Preparing for a work trip to Brazil I persuaded my boss that going to a sunbed in advance of travelling was necessary and claimed it on expenses. Street fashion in the late 1980s and early 90s in Brazil was all about tight, short and less. There was a lot of skin exposed. If I wanted to roam around a favela innocuously having a tan was de rigeur – pale mid-winter European skin stuck out like a sore thumb. I could never hide that I was ‘other’ but I wanted to try and look like I belonged. It is the only time in my life I have worn shorts.
Whatever disguise I tried to muster, I never fooled any Brazilians. Raimundo Pereira de Oliveira, my then boyfriend, and my Brazilian family, the dos Santos, all tried to teach me to dance. Their success is debatable. My friend, Tarzan Leão de Sousa, found me in the favela just by asking strangers where the blonde lived.
For over a year I lived just over the crest of the hill behind me in this photo. It was in the centre of Alto Vera Cruz – a favela in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines!). It was, in many ways, the best year of my life. My eyes were opened, I met such impressive people and witnessed the bravery, courage and persistence that it takes to struggle against grinding poverty. I also learned how to have fun. The Brazilians don’t greet you with ‘how are you?’ but tudo joía? – which translates literally as ‘all happy?’ And I bought a dog. Washington, the young man beside me in the photo, was going to inherit Naja from me when I left Brazil but that’s another story.
Every so often I ran away to Rio de Janeiro to stay with friends. Their house was grafted onto the mountainside below the favela of Vidigal, perched just above the Sheraton’s private beach. In Alto Vera Cruz I spent the days interviewing mother’s who had given birth in the previous year. Some were destitute and starving, some lost their babies in the first year to illness, others were managing well on their frugal income, keeping a tidy house arrayed with polished aluminium jars and swept floors.
In Rio, I relaxed on the terrace with its gorgeous view over the sea and was spoilt by trips to Italian restaurants, the cinema, the beach resort of Búzios and Anne De Lannoy and John Arden giving me a second home. The dissonance, however, between the two lives was deeply confusing.