Lost Samba – Chapter 22/01 – Getting a drivers license in Rio de Janeiro
After I passed the vestibular, at home, my status leapfrogged overnight from negative to absolutely positive. My parents celebrated my success as if I had done my Bar-Mitzvah once again. This time, as a prize, I received a light-blue, old VW beetle, a 1973 Fusca, which I named “Blues Boy”.
We bought the car from a contact of our building’s doorman. As old and cheap as the Fusca turned out to be, it was still a car and, as far as I can remember, friends from much richer homes had just gotten a pat on the shoulder for performing their duty, which they had done without cheating. As far as Dad was concerned, the award was for a son who refused to listen to him and who did not appreciate his company. There was some truth in his perception; we could not help being from very different generations which made us have completely different world-views linked to language, access to material comforts and places in the wider community.
At that point Dad’s life was not at all rosy. Apart from the normal issues brought about by an advanced age, there was the unresolved suffering of the past and an un-planned frustration with the present. Even with the wealth Dad had managed to build in Brazil, the more he experienced the ways of Brazilians in business, in government and in 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 silently wanted his son to achieve things that his history had prevented him from obtaining, such as the respectability of a university degree and establishing himself as a professional. Being a remarkably intelligent man he would have gone very far had he studied and got a degree, and probably he saw this potential in me. Because of all this and the opportunities that had come to me by birth, the existential turmoil that I had entangled myself in was something that escaped his understanding and with which he did not manage to empathise.
From my perspective, higher education was going to be just another layer in the confusion. First of all, as childish as it may sound, I saw getting a prestigious diploma as a form of selling out. Furthermore, there was the issue of the choice of the profession that I was heading towards; I had never really considered studying economics, instead I had drifted towards the course merely because it was the lesser among other evils. I didn’t love the subject, I only found it mildly interesting, still it seemed a safe path to social eminence and I expected to do well in it because of my ease with numbers as well as my interests in history and politics. In reality, what had driven me so far was the blind pressure to pass the exam and get into a good university.
Dad never had these options, and this was where our divergences stemmed from. Fate and survival instincts had been the driving forces in his life while I had choices – or at least at that point I believed so -, and my choice was to enjoy life. Dad saw this as rubbish and hoped that now, with me being in college, I would take life seriously and this new step would save me from what he regarded as my hedonistic, spoiled and selfish lifestyle. In plain terms, I just wanted Dad to give me a break while he just wanted me stop acting like a spoiled brat. The final consequence was that we could barely communicate. I found it hard to appreciate Dad’s generosity in giving me a car; and Dad wasn’t able to 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, and the forty-degree heat and the lure of the beach were not compatible with introspection, let alone trying to understand my father. Instead, I simply wanted to enjoy what was around – and there were plenty of opportunities. My car would be an important addition to the experience, but before I got the keys there was the hurdle of getting a driver’s license. My parents saw this as tough because, following a driving lesson that 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 ended after that incident.
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 – pronounced Mareenaydee – 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 was not 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. As she had absolutely no idea as to how to use it, she relied instead on my nonexistent 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 with my Mum in Teresópolis and 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 lamppost that appeared to be passing 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, my Old Man insisted that I took driving lessons instead of buying a license through the corrupt system, as everyone else did. In order to force bribes that would swell officials’ bank accounts, the test was almost impossible to pass. Because I was about to leave on holiday, 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, we went to the test centre where I got into the exam car with the driving school owner and two shady-looking examiners. Without looking at me, an inspector turned and asked: “Did this one pay?” The owner answered, “Yes,” so I just needed to drive around the block to receive a certificate that would let me loose on the crazy traffic of Rio de Janeiro.