Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba.
The Hotel Sol de Ipanema faced the beach almost on the corner of Rua Montenegro (which has since been renamed Rua Vinicius de Moraes), and it was a convenient landmark where my friends and I could all meet up at the beach. One Saturday morning, Edu and I were sitting by the sea in front of the hotel when we saw a lanky but toned guy in his forties wearing a crochet thong and playing beach tennis. His presence and his scandalously minuscule bathing attire drew our attention and, after looking at him for some time, Edu turned to me and asked, “Hey, isn’t that Gabeira?”
Edu was referring to Fernando Gabeira, one of the former exiles who had been involved in the 1969 kidnapping in Rio of the American ambassador, Charles Elbrick. In his best-selling autobiography, O que é Isto, Companheiro? (“What is this, Comrade?”), in addition to the insider’s revelations of the mythical world of a so-called “terrorist” organization, Gabeira declared in his book that during those “heroic” days he was actively bisexual, something scandalous for the left and for the right alike. Riding a wave of fame, Gabeira launched an alternative path for opposing the system that he termed the “politics of the body”. What he really meant by this is still debated, but a political statement that seemed to prescribe being true to yourself and engaging in a lot of sex as a path to revolution went down well in Ipanema.
Rio’s beaches had, and still have, an unofficial schedule and a territorial partition that allowed one to say, “Tell me when and where you sun bathe and I will tell you who you are.” At dawn, the fishermen from Copacabana now shared the coast with surfers, yoga and Tai Chi aficionados, while joggers and cyclists paraded on the promenade. Later in the morning, as when I was a child, the ownership of the beach shifted to families, encompassing children, mums, grandmas, nannies, dogs and all other sectors of Brazilian domestic life. Around midday, they went home and from then on the more interesting people who stayed on gave Rio’s beaches sub-divisions further definition.
In Ipanema, there were unofficial spots for bodybuilders, Jiu-Jitsu fighters and yuppies. Other stretches became known as an extension of the gay scene, there was a surfers’ point, an area for the favelados, one for white-collar workers, another for sex professionals (not coincidentally the same as that for tourists), and an area reserved for football players and their groupies. Then there was Posto Nove, the beach outpost attracting followers of 1960s and 70s lifestyles and ideologies.
After the Pier, the surfers point in the early 1970s, had lost its usefullness, trawlers and cranes had done the job of demolishing the structure. From then on the Nove inherited the status of being the beach’s permanent Woodstock, the prime meeting place for artists, musicians, actors and intellectuals – both those already established and also those who never would. With the recent political freedom, came the flags of the newly legalized leftist parties flapping above the beautiful people. Meanwhile the boys from Batista’s improvised bar ran back and forth to serve beer, snacks and the tastiest caiprinhas found on any of Rio’s beaches.
There was a tacit understanding between the police and the beach-goers that they didn’t trouble us as long as we didn’t create trouble for them elsewhere on the beach. However, during election campaigns things sometimes changed when traditionalist candidates would push the police to clampdown on pot smokers, but when raids occurred, the crowd would boo them away and arrests were rare.
A typical day at Posto Nove was like being at a club or at a laid-back rock concert. Whether or not we had met before, we would chat between us about women, football and politics, and when the sun grew too hot or if the conversation became boring there was always the sea enticing us. As the day wore on, we took long swims, did some body surfing and played beach tennis. When the sun started to go down people began leaving the beach. By five in the afternoon the oceanfront was much emptier and the atmosphere became more intimate and serene. The milder sun, the afternoon breeze, the peace that came after a day spent in the open air and the beauty of the place and of the people made the Nove a magical spot.
The beach sessions would end with everyone giving the sun a standing ovation as it slowly disappeared over the horizon. After that, we all went our separate ways, normally going home for a nap before heading out to one of the parties or gigs that we had talked about on the beach earlier in the day where our free-spirited, suntanned and youthful carioca tribe would reconvene.
After my fiasco at the British School, the Escola Americana, or E.A., was the only alternative left in which to continue an international education in Rio de Janeiro. That surreal institution had everything one could expect from an American High School: blond and ginger boys and girls speaking English with a nasal accent, a baseball field, an American football team, and the social competition inherent to such an institution. The Rocinha favela, the biggest slum in the world, located on the hill right in front of the school, was a reminder that those massive grounds and those futuristic buildings were a hub for a foreign virus in a foreign land.
The EA’s educational structure was as advanced as its architecture: we built our own curriculum, the courses were with different students in different classrooms, we had a smoking area, the teachers had long hair and we didn’t need to wear a uniform. In a town influenced by the American culture, in terms of coolness, this school was the Olympus of Rio’s youth. The kids who had set the trends for how the middle class was behaving; the ones who had introduced surfing and weed to Ipanema, had studied or were studying at that very school. My classmates were the children of the powerful gringos sent over to overlook the making of “New Brazil” and to make sure that the branch followed the headquarters. This feeling was pretty much internalized in most students and I had to be careful not to absorb their sense of superiority and look down on regular Brazilians.
Most of them weren’t saints and were having the time of their life. They did all the wrong things that the other kids did, but had the added advantage of relying on IBM, or Merck or Shell to intervene on their behalf when things went wrong. This sense of impunity was usually reserved only to the highest ranking families of the land. The school’s elite knew each other well from their parents social circles and excluded those who didn’t belong. With the status of a non-surfer, Brazilian born, and non-muscular son of an elderly Jewish small business owner, I was barred from the ‘“in’” crowd. These were guys with an unblemished American or European pedigree who irradiated self-confidence. Many had long hair, were athletic, and seemed to rock in any physical activity they got into, except for football (for them soccer).
Those kids had a lifestyle that is hard to imagine. To begin with, most of them belonged to the Yacht Club and had boats waiting for them at the marina. They lived in houses, a rarity in Rio even in those days, the ones who lived in flats stayed in the best addresses in town such as the beach front avenues of Ipanema and Leblon, Avenida Vieira Souto and Avenida Delfim Moreira. Whenever I was invited to parties or to hang out after school with any of them, I would think to myself, “So these are people who live here”. My schoolmates had access to gadgets that were science fiction in common households: video games (something that hardly anyone had in those days), imported surf and skateboards, records from any band one could imagine, the best stereo equipment available in the American (not the Brazilian) stores and dreamlike weekend houses in dreamlike locations where they could use their toys.
To add insult to injury, their monthly, dollar-based pocket moneys were probably more than what I received in an entire year, which in its turn was more than the minimum salary. Dad had made a lot of extra money with his stock market move, but next to these people we were poor.
The few friends I made there came with a novelty: they smoked weed. After talking about my tastes and interests it didn’t take long for them to welcome me into their circle and help me discover what the fuss was all about. The first couple of tries were disappointing, but on the third or fourth session, the penny dropped and I realized I was very stoned. The experience was not what I expected, there were no unicorns galloping in front of me nor did everything change into psychedelic colours, it was all about laughing with no apparent reason, and about appreciation of rock music. There was no doubt that the high gave a different dimension to everyday activities; every song we listened to sounded marvellous and had details that I had never noticed before. Perhaps because I was learning how to play the guitar, the state that the smoke induced me into allowed me to identify the different layers of the music and to understand what was in the mind of the musicians when they wrote those parts and performed them. The simplest things: LP and book covers, paintings on the wall, decorative statues and plants, acquired a beauty that I could never have grasped in a normal state. I was soon to discover that maconha was a repellent for girls, but, hey, the chicks at the American School were unobtainable anyway.
From that point onwards, at school, at the beach, at the club and at home, I had an edge: I was doing something illegal. Things and people I had never understood before began to make sense, and belonging to that new club felt great, almost like the conquest of an identity. In my mind, the peers in my other circles were dying to do the same but did not have the “cojones”.
Rio de Janeiro became the undisputed capital of world football. Needless to say, the players of the national squad became super-heroes for kids of my generation, and playing football was an absolute must for all of us. Supporting a team was also an essential part of the package. I opted for Botafogo, because it was the neighbourhood where I was born and because of its cool emblem: a five-pointed, white star on a black shield resembling Captain America’s. My team was among Rio’s “big four”, competing alongside Flamengo – the team of the masses, Fluminense – the team of the rich, and Vasco – the team of the Portuguese community and their descendants. Botafogo was the odd one out and attracted those who somehow did not fit in any firm social category. The opposition would say that this was the team for the weirdos.
If only for a moment, football produced the magic spell that every totalitarian government longs for: it brought people together as equals. For me this worked; football was the best way to fit into a country that was completely alien to my parents and I took on this mission with absolute conviction. Whenever I could, I would stay in my room following the football championships on the radio, which was altogether far more fun than anything else that went on within the confines of our apartment. Radio Globo’s presenters were funny, clever, eccentric and over the top. When a player managed a great trick, the commentators, Jorge Curi and Waldir Amaral, went wild; when a player scored, they became orgasmic. Mario Vianna, the comentator for the referee’s decisions, would shout “Errou!!!” for mistakes, “La mano!!!, Cadê o echo?? La mano ôo ôo ôo!!!” for an apparent handball, “Banheiiiiira!!!” – Bathtub!!! – for an offside, and, on for penalties, he would make a solemn comment before offering his verdict: “Penalidade maxima”. After a match, it was time for João Saldanha. His considered, hour-long post-match analysis employed allegories of known and made-up folk tales, involving metaphors such as giraffes dating monkeys and elephants marrying ants. He was never boring..
These characters made mini transistor radios an essential gadget for football fans who, even in the Maracanã, held them closely to their ears. During important matches, there were so many that, providing there was a silent moment, all the fans could hear the station’s jingle echo loudly throughout the stadium.
With Brazil’s heightened international status, the two tournaments that the carioca teams participated in – the state’s one in the first half of the year, and the national one in the second half of the year – acquired a special flavour. Rio’s league was only rivalled by São Paulo’s and, as the commentators Waldir Amaral and Jorge Curi liked to say, here was the three-times world champion football being played at the biggest – and greatest – venue on the planet. I was dying to watch a match in the Maracanã. All the other boys who I knew had already gone – or at least they claimed that they had – and I badly needed the kudos. As ever, the obstacle was Mum and Dad’s irritating attitude of “What I don’t know, I don’t like”. Coming from Britain, for them football was for the working class and for the local riff-raff. Going to a stadium and mixing with those types would somehow be a blot on their social position.
My fate changed on the day that Peter, one of Dad’s friends, offered to take me to a match together with his two sons. He was the adventurer of my parents’ social circles: he had crossed Latin America in an old jeep, he smoked, he was toned and suntanned and spoke English with an American accent.
Peter and his two sons, Rob and Tony, came to pick me up in their jeep early on a Sunday afternoon. They were older and supported Fluminense – which was not ideal for a Botagoguense – but the game was against Flamengo, everyone’s arch-rival. This would make it OK to shout “Nense!!! Nense!!! Nense!!!” instead of “Fogo!!! Fogo!!! Fogo!!!”. At first I felt uncomfortable in the car, the two older boys kept on talking about electronics, mechanics and other subjects that were alien to my existence. However, the further we travelled, the more apparent it became that all the traffic was heading to the stadium and I forgot the feeling of being left out. The other cars were filled with Flamengo or Fluminense supporters who would make fun or cheer each other from the car windows. Surely their radio sets were tuned into the same station as us, we were one of the guys!
We arrived about one hour before kick-off time. While Peter negotiated the parking fee with a car “minder” – who would, of course, not be there when we came back, I stepped out to look around. The atmosphere was frantic: people, very few of them from the Zona Sul, were heading towards the stadium. The Maracanã was at least three blocks away but even so, it looked colossal; the batucadas and the cheering coming from inside were loud, and appeared to be attracting the crowd like a butcher’s light attracts flies.
Seat reservations were unheard of – everyone had to queue at ticket booths. Rusty bars separated the ticket vendors from the public and while we waited for our turn, beggars and drunkards came to bother us. Further away, improvised stand owners shouted their lungs out trying to sell their stock of flags, mats to sit on and team shirts to the fans rushing by. After getting our admission, the next step was to make our way into the stadium. This was no simple matter. There were only two gates for our tickets, one on either side of the Maracanã. The mass gathered in front of them and funnelled in like sand passing through an egg timer. The mood was tense and filled with testosterone; this was not a place for women, children or the elderly. Amidst the pushing crowd, I clung to Peter’s eldest son’s shirt and had to be careful not to fall down and risk having hundreds of anxious feet trampling me.
The turnstiles were a surreal oasis of peace separating the madness outside the stadium from the one inside it. Before passing through the turnstiles, frail middle age clerks, guarded by fearsome-looking bouncers, carefully inspected the tickets one by one. Those without a legitimate one – or those trying to sneak in without any – had to choose between turning back and pushing their way through the on-coming mob or being escorted to the police station. I could tell that the inspectors had little patience and no sympathy, as one of them was yelling at one of those trying to smuggle themselves in “Who cares if you have no money!? For f..ck sake! Decide fast! Can’t you see the people behind you?”
When our turn came, the grey haired mulato in glasses examined our admissions, tore the thin blue papers, threw his half in a bin and loosened the turnstile to allow us in. We regrouped and ran with the crowd up the wide ramp that lead to the upper ring. Police officers with ferocious dogs grabbed hold of drunkards and people carrying dangerous objects. At the end of the ramp, the fans separated according to their team loyalties and there were no further risks of fights breaking out between rival supporters. We followed the Fluminense fans and took the left corridor, rushed past the toilet doors and the half-empty bars, the mixture of urine and spilled beer producing a sickening smell. There were entrances every thirty meters, and Peter had to decide quickly which one to choose.
He pushed us into one of the narrow corridors where shadows obscured the light at the far end. We ran up feeling the immense energy emanate from the crowd. When we finally entered into the arena, I was in awe: the stadium was gigantic – I could well-understand how it could take a hundred and sixty thousand spectators. Down below, encircled by the oval construction dressed with all the paraphernalia necessary for the spectacle, with advertising and fan’s banners hanging from the balconies, was the green and impeccably maintained football field that captured the dreams of an entire nation.
In the crowd, the areas around the supporters’ associations were the most fun. Those were the places where the most fanatic fans stood, where the batucadas happened and from where all the booing and the cheering originated. When one of them started, moments later – as in a chemical reaction –tens of thousands of people would be shouting out the same message. The problem was that it was also there where most of the fighting broke out. That was a bad choice for Peter to take three children and, perhaps wisely, he ushered us to the boring neutral zone between the two sides.
As we found a place for four people, there was a preliminary match going on between the juniors from both clubs. Although everyone was more concerned about the main event, there were cheers and the tempo of the drums went up when one of the future professionals scored. Also, things went silent when one of them was about to take a penalty. When the match finished, the stadium woke up. It was already completely full, and supporters began waving their super-sized flags, releasing balloons with their teams’ colours and setting off firecrackers. The samba and the chanting and counter-chanting also heated up. Down on the field, photographers with several cameras and long lenses hanging on their necks, and reporters with oversized microphones and headphones, ran to take their positions behind the goal posts. The uniformed gandulas, or ballboys, sat around the field while policemen with dark glasses and German Shepherd dogs patrolled the aisles and periphery of the field. Now only the players were missing.
The fans sang the same rude tunes that we taught each other at school and threw crushed empty paper cups onto the heads below. The worst thing I remember seeing were guys peeing down onto the lower stands where the poorer fans went. They called that section the geral; it was the cheapest place in the stadium and was certainly a place to avoid. The spectators there watched the game standing up with their field of vision at the same level as the player’s feet amidst gang fights that broke out regularly.
A friend told me the story of a reporter who was in one of the press cabins that hung over the geral. In order to amuse himself, the reporter started shouting out obscenities at them, in the middle of his rant his false teeth fell out and landed on the ground right below him. Despite his pleadings, they trampled his teeth as soon as they hit the floor.
A surprisingly monotone and formal voice sounded out of the loudspeakers announcing the match and reading out the players’ names. The electronic panel was turned on and began to display the “Flamengo 0 and Fluminense 0” score line.
Because it was the team of the white social elite, Fluminense’s symbol was rice flour. In preparation for the team’s entrance, members of its torcida, or fans association, walked around with buckets full of sachets of the stuff, distributing them like farmers throwing feed to animals. As soon as Fluminense came onto the field, the fans opened the sachets and threw the powder up into the air creating a thick, white cloud. When the air cleared, it looked as if the supporters had just come out of a dust storm.
Flamengo’s torcida was bigger than Fluminense’s, covering almost two-thirds of the stadium. The club’s symbol was a vulture due to its colours: red and black. For every match, supporters brought in a real vulture – the tradition was to attach a flag to its feet and release the bird as the players came onto the field. If their mascot flew out of the stadium, they considered this a good omen. At this particular game, the confused creature ran the risk of changing colour because of the cloud of rice powder, and of being mistaken for a white eagle when it returned to its nest.
The two teams walked onto the field together, the referee with his auxiliaries opened their way and the teams’ young mascots came right after. They were free to run around after their squads posed for the press photographers. The next morning those images would be on the back pages of every newspaper in the city and whoever had been in the stadium would feel as if they had taken part of a major event. As the players warmed up reporters ran around the stars in the field trying to get them to comment on the stories they had been working on; now we could actually recognise the owners of the voices that we had been following since we left home.
Once the field was clear, the referee called the two captains to the centre of the pitch to choose who would kick-off the match and on which ends of the field the teams would start. The players took their positions, the referee whistled, and a celebrity player gave the first pass. The match had begun and the tension grew higher. Some of the players had been world champions in Mexico and the fans could recognize them from their haircuts, the numbers on their shirts and their style of play. When they did something wrong, people criticised them loudly as if they knew them personally. When attackers were close to scoring, everyone stood up, and when the opposition did something threatening, they kept silent while the opposing fans cheered. In the second half, Fluminense scored and although I did not support them, I could not contain myself and went crazy as if I was one of them.
Back then, Brazilian clubs did not sell their stars abroad and television was still in its infancy. Our football heroes did not have agents planning golden careers for them in European leagues. Instead, horizons began and ended with the state and national leagues and, for the very best, selection to the national team. They played for the torcida and did what they could every Sunday afternoon to confirm their status as craques, or football idols, not for television viewers or for foreign scouts, but for those present at the stadiums. Therefore, the there and then that was crucial, and this made the quality of those games not just world class, but the best in the world. The Maracanã of that era holds special memories for Rio’s football fans, rather as Woodstock does for rock lovers. There were moments of absolute magic, unforgettable goals, tricks and plays, and outlandish crowd deliria. As in the colliseum in Rome, the aura in those matches is an unrepeatable phenomenon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
I 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.
In 1982 at the end of my first semester my University (the U.F.R.J) organized a holiday trip to the historical town of Ouro Preto, in the state of Minas Gerais as part of their peer bonding policy. The town was about seven hours by car from Rio and had been constructed by the Portuguese in the 1700’s when the region was one of the world’s biggest suppliers of gold.
It was listed as a heritage for humanity by UNESCO and still retained the elegant and prosperous colonial architecture, and had churches literally covered in gold. The streets were still of cobble stone and despite the cars and electric cables it must not have been much different to what it was 400 years ago at the time of its splendor. In the early 1908’s the mines had dried up long ago and it had become a university town which translated into a lot of young people having fun away from home in student hostels which they called republics.
Not only the town was very special but the surrounding too. The more temperate climate accounted for beautiful and pleasant forests, the now gold-less soil main element was the “pedra-sabao”, or soap stone, which the rain and rivers had sculpted into creating strange caves with natural pools and waterfalls. These natural showers were about a half an hour’s on foot from our republic and were perfect to sober up the hangovers and just the walk itself through the countryside was worthwhile.
Besides the magical settings and the numbers of young people, there was another other cool aspects of Ouro Preto; the free student’s refectory was the best one I had ever been to.
The winter weather wasn’t always great and the students would stay indoors getting bored and drunk. As soon as they found out that there was a guitar player/singer around they started to organize parties where my un-amplified nylon string guitar and my voice on top of the dining table was the music box. The success was so big that people from other “republics” started showing up. I was enjoying myself so much that I decided to stay on for another two weeks after my class mates left.
Six months after joys of that holiday the good life would be overshadowed by the harsh realities of hyper-inflation, recession, joblessness and other illnesses brought by bad economic administration.