Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Tijuca Forest”

Lost Samba – Chapter 16/01- Jamming and Favelas in Rio de Janeiro

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Leme beach

Back at school, my guitar-playing reputation had spread and because of this I made new friends. They were part of the group of wannabe musicians who met regularly to play together and I was thrilled when they invited me to join in. We were all curious about each other’s abilities and wanted to learn from each other. There were those who were better at solos, others who, like myself, knew more chords and were good at coming up with interesting riffs, others had drum kits, keyboards, bass guitars, and percussion instruments such as bongos, conga drums and sometimes the more typical Brazilian berimbaus and pandeiros .

The meeting point was at Fernando’s, or Fefo’s, flat on the top floor of a building in Leme with a fantastic view of Copacabana beach. For some reason he and his older brother lived alone, which made their place a free zone for our gang. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the excuse of studying, we sat around playing our instruments in a room that had comfortable cushions scattered around on the wood floor, a guitar amplifier, no furniture and simple art-deco style metal windows framing a view of Leme Hill. We would kickoff by playing the latest song one of us had learned and the others would gradually join in, adding more depth to the tunes. Our approach was similar to the one we took with football – this was just fun and we had no pretensions of forming a band.

On weekends, Júlio – Fefo’s older brother – and his friends joined us. They always had a lot of weed and they rolled joints so huge that we had to compact them with our fingers. After we had finished, we’d remain in a trance-like state for what seemed forever watching my friends’ puppy wagging its tail and prodding us with its paws as though to try to bring us back to life. Deploying what seemed like superhuman effort, someone would eventually manage to drag himself to the room next door where the instruments were. One or two of us would follow and start playing something, and gradually everyone else would join in. Out of this renewed energy, we arrived at a zone of inspiration out of which some really good music emerged ­– though the smoke had the effect that nobody would be able to remember and reproduce the ideas the following day.

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Back at school, my guitar-playing reputation had spread and because of this I made new friends. They were part of the group of wannabe musicians who met regularly to play together and I was thrilled when they invited me to join in. We were all curious about each other’s abilities and wanted to learn from each other. There were those who were better at solos, others who, like myself, knew more chords and were good at coming up with interesting riffs, others had drum kits, keyboards, bass guitars, and percussion instruments such as bongos, conga drums and sometimes the more typical Brazilian berimbaus and pandeiros .

The meeting point was at Fernando’s, or Fefo’s, flat on the top floor of a building in Leme with a fantastic view of Copacabana beach. For some reason he and his older brother lived alone, which made their place a free zone for our gang. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the excuse of studying, we sat around playing our instruments in a room that had comfortable cushions scattered around on the wood floor, a guitar amplifier, no furniture and simple art-deco style metal windows framing a view of Leme Hill. We would kickoff by playing the latest song one of us had learned and the others would gradually join in, adding more depth to the tunes. Our approach was similar to the one we took with football – this was just fun and we had no pretensions of forming a band.

On weekends, Júlio – Fefo’s older brother – and his friends joined us. They always had a lot of weed and they rolled joints so huge that we had to compact them with our fingers. After we had finished, we’d remain in a trance-like state for what seemed forever watching my friends’ puppy wagging its tail and prodding us with its paws as though to try to bring us back to life. Deploying what seemed like superhuman effort, someone would eventually manage to drag himself to the room next door where the instruments were. One or two of us would follow and start playing something, and gradually everyone else would join in. Out of this renewed energy, we arrived at a zone of inspiration out of which some really good music emerged ­– though the smoke had the effect that nobody would be able to remember and reproduce the ideas the following day.

*

Almost without noticing, my friends and I had slid into the category of being the school’s doidões, the adventurous potheads. For the less sympathetic peers, we were a bunch of  porra loucas, or crazy sperms, a less flattering term for people into wild things and with no sense of reality or responsibility. Although we did not see ourselves as either, we considered most of the other students to be caretas. On our side of the fence, we believed that, unlike them, we knew what life was about and how to enjoy it with no paranoias. No matter how you saw it, the divide was clear and we were not sitting on top of the fence regarding this issue.

As the gap grew bigger, we created our own subculture. The ultimate status among us became the achievement of purchasing maconha – grass – in a favela. The first boca de fumo, or drug den, I went to was in Cosme Velho, at the start of the tram line that went up to the Corcovado, Rio’s famed Christ the Redeemer statue. Everyone had contributed some cash, but only I, Juca and Haroldo, an older guy with experience in doing deals in favelas, went.

We got off the bus close to the entrance to the Rebouças Tunnel and turned into a pathway on the edge of the Tijuca forest. Haroldo told us to wait there. We were apprehensive, and after ten minutes, he returned saying that the dealer would be coming down soon and that we should have our money ready. Soon a skinny guy in Havainas and wearing no shirt arrived at the corner, looked us over and made a sign. Haroldo went to him and discretely handed over our cash. The dealer looked around to see if anyone else was watching, and in return he took five tightly packed paper sachets from under his shorts, each of which weighing around 10 grams, and handed them over. After that, Haroldo crossed the street in a hurry and we climbed on the first bus out of there feeling like commandos following a successful operation.

This risky experience gave me a proper adrenaline-rush and I often returned to make purchases. One day, the guy at our meeting point said he had no sachets on him that day but that I could get a supply if I went up into the nearby Morro dos Prazeres favela. There were two other customers in the same situation and they knew a shortcut through the forest that ended at the football field on top of the hill.  We took a track that first followed alongside the heavy traffic entering the tunnel and then branched out into dense bush. At the top of the hill, we found ourselves on a football field where a group of boys were kicking a ball about. Barely acknowledging us, they knew exactly what had brought us there and continued their game.

We continued past the shacks until we got to the boca at the end of an alley.  From the surrounding rooftops, boys no older than us kept watch, while a tall, scrawny mulatto with a gun stuck in the waist band of his shorts and puffing away on a huge joint approached us to demand what we wanted. Trying to hide our unease, as calmly as we could we said, “fifty grams”. He told us to wait. He soon returned, carrying a one-kilo block of marijuana – looking the size of several construction bricks – the biggest single quantity of the stuff I had ever seen.

While separating out our pieces and wrapping them in sachets, the dealer became friendlier and offered us his joint. The quality was good and the effect immediately hit us, but we were afraid of relaxing our guard. After the packets were ready, we handed over the money and an older guy came out of a nearby barraco to count it. He verified that everything was OK and went back in. After that final approval we tucked our packets in our underwear, said goobye and left. We made our way unnoticed through the muddy alleyways and past the decrepit walls of the makeshift homes. Perhaps because we were stoned, the people and the environment somehow felt familiar. Soon, I realized that we were in Santa Teresa, the neighbourhood on the edge of the Tijuca forest. From there, we hopped on a tram that was going down to the city centre. I was in a state of grace, feeling as though I was on holiday. The sun was setting and the smell of the trees wafted through the rickety, old yellow carriage as it passed by the once grand, colourfully-painted houses that characterised the neighbourhood. After the bondinho reached its final stop in town, my accomplices and I each went our separate ways through the concrete jungle of the inner city.

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favela

Favela

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Santa Tereza

Lost Samba Chapter 04 – Part 03 – Rio’s Beauty.

Rio

Photo by Custodio Coimbra

To paraphrase a verse from Gilberto Gil’s hit “Aquele Abraço”, when Mum and Dad arrived, Rio de Janeiro continued beautiful. There was no doubt that this was one of the best places to live in the world; apart from its generous coastal line with exuberant beaches, the Cidade Maravilhosa – the marvellous city – boasted the largest urban forest in the world – the Tijuca National Park, a place so vast that helicopters would sometimes spend days searching for lost hikers. With my parents’ British habit of going on walks and not much patience for spending the entire weekend sun bathing on crowded beaches – nor any friends to do this with them- they got to know the park very well. As soon as my sister and I were able to follow them, they took us along regularly. Exciting as they were, the outings were never dangerous. Sure, the forest was home to venomous snakes, but we never came across any and, as far as wild beasts were concerned, the city’s growing population had hunted them to extinction long ago. Nevertheless, a magical feeling always infected us in the silence of the dense, primeval forest, only broken by the noises of insects, by bird calls and by the crystal-clear water cascading down small streams.

Every trail eventually led up to a massive rock that was usually hard to climb. It took some effort to reach their summits, but these exertions – that very few cariocas undertook – were always worthwhile. From up there we could marvel at the breathtaking views of the city, of the bay and of the coast, a reminder to my parents of what it was that first attracted them to Rio. Mum would unpack the picnic and serve her egg mayonnaise sandwiches, which rather than leaving it to Maria, she always made a point in making herself.

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On one of our many walks, I heard a rattling coming from the trees above us. I looked up and saw the foliage moving in a strange choreography: there was a monkey jumping around the branches as if playing in a funfair. The monkey was not alone – he was followed by at least twenty others, including babies clinging onto their mothers’ backs. They stopped for a while and stared at us with curiosity. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared back into the timeless forest.

Mico2Photo by P&C pictures

The city that stood in our – and the monkeys’ – background spread out along the coast beneath us resembling one of the forest’s butterflies’ enormous pair of wings. From our vantage point, we could see the huge Guanabara Bay opening out to the Atlantic ocean. On the opposite shore was Niterói, an important city in its own right, and behind it there was a never ending sea of hills and beaches. To the north was the Ilha do Governador (Governor’s Island), the location of the airport; my parents’ introduction to Brazil.

On our side of the Bay was the ocean-facing Zona Sul with its picture-postcard places: Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the Sugar Loaf Mountain. Following the coast we could see the – then deserted – beaches of São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca which were only visible from the highest points in the forest. Closer to us stood the church spires and office buildings in the city centre and the seemingly endless sprawl of industrial buildings, low-rise housing of the Zona Norte. This was where the poor and the lower middle class lived and in our snobbishness, we considered those two thirds of the city as being on the “wrong side” of the forest, somewhere unworthy of our attention. The only recognizable feature there was the Maracanã Stadium: the supreme temple of Brazilian football.

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At the feet of the forest’s hills there were favelas marking the boundaries between the city and the thick bush. This was where the poor lived. Some of them had originated as small quilombos – hiding places set up by fugitive slaves who chose these precipitous mountainsides as they provided the perfect shelter from patrols in search of escaped “property”. The favelas had developed into agglomerations that looked like anthills, where chickens, pigs and dogs roamed in the mud alleyways around the inhabitants’ wooden huts. Crooked electricity posts, television antennae and clothes drying on strings added extra layers to the seeming chaos.

Their inhabitants wore torn clothes and old Havaianas flip-flops and had curly hair, dark skin, loud voices and open laughs. Children ran around barefoot, their mums trudging up and down the steep alleys that curled along the hills balancing tins of water, or sacks of dirty laundry, on their heads. Although many of the favelados were white, this was a Brazil derived directly from Africa.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 03/01- Moving to Bossa Nova Land

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The London to Rio de Janeiro flight took two long days, stopping in Lisbon, Dakar and Recife in northeastern Brazil. The modern airports, the glamorous hostesses, the high technology, the generous meals and the feeling of being part of the international jet set, did not compensate for the engines’ hum that left a ringing in one’s ears for days.

On a 1956 dawn, the airplane carrying Raphael and Renée touched-down at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão Airport. As the cabin crew opened the door, the early-morning tropical air hit the couple and that blissful feeling caressed their skin. Exhausted, but relieved for having arrived and comforted by the pleasant weather outside, they walked down the airplane’s unstable staircase and contemplated the beauty of their surroundings, fantasising about the new life that was about to begin. After months of making plans and arrangements, they had finally arrived in the country they had dreamed of for so long. Inspired by Hollywood big-screen imagery, magazine features and documentaries, Rio seemed to offer everything a European could possibly wish for following two world wars: natural beauty, economic prosperity, good weather, racial harmony and above all the rare attribute of happiness.

After passing through passport control Raphael and Renée identified their luggage. Although very few people spoke English, the airport was chic and well organized and soon uniformed porters appeared to carry their suitcases to the taxi queue outside the terminal. Inside the car, in very poor Portuguese, they read the paper with the address of the hotel they were going to and waited for the driver to load their cases and go. Looking through the window the penny dropped: it was real! Excitement flooded in, and as the taxi set off they put on their sunglasses and enjoyed the scenery. First they passed alongside the bustling dock area, then they weaved through the city centre with its contrasting mix of colonial-era churches and Belle Époque and modernist-style public buildings. At the end of the green avenue, they reached Guanabara Bay where they would soon see the Sugar Loaf, and from there the cab sped by the gleaming neighbourhoods of Flamengo and Botafogo before finally going through two tunnels to reach Copacabana.

*

From their sunny Copacabana hotel room, the newly arrived couple planned their first mission: to choose a place to live. With a bank account filled with plenty of valued British pounds, this was a pleasurable yet daunting task. There were many wonderful neighbourhoods to pick from: green Gávea by the mountains; trendy Ipanema and its neighbour, Leblon; traditional Cosme Velho, set in a valley amidst the Tijuca forest and the green Jardim Botânico, alongside the park established in the nineteenth century by Joao VI, the exiled king of Portugal and first emperor of Brazil. There were also more secluded areas to consider, such as relaxed and low-key Urca, in the shadow of Sugar Loaf mountain and Santa Teresa, in the hills immediately behind the city centre, where wealthy merchants and aristocrats had once lived, their elegant villas and palatial houses a reminder of Brazil’s imperial past. All these choices were dreamlike for a couple coming from grey London.

Despite all those choices they opted to remain in Copacabana. What this stretch of Rio de Janeiro possessed that the others lacked was the Hollywood glamour that the likes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Carmen Miranda had introduced to the world. Copacabana had charisma; in some ways it resembled the stylish resorts along France’s Cote d’Azur, with its clean and calm streets and its frenetic beach life. In other ways, the neighbourhood resembled Manhattan, an urban forest of modern concrete towers with shops selling fancy imported novelties, chic nightclubs and streets jammed with the latest car models.

The “Princess of the Sea” had a cosmopolitan buzz like no other neighbourhood in Brazil. The beach itself was amazing: it was four kilometres long and a range of lush hills separated the district from the rest of the city. Facing the neighbourhood, out in the open ocean, a group of small islands covered with wild greenery broke the dullness of the horizon, An elegant promenade, the Avenida Atlantica, bordered the sand; this was the stage where the wealthier cariocas – Rio’s natives – exhibited their toned and tanned bodies during the day and where in the evening they showed off their best clothes when they went for a stroll.

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Copacabana was part of Rio de Janeiro’s upmarket Zona Sul, or southern zone. It was there the likes of Vinicius de Moraes, João Gilberto and Tom Jobim gave birth to the bossa nova, that samba-jazz fusion. Although these artists preferred to live by the next beach down the coast – in bohemian, but chic, Ipanema – the swankiest music venues in town were along Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, while the coolest places to go were in the alleys behind it, such as the Beco das Garrafas, where the trio and other future bossa nova legends regularly performed. This was the cradle of most of the genre’s classics. None was more famous than “The Girl from Ipanema”, a song that Frank Sinatra would record at the height of his career, and which rivalled in sales anything the Beatles or the Rolling Stones recorded at the same time.

This new laidback style of playing samba was a reflection of a wealthy, self-confident and modernizing Brazil. The president, Juscelino Kubitschek’s, slogan was to build “fifty years in five”. With this mentality, he set out to construct a new and futuristic capital, Brasília, in the sparsely inhabited centre of Brazil, at the same time he invested heavily in infrastructure and opened the economy to foreign capital. The country’s industrialisation accelerated fast and with a widening consumer market, opportunities seemed unlimited. Bossa nova was the musical expression of this optimism ­– it was clever, urban, mainstream and sophisticated, yet in love with its Brazilian roots.

Although my parents only listened to classical music, they fitted in well with the new middle class who were eager to live according to the international standards as portrayed in foreign movies that fired their imaginations and in the magazines that they devoured. Coming from London, despite the hardships of the post-war, Mum was quick to notice that she could embody the glamour of the developed world, and she welcomed the role of ambassador of that image with conviction and joy. As for the couple’s search for a new home, it did not take long to find a spacious, ocean side penthouse apartment with a veranda and stunning views. The building was on the corner with Avenida Atlantica and, like all others in the area, it resembled a luxury hotel. Marble panels and gigantic gilt-edged mirrors lined its entrance, giving it an air of something similar to a Hollywood set or a European palace.

Their household goods, purchased at London auction houses at post-war bargain prices, included antique furniture, such as an authentic Chippendale side-table, a grand piano, fine English silver, high quality china and classic paintings. Everything had been shipped ahead, and was sitting in customs at the docks.

While Raphael set out to make contact with the people whose names friends had given him, Renée stayed in charge of clearing her treasures. Armed with some basic Portuguese that she had acquired in London in preparation for the move, she set off to deal with the Brazilian bureaucracy. For the custom’s officer, she could not have seemed more of a typical rich gringa. Despite the warnings of her new neighbours and her friends, Mum could hardly imagine that such a charming man in such a responsible position could be fishing for bribes, although everyone had assured her that anyone in such a job would expect an “incentive” to expedite things. On one crucial afternoon, however, her fear of giving offence was so strong that she could not bring herself to hand him an envelope containing a nice sum of cash. This hesitation cost them another four months of waiting.

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Adventures in the Hotel Santa Teresa – Part 03

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The next sign that we were on a wrong path was more tragic. On Christmas eve, Kadu was celebrating with his mother and his son when went to the bathroom for an extra-long line. As the powder hit his circulatory system his heart did not resist the artificial over-stimulation, which resulted in a cardiac arrest that killed him on the spot bringing tragedy to his family, spoiling the Hotel’s festivities and making everyone think twice about what they were doing.

Not long after that, the negative wave hit me again, but this time in full. I was about to deliver the precision scale that had been in my room for weeks back to its owner. Because I was late for a class at the university I had to take a taxi. On the way there we came across a police “blitz”, where a policeman stopped us and asked me to get out of the car. I left the scale in its bag inside but he told me to get it out and open the bag. As soon has he saw what was inside he asked for my I.D. card and called his colleagues. After I was surrounder by four or five of them, I showed my documentation as well as my university card.

“Why are you carrying a precision scale?” asked one of them.

“I use it for my studies, officer; I am a student at the Federal University.”

“Let me see that, student card again” He examined it “Hmmm.. what do you need a precision balance for if you are studying economics?”

The policemen stepped away and talked for a while until the first one came back to me. “Where do live?”

The next thing I knew, I was in a police car surrounded by cops with other four police cars following behind us, heading to the Hotel. When we got there it was a sunny and, as this was on a weekday around lunch time, most of the other tenants had gone out. I was in the captain’s vehicle, and when we stepped out I could see that he liked the place, and while he tidied his clothes, his body posture expressed the satisfaction of having caught a good kill.

“Nice place to live at, rich boy! Let’s go into your room and see what you have there.”

The policemen stormed into the hotel unceremoniously; they didn’t say anything at the reception and we went straight up the stairs and into to my room. With nine cops inside the space where I lived, slept and did my things I was very worried about how that day was going to end. Although they only had a scale as evidence, they could invent anything they wanted and it would be my word against theirs. Ever hear of planting evidence?

As one would expect, they began a game of good cop versus bad cop, one of them telling me that the captain was a cool guy who only needed some “collaboration” to let me go, and his nodding back saying that I could get five years.

“You know what they do to young rich boys like you in prison, don’t you?”

The captain and a few other officers sat on my bed while others searched the room. Soon my “friend” a big black cop, who almost got me believing he was nice and that I could trust him, came out of the bathroom with a vase in his hand. He looked very happy and started to rub his butt on to a colleague’s crotch and said.

“OK, have fun with this black hole!”

I was even more confused about his reaction but he showed me the vase I realized that they had found the weed seeding that I was planting outside the bathroom.

He gave me a wide smiled and said, “I promised him that the day we found one of these he could do whatever he wanted with my backside!”

The others laughed. Now that they found had hard evidence and didn’t need to resort to planting some, I was a lame duck. They reconvened and after a few minutes the “good” cop called me to the side and said.

“Look the captain told me that he will let you go if you pay the team five thousand cruzados (about a thousand US dollars).” He looked at me in a patronizing way, lifted his shoulders and continued. “There is nothing I can do; he is the Captain.”

I didn’t have that kind of money on me but I knew that a neighbor, a rich guy from the south of Brazil did. They let me go to his bedroom accompanied by the “nice” cop and when I knocked he opened the door and I was relieved that he was there. With an officer standing next to me and four police cars in the Parking lot, it didn’t take much for him to guess what that was about. After telling him how much I needed and guaranteeing that I’d be able to pay him when I received my salary, he was superb, accepted my word and handed a check without hesitation.

With the bribe in hand, we went back to my room and after the Captain examined the check, the cops left telling me to be careful with drugs as they were bad for my health. It took some time form to hear their cars leaving the hote. I just sat there completely dumbfounded. Relieved for not going to jail but gutted by what had just happened, a knock on the door took me out of my state of shock. It was the manager telling me that Olavo, the owner of the hotel, wanted to talk to me. I knew him well enough to say hi every time I saw him, but we had never stopped to have a conversation. He was in his early sixties and had the air of a playboy, legend said that he had lost, and was continuing to loose, all his money in gambling. He was sitting on a comfortable leather chair behind a classical office table in his office, the only air-conditioned room in the hotel. He invited me to sit down, asked the manager to leave the room and began to talk. He was not angry, but he was firm.

“So your name is Richard, right?”

I reclined in my chair, weighing the shit I was in and replied. “Yes, I live in the room next to the staircase on the third floor.”

“I know, you have been living here for a year and a half already, it’s all here in the papers.” He gave a deep sigh and the pleasantries were over. “Well… As you know, the police were here in the hotel. While most of them were in your room three of them came in here to talk to me about you.”

“Oh… I am sorry about that!”

“No… No need to be sorry, it is what it is, luckily you are still free.” He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “The fact is that they threatened to close down the hotel because I was harboring a drugs dealer.”

“What!?”

“Look, I know that you are not a drugs dealer and that they were after your money. You are just a good kid hanging out with the wrong people. The reality is that the officers who were here asked for nine thousand cruzados to keep their mouths shut and keep the hotel’s reputation. Now that is a lot of money.” I was going to say something but he cut me short. “I won’t ask you to pay me back this money, although if I called in a lawyer I could, the only thing I am going to ask you to do is to leave my establishment by the end of today.”

There was no argument against his request.

Rosa and I had to move that same night to Tania’s, who was living in the worst address of Copacabana, the infamous Galeria Alaska, but his is another story.

My saga became famous; from all the crazies who had ever lived there, I had been the only person to be expelled from the Hotel Santa Teresa. An accomplishment that will never be repeated as the hotel was bought later on by a French group and is currently one of the most exclusive and best ones in Rio, where rock stars such as Amy Winehouse and other big shots stay when they go to Rio.

If you don’t believe it visit their site: http://www.santa-teresa-hotel.com/

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Zen-Surfism made in Ipanema

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Surf appeared in Ipanema in the early sixties via the children of american executives sent over to Brazil. In a beach town where the best way for a male to show off by the sea was to do headstands or human pyramids with his mates, the novelty caused a stir.

The surfer pioneers mesmerized beach goers with their long boards and blond hair, and as any other colonizer they stood out and did were not interested in mixing with the locals. It didn’t take long for local rich kids to want to do the same and the first Brazilian surfers appeared. Even in its earliest days practicing the sport was a statement; in a decade marked by politics, dedicating one’s life to glide waves was looked down by the militant students as a symbol of Yankee imperialism. But its charm and beatify and the good looks of its practitioners only made it more popular among the girls and in consequence among the guys who wanted to impress them.

By the seventies the political fever had died down due not only to harsh repression but also due to the economic boom that gave the Brazilian middle class access to live in the expanding beach neighborhoods and to the state of the art comforts. Surf culture took over the youth with its sex, drugs rock and roll and gave the sport a bad name, this time not with the intellectuals but with the parents and the police of the better areas of Rio. Surfers with their long hair and their wild attitude shocked traditional households, and were considered as drug loving, virginity snatching thugs, which, to be honest, wasn’t far from the truth.

It was at this time that my generation appeared in the scene, the long-haired guys were older and more street wise than us and next to them most of us were skinny nerds although we aspired to be like them. Many ended up buying surfboards and joining the club so to speak but in most “respectable” households, such as mine, a surfing son would be a motive of gossip and of shame among friends. Kids like us had to be content with body surfing or body boarding. This reaction to surfing came to a point that it was forbidden at certain hours of the days to allow the beach to look decent and the sea to belong to the nice boys.

The mornings consisted of arriving at the beach at nine, after which surfing was banned, looking for the best spots for waves, riding them until two, after which surfing was allowed again, and only coming home for lunch. We took body surfing seriously and on the summer holidays we’d be at it almost on a daily basis and many became quite good. However, independent of if you surfed or body surfed, there was an important side effects of such a close relationship with the sea and its forces: an understanding and an integration to the environment that few other sports or activities could bring. As the seventies ended, the more radical surfers had landed in jail and/or away from the sport while the survivors and the new generations took the sport more seriously and pioneered in health food and in living a healthier and more holistic lifestyle. Surfing became more accepted and found itself mixed up in the new-age way of life ideology, and that is where the term Zen-Surfism appeared.

There was a good reason for this; along with fishermen any person who rode, or who rides, waves will know about the tides, about the effects of the different kind of winds, about the different currents and about different kinds of waves and how to deal with them, and brings the environment he lives in into his consciousness and his daily life. The forces of the sea have never been in or out of fashion, but they have always been an indomitable force that can only be mastered to a certain degree. Life, society, politics, the economy, the work place are also unpredictable seas and knowing how to ride their waves that they throw and how to stay in the tranquility beyond the surf is important.

Nowadays the sport is considered what it should be: a healthy activity and people of all classes practice it. All of them goes on in the most democratic leisure centre on earth: the beach where, for the initiated, the waves are its fun fair, all of this is for free and provided by nature and ultimately its maker. Join this aspect of Rio with the Tijuca Forest, the biggest urban one in the world, and one can realize why so many people of that town possess a subtle wisdom and knowledge of how to live that is difficult to find in other urban centers of the same size around the world.

Adventures in the Hotel Santa Teresa – Part 02

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After a year, the hotel became a mixture of home, club and circus; we enjoyed that neighborhood as if we were in a village and only left Santa Teresa for work or for special occasions. Whenever we could. and the weather permitting, we’d hang around appreciating the view, chatting and making music. Meanwhile, as in any human gathering, groups began to form and, perhaps because of our financial limitations, Rosa and I stayed stuck with the bohemian one but continued to have good relations with everyone else. On meal times, all factions came together and greeted each other in the lobby, where the old folk played cards, the divorcees showed off their latest girlfriends and Rico, a pianist/actor played tunes on the hotel’s old piano.

These were the mid-eighties, and cocaine consumption was rampant. When Luis Melodia’s producer, Sergio, came to live in one of the better rooms the partying became heavier. The girls who served us in the dining room lived in the Morro dos Prazeres favela so the supply of the white stuff was never a problem. It didn’t take long for our noses to be constantly running while we locked ourselves together in each other’s rooms, talking like crazy before going out to town to party. Rosa and I were the youngest of the group and it was great to hang out with our new well-connected and more experienced friends. Because I was very skinny and somewhat green, there were many attempts to snatch her from me, but as far as I know, no one ever succeeded.

A few months down the line, a heavy surfer type called Kadu moved in and it did not take long for him to join the gang. He had split up with his girlfriend and for some reason he shared his room with his mum and his young son. He was two years older than me, 27, and his brother was a proper drug dealer who constantly went to New York on “business”. As we had similar backgrounds; both of us were exiles from Ipanema. Soon we became mates and the friendship was blessed by his mum, an upper class lady who felt comfortable to tell me how horrified she was with the level of the people in that hotel. With him, my consumption became serious and as money started to become an issue, strange ideas about buying and selling the white powder began to cross my mind.

Meanwhile, at college a colleague came up with a “business” deal he was trying to set up with an American who wanted to buy a large quantity of blow to take back to the U.S. In my naivety, I thought this was a good opportunity to make some extra cash and asked around in the Hotel if anyone had a contact who could get me 250 grammes of cocaine, a respectable amount. Petit, a famous illustrator from Sao Paulo whose leg had also been affected by polio, lived with his straight girlfriend in one of the good rooms. He was one of the most popular characters in the hotels who despite his handy cap was always in a good mood and drunk. He put me in contact with Gamba, a toothless black guy from the Sao Carlos favela with Mike Tyson’s build but taller. We met in the car park one night; I gave him a thousand hundred US dollars and he said he’d be back with the stuff in two days.

The goods took much longer to arrive than he had promise and my friend at university and I began to get nervous. We put pressure on Petit but he did not know where nor how to find, Gamba. When the stuff finally arrived, we got a precision scale to weigh it and there was only about half of what we had ordered, one hundred and fifty grammes. We made a desperate attempt to find him, but that night there was a raid and the streets around the hotel were alive with police cars and with officers stopping everyone who dared to pass by. We did mage to circulate, knocked on a few doors but as soon as we mentioned the name Gamba, they turned away or closed their doors in fear.

There was no other option other than mixing the stuff with something else. The next day we bought vitamin C pills and boric acid and added them to the content. As we sat there like junky scientists doing our thing, it was hard to convince the rest of the guys not to dive into the pure stuff and I almost got into a fight with Kadu to make sure this didn’t happen. Anyway, we refrained from consuming our merchandise and managed to get the mixture convincing and ready. In the end because the coke wasn’t as good as our customer expected we had to give the American a huge discount and barely broke even. Our plans to commemorate our debut as dealers were reduced to finishing up the small portion we had kept for ourselves.

*

Signs from heaven began to appear saying that we were doing the wrong thing.

The first one was a car accident. I was about to graduate in Economics at the UFRJ and to do so I needed to complete obligatory the university’s Physical Education program. I had left this problem in the back burner because of my heavy life style that involved living at the Hotel Santa Teresa tenant, being an English teacher, a college student and guitarist in a rock and roll band all at the same time. As the graduation date approached this issue became serious because if I did not get the credits, I simply would not graduate. A chance came up; they organized a hike to the Pico da Tijuca, the highest point in the Tijuca forest and whoever went on it would get the grade and pass. This was just what I needed, but there was a problem: Getting there. The closest bus stop was a one-hour walk away and without a car I would have no means of meeting the group at the assembly point at the beginning of the trail which was located deep in the forest.

Maria do Carmo, a quiet journalist and psychologist who lived in the hotel was volunteered to lend me her beetle for that morning. I was very grateful for her being kind enough to save my academic life despite not knowing me very well. Not only on from the academic point of view was the outing good news; this was going to be an amazing trek through Rio’s dense forest on a sunny day, a healthy break from all that craziness. I arrived there in her blue beetle at seven-thirty am and by ten we were already had already reached the peak. The air was clear, the sky was cloudless, the weather was perfect and the view was magnificent and up there everyone was ecstatic for seeing Rio de Janeiro in all its glory. We all came back in a great mood and I was looking forward for lunch and an afternoon by the hotel’s pool.

Santa Teresa a half an hour drive away through the forest. After signing the teacher’s roll call, as soon as I got back into the car I took out a joint and put Bob Marley on the cassette player and drove through the narrow roads. As I was about to arrive at the place where tourists go up to the Christ Statue, I went round a curve while a coach was coming in the opposite direction. It was an awkward moment because the road was very narrow and I had to squeeze between the tour bus on my left and the rock wall on my right. While we were crossing each other, it felt like driving in a narrow corridor. At that moment, a car overtook the bus and we had a frontal collision. Although both of us must have been going at twenty kilometers an hour, the crash was strong enough for me to break the front glass with my forehead, and made a significant dent on Maria do Carmo’s car’s bonnet.

I got out of the car fuming and trying to think what I would tell when I got back to the hotel. I was OK, no bones damaged, but the site of the car in that state made everything go red, so I went up to the driver preparing to beat the hell out of him but could not believe when I saw that he was a friend of mine.

“Rique, it’s you?! Sorry man!”

“What a prick! It could only be you! What the fuck was passing through your head man?!”

He could only admit his fault and apologize. On the positive side he agreed immediately to pay for all the expenses.

Then there was the case of the borrowed bass guitar. Out of the blue Heitor, our drummer, called me up to say that Charles, our manager and mentor, wanted to hook us up with a great singer. The sixteen-year-old vocalist happened to be Tim Maia’s nephew, Tim Maia being the godfather of Brazilian Soul and Funk a tropical mixture of Barry White, by competence and looks, and James Brown, by attitude.

As our Bass player, Duda, was travelling it fell on me to replace him. I had to ask around for a borrowed bass and managed to borrow one from my English course colleague, Erwin. It was a fake Brazilian made Rickenbaker but with a heavy and jazzy sound. I took it to the hotel, showed it off and trained with it a bit until my fingers got used to the thicker strings and I was ready for the rehearsal.

Tim Maia’s nephew, Ed Motta, would grow to become a big name in Brazilian music, also singing funk and soul, classier but less charismatic than his uncle. For us in the Charle’s studio in the Morro de Sao Carlos favela, he was just an overweight but massively talented teenager looking for a band. The rehearsal went really well with us playing known songs, some of our funks which he improvised over and simply jamming. However, we never heard of him again. it must be said that Duba, our guitarist, was great at solos but not as great with rhythms, in particular funk, that was my specialty, so perhaps the band may have been too heavy for him.

When I got back to the hotel, I put the bass in the room and found Rosa playing cards with some old ladies at the reception. We were late for a concert I had got free tickets for at the Circo Voador, Rio’s coolest venue in neighboring Lapa. She excused herself and we left for Barao Vermelho’s concert which was great. The house was packed, the energy was perfect and the band was inspired which allowed for a fantastic Brazilian Rock night.

When we got back to the hotel the room door was open and Erwin’s bass was missing. We searched like crazy, a friend from the hotel drove me up and down Santa Teresa to see if we caught anyone walking around with a bass guitar case, but neither helped. The next morning, we asked the hotel manager to search in people’s rooms but he refused, which annoyed me but there was nothing I could do. We asked around but nobody seemed to know about my colleague’s instrument. The end result was that I was forced to buy him a new bass and that I began to mistrust people in the Hotel.

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Adventures in the Hotel Santa Teresa – Part 01

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The first time I went to the Hotel Santa Teresa was in the sequence to a party in a venue next to the Morro dos Prazeres favela. Despite the imaginary and real dangers of partying next to a favela, this was one of the best places to organize bashes in Rio; it was called the Casa (not Hotel) Santa Teresa and was like a club at the top of Rio de Janeiro’s hills protected from the surroundings by a tall wall and barbed wire camouflaged by rows of tropical trees. On its grounds there was a swimming pool, a couple of sport fields facing the fantastic view of the far away favela huts clinging on to a Hill with Rio’s city center in the background and then the Guanabara Bay and the Órgãos mountain range at the horizon. At night, with the thousands of little lights stretching away into infinity that view was especially beautiful. That particular event was offered by an organization to protect the Amazonian natives. They had rented the place and had promoted their party by handing out fliers throughout Ipanema beach and other places where the “usual suspects” went.

The place was packed with familiar faces. Everyone loved that venue and while Bob Marley, the Police, the Cure, Billy Idol and Brazilian bands were blasting out of the sound system, we could sit on the grass and chose which side of the glowing city to contemplate from that vintage point almost inside the Tijuca Forest. Maira, the blond girl from the beach was there and this was my chance: after a lot of mutual staring in other parties, gigs and at the beach, I finally took the courage to approach her.

The straight forward approach worked and her response was much better than I had ever expected and after some small talk the passion took over and we were making out. With stars and butterflies dancing around us, we danced a bit and then we sat by the pool. After a couple of romantic hours under the moonlight taking in the blue-eyed beauty that I had been dreaming of for such a long time, I managed to convince her to spend the night together in a Hotel. Both of us had gone up to the Casa de Santa Teresa in friends’ cars so to get out of there on our own we would have to catch Santa Teresa’s tram, the only means of transport at that time at night. The last tram that was about to leave, so we had to find our friends to say goodbye and rush out of the party to catch it.

We ran down the alley leading to the main street, rua Almirante Alexandrino. The old tram was waiting there under a dim light surrounded by tropical trees. It was at its final stop, where the town ended and the forest began. The tram was empty and soon after we hopped in, the conductor approached us, charged our fare and turned on the old machine. He pulled a clunky lever and the bonde started moving and as it gathered speed, it wobbled along old metal tracks. It was completely opened to the elements and as soon as we got moving the cool and perfumed evening breeze surrounded us. I was charmed not only by the nostalgic aura but also by Maira in her flowered, hippy like dress. I could barely believe that she was there holding my hand and that I could now kiss her whenever I felt like. Halfway into the trip, just by chance, I noticed a small placard written Hotel Santa Teresa at the entrance of a parking lot. We asked the driver to stop at the Largo dos Guimaraes, walked up the cobblestone street and went to the reception to ask how much a room was.

It was different to a normal hotel, there was no barrier at the gate and we were hesitant to walk into that deserted terrain with two or three unimpressive cars scattered around. Anyway, we made our way until the old house’s reception. The clerk was awake, he was a skinny bald man in his mid-fifties wearing glasses and was watching a rubbish program on a black and white TV set. He told us that they only rented rooms on a monthly basis and did not accept overnight couples. A bit disappointed, but still dying to be alone with each other we went back to Almirante Alexandrino street and after waiting a long time for a taxi, we decided to walk down to Gloria where there were plenty of one-night rooms to rent. We went hand in hand down the steep hill enjoying the air that smelled great due to the night-blooming Cestrum trees.

The night was great but our relationship didn’t last long; there was another guy in her life, a possible wedding involved and she opted for her parent’s choice. Anyway, the hotel in Santa Teresa stayed in my mind. By curiosity, I had asked how much the monthly rent and realized that it was accessible for my English teacher job. I could imagine myself living there, close to the city center with easy accesses to the beach neighborhoods and at the heart of the bohemian life of that traditional district.

Although it was removed and very few people I knew lived there, Santa Teresa was a fired the imagination of a young carioca – a native from Rio. Although there were no nightclubs and it was not exactly trendy, it had character and was different to anything else in town. The magic of that district was that it seemed to have been frozen in the past, a reminiscence of a Rio de Janeiro that was no more, a fresh breather from the tense, economically depressed South Zone and the Americanized Barra da Tijuca.

The nightlife there was more for the older crowd; people with financial independence who could afford a car. If you didn’t live there, you needed your own means of transport to go there and back at night, as the public transport ended early and most taxis simply refused to go there because of its precarious streets and its closeness to the Morro do Prazeres favela. Rents were cheap and perhaps because of this, there were many young people, mostly alternative, moving there. At night, there were many hippy-like venues with live music and long haired waiters without uniforms, a big novelty in Rio de Janeiro. There were also a few vegetarian places – a rarity in that carnivore city – alongside traditional restaurants that had been there forever, such as the Bar do Arnaudo, with Brazilian north-eastern food and the Adega do Pimenta, an excellent German restaurant.

The opportunity to move there came a couple of years later when Mum re-married. As you already know, I could not stand Ricardo, her new husband and I needed to leave home. On the other hand, Rosa, my girlfriend, was living in a very shabby rented room with an unbearable landlady breathing up her neck. We were dying to live together, not only because of our love story but also by mutual necessity. After a month or so of looking at apartments that were either too expensive or too crap, I suggested the Hotel Santa Teresa, which was cheaper, more central and more attractive than anything we had seen. In addition, it had the advantage that the rent included three meals a day, clothes washing facilities, a pool and a lot of odd and exciting people to keep us company.

The Hotel Santa Teresa was the Brazilian version of Hotel California The guests were divided roughly into three groups: divorced middle-aged men, who occupied the best rooms, pensioners dumped by their families and the crazies and the quirky young professionals like ourselves There was a fourth group composed by unclassifiable characters who seemed to have jumped out of a parallel universe. David, an unemployed Jewish guy in his late fifties who everyone suspected had been a torturer during the military regime who would nag and annoy everyone for their left-overs after our meals in the decrepit dining room. There was also Dinho, a mentally impaired boy dumped there by his family and who we adopted as our mascot. There was also my next door neighbor an ex-psychiatrist for the air force with a very deep voice and a Rudolph Valentino look, he was gay and took an endless stream of young lovers to his bed that happened to be right behind mine on the other side of the thin wooden wall. There was also an American heavy metal guy full of tattoos, a rarity in the mid-eighties, living with his gorgeous Brazilian mulata girlfriend. He ended up leaving after a fight with the gang of divorced guys. There was also Ricardo Ramos, a direct descendant of Graciliano Ramos, one of the greatest Brazilian writers of all times, a very interesting guy and great company, especially when he was drunk and/or high.

There was also a Lula, the future Brazilian president, look-alike, who lived right beneath and who was next door room neighbors to a guy from a favela with a polio deformed leg whose rent was paid for by his high up judge gay lover. In another room there was a woman in her fifties who must have been very attractive when she was younger. Her peculiarity was that she never allowed or invited anyone in her room and never gave her underwear to wash or dry; a mystery that brought up a lot of speculation. In one of the best rooms there was a young captain who had been sacked by the army because he had denounced a general for corruption. Next to his room lived a German ex-monk and then an Argentinian art dealer, a yachting instructor, a theater producer and a guy who was later put in jail for being involved in jewelry swindling. Legend said that Arto Lindsay, a famous American dancer close to the tropicalia movement, Luis Melodia – a big name in Brazilian popular music, Rita Lee – the godmother of Brazilian rock and many other famous people had lived there.

The experience of living in what we called the Hospicio (mental house) Santa Teresa was like the one of being part of a club where different generations and diverse types of people interacted with each other. We slept under the same roof, had the same address, paid the same next to nothing rent, shared the same tables eating the hotel’s terrible food, and used the hotel’s facilities – mainly their old school card playing lounge and their pool – to chat and to play cards, chess and all sorts of other games. For the service personnel it must have felt like working in an asylum rather than in a hotel. Besides the bizarre requests they had to attend to coming from that weird mixture of people, they gossiped without stop among themselves and with guests. An event that brought everyone together was the world cup of 1986. Although the Brazil of Zico, Falcao and Socrates was kicked out by Platini’s France, the drinking and the partying made us blend almost as an extended family. After the tournament, most of us stopped going to the beach on weekends and, instead, stayed back at the hotel enjoying ourselves sunbathing by the pool.

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Vista Chinesa

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The picture above looks unreal, almost like a Chinese painting with Rio de Janeiro in the background.

It is the Vista Chinesa one of the most surreal and beautiful places in Rio. The view from there is fantastic, one sees the entire coast of the South Zone, where Ipanema. Copacana, Botafogo etc… stay, the Guanabara Bay and after that Niteroi and all the beaches and mountains that follow it:

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One would imagine that a pagoda in the Tijuca Forest is a random construction but it isn’t. The story is quite interesting: when the Portuguese Royal family took refuge from Napoleon in Brazil, they came up with the idea of producing tea in the new colony. It made sense, the climate was similar, tea had been successfully exported and grown in India, there was a lot of money to be made so why not plant it a half an hour from Brazil’s main port?

Together with the seeding they brought Chinese workers from the Portuguese colony Macau who else could do it better? Although they resided and worked in the Tijuca Forest, little is known of what became of them as they left no, or very few descendants.

The pagoda above is an homage to them built in 1903 by Rio’s city council.

Vista

The Tijuca Forest

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The picture above was not taken in the middle of the Amazonian Jungle nor in a remote corner of the Pantanal, it was shot from a helicopter in the middle of Rio de Janeiro. This is the cities highest point, the Pico da Tijuca, located in the heart of the Tijuca forest.

What you see is part of the biggest urban forest in the world, so big that there are still cases of people getting lost there for days in the over one hundred trails that cover it. It is a national park and a big part of it used to be farms only a century ago, and as the vegetation recovered the hills botanists brought trees from all over the world to join in with the local Tropical Atlantic forest.

The only way up the mountain is by a trek of at least one hour and a half through the dense forest. There is a description of one of these walks in Lost Samba: My parents and I used to go there a lot in a time when very few people ventured into the Tijuca Forest. It was, and still is, an exciting adventure.

Incredible photo

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Of all the pictures I have seen since I have started promoting Lost Samba with pictures this is by far the most fantastic.

What is it?

Well it is where the Christ stays nowadays before it was constructed. Look at the place! How did people get there? by horse? in weak cars? chariots? Can you imagine how great it must have been inside that well kept art-deco shelter with that fantastic view all around?

It doesn’t seem dilapidated at all and looks modern in a way, revealing the sophistication of Rio when it was Brazil’s affluent Capital.

How I wish I could spend an afternoon drinking beer there, or would it be tea?

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