Rio with Greek Subtitles

Written in 2004 on Sunday the 2nd of May, four months into my year-long trip overseas.

I had to find myself a Greek consulate in Brazil to ask a question about my passport. Not thinking Greece had much to do with Brazil, I was very surprised to discover after a quick squizz on the internet that there are seven Greek consulate offices throughout Brazil. Seven! I found only one Greek restaurant in all of Rio de Janeiro, yet there are seven Greek consulates throughout Brazil! I didn’t think I was going to find even one office for the country of 11 million retsina drinkers, but I suppose all the Greeks in the foreign affairs office-department-thing want to be posted to places like Brazil instead of places like war-torn Angola, where Greece also has a consulate. Setting up more offices in Brazil makes for a greater chance of having some South American fun, and Greeks in the foreign affairs department I’m sure could make up many good and even official-sounding reasons for having such an overstated presence in the country.

So anyway, I headed off to the consulate in the more residential Cariocan suburb of Flamengo to get my question answered. Once there, Stelios, the dude at the front desk, told me that Spiros, the passport man, would be able to see me in about half an hour and answer any of my questions. As there was a good half hour to kill, me and Stelios chewed the fat marinated with a divine mix of lemon, garlic and oregano. Interestingly enough, it turns out Stelios has been living in Rio for the past twenty years after having given England and the USA a go but not finding them up to scratch. For whatever reason, Rio worked for him and he found himself a Brazilian wife with whom he has raised four children.

Wanting to amuse myself, and knowing Greeks to be a patriotic lot even though most of them don’t live in Greece anymore, I baited him by asking if his wife can cook like his mother, if his family can dance a tsifteteli and if they can speak Greek. I knew what the answers would be, so it came as no surprise to hear that he made sure his wife could cook a decent pastitsio before deciding to marry her, that his family dance the tsifteteli better than anyone in Greece and that his children speak excellent Greek.

But even though I had begun with my own stereotypically patriotic vision of Greek expatriots, it shocked me to discover that he had sent his poor eldest son to serve in the Greek army. Every Greek male has to serve in the army for eighteen months, all of which can be avoided simply by living in another country. His son, who would be a Greek citizen because of his father’s Greek nationality despite his having been born and raised in Brazil, could stay in Greece for as much as six months each year before having to join the army. Most of us Greek citizens born or raised in other countries take advantage of this and avoid military service whilst still enjoying the country every now and again. Stelios, however, sent his son to Greece specifically to serve in the army, because, according to Stelios, that was his son’s duty as a Greek man.

Thinking this was exceptionally odd, even for the most patriotic of Greeks who are usually even prouder of their disrespect for authority and rules, I became very afraid of the kind of person I was speaking to when I did some mental arithmetic. Twenty years ago, when Stelios first landed in Rio, Brazil was being run by a military government that had been in power since 1964. Furthermore, when he left Greece, about twenty-five years ago, Greece had only just become democratic again after having been ruled by a weird-arse military junta that wanted to return Greece back to its ancient glory days. So that meant he left Greece after it was only just starting to emerge from a period of military rule, found the relatively democratic and free countries of England and the USA not to his liking, only to end up settling in Brazil, a country still being run by a military government that liked to repress, kill and torture every once in a while. I took a mental note of this man’s love of the military and decided when telling him the story of my family, not to mention that part of the reason my father came to Australia was so that he could avoid doing his obligatory military service. I also failed to mention that my grandfather was a communist guerrila, and instead babbled on about my mother’s island, Kephallonia, for as long as I could.

Soon enough though, the thirty-minute wait was over and I was directed to Spiros’s office, where a single question that took twenty seconds to answer turned into a thirty minute social chat that served to explain why I had to wait that long to see him in the first place. Within this thirty minutes, Spiros smoked three cigarettes, offering me one each time he opened his packet, and fielded two lengthy personal calls. It was a quintessentially Greek performance, and possibly because we shared an understanding of the undeniable logic of our own culture, our conversation was exceptionally friendly and hit a high note when we landed on the subject of the respective pros and cons of capoeira and thai kick-boxing.

Yes, Spiros, the passport dude at the office of the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, was a huge fan of thai kick-boxing, and just like any wog cruising down the slow lane on Chapel Street on any Friday night of the year, he wanted to get fit by kicking people’s heads in. I told him that he should start capoeira seeing as he is in Brazil, but he was under the false impression that it would not adequately strengthen what he claimed were his ever-atrophying legs.

That was when I decided to show him the very tiring cadeira position, a position where your thighs are level with your knees and it looks like you’re about to take a shit, just to prove how much capoeira works your legs. He was skeptical at first, but once he got into position and stayed there for a few seconds, he understood. We were two Greek men, looking like we were taking a dump in a small office of the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, talking martial arts and pretending we were tough. Not surprisingly, we bonded over the experience.

He gave me his phone number once the meeting was deemed over and claimed that he would start watching TV in the cadeira position from then on. I walked out of there quite pleased with myself thinking I may have converted someone to the capoeira cause, but I later slapped myself for having completely forgotten to mention Australia and Greece’s very own Stan “the Man” Longinides, who once was and maybe still is the world kick-boxing title holder. I reckon Spiros would have been mightily impressed by a Greek-Australian holding a kick-boxing title, and I reckon another fifteen minutes would have been needed to adequately cover all the official matters that would have been brought up in our meeting if the feats of Stan had ever been mentioned.

But my exploration of spaces dedicated to the Greek in Rio de Janeiro didn’t stop there. A couple of weeks after my experience with the foreign affairs department, I danced the Zorba at the only Greek restaurant in all of Rio de Janeiro after I took some curious Brazilian friends to see how we hairy-chested people eat, dance and smash plates. Unfortunately, the food was exceptionally ordinary, there was no retsina available and the owner of the restaurant was a boring fuck, but the Brazilians didn’t know any better and they thought the food and ambience was wonderful.

Me and my Brazilian troupe decided to head down to the restaurant on a Friday night on the promise that there was to be some Greek dancing and plate smashing in the land of the samba. Even though I was not expecting anything at all decent, I was still shocked to find two belly dancers from the sizeable Lebanese community in Brazil being passed up as dancing in a traditionally Greek manner, and doing the shaking of their thing to Arabic music. Even Shakira was played for these Lebanese ladies masquerading as Greeks to shake their bellies to, and if the ladies weren’t so attractive, I would have demanded the head of the treasonous restaurant owner who was presenting to an unsuspecting Brazilian audience music and dance that was more Turkish than Greek. When real Greek music finally came on and the ladies started dancing shite, I could not withstand the affront to my cultural heritage any longer and stormed onto the middle of the dance floor to lead proceedings and showcase the flair of a Greek man in full flight. I danced a tzamiko and a kalamatiano to showcase for the people of Brazil the culture of Greece, and felt overwhelmingly relieved that the people were not going to be leaving the restaurant thinking some Arabic belly-wobbling was a traditional Greek way to give vent to our passions and desires on the dancefloor.

The plate smashing was also another sorry affair as only a single shitty plate was handed out to each customer in the restaurant that evening. Every person rolled their eyes in tight-arsed disappointment upon receiving their solitary plate, but when the opening didi-didi-ding of the Zorba announced itself from the stereo to end proceedings for the evening, I knew I could make the night memorable for the Brazilians wanting to experience the joy of being Greek.

The people parted as I made my way onto the dancefloor where I knew the time had come to do my duty as a Greek man. I asked the restaurant owner if he was to share the spotlight with me and the damn fine Lebanese ladies in the middle of the dancefloor, but the treacherous bastard refused. After the owner wouldn’t dance the Zorba, I was certain the guy must have been Turkish, maybe Albanian, or quite possibly one of those Yugoslavians who go around pretending they’re Macedonian. A man that does not dance a Zorba with his chest out, his head held high and with the kind of expression that lays bare the torment in his soul is most definitely not Greek, so it was up to me and only me to provide a performance that night that would get the audience understanding how a Greek man dances and how a Greek man lives. With the wailing bouzoukis reaching their climactic crescendo and Zorba’s dance going into overdrive, a room full of Brazilians smashed their plates in unison and caught a glimpse of the emotional epiphanies that electrify each expression of every Eleftherios, Erasmus or Elias the Greek world over. And with that, everyone in the room got an idea of what it means to be Greek, to experience the lows of life and then experience the sweetened joys of the heightened highs that result. And with that, everyone in the room knew they had seen a Greek man dance.

After having led the dancing with a fine round of applause from the crowd, after having brushed my hand over the prickles of my post five o’ clock shadow and after having left the restaurant with a fine Brazilian beauty on my arm, on that fine summer’s night I was certain that I was the most authentic Greek man in all of Rio de Janeiro. That evening, I gave more to my beloved Greece than any eighteen months of obligatory military service ever could, and with a tear in my eye, I vowed to all who cared to listen that I was gonna grow myself a moustache. Nothing came of the moustache and it was the very next day when I was back to my normal self after having been transformed into the über Greek, but for a few fleeting moments there, I was the poster boy for the Greek nation and I was proud.

Carnaval in Rio

Written in 2004 on Wednesday the 10th of March, my second month into my year-long trip overseas.

Carnaval is spelt so many different ways, I’m never quite sure which particular variation I should be using. If someone knows what the correct spelling is when writing in English, please forward the details. But regardless of all things orthographic, the festive happenings of this year’s Carnaval occurred during and surrounding the dates of the 21st to the 24th of February, or the Saturday before Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar. The Carnaval was originally a spring festival dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of booze and a good time, although these days, only in Brazil do the festivities ever come close to the heights of the debauched merry-making of ancient times, long before the Catholic church took over the pagan ritual and sanitised it. In Rio, most things shut down just to party, men walk around wearing dresses and the condom campaign, which even manages to get grandmothers wearing condoms around their necks, begins. This year, the slogan for the condom campaign has been “use it, trust it.” I found out later that the peculiar slogan is a result of the church in Brazil starting its own anti-condom campaign, claiming that they don’t work and don’t provide any protection against AIDS. So yet again, the church is meddling with people’s fun, but thankfully this time around, the government of Brazil is backing the free-love movement and handing out free condoms for the horny faithful.

A Carioca is anyone from Rio de Janeiro. The word comes from a Tupi Indian term meaning “house of whites” and was eventually adopted by the Portuguese from Rio de Janeiro who lived in the houses the aborigines of Brazil were referring to. These days, the word has taken on a life of its own and locals are able to spend hours on end debating what makes a definitive Carioca, and, most importantly, why and how Cariocas are far superior from their Paulista cousins from São Paulo.

During Carnaval, the feeling of superiority the Cariocas enjoy over their Paulista rivals is at its highest ebb as São Paulo is ignored whilst the pictures sent to TV screens throughout the world are beamed from the Sambódromo in Rio de Janeiro. At the Sambódromo, the best and most extravagant samba schools from around town shake their asses and compete for the Cariocan samba title. This year, I was there, far, far away from the action, squinting in the rain and eventually giving up on the spectacle behind wet spectacles after not much longer than an hour of samba hijinx. Unless you are willing to pay a decent amount to sit with gringos up nice and close, you can’t dance, you can’t really see, and you’d be better off watching it on TV.

But my big Sambódromo experience was fantastic even if it turned out to be a fizzer once I got there. The parade is done over two days, with seven or eight schools walking the length of the Sambódromo on a single night. Once upon a time, schools would perform a show for over three hours. Now each school has a more palatable ninety minutes of glory to parade, with point deductions if they go over time, meaning only a few thousand people samba down the runway for any one particular school. With seven or eight schools showing off their wares in a single night, that means about 25,000 people parading down the Sambódromo over ten or more hours. So whilst I found it a bore in the stands, it was way cool to be there, taking in the sheer scale of the event dedicated to the two-four samba beat.

Walking to the Sambódromo, you get a sense of how much of a nightmare the event must be to organise. On the nearby streets, floats are assembled with cranes, the participants get their costumes in order and rehearse their steps, and the poor teams of fuckers who push the floats into and through the arena limber up in preparation for their night of shoving (like you, I assumed the floats were motorised too.) People are all over the place, busily organising and scampering about to get things ready for their ninety minutes of fame. The night is the culmination of ten months of preparation beginning from the previous April when the schools choose the theme for their parade and begin financing their show with technically illegal betting games. And when the paraders have finished with their parading, having finally performed after so much build up, they fill the city with their natural highs and in many of the bars or restaurants throughout the city, you can take part in the singing, dancing and table thumping that the still half-costumed stars of the Sambódromo chock-a-block full of energy are still buzzing along to.

Yet the most surprising aspect of Carnaval in Rio is how family it all is. Looking about the place, you notice grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, their children and their grandchildren all together, wiggling their asses in time with the samba beat. Most often you see these families shaking their groove thing at any one of the street parties all over Rio during Carnaval. Anyone can take part in these dance parties, where people samba down the streets along with the drummers and singers and shit-hot costumed samba dancers that make up the less extravagant but friendlier parades throughout the city’s neighbourhoods. Thankfully for foreigners such as myself, there are Brazilians who can’t actually samba, so as you get swept up in the dancing fever, your buttocks don’t feel too guilty about not being able to shake to the rhythm as well as they should and you can relax and enjoy your time amongst the sumptuously free-wheeling asses that surround you. And with the streets alive with the sound of samba, the sin would be not to shake your booty and graciously applaud the finest groovers of the parade among the crowds of young and old who come to celebrate their own music and dance.

I luckily found myself being guided around Rio during Carnaval when, after some minor flirting leading up to the first night of the festival devoted to samba, I started getting it on with a local Carioca. But the overly amorous kissing on the streets of Rio was tragically cut short and the night’s momentum devastated when we encountered my paramour’s ex-boyfriend. She ran to him and I stood there looking completely out of place as I was trying to deflect some very nasty greasers coming my way from the boy. Sadly the night pretty much came to an end after that, but the affair continues and still continues to sporadically continue, albeit secretly. This means no more going out in public because, you see, this ex-boyfriend, who is not really all that ex, tends to pop up by surprise everywhere she goes and calls her incessantly. Some would call it coincidence, others harassment or even stalking, but the end result is that we continue clandestinely the great love affair that I am sure will be the story line of a Brazilian soap opera some time soon.

Members of my family read this, so I would never normally mention any of my affairs with the ladies. But this is Brazil, where people talk openly in broken English about private matters with foreigners who smile a lot, and right now in Rio, there’s a sizable slice of the population that knows all about the gringo messing about with the mulatta. And being that I am in Brazil, trying to be as authentically Brazilian as possible, I feel it’s only right that my secret love affair that started on the first night of Carnaval is known by as many people as possible.

Go spread the word.

Chilean Hot Dogs

Written in 2004 on Thursday the 5th of February, about two weeks into my year-long trip overseas.

My first act on Chilean was soil was to save myself two thousand pesos with some ruthless bargaining in broken Spanish. I had just flown into Santiago airport after twenty-six hours worth of plane travel and figuring out the bus system half-asleep and with twenty kilograms of backpack strapped around my body was simply not an option. So on the morning of my arrival in Santiago, I decided a cheap taxi was called for.

Refuse the first offer Homer Simpson once said, so I did. I had no real idea how much ten thousand pesos was, but I knew eight thousand was twenty per cent less. I told the taxi dude I was poor, that I should be taking the bus, that I was practically destitute, that life was not worth living anymore, and the price dropped. I hate bargaining and rarely do it, but that fine morning, it all came together in Spanish and I felt pretty damn good about it.

After looking up the exchange rates a little later, I discovered I had saved around five bucks, and after having spoken to the taxi driver on the ride, I felt a little guilty bargaining even though I knew that I had still been ripped off. The taxi driver was a jovial church-going man who provides for his wife and two kids living in outer Santiago by ripping off relatively wealthy tourists like me. I have far too much money to spend on myself as it is, and goddamn it, I should be ripped off every now and again. I am a comparatively wealthy tourist, wasting my money on self-indulgent trips to distant shores, and giving away a few extra bucks to the comparatively poor locals I should expect and be happy about.

Anyway, after a long walk checking out central Santiago with a tinge of thrift-induced guilt, I parked my arse in a park and surprisingly enough, Patricia, a Santiagan babe swathed in tight jeans, came over to speak to me. She handed me a poem and started telling me of the university poetry readings held around Santiago to raise money for students. Pretty soon, her friend Emmanuel came over to meet and greet too. They were exceptionally friendly, telling me the best places to go, what to see, and most flaterringly of all, telling me how great my Spanish was. They pulled out maps, they made me laugh, they told me stories about Santiago, I told them stories about Australia, and when my Spanish was exhausted and silence overcame our conversation, they asked for money, complaining bitterly about the costs of a university education and cursing the name of Pinochet who apparently had something to do with it. I was already feeling guilty at that stage about my thriftiness from earlier on and they were being exceptionally friendly, thus I had no real issue giving them some money. But money in Chile can be confusing because of the excess number of zeroes. Things are usually in thousands of pesos, and working out what those extra zeroes equate to in Australian dollars can be confusing, especially on your first day travelling. So when I pulled out one thousand pesos, correctly thinking it was a decent sum of a few Australian bucks and they scoffed, I thought I must have offended them by offering the equivalent of twenty Australian cents. So I did what I thought was right and pulled out ten thousand pesos. They were much happier about that and so was I. They smiled, I smiled, they told me how good my Spanish was and how the Santiagan ladies will love me, and they left me there thinking how wonderful Chile was.

But then I did some mental arithmetic.

They were laughing, telling me how good my Spanish was and how I would be a hit with the ladies because I had just given them over twenty Australian bucks. It was most probably a combination of Patricia’s babeness, their flattery, the extra zeroes and my guilt that got me suckered into giving them much more money than I would ever give students in Australia for a quick chat and an awful poem about some stupid garden. Sadly though, I knew deep down that I would forgive them and do it all over again if Patricia, the seductress of Santiago, would smile at me a few times more.

Grumbling and cursing, I headed to the nearest restaurant to find solace in food. In many Latin American countries, the restaurants have these menus of the day which are simple three-course meals that in Chile, usually involve a salad for starters, a chunk of meat with rice or chips for main and a desert. They cost around five bucks, and as I was eating, I began to nearly choke myself with self-congratulatory laughter. It had dawned on me that the meal I was eating would cost at least double in Australia, and the more times I ate these Latin American menus of the day, the more money I was saving. So whilst munching, I vowed vengeance on those unsuspecting students, proclaiming that I would eat my way into saving at least double the money that I had given them. Tumbling back came my pride when I struck upon this food-friendly realisation, and after I had finished with my choking chuckles and eaten my meal, I gave the waiter a tip. He looked like the kind of guy that had a family to feed.

Through a friend of a friend that I had never met before and all done via the internet, I found myself catching a bus to a place that my guidebook did not list, and by my reckoning, did not really exist. Constitucion was the place I should go to according to the friend of my friend who I would meet once I got there. It was a six hour bus ride somewhere to the south of Santiago, and the lodge I was to stay at was in the middle of a forest. When I got to Constitucion, I was to call the mystery man Alejandro on his mobile and he would come to pick me up and take me to his lodge. I had no real idea where I was going, nor who these people were, but I jumped on a bus and headed down there anyway, well aware that this felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Thankfully, everything was wonderful at the casa del bosque. The townspeople were friendly and I had a few laughs with a local also named Antonio, swum in the nearby river, went walking through sand dunes and hiked through the trails around the place. But it was only after I had stayed there a couple of days that I realised this town, that isn’t in my guidebook and therefore doesn’t really exist, was a logging town with a paper mill and is situated on the coast of the Pacific. If I had known that, I may never had come down to stay in that lodge. And if I had met anyone named Laura, with or without plastic wrapped around her, or more importantly, anyone named Bob, I most certainly would have started running.

And that was the short version of my trip to Chile. I arrived back in Santiago by bus in the middle of the night for my flight to Rio in the morning and bid farewell to the country in a hot dog bar. Hot dog bars are everywhere in Santiago. There seems to be more of them than people inside them, and I thought nothing would be more fitting than spending my last few hours in Santiago sitting in one of those bars, munching away on sausage in bread with sauce. With the Chilean infomercials on the television and a stupid grin on my face in the dead of the night, I felt a little sad leaving. Maybe it was the excessive dose of Phil Collins I got over the past week that got me overly sentimental, or maybe it was simply due to the lack of decent coffee, but I was somewhat whimsical on my way out of Chile. As well as ripping holes into the crotch of my only two pairs of pants, the past week had seen me lose a jacket, an alarm clock and clip-on shades for my sunglasses. I don’t know what it was exactly, but for some strange reason, I felt like I hadn’t lost enough and I should continue eating hot dogs for a while more. I finished my meal with those contradictory thoughts, hailed a taxi and got my arse to the airport. The ride cost seven thousand pesos.

Two Days

Written in 2004 on Friday the 23rd of January, just before heading overseas for a year.

It’s happening in two days. In two days, I’m off. Two more sleeps and I’m on a plane, heading to South America. QANTAS are flying me to LA at 12:25pm on Sunday. On the same day and at the same time, I leave LA to head to Santiago. But what’s even stranger is if I was to leave Melbourne a few hours past midnight, I would arrive in LA the day before I’d left. It has something to do with the international dateline thingy somewhere over the Pacific.

South America is the trendy place to be for backpackers armed with a Che Guevara T-shirt thinking they’re revolutionary, and that shall be my itinerant home for the first five or so months of my travels overseas. Not having listened to enough Ricky Martin or Carmen Miranda during my formative years, the mellifluous lilts of Latin American languages I can’t really understand. Sadly the Portuguese is virtually non-existent, the Spanish rudimentary. I can speak Greek, but that doesn’t do me much good when dodging coca lords or trying to get myself laid. My much lauded olive-skinned and hairy forebears did their colonising a little too early for my country-to-country, meet-and-greet benefit. Thankfully, everyone speaks some brand of English. English: it’s the new Latin.

On the dawn of my Australia Day, I will be on a plane heading to Santiago. Following in the footsteps of the great Aussie champion of crapulence, David Boon, I think it only fitting that I break some kind of drinking record on the plane to commemorate the special day. “Be like Boony” is gonna be my mantra, 37 cans of beer my goal. Then when I land, I’m thinking of heading straight to the nearest port, hiring a boat, landing in a bay, planting an Australian flag into the shore and then proclaiming the land before me as the crown’s. The Chileans will love it. Those that don’t, I’ll slaughter.

In Brazil, they’re a civilised bunch. Over there, if a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, they get the Monday or Friday off too. Hearing of such enlightened public-holiday policy speaks volumes on the way of life there and makes me ever more certain that I will enjoy a place that’s got its priorities just about right. But it’s not only the very friendly public-holiday system they’ve got going there that makes me think I’ll spend most of my South American time in Brazil, it’s also about the capoeira.

For the past eight months, I have been training with Abada Capoeira Melbourne, and for the past eight months, capoeira and the friendly bunch of people that do it with me have pretty much taken over my life. It’s like a cult. There’s singing, there’s dancing, there’s hand clapping, there’s drum pounding, there’s a uniform and it’s done barefoot most of the time. Basically it’s a lot like being a Hare Krishna without the crazy haircuts. My particular brand of Capoeira, Abada, was founded by Mestre Camisa and I will be able to train at the school that he still runs in Rio. But what makes everything seem so preternaturally destined to be is that camisa in Portuguese means shirt or T-shirt. Those of you who know of my love for the T-shaped and shirt-like will understand how appropriate that my Capoeira master is also the master of shirts. It’s a simple enough coincidence, but enough of one to make me think we will get along smashingly.

But everything seems to be in order, everything seems to be at the ready. All I have to do is wait, and in two days, I’m gonna be in two places at the same time.