Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “South America”

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 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 21/01 – Sex, Drugs, and Gafieiras in the 70’s

lago-no-festival

Brazilian neo-hippies in the late 70’s/early 80’s

On the serious side, the exams that were going to determine our futures and label our value to society were around the corner and, like everybody else, I was nervous. This rite of passage bothered those of us in Colégio Andrews’ smoky squadron. We questioned what all of that was about and where we were all heading. As Pink Floyd put it, this was our “welcome to the machine”, a money making structure overseeing the way the world functioned, craving for productivity and with an enormous appetite for devouring souls. Above all, we did not want to become elite trained animals, new blood in that circus where everyone and everything was bound to a cycle of working hard to obtain things that they did not really need, but that were presented as fundamental. No one bought the maxim “arbeit macht frei” – work makes freedom – written on Auschwitz’ gates but hammered into our heads with different wordings by our parents, our teachers and other authorities who were already trapped in. They were by no means Nazis, but nevertheless they believed that the only way to escape the inherent injustice of the world was to work hard in order to become a valuable part of the capitalist engine. Like in vampire stories, the moment we became “one of them” there would be no possibility for real happiness, the best we could achieve would be to conform and be content zombies, doing the same as tens of generations before ours did.

No one could deny that we were spoilt kids and that our point of view came from a comfortable upbringing. However, mirroring the perceptions in similar elite enclaves throughout the world, as we detached ourselves from our sheltered but privileged standpoints in society, like paparazzi spotting a celebrity in a surprisingly unfavourable angle, circumstances allowed us to have a clear glimpse of the machine that moved the world, and what we saw was not pretty. There was not much to be done to stop it and there was nowhere and no one to run to, not even to our parents, as they were part of that mechanism. Their rosy view was that the world was experiencing the aftermath of a victory of good against evil where the democratic and socialist forces had crushed Nazism, a hard earned victory that had given hope to the world. For them, despite the unjustified opposition of communist totalitarianism, an explosion of wealth and awareness was bathing the planet and taking it to a better place.

In the minds of the older generations we would be responsible for maintaining what they had achieved through blood, sweat and tears. This post war optimism made most people believe that humanity had achieved something good; a feeling that empowered people to try to fight to improve the world even further. This way of thinking opened a portal of ideals about universal goodwill and freedom that appeared in songs, films, books and all other forms of art and culture. Like Hamelyn’s flute player, these expressions seduced baby boomers and post baby boomers out of a graceless world inhabited by the sour generations that had come before and who had created wars, dictatorships, persecution and so many other horrible things.

However, in many quarters of Latin America the perception of the west’s triumph was not quite like this. After the Cubans had gone too far in their pursuit of freedom, the hand break was pulled and right wing dictatorships had popped up throughout the continent to ensure that those very ideals the US and their allies said they stood for, never happened and that the population remained in the pattern of working hard to buy things that they did not really need. It was depressing when to notice that for some people to be rich many others had to be poor, that all our school years had been spent programming us to serve this faceless tyrant and that this is what our futures would look like no matter what we did or tried. In our semi-innocence, we saw the vestibular as the ultimate trap set by the powerful to make us join their vampire world. As the exam approached, it was as if we were heading towards the exit door from a dream-place where, as John Lennon put it in his song “Imagine”, everyone would live for today.

However, regardless of our clarity about this warped reality, we were still privileged kids from the Zona Sul who were interested in having a good time and the year of 1980 was to be one of exacerbated contradictions. For me, the strangest of these inconsistencies was that being part of the weed/musician club into which my identity had so firmly fused, had a strangely positive effect on my studies. I had no problem sleeping, didn’t have stress-linked skin disorders and was always even-tempered. Also, with some of us playing guitar well and being more street wise than the average student, we were no longer viewed as the school’s weirdos but instead had the status of cool dudes. We had the best parties and even the most attractive girls began to notice us.

*

In the middle of our most hectic school year, a new Mecca appeared: the region of Visconde de Mauá, a collection of little country villages nestled in Serra da Mantiqueira mountain range right in between the cities Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. When I was a child, before the family set off in the Teresópolis venture, we would rent bungalows and take farm-style vacations there. Many of the Inns and indeed the farms had been set up by immigrants from the Old Continent. This and the more temperate mountain air made the place very similar to the central European countryside where Dad had grown up. He loved to go there as he could enjoy quality time with his children in much the same ways he had enjoyed his childhood. He would take Sarah and I to see cows being milked in the early hours, and delighted himself in explaining how farm life worked, telling us how chickens, pigs, turkeys, sheep and other animals were raised.

Maromba

Maromba, Visconde de Maua.

In the early 1980s, Visconde de Mauá had become a refuge for pretty-well the only authentic hippies that still existed in Brazil. With their long and unkempt hair, and their unconventional clothes covered with Indian patterns and clumsy drawings of magic mushrooms and cannabis leaves, they were the real thing, complete social dropouts, and were too wild even for us. Their huts had an atmosphere of Celtic tents, with psychedelic drawings, portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and John Lennon drawn on the walls next to hallucinogenic references and the ever-present hippy symbol. Because of the energy around them we experienced something close to the last echoes of Woodstock, after we became closer it was like smoking the roach of a joint that giants of the past had lit up.

Mauá was about four hours from Rio and on long and rainy weekends when there was no beach life, there was no doubt that this was the place to go. The mountains, the woods and the rivers made us feel close to our British rock heroes, or at least to what we saw on the cover of their albums.
On one of our escapades from the pressure of the vestibular preparations, we managed to bring some girls from school. This was a huge novelty: we barely knew how to deal with the notion of female counterparts with the same intellectual outlook as us and, what’s more, who were actually interested in us. When they went topless at a waterfall we all took their initiative maturely, managing to keep our jaws closed.

At night, we lit a fire, opened bottles of wine and passed around the canned food. After eating, we went into our tents, took the guitars out of their covers and started to jam. The atmosphere was special. The only sound around was that of our instruments resonating into the silence of the woods. For us, the chords, the riffs and the solos were a sophisticated and emotional conversation but for the girls this was in a language that they could not understand and which made them feel left out. The original idea was to impress them, but the result could not have been more different: they kept on looking at each other, wondering what we the hell was going on.

I was the kind of guy who never picked up the signs when a girl fancied him, but even I could sense that there was some sort of tension going on between Aninha and me. Although my shyness did not allow a direct approach, I had the cunning idea of placing my sleeping bag next to hers in the tent, my thought being that she would enter the tent, I would immediately follow her and one thing would lead to another. Only the first part went according to plan. Aninha went into the tent and went straight to sleep before the jam session ended. The second part never happened. When I laid down next to her, I tried to wake her up but I was too frightened of how she might react if I insisted.

After a couple of nights, the cold became unbearable. We forgot the Anglo-Saxon rocker rubbish and one of the guys went to Maromba, the nearby hippy village, to see if there was a place for us to stay, even if that meant renting something. After three or four hours, he came back with good news: he had found a room, one room, for all eight of us and everyone was happy.

maromba052

Hippy in Maua

My social life was contradictory if not downright schizoid. On some weekends, I tidied my hair, put on shirts with collars, shiny leather shoes, a belt and non-jeans trousers in order to go to the gafieiras, or samba clubs, looking good. These were remnants of Samba’s glory days in the thirties and in the forties and had survived in the traditional, downtown area of Rio. They were very much in fashion, though completely separate from the druggy world that was another part of my existence. Left-wingers loved the idea that they could mix with ‘the people’ on their turf. My well-behaved friends liked going to gafieiras, but whoever claimed that they went for the dancing or for the social experience was lying. The reality was that the lure of those clubs was the scores of attractive women some new to the city, and others perhaps from the ‘wrong’ side of the Tijuca forest, but interested in young men from the ‘right’ side of the urban mountain range.

It was not only the architecture that had managed to remain intact, the big bands that played there had managed too. They were authentic, with competent old school sambistas delighted to be playing for a new genration of dancers coming from the Zona Sul. After the cheek-to-cheek dancing under improvised disco lights, there were beers, kisses, exchanges of phone numbers and invitations. Coming from different worlds, anonymity protected both sides and allowed us to have quick flings without the pressure from closer social circles. From our perspective, we were doing what everyone expected Latin American machos to do. As cold as this may sound, it was this that attracted those women to us.

Despite the successes, at the end of the day my approach to the female world was confusing. Being shy with girls who interested me and bold with girls who ultimately didn’t was no path to a healthy inner life. I had romantic expectations built up by what the songs I listened to had told me, and the films that I had seen had shown me my entire life. I had made an effort in constructing a cool persona to be desirable to an equally cool girl. Perhaps because I was not sincere enough, or perhaps because I was too impatient, or too weird, the fact of the matter was that my hopes did not materialize. To make things worse, despite the anguish, there was a part of me saying that I should not worry about these bourgeois expectations; happiness in a relationship was for squares who believed in such bullshit.

On top of the inconsistencies in the romantic department, the success of my guitar playing also added to the internal confusion. The jam sessions and the acceptance at parties projected me to a more prominent status than I had ever expected. This achievement was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, the charisma felt amazing. I sublimated frustrations and passions into my act and this added credibility to what I did. In terms of feedback, music resembled sport: the recognition or rejection was immediate and undeniable, and the buzz of people’s enjoyment was addictive. The curse was that music was to become an unfulfilled promise hovering over my life and keeping me from focusing on other goals. I never managed to translate this gift into material success: the ease of getting things right and of making them sound good is given to you and the best one can do is to be thankful regardless of what one achieves.

Anyhow, as the end of the year neared, the pressure grew exponentially. In order to pass the vestibular, music and partying had to fall into the background. There was only one month left and if I didn’t get down to some hard work there would be no good college and no one would ever forgive me at home. This required a radical step so I went to Teresópolis to isolate myself and prepare for the exams.

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116_gafieira

Gafieira by Di Cavalcanti

Lost Samba – Chapter 20 – A Brazilian in Chile

Santiago

Panoramic view of Santiago, Chile

If my parents had ever found out about my adventure in the Maracanãzinho, they would have interned me in a rehab centre, or worse. In their innocence, they never saw the signs: red eyes, munchies, hours of practicing the same solo over and over again, and inexplicable mood changes. They considered all this as being just a mere teenager phase that they thought – or hoped – I would soon grow out of.

Kristof was my main partner in crime and, in their ignorance, my parents were thrilled with my friendship with the long-haired son and grandson of prominent psychoanalysts of German descent who, by a happy coincidence, were their next-door neighbours in the Teresópolis retreat. In fact, my parents were so delighted that they agreed that I could travel with him to Chile for the half-term vacation.

The length of the bus trip was crazy: seventy-two hours, the route taking us through the entire southern region of Brazil, then into Argentina and finally crossing the Andes to Chile. Nevertheless, I was excited: not only would I be visiting another country, but would also experience real snow and there was the prospect of skiing.

After a few hours in the bus, the light drizzle that had begun in São Paulo turned into a raging storm. At around nine in the evening, something fell onto the driver’s windscreen and crashed through the glass. Luckily, he was unhurt and never lost control of the bus. However, he had to continue driving for an hour in the cold rain, precariously protected from the elements by no more than passengers’ raincoats and blankets. We stopped in a small town to wait for a replacement bus and a dry driver. This seemed to take forever and, while the other passengers were caring for the cold and shocked driver, we noticed that a party was going on in a house nearby. We couldn’t resist and crashed it. When the new bus finally turned up, we were lucky that some people noticed that we were missing and managed to find us.

As dawn broke, we found the landscape now to be entirely different from what we had experienced just a few hours earlier. As we advanced south, the subtropical forests faded, and the bus continued across the vast expanses of the pampas grasslands. In that rainy, cold and miserable weather, the long, low walls to the sides of the highway, and the sparse vegetation separating the large green pastures, resembled the little I had seen of the British countryside. The population we came across in the bus stops was also different. In the late nineteenth century, after the Brazilians abolished slavery, the authorities encouraged Germans, Italians, Japanese and Poles to settle in southern Brazil, giving this part of the country something of a European look and feel. The food was more familiar and the portions were enormous.

As we sped through Argentina heading towards the Chilean border, the pampas gradually gave way to a more hilly landscape dotted with fruit farms. Brazil is so vast and diverse that it was strange to realize that we had reached another country by road. At the rest stops, they spoke Spanish, we had never seen most of the goods on the shelves and the cashiers recoiled at our requests that they accept Brazilian Cruzeiros as payment. The crops we saw from the highway were very European: peaches, grapes, cherries and other soft fruit that can only grow in temperate climates. From here, the dry Andean cordillera started to emerge on the horizon. We soon entered a desert-like region with snow-covered mountain peaks, which had amongst the lowest population densities in the world. The air was so pure that the mountains gave us the impression of being nearby hills, although we knew they were both colossal and still distant.

From 1973, a ruthless military dictatorship was ruling over Chile and, as we approached the border, the Brazilian passengers started voicing their opinions towards the regime. One girl, who happened to be in our year at school, took her repudiation too far: she went to the toilet and returned wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. Madalena had the appearance of an Andean native, which, according to the Chileans on the bus, would make their military police, the carabineros, at the frontier even more furious with her statement.

She ignored our appeals for her to change her T-shirt and as we approached the isolated frontier post, we grew nervous. It was covered in snow, surrounded by tall barbed wire and kept by armed military. When the bus stopped, a heavy-set carabinero with a characteristic thick black moustache climbed on board. Expressionless, he walked up and down the aisle, and then told us all to get off. It was very cold outside and as we were going in we noticed posters with pictures of dozens of wanted “terrorists” at the entrance of the bunker-like station. Inside we were met by soldiers armed with machine guns and holding fierce-looking dogs. To everyone’s relief, minutes before leaving the bus, Madalena had the good sense of putting on a jumper and removing the T-shirt adorned with the face of the bearded revolutionary. The officers did not ask many questions but examined our travel documents carefully and we were relieved to continue on our way.

ditadura

List of wanted Chilean “Terrorists”.

As the journey neared its end, the cordillera opened up to the narrow plains leading to the Pacific. The landscape resembled the Scottish rugged countryside: rocky, with vast fields and sparse vegetation. Kristof’s mum was waiting for us at the Santiago bus station. She was happy as we got in the car and she drove us home chatting away with her son while being polite and welcoming to me. Her comfortable house was in Las Condes, a neighbourhood that resembled an all-American middle-class suburb, with quiet streets and spacious homes bordered by well-kept gardens.

Santiago was a calm and beautiful city, set in a valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains. It was fun too as Kristof knew all the wrong people there. The first friends he introduced me to recounted their recent experiences going to an anti-dictatorship rally in the city centre. These were serious demonstrations that often descended into violent confrontations between the protesters and the military police – exactly the wrong time and place to be in a car full of illegal smoke. They had a big Cheech and Chong – a duo who did comedy films in the 1970s about smoking weed – moment while looking for a place to park, and ended up finding themselves stuck in the middle of a battle with stones and tear gas canisters flying over the roof of their car

*

The only kind of revolutionary action that still existed in Brazil was like the one I witnessed following a victory of the Brazilian team in the 1978 World Cup. Then, the police did not want celebrations near Barril 1800, a bar in Ipanema where the bohemian left congregated. Even so, we gathered in front of the bar shouting our lungs out. In the midst of the samba, we suddenly saw a wall of policemen on the other side of the street marching slowly towards us. In an instant, we went from cheering for Brazil to booing the police and chanting anti-dictatorship slogans.

In response, the police charged. We ran, but because they did not take up the pursuit, we returned and hurled stones at them. There was a lot of running back and forth, with the skirmishing carrying on until the police let their dogs loose. We ran for our asses and scattered.

In Chile, the situation far more serious. The dictatorship was at its peak and did not flinch from displaying its brutality. Chile had been a sophisticated country with high levels of education and a democratic tradition. The country’s sin had been electing a socialist government and providing asylum to leftist exiles from other South American countries. To dismantle that democracy, the USA needed a hard-right force without any scruples. This it found in the person of “Generalissimo” Augusto Pinochet.

Some of the families I met had sons, fathers, and brothers who had recently “disappeared” – seized and in all likelihood killed by the military. There was a curfew, and being out after ten at night could lead to your arrest and the risk of a beating at one of the police holding stations. Beer consumption in the streets, especially by youngsters, was a serious offense. Of course, more than once, we were in the empty streets late at night, buzzing with adrenaline and clutching beer cans. The fun was to run behind parked cars and to lie on the pavement to hide from the police patrols that passed by every twenty or so minutes.

One morning, Kristof had to go to a police station to get some documents and I accompanied him. It was obvious that we were not the typical well behaved youths that the Pinochet regime expected young men to be. As soon as we entered the room we drew attention and the atmosphere became tense with menacing looks from the carabineros lined up at the door. When Kristof’s turn came, the officer took an immediate dislike to his long hair and started yelling that he had an effeminate hairstyle and that he was a pot smoking communist. That was a dangerous accusation being made by a senior Pinochet serviceman, but in the end, my Brazilian passport and Kristof’s German document did the trick of getting us out of the building intact. I will never forget another afternoon in Santiago when a man in his early thirties passed by us in a park, discretely handcuffed between two plain-clothed policemen with genuine terror in his eyes as he looked at us as if asking for help.

pinochet

Augusto Pinochet

Because all the Latin Americans loved the Brazilians – well, with the exception of our Argentine, Paraguayan, and Bolivian neighbours – the Chileans received me well, even one of Kristof’s friends who had swastikas and other Nazi motifs covering the walls of his bedroom.

The highlight of the vacation was skiing in Farellones, one of Chile’s oldest winter-sports resorts. To get there, we took a rickety, old bus that barely managed to haul itself along the steep, winding curves of the cordillera. Although the view was magnificent, the road bordered unprotected precipices that didn’t seem to concern anyone else but me. Up at the ski slopes, I regretted only having brought knitted gloves: I kept on falling onto the powdered snow and by the end of the day, the ice that had solidified around my hands had almost frozen them. I was in pain, so while we were waiting for the bus to take us back to the warmth of Kristof’s house in Santiago, I went to a public toilet to try to bring my hands back to life with hot water. When I tried opening the door, I found that my hands had lost their grip. It must have been comical to see me trying to turn the handle in every possible way but with no success. The solution was to use the only hot liquid available: I went behind the cabin, managed to pull down my trousers and pee on my hands, hoping no one would see.

The next time we went to the slopes, I borrowed a pair of skiing gloves and from then on, the holiday was great. The weather was windless and sunny, and the slopes were empty and covered with a layer of fresh, powdery snow. The sun was so strong that we could take off our jackets and our shirts when we stopped to have lunch on the terrace of a restaurant in the middle of the slopes.

Kristof and I were enjoying ourselves so much in Farellones, that we decided to remain for a whole week. We managed to stay at a close to free student hostel. The other lodgers were a little older than us and seemed to be very reserved – indeed secretive. After they found out that we didn’t live in Chile and therefore that we were unlikely to be police spies, they opened up. In the evenings, behind the closed doors of their isolated rooms, sipping mulled wine, we had long conversations about politics and about escapes through the Andes from that very hostel. There, much more than in Brazil, leading an alternative lifestyle was a courageous statement.

*

The farewell party in Santiago was as wild as one could be under the Pinochet regime. Although it was winter, one of Kristof’s mates held it in his parents’ garden and rock and roll blasted out of the loudspeakers accompanied by a lot of booze. The only element that was missing were girls. We ended the night at the red light district of Santiago completely drunk and acting as complete idiots. However, the women were too rough for any one of us.

We awoke the following morning with bad hangovers, completely unfit to endure another seventy-two hour bus journey, this time to take us back to the prospect of the final preparations for the vestibular. However, life is full of surprises. As we made our way to our seats and stowed away our hand luggage, we noticed that the only other empty seats were the ones opposite ours. A few minutes later, as in a fantasy film, two attractive young Brazilian women entered the bus and took those free seats. As soon as we left the station, I started chatting with one of them and, soon after, Kristof swapped places with her.

An hour or so later, the bus stopped at a wine shop in the mountains. I did not have any more cash and found it strange when a fellow passenger told me to pretend I was going to buy something. Without thinking much about that odd request, I went to the cashier and asked how much the bottle in my hand was, pretending to be interested in its vintage, its provenance and tasting notes. When the bus pulled away, I found out what had been going on meanwhile: some guys were bragging that they had stolen lots of wine.

I cannot really say what I would have done had I known how they had used me. Anyhow, they had managed to lift a sizeable quantity of excellent wine – booze that we would have to drink before the following day when Brazilian customs officers would search the bus for smuggled goods. It was too late to convince almost the entire bus to return the bottles, not that such an idea had seriously crossed my mind. Instead, there was no option but to join in. Someone asked whom the guitar belonged to, and the party began.

It turned out that the guys who had “liberated” the wine were professional thieves who were going to São Paulo to steal clothes from shops and then sell them in Santiago. There was also a football player who had been away from Brazil for so long that he had forgotten how to speak Portuguese, and also some dudes from Florianópolis who had been skiing in Chile. We soon discovered that everyone in the bus had an amusing story to tell and was keen to make the most out of the three days that they were about to spend there. Together we all managed to make that bus become a big party room, or narrow corridor. The guitar playing went on through the night, with all the passengers singing and making up songs about the vehicle, the other passengers, the booze, the driver and the weed. The girl who I had started flirting with soon succumbed to my charms and we ended up having fun in the toilet at the back of the bus. This was to be my best bus journey ever.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 18/03 – In Brazil’s Holy of Holies

Trancoso

Trancoso’s beach

The early morning sun breaking through the cracks in the window’s shutters woke me up. I could still hear the wind but now it was gentler, enabling me to also hear the sound of bird songs and the soothing rhythm of waves breaking in the distance. Daylight revealed pristine nature preparing for the new day. At that moment, the world consisted of just my hut, the surrounding forest, a deserted beach and me. The temperature was agreeable and that unique moment of peace in that special place, transported me to the beginning of time.

I was not very far from where history books say that the Portuguese had first set foot on that uncharted land. This was the spot where those western lost souls had officially planted the seeds of a new country. I walked to the sea and had a long swim. In the deep I floated in the calm, crystal-clear, water. At that moment, at that place, it was easy to imagine the first flotilla appearing from beyond the horizon. Was anyone on those ships considering anything other than plundering what lay beyond the beach? Was the exotic jungle a soul devourer, or a place waiting to be tamed? Could the intruders possibly have imagined that there was anything worthy of their respect or to learn from in this beautiful place and from its original inhabitants?

 *

Before the arrival of hippies, Trancoso had been a Christian mission for the conversion of the indigenous Pataxó people. All that remained of that time was the simple parish church that faced inland and a group of westernized descendants of that tribe who lived in a reserve a few kilometres away. Its back faced the ocean and it was there where we gathered every night when the church’s whitewashed wall reflected the strong moonlight like a screen in a movie theatre. Long before the arrival of the first white men, the local tribe assembled at this very spot for festivals. The sacred ground still held its power with Trancoso remaining a place apart. The only trace of civilization anywhere around was Porto Seguro twenty to thirty kilometres away, its lights faintly visible on the far corner of the horizon.

We waited for the full moon and, after an hour or so, a huge silver ball started rising up at the end of the ocean. We were around ten people, gazing at that apparition in awe and in silence. The reflection grew stronger and created a bright streak across the water. The moon rose above the low clouds making them look like white, puffy, backlit mountains, casting heavy shadows from only a few meters above the sea. Their bases were flat, as if a meticulous artist had sliced them.
While I contemplated that marvellous scene, the universe sent a vision showing me that love, life, health, the water we drank, the air we breathed, were all for free. We were not on a different planet, nor was this a dream: all that magic could be here and now, forever, if only we would learn how to value the things that were given to us. I wished Trancoso would always be my home and that the feeling of completeness never ended.

*

Those last three weeks passed in the blink of an eye and all too soon it was time to return to the reality of city life. I bummed a lift to Rio with some guys who were returning home to São Paulo. Unbelievably, they had managed to reach Trancoso driving their beetle along a dirt track through the forest. I had never heard about the trail and, after a few minutes in it, they remembered that this was not a route intended for cars. Thick vegetation must have sprung up since they had first driven along that track because we kept on having to get out of the old Volkswagen and push it through mud and over the tangle of plants. It took a couple of hours until the trail developed into something more resembling a dirt road. Eventually this got wider, and soon cattle, donkeys and small huts started to appear and eventually, people sitting by stands selling local fruit. Finally, we came across cars and after we passed by Ajuda and arrived at the barge that crossed over to Porto Seguro there was a small queue of cars waiting to board. On the other side there was already asphalt and the highway that took us on the long journey home.

I arrived back in Rio under the spell of Bahia. It was difficult to face the fact that a crucial battle of university entry exams lay ahead. There was another zone of contention ready to erupt at any moment; with every joint I rolled, with every jam session I participated in, with every new friend I made, I was immersing myself further into a world that my parents could not even begin to understand. A process of becoming completely estranged from my family was on its way. Mum and Dad were at a loss, not having a clue as to what was going on inside my mind and my soul. I had taken their quest for the New World many steps beyond their imagination. I was entering a no man’s land where, on the one hand, I was distancing myself from my roots and, on the other hand, those very roots made me structurally different to the people, and to the culture, I was relating to.

My parents expected Sarah and I to accept without question the terms of their happy adventure in the idyllic land that they had chosen. Now that we had grown up, the cultural baggage they had brought over from the Old Continent paralysed their reactions towards our experiences. The British way was to brush everything under the carpet, not to discuss problems in the hope that things would sort themselves out in one way or another. The central European approach was more pragmatic, but disregarded the poetry of life: searching one’s truth was pointless and bad for business – the solution was simply a matter of getting my head down and doing the right thing: studying. From my side, the process of making sense of the situation that I was born into would require a rupture, and, by the looks of it, this process would be solitary and painful.

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TrancosoD

Trancoso

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/01 – Bliss in the South of Bahia

Part24As the year ended, my situation had improved as compared to just a year earlier. I was a full member of the doidão gang, completely integrated in the Carioca lifestyle and I had acquired some respect through my guitar playing. The summer ahead was full of promise. I had passed with ease all my exams and as an award, my parents were sponsoring a new summer adventure. I was again going with Edu, but this time we would be away for longer and would go somewhere even more exciting than Recife. The plan was to spend a month and a half in the south of Bahia, the crème de la crème of the alternative destinations. In the early 1970s, the bucolic region around Porto Seguro became famous as one of the great hippy refuges, a place where Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and other Bahian native sons and daughters had eulogized in song. The area’s natural ecosystem was still largely intact – or, at least, it hadn’t yet been plundered as much as in more southern parts of Brazil. There were still native Amerindian tribes living in reservations which enhanced the tropical-paradisical aura of the region. In addition, Jorge Amado’s hometown – Ilhéus – was near to the place we were going to stay, promising, in my mind, an immersion into the Afro-Brazilian culture.

The bus trip took thirty hours and our companions were mainly Bahianos returning home for Christmas. As one would expect for the destination, the passengers also included a group of hippy-like girls from Ipanema. As I nervously chatted to one of them, she told me that Fernando Gabeira – “the King of the Nove” – was heading to the same place as us, Arraial d’Ajuda, a small and rather remote fishing village to the south of Porto Seguro. As we neared Ajuda, as everyone called the place, our conversations invariably led to Gabeira. We found out that his presence there was a topic as hot as the region’s sun, and had drawn the attention of the country at large. The Brazilian press had long developed a tradition of naming summers and that of 1980 would belong to Gabeira, the former urban guerilla. The girls were thrilled to be spending their holidays as his neighbors.

This lovely corner of the Earth was perched on a hilltop looking out across endless stretches of wild golden beaches. There was no electricity, no cars, no pavements nor any shop worth speaking of. While the village houses were old and minimal, the locals chose to paint the front of their homes in vibrant colours which made the place resemble a cubist painting. It was obvious that the locals struggled to make a living, but in contrast to the poverty found in the slums of the big cities, Ajuda’s people seemed healthy, harmonized with their surroundings and in peace with life. “Progress” was arriving, and the few bars on the village’s square were owned by outsiders, people from nearby towns who were beginning to sense the potential for tourism. At the time, however, the tourist infrastructure was still basic and food and lodging were ridiculously cheap.

The visitors stayed in a new area built around a field behind the original constructions. The newer huts, where the likes of Edu and I stayed, had been knocked together quickly, their owners, mostly outsiders, seeing them as an easy way to bring in a bit of money during the tourist season. Donkeys, skinny cows and stray dogs seemed to like the desolation of this part of the village, perhaps because the summer visitors left them unbothered. In contrast, Gabeira was renting one of the expensive lodgings alongside the beach and, although he didn’t mix with us mortals, he was often seen in his thong, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by devoted followers. We soon ignored his presence. Both the locals and the other visitors were welcoming and, in a couple of days, we were friends with everyone.

Our routine was heavenly. We woke up sometime in the mid-morning and wandered over to the natural food place for a breakfast of banana mashed with syrup and oats. Then we followed the sand-covered trail to the beach to spend the rest of the day lounging by the sea, playing football barefoot on the sand, going for walks on the deserted coast, meeting new people, and playing beach tennis. We were interrupted only by the occasional villager passing by and selling fried bananas, water and beer. It was hot and the sun was strong so the occasional cloud that approached from the ocean was always a welcome relief. Rain showers never lasted for more than fifteen minutes but when the clouds opened-up, everyone on the beach ran into the salty water to feel the sweetness of the raindrops on their faces while the rest of their bodies remained protected by the warm, calm and shallow sea water.

At the end of the afternoon, the beach gradually emptied and we all went back to the village to gather on the patio behind the old church overlooking the beautiful valley covered in dense foliage. As the sun slowly descended, it transformed into a giant orange ball, its colours merging with the ocean and the dark blue sky. After an entire day under the sun, in and out of the sea, the body welcomed the late afternoon breeze. Sometimes there would be a roda de capoeira, where guys would display their skills in this half-fight, half-dance while we in the audience sung and clapped in time with the berimbau, the African imported single-string, musical bow, that sets the pace.

The only place with running water was a cave with a natural spring where everyone had to queue while holding their towels and their shower gear. The villagers attributed its existence to a miracle and there was a statue of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda at the entrance of the cave. As for the toilet, it was the biggest one in the world: the bush.

After washing off the sticky sea salt and throwing on a shirt and flip-flops, we were ready for the improvised parties in the canteens. Inside them, kerosene lamps placed on the tables cast thick shadows giving them an ancient aura. I, like other people, had brought my guitar and our jamming would liven up those nights. One just needed to start strumming something for people to turn up with instruments of various sorts, and our sessions typically lead to dancing to songs that we created together on the spot.

The moon was so bright that we could wander back down to the beach as if we were having a daytime stroll. The clean, bright sand, the white foam from the ocean surf, the sound of the waves and the wind created a magical bond between us and nature. The clear skies, coupled with the lack of electric lights for kilometres around, made the constellations above stand out as I’d never seen before, with shooting stars darting about. We would sit on the beach for hours, talking and playing guitar. When we returned to the village, it was like being re-enveloped into the warmth emanating from soulmates.

The villagers were untouched by “New Brazil”, living instead from what they fished using their simple boats and by renting out rooms. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Sometimes they invited us to sit with them and would tell us stories about their community, their legends, the sea and the surrounding nature, while exchanging views about life.

The visitors were a mix of university students, professors, journalists, writers, artists, musicians, professionals and political activists. Our conversations reflected the explosion of freedom of speech following the long period of repression. Everyone expressed opinions, with endless discussions taking place about everything from football to ecology, from politics to sex.

We all agreed that these were the closing days of a world in which nature was more powerful than man. In one of our conversations, someone argued that we were both the virus and the potential cure for the world. We were living an ecological turning point and for better or worse, our generation would be responsible for the outcome. Discussions apart, there was something special in the air; none of us had ever experienced this kind of collective connection before. It was as if we were living in a bubble distilled by centuries of utopian ideals and by the recent secrecy and the camaraderie of the resistance to the regime. This closeness permeated our parties, jam sessions, laughter, relationships and friendships, giving them a quality and sincerity very different from what was normally accepted as reality.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 15/02 – The Crazy Carnival of Recife

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The Galo da Madrugada “bloco” in Recife.

Our hopes were only half-fulfilled: the only girls who gave us any attention were the good ones from good families who were committed to post-marital sex. They gave dirty looks and we got into a lot of snogging, but the advances always ended short of the last stop. Kissing a stranger from the South was audacious enough and, if that alone required effort and patience, the rest was unthinkable.

There was one exception: a fake blond wearing no bra who we chatted up on the seaside promenade while a pre-carnival parade was passing by. We did the usual thing, flattering her as she walked by and waiting for the reaction. Unlike the others who smiled or frowned but continued on their way, she stopped to talk to us. Despite her being alone, she accepted coming behind a construction site and sitting between us. Her tight jeans revealed a slim and well-shaped body, and her perfume and her varnished toenails were a complete turn on. There was a lot of excitement in the air, but neither Edu nor I wanted to leave the other with the prize. She showed no preference and ended up not being able to cope with the attack of four adolescent hands, and got up and left.

Despite these frustrations, Recife’s carnival was fantastic. In Rio, the middle class ran away from the partying to relax, but there everyone made a point of taking part in the revelry. At night, there was the Mela-Mela (“smear-smear”) tradition where people went around the streets spreading a homemade paste of water, eggs and flour on everyone while groups paraded the emptied streets making music and dancing. Our hosts made a few bags of it for us, but it was predictable that two guys with out of town looks would be on the receiving end. We did respond but, when our ammunition finished, we had to go back home looking like two unbaked loaves of bread, happy to be exhausted from the fun.

During the day, people drove around in cars with no doors and in hired trucks throwing buckets of water on passersbys. On the pavement, the victims stood prepared to respond with three foot long wooden water jets defending themselves from onslaughts while attacking every car that passed by, with or without doors. The clashes happened with a lot of shouting and laughing. Edu’s aunt warned us to be careful with the things people could put in the water but we were never left with a strange smell.

The first proper carnival of that summer was in the rundown part of town by the old port. The area looked like the background of an old black and white film in the Middle East but with European looking buildings and populated by a Caribbean people.

Recife’s rhythm was not the samba but the frevo, a fast military-like beat with an African twist, performed by brass sections sounding intricate arrangements accompanied by a sizeable rhythm section. The traditional way to dance to it was to kneel up and down to the rhythm waving an umbrella, but the rabble at Praça do Marco Zero square was too drunk for acrobatics and the experience was closer to a punk rock concert, where no one was sure if they were in a fight or if they were having fun. The energy was intense and we had to hold our elbows high in that flood of musical insanity. At one point the organizers stopped the music and held up a bottle of Brazilian whiskey, announcing that was the prize for the best dancer. The band resumed and the crowd went even more berserk.

Image

picture from http://eyesonrecife.wordpress.com/

A couple of weeks later the Carnival officially started and we had two options: the first one was going to Olinda, a historic town where the authorities barred cars from circulating during the entire four days. On its streets and squares, there would be four or five big bands playing in different locations at any time. We could switch from one carnival to another and join crowds never smaller than a thousand people.

The other option was to go to the carnival balls in Recife. The biggest venues in town hired sizable frevo orchestras that made people dance wherever they could – on the dance floor, on the tables and on the chairs. On the first day we went to Olinda but as we were not successful with the girls we kept our energy for the bailes de Carnaval, where there seemed to be more feminine receptivity. The way to pull girls was to grab them by the waist, dance a bit around the rink and then take them to a corner outside and try to get as far as one could. After weeks of frustration, and a lot of beer, the qualifying standards fell and we were quite successful.

Edu stayed on with some other friends who had come up to Recife, and I went back on my own, in the dawn after the carnival ended. By coincidence, some of the members of the band that had played at the Spot Club Recife, where we had spent our carnival, took the same bus and the partying continued for the next forty something hours with a lot of booze, frevo and samba going on until we arrived in Rio.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 15/01 – Carnival in Recife part 01

Part21The holidays in my new Brazilian School, the Colégio Andrews on Botafogo Beach, were enormous: if you achieved good grades, the holidays began in early December and only ended in mid-March. However, the classes were in Portuguese, and on top of this I had subjects such as Chemistry and Physics which were new to me; the result was that these shortcomings made me stay back in December and January while most of my friends were travelling and enjoying their vacations. Anyway, body surfing the entire morning and then going to school for an hour or two was not a torture.
When the support classes finished, I passed my exams and there were still almost two months of holiday ahead. Out of the blue, Edu asked me if I wanted to go with him to Recife and spend a month with his relatives, carnival included. He was one year older than me, had just passed the college entry exams and was from a respectable Jewish family so my parents had no problem in giving me approval.

For us, the Brazilian Northeast, or the Nordeste, was like an exotic country within Brazil lagging five to ten years behind Rio and São Paulo. Going there would be like revisiting the city that we had grown up in but as pre-adults. What also made the trip exciting was a new wave of artists from that region – Alceu Valença, Fagner, Zé Ramalho, Geraldo Azevedo, Robertinho do Recife – making the head lights, and transforming the Nordeste into a trendy destination. Also, everyone said that Recife’s carnival was superb. The draw back were the 2,300 kilometers between Rio de Janeiro and Recife; aeroplanes were for the very rich and the only way to go there was a 48 hour bus trip.

On a hot January night, we went with our parents to the interstate bus terminal. It was packed with people of all classes, colours and walks of life wandering by ticket counters, cheap food booths, newsstands and souvenir stores. The hustle bustle made the place exciting and familiar for us but the excess of humble people made the experience uncomfortable for my parents. The information system was confusing and we took some time to find the terminal for the Nordeste. When we finally found it and went down the steep metal stairs that took us to the busses, we encountered the aisles full of rural folk loading their old suitcases and gigantic bags onto the luggage compartments. Among them was also a small number of youngsters with long hair in colourful T-shirts together with girls in flowery dresses, wearing handmade bracelets and bead necklaces who were also preparing to get on to the buses.

After hearing our parents’ embarrassing recommendations, we went in, found our seats and waved goodbye as the bus left. We had a chat, managed to sleep and when the day broke, we were already far away in, what was for us, unchartered territory. As the bus passed through the first small villages, we looked out of the window and began to see people riding donkeys on earthen roads, semi-naked children running around, old cars and mud huts with straw roofs. The complexion of the population had changed: there were fewer Europeans, and more descendants of natives and of slaves.

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Forest devastation on BR-101

As we continued up the BR-101 and progressed into the remote countryside, the extent of the forest devastation was striking. At school, we had learned that the Atlantic forest covered this area and we were expecting the bus to pass under trees with monkeys jumping from one side of the motorway to the other. Instead, on both sides of the road, there was a melancholic landscape of endless empty fields. The only trees still standing were the ones made of a wood too strong for the motorized saws.

After close to an entire day in the bus, things began to change; the further north we went, the more it felt as if a weight was leaving the other passengers who now could be themselves. They started talking louder and lost the shame of their accent. The roadside restaurants also began to change and went from bad to worse: the food became cheaper, harder to accept as eatable and the quantity of flies around our plates and glasses began to bother us. The radio DJs began sounding northeastern and playing the local rhythms that our favourite artists had stylized.

After they opened up, our fellow travellers treated us well, offering food, drinks and starting up conversations. They knew who we were but for them, we were nice boys from the educated elite, the pride of the nation, and there was a lot of respect. I was not sure if they could differentiate us from the majority of the youngsters of our age and social bearing: we respected them and we were interested in what they had to say, something that was not common.

Anyway, the trip was not a political exercise and our intentions were not noble at all – as every teen male on the planet, we had only one objective in mind: to score. We were off to Recife’s carnival to have unpaid and hands-free sex. Our expectations were high: coming from Rio gave us an edge as cariocas had the reputation of being street wise, trend setters and sexy.

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Boa Viagem beach – Recife

Lost Samba – Chapter 12 – The American School of Rio: privilege and weed in the 70’s

Part18After my fiasco at the British School, the Escola Americana, or E.A., was the only alternative left in which to continue an international education in Rio de Janeiro. That surreal institution had everything one could expect from an American High School: blond and ginger boys and girls speaking English with a nasal accent, a baseball field, an American football team, and the social competition inherent to such an institution. The Rocinha favela, the biggest slum in the world, located on the hill right in front of the school, was a reminder that those massive grounds and those futuristic buildings were a hub for a foreign virus in a foreign land.

The EA’s educational structure was as advanced as its architecture: we built our own curriculum, the courses were with different students in different classrooms, we had a smoking area, the teachers had long hair and we didn’t need to wear a uniform. In a town influenced by the American culture, in terms of coolness, this school was the Olympus of Rio’s youth. The kids who had set the trends for how the middle class was behaving; the ones who had introduced surfing and weed to Ipanema, had studied or were studying at that very school.  My classmates were the children of the powerful gringos sent over to overlook the making of “New Brazil” and to make sure that the branch followed the headquarters. This feeling was pretty much internalized in most students and I had to be careful not to absorb their sense of superiority and look down on regular Brazilians.

Most of them weren’t saints and were having the time of their life. They did all the wrong things that the other kids did, but had the added advantage of relying on IBM, or Merck or Shell to intervene on their behalf when things went wrong. This sense of impunity was usually reserved only to the highest ranking families of the land. The school’s elite knew each other well from their parents social circles and excluded those who didn’t belong. With the status of a non-surfer, Brazilian born, and non-muscular son of an elderly Jewish small business owner, I was barred from the ‘“in’” crowd.  These were guys with an unblemished American or European pedigree who irradiated self-confidence. Many had long hair, were athletic, and seemed to rock in any physical activity they got into, except for football (for them soccer).

Those kids had a lifestyle that is hard to imagine. To begin with, most of them belonged to the Yacht Club and had boats waiting for them at the marina. They lived in houses, a rarity in Rio even in those days, the ones who lived in flats stayed in the best addresses in town such as the beach front avenues of Ipanema and Leblon,  Avenida  Vieira Souto and  Avenida  Delfim Moreira. Whenever I was invited to parties or to hang out after school with any of them, I would think to myself, “So these are people who live here”. My schoolmates had access to gadgets that were science fiction in common households: video games (something that hardly anyone had in those days), imported surf and skateboards, records from any band one could imagine, the best stereo equipment available in the American (not the Brazilian) stores and dreamlike weekend houses in dreamlike locations where they could use their toys.

To add insult to injury, their monthly, dollar-based pocket moneys were probably more than what I received in an entire year, which in its turn was more than the minimum salary. Dad had made a lot of extra money with his stock market move, but next to these people we were poor.

The few friends I made there came with a novelty: they smoked weed.  After talking about my tastes and interests it didn’t take long for them to welcome me into their circle and help me discover what the fuss was all about. The first couple of tries were disappointing, but on the third or fourth session, the penny dropped and I realized I was very stoned.  The experience was not what I expected, there were no unicorns galloping in front of me nor did everything change into psychedelic colours, it was all about laughing with no apparent reason, and about appreciation of rock music. There was no doubt that the high gave a different dimension to everyday activities; every song we listened to sounded marvellous and had details that I had never noticed before. Perhaps because I was learning how to play the guitar, the state that the smoke induced me into allowed me to identify the different layers of the music and to understand what was in the mind of the musicians when they wrote those parts and performed them.  The simplest things: LP and book covers, paintings on the wall, decorative statues and plants, acquired a beauty that I could never have grasped in a normal state.  I was soon to discover that maconha was a repellent for girls, but, hey, the chicks at the American School were unobtainable anyway.

From that point onwards, at school, at the beach, at the club and at home, I had an edge: I was doing something illegal.  Things and people I had never understood before began to make sense, and belonging to that new club felt great, almost like the conquest of an identity.  In my mind, the peers in my other circles were dying to do the same but did not have the “cojones”.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 11/02 – Hippies and ecological disaster in Brazil.

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The Novos Baianos

Bossa nova, guitar playing and Bahia were part of the same formative package and, as school drifted further from the radar, I discovered the Novos Baianos in IBEU’s Pandora’s Box. More than a band, they were a community of long-haired musicians from Bahia who, like the Greek poet-warriors, not only sang but also lived out the hippy dream.

Their philosophy could be synthesized in the question “Why not live this world if there is no other world?” which they asked in their good-humored samba, Besta é  Tu (It’s you who’s the fool). The song reflects the eagerness of their generation to enjoy life despite what was taking place in the political arena and to distance itself from the caretas, or the squares, and their caretice. They started out as a group of artists assembled in Salvador by Tom Zé, tropicália’s musical genius. When they came down to Rio in search of opportunities, their talent and their carefree ways ended up making them the queen bees of the carioca hippies, around whom everyone and everything cool gravitated. Luck opened several doors for them: career wise, they filled in a talent vacuum left behind by most of the country’s big names, such as Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso that the military had either exiled or completely censored. Music-wise, João Gilberto, the godfather of bossa nova, another bahiano, became very close to them and coached their raw talents into the highest musical standards. Meanwhile, their carioca bass player, Dadi, recruited through a newspaper advertisement, had no one less than Jorge Ben as a teacher.

In terms of their work, they did similar to what the Rolling Stones had done with the blues; they mixed rock and roll energy and authentic Brazilian themes. The result was very strong and, overall, their work reflected what all Brazilian hippies were during the military dictatorship: a force of nature. As expressing political thoughts was too dangerous, the confrontation with the system was existential, almost spiritual, therefore perhaps healthier than conventional politics as it did not involve picking up guns or resorting to violence. Instead this avenue sought resistance through being un-urban, in close contact with one’s true self, with nature, with music and with surfing in the case of Ipanema’s youth.

In fear of repression but, nevertheless, in complete disagreement with the route the country was taking, many thinking heads of that generation took shelter in a journey of self-discovery. By doing so, the Brazilian hippies dived into a strange, unique and lawless existence. Nonetheless, life went on, and around them was the intensity of Brazil; the mixture of cultures and the sensuousness of its streets still soaked in the euphoria of the 1970 World Cup triumph. Their psychedelic and counter-cultural outlook was akin to Jimi Hendrix meeting Pelé.

With so many cosmic forces behind their music, the Novos Baianos, the most visible and most colourful of the Brazilian hippies, found a record label that ended up providing them with a ranch in Jacarepaguá, in the outskirts of Rio. There they divided their time playing football, rehearsing, creating, eating vegetarian food, smoking weed and having children. The ranch would become an icon of that era.

*

If a big portion of the youth appeared to be messed up, the mainstream was even more. Under the military, Brazil had become a lost ship sailing into an economic disaster zone with a drunk and autocratic captain in command. Following a pattern that still remains around the world, while the economy was doing well, huge predatory international deals were sealed behind the scenes; Western power brokers came up with generous investments and told the military not to worry about paying back. The rampant corruption and the suppression of any form of opposition or transparency allowed a huge portion of that money to “evaporate”. However, when the banks would come back for repayment, the bill fell on the lap of people who had nothing to do with those transactions, and who had never benefited from them.

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President Gen. Figueiredo and other Generals in the Seventies

One of the main victims of this orgy of easy money was the environment. Considered as a commercial resource, thousands of forest hectares and of animal species were set to disappear in order to allow huge farms with state-of-the-art technology to appear.  “Coincidentally”, most of the people who the big international banks funded to carry out these projects belonged to the backbone of the regime: the one percent of the population who owned eighty percent of the land. Brazil’s rulers needed this investment in order to silence the suggestion of appropriating unused land and handing it over to the destitute. The so called Reforma Agrária, the Agrarian Reform, still haunted the military despite their heavy hand. Long before the coup, this project had been a hot topic and blocking it had been one of the main reasons why the so-called revolution of 1964 had happened in the first place.

Regardless of this issue, most of the soil under the jungle was inappropriate for agriculture. Disregarding this simple but crucial limitation, the big farmers used the simplistic technique of burning down the woodland to clear their properties. After the flames had ceased, the earth on the new mega-farms became useless, and could only be used for pastures. This silent crime against the planet’s health continued way after the dictatorship ended and terminated a forest area larger than several European countries. This caused another problem: the forests’ eradication forced their populations into the big cities without any skills or preparation.  The saddest thing was that most of these investments never brought any benefit to the economy; a lot of the burnt land had to be abandoned as, much of the time, raising cattle made no economic sense in those remote regions.

Next to such a government, the demonized, longhaired, Cannabis smoking lefties were angels. The world could only blame those young hearts for not risking their lives to fight against that machinery.

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Burning down of a forest.

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