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The uglier side of Rio spoils a tropical idyll

Brazil’s president at the time of my visit, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had an alcohol problem.

In fact, he had two, but you could mention only one of them.
After the oil crisis spiked petrol prices in the 1970s, Brazil invested in biofuel research. It turned out the country’s huge sugar cane plantations were ideal for mass-producing ethanol. By 1985, more than 90% of the cars produced in Brazil ran on alcohol. But now, the soaring cost of food and fears of deforestation have raised the question of whether ethanol will cure or kill the planet.

That’s the alcohol problem you can mention.

In 2004, mentioning Lula’s other alcohol problem got New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter kicked out of the country. “Some of his countrymen have begun wondering if their president’s predilection for strong drink is affecting his performance in office,” wrote Rohter, provoking the cancellation of his visa.

There had been similar jibes in Brazil’s national press. In the country’s leading newsmagazine, Veja, columnist Diogo Mainardi said the president had become ‘‘the biggest advertising spokesman for the spirits industry” with his very conspicuous consumption of alcohol. The daily Fôlha de São Paulo added: “Under Lula, the capirinha has become the national drink by presidential decree.”
When the government spent $56 million to buy a new presidential plane, columnist Claudio Humberto ran a spoof contest to name the aircraft. One winning entry was ‘‘Pirassununga 51”, the most popular brand of sugar cane liquor cachaça; another favourite submission was “Powered by alcohol”.

One notorious picture of Lula captured him glass in hand and red in face at the Oktoberfest beer festival on the island of Florianopolis off Brazil’s southern coast. “My mother refused to vote for him after she saw that picture!” squealed Raf, an inherently funny, gay Brazilian who was the only other guest at my Florianopolis hostel. “That picture was taken just near here! She said he looks too much like a beberrão.”

In Brazilian Portuguese, “beber” is to drink; “rão” means a lot, or too much.

Raf then offered me a see-through spliff. It was a normal joint rolled in the Brazilian smoker’s preferred transparent cigarette paper, making it look plastic and worryingly toxic.

“Nao obrigado, I don’t smoke,” I said.

“Sorry,” he smiled. “I’m only smoking to calm my nerves. I’m due to marry a ginger British boy next month, but I just bumped into an old boyfriend and he invited me back to his place. I didn’t want to go, but he was offering me a line of cocaine. I said, OK then, I’ll just have two.”

Raf then produced a huge box of wine.

“I don’t normally drink,” he said. “But I need to calm my nerves.”

He’d soon turned redder than I used to after years of drinking. When he began slurring his words at midnight, I made excuses about having to travel 13 hours to Ilha do Mel at 4am, and went to bed.

Like much of southern Brazil, Ilha do Mel in mid-winter had all the pristine tropical beauty of New Zealand, but all the heat of an Australian summer. On my first morning there, I walked along the baked golden coast to a mob of turkey vultures pulling a dolphin’s innards out of its vagina. I watched bikini’d Brazilian girls lying with their buttocks high in the air, as they watched a pair of whales playfully rolling over and over in the flat blue expanse. At an abandoned fort, I read about the geological formation of the island. “If the history of the earth was measured as one day,” it said, “this island would have appeared at only a few seconds to midnight.”

The insignificance of my life was thrown into stark relief, and I was glad not to be wasting it. I was glad to be discovering a beautiful island thousands of miles from home. I was glad to have clear perspective on it all. I was glad to be sober.

But an hour after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, I was desperate for a drink.

“Have you got any marijuana?” asked a dishevelled Londoner as soon as I entered my grotty dorm in Ipanema.

“No,” I said.

“Got any Special K then?” he asked.

“Ketamine?” I said. “No.”

“Sorry, mate,” he replied. “You just look the type, that’s all.”
I walked down to Copacabana beach under a black cloud of insulted gloom. Everywhere, tanned, toned and trunked Brazilians glugged from iced cans of Skol, Brahma, Antarctica and Itaipava. Liquor bottles gleamed from beachside bars, the sunshine winking from their voluptuous curves. I groaned. A shoeshiner began pointing animatedly at my feet.

Senhor, merda! Merda, senhor, Merda!”

Nao obrigado,” I said, but he wouldn’t leave me alone.

Merda, senhor! MERDA! MERDA!

I glanced at my feet. It seemed he had squirted beige, sick-looking diarrhoea all over my right boot. This was the only pair of shoes I had. “MERDA! MERDA!” shouted the shoeshiner, the glee of impending business all over his face. I thought about giving my foot a swift air-kick to splatter him with his handiwork, then had a vision of him pulling a gun. I crossed the street to the beach, the shoeshiner following, shouting and pointing all the way, as crowds looked on. Then I stood in the tide, my mood crashing with the waves.

I returned to the beach later that afternoon. I took as little as possible – wearing just my trunks and my shirt as I didn’t want to risk getting anything stolen. When I returned from my swim, my shirt was gone. It was one of only two shirts I had. I wear one set of clothes while the other set is drying. That shirt had gone all the way around the world with me and been hand-washed more than 180 times. It certainly wasn’t worth stealing. But this was Rio. I looked down at what I had to walk back to my hostel in and realised I’d just swam in my underwear. I must have picked up the wrong briefs in my rush to get to the beach. I walked the streets back to my hostel in dripping boxer shorts. But in Rio, where almost every man walks around in inappropriate budgie-smugglers, no one batted an eyelid. I even followed a couple for a few blocks, just for the thrill of it. So there was something good about this city.

Extracted from Mat Ward’s excellent ebook, ‘Around the World in 80 AA’s where he tours the world investigating the phenomenon that is Alcoholics Anonymous.’ Buy it now.

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