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Friday, November 1, 2013

Lost Samba Chapter 01/02 - The Queen in Rio de Janeiro

The rest of the family went by car along the faster and more attractive seaside avenue while I went by school bus. It was a more sinuous journey, the red and yellow vehicle had to go through Copacabana's  the two main arteries, Avenida Copacabana and Avenida Barata Ribeiro in order to pick up the other children. Both avenues were covered with lush trees and with electric wires that produced exciting sparks when the trolleys passed. By eight o'clock they were already jammed with buses and dark robust 50's style cars. Drivers hooted for no reason and boys from the nearby favelas whizzed in between them rolling wooden carts with their bare feet that slid on and off a bar that almost scraped the asphalt.

We saw them from the window with a mixture of envy and fear. They were about our age but could, and would, easily beat us up if given the chance. In their carts they carried groceries from the open air markets, the feiras, which changed neighborhoods every day but seemed to be the same smelly place regardless. The odor of fruit, meat and especially fish exposed to the hot sun and their unmistakable noise announced their presence from blocks away. Big black guys in torn shirts shouted out songs and rhymes about their goods to attract the madames: “Only today! Pretty women have a discount if they take half a kilo!”, “Look at the fresh Bananas, 10 Cruzeiros a Dozen”.


On the main corners, elegantly uniformed mulato policemen controlled the traffic through whistles, glances and hand movements that resembled a rare bird's mating dance.


There were no classes that day and excitement filled the air. The school had been covered with Union Jack and Brazilian flags, and after they had cleaned up the leaves and rotting fruit, the playground patio looked immaculate. We settled in and waited for the other classes to leave for the assembly hall across the crowded playground. Our teacher, Mrs Feitosa, was a strong blond in her mid forties from Manchester and married to a Brazilian. Her make-up and fancy dress did not take away her authority as she closed the door and stood in front of the blackboard.

“I want everyone to sit down and listen carefully.”

We stopped whatever we were doing, fell silent and she continued.

“Good. Can you all hear me? Today everybody must be on their best behavior. Am I clear?”

 She gave us "the look" from behind her glasses and twisted her thin lips. As if by magic, each thought that she was directing her evil eye at him and we were relieved when someone opened the door to say that it was our turn.

“Now, I want all of you to hold hands and come with me.”

 The grown-ups outside were dressed in their best clothes and were proud of us as we passed. They waved and smiled but at the same time they kept turning their heads around to see if the distinguished guest had already arrived.

When we were about to reach the School Hall’s entrance, we heard sirens and Mrs Feitosa stopped to look back. We followed her gaze and saw it happen: no less than Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Majesty, Head of the British Crown, was entering the British School of Rio de Janeiro accompanied by her entourage. She was standing in the open Rolls Royce in a white dress, waving and smiling at the crowd under the rows of palm trees that went from the entrance gate to the playground. Her car was escorted by the most impressive motorbikes that any of us had ever seen. They were huge and loud, with enormous radio antennae swaying behind their riders in leather jackets,and dark glasses, protected by transparent shields with the emblem of the military police.

Mrs Feitosa took us out of our trance and told us to get into the Hall and to climb onto the stage before the grownups came in. We were lucky to have the best spot in that Hall. When the Queen came in, silence fell and the place assumed a dimension that we had never realized it could have. Prince Phillip followed right behind and stopped to talk, of all people, to my sister Sarah who was standing in the ex-students' section. She was amazing: confident and polite.


The pupils selected to perform the leading acts were part of the English thoroughbred clique. The couple of students chosen  for the welcome's highlight came into the hall dressed up in traditional costumes. As they approached, the boy walked up to Her Majesty and threw his cape on the floor in a chivalrous fashion, then bowed down and shouted out something that I didn't catch, but that sounded very appropriate. After the royal approval, she turned to us.

Mrs Feitosa lifted her hand and we sang our part. We were well rehearsed and sounded good, much to everyone's relief. After the applause there were other presentations and speeches and, in the end, royal tea cups were handed out. The festivities continued long after she had left. If there ever was a golden day for the British community in Rio, that was it.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Chapter 01/01 - Waking up in Copacabana, 1962


Early sun rays colored the trees down the street; bird cries echoed in between the buildings, welcoming the orange horizon while waves slid forward and retreated, licking the sand on the beach front. Were it not for the air conditioning on the twelfth floor, the hot morning haze would have embraced us, but we were comfortably tucked in and dreaming away.

After an entire night of tic-tacking, the alarm clock rang and burst the bubble at six thirty am. I tried to resist, but Sarah, my older sister, lit her bedside lamp to get her clothes and went off to take a shower.
As she opened the door, the hot air flooded in and the temperature under the blanket became unbearable. A lazy arm that did not seem to be mine stretched out and switched on the transistor radio lying on the floor. The set was not bigger than a small chocolate box and was made of white plastic and had an aluminum grill covering its weak loudspeaker.

I turned the dial to Radio Globo and, with my eyes half open, I was in synch with the rest of the city. This was the favorite station among maids, porters and other ordinary people. The presenter, Haroldo de Andrade, had the voice of an opera singer and hosted a show with religious overtones and with news, trivia and interviews with football, samba and soap opera stars. It was interactive and listeners from all over town called in to voice their opinions and, during the intervals, he played the latest hits, jingles, and Alziro Zarur's astrological forecasts with mystical oriental music in the background. At home, I was the only one who loved that kind of stuff: no one could understand how or why, but I did.

"That junk", as she referred to my favorite radio program, was on when Sarah came back from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel and irritated by my laziness. She asserted her seniority by changing the station, switching off the air-conditioner and opening the wooden shutters next to her bed. With the strong light invading the room, it was hard to decide what was more annoying: not being the eldest, being woken up in that way or having to get up so early. Anyway, the cruelty of her energy, the humid air and the early blue sky sealed the waking up process and now I had to take my turn to get ready.

There was a hot breeze on the veranda and I went to take a look at the beach. Just being among its plants, its canopies and its hammock hooks, high above the street, was great. Outside there was the open Atlantic Ocean at one end of the street and at the other , was the Morro do Cantagalo (Cockroach Hill), covered with trees that almost hid its favela, or slum.


Like a pet dog, my football had spent the night outside waiting to play with me. My kicking delight was not a leather one, but it was also not a weightless one for babies: the dente de leite was heavy enough to make a bell-like sound when it hit the wall and if you received a strong shot on your skin, that noise came accompanied by a respectful slap. According to the paranoia fed to me at such an early age, if any toy went over the wall and fell down on someone's head down bellow, the knock could break their neck and this would get me in deep trouble.

Sarah reminded me that I could not make myself late: there was a shower to be taken, teeth to be brushed, hair to be combed, a school uniform to be dressed impeccably, and uncomfortable polished shoes to be put on, all of which I hated with a passion.

The maid was already awake and preparing breakfast. She also liked Radio Globo but, in the early morning, she listened to Radio Relogio, the clock station that told the time every second minute after monotonous adverts and useless information such as “Did you know? The African Rhinoceros has two horns; the bigger one is in front and the smaller one is behind. Did you know?.... Beep beep beeeep... Six o'clock, forty two minutes, and zero seconds. Beeeep.”

Morning chores completed, I was ready to join the family under the canopy. They were sitting around the folding table with an elegant table cloth that hid a cheap red plastic top. The maid had set out our tropical morning table of boiled eggs in holders, hot milk, thick brown bread, porridge, jam, bananas, papaya, freshly-squeezed orange juice, honey and butter.