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Mondo Kane is a mixture of traditional gangster thrillers, contemporary British street culture, ancient native american wisdom and Brazil. These four apparently incompatible elements are fused into a brilliant, daring and innovative way by George Gould in this superb book.
Although the narrative is filled with testosterone and may seem somewhat brute, specially in the beginning, the author surprises the reader with very clever insights based on the wisdom of the Lakota Native Americans, more specifically the one revealed by the legendary shaman/warrior Black Elk. With this, the book dissects the present day gangster mentality, which most western males have come across at some point or another in their life, shining a fascinating spiritual light onto this subculture.
There is also a very lively and precise description of the feel of Brazil and the mentality of its people in the story’s background which, together with the brutality of some parts, transports the reader to a disconcerting Tarantino-like universe.
Overall, Mondo Kane is a very enjoyable roller coaster, sometimes like a comic book, sometimes like a Hollywood action film it has several unexpected twists. Its interesting philosophical considerations about alienation in the western world are also noteworthy. This book has the potential of becoming a huge best seller or a blockbuster film. It is a shame Amazon does not provide more stars to give.
Brazil is an epic 800-page historical novel written in English by Errol Lincoln Uys, a South African author based in the US. Unusual as this may seem, the book amazes the reader by the depth of the research put into it, by the skilful writing and by the creativity used in blending history with storytelling. The way the author manages to condense five hundred years of history in just one book is downright amazing. The story orbits around the tale of two families, one in Pernambuco, in the Northeast of Brazil, and the other one in São Paulo. In parallel, and sometimes interwoven by fate, both dynasties participate directly in events that would shape the country. Despite the book’s length, at no point does it get boring; Uys’ obvious fascination and passion for the subject ensure that the read is a gripping roller coaster. Its characters are very “alive” and adventurous, providing a rich insight into how life was during the many phases of Brazil’s past in its many different regions.
Beyond its great entertainment value, Brazil is also a great resource for those studying the country’s history. I learned a lot by reading this book; it increased my knowledge and understanding of the Paraguay war, the pre-Portuguese indigenous practices as well as the life of Antonho Conselheiro, and the war of Canudos. Uys’ book has also made the names of many streets of Rio de Janeiro – and throughout Brazil – come alive to me. These small examples and many others have made it clear that Brazil is one of the best, if not the best, historical novel about the country written by a non-Brazilian. To it’s great advantage the book has a refreshing neutrality and an objectivity which is sometimes difficult to find with Brazilian historians.
In addition to my praise and awe I will put forward the following remarks: History is a slippery subject and the vastness of Brazil and the complexity of its past may cause academic objections regarding the choices of the Uys’ focus. Other historians would – and have – focused on other events and regions to describe Brazil’s past, however one must recognize that any author undertaking such an enormous task would attract similar comments. In my case, the privileging of historical events and of big names over a more “sociological” and a more the “man-in-the street” perspective caused some reflection. Another point that stuck out was that most characters in the book either belong to the powerful and wealthy elite or belong to the very poor and oppressed layers of the Brazilian society – a necessary expedient for this kind of narrative, but also a decision that may have caused a certain “flatness” in some personalities. These choices may also lead to the misunderstanding of the dynamics of some sectors of the country’s population although by no means do they diminish the book’s brilliance.
Brazilian history is widely unknown throughout the English-speaking world. Perhaps because of this, as a Bandeirante, or an explorer/settler, conquering the unexplored vastness of the country’s fascinating past, Uys has produced a fascinating, cinematographic and ground breaking piece of work. The fact that he is not Brazilian and that he wrote this book in English has allowed for a lightness and for a creativity that one normally does not find in similar books written in Portuguese by Brazilian authors. Uys’ historical novel is undoubtedly a trustful and enjoyable portal for anyone – beginner or advanced – seeking to understand Brazil and to know its past. Brazil is also a great read for those who simply want to enjoy a great book and I can see it becoming a top rated TV series. I hope it does. Anyhow, this is a definite five star book!
Rock and Roll took Rio over by storm. Everyone seemed to have a band, and those who did not wanted to be involved in one way or another. In the middle of this revolution, someone inherited a Radio station in Niteroi and transformed it into the first pure Rock station in town, Radio Flumnense. Now, no one needed to buy records any more to listen to Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, the Who, etc… This bonanza was short lived as they were approached by the big record companies demanding royalties. Unable to pay, they resorted to playing exclusively 80’s stuff; despite losing their pirate station aura they became avant-garde and introduced Rio’s youth to what was happening in the local and international rock scene.
Michel, a future work colleague, was an international air steward at the time; during his time off in London and in New York he would buy the latest releases of the latest bands and would deliver them freshly to the station. As these bands were from independent labels and had never been heard in Brazil, they were less of a problem to broadcast. No other station aired that kind of music and playing in their station became the passport to success for all the local bands. Arrepio included, did everything they could for them to play our songs. Radio Fluminense was to be the soundtrack of the eighties and was a phenomenon that will never be repeated.
Charles, the studio owner, started getting us gigs, and with the little money we got from them we started investing in demo tapes in order to who knows, finally get some air space in Radio Fluminense. This lead us to better recording studios where we came across impatient sound engineers despising us behind the glass windows. This new phase made us more aware of what we played and taught us a lot. But in a way the pseudo professionalism in those studios got in the way of us getting the best results. The tracks were recorded separately which made those sessions very different to what we were used to; sometimes the musician would get his part wrong or sometimes the engineer messed up and there were endless repetitions where the essence of the band dissipated into technical details.
Felipe joined the band through a Posto Nove bump in too. Although he was not attached to the Circo Voador he had become a professional actor with an important role in the play “The Twelve Works of Hercules”, that was to be the cradle of many successful careers in the Brazilian acting world. He was dying to be a lead singer in a band and therefore we had an easy job to convince him to become ours. His voice was good, his presence was superb and with him we gained a new dimension; also, his contacts could break us into circles that could make it happen.
The next step was to do his début gig. Through his connections Felipe arranged one in a bar in Ipanema. It was going to the venue’s first Rock gig after decades of quiet nights of Bossa Nova. We set up our gear in the patio with the staff regarding us as barbarians coming in from the steppes; there was no pre-amplifier or sound engineer; just our instruments, borrowed microphones and the power of Charle’s amplifiers. After we had done the sound check in the afternoon he manager came up to greet us. He was apprehensive about the volume and asked us if we could play lower but we answered that because the drums were naturally loud everyone had to be at a similar level.
At night the guests started appearing; as Felipe was doing a minor role in a soap opera at TV Globo there were one or two famous faces and many desirable future starlets appearing in the room. When the hall filled up, we started. In the middle of the second number, I heard a noise in my ear and when I looked around the manager was shouting that we were too loud. I told him again that we could not play lower because of the drums. He went down and after two numbers, he knocked on my shoulder again and told me that there was someone downstairs wanting to talk to me. I replied that I could not talk then. The next thing we saw were six police officers coming up the staircase, taking the plug out of the wall and killing the gig.
The Felipe days were short lived; he signed a contract for a big role in a TV series and gave up his musical career. I went back to the vocals but arguments started to break out, the rest of the band was more concerned about their technique than my over-confident self; Marcos and Melo were still taking private lessons, which for me was very un-rock and-rollish and they did not want to understand that I couldn’t do the same for financial reasons. On the other hand, I took the venture more seriously; I believed that if we found a sound to set us apart from the other bands we could make it big and I was prepared to invest all of my energies. Meanwhile the other guys took the band with a pinch of salt and regarded the band as a fun weekend activity.
The temple for goths, new romantics, quasi-punks, and other alien creatures was a night club in Copacabana, called Crepúsculo de Cubatão. The name paid homage to Cubatão, an industrial town on the coast of São Paulo state considered the most polluted place in Latin America. It was owned by Ronald Biggs, the famous British train robber, and had everything one would expect from an early eighties venue: the neo-gothic expensive futuristic look with classical overtones, girls and boys dressed up as vampires, a lot of exaggerated make up and no smell of cannabis or hint of heterosexual sex in the air. The ever-crowded door was controlled by a tiny Goth girl protected by two gigantic and un-trendy bouncers. She chose whom she would not let in by pointing at them and pronouncing the death sentence: “she/he looks like a nice guy/girl”.
Strange people started to appear in our lives talking about Post-Modernism and Nietzsche without understanding much of what they were talking about but causing a knowledgeable impression. London had become the new Jerusalem and the British magazines iD and The Face were the new Bibles; in some quarters having a sun tan was seen as a sign of belonging to the Neanderthal age. The irony about the obsession with the London standard was that coming from a semi-British background, I could have prospered big time but I stuck to my coherence and in my mind I was a defeated revolutionary who had stoically not sold out.
There was a fundamental absurdity in what was going on that I could not come to grips with: Rio de Janeiro’s natural settings did not combine with urban themes. The shallowness of the discussions about visual trends in foreign magazines and which bands and artists were free from the seventies aura had nothing to do neither with Rio’s eternal wildness nor with what I thought or intended to be. On the lighter side, it was amusing to see goths and punks walking around in black leather jackets and boots on 40 degree centigrade sunny weekends while everyone else was in their bikinis or trunks going and coming back from the beach. They looked like vampires in search of morgues to shelter in until night when they could come out and take over the city.
The Carioca middle class punks’ were another case of absurdity; the clothes they wore and the places they had to be seen were expensive and had nothing to do with Johnny Rotten screaming “no future” in London between one spit and another. The punk movement was much closer to the people crammed in buses in Sao Paulo’s outskirts and to people like me being sliced up by the economic lawnmower. We were being kicked in the face by a system that had promised a rosier world as we grew up. There was a lot of right wing talk going on about the survival of the fittest but what we saw was the survival of the ones with richer parents.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.