Fifty years ago

On , I set sail for Brazil on a massive Argentinian liner, the Libertad. I, aged 24, had signed a three year contract with the British Council to teach English at St Paul’s School, Sao Paulo.

Being young and romantic, I had been influenced in my decision by two works of art; one was the film of South Pacific with its haunting depiction of Bali’hai as a tropical paradise of sensual pleasure. I expected that Brazil just might resemble Bali’hai, as in some places it turned out to. The other was a marvellous book by Peter Fleming, Brazilian Adventure, in which Sao Paulo is depicted as a quaint little town on the edge of the primeval forest. I conveniently overlooked the fact that the book was written in the early 1930s. It is based on the search for the elusive Col. Percy Fawcett, who had disappeared into the Mato Grosso in search of El Dorado and was never seen again. During the school holidays I saw myself leading an expedition into the jungle, rescuing said Percy from the savage tribe holding him captive, and returning him, a bronzed hero, to ‘civilisation.’

As the Libertad floated serenely away from a cold, damp London, two impressions prevailed on me — the ever-present smell of food that pervaded the pale green corridors and the overwhelming aura of gloom among the passengers, all of whom seemed to be disgruntled Argentinians. The first was accounted for by the vast, five course meals that wee served three times daily — whatever the Libertad’s passengers might expire from, it wouldn't be hunger. The second was, of course, explained by the recent World Cup in which, as we all know, their talented team had come away in disgrace, labelled ’animals.’ The only time I ever dared broach the subject to a gloomy Argentinian, the reply was instant — the ref. had been ‘bribed.’

The next two weeks were singularly uneventful, and bore out what Conrad called the ‘magic monotony’ of life at sea. The sight of a flying fish or a porpoise was the highlight of any day. I soon became disorientated by the continual putting back of the clocks by an hour,and sought refuge on a greasy patch of the after-deck where I could observe the flying fish undisturbed.

Shortly after leaving London the wardrobe in my tiny cabin inexplicably filled up with expensive-looking mink and fur coats. The steward kindly explained that they were presents for his ‘wife, sister, mother, girl-friend, mistress, auntie’ and so on and would I mind looking after them until we reached Vigo? They did indeed disappear at Vigo, along with the steward.

Three memorable passengers made the monotony tolerable. Nestor Raul Olivera was a young Argentinian illustrator who had been working in London. The only book I chose to take to Brazil with me was a copy of Why Was He Born So Beautiful and other Rugby Songs, which Raul spent the entire voyage trying to memorise, myself having to explain the many asterisked words.

Mrs Hirst was a veteran journalist from Buenos Aires, who regaled me with stories of the many times she had interviewed Evita and her charming husband.

‘Uncle Lou’ was a portly Polish polymath from Coventry. When he learned that my second teaching subject was Latin, he regaled me with short stories and jokes in Latin, which he spoke fluently. To listen to ‘Uncle Lou’ and a lawyer from Sao Paulo arguing in Latin, their only common language, made you wonder whether it really was so ‘dead.’

Eventually, one day, we saw seagulls and floated into bustling Santos, where I was met by the school bursar grumbling that I had interrupted his Sunday lunch. We drove up through the hills to Sao Paulo which I soon found had in the words of a song, ‘Oito milhoes de habitantes’, and was just like Leeds or Manchester.

Rod Eastwood [1954–1961]