Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 28/02 – Going crazy in Olinda.

Olinda

There were no mobile phones back then, so every Friday afternoon we would visit the local telephone company to call home and assure our worried parents that everything was fine. This time Pedro made two calls – one to his mum and one to his girlfriend in Canoa Quebrada. He came out saying that his big and tanned fake blonde woman, was coming down to stay with him over carnival. As it happened, the news that I was going to party alone turned out well. Pedro put me in contact with Dinah, a journalist friend of his from Rio, who was close with no less than the son of the mayor of Olinda. When I phoned Dinah she invited me to join in with the crowd that got together at his house every day.

We met outside and the VIP property and Dinah escorted me inside. Although there wasn’t any mutual attraction between us, we became good friends. Oddly out of place with the popular celebrations in the surrounding streets, the guests in the house were nevertheless partying at full strength. The table in the living room was covered with elegant and tasty canapés, and the hall was full of foreigners and trendy people from São Paulo, a lot of camp fashionistas and well-groomed guys engaged in refined small-talk. They were all having the time of their lives but, as far as I was concerned, for my taste the gathering was all way too tame. In terms of drugs, there was everything one could possibly wish for: lança-perfume (something like poppers), cocaine, excellent weed and I even heard rumours that someone was giving away little papers with acid droplets on them. I shyly kept to my trusted herb and helped myself to some of the generous supply of malt whiskey.

My routine after that party could not have been stranger. I’d wake up in the grim room that Pedro and I were renting and then I’d wander over to one of the best houses in Olinda where I’d have brunch and get high. In the afternoon I was ready to join one of the best carnivals of the world, stay out until dawn and then retreat back, as Cinderella would, into our miserable little hovel for a few hours of sleep.

On the last day of carnival I woke feeling utterly exhausted from over-partying and went for a walk around the old town to chill out. Everything was fine until I reached a street that ended at the side of the viaduct linking Olinda with Recife. There was no pedestrian passage but something compelled me not to turn back but on the contrary, I was determined to go for a mad cross on its unprotected edge.

Without having anything to hold on to, I walked along the narrow concrete path 20 meters above a busy highway. A slight stumble to any side would have been fatal. I don’t have a great sense of balance but it did not seem to matter. I looked straight ahead, as a tightrope walker does, and made it to the other side. I wasn’t on anything and never understood what had driven me do cross the viaduct in that way. Did I have a death wish? Was I trying to prove something to myself? Or did I simply not give a damn? Anyway, I ended on a peaceful street and in the first open window, oblivious to my antics, there was a mother helping her son with his school homework. We stared into each others eyes and then, in a state of confusion, I walked on.

I headed back to Olinda by bus and soon I was again in the midst of a dancing carnival crowd. I stopped by at the VIP house where people were getting ready to parade with a famous carnival “bloco”. I was persuaded join in and a temporary “tattoo” was applied to my face. Outside I grabbed by the waste a sexy-looking girl and took her to a park. When it grew dark we went to meet her friends in a bar. After she left I got chatting to some guys who invited me to travel for free by boat to Europe to smuggle drugs. The vibe was uncomfortable so I returned to the confusion in the streets and bumped into a friend from university. After following a bloco, at four in the morning we retreated to an empty bar where we stayed chatting until shortly before sunrise.

On my way home to my room, I came across the mayor’s son who was with his closest friends. They invited me to come with them to a park on a hilltop to watch the sun revealing itself in the horizon. We were the only people there and from a stone stairs we saw the bright orange ball rise and gradually illuminate the nature around. The colours were magnificent and the silence and the temperature made that moment perfect.

After so much life had passed through my senses, I was in a state close to nirvana. In that magical setting, a joint with probably the best weed I have ever tried – the famous manga rosa from the Cabrobró region in the interior of Pernambuco, which my new friend had reserved for this special occasion. The joint was as strong as the magic mushrooms that I’d experienced in Mauá and – as with any good marijuana –only two or three puffs were needed to be transported to a different reality.

While we were all in a state of trance, out of nowhere two complete strangers suddenly joined us. One was blonde with long hair and had an accent from the south of Brazil, while the other guy was a muscular American with a military-style cropped haircut. They said that they were high on acid. Completely unprompted, the American started telling us about his experiences in the Vietnam war while his friend kept saying that he was crazy and that we should just ignore him.

Those crazy early hours in a small colonial-era town lost in the northeast of Brazil were to be my farewell to a very special era, a period of my life that I still miss. Pedro, who I’d only bumped into once during the carnival, had arranged for himself a lift back to Rio with some buddies of his girlfriend. I hitchhiked alone, and was lucky to get very long rides. By the time I was close to Vitória, my money had completely run out. As I was desperate to get home in time for university, for the only time in my life I asked strangers for money to buy a bus ticket and get some food, a humbling lesson.

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Pedro Cavalcante

Olinda – Photo by Pedro Cavalcante

Lost Samba – Chapter 28/01 – Good times in Natal.

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In the morning, we continued as the night before, but when we began communicating using words, we very soon came to realise that we were incompatible. I was a spoiled boy from Rio’s Zona Sul indulging in an experience of self-discovery and exploring the world around me, while she was from a nearby small Ceará town and was concerned about getting home fast because her mum wanted her back at work in the family shop. Our relationship only lasted that night. Two days later I saw her walking hand-in-hand with one of my long-haired buddies from the Praia do Francês. This didn’t bother me. The moment had been mine, although the girl was not mine any more.

Pedro and I had grown apart: he now spent most of the time with his new, older girlfriend, Carla, and her circle of mature people with proper jobs in glamorous professions such as journalism, fashion and television. I was hanging out with the musicians and the handicraft makers and drifting into a pretty strange place that was a bit too idealistic for the times, somewhere not in tune with the individualistic “survival of the fittest” mode of thinking that was conquering middle-class urban Brazil. I did not want to–  or perhaps did not manage to– adapt. Still, there I was in this idyllic place enjoying my youth in perhaps the best country in the world, managing to celebrate life but with gales of economic crisis, alienation and reality testing spinning around in my head.

As travelling companions Pedro and I were looking for completely different things.  But despite our differences, we recognised that we were in the trip together. One afternoon we sat together by the beach to have a talk and decided to keep to our original plan. I was going to put up with a fake hippy, who lied through his teeth to look cool and to get what he wanted, while he was going to put up with a guy who imagined that he was a hippy but was lost in his grip on reality. We were going to continue the trip together. Carnival was approaching and we were looking forward to spend it in Olinda.

There was still time to stop for a few days in Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, in between the state of Ceará, where we were, and Pernambuco, where Olinda is located. We hit the road again, with our bodies deeply tanned and our souls cleansed by the month and a half that we had spent beneath the strong sun of the Northeast. Natal proved to be wonderful. The strong winds of its exposed coast and the thin white sand dunes would later make the place one of the best sites in the world for kite surfing and the location for shooting numerous national and international commercials. Though Natal had by far the best waves of the Northeastern coast, as its water was infested with Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish, we preferred to stay on the sand drinking beer.

The wind’s strength as well as the quality of the waves was due to its position: Natal is about the most easterly point of the Brazilian coast, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean right where the continent curves to the west. As the closest point to Africa in South America, Natal had served as a refueling base for American planes during World War 2. This helped to explain the strong military presence there and why Natal’s streets were more serene and more organized than in any other city we visited on our trip. The students’ hostel was also the best one we stayed in, with clean, spacious, modern rooms. Natal showed what Brazil could have been like had  “Order and Progress” (Brazil’s national motto, adorned  on the country’s flag) had been followed.

After a couple of days camping and relaxing on Redinha beach – by far best spot around Natal – we talked about money. To our surprise we realized that so far we’d spent less than we’d expected, and because of this we decided to take a bus to Recife. The next morning, a rare cloudy day, I woke up early and went to the terminal to buy our tickets but the attendant told me that I couldn’t buy one for Pedro as I didn’t have his ID card. After some insistence, she told me to try to get an authorization at the terminal’s police station. The door was closed but after some time a skinny, unshaven, gray-haired man in his fifties showed up. He was drunk and barely managed to turn the keys, but eventually we were able to enter.

Before I started to explain why I was there, he ordered me to put my backpack on the table and dived into it to search for drugs. There were none but he took out two giant shells that I had found on the beach to give to Mum and Dona Isabel. He looked at me and said that now they were his. I asked why, and he took a hammer out of the drawer and put the metal side close to my right ear and started screaming abuse at me.

I invented a story that my dad was a famous reporter and that if anything happened to me, the story would be in all the newspapers throughout Brazil the very next day. As this was a time that the press had become strong, on a daily basis exposing dark secrets about police abuse during the dictatorship, he bought my bullshit. A bit rattled, he allowed me to to stuff my belongings back into the bag, but put aside my precious shells. When I asked for them back his anger was reawakened. Somehow, an unhappy compromise was reached: I reclaimed one shell while he took the other. I left the office without the authorization.

I let Pedro sort out his ticket for himself and we managed to arrive in Recife in time for the carnival. As we got off the bus, we bumped into a friend from Trancoso, a happy coincidence because we had nowhere to stay and he was more than keen to share the costs of a room he had found in Olinda, something we were told would be impossible to get at this time of year. Our carnival base was going to be next to the Praça do Carmo, where the main action takes place. We were in luck!

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natal

Lost Samba – Chapter 27/02 – Easy Riding in Canoa Quebrada.

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Fortaleza was most northerly state capital that we visited. A key reason for making the trek there was that it was very near a fisherman’s village called Canoa Quebrada (Broken Canoe), a must-go place on the Brazilian easy rider’s circuit. After thumbing a few lifts and some short bus trips to increasingly remote spots, we were eventually dropped off at the foot of a gigantic sand dune. The climb up that dune was tough but when we got to the summit and caught our breath, in the distance we made out a group of huts that resembled a lost place between the desert and the sea. We were captivated.

Canoa Quebrada’s rugged huts were separated by sand paths that abruptly ended at a massive clifftop. The beach below was wider than the ones we had seen elsewhere on our travels and its sand was harder, ideal for keeping the fishermen’s rafts – jangadas, a mispronunciation of Chinese junks. These rafts were flat-bottomed and made of tough, dried tree trunks bound together by ropes, and featuring a mast with a huge triangular sail. At sunrise, the fishermen rolled their wooden vessels into the water over coconut tree trunks. At sea, jangadas were light and easy to maneuver, and their simple elegance fitted in perfectly with the surroundings.

jangada

The locals knew how to cope with the sun and the heat: they would only expose themselves early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During the day men mended nets, sold their catches, bought provisions, or simply rested in the shade, while the women produced lace items, their technique famous across Brazil. The summer visitors, hippy-looking people from all over the country, including me, went to the beach at the hottest time of the day, from 11 am to 2 pm. When the heat became unbearable, we found shade in the kiosks by the cliffs and drank beer, listened to one other’s stories, recommendations of places to visit, gossip and expound political-existential theories.

Pedro and I rented, for next to nothing, a room in a fisherman’s hut. The accommodation wasn’t very comfortable but, after putting up with Pedro’s uncle, anything was great. The family slept in hammocks while we were in a separate room, sleeping on mats  placed on the sand-covered floor. There was no electricity, the house was lit by a kerosene lamp and water came from a well. Food was cooked on a rudimentary wood-burning stove. The wattle and daub walls were full of holes that enabled the breeze to cool the rooms slightly and the gaps in the roofing were hardly a problem because it rarely rained.

Our landlord was the patriarch of the three generations who lived under the straw roof. His hair was entirely gray but his body was still strong thanks to the years spent at sea. He had the look of someone who had lived life in its plenitude in the place that destiny had assigned to him. He had a bookless wisdom and a clearer picture of where the world stood than many of my professors,would ever achieve. His questions about our way of life were sharp and we had many conversations comparing our two worlds. If people were to ever dare sneer at him for not knowing how to read or write, he could easily – and rightly – reply that he could read the ocean and the stars – indeed the whole surrounding natural environment, the accumulated wisdom passed down through the generations.

At sunset, the outsiders congregated by the dune. In Rio – as in all the states we had been until then – the sun set at the right end of the beach. But, as Ceará is so much more northerly and located on Brazil’s northeasterly hump, the sun set in land. In Canoa Quebrada the sun disappeared behind an endless plain of low, untouched, woodland that echoed with the sounds of birds. We went to see this daily spectacle from the top of the dune that separated the village from the rest of the world. The intense, orange ball shone on the sand and on our faces, creating an amazing hue that contrasted against the dark blue sky. When night finally arrived, it seemed as though the land had absorbed the day’s light and had responded by providing a different look and a more pleasing temperature.

The sense of harmony we experienced as dusk approached was like that I’d felt in Trancoso two years previously. One special evening  my companions asked me to play the guitar. The atmosphere was so positive that a circle opened around me in the field behind us. That circle of people singing and dancing to the music felt like redemption for the anxieties that we were escaping from.

As I relaxed and unwound, my luck with women began to change. There was a wonderful moment that an average guy like me could only dream of. I was in a bar with a friend from São Paulo, when I noticed a beautiful blonde girl with blue eyes and dark, suntanned skin staring at me. I approached her and asked if she wanted to go to the sea. She immediately accepted the invitation and I took her by the hand as we followed the trail down the cliff.

The beach was almost empty and we laid down with the waves licking our feet. I didn’t need to talk much: we kissed for a long time while stroking each other under the moon light. I whispered the suggestion that we should go to the construction site where, by chance, my buddies from Alagoas and Frenchman’s Beach were camped. On our way, every now and then we would stop to feel each other’s skin and kiss passionately. When we arrived, there was no one there. After tripping on the magic of her sheer beauty, a hurricane of pleasure took over and then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves lying next to each other in the cool, gentle wind beneath the stars. I felt at peace with the world.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 27/01 – A hike through the Sertão, Paraíba and Fortaleza.

Sertao

A Sertanejo in the Sertao

We took a train to our next destination, João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraíba. Given the scarcity of railways in Brazil, this was a rare opportunity – and tickets were cheap. The line did not pass along the coast, instead entering the Sertão – the Northeast’s dry interior. This time Pedro and I had company, joined by our Praia do Frances camping companions. With us were some seven or eight guys from the south of Brazil, all with very long hair, most of them blond and – to people who did not know them –unfriendly faces, seeming to step out of a cover of a heavy metal album.

We were in for a ride through the Sertão, a bone-dry landscape, so completely different to the lush coast a short distance away. This was Brazil’s poorest region with a subculture that was akin to that of medieval Europe. The people were deeply Catholic, with quasi-feudal class relationships, a strong macho ethos and a high degree of illiteracy. As the vegetation became even dryer and the air hotter, the towns became increasingly dilapidated. We stopped at train stations that seemed to be remnants of an era when there was at least a promise of prosperity, but now people seemed to be reduced  to fighting to get to our windows to sell us all sorts of stuff, from plastic water bottles to captured wild animals. In every village we passed through, the train was the biggest event of the day, and we – the weird-looking long haired guys – a real highlight. The villagers would gather at our window pointing at us and laughing, sometimes they’d make jokes about us, while other times we’d playfully poke fun at them.

The streets around the stations were filled with make-shift bazaars and rudimentary liquor stores surrounded by rusty old cars, sleepy donkeys, scrawny dogs and barefoot children running around under the scorching sun. Loud music blared out of the record shops, not the folksy and cool acts that helped draw me to the Northeast but cringe-worthy love songs and accompanied by electric organs.

The semi-desert landscape reminded me of the spaghetti westerns that I’d so enjoyed as a child. Here, though, the population was a mix of African and indigenous origin who lived in clay huts with straw roofs, their small plots of lands struggling to look like farms. There was very little vegetation, the cattle were so thin that their ribs were clearly visible and the dry, stifling heat made even worse by the lack of even a slight breeze. All of this reflected the very hard life endured by the people the sertão.

The train’s old British-built engine and carriages were rusty and dillapidated, and seemed completely in tune with the landscape. Inside, we were alone in our carriage, appearing like a gang of suspicious-looking outlaws. Every now and then train officials approached us and a tense silence would fall. Despite their vigilance, we managed to light up our green venom and smoke with our heads leaning outside the windows. Despite the tension and the extreme poverty that we came across, it was quite trippy to take in that outlandish landscape.

*                                              *                                              *

In Rio, “Paraíba” was the derogatory name given to the enormous contingent of migrants from the Northeast regardless of the actual state that they in fact came from. They fulfilled the same role as Mexicans in the USA, Arabs in France and Asians in Britain have traditionally taken. Much as in those richer countries, people in Rio had contradictory feelings towards the Northeast and its population. Along with a fascination about the place and its culture came the rejection of its uneducated and poor migrants.

NE

The poverty of the Sertao

In reality, João Pessoa, Paraíba’s capital, had a classic sophistication with well-preserved nineteenth-century buildings, elegant avenues bordered by lush trees and old-style lamp posts. I was looking forward to our stay in João Pessoa as fortunately a friend from university would be spending her vacation there with her family. They, like many other members of the local upper class, were of Italian descent. Francesca, my friend, had been elected as the muse  ofthat summer by a carioca magazine, attracted, no doubt, by her striking looks, with blonde hair and blue eyes .

Francesca came to meet us at the hostel with two cousins, both obviously part of the local elite, and Pedro and I were driven away in their expensive cars. She told us later that her cousins had taken us for a gay couple: when we tried to look smarter, in our neo-hippy clothes, we most probably gave out the wrong impression. In fact our clothes looked ridiculous and if I had been looking through local eyes, I would probably have thought as they did.

The reality was that I was looking forward to seeing Fransesca, hoping, who knows, that a summer romance would light up. Back in Rio, there had been some flirting, using my guitar-playing to impress her when we skipped classes together. However, with Francesca’s family now around – and with me looking so weird – the chances of anything happening were absolutely zero. Other than Francesca and the João Pessoa elegant architecture, there wasn’t much to keep us in the city, with even the beaches being unattractive compared to the ones we’d seen before. Slightly disappointed, after a couple of days we continued northwards to Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceará, where we knew that we could stay with one of Pedro’s uncles.

Joao

Joao Pessoa

If Francesca’s cousins suspected that Pedro and I were gay, Pedro’s uncle had no doubts at all. The strange situation kicked-off with Pedro’s aunt showing us to our double bed and then continued with the uncle throwing food onto my plate instead of serving it. I can’t remember acting camply or wearing neo-hippy, fancy clothes but, through his lens, I was a communist, pot-smoking queen, leading his young and healthy nephew on a journey of drugs and perverted gay sex.

In that part of the world, the same guys who spent their money on lovers, on prostitutes and on booze, and who beat up their wives, considered the youth of the South to be degenerates. I couldn’t help imagining what would have happened if he had seen the scuba guy in Vitória come out of the bedroom with his blonde friend hanging on his neck saying that he had lost his virginity. Anyway, from an anthropological point of view, that situation gave us an insight into how things must have been for the generations before us in Rio. That world was tied around a corrupt ruling class that had been in power ever since the city was founded, and it provided an unbearable universe of oppression and hypocrisy for anyone with half a brain and a critical eye as well as anyone who did not belong to those traditional circles.

In spite of the heavy domestic atmosphere, I was able at least to appreciate other aspects of Fortaleza. It was the wealthiest capital in the Northeast and had an attractive modern buzz to it. Fortaleza’s dry, windy weather and wide avenues made the city resemble modern Middle Eastern ones, such as Tel Aviv and Beirut. Perhaps Pedro’s uncle’s demeanor was an exception for Fortaleza, as its natives had a reputation of being sharp and funny, providing Brazil with some of its best comedians, like Chico Anysio, Tom Cavalcanti and Renato Aragão.

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Fortaleza

Fortaleza

Lost Samba – Chapter 26/02 – Hitchhiking into crazy times in Northeastern Brazil.

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A beach in the Brazilian Nordeste

Our next stop was Aracajú, the capital of the state of Sergipe. Despite its cool-sounding name, the so-called “city” was unimaginably dull. The only good thing about that place was that we could camp on the always-empty beach in the best neighhborhood.

After setting up the tent, we managed to find a bar and got chatting to a pair of upper middle class women from São Paulo who belonged to Pedro’s target audience: those in their mid-thirties. One of them was into Rajneesh and had spent a lot of money on therapies to find her “inner self”. Pedro didn’t take long to show her his “avenue to truth” in our tent. By then, I had already got used to sitting back and waiting for him to score, and took my disgrace in good humor.

There wasn’t any chemistry between me and the other woman, but that didn’t prevent us from wandering down to the sea to share a joint. After an uncomfortable chat, she decided to keep her “inner self” to herself and returned to her hotel. Alone in the less than exciting Aracajú night and waiting for the tent to be free, I went back to the bar where now there had assembled a group of unattractive and drunk lesbians – surely the only openly ones anywhere in state.

Out of the blue, a dodgy looking local sat down at the table next to mine and started telling me about how high he was and that he wanted to smoke some more dope. His Mexican-style mustache, shiny shoes and tidy, tucked-in shirt gave away that we belonged to different tribes, made me not respect the unspoken law of being generous to a fellow smoker and instead I pretended not to understand. After he left, the waiter told me that he was a well-known corrupt policeman.

What felt like hours later, Pedro arrived to tell me he was going to sleep in the hotel. The next day the misery continued: the beach was awful, the people were ugly and the food was inedible. It was time to get the hell out of Aracajú.

Praia do Francês-Marechal Deodoro (6)

Sunset at Praia do Francês

Our next destination was Maceió in Alagoas, a state best known for its picture-postcard beaches. The crystalline waters and generous vegetation with coconut trees stretching along the entire coastline were a welcome change from Aracajú’s urban tedium.

Following a recommendation that we’d received earlier in our travels, we headed to Praia do Francês (Frenchman’s Beach). To our delight, there we found suntanned girls and boys with long hair, very different from the people who dominated the scene in Arraial da Ajuda whose sense of fashion had seemed to me as being completely out of kilter with the natural style of the Northeast. Experience had taught us that the first thing to sort out was a place to stay. We asked around and someone told us about a building site with a wicker roof, the last one by the beach. When we got there, there were other guys already using the premises but this wasn’t a problem: they welcomed us and, in no time, we were accepted as part of the community.

The guys spoke highly about some very potent marijuana that a local grew and that they were about to buy. Despite facing financial wipeout, Pedro and I naturally didn’t think twice about joining the deal. Suddenly we were without any cash, but to get some more would have involved a two-hour bus ride to reach an ATM, which were still only found in large towns. Neither of us wanted to waste time to refill our pockets but at least this meant that our meagre savings would remain untouched for a bit longer.

Our salvation was the coconut plantation right just beyond our camp. We spent an entire week feeding on its produce. For breakfast and as a desert we’d eat the tender flesh of younger coconuts. Older coconuts had thicker, very nutritious meat and were our main meal, while throughout the day their water sustained us, quenching our thirst. They were hard to open and while striking them with a machete we had to be careful not to strike our fingers or hit other people. Occasionally some other campers and fishermen invited us to join in their meals to vary our diet, and we managed to survive.

Praia do Francês was great for scuba diving and I borrowed some gear and spent hours exploring the coral and sea life of the clear water. At sunset, I went for walks alongside the coconut plantation where the ocean breeze created soothing music and made the trees magically sway. Both these activities combined perfectly with the manga rosa weed that had swept away our cash.

I soon met other musicians and, at night, we became the attraction for the campers sitting around fires. However, it didn’t take long for me to begin to feel a bit uncomfortable in what had at first seemed like paradise. Praia do Francês was, in fact, a more up-market tourist destination than the south of Bahia and we, the other musicians, and our buddies from the shack were the minority, and there was a strong sense that many people looked down at us as freaks. We did not think much about it but, perhaps unconsciously, it made us decide to leave earlier than we otherwise might have.

As soon as we arrived back in Maceió, we ran straight to the city’s only cash machine, housed in a startingly futuristic-looking glass kiosk that contrasted jarringly with the surrounding colonial buildings.  What a relief to indulge in a proper meal: just the typical menu of the coast – rice and beans, ground cassava, fish and an ice-cold beer to top off the meal – it wasn’t special, but it tasted heavenly after a week on an almost exclusive diet of coconut.

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destalagoas

Praia do Francês

Lost Samba – Chapter 26/01 – Easy riding in Bahia

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Farol da Barra. Salvador

The next stop was Salvador, where I thought we could stay with a former girlfriend who I’d met in Mauá. Michele came from Bangu, a lower-middle class neighbourhood of Rio, very different socially from my Zona Sul habitat. Michele’s mixed background gave her a complexion that could easily make her pass for Asian. She cultivated that look by wearing Indian-looking dresses and blouses and by letting her long, dark hair grow curly on the edges but straight elsewhere. She was petite and very pretty but her innocent look and her soft voice concealed a wild edge that would lead to her getting pregnant with several friends in my circle possibly being the dad.

The apartment in Salvador where Michele was staying was next to the Barra Lighthouse, one of the city’s most exclusive spots where golden middle class kids went to free carnival concerts on summer weekends. Not only were Pedro and I going to be safe from mosquitoes and have a proper bathroom, but there was a prospect for me of having some real fun at night. However, when we knocked on the door it was not Michele who opened it and we found out that the apartment belonged to her sister’s boyfriend and that there was no room for us. With the dream instantly dashed, the only way for us to hang out in that privileged spot was to sleep on the stage of the Barra Lighthouse. With summer now at its peak, there were concerts almost every night, which meant that to sleep there we would have to wait for everyone to leave. Then, at around three in the morning, we could unfold our sleeping bags on the wooden floor. To our apprehension, we found that we were not alone – there were some weird characters sleeping beneath the stage. Fortunately we never interacted, apart from early in the morning when a drunkard with a hangover emerged to do a gymnastics routine.

This sleeping arrangement ended up not being as bad as we had feared. The stage was less than a block from the apartment, and Michele’s sister managed to convince her boyfriend to allow us to keep our stuff there and to use its bathroom and kitchen. Also, for me, there was the bonus that  Michele could sneak me in when the others were out to be alone together.

Behind the times though Salvador certainly was, the 1980s was beginning to make an impact. The age of the trio elétrico was fading, being replaced by new genres of carnival music. Reggae had touched the ears, hearts and minds of the city’s culturally dominant Afro community and a new way of playing the Jamaican rhythm emerged – a percussion-led samba-reggae fusion. The main exponent of this genre was Olodum, a band from the Pelourinho, an icon of Salvador’s African-based culture and the oldest neighbourhood in the entire country.

In the past the authorities used the Pelourinho’s central square as the location to punish slaves who had misbehaved, escaped or revolted. There are numerous accounts of men receiving more than a hundred lashes and then having had salt rubbed into their wounds. Now their descendants lived in the houses of their former oppressors and the area was to be listed as an UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. Olodum managed to galvanize African heritage and pride in the form of music, radiating that energy throughout Salvador. Everything that emerged in the ”Pelo” reverberated in radios and cassette players in kiosks, spreading throughout the city, blasting out samba-reggae sounds. Olodum would later make an international splash after recording alongside Paul Simon and Michael Jackson.

The other musical novelty was the more white-orientated bands with electronic keyboards and choreographed dancers on futuristic-looking vans. They were completely cheesy, playing a blend of easy to digest salsa, soca and other Caribbean styles. It was a relief that the Trio Eletrico of Dodo e Osmar – the surviving dinosaurs of Salvador’s golden carnival days – still paraded, and we had the opportunity to see them and Olodum in the pre-Carnival events.

As this was my second visit to Salvador – and now travelling as a backpacker – I felt much less of a tourist and knew what to expect. This included knowing the particularities of the various beaches, hugely important for the experience of any Brazilian coastal town. The beaches of the Northeast exuded a nostalgic aura, offering things that had long vanished in Rio. There were fishermen selling freshly-caught crabs tied to a stick, vendors of cheese that was melted on demand, stands of homemade ice cream and men walking around with sliced pineapples on tin trays. Separating the sand from the promenade were straw-roofed wooden kiosks where they served beer and exotic snacks prepared with the large range of local seafood. Fishermen with their nets and wooden boats remained from a past long before pleasure seekers ever dreamt of exposing their pale skin to the sun and, God forbid, seek a tan.

As in Rio, the beaches were the central arenas of summer. They put everyone in a state of mind that no economic crisis could intrude. The correct time to arrive was after lunch and the right time to leave was well after sunset. As the sun went down and the heat became more bearable with the beach started to attract young people seeking similar things: partying, music, interesting people and – of course – sex….perhaps even love. In a short space of time, Pedro and I soon got to know people.

Invitations to parties were frequent and always welcome. The parties, in people’s homes, were for free and entry was by invitation and hear-say. Despite the sound gear always being too weak, these parties were always great fun with joints in every room and bright people discussing political and philosophical issues. If you were not lucky to be in the bathroom having sex, the best place would be the kitchen, where guests would eat and drink. There would also always be a room where people gathered listening to a talented guitarist, and the quality of the musicians was amazing. I never understood why they never made it when so many crap rock bands in Rio and São Paulo somehow did.

caminhoneiro

BR – 101 early in the morning

Sometimes I too would play something, but I soon learned that in order to make an impression I had to stick to playing rock tunes that no one else there was comfortable to play in what was the backyard of the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the Novos Baianos. I was no competition for the kind of stuff that they excelled at, but a Carioca who played rock was seen as something acceptable and even a welcome novelty. However, people really got excited when I played Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix tunes and sang in English, something that many of the party-goers had never before experienced.

*                                              *                                              *

Partying, going to the beach, meeting new people, playing guitar and trying (and sometimes succeeding) to get laid, was only part of the fun. Our means of transport – hitchhiking – was also a highlight of our travels. The routine always began the same way, by taking a bus to the first gas station on the highway. Many of the drivers told us to clear off, but some welcomed our harmless, and perhaps interesting, company.

By this time, Brazil’s railway system had all-but collapsed, and also goods were rarely transported by ship along the coast. Instead, almost all transport was by road, which was why the highways had an army of truck drivers. As any other category of workers, they were heavily exploited, sleeping very little and travelling for days on end along the country’s poorly-maintained highways, in fear of thieves and corrupt policemen. Nevertheless, they were awesome guys who had their own subculture and a great sense of camaraderie. They knew all the curves, bumps and potholes ahead, as well as the good and bad spots in terms of safety, food, fun and women. All of them had great stories and the cliché girlfriends, or even families, at every stop.

Most rides were with the driver in his cabin where they normally had a good-sized bed where we could take turns in sleeping but sometimes we were in the back, experiencing the unprotected magic of the highway. Together with the feeling of freedom that the constant wind and the open highway provided, at night there were be shooting stars above the moonlit hills, while during the day there was the strong sun bringing out the sweet smell of sugar cane from the plantations on either side of the highway.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 25/02 – Anguish in South of Bahia’s Paradise.

coco

The return to Arraial d’Ajuda was an anti-climax. The paradise I had fallen in love with seemed to be another place and now its main activity was tourism. Electricity had arrived and the village had become much more structured for tourists and, of course, more expensive. Most of the fishermen had left after selling their boats and their houses in bad deals.

I found very little of the spontaneity that had impressed me only two years earlier and was disturbed by the out-of-context, Eighties-style haircuts and heavy make-up. There were a lot of people who I instinctively did not want to mix with, and that feeling was mutual. To make things worse, I began to realize that Pedro’s agenda was to blend in with the older, more ‘interesting’ and more stable people who rented the more expensive houses and ate in the better places; for him, they were a portal into the world of financial comfort and this had nothing to do with what I was looking for.

Whenever I managed to borrow a guitar the playing at night still happened. It was pleasurable and by then I was way better. I had perfected my routine and knew more songs and could easily grab the attention of people who I had never met before. I began with psychedellic and intimate songs such as Caetano Veloso’s “Terra” and Geraldo Azevedo’s “Caravana”, some Milton Nascimento songs, then I played some solid Bossa Nova’s such as “Wave”, then I progressed into happier songs such as the Novo’s Baianos version of “Brasil Pandeiro” and invariably ended with carnavalsque songs of Alceu Valenca and Moraes Moreira and closed the night with Jorge Ben.

People still liked that kind of music, but not all, and that kind of experience was already in the out as something cool. The atmosphere just was not there, and I wanted to leave. As there was still no electricity in the neighboring Trancoso and the access continued to be difficult, it would be less of a disappointment. Although Pedro could not get enough of the ‘interesting’ people in Ajuda – who actually were the ones who most like what I played – he also got fed up of being treated as tourist. If we moved there, the experience would be more like the real thing: the houses around the green were less spoiled, more affordable and there were as many people to network with, so I found it easy to convince him.

This time there would be no need for crossing deep rivers in the middle of nowhere and in the dark because we had a tent. However, things had changed there too and on our first night someone tried to steal our stuff that was outside the tent. The noise woke us up but we took too long to get out and to get a hold of the fake blond with curly hair running away in shorts under the moonlight. The next day, we saw him at the beach but as we couldn’t prove anything, we could only give him dirty looks which he pretended to ignore.

That same night, I discovered that Trancoso’s mosquitoes used tents for their general assemblies and dawn revealed a carpet of them hanging on to the nylon walls. The only way to get relief was by putting the sleeping bag on the pavement and let the wind carry them away.

trancoso2

Trancoso’s green.

Pedro was a well built waterpolo player, mischievous small eyes, caramel colored skin and curly yet blondish hair, when approaching the ladies he was completely cool and to the point and knew everything about the right timing and the right words to say. After a few days in Trancoso, insects and thieves weren’t the only thing bugging me: my lack of success with the ladies compared to Pedro’s triumphs was affecting me. Also, at night when I was not playing and while everyone was enjoying themselves near the fires, every now and then the seriousness of my situation would change the course of my thoughts. How was the future going to be? Where was the girlfriend who cared about me and liked the same things that I did?

Now my life was as if I had reached the summit of a high mountain in a beautiful landscape and discovered that on the other side there was a garbage depot. Those troubles were like the wall of mosquitoes in the tent: I could shoo them away temporarily but they would come back no matter what I did.

A lot of people were in the same boat: this was a generation of problematic, middle class kids, orphans of the prosperity of the Seventies and of the politics-of-the-body ideology, and unprotected from the economic downturn.

Some people saw us as a market niche. Everyone was talking about Rajneesh, now Osho, an Indian guru based in the US who preached that the way to spiritual enlightenment was the annihilation of one’s ego via the exhaustion of the libido. His therapies had strong sexual overtones, something that I doubted was authentic in the traditional Hindu society. His books were well written and it was very tempting to join – many hot ladies did – but the expensive fees convinced me to keep away. We came across people who had gone as far as meeting him in person in his Ashram in Oregon, an expensive privilege. They talked about falling about in tears when they saw his “penetrating and loving look” that had “liberated their soul”.

During the day people sat on the beach chatting while looking into the light blue horizon while the breeze swayed the trees and the greenery behind them. The main topic were the long bearded guru’s books and his tantric therapies to achieve enlightenment, I would stay quiet thinking to myself that this was THE product that everyone wanted: not giving a damn about anything except their pleasure and, in return, achieving a never-ending orgasm. No one wanted to talk about the anguish regarding the future and regarding what was going on in our lives. This was understandable in such a setting, but why talk without stop about Rajneesh? OK, the hyperinflation and the economic downturn were too real to be mentioned and we were all suffering inside; still my instinct told me that these bad cards were beyond our control, as were the blessings we had received in the good days. We had the power to decide what we were going to do with them but no guru or magic pill could sweeten what destiny had lay for us to swallow.

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rajneesh

Rajneesh, nowadays Osho, graduating a “Sanyasi”.

 

Lost Samba – Chapter 25/01 – Hitchhiking in Brazil

CaronaWhen the summer arrived, ignoring the incoming storm, Pedro and I decided to go on a tour of the Northeast. Things had changed and from the start it was clear that the budget would be limited this time. Dad didn’t want me to go, and refused to finance the trip, and Pedro’s widowed mother did not have much to put on the table either. I had to sell my beloved Blues Boy and he had to scrape most of the money that his father had left him. Still the money wasn’t much and by our calculations, we had enough to get a bus to Vitoria in Espirito Santo, the closest state capital, and from there we would hitchhike, camp and reach as far north as we could, living the Easy Rider dream.

As the bus moved into the lane heading north and took the Rio-Niteroi Bridge, I was thankful to once again be en route to the idyllic Brazil. We did not expect much from our first stop, Vitoria, which was a hybrid of the developed South and the as-yet-developed Northeast, neither modern enough to be exciting nor exotic enough to be attractive.

Our plans were to camp on the beach for a couple of days and then begin the hitchhiking phase into Bahia. We left our backpacks at a kiosk before going to the beach and had our first setback when the owner explained that camping on the beach was forbidden. We didn’t pay much attention, as the sun was shining strong and all we wanted was to evaporate the stress of a 15 hour journey by the sea. When sunset arrived, the question of where will we would sleep that night re-emerged.

We were discussing our options when we met two guys scuba-diving nearby. We asked them if there was anything to see in the water and they ended up telling us that they were also from out of town and were staying in one of their uncle’s flat. We explained our situation and they said that, if we were OK to spend the night in the maid’s room, they wouldn’t mind. This was the best option available, so we agreed. After settling in, taking a shower and eating a quick sandwich, we all went out into Vitoria’s bohemian district, Vila Velha.

Money was tight and the only thing we could afford to do was to walk around along the packed promenade. It felt like a nocturnal funfair filled with trailers selling drinks and food, and playing loud music. In the confusion, one of the guys noticed an empty table filled with untouched nibbles and beer bottles. We were still hungry and dying for a beer, so we spent some time keeping an eye out to see if the owners came back. They didn’t so we got closer and discretely took over.

As soon as the bottle reached my lips, I heard an effeminate voice calling me cheeky. I moved to an ‘excuse me’ mode and offered to pay, but I soon realized that we had fallen into the trap of a gay duo that was smiling at us by the van. It was obvious that what they were looking for went far beyond apologies. Anyway, as the other two divers seemed to be more comfortable with the situation, Pedro and I slipped out and let them deal with the situation.

After a couple of hours, things got boring, we were tired and it was time to go back to the table and ask about going home. There was news for us: the two parties had become perhaps too friendly and going back to the flat was not part of the plan any more. After many deliberations, it was agreed that we were all going to sleep at one of the gay guys’ apartment and in the morning they’d drive us to the motorway.

We didn’t like it but there wasn’t much choice. We went back to our flat to get our gear and were invited for dinner at a good restaurant, a good but rather uncomfortable news. After the meal, the next step was passing the night at the den of love. The chat was a bit tense and after a session of insinuations and avoidances, action time arrived and the scuba guys went to their rooms with their respective partners while we went to the living room to try to get some sleep.

The lights went off, the doors were closed and we stayed giggling like two idiots. About an hour later, one of the doors opened and we pretended to be sleeping. We heard one of the guys saying, “Sorry, but I was not inspired tonight” and then leaving the flat. I almost got up to ask if we could go with him but there was not enough time. The room door didn’t close and, with my eyes closed, I started thinking to myself, “Oh oh, shit is about to happen!” Then I heard some footsteps coming towards us and Pedro saying, “Take your hands off, mate!!!” After a few seconds, the same happened to me; after that, the short and now badly tempered guy, who looked like a Brazilain version of Little Richard, said something and left the flat slamming the door.

The next day the other couple woke us up in a much happier mood. The owner of the flat had long blond hair, a beard and he was wearing a purple silk robe and heavy make-up. He was hanging on to his diver’s neck telling us that he had lost his virginity. We found out that the unsatisfied one was a neighbor who owned the car that was going to take us to the highway. We stayed waiting for him to come down for breakfast. When he arrived he was in a bitchy mood and, in revenge, he said he wasn’t going to take us. The ex-virgin spared us from a ‘Cage aux Folles’ nightmare, as he was on our side, and they drove us to a gas station out of town as promised.

NicolePeralta

BR – 101 – Photo by Nicole Peralta

After that unexpected beginning, we wondered what could be expecting us next. Anyway, we had two months ahead of us and it was a hot, sunny morning and the tone of that day was being set by the noise of cars speeding on the BR-101 motorway heading towards Bahia. Meanwhile we were going from truck to truck asking for a hitch to our next destination, Porto Seguro.

Our first ride was in the rear of a truck carrying dried beef. We climbed up and joined a group of workers sitting on the plastic mats covering the cargo. They looked like the Latin American peasants one would expect to see in a film about revolution. They were a mixture of black, native and white, and wore torn clothes, straw hats and caps, and prehistoric Havaianas flip-flops. They were drunk and having a ball with the wind from the highway blowing all over them.

Riding unprotected on top of a van was dangerous and illegal. The guy sitting next to the driver opened his door, leaned out and shouted, “Police!” We all had to duck under the greasy plastic for 10 minutes where we stayed skidding on the rough but slippery meat until he shouted that we could come out again.

That group could not understand what two university students from the South were doing up on that stinky plastic with them. One of them passed their bottle of cachaça and taught us how to drink from the bottle correctly while others tried to teach us how things were pronounced in the region. Soon we were drunk and talking rubbish too. As we shook from the motorway’s bumps on its unprotected back, the truck took a turn onto a dirt track and stopped at a bar in the middle of nowhere. Everyone jumped off and inside our new friends made a point in treating us to more cachaça and to a local delicacy: a dark and strong, disk- shaped, barbecued organ of some undefined animal. The guys wanted to see if we had the balls to eat it and our pride made sure that we did: we were too drunk anyway to be disgusted but the taste was sobering.

They stayed on waiting for a bus to take them home while we went back on the truck and were dropped off in Eunápolis, only an hour and a half by local transport from Porto Seguro. We arrived there exhausted and found a camp site by the beach where we washed off the cachaça and the meat stench and got some well needed sleep.

We spent the next day at the beach diving into the warm light blue water and feeling the breeze of the south of Bahia. At night we discovered that its streets were lively: the locals decorated their backyards with colored lights, added tables and chairs, filled their fridges with beer, turned their stereos up to the maximum and transformed their houses into lambada clubs. There were more expensive places set up by people from big cities, but even there it would not be surprising to feel a chicken peck at your feet while you were dancing.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 24 – Brazil in the Eighties

Eighties

Like me, Pedro had “parachuted” into the university’s economics programme. For the vestibular, he was lucky enough to sit next to an ace student he’d known since childhood. After some discreet but forceful nagging, his friend allowed him to copy his answer sheet. Pedro was not typical of my normal circles. He lived outside the Zona Sul, had darker skin, curly hair and had an athletic build from being a passionate water-polo player. We kicked off a firm friendship with me serving as his passport to Zona Sul parties, while he helped me develop some street cred. Our well-bred colleagues would soon view us as the class’s wise guys, but our popularity would lead us to forget that we were in such a demanding place of study.

In the beginning, we had a great time. The campus in Urca was divided into three faculties: economics and business administration, communications (journalism and advertising) and psychology. Economics – our course – was considered the most prestigious one of the campus’ faculties and, appropriately, we had the most high-profile building that contained the Teatro de Arena, the famous amphitheatre with a political past. Although student activism was hardly as important anymore, the students’ union opened the Teatro de Arena on weekends and transformed it into a popular venue for often great alternative bands. Perhaps because of all this, the economics students regarded themselves as being a cut above the rest of the campus, feeling we were tackling important and intellectually demanding matters, in contrast to the easy and superficial topics of the other faculties.

In response, all the other students viewed us as the campus’ slightly arrogant nerds, though we did command a certain respect. Pedro and I never really accepted these kinds of comparisons and instead made friends with the communications students (they knew how to party) and with the psychology students (they were overwhelming female, many of whom were pretty and seemed compelled to experiment with all sorts of things).

Overall, we were now part of a more senior university crowd who had a social life of their own, and, sure enough, the parties we started to go to reflected our new status. There were many older students, young professors, their girlfriends and their friends all of whom were more stimulating than the kind of people I was used to hanging out with. My guitar abilities worked miracles in getting us invited to the best gatherings, organized by the most prestigious members of the student body and many were in the best addresses in the city. This elite was left wing, and many would go on to enter politics or would rise to senior positions in government agencies or in business. Most of these young and clever people came from wealthy old families, and a few of their parents were involved in the newly legalized opposition parties or had links to returning exiles.

As this was a time of political rebirth – the period of the abertura politica – these circles appreciated the laid back attitude of a street-wise, hippy-like guitar player; a connoisseur of weed and of the alternative lifestyle found in Visconde de Mauá and Trancoso. For a short period, both Pedro and I enjoyed being courted by the student elite, but they soon brushed us aside owing to our poor grades, conventional middle class family backgrounds and to the lack of erudition in our arguments whenever serious topics came up.

The acceptance by the students of the other courses was far more straightforward and more durable. The invitations to parties, the girls, the new and interesting friendships and the jam sessions flowed in. In this situation, it was easy to forget the economic realities hovering around us as well as the academic effort that the course required if we were to hope to make the grade.

Cocaine was starting to replace weed in parties, not yet in the gatherings of the leftist radical-chiques of the economics course, but in the other gatherings that we went. Rio’s powerful drug lords had come to realise that the white powder was easier to transport, harder to track, more addictive and altogether a more lucrative business venture than was marijuana. They created shortages of cannabis that lasted for months while the supply of cocaine remained abundant and consequently cheap. The plan worked and soon pretty well everyone had converted to blow, the downside being that they began to see maconha as something for hippy dropouts from another era – in other words, losers. With more serious money pouring in, drug trafficking also became more structured and more deadly.

laCoca

Cocaine

”Brizola” – the name of a leading opposition politician and for some reason the name widely used for cocaine – was more demanding, more negative and altogether more harmful than anything we were used to. While weed brought out the fun and the contemplative side of people, cocaine heightened egos. Once it became popular, the traficantes increased the price and made it an expensive habit – and because one had to consume a lot in order to keep buzzing, at a time of economic crisis many people were forced onto paths beyond the law.

At first, I didn’t like the superficial vibe that surrounded cocaine or the ego-driven people attracted to it, but the hype was so great and the high seemed so empowering that my crowd gradually accepted it into their world. As times grew harsher, the illusion of self-confidence that the white lines on our mirrors gave us would compensate for the shock of the severe economic downturn and its serious impact on our everyday lives and futures, which felt like a truck hurtling towards us at full speed.

*

Outside our sheltered lives, but very much knocking on our doors, was the unforgiving truth that Brazil had become a country struck by hyperinflation, recession, despair and suicide, some of them close to us. There was no way out, and on the ground it was “everyone for himself and God against all” in the words of Mario de Andrade in his novel Macunaíma. For many amongst the wealthy members of society, self-destruction through excess was the escape-valve, while for some of the poor it was crime and violence. Tragic stories began appearing in newspapers, with a surge in kidnapping and murders on one side, and vigilantes killing suspected criminals on the other.

Within my social circle, there was a widespread feeling of despair and hopelessness. Many of us believed that we had stepped out of the system, but when the bad times hit us – something that we never imagined could happen – we realized how entangled our existence was with all that we found wrong in the world.

Ideologically, the 1980s were a rebellion against the rebellion and with the change of tides came the witch-hunt. People who hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of the 1970s economic “miracle”, or who did not take part of the big party either through parental prohibition, through commitment to their studies or through rejection to the way people thought and behaved, were now engaged in private vendettas and rejoicing at their enemy’s disgrace. What had been cool was now frowned on, what had been revolutionary appeared idiotic, and what had been ecstatic became the cause of sexual and mental illnesses. The journey of a generation that had struggled against a dictatorship and then witnessed the return of democracy was disregarded. The sense of brotherhood that had risen from those days evaporated. Everything had changed and seemed to have reversed: what common sense had regarded as being self-serving and obnoxious now became unashamedly the right thing to do.

Everyone sensed that this was only the beginning of a long, dark, stretch ahead. By the end of my first year at university, the effects of economic and social mayhem ran deep, and the reach of this crisis in their personal lives caught everyone by surprise and no one knew how to respond. I tried to convince myself that I could cope with whatever might come my way – that it was impossible for things to get worse. I was wrong.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 23 – The Brazilian Hyperinflation begins

UFRJ2

The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Photo, Zica da Zuca

A bus to school, to my Dad’s office or to anywhere boring in the “real world”, would go from Ipanema towards Copacabana. After crossing my old neighbourhood it would leave the Zona Sul through the Túnel Novo. After this it would pass Botafogo’s training grounds before turning left towards the Botafogo beach and onwards into the city. On my first day as a university student, I was pleased to be catching the 511 bus, as it would not turn into Botafogo beach but instead would take a right into peaceful Urca where the Federal University – the UFRJ – was located. As the bus went along the good old Avenida Nossa Senhora Copacabana, I thought about the new cycle that was about to start, and realized that I didn’t know what to expect: was I going like the academic experience? What was the economics course actually about? What were my fellow students going to be like?

The campus was quiet, with well-kept trees bordering alleys that separated the well preserved nineteenth-century buildings. The one that housed the economics department originally served as a madhouse and although the asylum had long-since been transferred to a new building on the campus, we sometimes saw nurses chasing after runaway patients.

In the 1960s, the UFRJ had been at the epicentre of the students’ resistance to the military dictatorship. The National Union of Students (UNE – União Nacional dos Estudantes) had organized many crucial gatherings in its open-air amphitheatre that was just below our classrooms and most of the students who had opted for armed struggle reached that decision in the same places where I was now studying.

Even in 1981 there were rumours that some fellow-students were either undercover police agents or were members of underground organizations. I doubted this was the case, but there was no way of knowing. Anyhow, with the re-birth of open political debate, the students’ union was lively and there were active Trotskyists, Leninists, Maoists and anarchists, as well as people joining the new ideological groupings with more ecological and existential agendas.

These leftists fought amongst themselves. They bickered over almost everything; as, for example, which stance should the students union take over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or which of the various communist parties was the true representative of the masses or which thinker best represented the people’s aspirations, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Bakunin or some other obscure Marxist. They also had serious fallouts over other theoretical and practical intricacies that made the experience of being involved with left wing politics seem more like belonging to a religion than anything else.

Now that the military regime was on its deathbed and the Soviet Union was beginning to show cracks, also having ceased long ago in investing in Latin American revolutions; the debate on choosing between either fighting or embracing the capitalist system had become obsolete. My generation was caught between this stagnant state of affairs and the pragmatism of the yuppie generation that would soon kick in. We recognized the importance of politics and welcomed the political springtime, but could not relate to the outdated dialogue.

Some teachers who had endured hardships during the military dictatorship saw us as a new breed of students; one of the first contingents to be free from the dictatorship’s constraints and, therefore, they expected a lot from us. Meanwhile, the militant Leftists saw us as alienated bourgeois kids while the nonpolitical students, already the majority, saw us as fake revolutionaries. Like our parents, they believed that politics was a waste of time, instead, they concentrated on forging their futures as stock market success stories.

*

The introductory courses that the university offered were vastly more interesting than the classes at the result-orientated factory schools that most of the students had come from. The programme concentrated on political economy and aimed at preparing students for future roles in government development agencies. We studied Marx – something extraordinary considering the government-funded university was still part of the apparatus of a pro-American dictatorship. Some of the professors had recently returned from exile and were excited to lecture freely in their own country. Everything was going well until an outbreak of hepatitis that I had contracted in Mauá forced me to spend over a month in bed.

That time off at home marked a subtle turning point both for me and for the country. Political freedom was already a given but an era of economic hell was about to break loose. Around the world, religious fundamentalism was taking root, HIV Aids was spreading, and Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher were consolidating the grip of conservative policies over the USA, the UK and the rest of the world.

In the minds of most Brazilian Leftists, the desperate middle and upper classes in the rich countries had voted in Regan and Thatcher to lead a crusade against the libertarian and egalitarian principles that had defined our intellectual upbringing. No matter how one saw this change of direction, it was undeniable that the duo had an anti-socialist agenda. For the new leaders of the two greatest western economies in the world needed to deal with a crisis caused by what they considered a warped way of thinking. While I was confined to my bed, and ate and drank from separate glasses and plates so that my infection wouldn’t spread to the rest of the family, foreign banks decided that their loans to friendly dictators – loans they’d been more than happy to make – were now a threat to world economic stability. They wanted their money back and if their debtors could not pay, they wanted to make money on those loans. Interest rates on international debts skyrocketed to levels that were unthinkable when the loans were taken out.

The international banks could not care less if their decisions suffocated the indebted countries and their citizens. Experiencing something like an ever worsening toothache ordinary Brazilians began feeling the consequences of the monetarist policies. When companies were forced to close down and inflation skyrocketed, people saw themselves jobless, with no social security to help them, while their money had less and less value. This came from the same creature that had sponsored the military coup back in 1964, now it was showing its true self again, but in a different angle.
Due to ineptness and to sheer lack of experience with such adverse economic conditions the policies that the government adopted were disastrous. With the Brazilian foreign debt rising to stratospheric levels, the authorities ignored the seriousness of the situation and resorted to printing more money in order to honour their internal obligations, a perfect recipe for disaster.

Over the following fifteen years, inflation in Brazil accumulated to 20,759,903,275,651 percent, an absolute world record. To give an idea as to how bad the situation became, had Dad not protected his money, for the same price that he had bought our comfortable apartment in Ipanema in the mid-1970s, he would only have been able to buy a cup of coffee a few years later.

At my university, faculty members and students saw this upheaval in a different light. It happened that our economics department was at the forefront of the opposition to the government’s policies long before the crisis began and many of the professors had issued warnings about the dangers ahead. Many Brazilians believed these academics could guide the country out of the mess, and they became public figures, appearing on television debates and contributing full-page articles in the main newspapers.

Hyper

The prices during Brazil’s Hyperinflation.

Meanwhile, in order to stimulate national industry, the government resorted to control imports, something that had a crippling effect on Dad’s business just as he entered his ninth decade. Now on top of a shrinking market, just getting a license to bring his goods in became difficult.

After I recovered from the hepatitis, the challenges my Old Man faced in his business meant that the pressure was, more than ever, on. The good times were clearly over and his only hope for me was that studying economics would save me from ruin. Still, I had fallen behind and the more I considered the situation, the more obvious it was that economics was not for me. I was doing badly while, to my naive surprise, my fellow students took their studies seriously and actually liked the course.

During this turning of the tide, Kristoff – my German-Chilean school friend – managed to get himself arrested on the same bus route we had made just the year before. The arrest took place in Uruguaiana, on the Brazilian border with Argentina and Uruguay, a cattle-country town that had become notorious as a hot spot for smuggling and money laundering. Although Kristoff was not smuggling drugs, he took the rash decision to light a joint in the street. Before he could inhale a single puff, out of nowhere agents of the federal police ambushed him, arrested him there and then, and later transferred him to a jail in Rio. As this was Kristoff’s first offense, he was bailed. A few weeks later, someone reported him on another charge. The police stormed into the classroom while he was attending a lecture at the university and hauled Kristoff back to jail – albeit a relatively luxurious one for foreigners and people with a university education. Kristoff’s father made a discrete appeal to the minister of justice and, to avoid a trial, the court agreed that he would be quietly deported to Chile.

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