Everyone had warned me about Rio. That’s why I had to go there. The
last time I felt so vulnerable and afraid for my physical safety was in Hawaii. Before I
had come to Brazil, people had warned me about the Brazilians: they were violent and ate
lots of chicken. Someone ‘in the know’ had also told me that the Brazilians’ favourite
national pastime was bonking. I was understandably miffed to learn that this wasn’t
necessarily the case.
By Michael X Savvas
The bus was more like a plane than a bus. It was the singularly most impressive bus I
had ever been on in my life. It was one of TTL’s fleet. TTL was the name of a Uruguayan
Everything inside the bus was immaculately clean and tidy. There were even hostesses on
the bus, resplendent in sky blue uniforms. The hostesses would gingerly walk down the
aisle, first carrying a tray of small plastic cups filled with cordial, then a basket of
boiled lollies. It was all so unexpected, ridiculous and innocent that I couldn’t fail to
be charmed by it. I could have been in Prince’s Raspberry Beret film clip. Perhaps
I was. The comforting ambience inside the bus made me feel a bit better straight away, and
I was on my way to Brazil.
It was the longest bus journey/labour I had ever undertaken. Although it only cost
around $70 return, the trip from Montevideo to Rio took two days and involved changing
buses three times.
By the next morning I was well and truly in Brazil, and by nine AM I was in the city of
Porto Alegre. From here I caught another bus to a huge bus station in the city of São
Paulo. I arrived in São Paulo the next morning.
From São Paulo I caught yet another bus to Rio. I was definitely no longer in Kansas,
no longer in the dreamy womb of the TTL bus. According to Oprah, birth is traumatic and
mine was no exception. Of course I was afraid, I was petrified. People had spun such
enticingly dangerous yarns about Brazil that I had half expected to be killed then and
there. The bus itself did not help allay my fears. For the first time in my South American
sojourn I was in a bus in which the bus driver was enclosed inside a cage of metal panels.
This was obviously so he couldn’t be robbed and/or shot.
This not so subtle clue as to the brutality of Brazil was juxtaposed with the image of
a nun in full black habit only a few seats in front of me on the other side of the aisle.
To me, this incongruity between the brutal and gentle, the violent and spiritual seemed to
encapsulate the essence of Brazil. Christ, I’d only been there five minutes and already I
Outside the bus the landscape was also changing. Whereas Uruguay was flat, dull and
brown, the landscape of Brazil was dramatically different. I was amazed when I looked out
my window to see musically undulating hills, a vivid tree frog green. I was obviously
passing through the labia.
I was in another world and even the people had changed. I was sitting next to a young
Brazilian man with glasses and man was he helpful. He was as helpful as a midwife at the
Women and Children’s Hospital who has seen it all yet still prefers to help a baby on its
journey to the headaches of administrative duties.
This particular midwife helped me a lot. His name was Albertini and he spoke English in
that wonderfully strange Brazilian accent. He seemed genuinely eager to make my
acquaintance. He gave me his business card (his line of business was computers) and wrote
his name and number on it. He wrote on the other side a list of places I should see in
Brazil, such as Cristo Redentor and Escolas de Samba (The Schools of Samba). I somehow
knew that this man’s gregarious, helpful nature would be replicated in his countrymen. For
even Rosa Maria had not stopped raving about how fantastic the Brazilian people were. With
an animated face she had related how the Brazilians ate a lot of chicken and had a
gentleness to them. Being a mother, she noticed that the mothers did not yell, at their
children, as the Uruguayans did.
The other thing Rosa Maria had not stopped raving about was how violent the Brazilians
were. Rio de Janeiro had one of the highest murder rates in the world. I got off the bus
at the station in Rio and Albertini guided me to the next bus that would take me on the
final leg of my incredibly long journey into Rio proper, or Rio improper or whatever. Now
I was on my own and I was very nervous.
I was very nervous. I sat on the bus that wended its way inexorably through the streets
of Rio, specks of coloured light filtering through kaleidoscope windows. I sat upright,
clinging to my suitcase the way a solo rock climber clings to a precipice. I concentrated
on my pockets, for I could well imagine deft pickpockets relieving me of my not so
burdensome wallet. I was surrounded by dark-haired strangers. Rosa Maria’s warnings
jangled in my head. Never carry more than a few dollars on you at a time. Always carry
your money inside your pants. She had even given me a small nylon money purse to this end.
Everyone had warned me about Rio. That’s why I had to go there. The last time I felt so
vulnerable and afraid for my physical safety was in Hawaii.
In Hawaii I was also watching over my suitcase like an overprotective mother watches
over her child. I was an 18 year-old virgin. Pretty Cath had magnanimously taken her
younger brother to Hawaii with the express purpose of getting him ‘leid’. But with the
week holiday nearly at an end, I was still none the wiser and Pretty Cath had flown the
coop to Canada with her Canadian consort. I was out of money, for money was the only
commodity I had spent. With a heavy heart and a heavier suitcase I found the only place I
could afford, a youth hostel. It was like the Wild West, full of threateningly confident,
seasoned American backpackers. I paid my $11 and stayed in a large, barren room full of
strangers. I kept my suitcase under my bed and stayed awake virtually all night for fear
that if I were to fall asleep, my case would be stolen, I would be bashed or raped, or all
of the above. All I knew was that next morning I promptly booked out. I knew that I could
not spend another night in the hostel. I vowed never to stay in another hostel.
Being broke, I had no means of staying anywhere other than the Hawaiian hostel. This
did not deter me. I lugged my heavy suitcase around all day, worrying about where I would
go. Late afternoon I decided to relax. I put my case down. I spread my huge green and gold
Australian bicentennial beach towel and listened to the Split Enz cassette Enz of An
Era through my cheap Walkman. The sun kissed me gently but warmly, like a platonic
friend. In spite of all the circumstances arguing the contrary, I felt good. With a manic
smile I sat up and watched the sun begin to set. Waikiki was an overrated, rocky beach,
but it did have the courtesy to put on spectacular sunsets. As I watched the burnished
crimson, orange sky move slowly to the strains of "Split Enz," I recognised a
tall lanky Canadian lad jogging past me.
‘Darren!’ I called, (for Darren was his name.) Darren jogged over, smiled and said,
‘Eh!’ Darren was someone I had got drunk too quickly with on a Booze Cruise the week
before. We started talking and when I asked if he knew a place to stay, he invited me to
stay with his three other Canadian mates in their huge hotel room. I assented for the
night at least. The other lads insisted I have a room to myself, while they slept on the
lounge and floor. I ended up staying there for almost a week (rent free) and had the best
time creating havoc, drinking beer, pestering prostitutes and going on day tours with my
new buddies. Was it mere coincidence for Darren to jog past me just at the moment I needed
help the most? Coincidence? No my friend, Uruguayan Upsurge!
Back in Brazil, I alighted the bus in Copacabana, or should I say I was delivered. At
last I was born and I wasn’t even covered in cottage cheese and cherry jelly. Looming
above me and the whole God-forsaken city was God, Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer,
that immense grey statue you’ve probably seen countless times in films such as Blame It
On Rio. There I was, on the set of Blame It On Rio. I just walked, asking my
intuition to guide me to a cheap place to stay. I walked for a few blocks away from the
main street until I was nowhere near any type of hotel or possible accommodation. I
decided that my intuition had probably failed me. I was at the edge of an urban park.
Exasperated, I asked two butch young women if they knew a place to stay. They said I could
stay where they were staying and led me directly across the road to a place that was right
in front of me. My intuition had not let me down. It was Sunday. I had a place to stay. It
was called Albergue and was a youth hostel.
The Next Day
The next day was fantastic! On Copacabana Beach I serendipitously bumped into Lena.
Wasn’t it George Burns who said that his idea of heaven was to bump into Raquel Welch,
about 100 times in succession. A dated allusion, but still.
Lena asked me sadly why I hadn’t rung her. I was surprised that she seemed genuinely
upset that I hadn’t rung. I assumed that she had given me her phone number because she was
humouring me, like buying a raffle ticket for a charity, both parties knowing you’ll never
win. I was no charity, but I was feeling very charitable. I apologized for not ringing,
but asked if she wanted to go to the movies with me later that night.
For the rest of the day I lived the usual sensations I experience after securing a
date, excitement and nervousness. Excitement about the possibilities. Nervousness about
the possibilities. I knew deep down that Lena must like me if she was a) sad about me not
ringing and b) agreed to go to the movies with me. I also knew from painful experience
that where women were concerned, nothing was guaranteed. The favourites were often
scratched and long shots were sometimes the first to reach the finishing post.
Before I left Albergue to go on the date I ran into Ana Cláudia and Guga. Leandro and
I were both becoming irritated by their presence, and Leandro had begun referring to them
affectionately as the ‘Moscas’ or mosquitoes. Leandro sure knew how to handle a metaphor.
I asked Guga how old Ana Cláudia was and was shaken (not stirred) by the answer. She was
13! It explained why she had been so reluctant to go for a walk with me. 13! Christ, I
could have been Gauguin and she my Javanais Woman. The only difference was Mosca wasn’t
Javanais and I wasn’t a French stockbroker cum paedophile with a big nose.
The cinema wasn’t far from Albergue. Nothing was. I was apprehensive until the moment I
greeted her outside the cinema. For as soon as I met her she warmly and quite unexpectedly
put her hand in mine and led me inside the house of magic. Apparently the movie was about
to begin. I felt ecstatic, but like the lyrics to a James Reyne song, things somehow
didn’t seem right. For unlike on all the other dates I’d been on, there was no agonized
suspense over the outcome. I knew from the moment she grabbed my hand that the date was a
success, that I wouldn’t be rejected, that everything in the world was all right. Things
did seem right!
The film itself? The romantic Frankie and Johnny, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al
Pacino. Yeah, I don’t mind the old Cinomeister. He looks deadpan, but in factual act he’s
got charm, enough charm to get away with being cruel. Of course Robert de Niro has even
more charm than Pacino, ipso facto can get away with even more cruelty. But I digress.
Lena and I sat in the back row of the cinema and had to exchange seats after Lena informed
me that she was deaf in one ear. She had a lazy eye, but she was as warming as Stone’s
Green Ginger Wine and man was she beautiful.
After the romantic film we went for a walk on Copacabana Beach. Lena told me that she
was scared to go there for fear of being mugged. With the naïveté of a tourist, I told
her not to worry, that I would protect her. She told me that although a local, she had
been mugged at knifepoint twice in the last six months. When I walked with her I could
understand why to some extent. She acted and walked like a victim. She walked with no
confidence, and kept turning her head from left to right with a fearful expression on her
face. I was surprised she hadn’t painted a bull’s-eye target on her back. I told her to be
like me and stride confidently down the street. Nothing would happen to her this way.
On the beach we passed a black Brazilian throwing a boomerang to himself (as you do).
Completely taken aback and charmed by this bizarre image Mr Greg Arious called out to the
man, ‘I’m Australian!’ The man automatically assumed I would be a proficient boomerang
tosser (or indeed just a proficient tosser) and held the boomerang out to me in a friendly
manner. I shrugged and smiled apologetically and said that I couldn’t use it. Lena and I
continued to walk on, along the sand of this bizarre dreamlike world.
And then I kissed her. She was fantastic. We were all over each other like a rash
decision. I could feel her warmth for me in her touch. I’ve heard the trendy designer
theories that one should not gain a sense of self-worth from another’s behaviour and
responses, but God damn it, I felt good about myself while kissing Lena, no make that
great. I would even go as far as to suggest that Lena had a good deal to do with it.
Love does strange things to time. When waiting to see or talk to a beloved, time is
long and relentless. When one is with a beloved, time is small and speedy, like a dull
grey rat. The day after the fantastic day was very long. I had agreed to ring Lena after
ten PM. It was unbearable waiting to call her. I called and we met at her apartment.
We went for an ice cream at the United Nations of Generation X, McDonald’s. Then it was
down to Copacabana Beach for business as usual, a long, intimate bout of kissy kissy.
Around this Lunar Phase of the Lena Phase I had lunch as per usual at the lanchonete.
It was a filthy cesspit from hell, but they gave cheap nosebags (around three dollars a
meal). Since the resourceful Leandro had discovered the place we had made it a minor
tradition to have lunch there every day. Every day the same John Dory. A bowl of leftover
meat enmeshed in a stew-like concoction. Every day that is until I decided to brave the
Wild West Saloon on my own.
I ordered the same meal from the sleazy looking man with shifty eyes. He thought that
he could pull the wool over my proverbial and casually served me up a bowl of crud with
the shonkiest, gristliest pieces of meat imaginable. He could not speak English, but I
made it quite clear that I was not impressed with the shite he had presented me. He knew
what my beef was (and it wasn’t beef) and he begrudgingly replaced it with another bowl of
only slightly less gut-wrenching fodder passing as food, gloryless food. I ate what I
could in sullen silence and kept it warm through the steam emanating from my nostrils. If
I were Hemingway, I would have supposedly drunk with the sleazy bartender, tongued the
bottle, taken him outside and knocked him out senseless. I wasn’t Hemingway, I was Savvas
and I left the lanchonete, vowing never to return there. I ruminated on how stupid
some people in business were. If the baahtender hadn’t tried to give me the lion’s share
of the gristle, I would have continued to patronize his hovel day after day. Now I would
One person who wasn’t stupid (at least in business) was Tamio. Everything in Rio worked
out for the best, and I met Tamio the day before being ripped off at the lanchonete.
The day I was ripped off at the lanchonete I asked Tamio to cook for me. Tamio was
Japanese, and along with a couple of the other guys at Albergue, I had ‘commissioned’ him
to cook Japanese food. He was a good cook and it tasted great. His rates were also very
When I say Tamio was Japanese, he wasn’t Japanese in the sense that you or I or the
children in a geography class imagine the term. Then again, neither were the Japanese
whose ancestors had settled in Brazil. I had met one of them who stayed in my room at
Albergue. Sure, he had Asian features, but his skin was tanned very darkly (like someone
pretending to be an island native in a Toho film). He spoke Portuguese, dressed casually
in inexpensive clothes and unlike his Japanese brethren, lacked any sign of wealth.
Tamio on the other hand, was a Japanese tourist. Like me, he could visit the squalor,
feel warm and sympathetic towards the locals, then catch an air-conditioned flight back to
our respective Lands of the Rising Middle Classes. He was short and relatively muscular.
His calves in particular looked like they had been requisitioned to work hard on the
numerous travels their owner must have undertaken on Shank’s pony. He had a big Burt
Reynolds’ type moustache, the canopy of which protected a broad, lascivious grin. The top
of his head was also à la Burt Reynolds, fairly well bald.
Tamio was quite unselfconsciously obsessed with sex. At least, he was obsessed with
oral sex, talking about it. Hell, I’m no prude! Every other thought of mine related to
humpy pumpy, but that was different. Tamio must have been in his mid forties! I was in my
Roaring Twenties, still too young to have my natural sexual impulses conditioned out of me
by polite society and special interest groups.
Tamio smashed (or at least reshaped) the stereotype I had of Japanese being polite and
ultra-reserved. He was brash and earthy and used language that would make a wharfie blush.
Stereotypes are a funny thing. Once Leandro and I had gone to leave Albergue for the day
to find that it was surrounded by a swarm of starry-eyed young teenagers. The outer gate
was closed, and only limited people were being allowed inside. We found out that an
episode of one of the popular television serials or telenovelas was being filmed on
location at Albergue. In Rio I felt like a movie star, and now the milling television crew
and equipment seemed to confirm this suspicion. For a joke, I assumed a smug, nonchalant
Hollywood style pose and expression. Pretending that I was one of the television stars, I
casually reached out to one of the children’s autograph books and signed it. Leandro
suppressed his laughter. The majority of children stared at me blankly, mouths open in
amazement/disgust. One astute girl decided to humour me and put a mock expression of
gratitude on her face. She intoned ironically, ‘Oh, muchas gracias!’
The moral of the story? a) Rio was a place where it was okay to pretend to be someone
else. Fantasy was acceptable and necessary, and when I pretended to be a TV star, a
pretend fan pretended to be grateful. b) The girl made a point of speaking to me in
Spanish, obviously believing I was Hispanic (almost definitely Argentinean.) She must have
been convinced I fit the Argentine stereotype. Stereotypes are a funny thing.
Speaking of Leandro, around this point Leandro did a runner. Yes, Rio had presented him
with love. He was going back to Argentina, but was planning to return to Rio in the near
future to reclaim Eloise. Abélard and Héloise. He had even gone to see his favourite
football team at the local stadium. I intended going with him, but feigned sickness so I
could meet Lena.
On the day my good buddy was leaving, he wanted to have a farewell bevvy with me. We
went to a small bar near Albergue. He bought me a beer and I thought it was a very
Australian thing to do. He expressed his warmth and friendship towards me. Not through a
verbal chundering of sentimentality, but through simply being there and buying me a beer
and I thought he was very Australian. He had taken me under his wing, and introduced me to
the magic of Rio. Now I was on my own, but I was glad to have met him and very grateful.
Besides, I wasn’t really on my own. I had met Lena for example. She and I caught the
bus to mythical Ipanema. Of course, the words to "Girl From Ipanema" danced
seductively around my head. I felt amazed to be living the song. I was so happy to be in
her arms that we could have been watching the Test Pattern and I would have raved
vociferously about its entertainment value. As it turned out, we were part of a group of
people watching a comic busker who amused us without words. One of his idiosyncrasies was
to affect a cough, ‘mm hm’ throughout the act. Lena and I seemed to find this incredibly
amusing. When she imitated the man’s mock cough, ‘mm hm’ (in a higher, smaller sound of
course) she was so cute I just wanted to hold her and hold her…very tightly and with no
Ipso facto it may come as no surprise that I suggested we go back to Copacabana for a
romantic walk on the beach. I swelled with happiness when she wrote on the sand ‘Te amo’:
I love you. I tried to do the dirty deed with her, but to no avail.
Before I had come to Brazil, people had warned me about the Brazilians: they were
violent and ate lots of chicken. Someone ‘in the know’ had also told me that the
Brazilians’ favourite national pastime was bonking. I was understandably miffed to learn
that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Perhaps the Brazilians’ favourite national pastime
was ‘banking’ and I had misheard. For when I first needed to cash some travellers’ cheques
in Rio, I waited in the easygoing queue for over an hour. Sure, long queues were all a
part of banking here. As were the suspension of private bank accounts by the Government,
who returned them to people such as Lena’s unfortunate mum a year later when the original
money had devalued so much it was effectively useless. Yet I was overjoyed when I actually
got to make the transaction. The exchange rate for my U.S. dollars was so good that I
suddenly and quite unexpectedly had much more money than I did in Argentina and Uruguay.
The money also had much more ‘bang for the buck’ in Brazil. Needless to say, this made me
upsurge over the Magic of Rio.
I asked Yutaka and Hiro if they wanted to try and get a Press Pass with me. They were
very keen to get amongst it. The highly desirable Press Pass would enable the bearer to
have unlimited access to the Carnaval over the five days it was on and would save over Aus
$1000 in tickets for seats. Needless to say, unless we acquired that Press Pass we
wouldn’t be able to afford to see even one day of Carnaval.
I briefed the lads on the mission. I explained that they would have no problem posing
as my photographers, for they were Japanese. Everyone knew that the Japanese were a race
of photographers. I advised them to each take a camera with them, to add credibility when
we went to the Press Association.
This time we went to the right place: the Press Association, not the Journalists’
Association Lena had led me to. Inside a bustling office I asked for a man called Jorge,
whose job was to organise the Press for Carnaval (which commenced the following day.) A
short, portly man with a greying beard and a red bulbous nose greeted me. He appeared to
be a busy man and the resigned expression on his face testified to the enormous stress he
was under. I didn’t help his cause.
Trying my hardest to muster a confident manner, I told Jorge that I wanted to organise
Press Passes for me and my photographers. He gave me a pained look and asked if I had any
‘credentials.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about, but showed him
the letter I had from my friend at that arty newsletter ‘Memories and Dreams’ citing me as
their Latin American correspondent. He glanced at the letter briefly and said that I
needed ‘credentials’. He reminded me that I should have applied earlier. I could feel
myself going nowhere in a hurry, and thought that attack was the best form of defence. I
remembered the ex-Commissioner of Police in Malta advising me to be more aggressive when
trying to get things done with Europeans.
I feigned anger. I barked to poor Jorge, ‘Look! This letter shows quite clearly what
I’m doing here. I’ve come all the way from Australia to see Carnaval. I don’t see what the
problem is!’ I could have been speaking to a bouncer at an Adelaide nightclub. ‘Look! I’m
neatly dressed. It’s obvious I’m not a troublemaker. I don’t see what the problem is!’
An ominous bead of sweat formed across Jorge’s troubled brow. Hiro and Yutaka were
respectfully silent. One of them had even taken the trouble to take an empty camera case
with him. Jorge paused, looked like he might regret it later on, then told us to return
with two colour head and shoulder photographs of each of us and our passports.
I had fun getting the passport sized photos in one of those universally recognised
booths in a shopping centre. We returned the same day with the necessary
photographs/passports. We were told to return at one o’clock the following day.
Whilst stepping onto the bus, which would take us from the city to Copacabana I was
almost pickpocketed. That is, as I stood in the tight line, which ascended the stairs of
the bus I discerned a hand feeling the outside of my shorts’ right pocket. I quickly
turned around with a dagger look, and the people behind me looked vaguely ahead. I was a
tourist, but I knew enough Rio survival skills not to carry a wallet in my pocket in
That night I went for a walk along Avenida Atlântica and felt depressed. I couldn’t
put it together. It looked as though I wouldn’t get Press Passes for Carnaval for me and
my friends. The mission had now taken on great import.
One o’clock the next day, The Three Amigos were at the Press Association. Carnaval
began that very evening, but still no luck. We were told to return at five o’clock.
At five we dutifully returned to the Press Association, but there was no red carpet and
there were no Press Passes waiting to greet us. I again became angry over my violated
rights and insisted on being given some temporary pass. I barked at Jorge. He looked weary
and agreed to let us watch the Carnaval until our Passes were processed. We were told to
go to a certain gate and ask for a certain person to be allowed in.
We caught the relevant bus to where we had to go. After seeing the Carnaval in Uruguay,
with a few old utes embellished with sponsorship signs, I was amazed by the enormity of
the real Carnaval.
The vast bulk of the action took place inside a huge stadium, known as the sambadrome.
Even outside the sambadrome, the energy in the air was incredibly contagious. An endless
succession of people milled towards the entrance gates. Some of the huge floats to be used
in the show were partially visible through openings in the sambadrome walls. They
resembled creatures from another world, which in fact they were.
Like VIPs or prisoners, the three of us were led through a high security labyrinth to
the administrative nerve centre of the sambadrome. After passing the necessary security
checks, we entered a room full of people. Then again, they may have been journalists.
Three young Brazilian girls in red costumes with red baseball hats stood next to a coffee
machine. They looked us over and smiled as we glided past them with an air of importance.
We were escorted through a concrete passageway to a room with a magic ledge that
enabled screenings of the most magnificent show imaginable.
Unlike most cinemas, the room was wider than it was deep. If you feel inclined to
dismantle a small screen from your local cinema and then place it on a flat surface
(concrete, wood or carpet is acceptable), then you would have an excellent idea of the
dimensions this wide, narrow, magic room occupied.
The room had no wall in the front, just a metal fence between us and the sambadrome
strip outside. There were about a dozen people in the room when we arrived, journalists
and photographers from all around the world to capture their impressions of this
internationally renowned event. There were French and English and God knows what. I
noticed with proud surprise that I was the only person representing Australia. Less
surprisingly perhaps, I was one of only three people representing ‘Memories and Dreams’.
There was seating, but people only used it between acts. When the show was on everyone
would stand up to dance. We were no exception. We stood near a large fridge (the size used
by delis to refrigerate ice-blocks) which was stocked with cold beer and cold Guaraná
soft drink. (Guaraná is a fruit found only in the rainforests of Brazil. Like William S.
Burroughs’ mystical Yage, it supposedly contains qualities that produce in the imbiber an
euphoric sensation. It has recently entered the vocabulary of Australian consumerism, but
at the time all I knew was that it tasted great and was uniquely Brazilian (definitely a
bonus.)) At any rate, the organisers of Carnaval had magnanimously supplied this fridge
full of cold beverages for the international press to draw from at leisure.
Speaking of soft drinks, soon after we arrived Yutaka was thirsty. He asked the nearest
person in the crowd where he could get a drink of Coke from. The man told us to follow
him. He led us a fair way, until we arrived at the back of a tent away from the crowds. He
then pulled from out of his jacket a bundle of cocaine and said, ‘You want coke?’
The show began early in the evening. As soon as the repetitive but ridiculously
infectious sing-along music commenced being pumped through the loudspeakers, people were
up on their feet bopping away. We were spellbound as the literally thousands of people
stylishly and proudly danced their way past our imaginations.
The colours and the sights were extraordinary. No details in the costumes and floats
had been spared. A fifty-foot high gypsy with his yellow pants, vividly red embroidered
vest and gold tiara floated past playing a violin. A team of royal elephants adorned with
gold and textile fineries carrying Indian princesses on their backs regally sauntered past
An army of drummers marched past. You’ve never heard drums until you’ve heard hundreds
of them playing live in unison. I was never a great aficionado of drums until this moment.
The whole point of drums suddenly made sense. With so many of them beating out a rhythm as
one, I knew why they were used in battles of old. It’s much more than sound. The drums
violently rattle one’s soul, and when they do, you’re in their command, no question. They
contend with your heartbeat, modify your heartbeat and ultimately replace your heartbeat.
And the women! They looked so happy to be there. Some were enticingly clad. Some were
enticingly unclad. They all seemed to notice me. They all seemed to love me. They would
look at me and smile broad, Brazilian mouths. I would wave at them. They would wave back
and wink. I couldn’t believe it. Women never responded in such a positive, unambiguous
way, especially en masse. I fell in love with a good proportion of Brazilian womanhood. I
admired their sound judgement. I admired their unbridled zest for life. I admired their
firm, round breasts and perky brown nipples. I admired their soft, shapely arses. I
admired their barely hidden maps of Tasmania. I admired the obscenely powerful sexual
longing they inspired in me by their seductive movements. I expressed this overwhelming
sexual urge by (naturally) lifting my head to the moon and howling like a wolf. Hiro and
Yutaka soon realised the logic of this form of expression and then the three of us were
dancing on our seats, howling madly at beautiful women.
Don’t get me wrong. We waved at everyone. For everyone was represented enjoying
themselves: men, women, straights, gays, blacks, whites, old, young, even those who were
not so easy to label turned in an appearance. Whenever groups of young children danced
past us I would give them an especially emphatic round of applause. I have a particular
soft spot for kids and I was very moved to see the effort they had gone to in preparing
for this huge celebration and the excitement on their faces to actually be doing it.
We were treated to some of the most visually exciting dance routines, known as capoeira.
Bare-footed black men with long white trousers would look like they were about to
violently kick each other, until the ‘victim’ would move his body to just miss being
kicked and perform an acrobatic feat as a response. Bamboo poles were also employed in
this effective Brazilian combination of martial arts and dance. The dancers were not shy
either. As they fought and danced their way past us, they would hold out their arms and
smile towards our cameras.
A procession would last the better part of an hour. There would be a break for an hour
and then another procession would begin. This programme sequence continued throughout the
night. Between each procession, teams of uniformed cleaners and sweepers would descend on
the roughly quarter kilometre track strewn with streamers and other party debris. They
deftly wielded brooms and efficiently drove their clean machines down the track. Even this
mundane routine was transformed into comic street theatre of epic proportions. For these
cleaners were given by far the loudest and most enthusiastic applause of all the acts, by
a sarcastic but good-natured mass audience of partygoers.
For it was indeed a party. Unquestionably the greatest party I had ever been to. It was
also much more than that. I thought of spectacular celebrations in ancient times in honour
of royalty and deities, that would also last for days and involve thousands of people. It
struck me that people attending such events must have felt a similar sense of awe and
ecstasy that washed through me at Carnaval. For it doesn’t really matter how sophisticated
technology becomes at delivering new forms of entertainment. Virtual reality, home cinema
or any other technological marvel could never compete with the entertainment value of
thousands of excited people enjoying themselves. I was witnessing something truly great.
There were no bearded ladies or boxing kangaroos, but I had no doubt that I was viewing
The Greatest Show on Earth.
Just when my photographers and I had forgotten we had no official status, a Carnaval
official presented the three of us with the equivalent of gold Willy Wonka chocolate
wrappers, the pink Press Passes. Jorge had come though at last and we now had public
recognition of our role as ambassadors of the Fourth Estate. I gained a new respect for
the obvious efforts of poor beleaguered Jorge and felt guilty over the hard time I had
given him. Yet I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically whenever I looked over at the
earnest looking Yutaka or the ineffectual looking Hiro with their shiny laminated Press
passes hung around their necks and resting on their chests. Their photographs were on
their Passes, as were their roles: Photographers for ‘Memories and Dreams’ (MAD .) I was
identified as being a Jornalista for same, but my name had mysteriously transformed into
Marco Sawns. No problem. I was Marco Sawns.
The first night didn’t finish until around seven am. It had been going for a good 12
hours. This was the first year that Carnaval proper didn’t extend through the daylight
hours. It had finally been decided that even Brazilians required some sleep over a five
day period, as too many people in previous years had died from an overdose of partying.
The ‘Memories and Dreams’ team made our way back to Albergue to rest, in preparation for
Night No. Two.
It had been a magic day. Before I went to Carnaval I had met a cute Brazilian girl
called Rejane (and her cousin called Nanu). Rejane had long jet-black hair, dark Brazilian
coffee skin and pouting lips painted red with lipstick. She was lithe and slender, yet had
shapely hips. She was warm and sweet and spoke with the most endearingly ridiculous
accent. It sounded like a parody of an upper-class British accent tempered with that
strange Brazilian singsong. She would say in a frightfully proper way, ‘Thenk yaw’ or
‘Give me a break!’ Instead of the word ‘break’ being emphasised as it normally is, ‘Give
me’ would be emphasised.
Her cousin Nanu had black hair cut and parted in a college cut. He too had dark skin
and pouting lips. He spoke English.
The day after my initiation into the sacred rites of Carnaval I was on a high. It
wasn’t enough. I wanted to be on Rejane.
Early evening I invited her to see my room at Albergue. (She was also staying there,
but in an all girls dormitory. This segregation, this gender apartheid was presumably to
prevent illicit naughties, which was quite ironic considering the openness many Brazilians
exhibited in doing the dirty deed with any gender.)
We sat on a lower bunk bed. I leaned over and tried to kiss her. She pushed me back and
rejected me. Normally at this point of no returns I try to snatch any remnants of my
tattered dignity and walk away dramatically with a surly look. Perhaps it was my
uncontested success with other Brazilian girls combined with my success at acquiring the
Press Passes, but whatever it was I reacted differently on this occasion. For one of the
few occasions in my life, rejection didn’t completely devastate me with depression and
inertia. I don’t know what it was, but the rejection didn’t make me skip a bongo beat and
a strange confidence carried me through. She wondered why I would like her and I assured
her that due to her beauty in all arenas (physicality, personality etc.) I genuinely liked
her. This brightened her outlook enormously. I again tried to kiss her. This time mission
accomplished. Rejane now became very enthusiastic about our kiss. Fireworks exploded,
corks popped from bottles of champagne and trams entered dark tunnels.
When Rejane kissed me and validated the image of myself I wanted to entertain, I felt
zip-a-dee-doo-dah zip-a-dee-eh. I intuitively felt the rightness of her judgement and fell
in love, yet again.
That same night the ‘Memories and Dreams’ delegates went to Night Two of Carnaval.
With the know-all certainty of confidence, I could tell that one of the red-uniformed
coffee girls in particular had the hots for me ( and I’m not talking about the beverages
she was serving). So, I lit a fire. Wasn’t it good? A Brazilian would!
Along with our illustrious Press Passes which we wore with justifiable pride, by Night
Two we were presented with Two Press Vests. These vests were a fiery orange, and had
branded on them in black, ‘Imprensa – Press’ and the numbers 455 and 444 respectively. The
wearer of the vest could actually do and see more of Carnaval than someone with merely a
Press Pass. An Orange Man (or Orange to Scarlet Woman) could bypass security guards and
gates to enter the main arena where the action was. As we were given two Press Vests, the
three of us took it in turns to don the orange mantles.
Soon the music, sensual dancing and electric atmosphere were switched on. Lights!
Camera! Action! And they’re racing! Thunderbirds are go! Smoking! Smoking? Yes, that’s
right, smoking. Somewhere on the sambadrome track smoke was billowing (as it would in a
sentence of this nature) from one of the enormous floats. Intense flames could soon be
With my Press Pass, orange vest and camera I naturally made my way to the burning wreck
on the sambadrome, like a journalistic moth. One of the huge floats had somehow managed to
catch alight. It was soon immersed in hellishly bright orange, yellow and white flames and
dirty grey smoke. The façade quickly burnt away to reveal the burning scaffolding, like a
lady’s cheap underwear exposed to the gaze of the world.
Journalists and others ran around, aw6kxtling for the perfect picture to send to Reuters,
doing nothing constructive to help. There wasn’t a lot we could do. Officials tried to
control the natural blaze as best they could and grey uniformed police tried to control
the human blaze. There was a swarm of us, curious moths around the fire and we moved as
I felt slightly scared. I knew not whether the fire would spread even more out of
control. I felt in awe of nature’s humbling majesty and indisputable power. I felt excited
to be at this spontaneous fireworks presentation. I felt excited to be a first-hand
witness at this historic occasion, which would become a visually dramatic news item across
the world. Mostly I felt sad.
A paunchy middle-aged man with shorts and a greying beard had a face contorted with
rage and pain. He evidently had a personal involvement with the tragic float. He yelled
and even threw futile punches at the policeman who detained him from going too close to
the burning wreck. And why not? I had soon learned that Carnaval was more than just an
euphoric party to the Brazilians. It was a deeply spiritual ritual which many revolved
their lives around. Many Brazilians would spend 51 weeks of the year designing and making
their costumes and rehearsing for the one week that justified the rest of the year.
The float that was destroyed ironically had some kind of arctic theme. Snow and snow
wolves had been impressively recreated with paint and probably polystyrene. The saddest
sight I saw after the fire was a wolf thrown mercilessly onto his side onto a heap of
refuse. The wolf from the float looked so undignified laying there. It was a savage murder
of a proud animal. Lying on his side, he was definitely dead. Yet as part of the parade he
held his head high and was undoubtedly very much alive.
The amazing thing was that even though there was this catastrophic mayhem on the track,
the people in front of the burning float kept singing and dancing, as did the people
behind it. The maxim ‘The show must go on!’ was never truer than at Carnaval, The Greatest
Show on Earth.
Isn’t it funny how people can become complacent over even The Greatest Show on Earth?
The next night Yutaka, Hiro and I decided not to go to Carnaval Proper, and instead went
to Carnaval Improper. We went dancing in the streets of Copacabana with Rejane, Nanu and a
few of their female friends.
Rejane and Nanu danced (to my unschooled eye) exceptionally well. I tried not to get
jealous when they danced so intimately together, for after all they were first cousins.
Someone ‘in the know’ tells me that all Latin dance is sexy, and I would not have
disagreed seeing the cousins doing the Samba and Lambada together, Rejane in her
enticing white cotton shorts. I tried not to get jealous.
The problem was that like Brandon Walsh from 90210, I don’t do dancing (not very often
anyway). It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good dancer. I actually think I’m an excellent
dancer. It’s just that I came to notice a distinct pattern whenever I would dance in a
nightclub or any dancing group of people. Namely, soon after I stepped onto the dance
floor and did my thing, an ever-expanding circle would appear around me. It eventually
became embarrassing and after a while I stopped dancing. I thought, if those philistines
weren’t ahead enough of their time to appreciate my unique dance interpretations, it was
On this particular night in Copacabana I debated whether to look uptight and boring by
not joining in, or to risk the slings and arrows of outrageous dancing. I opted to dance,
but felt decidedly uncomfortable as a result. Rejane danced so well that I felt
intimidated. I felt that I wasn’t in such a position of confidence when she could see so
clearly what she might perceive as an inadequacy.
Probably as a result of this dizzying loss of face, I did the only logical thing to do:
I withdrew into myself and became cold and distant towards Rejane. She noticed it and
asked me why. I said that I didn’t know what she meant. To some degree at least, I was
telling the truth. Sometimes a dark mood comes over me. Although I may have a vague idea
as to its possible cause, the mood develops a dark life force of its own and grows
completely out of proportion to the initial situation that may have given it life. Like a
grotesque, soot-covered gargoyle with gnarled talons perched heavily on my right shoulder,
I know it’s there but I’m unable to get rid of it. I don’t like it being there and I want
it to go away, but I have no power to loosen the unflinching grip. It goes whenever it
damned well pleases.
There were affirming moments however. The group of us ventured into a restaurant.
Rejane sat close next to me and I felt ecstatic to be with her and feel the power of her
affection revitalise and strengthen me. Every now and then in my dreams I experience a
sensation that is very real, and leaves me quite awe-struck for a long time after I
awaken. Although the circumstances and leading ladies vary, the denouement is always
consistent. A girl will either do something to me, such as hug me with all her heart, or
look at me with unmistakable eyes filled with love, and my soul will completely melt,
knowing with the certainty that can only be had in dreams that the girl in question cares
for me with a genuine and untainted warmth. When Rejane did what she did next, I felt this
same sensation usually reserved for my state of slumber.
With no prompting at all, Rejane began to feed me, just as though I was a baby, her
baby. Some may wonder what the big deal was about my being spoon-fed (with a fork), but it
is nigh impossible to describe in words how such an apparently trivial gesture utterly
moved me. Who would have thought that it would take a harmless morsel of Brazilian pabulum
to convince me of what I had suspected for a while now: I was in love with Penelope, er
that is, Rejane. I was back in Greece at the point Penelope and I had parted ways, except
it was no longer Penelope I had rejoined. I had rejoined Rejane!
I wouldn’t consider myself religious. I revere the irreverent, reveal the irrelevant,
revile the reverent and interview Paul Revere. Like the time Rejane and I went inside the
Catholic church. I couldn’t help the sight of her white cotton shorts giving me an
erection. My shorts were made of flimsy material anyway and there it was, the dreaded tent
pole effect for God and all his minions to gaze upon. I pointed out me tawdry tabernacle
to Rejane. Rejane scolded me, ‘Michael, we’re in a church!’ However, unlike Bianca when I
made some irreverent gesture at the tomb of Evita in Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires,
Rejane could see the funny side of it. Sure, it was a mock-shocked self-conscious
laughter, but she laughed nonetheless. Rejane had a sense of humour.
Yet I’m as curious as the next man. Of course I wanted to see up close the statue of
Cristo Redentor that hovered omnipresently over Rio. It was legendary. It was a part of
the Brazilian identity to my way of thinking. It had appeared in films like Blame It On
Rio, and had even done a cameo in a Janet Jackson video clip. No less than the
inventor of radio, Marconi, designed the lighting to illuminate this statue of Christ. It
was a Hollywood icon. I had to have a squiz.
So, it was me, Rejane, Nanu, Hiro, Yutaka, Tamio, and two of Rejane’s female friends
who formed the expedition party to that tourist mecca on that unusually cloudy Rio day.
At the base of the hill we hired a couple of taxis to take us to the summit of the
elevated hill that the statue of Christ hovered atop.
Predictably, at the summit there were the tourist trappings or comforts depending on
your point of view. Polaroid film was on sale under a Polaroid umbrella and there was a
kiosk. We had a bit to eat at the kiosk. Nanu noted with horror someone at the next table
eating food they had brought with them. He made a disparaging explanation about it being
something the lower classes did, and I briefly detested him, nauseated by his middle-class
Above the kiosk but below the statue were a group of people from different nations
enjoying the panoramic view of the city of Rio de Janeiro. It was immersed in cloud, but
About half a dozen Australian accents manhandled their way into earshot. The casual
appearance and posture of their owners confirmed their Australian identity. For some
reason Australians in Rio were as rare as rocking horse shit. I guess I should have done
the expected thing and felt overjoyed to be amongst them. I should have widened my eyes in
delighted surprise. I should have smiled broadly. I should have stopped what I was doing,
politely but absent-mindedly excused myself to my Brazilian/Japanese friends and stridden
with determination over to the Aussies. I should have extended my hand to whomever
appeared to be the leader, said in an exaggerated Strine, ‘Gidday diggers!’ and laughed
loudly along with the bemused antipodeans.
Needless to say, I didn’t. By now I could have passed for a local Brazilian lad. Sure,
there were the telltale signs that the connoisseur would have picked up on. I wore a black
Jag T-shirt and my red floral Okanuis. Yet by now I had a good tan, my hair had grown into
luxuriant waves, and I was with a Brazilian girlfriend and friends, Japanese photographers
and a chef. I was happy being Brazilian and the last thing I wanted was for my Brazilian
illusion to be shot to the ground by drearily down-to-earth and unpretentious Australians.
So I kept my mouth shut and casually listened.
One of them (a male) complained/boasted to another one. ‘Thirdy of ‘s came on this
toor…and sixdeen of ‘s were mugged roight owltside our ‘otel!’ It reminded me of what a
dangerous place Rio actually was. Yet I felt a certain pride in having so far avoided any
kind of harm, given the statistics. These silly, ignorant tourists had done the safe thing
and been part of a tour. They would have woken up when they were told to, eaten what they
were given, travelled everywhere in air-conditioned buses with other Australians and
stayed in their secure four-star hotel, only to be pounced on the moment they stuck their
tentative joey heads outside the pouch and hopped outside. The irony is that in staying in
an expensive safe hotel they would have marked themselves clearly as rich western
tourists. The muggers would have sussed out very early on in the piece the best place to
find tourists was in these hotels and waited confidently for their prey.
I, on the other hand, stayed in a cheap hostel and walked the dangerous streets at day
and night, leaving myself quite vulnerable. Yet I dressed like a local and hung around
locals and never had a problem. [Note to students: That last four paragraph section can be
seen as a metaphor for a safe, sterile life ultimately being more dangerous than an
I was content. I photographed Rejane sitting on the edge of the stone balcony, with Rio
behind her. She smiled and as she did her eyes squinted. Her gold pirate earrings. Her
quaint colourful string which hung from her hair. Her soft pink sleeveless T-shirt. Her
taut coffee brown legs. Her alluring white cotton shorts. I was content.
I gazed up at the stone statue 30 feet away. It surprised me how small it seemed up
close. Somehow it appeared larger from a distance. Its presence loomed benevolently over
every nuance of the wild city below. Even with Marconi’s lighting system turned on, the
statue was only vaguely discernible. In fact it was so faint through the thick cloud that
one had to concentrate to perceive the faintest of silhouettes. Even so, there was
something magic about the ghost-like image.
Then something incredible happened. As I gazed upon the stone shadow, its image became
bolder and more distinct before my eyes. In a fraction of time, the stone shadow was
transformed into Jesus Christ. He was there before me, arms outstretched. Although there
was nothing but white cloud behind Him, I could see clearly now the folds of His robe, the
lines in His palms and the shape of His eyes.
Then even the white disappeared, and Jesus became a golden grey. Blue emerged
magnificently from the smoky white that had previously kept it hidden. Jesus presided over
it all. Sure, cynics and meteorologists would argue that what I had seen was nothing more
than a natural shift in cloud cover. They weren’t there. I had a vision presented before
Later at Albergue, Rejane and I exchanged honesty like a hot potato. As we sat next to
each other she told me, ‘I like boys to wash themselves and wear clean clothes.’ Me,
Mister Clean-Cut himself had obviously been grunged dramatically by Brazil to prompt such
an endearing piece of constructive criticism. I shot back with my own constructive
criticism: ‘Rejane, I would like to make love to you.’ She looked shocked and said ‘No
thenk yaw Michael. I’m too religious.’
Religion appears to be something different to every person. Even people who profess the
same religion, differ in their beliefs about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. I
could see nothing wrong with engaging in a mutually satisfying interchange of love and
affection, or to coin a phrase ‘mound pounding’. Yet I wouldn’t be considered religious,
These excerpts were taken from Brazilian Booty, a book published in
Australia. You can get in touch with the author, Michael X Savvas, at email@example.com
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