Postcards from Rio
People are not pedestrians here, they are targets. Traffic
signals are basically just a generally vague indication of what you should do; definitely
not to be assumed that when presented with a red signal that the driver will stop. When
the traffic banks up and starts to gridlock, the motorists commence an obscure form of
Morse code with their car horns.
By John Miller
Departed Sydney Easter Friday, and arrived Easter Sunday. Two nights in Buenos Aires, a
night of tango, and a night in the bars downtown. Very cold and uninviting to tourists,
but nevertheless a beautiful city (the Paris of South America, a climate like Sydney, and
the best road system in the world bar none). The Art Gallery of Buenos Aires contains some
of the finest looting from Europe I have seen, the second time I have been to it, and they
seem to have added to the collection (or maybe some more of the beneficiaries are starting
to croak it now and are donating their private works; they must all be well into their
eighties I would think).
On the Saturday night in Buenos Aires, I went to an Argentinean Steak house and met up
with British Television crew covering the Argentinean Grande Prix, which was on the
Sunday. Murray Walker was even dining at the next table, and nosed my way into a short
chat before he wandered off for an early night (the guy is a total professional). He loved
Adelaide, but said Melbourne has yet to catch the fever of F1.
This Rio apartment has cost an arm & a leg; but is very important to convey the
right message to clients, etc. Also if I am to go down in a flaming heap, I want to do it
while I am enjoying the experience at least.
The phone only allows local calls, but we are arranging to have another phone connected
that will allow long distance and international services. The local Telecommunications
company TELERJ is something Bill Kelty would hold in awe. It is fully government owned (at
present), a behemoth that moves at a pace our wharfies would consider inspiring.
Some small theft at the airport; shoulder straps from bags, CD’s, and a few bits and
pieces. I’m sure the baggage guys must be on a kickback system with a baggage
manufacturing company to steal the straps. What can they do with so many straps, yet leave
you with a bag that’s almost useless (try to buy just a strap for a bag, it is impossible
and leaves you with a bag you have to lug around under your arm).
Marta and I are very well and happy. First three nights in Copacabana Palace Hotel (I
hear you singing Barry Manilow and Peter Allen songs), luxury all the way, but cost most
of my other arm and leg. Marta is invaluable, her contacts are phenomenal.
Weather is extreme in Rio for the first few days; 35C+, 90% humidity, and I cannot get
my body clock adjusted. Not sleeping at all well, but this happened to me last time as
well. The local coffee helps compensate for this, so I am not worried.
Now that I am a resident, a Carioca, you do notice a few things you would not
notice as a tourist. Firstly the traffic is diabolical. I mean it is incredible. Peak hour
is virtually from 6:30 AM through to about 11:00 PM at night. You see gridlock very often.
I am told that if your car breaks down on a freeway (really it is just a long narrow
parking lot), and the traffic is held up, that it is common to be assaulted or shot at!
The strategy is to hide in the car, wind up all the windows, lock the car and wait till
the Police come.
The local petrol (benzene) is a curious mixture of petroleum and sugar distilled
alcohol. It has a much lower octane rating so most cars ping a lot and have reduced
horsepower, a curious side benefit is the fumes smell quite sweet. The downside is the
level of air pollution requires you to breathe through a coffee filter, fortunately no
shortage of coffee filters. This city is testimony to the need to have a good public
transport system or else city quality of life can fall off dramatically.
The Rio motorist is very famous. Most model their driving technique on late Formula 1
champion Ayrton Senna, especially the bus and taxi drivers (standing in a bus you get to
move around a lot accidentally). People are not pedestrians, they are targets. Traffic
signals are basically just a generally vague indication of what you should do; definitely
not to be assumed that when presented with a red signal that the driver will stop.
When the traffic banks up and starts to gridlock, the motorists commence an obscure
form of Morse code with their car horns. It usually starts with the second car in the
rank, and proceeds down/up the stream of cars with progressive length of signal till a
motorist about fifteen cars back in the rank puts his feet up on the steering wheel and
goes to sleep. The whole orchestra of noise is accompanied by the other sounds of the city
including jackhammers (the operators don’t use earmuffs so they may be ex artillery army
officers), children laughing, music blaring from cafés, and fire engines/police/ambulance
sirens. About 1:00 AM in the morning this noise begins to taper off.
As a little side story, there is a man in our street that is tougher than Ray Price and
Leigh Matthews put together. He has no legs (that work) and gets around on a skateboard.
His occupation is to crash tackle cars for a living! Seriously. In my street it is barely
wide enough for two cars, and certainly when one lane is blocked it is gridlock time. This
man rolls himself on his skateboard out onto the street every 20 minutes and blocks the
traffic in one lane. The unfortunate motorist who is caught at the head of this has two
options; pay the toll to the man with no legs ($R1.00 (one real) = US$0.85 approx.) or run
Usually the motorist pays the toll, but upon speaking with the man I have learned he
has seen the underside of about a dozen cars in the last 5 years. (His face and arms are
testimony to this). He says his favorite cars are VW beetles as the engines are in the
rear and less likely for him to be burned by the exhaust pipes. I have been giving him
about $R1 a day in coins to keep my conscious clear, but Marta informs me that he is very
rich now. The pay is great, but the occupational hazards are extreme. I wonder what his
workers compensation rates are like?
It is actually impossible to go fast in this town. To go fast is to make mistakes and
is very expensive. So I must slow down, go with the flow and let things happen as they
will. But with my Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic, you have trouble with keeping
yourself busy enough at times, and you get frustrated queuing for everything. Any
suggestions on how to occupy queue time? Read a book, a newspaper, I hear you say. Try
finding one in English.
On Wednesday 10th April I had to go to Airport Customs to collect some additional
personal effects (8 cartons). We got there at 9:30 AM and I know I was in for a long day
when the first customs officer said to me, "Welcome to Brazil. I do not understand
why you come to this country as I have heard so many wonderful things about Australia.
Good luck, you will need it!"
Seven hours later I started to understand what he meant. I saw grown men crying over
one customs official. One man who was in the second stage of AIDS, had been at the airport
customs for two days trying to get his drugs cleared. This is happening in an un
air-conditioned tin shed of about 35º C (95º F). The place seems to have a lunch hour
from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM.
Pushing a broom is a highly developed art form here. At one stage I was asked to pay
$R500 ($US450) for my personal effects to be cleared; but Marta after much remonstration
and theatrics managed to convince the official that a more reasonable figure was $R50.
They agreed. This seems to be the Brazilian/Latino way. Some more theft discovered from
these parcels when I got home, but nothing I did not have a backup for, or mission
I have been wrestling with this issue of transportation for some time now. After a week
you tire of buses and taxis and it also gets expensive. But I horror at the idea of
owning, garaging and driving a car, plus the cost. So in a stroke of genius I have bought
a fully imported, six speed, air-conditioned (salesman through in free parking in Rio)
bicycle. It is very fuel efficient, top speed 60 km/h, environmentally safe, good
exercise, faster than a car in short distances, and few hills in downtown Copacabana,
Leme, Ipanema, Leblon , Botafogo, etc. Still have not worked out how I will carry Aussie
wine and beer on board but I will.
Cannot stress too much how important Marta is. She is devoted, caring, very
intelligent, knows Rio inside out, and is very well connected. And a great lover as well.
She refers to us as Bonnie and Clyde, although I think Butch and Sundance is a better
analogy (those guys had the right idea; Bolivia is where it will next happen, they just
got the time wrong).
I am beginning to become less of a visitor and starting to blend in a bit more. This is
not the sort of place you want to scream at the locals you are a tourist; you are asking
for trouble. So I have put my cork hat, thongs, stubby holder, footy shorts, and
Australian Rugby jumper into mothballs for a while.
I have done some reckon work into the local supermarkets to check out the wine and beer
scene. It is very low price and low quality. Very little shelf space for vinho, and
the product range is basically low cost imports (at least it was discernible that they
drink a bit of imported wine). I get the impression that my job in the wine area is a lot
bigger than I thought. I originally thought that I would need to educate the locals about
Australia and Australian wine. I think it is back to basics and teach them about wine in
So it will be a slow process but we will get there eventually; certainly no overnight
success. Maybe it will be more enjoyable this way. The journey itself is the most
important. I can afford to live here for two years with no income, and if I come away
speaking a new language, making some new friends, and having a good time then it will be
worth it. And I am having a good time so far, the novelty value at this stage is very
high. Not without some hardship (more lately).
The local government is making a complete mess of Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. The
footpaths here are world famous for their colorful little hand-formed stones (black and
white predominantly, but some reds as well). They are quarried from the local granite base
and are affectionately called the ‘Portuguese stone’. The patterns they form with these
stones are very intricate and imaginative. The local government in its infinite wisdom has
decided to do away with a great deal of this stone (presumably on the basis of some
accountants maintenance budget problems), and replace it with a machine made red bricks
(you have seen them in every shopping mall and tourist trap all over the world).
Not content with taking some of the unique character and charm of the area, they have
decided to tackle this issue on a massive front; it seems like every second street is dug
up at present. Yet they have allocated a work crew to only do real work in two areas of 30
meters at a time. The place is a mess and the locals are furious. It reminds me of
downtown Beirut. The old people are the most affected by this, and many have tripped,
fallen and broken wrists, arms and ankles. People openly abuse the workers for what they
are being paid to do; its obviously not their fault, but it is just the most mind blowing
dumbest thing you ever saw. I suspect there is a trail of kickbacks and sideplays that
leads to somewhere on this. I will keep investigating on this one; I suspect there is a
real story here.
Onto a touchy subject: tourists. As you know many tourists (particularly German and
Americans) come to Brazil for sexual pleasure. And there is abundance of this in Rio and
other parts of Brazil (and a very high incidence of AIDS for those considering this). But
a really interesting thing that is not well known is the very large number of
transvestites in Copacabana (and very very convincing ones at that). They are not allowed
to work the bars and clubs, just the streets (like William street in Sydney), so they
prowl the front of the major 5 Star Hotels. I have come to learn that the Brazilian men
think it is sweet revenge to know that so many German and American men who come to Rio,
end up sleeping with a transvestite who is also a thief into the bargain. Ah, I love it.
Can you imagine this conversation in Dallas.
Tex: ‘Hey Chucky, how was your holiday in Rio?’
Chuck: ‘Great, sensational, the women of Brazil are so beautiful’.
Tex: ‘Did you meet anyone special?’.
Chuck: ‘Yep, sure did. Her name was Dominique, but she liked me to call her Dominatrix.
Only problem was she would only allow me to make love in one position. I found her to be a
real pain in the ass at the finish though’.
On Friday 19th April, I met the only other Aussie I know in Rio. His name is Tim
Moulton and he is an ecologist at one of Rio de Janeiro’s universities. He is a charming
man, has a lovely wife, and we had the most wonderful dinner at their house in Santa
Theresa with some other academics. Really lovely people. He even had some Rothbury estate
wines for us to try. His house is not so much large, it is more like a castle overlooking
half of Rio. It was great to get some feedback from someone from Australia about Brazil;
the perspective is important. I sense a blossoming friendship. A very special night.
Both Digital and Fujitsu are very helpful and starting to build a base of contacts. I
am at Marcos Frota’s home today typing this (Marcos is branch manager of Fujitsu Rio).
This country is dominated by IBM. Same as Argentina. There has been a big scandal in
Argentina with bribery and corruption with IBM and a state owned bank. Heads are rolling
in Government and IBM. The tender price of $US250M for the system was over 50% higher than
the next bid.
I have had some health problems of late. Some heavy cold the last few days and my
second bout of diarrhea. You cannot get toilet paper soft enough when this happens; and
believe you me, Brazil toilet paper is not as soft as ours is. Sneezing, coughing and poo
poo all at once is not fun. But if I let this stop me then I will not get far. Thank God
we have a bidet in our bathroom; they take a bit of getting used to but not a bad idea.
Not for drinking from though.
Last night I met a Hell’s Angel rider from Capetown at a bar in Ipanema. Really cool
dude. He is here on holiday to meet with his Brazilian counterparts (a cousin is head of
the local chapter). Most of these guys are from the favelas (shantytowns) and not
to be messed with. He offered to take me for a ride on his hog next week but I declined as
I am going to COMDEX in Rio (Got to learn to relax and go with the flow more).
Marta has been quick to outsource a few things as I am keeping her busy. We had her
maid in last week; a lovely lady, so humble, quiet, and gentle. We were having lunch and
Marta made her food up and we expected her to join us at the table. I went to look where
she was, and she was sitting on the toilet quite happily eating away. I said to her to
join us, but she was too shy. Curious?
What is it about the black people that they always seem to get the shit end of the
deal. As you know there is enormous number of people of African extraction in this country
(three hundred years of slavery can cause this). It would appear to me that well over 40%
of the population have some black heritage. And they seem to occupy an even greater
component of the poor. I must say however that this country does seem to have very little
in the way of racial tension; certainly not the overt tension we know of in USA. But there
is more to be done in this country still.
I have come to learn to respect the local beverage caipirinha: a sugar spirit,
crushed lime and sugar drink. One is sensational, two is danger zone, and three is
oblivion. This will take some learning, but I am prepared to devote my brain cells and
liver to this task.
Good news: very few flies in Rio. You can have a BBQ outside and not be swatting and
They have some unique ways of serving in restaurants. Most downtown cafés for lunch
serve a smorgasbord, a veritable feast of excellent quality. You are handed a plate when
you enter the restaurant and you pile your food on. Then when this is completed, you hand
it to a lady who weighs the plate; this then determines the price. Usually this costs
about $R8-10. You have to watch the butcher thumbs though, you know what I mean.
I have had only one day lying on Ipanema beach but it was sensational. Weather was
great, and the bundas (buttocks) were everywhere. Marta was asleep most of the
time, so I was able to enjoy this to the max. Surf at Ipanema can be huge; already during
one tropical storm I saw waves of 3-4 meters for 2 days afterwards.
I think a lot about other Australians who have gone overseas to seek fame and fortune;
in particular those who have gone to past colonial outposts where there is an existing
network of clubs and ex pat societies in which to network. Hong Kong, Singapore come to
mind immediately. And those wonderful clubs to enjoy gin and tonic, billiards, horse
racing, croquet, gin rummy, cricket, rugby, etc. This does not exist here for people of
Anglo Saxon extraction, so the challenge to network is infinitely harder. But in some ways
this is better as it forces you to join their community faster and this is what I came to
do anyway; not be some colonial guest in Brazil.
Onto the subject of language: Portuguese. This is now a very big priority as I am sick
and tired of not being able to communicate. It reminds me so much of Robert Heinlen’s book
Stranger in a Strange Land. Marta and I are trying to work out the best way to go
forward on this. The key for me seems to be to find the most enjoyable way to do this, as
enjoyment leads to a positive attitude, even if you make mistakes. We are making up lots
of games and ways to entertain ourselves in this area. My one downside is my French
teacher at high school was like President Chirac, so I must overcome this negative image
from the past.
John Miller is an Australian, living in Rio de Janeiro, selling
Australian wine. ‘Postcards from Rio’ is a journal of his journey in the land of the Cariocas.
Rua Joaquim Nabuco, 106 / Apt 1001
Copacabana CEP 22080-030
Rio de Janeiro
Tel: +55 (021) 521 8568