“Well, I don’t know…” said my father doubtfully.
“It’s getting late” said my mother, we’re in a city we don’t know, we need a hotel for the night and we’ve already tried two and they’re full. I don’t think it matters this time if it’s not too smart – why don’t you try that one across the street and see if there are any vacancies?”
“Well I suppose so”, he said reluctantly as he slowed down to look for a parking space. “It does look a bit run down though…”
I was just thinking about the steak and chips I was going to have for dinner; we had covered a great distance that day, mostly on crudely asphalted roads with often only one lane for both directions of traffic which necessitated playing dare with every oncoming vehicle to see who was going to drive past with two wheels off the road. Now we were crawling along a very busy avenue with crowds of pedestrians milling around.
We were in Curitiba, Brazil, some 1,300 km/800 miles from Buenos Aires, from whence we had departed some days earlier. This was early 1967, and I was travelling with my parents several hundred miles further into mid Brazil to visit my uncle and his family for a holiday.
The journey had up to now been a great adventure. My other ventures abroad thus far had been to Uruguay and Chile, both Spanish speaking, and it was exciting to be in a country so tropical and different from my own, and where another language was spoken. My father’s attempts to communicate in Portuguese were supposed to be amusing to the Brazilians subjected to it, but to an awkward and insecure thirteen year old they were a pure and embarrassing agony.
But it was fun because the parts of Brazil through which we travelled – very far from the coast - were clearly not accustomed to foreigners, and the number plate on our car attracted a lot of attention. Strangers would come up to us to ask us where we were from, what we thought of Brazil, and so on. If they were a little over-curious, they were also invariably friendly and kind, and anxious to show us how beautiful their land was. My mother was particularly impressed by gigantic government signs we passed regularly, which said simply “Aqui se trabalha!” (Here, we work!)
I remember most of all the enormous variety of strange fruit I tasted which I had never heard of before, and haven’t since, and the fabulously delicate and strongly fragrant flowers that seemed to grow in profusion everywhere.
Dad uncurled himself stiffly from the driver’s seat and shuffled across the avenue, with creased white shirt tails flapping, while Mum and I sat and waited. We were idly looking out of the window at where he was going, and I remarked that there seemed to be quite a queue outside the hotel entrance. “Precisely why we must find somewhere quickly” Mum remarked “there must be some festival or other going on and the hotels are full”.
Dad was struggling to get past the queue and he seemed to be having altercations with people. Suddenly I said “Mum, look at the queue. There are no ladies in it. Why’s that?”
“I don’t know” she said tiredly, “let’s just wait for him to come back”.
Then we saw him making his way back across the avenue, dodging the traffic, and strangely, he was smiling broadly. We heard his laughter before he even opened the door to get back into the car.
“Well? Have they any rooms?”
He laughed again despite the irritated sound to her voice.
“I’ll say they do” he said “you hire them by the hour, though. It’s a ….”
“Pas devant les enfants” said Mum sternly. "Just drive on". That old chestnut, as if I didn’t understand elementary French. My sister had briefed me long ago on what these pearls of wisdom of hers actually meant, the others being “Laisse-moi faire” (let me deal with this) and something that sounded like “Laisse leur” (supposed to be “leave it alone, no need to say anything further”).
However I thought it strange that one should stay in a hotel and have to state for how many hours you required it. I was about to learn more about the ways of the world.
“Stop treating her like a child”, said my father, and turning to me he said “it’s a brothel”.
I felt proud that he had included me in on the joke, and was glad I already knew what a brothel was…
We eventually found somewhere to stay, and while we installed ourselves in our shared bedroom Dad went to park the car in the multi-storey car park nearby. He took such a long time to return that Mum started pacing up and down the room, calling reception and asking in halting Portuguese how far away the car park actually was, not appreciating that making yourself understood in a foreign language was one thing, and understanding what was said back to you was quite another.
About an hour later Dad appeared at the door of the hotel bedroom, looking pale and shaken. “I need a drink” he said, and sat down on the bed.
“I’ve been so worried. What happened?”
“The multi-storey they sent me to is one of these circular ones, where you drive up in a spiral, and decide which floor you want – they all looked very full, so I carried on going up, counting the floors as I went, because there were no numbers anywhere. At the eighth floor I found a space, but just as I was getting out of the car all the building lights went out – I’ve no idea why. “
He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and carried on.
“I was stuck there in the dark, and I admit to you I got quite nervous. Then my eyes got used to the dark a bit, and I saw a series of doors. But the signs were all in Portuguese, I didn’t understand what they meant. I went down a dingy corridor and then I saw some little lights indicating a lift. Such a relief! It was obviously a goods lift though, because it was just a very small wooden platform, but what the hell I thought – it’ll do. I just about saw a row of buttons and I pressed the lowest one, and again, such a relief when it started to go down, even though I had to hang on to a bar above me. It was one of those lifts with no sides, so you could see the spiral driveway going up as I went down. I counted the floors, and after four it stopped!”
He dabbed at his face again.
“I stood there wondering what to do next, I shouted, and somebody did answer me, but it echoed so badly and I didn’t understand anyway. I was still in the dark, and eventually I realised that I was going to have to climb down the rest of the way because it wasn’t going to go any further. By my calculations I still had four floors to go. I sat down on the floor and edged my way to the black hole beyond, and after a while I thought what the hell, I’ve got to get out of here. I’m just going to jump.”
Mum gasped, her hand in front of her mouth.
“So I jumped. And you know what? I fell about thirty centimetres – I had been on the ground floor when it stopped!”
“But you had counted eight” I protested.
“Ah, but I didn’t realise as I was driving up that I had been counting half floors” he said, “if you’re going round in a circle it’s easy to get confused, I now know…” He lay back on the bed holding the hanky to his forehead.
We didn’t even have dinner that night, we were all too overwhelmed by the evening’s adventures.
Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives
Fuerteventura and flower/fruit taken in England and Spain