Friday, October 2, 2009

Rio-l Memories

In March of 1981 I made my first trip to a foreign land (unless you count my college recruiting visit to Boston a few years earlier.) I was part of a two man team traveling across Central and South America for three weeks, preparing tax returns for U.S. citizens working abroad for my firm's clients.

It was quite an assignment - Panama, Rio, Sao Paulo, Lima, Bogota, Caracas, Acapulco and Mexico City. On the flight from Panama City to Rio, the refueling stop was in Quito, Ecuador. We got off the plane on the tarmac during that break, so I've actually stood on the equator.

I don't know if South America was second world or third world, but it definitely wasn't my world. Of course, living in Chicago at the time, I didn't complain about missing the slushy streets of late winter.

Brazil was our longest stop, with four days in Sao Paulo and two days in Rio de Janeiro. I am actually rather pleased that the Olympics of 2016 will be in Brazil. When I watch the Olympic background stories seven years from now, it will be interesting to see how Brazil has changed from my memories of thirty years ago.

Sao Paulo is about three hundred miles inland from Rio. It was then and still is a metro area of over twenty million people. Back in 1981, the smog and smell of gasoline were overwhelming. The streets and highways resembled the lines of a completed jigsaw puzzle, the only road design requirement the avoidance of immovable objects. We often had to go miles in the wrong direction to be able to access the road we wanted in the direction we needed to go. The sea of buildings continued to each horizon. The city had grown so fast there was a minimum two year wait to get a telephone line.

The food in Brazil was terrific, a beef lover's paradise. T-bone steaks, considered cheap cafeteria food, spilled over the edges of their plates. Flowers were everywhere, dazzling in color and variety. Street vendors sold roses for twenty five cents a dozen.

But there was a tremendous chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots." It started on the plane, where we sat in first class, the rest of the plane crowded with people and packages and chickens and small goats. The disparity continued as we ate in top floor restaurants with a view of nearby slums and rode in our chauffeured limo past the street beggars.

The Americans working in Brazil, mid-level executives back home, lived as royalty. One family we ate with gave us a tour of their rented estate. As the residents, they were considered rich and, to avoid an angry community , were expected to hire many people. They had a cook, four maids and two gardeners. Monthly wages for domestic help averaged about $20 plus room, with rooming privileges the main draw. The garage floor was waxed twice a week, just for the servants to have something to do.

And there was an edginess to being out in either city. Although we didn't travel with armed guards as in some of the other countries, we had to be careful. In Rio, I couldn't leave my hotel room, even for the hallway, without my work companion. An unescorted female was fair game.

Rio de Janeiro was a city of painted beaches, flashy hotels, rampant pick-pockets and lots of skin. From all reports, it hasn't changed much.

The Statue of Christ and Sugar Loaf Mountain dominated the skyline. I'm sure we will see these images constantly during the Olympic coverage, but unlike with most cities' landmarks, I don't think I will tire of this eye candy.

Congratulations and good luck to Brazil, a fresh face for the Olympic Games!

No comments: