Big Mac & Pizza (Episode Two)
"Foda-se fihlo da puta." I loved screaming that from the passenger seat of a black Ford Escort XR3i on the way back to my hotel having had another easy day's work in São Paulo, Brazil. I was actually shouting, "Fuck you, you son of a bitch." The driver - my interpreter - started to teach me the more important Portuguese words (that's what they speak in Brazil - in case you didn't know).
His name was Val, short for Valmir, and quite a common name in Brazil from all accounts. He'd turn out to be a good friend, always there when you need him, always helpful. He worked for an agency that represented the company I worked for in the UK. It was common practise to have an agency in each country to promote the product your company was selling and exporting worldwide. Some agents I never saw, some were a bunch of arseholes, and others like the one Val worked for took you in like a member of the family and made your stay more enjoyable especially when travelling alone.
As we crawled along the streets in peak traffic, air con on, rock radio playing the same music each day, I'd sit, relax and look in awe at the size of this Metropolis. Skyscrapers littered as far as the eye can see, São Paulo is one ‘mother' of a city.
Not renowned for being ‘touristy', it's not your Rio de Janeiro, but nevertheless its still a fantastic place with such friendly people, and if you ever get the chance, I would recommend you visit this city.
I came here about eight or nine times, always staying in hotels just off the massive Avenida Paulista (you could say São Paulo's ‘golden mile'), buzzing with activity day and night, plenty of shops, bars, cinema's and an abundance of McDonalds. As you can well imagine I ate junk food galore when staying here and, on allowances trips, pocketed a small fortune. I'd change my routine mind you. I'd try many different restaurants and never ate in the same McDonalds two nights in a row. Instead I'd rotate which one I'd visit and what I'd eat, though most of the time I'd eat a Big Mac because it was easier to pronounce. ‘Biggy Macky' is how they say it. Actually the XR3i I was driven around in was pronounced ‘Escorty.' I'm not sure if every wordy had a letter ‘y' on the endy mindy you!
São Paulo was also the place where I first discovered Dunkin' Donuts another cheap alternative, this time for my sweet tooth - dessert to take back to the hotel as I sat drinking a bottle or two of some local brew and watching dubbed television. There were no English speaking TV channels where I normally stayed, but I soon found out that the local cinemas didn't dub the movies but actually displayed subtitles. That meant I could go to the cinema on many occasions and enjoy a movie in full English. Likewise the choice of movies was way in advance of those films we see in the UK. I'd be able to watch new movies more or less at the same time as their US release date and not a few weeks or months later, which is often the case in the UK.
It passed the time away when I was on my own and helped my pale complexion blend in with the more olive skinned locals. The only downside to subtitles is when you go to watch a comedy. The words are displayed on the screen before the actors were actually speaking them. Therefore everyone in the cinema would be laughing a good few seconds before I would. I guess it made me look rather slow or a bit of an idiot laughing after the event - well in the eyes of the locals reading the subtitles it did. I was the one laughing at the right moment, not them, but unfortunately it meant I'd attract the odd stare or glare and probably the odd muttering of ‘foda-se' or something just as colourful. At least with ‘serious' films such issues didn't occur.
One particular trip to the flicks however turned out to be very embarrassing. I can't remember what I went to see – it wasn't a comedy that I do remember. I got there early, grabbed some popcorn and a cola and sat in an aisle seat. The popcorn was disgusting, as I'd bought the salted variety. Popcorn is sweet, always has been and always should be. Whoever decided to add butter and salt want their head examining if you ask me – some odd quirky American invention probably. I know salted popcorn is normal now in our own country, but if you look back at the early nineties, it wasn't. In the UK you got sweet popcorn or bags of toffee-coated popcorn, and that's how it should have remained. I personally think there should a law banning the sale of popcorn inside cinemas unless it's sweet. Well that's how strong I feel about the stuff. Suffice to say on this occasion, I discretely put the disgusting salted purchase under my seat. Now I didn't realise that the seat next to me was a little bit dirty. Well actually it looked like there was some dried chewing gum stuck on the padded fabric. I never really took any notice of it until the cinema started to fill up. People would be coming up speaking away in Portuguese gibberish to me, obviously asking if the seat next to me was taken. I'd simple look back at them in some sort of dumb muted expression swinging my legs in so they could squeeze past.
Hey all I knew was "foda-se fihlo da puta", which wouldn't have gone down well.
"Excuse me is this seat free?"
"Fuck you, you son of a bitch."
Nah, it was better to play dumb than start swearing at everyone.
Each time I let someone squeeze past to sit down, the people in the next seat pointed out that there was ‘shu, shu' on the seat. Now I don't know if that means the seat was dirty or if they were saying don't sit there because there's some dried shit on the padding. Each time this happened, the people would squeeze past me again to find another place to watch the movie.
This went on and on and on.
I even tried to pretend the seat was taken. That didn't work. I also tried to mimic the term ‘shu shu', but I got dirty looks in return. I should have really just got up and found another seat of my own. I think I didn't in case someone shouted after me thinking that I'd left behind the unwanted popcorn I'd put under my seat. Instead I sat still thinking the film would be starting any minute and then I could forget about the people sitting around me and the bloody popcorn. By now everyone around me had probably guessed that I was foreign so I got plenty of funny looks. They obviously thought that I was some sort of nutter for not being able to understand what was going on - a crazy gringo!
Unfortunately I did stand out, I mean it was the early nineties and I sported a mullet. What a stupid name for a haircut. I have no idea where the term came from but apparently I had one. I prefer to say I was growing my hair like Bono from U2, ala ‘The Joshua Tree' style. It wasn't quite long enough to go into a full ponytail but it was getting there.
Bono is one of my heroes, and U2 are my favourite rock band, thus the hair growing tribute thing.
Nah I don't think so.
Then again I often got called Axl Rose for some reason. Maybe it was the baseball cap being worn backwards in true US rock star fashion that prompted that case of mistaken identity. I wasn't asked for my autograph mind you, but bizarrely it wouldn't be the first time I'd be compared to famous people on my travels in South America. That however is another story for another country.
The long hair and especially my earring would get many people asking if I was a ‘bicha' (gay) or ‘bicha loca' (crazy gay). Nice!
An earring in a bloke is rare in Brazil and I had to inform customers and those I had day-to-day contact with that ‘left was right, and right was wrong' - my left ear was pierced thus the right side for a bloke. If my right ear had been pierced then you can call me a ‘bicha.'
Actually I got it from another works colleague who had lived in the US for a few years. His left ear was pierced and for some reason it was common conception in the States that if you had you right ear pierced you were gay. Simple as that. The phrase ‘left is right and right is wrong' is something he spouted off once - I'm actually surprised he could remember the phrase as he always went on about how stoned he was when he lived in America. He'd often say how he could hardly remember the Seventies at all. He was however an intelligent and sensible person and that is hard to believe seeing as he'd fried half of his brain!
That phrase struck a chord and was something I found repeating to others; not only in Brazil but also in most countries I visited where my little hooped earring would become a major conversation piece. I've got nothing against the gay community mind you so don't think this is me being completely homophobic.
Anyway as I've already said, I stood out, not that Brazil has a clearly defined style of inhabitants. Without sounding insulting, Brazil is like a country of mongrels. I don't mean that in a nasty way; it's just that you have all manner of people from very dark skinned to very light skinned, European looking to South American looking.
But my pale skin and probably my dress sense showed I was foreign though people would think I was a ‘Yankee' or ‘Americano' - the UK was too far away as far as they were concerned! I had to learn to dress down when venturing outside. What I mean by this is, I was told of the ever increasing crime-wave Brazil has - more notoriously in the tourist areas such as Rio de Janeiro more than the industrial areas of São Paulo.
Nevertheless I would go out wearing a plain T-shirt, jeans, no watch and carry less than ten dollars (US currency is the world's currency). I'd only carry more if I knew I needed to due to a cinema visit or if I was off to buy something. Ten dollars worth was ample for my fast food fetish. You simply had to be careful you see, I didn't want to be mugged, it would probably involve my death as I guess street robbers have little moral sense in countries where the law often mirrors that of the Wild West.
If I wasn't wearing jeans I'd probably be wearing tracksuit bottoms - and unfortunately back in the early nineties meant the shell suit variety. I guess that look made me stand out. People would look at the trousers as if I was some sort of clown wearing this strange fabric on my legs. The thing is they were comfortable and fashionable at the time (in the UK). I dare anyone not to own up to having ever had a shell suit. Everyone wore them at that time, just not in Brazil. There were plenty of stares, but no one actually approached me about the pants. Often however I'd get more than my fair share of beggars coming up to me, and it saddens me to say that the vast majority of these were kids. One lesson I learned on my worldwide travels would be to turn a blind eye. I've seen many a sad site and who am I to put right the world's problems single handedly. I looked after number one and so ignored any hand gestures thinking I'd dig deep to help out a homeless or starving child.
The harsh reality is that some of these are merely street rackets. Some adult tout would put out some kid to beg, hand over any money collected, and then get a bowl of rice if they were lucky and that routine became their normal and pitiful existence. I do recall Brazil having a large problem of homeless children. I'd even heard of extreme measures being taken in some parts of the country whereby vigilante forces went out night to rid the streets of their presence. All pretty sad, but the truth is South America is renowned for being a corrupt continent. You have those who have and then those who have not. The contrast between them is stark and shocking.
I remember sitting outside a cafe eating some food with a colleague waiting to go to the cinema (again) when a small group of kids came across to us yapping away begging for food or money. All I could probably say was the usual foda-se vocabulary I had learned but we ignored them. It was a sad site as we stood up to cross the road to go to the cinema, that the kids were still hanging around and legged it over to where we had been sitting to grab whatever crumbs we had left before the waiter came over to clear up our table and chase them away. Poor kids were obviously hungry, but you couldn't let it get to you. I mean there were sad sites everywhere. If you help one then you have to help another and another until you'd crack up. That's how I saw it.
I witnessed a similar incident on the way to this exhibition centre on one of my visits to the country. The company I worked for were taking part in this textile exhibition in this complex that dwarfs the UK's NEC. In order to get there we had to drive across a dry river bed, a bit like those man made ones they have in the US - you know the type - like in Terminator II where Arnie is being chased on his Harley by the T1000 in a truck. The Brazilian version however verges on the point of you passing out due to the overwhelming and disgusting smell of shit - more like an open sewage channel than a man-made river bed. It fucking stunk to high heaven and made me retch each and every time we had to cross it. But it was the only way to get to the exhibition centre.
It's also sad how shit must attract shit as within the vicinity you'd have Brazil's fervelas - the cardboard cities that spawn un-wontedly on the outskirts of the large cities - a place even Val was embarrassed to talk about for some reason as we past them in the Escorty each day. Here disease is quite obviously rife and though a sad site, it is nevertheless a fascinating one at that. To see people living in such squalid conditions packed in like sardines shows how medieval or prehistoric many cultures still are. Mankind has much to achieve if it's ever to become some sort of utopian society.
As we pulled into the exhibition centre one day, I witnessed a homeless old man obviously hungry and thirsty, bending down to drink rainwater that had collected in a gutter. The water was black and had that rainbow effect floating on the surface where petrol and oil had obviously been mixed in. It was fucking disgusting to see him drinking from that, but you see it's my whole point - you cannot help everyone so it's best to simply ignore it. You may or may not agree with my views here but it was my way of coping.
Anyway let's move onto more positive things about Brazil, one of which is the food. Now apart from me eating junk food and apart from Brazil being heavily influenced with American style restaurants everywhere, there are some amazing places to eat.
One that springs to mind and one in which you should visit if you get the chance are a chain of restaurants specializing in meat, the name of which I just cannot recall. If you're a vegetarian then my apologies. I'm not and this meat-eating feast was most enjoyable, made interesting by a wooden indicator you'd be given as you sat at your table. On one side it was painted red, the other side green. It was simply your food traffic light, green for go, red to stop. You had a plate to help yourself to salad - something I'd avoid as much as possible in countries where drinking water was not an option. You'd then have an abundance of waiters walking round with trays full of culinary delights and if you had your indicator on green, they slice off stuff for you to eat until you turned over your indicator to red. The term ‘eyes bigger than your belly' would have been an apt name for this place as I stuffed myself something rotten, with all manner of wonderful tasting meats. As long as they looked edible I'd eat it without asking what part of which animal it had came from. One or two items though did not wet my appetite, like a local delicacy of chicken hearts or bull's bollocks.
Then there was the sugar cane machine. An odd dirty looking device, which once roared into action, would take huge six-foot chunks of sugar canes and squeeze them into what was a lovely refreshing drink – a must should you ever visit Brazil.
I really enjoyed eating there on many occasions. I bet my heart didn't, all that red meat must have put some strain on my blood flow. Then again after such extravagance, it was a case of taking a nap while my body absorbed the intake I'd abused it with.
Now you cannot talk about Brazil without mentioning sport and in particular football. Soccer to them is often more important than it is to us - and we were the ones who came up with the saying "football is a matter of life and death - no it's more important than that."
I'd often watch domestic Brazilian football on television; though found it very tedious, far too often a midfield battle, the odd flair, and greedy ball control leading nowhere, and far too slow.
But when the chance arose to go to a game though, I didn't hesitate. It was a local derby between São Paulo and Palmeiras. There are about six teams in São Paulo, and as well as playing in the nation league championship, they would also play in a state league championship as well. You could say they've got two seasons, though I often wonder which one is more important. At times the conversation about rivalry makes a Newcastle/Sunderland or Rangers/Celtic or Tottenham/Arsenal affair look quite tame.
My Brazilian colleague Val supported Palmeiras a team playing in green and white stripes - a bit like Plymouth Argyle. São Paulo played in a predominantly white top with a red trim and black shorts. I supported them whilst staying in Brazil, though I really should have supported Palmeiras to keep Val happy. The trouble was Palmeiras was the place where an ex Newcastle United player (Mirandihna) came from, or went to, and as I'm a Sunderland supporter, I simply couldn't bring myself to support a team who once had links with the so-called ‘Geordie nation'. My ticket though, was in the Palmeiras end!
Now this game was at the time when I was participating in the exhibition I mentioned earlier. The stand where I'd be demonstrating my computer skills was a combined stand of all the companies that the agent in Brazil looked after, not just the one I worked for. You therefore had a varied combination of different companies from different countries.
The trip to the football game thus involved me the Sunderland supporter, Val, the Palmeiras supporter, a bloke from France who supported PSG (Paris Saint Germain) and an American who had no idea about ‘soccer.'
Four people and three tickets!
The American wasn't supposed to be going but at the last minute wanted to see what all the fuss was about this weird game. He simply couldn't comprehend a contest whereby a goal didn't provide six points and that the game could actually end in a draw!
Being a local derby Val told us to stick close to him when we approached the stadium, as it may be a little congested and intimidating. Pah! I've been through intimidating football matches on many occasions I thought. This would be the norm to me. Wrong!
As Palmerias were the away team, the road up to the visitors end was a sea of green and white in total disarray and total chaos. Coaches and cars stopped anywhere they felt like or tried to mow you down as supporters chanted God knows what out of the window. Meanwhile it looked like the Army had turned up. There was armoured vehicles, police or more likely troops in full riot gear, automatic weapons, water cannons and the odd rocket launcher in what was now looking like a war zone.
"Is this normal?" I asked Val.
"Yeah, don't worry," he said.
We arrived at the turnstile and to my surprise in this entire chaos find a sensibly organised queue of supporters waiting to enter the stadium. Val disappeared for a split second then returned with a fourth ticket for the American. Each ticket had a numbered seat on it, but you don't think for one-minute people abide by the seat number they've been allocated do you?
Oh no, once inside the so-called seats turned into benches with etched numbers on them. We were positioned in the middle tier of São Paulo's Morumbi stadium, an old decapitated venue with a rusty corrugated roof above us leaking brown liquid onto the benches in front of us. Well I hoped it was brown water from the rust! The atmosphere was like nothing I've ever witnessed at any other football game I've been to in my life. Flags as big as houses where being waved around the ground held up by at least six or seven people attempting to hold a pole the size of a lamp post to display their teams colours. How the fuck did they smuggle them into the stadium? Around the pitch I notice a moat, and then out troops the troops, the water cannons, anti aircraft guns and surface to air missiles.
The French bloke looks bemused by it all. I was in awe of the size of the crowd, and the electric atmosphere. Val was foaming at the mouth having transformed into a South American hooligan venting his hatred towards the São Paulo fans. The American was shitting himself. From above, missiles rained down from all angles, bottles, cans, bags of piss even and that brown water kept on dripping (I prayed someone didn't have the shits up there).
The game itself turned out to be a drab 0-0 draw, which for a local derby where nuclear weapons were on standby was probably the best result. Over 96,000 people crammed into the stadium that day and all 96,000 appeared to leave in the same direction we wanted to. Suddenly the four of us upon exiting the ground were being carried away, pushed in a surge of bodies that even I became a little uncomfortable in. In the commotion and panic of getting either trampled upon or crushed we were more concerned about the American than ourselves.
Poor bloke was onto his fifth seizure of the day and we tried desperately to keep a hold of him and push ourselves out of the crowd and back to Val's car. We ended up with our bodies firmly pressed against one of the supporter's coaches. You could feel the thing swaying such was the force of movement. Yet through it all I was amazed to find out later there were no fatalities. In the early nineties Hillsborough was still firmly etched in my mind, its one aspect of the day's events I don't remember with any fondness.
Later that evening I caught up with a fellow works colleague who declined to go to the game, show him my bruises, tell him about the poor American who by now had aged ten years in the course of ninety minutes. Something tells me the word 'soccer' sends shivers down his spine, even to this day, poor bloke!