Thirty years ago, a set of unexpected family circumstances conspired to force my departure from Brazil when I was 17, in the summer of 1979. I’ve never been back. It was, however, a good idea to leave before my 18th birthday: at the time there was still a military government and military draft in Brazil and it was almost certain that I’d be picked up directly after my 18th birthday to serve in the Brazilian army. Fluent English speakers with Brazilian citizenship were not a common item back then. But, serving in a “foreign” military = Goodbye American citizenship.
(Later, when I turned 21 and was applying for a new Brazilian passport from the Brazilian Consulate in San Francisco, they asked if I had ever registered for the military draft – a requirement of men applying for passports. “No…” I replied, hesitantly. “Well, no problem. We’ll send you an empty registration form; just type in the back-dated details, add a passport photo, and find an ink-pad to do your finger-print. Then send it back to us as evidence that you did register!” Consulates used to be so helpful.)
As chance would have it, Pan Am had suspended their direct Brasilia to Miami flights shortly before our departure (thank goodness, those Boeing 707’s were awful), and now they were flying only from Rio, with new DC-10’s. So off we went on a Varig flight to Rio. Surprisingly, even though I’d lived in Brazil most of my life, this would be my first and only visit to this amazing city. It’s a big country.
We got to Rio no problem, but then got bumped from the flight to Miami. Overbooked. What to do? No worries: these were the days when airlines still believed in taking care of their passengers. My parents, my brother and I would be put up in a 5 star hotel on Ipanema beach, at Pan Am’s expense. Not only that, but my brother and I would get our own rooms! Oh, and Pam Am would throw in a dinner at the hotel’s top-floor restaurant. Basically, we had 24 hours to live it up in Rio.
So we did. We took a whirlwind tour of all the major tourist sights, then headed for the hotel to eat a wonderful meal and get to bed in our first-class digs. I still remember what I ordered to eat: filet mignon, which came in such a large portion I could not finish it. I still believe it was the best beef I have ever had.
As we tucked into our fabulous dinner, my father reminded us: “Boys, today has been an unexpected blessing. Let’s be thankful and enjoy it. Let me remind you that we don’t know anything about where we’ll be staying tomorrow night, or what we’ll be eating.” We were, after all, a missionary family, returning – as usual – to the USA with very little money in hand. We’d be traveling across the country in a cheap second-hand car, staying with anyone who was kind enough to put us up.
Twenty-four hours later we were cramped into the sweltering living room of some old geezer in Fort Lauderdale, fans twirling above our heads and besides us as we tried in vain to keep cool, frowning into a pot of abominable stew which was to be our evening meal. My father was a prophet. Rio was remote beyond belief.