It was March and there were still a few weeks to go before the carnival which is what I was in town for. It had been over a year since my last big trip and there's a lot of truth in that old saying that the good things in life are worth waiting for. Jersey is so small and claustrophobic that I'd been screaming to get away and spread my wings, and given my newly acquired freedom that's exactly what I was going to do.
For all Brazil's lack of this that and the other, most of it's population are a happy breed who live in preparation for the carnival, and as soon as it's over they start planning again for the next one. Officially it lasts for two nights, but off the record it starts about three weeks before when the total population of the civilised part of the country go ape with a vengeance and carry on almost unceasingly until its culmination in Rio. It's not only in the city that the celebrations happen though. It's all over the country. It's just that everything is bigger and better in Rio so that's the place that's got the name for it. Without meaning to sound patronising I'll take this opportunity to explain the very basics of the carnival to you. The floats that you've all seen adorned with scantily clad females are from different samba schools and a samba school is a dance troupe of which there are twelve or thirteen big ones in Brazil. That's not to say that there are only a dozen or so floats though as each school will have ones from a different areas, and of course there's smaller schools as well, each one remaining unique in as much as it has it's own moves and particular types of music. And once a year they all get together at Marques de Sapucai which is a purpose built arena to battle it out for top honours in the champion of champions competition which determines the best music, dancers or states of undress.
I spent my first few hours gazing in awe at the wonder of Copacabana. The beautiful setting, the beautiful beach, the beautiful weather and the beautiful girls. Copa is a beautiful place period, no doubt about that, and I had no doubt in my mind that over the next few weeks I was going to take all it had to offer.
With it being late afternoon I used the next half hour or so trying to find myself a hotel for the night and the "Meridien" which is at the end of the tunnel that leads from the beach to the city was my first port of call. To say it would be an extravagance to stay there was an understatement to say the least. It's forty storeys of magnificent luxury overlooked the whole surrounding area. Nevertheless, I came, I saw, and god willing I was about to conquer. So up the marble steps I traipsed, through the entrance hall with its souvenir shops, and onto the elevator to the first floor reception area where I intended checking in for the night.
I'd parked in the forecourt for barely three minutes (which was as long as it took me to discover that there were no vacancies) before returning to the car. I didn't know how what where or why, but for some unknown idiotic reason I'd left a grand in hard cash in the glove compartment. Obviously I'd locked the car so when I returned to find it open I instinctively checked for the lolly. Damn, shit and bollocks, it was gone. Every single penny, gone. So much for doing that trip like the Sheikh of Arabeek. I was back to square one and I hadn't even started. Obviously I was pissed off to the hilt but what the hell. Easy come, easy go. The last thing I was going to do was let it spoil my holiday. The inevitable "I didn't see anything" was the retort from the doorman as I questioned him, but what was I to expect? I was just another foreigner in town, and the locals have to make a living somehow.
Shortly after that I drove to the Rio Palace Hotel at the opposite end of Copa and it was there that I stopped for a drink. I didn't need the drink for drinks sake to much as a sedative for my nerves, but who needs an excuse when you're on holiday? Between rounds I did a bit of window shopping at the small market that had set up on the patio. It was one of the many side attractions that had been erected in preparation for the carnival. Each fifty foot jaunt from my outdoor table had resulted in my finding a new seat though, and it was on one such return that I got acquainted with two of the local girls, one of whom spoke at least a little more than passable English. After a few more drinks they knew who I was, where I came from, what had happened at the Meridien, and anything else of futile insignificance that related to moi.
Thanks to the twist of fate of not so long before my finances weren't half as rosy as I'd planned and by that time the girls had realised that I was looking for a moderately priced roof and bed that wasn't to far from the action. "I know a place in Flamengo" chirped up the bi-lingual one, and as night was rapidly drawing in I was in no position to refuse the offer. Into my hire car we got and retraced my tracks down Atlantica Avenida which runs parallel to the beach, then past the Meridien, through the tunnel and on to Flamengo.
Flamengo is the average area of not too rich and not too poor that's situated midway between the city and Copa. Along with it's neighbouring district of Gloria it has hundreds of small hotels that cater for the kind of tourist who likes to live like a tourist but can't really afford to be in the real tourist areas.
We took the Avenida das Nacoes through Botafogo before hop-scotching through half a dozen back streets to our destination. "There it is. The one with the ramp" she said as I drove off the road and into the private car park which was just about big enough to take a handful of cars. A few were already in their places and locked up for the night, so the multi-linguist got out to watch me back while the other went into the reception to find the boss- man. "Right a bit, back a bit, left a bit".......BANG. Thanks to the subdued lighting in the place I was totally reliant on her directions to get parked up safely, and I don't know if she got her English mixed up or if she was just plain fucking stupid but I'd smacked into the car behind. It's no wonder that guys go on about women drivers. She wasn't even in the car and she'd caused an accident. And as if that wasn't bad enough, just at the very moment of contact her friend had come out with the hotels supervisor who had seen everything. He was waving his hands and shaking his head and mumbling words that were all Dutch to me, despite the fact that they were all in the Brazilian national language of Portuguese.
Into his office we went as he tried to find the unfortunate owner of the other car. As luck would have it he was nowhere to be found for the time being though, so as I was supposedly staying for the night the ranting and raving seemed to fall by the wayside as the "let's do business" side of the manager's personality took over. We went up to the room which I was so pleased with that I decided to take it without even asking the price. The girls had told me beforehand that it would probably be about twenty bucks a night and it was on the strength of that information that I decided to go there in the first place. Consequently all I had to do was thank them and unpack.
They were just about to leave when the bossman said "a hundred dollars". I couldn't believe my luck, a hundred dollars for a week. It was even cheaper than the girls had told me. "No, a night".....Through the translation of my guide we managed to determine that if I stayed for a full week I could have the place for eighty dollars a night. "Tell him to stuff it" was my answer which led to his attitude changing from that of Mister Nice Guy back to that of the deranged character who saw me bump the other car a few moments earlier. It was when the girls began to take his side, insisting that prices go up, and that as I'd already agreed to take the room I'd have to pay that I realised I'd been set up.
There's only one thing worse than being ripped off when you need it the least and that's a premeditated rip-off. God knows how they managed it but they succeeded in keeping me arguing for another ten minutes, by which time the owner of the battered car had returned. There was more feigned shock horror as he inspected the damage to the fender and the way he held his hands up in the air I could just picture the words "mama mia" in a word bubble if he'd been a character in a kids comic book. But he wasn't. He was a pissed off Brazilian who wanted compensation for his misfortune and he wanted it there and then.
"Two hundred dollars should be enough" translated the girls. "My insurance will pay it" I informed them as I pulled out my cover note. The ensuing arguing with the girls as mediator was something to the effect of "that's not how it's done in Brazil" and "I want two hundred dollars cash, now". "I've got no money". "Then how were you going to pay for the room"? "By Visa". "Right, give the hotel manager two hundred bucks off your card, he'll give it to the other guy, and then you can go". "Tell him to fuck off". I think I should point out at this point that I don't usually use that kind of language in front of females but where I come from it's normal talk when you've been pushed to your tethers end and I'd just been taken even further.
At some point mid discussion we'd decided to return to the hire kiosk at the airport to settle the matter once and for all. I was confident that once there, the other guy would be assured that the insurance would attend to any recompense in due course. and in turn everybody concerned would be happy. Little did I realise the way they finalise that kind of problem in South America though. The Hertz girls immediately took the side of the locals by reiterating that if I had no money then I should pay by Visa. With more hands waving in the air on their side and even more "fuck off"s from me we all returned to the hotel to get stuck into round ten. What should have been a back and forth debate was in reality a back and back, which was all headed my way, not to mention that the whole affair was getting somewhat out of hand as no-one was willing to back down.
By the time I decided to leave there were the two girls and three guys at the table, another in front of the only exit door and another outside should I decide to leave. As I was doomed to have my head kicked in in any case I decided that it may as well be in a blaze of glory, so, in a moment of bravado I slammed my fists down onto the table, walked to the door, pushed the big fella out of the way, barged past the other who wasn't quite sure what to do, shit myself at least twice in the process, and got into the car. And in a last moment of insanity, as I reversed into the street I gave the girls one last chance to leave with me before saying "o.k. fuck you" and speeding off into the night.
Paranoid was an understatement for the way I felt as I raced through the back streets of South America. I'd lost all sense of direction and I didn't have the faintest idea where I was destined. At every glance into the rear view mirror I imagined that any moment the car behind me would overtake, cut me into the side, and I'd be violently murdered by the five guys as the girls watched on in glee. It was either that or that the ensuing motor was a paddy wagon, in which case I'd be locked up in a prison cell that was so inhumanely unbelievable that even Amnesty International wouldn't acknowledge its existence and I'd never be seen again.
For every turn I took it seemed to be following me and each time I revved up it seemed to go a little faster. My foot was already as close as it could get to the ground without touching and just when I'd accepted that my future was in the lap of the gods I saw a bus in the distance. My luck was in, it was pulling to a stop. The road wasn't too big and parked cars on each side of the bus made it even smaller. I had a flash of Crocker from Miami Vice in the same situation. What would he do? Fuck it. It was a case of shit or bust. I didn't know if my car would fit through but it didn't matter anymore. I'd always been a great believer in fate and I felt sure that in a few moments it was going to decide my destiny. I squeezed the gas pedal the last inch to the floor and aimed for the opening. Two heart attacks, another pair of pants full of crap and a deafening screech later and I was through the other side. Unscathed and unattached to the vehicle that had been in pursuit of me. I never did find out if it was actually following me or if it was all in my imagination but I was hardly about to stop and ask after just losing it. Getting out to inspect the cars damage I was amazed that I'd managed to through it all without a scratch. The whole of the right side had been pushed in where I'd scraped against the bus and had it not been for the fact that the passengers off-loaded on the other side there would have been at least a few dead bodies in the midst of my rampage. For the time being I must have had luck on my side though if that's what you can call it. But something was telling me that Rio wasn't going to be just any old trip. I'd been in town for barely sixteen hours and already I'd been robbed, threatened and subsequently involved in two car smashes.