with this local custom and there are accounts of missionaries breaking down in floods of tears as they waited to become a meal. Disgusted at this cowardice, the natives released these useless beings. One such surplus prisoner had the appropriate name of Bispo Sardinha (Bishop Sardine), the first dignitary from the Vatican to set foot in Brazil, and it is easy to imagine his mixed feelings of relief and shame he would have had walking back to his mission, had he been released. In this case they ate the man, which bought an even worse P.R. upon the native non-Christians.


Despite the barbarity of cannibalism, such practices would compare favourably with the destiny that the “civilized” Europeans had in store for them. According to one of the country’s greatest intellectuals, Darcy Ribeiro, following the arrival of the white men, their population dropped from an estimated four million to a meagre forty thousand. As in the rest of the Americas, the Caraibas, or white men, spread deadly diseases and imposed the rule of either adapting and becoming second-class citizens or vanishing. Very little of their culture was to be absorbed into the mainstream culture, at least as far as increasingly urbanized Brazil is concerned. However, despite the concrete and the asphalt carpeting the land, the pollution of the rivers and of the air and other forms of harm to the environment that the indigenous peoples considered themselves as being guardians, their memory remains in the Brazilian genetic pool and not far below the surface of the nation’s subconscious. The Brazilians’ easy-going mannerisms, their love of the outdoors, their ease to empathise and their informality are a part of the natives’ legacy. Perhaps this dormant mindset will one day be the country’s gift to the world; a formula for achieving harmony through openness and for acquiring completeness through seeing nature as greater than man.


On the Portuguese side, the Sagres Academy, an official navigators’ guild and syndicate, led the country’s enterprise for global discovery. For this, they used technology that the Arabs had left behind in the Iberian Peninsula. This institution was the most advanced navigation centre of its time and had refused to sponsor the travels of the Genovese mariner Christopher Columbus because its members already knew that there was a great mass of land, perhaps a continent, that lay to the west of Europe and that was not Asia. Their great hope – and the reason why patrons as important as the King, Infante Dom Henrique supported them – was to discover a passage around, or through, this uncharted territory to shorten the journey to the Orient instead of having to go all around Africa to get there. If they were to locate this route, it would facilitate the valuable trade of spices and the revenues would fund not only the colony but also the Portuguese kingdom, which was almost bankrupt following its wars of liberation against the Moors.


The rivalry with Spain ended up forcing the Portuguese to admit their knowledge of the western land. In 1494 – six years before the official discovery of Brazil, the two countries signed the Tordesilhas Treaty. In this agreement authored by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal and Spain divided the possession of the new continent along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa).

Unlike with the Spanish, the Portuguese possession did not fragment into small countries, it remained as one big colony and for small Portugal the size of their new territory was a problem. They had to control and to inhabit the wilderness before a stronger power might seize it. In addition, how could Portugal make its new possession economically viable? The “Indians” had no notion of commerce and there was no evidence of gold or of the coveted spices that drove the world’s economy. There was of course plenty of timber in the impenetrable forests but this would not justify the resources required for a colonial adventure.

After the official discovery in 1500 the quest to find an opening to the Pacific Ocean continued but proved to be frustrating. Brazil’s coast showed itself to be regular. Parallel to the shore and its dense vegetation ran a mountain range that seemed impenetrable. On New Year’s Day of 1502, a group of Portuguese vessels surveying the coast came across two massive promontories covered by tropical vegetation guarding an enormous maritime entrance. This could be the passage to “the Indias” or perhaps a route connecting the seas to legendary kingdoms with vast, untapped, gold resources. They rushed to name it River of January – Rio de Janeiro, a name filled with hope and poetically referring to an endless beginning.

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Queen Elizabeth II in Rio

As I saw her pass in her beautiful boat in the Diamond Jubilee pageant under the London rain I could not help to remember her visit of  to my school, the British School of Rio de Janeiro, in 1968.  The picture above is of her with the head master, I am the third one above his head. Bellow is the description of the day in my book Lost Samba:

There were no classes and excitement filled the air; the school had been covered with Union Jack and Brazilian flags and after they had cleaned up the leaves and rotting fruit the patio looked immaculate. We settled in and waited for the other classes to leave for the assembly hall across the crowded playground. Mrs. Feitosa, our teacher, was a strong blond in her mid forties from Manchester and married to a Brazilian. Her make-up and her fancy dress did not take away her authority as she closed the door and stood in front of the blackboard.

“I want everyone to sit down and listen carefully.”

We stopped whatever we were doing, fell silent, and she continued.

“Good… Can you all hear me? Today everybody must be on their best behavior, was I clear?”

 She gave us “the look” from behind her glasses and twisted her thin lips. As by magic, each one of us thought that she was addressing it to him and we were relieved when someone opened the door to say that it was our turn.

“Now I want all of you to hold hands and come with me.”

 The grown-ups outside were dressed in their best clothes and were proud of us as we passed. They waved and smiled but at the same time they kept turning their heads around to see if the distinguished guest had already arrived.

When we were about to reach the Hall’s entrance, we heard sirens and Mrs Feitosa stopped to look back. We followed her gaze and saw it happen: no one less than Queen Elizabeth the second, her Majesty, head of the British Crown, was entering the British School of Rio de Janeiro accompanied by her entourage.

She was standing in the open Rolls Royce in a white dress, waving and smiling at the crowd under the rows of palm trees that went from the entrance gate to the playground. Her car was escorted by the most impressive motorbikes that any of us had ever seen. They were huge and loud; enormous radio antennae swayed behind their riders in leather jackets and with dark glasses protected by transparent shields with the emblem of the military police.

Mrs. Feitosa took us out of our trance and told us to get into the hall and climb onto the stage before the grown-ups came in. We were lucky to have the best spot in the hall. When the Queen came in silence fell and the place assumed a dimension that we had never realized it could have. Prince Phillip followed right behind and stopped to talk, out of all people to Sarah, my sister, who was standing in the ex-students’ section. She was amazing: confident and polite.

The pupils selected to perform the leading acts were part of the English thoroughbred clique. The main couple was dressed up in traditional costumes. The boy walked up to Her Majesty and threw his cape on the floor in a chivalrous fashion, then bowed down and shouted out something that I didn’t get but that sounded very appropriate. After the royal approval, she turned to us.

Mrs Feitosa lifted her hand and we sang our part; it was well rehearsed and sounded good to every one’s relief. After the applause there were other presentations and speeches and in the end royal tea cups were handed out. The festivities continued long after she had left. If there ever was a golden day for the British community in Rio, that was it.

The pomp and the festivities were a bit out of tone with what was happening in the country. Political unrest was at its peak, violent confrontations between the police and students escalated to a point where the regime resorted to a massive clamp down imprisoning hundreds of opposition people who would be tortured and killed. In a way the dictatorship used the British royalty’s presence to mask the situation internally and to appear credible externally. It may be no coincidence that a few months later a British company was awarded the contract to construct the Rio-Niteroi bridge across the Guanabara Bay

The video bellow shows the varnished and somewhat uncomfortable stay:

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