Lost Samba – Chapter 22/01 – Getting a drivers license in Rio de Janeiro
At home, overnight my status leapfrogged from negative to absolutely positive. I was celebrated like I had been at my Bar-Mitzvah once again. Now, as a prize, I was given a light-blue, old VW Beetle, a 1973 Fusca, which I named “Blues Boy”.
The car was bought from a contact of a doorman of our apartment building. As old and cheap as the Fusca was, it was still a car and, as far as I can remember, friends from much richer homes just got a pat on the shoulder for making it through the same vestibular process without resorting to cheating. As far as Dad was concerned, the award was for a son who refused to listen to him and did not appreciate his company. There was some truth in his perception of our relationship. We were from very different generations and on top of this were divided by a world-view linked to language, access to material comforts and place in the community. Our life outlooks were on opposite poles.
There was also the unspoken suffering of the past and frustration with the present. Even with the wealth Dad had managed to build in Brazil, many things bothered him. He was uncomfortable about making his living as a representative for a German company, for a nation responsible for murdering much of his family in their quest to exterminate his race. On the other hand, the more he experienced what he believed were the irresponsible ways of Brazilians in business, government and everyday life, the less he liked the country. Although he thought it was unnecessary to express these anguishes, they were never far from the surface. In relation to me, despite his detachment, Dad worried about the future, and silently wanted me to achieve things that had been impossible for him, such as acquiring the respectability of a university degree and establishing myself as a professional.
Dad believed that a university degree would open doors to a secure world that his modest upbringing had always prevented him to acquire. For me, however, I was stepping into the unknown. Getting into a university was in a way selling out. Furthermore, there was the issue of the choice of the profession that I was heading towards, I had never really considered properly why I was studying economics, instead drifting towards the subject merely because the course was considered prestigious and because of my ease with numbers and my interests in history and politics. In reality, what had driven me to this point was the blind pressure to pass the exam. The main point of difference was that Dad did not have the options I did for deciding his future – he had been driven by fate and survival instinct. I wanted to enjoy life.
Dad did not understand this, he saw the symptoms, not the cause. Now that I was about to enter a university he hoped I would now be reeled in from my immersion into a Brazilian lifestyle that was completely alien to him, believing that I could be saved from what he regarded as my hedonistic, spoiled and selfish lifestyle. I just wanted Dad to give me a break. We could barely communicate. It was impossible for me to appreciate Dad’s acts of generosity, like when he gave me a car; nor could Dad understand that this kind of reaching out was no more than applying a band-aid on an open wound.
Anyhow, the summer partying season had just kicked in, the forty-degree heat and lure of the beach were not compatible with personal reflection, let alone trying to understand my father. Instead I simply wanted to have fun – and the opportunities were plenty. My car would be an important addition to the experience, but before being handed the keys there was the hurdle of getting a driver’s license. This was seen as tough because, following a driving lesson Mum had given me in Teresópolis, my reputation behind the steering wheel at home was terrible .
The family car was a clunky, beige, Brazilian-made Chevrolet Opala, with a confusing, manual gear stick protruding from the steering column. On the first lesson, I got Mum’s instructions all wrong and instead of moving slowly forward in first gear, I accelerated hard with the car in reverse. Had Mum not had the instinct to pull the hand brake, we would have gone crashing over the cliff behind us. Any comical value to the scene was entirely lost on my 79-year-old dad observing us. The lessons were cancelled.
What my parents did not know was that my secret driving career was born soon after, on the day I decided to put an ad in the newspaper offering guitar lessons. I needed more money and that was the best idea that came to mind.
A female student from Tijuca called and, although this meant a long trip to somewhere un-cool and far away from the beach on Saturday afternoons, I was skint and accepted. Marineide was younger than me and did not shy away from trying to seduce me from the moment she opened the door. Guitar lessons were not on her agenda and she ended up getting what she wanted.
Slightly overweight, with a faint moustache, not particularly bright and rather conventional, Marineide wasn’t my type. Even so, I crossed the barriers of my schizoid social life and introduced her to my pot-smoking circles – and this was where the driving came in. My guitar student, turned lover, put her father’s car at our disposal to go to Mauá though she had absolutely no ideas as to how to use it, instead relying on my non-existent driving skills. The hippy paradise was a four-hour drive, two and a half of which followed the most important highway in Brazil, the Via Dutra, linking São Paulo with Rio, with the remaining portion up an unpaved, winding mountain road.
Excitement won over my sense of fear and we took to the road, using the little knowledge that I had acquired by hearsay. We set off early in the morning for Kristoff’s house to pick up the rest of the guys. There was no traffic and after passing through several red lights, Marineide shouted for me to make a turn as we were heading up the wrong way of a one-way street. I didn’t think twice and turned the steering wheel as far as it would go. The car went into a skid, but the wheels obeyed, avoiding by just a few centimetres a lamp-post that appeared to pass in slow-motion in front of us. How we arrived in Mauá without a scratch remains a mystery – but by then I knew how to drive.
Ignorant of this adventure, Dad insisted that I took driving lessons instead of buying a license through the corrupt system, as everyone else did. In order to swell officials’ bank accounts, the test was almost impossible to pass. As I was about to leave for Salvador, we reached an agreement: I’d take the course and they’d pay the lower fee to buy the license without the test instead of paying a higher fee and passing without ever taking a lesson or appearing at an exam.
After two weeks of lessons, I got into the exam car with the driving school owner and two shady-looking examiners. Without looking at me, an examiner turned and asked: “Did this one pay?”
The owner answered, “Yes,” so I just needed to drive around the block to be certified to be let loose on the crazy traffic of Rio de Janeiro.