Part 1: In through the back door
The decade was only days old in 1970 when Tony and I, at the age of 21, set out from Sydney to travel the world, taking a slow boat to Panama on our first leg. This was before the oil crisis of 1973, a time when plane travel was still outrageously expensive, a prerogative of the rich only, and ocean liners were still the main means of transportation between Australia and Europe for most people. Our eclectic fellow passengers comprised musicians and rock bands working their way to England in the hope of finding success, which is how it was done in those days, draft dodgers wanting to avoid the Vietnam war, and a bewildering array of individuals that were rarely encountered on Sydney’s relatively insular north shore. The bands played until late each night while the days were spent around the pools recovering from the heady mix of alcohol and dope. The voyage across the Pacific Ocean took four weeks, slow even for those days but the price that had to be paid for a cheap ticket on an old cruise ship. Very few of our fellow passengers got off the ship with us in Panama City, preferring the familiar comfort of England as their final destination rather than the complexities of life with a foreign language on an obscure continent.
Panama City was a bit of an eye-opener: wild and dirty, noisy, shambolic and congested, with traffic that mostly drove on the wrong side of the road. A bit scary, to be honest. Panamá was under military rule at the time, which was apparent in the significant military presence everywhere. And yes, they spoke Spanish but we knew that and had practiced our Spanish from a little phrase book all the way across the Pacific Ocean, only to find that we had failed dismally to learn the answers to the questions that we posed! “Cuanto cuesta?” we asked, and the answer came back “Un palo”. The phrase book only taught regular numbers and they were hard enough to understand when spoken colloquially, let alone where slang was abundant and commonplace. We knew nothing about Panamanian history and little did we realise that there was an English-speaking enclave, comprising a strip of land about 30 kilometres wide that extended across the country from one ocean to another, an external territory of the USA that had been taken by force from Colombia and held since the early 1900s to protect the passage of ships through that great canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. We appreciated the Canal Zone. Patrolled by US forces, mostly forested but with an abundance of parks and other grassed areas we were able to safely bed down each night in a secluded spot within the Canal Zone. It had immediately become clear that we could not do this outside the Canal Zone. This provided a gentle start to our journey as it allowed us to consider personal safety issues and to feel we may be able to live within our means, which we had set at US $5 per day. The US Marines had sympathy for two grubby Australians that they clearly didn’t have for nationals of Panama and allowed us free movement in and out of the Canal Zone. United States military forces would, many years later in 1989, invade Panamá on the pretext of protecting US citizens living in the Canal Zone, combating drug trafficking and to restore civilian constitutional government.
After a few days of rest and recreation to get our heads around where we were, we island-hopped from Panama City through the Caribbean on a Pan American Airways flight on our way to South America. My memories of our island-hopping adventure through the Caribbean are somewhat garbled – one island after another, all with beaches on which to sleep, a heady mix of affluence and poverty, palm trees and Afro-Caribbean culture. What stood out then and remains foremost in my mind now, many years later, were the racial tensions we experienced at that time. It was a far cry from life in Sydney’s insular north shore where, of course, there were no such tensions after so many years of the White Australia Policy. Faced with threats of violence, curfews and exclusions from some localities we sort out secluded beaches on which to throw down a sleeping bags at night. Tobago was a no-go zone, completely off-limits to foreigners, while the steel drums and dancing in the streets welcomed us to Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad. The contrast between rich and poor and the corresponding resentment that people felt, particularly the youth, was nowhere more apparent than in Jamaica – but what a vibrant culture the country had! Bob Marley and the Wailers were playing in Kingston as we visited but we were told, by a handgun toting ice-block street vendor, that we should not attend for our own safety. The bus driver on our journey around the island seemed nervous having us on board and regularly questioned boarding passengers about weapons. Jamaica and Santa Lucia, in particular, were stunningly beautiful but the constant warnings of danger from concerned locals dampened our enthusiasm to linger very long.
While it is true that we had first set foot on the South American continent during a hop, skip and jump through the Guianas (originally five but subsequently whittled down to three – British Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana) on our PanAm flight to Manaus, our experience of these three colonial outposts of Britain, Netherlands and France respectively seemed much more closely linked culturally with the Caribbean island nations. The few days we spent in the capitals of each nation exposed us to the dominant Afro-European culture, distinctive architecture reflecting their European colonisation, street vendors, spicy food, steel drums, frogs in the toilet bowls of our cheap accommodation and a lack of development that was reflected in very few sealed roads, or roads at all for that matter, leading outside the capitals, particularly to the interior, and poverty. The capitals, as I recall them now, were reminiscent of large country towns in tropical Australia with their wide streets, high-set houses and lots of timber construction, but with more bicycles and horse-drawn carts. The historic inner city of Paramaribo, the capital of Surinam, was subsequently recognised as having World Heritage values for its architecture and cultural history. Other ethnic groups were also very apparent, East Indian in particular, but also some Chinese and Javanese. The presence of these ethnic groups were suggestive of a far more complex history than one might expect from geography alone. Political and racial tensions were quite apparent throughout these nations. There was talk of republics, independence from colonial masters and conflict between Afro- and East Indian-dominated political parties, particularly in British Guyana and Surinam where ethnicity and political ideology seemed closely aligned. Both racial and political tensions were high. This was our first realisation of cold war tensions being played out on the South American continent, not that we had any real inkling of the magnitude of the conflict that was raging at the time. We were blissfully ignorant of that and much more.
Unlike in Australia, the European faces of these nations’ colonial heritage were, by and large, not particularly obvious to the casual observer. The maritime links with other Caribbean nations were most obvious and, apart from the remarkable colonial architecture, provided the focus of our attention and interest. African culture reflecting a history of slavery, much like the Caribbean island nations, prevailed. Old and run-down trading vessels, many loaded with sugar cane and bananas, together with local fishing vessels and canoes dominated the wharves. Agriculture was poorly developed but the covered canoes and steam ships seemed to provide the main means of transportation for people and their locally grown produce, mostly bananas it seemed to us, to other Caribbean countries as well as along the coast and rivers to local Maroon and Amerindian villages. Clearly, had we ventured inland and observed the indigenous Amerindian population that were virtually absent from the capitals, and seen the extensive rainforest and its fauna and flora, then our perception may well have been different. But we hadn’t and for this reason, I continue to think of Brazil as my first real experience of the South American continent.
Manaus was the final destination on our PanAm jaunt through the Caribbean. My boyhood friend Tony and I stepped off the plane without a clue about what to expect, other than we were alighting from the flight in the middle of one of the world’s most remote and exotic regions: The Amazon. Clearly, this knowledge and the anticipation of adventure had driven us to this destination. We weren’t to be disappointed in this regard, but firstly had to find our way out of the airport. We had been continuing to practice our Spanish from the phrasebook, notwithstanding the setbacks we had experienced in Panama and, as I recall, were surprised to find that Portuguese was the language spoken in Brazil, rather than Spanish. Furthermore, no one in the airport spoke any English – we had some challenges in front of us, it seemed. We began then to learn the true value of hand, facial and whole of body gesturing to communication and language.
Our visas were in order and the immigration officials, accepting of our inability to communicate, let us through anyway. Full of surprises, Manaus was a frontier town like no other, perched high above the Rio Negro, only a short distance from its confluence with Solimões to form the mighty Amazon River, it had clearly seen better days. There were no bright lights and glitter, this had not yet arrived to this isolated outpost, only the sound of samba and bossa nova blaring from tinny-sounding speakers, in bars, markets and shops, and from fragile residences built beside the river on high stilts in order to maintain themselves above what seemed like an exceptionally rare flood but was simply the normal rise and fall of the river levels throughout the year. All were timber structures created from the thick rainforest that had once stood in their place. Local accommodation was basic, to say the least, but cheap and it served our needs.
Tourists were few and far between in Manaus but invariably those present could be found visiting the Opera House, which, steeped in history, stood majestically in the centre of town. But the grand performances that once graced this structure were now largely silent it seemed. Built during the rubber boom when Manaus is reported to have been one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the ‘Teatro Amazonas’ was the dream of rich rubber barons. The materials were mostly brought from different parts of Europe, as were the artisans and tradesmen who assembled the Opera House in the middle of the Amazon rainforest during the 1880s and 1890s, and the artists who subsequently performed there for a relatively short period before the rubber boom ended and the theatre fell into disrepair. Renovations on the theatre were ongoing but for a small fee we entered into another world, of elegant Renaissance art, that seemed completely out of context with the poverty and isolation that was Manaus in 1970. From the street, only the grandeur of the structure itself and the various park rotundas testified to the lifestyle that was no longer present. Not wanting to glorify this period in history, the high cost to the indigenous Amerindian population on whose backs and blood the wealth was created must not be forgotten.
There was no road out of Manaus so, other than leaving as we arrived by plane, we set about looking for river transport downstream to Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon. The Trans-Amazon highway had not yet been built. River ferries ran pretty regularly and after a few days in Manaus we departed on one. Travelling first class, in a cabin on the upper deck of which there were very few anyway, was out of the question on our budget. Second class consisted of hanging your own hammock wherever you could find space on the lower deck. Forewarned, we had bought ourselves hammocks before boarding and done so with time to spare in order to ensure a scenic spot on the open-sided deck. The seemingly spacious accommodation quickly filled just before departure and we soon found ourselves hanging in a jungle of hammocks, our new neighbours’ hammocks criss-crossing our own both above and below us in multi-story style. Communal living taken to an extreme, we got to know our neighbours but communication was limited to gesturing and few new words of Portuguese that were shared with us.
The ferry travelled day and night for several days, stopping at villages along the way to exchange passengers and cargo. Fish and rice was served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner, supplemented with plantain banana, manioc flour or cassava root depending upon the meal. It was a bit repetitive, but quite tasty, met our dietary needs and added to the experience. The trade in wildlife was most apparent in the villages we stopped at. We saw jaguar and ocelot, sloth, tapir, capybara, monkeys and boa constrictors in cages at the ports in many villages, awaiting transportation to a new home. Piranha were on our minds as we swam in the Amazon River when stopped, a little sceptical that this infamously ravenous fish was not present in the main river channel, but buoyed by the presence of local kids doing likewise. The river widened progressively as we headed further downstream. We would sit in our hammocks for many hours each day looking shoreward, marvelling at the size of the river, watching the distant bank when it would come to an end and another take its place, sometimes closer but oftentimes still further away. We became unsure if we were seeing islands or mainland. Enormous, ocean going cargo vessels would pass us on their way upstream to the ports of Manaus and Iquitos, in Peru, carrying virtually everything these isolated centres and their populations needed to develop.
Belém de Pará
Belém was a bustling port city at the mouth of the Amazon River, but away from the main channel on the Pará River. This old colonial city, a cidade velha, located away from the more modern business centre, was run down and, like Manaus, had clearly seen better days, but its history as seen through its rich architecture and multitude of churches and statues was readily apparent. The faces of the people here were, mostly, not black or white but shades of brown that reflected a mixture of indigenous Amerindian, African and European cultures, not one dominating over the other. Once on shore, it was black beans and rice, maybe with a little meat, that was the staple but still with plantain banana, manioc flour or cassava root. The diversity of exotic fruits was mind blowing, bananas being about the only one we recognised, the names of all these fruits incomprehensible, the flavours like nothing we had ever tasted before. The sweet avocado smoothies became a breakfast delight, both filling and nutritious. However, language was now beginning to seriously challenge us; How could we have not foreseen and prepared for the fact that Portuguese was the spoken language in this giant of South America?
We came across a cheap hotel close to the port and in the old part of Belém from which we could explore the city and contemplate our next steps. The selling point on this particular pensão, apart from recognizing it for what is was because of a similarity with its Spanish equivalent, pensión, was a concierge with a marginal, but some, knowledge of English. We were becoming fast learners: make the most of whatever luck comes your way. This affable old woman then became our main source of information about Belém and Brazil, which she was very willing to share. We lapped it up and began, slowly, to learn some basics of the Portuguese language.
The apparent militarisation of the police force, where officers carried heavy calibre automatic weapons, caught us by surprise. This was something we were not accustomed to seeing in Australia. The constant military police presence was unnerving, intimidating and reminded us of the bad press South American countries and their dictators got in the Australian media, notwithstanding an apparent lack of interest in two gringos. We learned that their presence did indeed follow on from a military coup in 1964 that had overthrown a democratically elected president, considered to be a communist sympathiser and advocate of agrarian reform, and installed an authoritarian and nationalistic military Government that was closely aligned politically with the USA. The U.S. ambassador to Brazil had been kidnapped the year before, in 1963, and subsequently released unharmed but the incident instigated a period of extreme repression against the guerrilla group responsible and anyone remotely sympathetic. The full extent of the direct role the U.S. had in Brazil’s 1964 military coup remains a little unclear, but involvement of the CIA and a financial, logistical and advisory role is well documented. Documents reveal that President John F. Kennedy was disposed to invading Brazil to remove its elected President if the military junta hadn’t acted when it did. This was a further reminder that the cold war was being actively played out on the continent where there were fears of another Cuban revolution on the minds of the U.S. and Latin American governments.
Exploring the city by foot, church after church, plaza after plaza, monument after monument and in desperate need of some rest and relaxation we came upon the city’s Botanical Gardens. This in-situ patch of remnant rainforest was not quite like any other Botanical Gardens we were used to: this one held all sorts of wild Amazonian animals in precarious looking cages, while others that were deemed less dangerous, such as tapirs, roamed freely behind the park’s meagre fence. Giant freshwater fish, o peixe-boi-da-amazônia, swam in the ponds with caiman crocodiles while, all around, the amazon jungle was clearly winning the battle here and taking over the amphitheatre-like structures, fountains, monuments and pathways that once proclaimed this park a mighty symbol of colonial culture in the heart of the Amazon. A large monkey, in particular, pulled tightly at my heart strings. Clearly very lonely and simply desiring companionship, this creature of the rainforest would sit and hold my finger for as long as I would stay. Returning on subsequent days, it would hold out a hand on seeing me approach. So very sad.
We had viewed South America as being only the first leg on our world trip and, as such, had thought about it as a quick romp around the continent on the way to bigger and better things – North America, Europe and Asia yet to come. And with only a couple of thousand dollars each in our pockets, there was no time to dally, particularly when there were accommodation costs to bare. I use the term ‘in our pockets’ figuratively, getting access to cash when travelling was very different then to now. This was an era before credit cards and ATMs. Tony and I each carried a Letter of Credit from an Aussie bank and a list of affiliates around the world where cash could be withdrawn and, if desired or necessary, travellers’ cheques acquired. We carried some US dollars in cash too, but mostly in travellers’ cheques which, while marginally more secure than cash, had to be closely guarded, the cheque numbers recorded separately in case of loss. Travellers’ cheques were the preferred form of currency for us. It was beneficial to have a range of denominations so that no more than was absolutely necessary would have to be cashed at any one time. Money management was a complicated business, in Brazil for instance, Letter of Credit withdrawals could only be made in the local currency, and you didn’t always want too much of that.
We quickly became aware that there was a black market for US dollars, cash got the best exchange rate but travellers’ cheques weren’t far behind. Our hotel concierge was quick off the mark in this regard, taking advantage of the rare gringo that stepped foot into her pensão. The official bank exchange rate was much lower than the black market, another reason to minimize our spending and avoid having to cash in any of our Letter of Credit in Brazil. We found the Brazilian currency, the Cruzeiro Novo or New Cruzeiro, a little confusing at first. The notes were, in fact, old currency Cruzeiros in denominations of hundreds to many thousands that had been around for decades and, due to inflation, had only recently been devalued at 1000:1 and over stamped, not reprinted. Some old Cruzeiro notes remained in circulation while the 100 old Cruzeiro notes became close to worthless. We ended up with very large wads of Brazilian bank notes in our pockets.
But a quick romp around the continent was already starting to look challenging. We were going to have to bus it out of Belém and we had a surprisingly long trip ahead of us. Surprising because, once again, we hadn’t done our homework. Brazil is one very big country and, with Rio de Janeiro in mind for our next destination, we had around four and a half thousand kilometres to travel. We were somewhat relieved to find that Brazil had an amazing long distance bus network, but were daunted by the days of bus travel in front of us. It was here in Belém that we first discovered the Rodoviária, no ordinary bus station, certainly not like one we’d ever seen before. Even in an outpost like Belém, it was a transportation hub with buses arriving and departing to and from just about everywhere it seemed on a 24/7 basis. Busses of all descriptions, old and new, most belching grubby fumes, but some, like the one we were about to travel on were quite luxurious, having windows that opened, reclining seats built for people with shorter legs that I had but with a toilet in the back for those long journeys when the driver was just not going to stop for anything. The vast majority of Brazil’s population, like us, didn’t have the financial means to travel by air. Unfortunately, many of the roads we were to travel on in the northeast of Brazil didn’t reflect the sophistication of the bus service. This part of Brazil, we were to discover, lacked the level of development that we were to find further south.
The bus journey from Belém to Rio lasted several days and nights. We preferred to do most of our travel overnight as this saved us the cost of accommodation and offset the cost of the bus transport, to some minor extent at least, while we spent some part of our days hanging out in the rodoviárias of Fortaleza, Recife and Salvador waiting for the next leg of our journey to commence. We missed most of the countryside and many of the small towns we stopped at during the night to set down and pick up our fellow passengers. We saw only enough of Fortaleza, Recife and Salvador to leave us with a sense of excitement, yet also loss and a desire to return some other time, not that we thought that there was much likelihood of this happening in the near future. The face of Africa was more apparent in these cities of Brazil’s northeast, but also colour and vibrancy, notwithstanding our experience that was largely limited to the rodoviárias and the few surrounding blocks. Drums and a range of weird looking percussion instruments, including a reco-reco (notched scraper), an agogô (double-bell), matchboxes (yes, just ordinary, everyday matchboxes), and that marvellous single stringed instrument with what looked like a coconut for a resonator – the berimbau – bombarded our senses continuously throughout the journey, played by individuals and small groups, including on the busses. Carnaval had come early in the year and we had just missed it, so whether they were practicing for next year or just playing for their own and others enjoyment wasn’t clear but never had I then or elsewhere outside Brazil heard a matchbox played with such enthusiasm and skill. This memory remains with me today.
On the last leg of our journey south our transport detoured through Brasilia: a city most unlike the aforementioned with their sense of vibrancy. This city, Brazil’s new national capital, was only 10 years old and would itself go unmentioned as unmemorable if it were not for its similarity with Canberra. Both were newly planned cities aimed at decentralisation by placing the various branches of Government away from the heavily populated coastal regions. The architecture of Brasilia though, was far more expansive and ornate than that of Canberra but being far younger totally lacked a sense of being lived in as we passed through the semi-deserted avenues that had evidently been designed for vehicles and not people. In contrast to the monumental style of the Government buildings, the residential areas appeared to be modelled on eastern-block European designed rectangular high-rise appartments designed to establish a classless society and were already showing signs of dilapidation after so few years of habitation. Canberra, in contrast, had been established 40 years earlier as a more low-rise, garden concept but, like Brasilia, it too was built around a large artificial lake.
Rio de Janeiro
On arrival in Rio we stashed our large backpacks in the rodoviária and set out into the city with only small day packs crammed with the essentials we would need for the next week, the intended duration of our stay. We were hanging out for the famous beaches of Rio de Janeiro and made our way by bus to Copacabana beach, where we were to spend our first day and night. The steep drop-off along the beach’s edge made the shore break downright scary, the water was a bit grubby with solid waste but otherwise clear, and the beach bodies mind-blowing against the white sand. Both the boys and girls seemed pretty well suited to each other, strutting their things, bronzed bodies in skimpy swimwear, ogling one another without self-consciousness whatsoever. Volleyball was the next most popular beach game, possibly because it didn’t stand in the way of the main game. The ever present music and dance that we first observed passing through the cities of NE Brazil continued here, more apparent still, and flowed along the beach front and onto the sand. This city was as multi-cultural as we had come across, the beach, in particular, a population mix of Africans, Europeans and, mostly, mixed race or mulatos, all interacting, playing and partying together without any obvious signs of a cultural divide. This sense of integration struck us immediately, possibly because of the intense racial divisions and conflict we had only recently experienced travelling through the Caribbean islands and Guianas where tensions were constantly simmering and, on occasions, overflowing into violence.
Copacabana, with its beachfront strip and distinctive pavement, its high rise apartments stretching back towards the hills, little bars and eateries, and shops was a hive of activity and reportedly one of the most populated square kilometres in the world. The sandy beach itself was wide, with shadows, if not darkness, extending shorewards when night fell. It was here that we decided to make our beds as the nightlife began to slow down. Some anxiety about sleeping out remained with us after our Caribbean experience so we carefully selected a more remote and dark spot on the beach where we burrowed down and would not be silhouetted against the white sand and thus made particularly obvious. A certain level of poverty was readily apparent in Brazil and petty crime reportedly common.
We slept in hollows, clothed but lying on a towel and our sleeping bags, with our extra clothes stashed into the sleeping bag cover that we used as a pillow. Our valuables, passport and money, were kept in a wallet around our necks. We slept fitfully during our first night, feeling exposed, with the sounds of the city not far away. That turned out to be beneficial. At some stage I woke up to find a boy on his stomach, like a snake, approaching me from behind, apparently with mal intent. Startled, I abruptly got to my feet by which time the young guy was off and running. Tony and I took it in turns sleeping and keeping watch for the rest of the night, and decided to move on elsewhere the following day.
We didn’t move far, west along the coast to the next stretch of beach, Ipanema and Leblon. We stuck it out sleeping our nights at different spots along the beach in front of Ipanema and Leblon, venturing to the more distant beaches of São Conrado, Barra da Tijuca and Praia Vermelha below Pão de Açucar for a change of scenary, not that sleeping in any of these spots, either in the more up-market or less populated areas of Rio, turned out to be any safer. But the sand and water was a bit cleaner and, certainly, the surf was much better along the beaches from Ipanema to São Conrado and Barra. There seemed to be an element of self-imposed segregation, different elements of Rio society identifying with different parts of the beach, not so much based on race but affluence, age and sexual orientation. Inhibitions around sexuality more generally, but more specifically homosexuality and transsexuality, were not very apparent here unlike in Australia. What was clear though was that a strong beach culture existed here, much as it did in Australia, only the bikinis were smaller and the bodies displayed more effortlessly.
On our second night sleeping out on the beach at Leblon I awoke to screams and the surreal sight of Tony chasing a kid around and around the spot where we were settled; the screams were intense and coming from both parties. Tony had himself awoken to find a hand in his pillow rummaging for valuables. After some time, Tony gave up as, having not lost anything, it didn’t seem worth the effort. This set the scene for each of our nights to come; for these kids it was more of a game, a challenge to get the better of a pair of gringos sleeping rough on the beach. There was never any malice or weapons involved, more often than not we got a thumbs up, a congratulatory communication for having outcompeted them. Some nights this went on hour after hour until we were all tired of it. The only issue they seemed to have with us was that we were gringos. Once we learned that the resentment they felt was predominantly against north Americans and their support for the military government we became quicker at identifying ourselves as Australian. But we still looked like gringos.
There were no highways leading to Barra da Tijuca in 1970, Barra itself was a suburb under construction with relatively few beachfront dwellings, and the bus trip there and back took us through some of Rio’s biggest slums, or favelas. The favelas of Rocinha and Vidigal may not have had the beaches, but their views from the hillsides were spectacular. Steep streets wound up the hillside, many mere footpaths surrounded by precarious looking buildings and shacks overhanging each other and the cliffs on which the communities were build. Most were constructed from discarded building materials, concrete blocks, timber and corrugated iron, ad-hoc town planning with open sewers running down the hillside, and a maze of electrical wiring hanging overhead. There was lots of movement up and down the passageways, some inhabitants just hanging out, small shops and street stalls selling limited food items. It struck us that it was not race but poverty that united the community. The extent and level of poverty in the favelas was breathtaking and, for the first time, put in some perspective the constant attempts to steal from us as we slept during the night. It also took the edge off any ill feelings we may have initially felt towards those kids, some not so young, who tried to rob us as we slept. I have no doubt, in hindsight, that there was an element of risk entering the favelas but we were blissfully ignorant of those risks and no harm or threats were ever made to us. The favelas were in marked contrast to the affluence and lifestyle of the beachside suburbs of Ipanema and Leblon, where security guards manned the entrances of apartment blocks and residences, and the bars and cafes were filled with boisterous good humour, music, food and drinks. These were next door neighbours who lived in different worlds, both sharing Rio’s spectacular views of rainforest covered mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.
When not on the beach, our days were spent visiting Rio’s numerous attractions: The cog-train up to Cristo Redentor was a standout, riding this historic tram up through the Tijuca forest to the best view of Rio possible. Then there was the cablecar to Pão de Açucar, the Botanical Gardens and the bonde or tram to Santa Teresa that travels through the streets and over the aqueduct to one of the most picturesque and historic neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro. The smell of marijuana, known locally as maconha, was becoming increasingly common as we hung out in Rio, not just in the favelas but also on the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema. The distinctive aroma was something I had not been familiar with living on the north shore of Sydney harbour. I had first smelt it on our voyage to Panama, something Tony had made me aware of, and then sporadically as we travelled through the Caribbean and Guianas to Brazil. But here in Rio, it was a much more common occurrence amongst young Brazilians. The opportunity and temptation to try it was there but the fear of addiction that I had been brought up with in Australia held us back. Heroin and marijuana had always been spoken about in the same way, put in the same category back home, both linked to Southeast Asia, soldiers returning from the Vietnam war and drug addiction. But there seemed to be a different attitude to maconha here in Brazil, although it was obviously not legal, the fear was in confrontation with the Military Police and where that might lead rather than concern about the drug itself.
The road south heading for Uruguay, and then on to Argentina and Chile, was a long one. On the way we passed briefly through the southern Brazilian cities of Curitiba, Florianópolis and Porto Alegre. As we travelled south there was a notable increase in affluence and a subtle change in the racial mix, where cities like Curitiba appeared almost European and had a noticeable German population. The names of some cities we didn’t visit also testified to significant German immigration to southern Brazil, specifically Blumenau and Novo Hamburgo. There had been strong Japanese immigration to the State of São Paulo where this group has had a significant influence in food production through market gardens. The multi-cultural character of Brazil was another similarity it had with Australia; the Germans and Japanese of Brazil equating to the Italian and Greek communities in Australia. Our bus erupted in cheers as we approached Pelotas, nearer to the border with Uruguay, with a large contingent of Uruguayans and Argentinians who had been shopping in Porto Alegre chanting “estámos en pelotas”. What seemed obvious to us, we were to learn, was a play on words or pun, meaning “we’re naked”, clearly symbolic to the inhabitants of the River Plate.
Our whirlwind tour through South America continued, certainly not slowing down, through Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. After a two and a half thousand kilometre bus journey from Rio, with some stops along the way, we finally arrived in Montevideo, the national capital of Uruguay; a small Spanish speaking country with a low population density when compared with its neighbours, half of which lived in the capital of around one and a half million. Once referred to as the Switzerland of South America it was immediately apparent that those were bygone days. Montevideo was grey, like the weather, as were the well but conservatively dressed population. Compared to Brazil, this was a largely mono-cultural population. We were to learn that the indigenous Charrúas had been all but eradicated by the invading Spanish when they wouldn’t capitulate. The current inhabitants were derived mostly from Spanish and Italian immigration. But what struck us most, and immediately, on arrival was the olden-days appearance of the city’s transport system; there were no late model vehicles in Uruguay, rather, 1940s and 50s cars, even Model T Fords, ruled the roads.
The old vehicles reflected what had been a significant decline in the country’s economy through the 1950s and 60s, that was showing no sign of recovery and had resulted in the rise of an urban, Marxist insurgency known as the Tupamaros. Tupamaro activity was increasing and the government was responding with corresponding levels of violence against this group and its supporters. The Tupamaros were mostly focused on exposing corruption in government and the national banking system, although some police had been killed, and they had, it was reported, widespread support amongst a despondent population. The political tension was readily apparent. A State of Emergency was in force and there were student and trade union demonstrations in the streets of downtown Montevideo against the conservative government. The police and army were out in force to suppress the demonstrators and we were confronted with street violence and arrests. We were very fearful and wary about where we moved around the city. We didn’t feel welcome and were subjected to verbal abuse as gringos. The resentment against the U.S. was even more palpable here than north of the border in Brazil. The accusations of being North American spies and CIA informants seemed surreal as we had no real understanding of the political turmoil into which we had stepped. Only later were we to learn something of the United States collaboration, through the U.S. AID office and CIA, with the Government to suppress by whatever means necessary, including torture and extrajudicial killings, the perceived threat to democracy that was posed by the Tupamaro insurgency.
To be continued … any feedback on my writing style (my experience is scientific rather than literary) and your level of interest in the story line itself would be appreciated below. Thanks.