It was in February of the year 1992 that I embarked on my first foreign trip by myself. Travelling from Lagos, Nigeria, I flew to Rio de Janeiro on Varig, the Brazilian airline that at the time maintained the air bridge between South America and and the African continent.
The flight was full, with lots of Igbo traders from Nigeria travelling to Brazil to purchase merchandise (most of them travelling onward from Rio to the commercial capital Sao Paolo). There was also a whole troupe of Orisha practitioners in full traditional regalia, which highlighted to me the deep connections between Nigeria and Brazil. 'Orisha' is a traditional religion of the Yoruba people, while 'Candomblé' and 'Santeria' are versions of the same religion practiced by Afro-Brazilians with Yoruba ancestry. The two sides have maintained links across the Atlantic, I had heard visits between them were common. The Yoruba sea goddess 'Yemoja' is known as 'Yemanja' or 'Iemanja' in Brazil. There were several others too on this flight who seemed like tourists or diplomats or whatever.
This was the first time I was travelling abroad alone, but there were other firsts. It was the first time I was to cross the Atlantic ocean; the first time I would visit a country where they spoke a language I did not know, the first time I was to see with my own eyes the delights of Rio de Janeiro that the Brazilian tourism promotion programme - 'Fantástico - O Show da Vida' had bombarded us with through our TV screens for years. It was the first time that I would visit a country where I knew no one. It was an adventure, I was excited, even as I anticipated the challenges that all those firsts would present. There might have been some nervousness too, but I was curious and adventurous. I might have even desired the challenge.
As it turned out this visit to Rio de Janeiro was to become among the most enjoyable, most exciting and most frenetic two-weeks of my life. An 'unforgettable experience' in every sense of that much used term. That I am writing about it now nearly three decades later is a testament to this.
My trip coincided with the preparations for the annual Rio Carnival, or 'Carnaval', which was set to commence on the week of my departure from Rio. No this seeming coincidence was not intentional, it was a genuine coincidence. But it was auspicious. It made for a vibrance in the city that was constant, all day and all night throughout my stay there, one that defines my entire memory of this brief visit to Rio and made it an extremely pleasurable experience.
During the day there was the sightseeing and the wandering around town, the shopping for souvenirs, the sampling of street food; getting mistaken for an American by the very friendly Brazilian people because I spoke English; enjoying the looks of surprise when they learnt that I am in fact Nigerian; having them practice on me what little English they had, as they tried to impress me by showing me how much they knew about the Nigerian national football team.
Getting myself lost in the city afterwards and in the process seeing places I would not otherwise have seen; entering the less well-trodden parts of town, parts certainly not visited by tourists - yes, I entered a favela and I fit right in, feeling very brave, even as my credentials as a Lagosian came to bear.
Then finding my way back by public transport to the rented apartment that I was sharing with two others in an apartment block on the Avenida Copacabana beachfront; flatmates who were Nigeria Airways pilots and who were in Brazil for their flight simulator training. My flatmates would attend for their flight simulator training at night so I was always alone in the apartment at night time. During the day as my flatmates slept, I was out in town. So essentially this whole adventure was one that I undertook and experienced alone and all by myself. That is until Mateo came along.
There were samba groups out on the streets at night, the various samba schools practicing their samba routines for 'Carnaval', especially on the Avenida Copacabana (where my apartment was) and Praia de Copacabana, (Copacabana Beach), which together with Praia de Ipanema and the adjoining streets and boulevards was where everything happened, or so it seemed to me.
In the evening the usually busy avenue in front of my apartment building would be closed to traffic then shortly fill up again with people, many of them in carnival costumes. The loud music and the singing and dancing on the street would begin and on the beach across the road, the beach volleyball that was played all day never really stops. It was astonishing to see people still playing volleyball at 3am.
Observing all this from the apartment's balcony on the sixth floor in the middle of the night, the sights and sounds were overpowering. I was drawn down from the apartment to street level again and again each night as if on auto pilot. The street and beach were floodlit, the atmosphere was electric, it was impossible to not join in with the crowd on the street while spontaneously swaying to the heady Brazilian samba rhythm, even as I wondered what the actual carnival itself would feel like seeing as this was just a practice session. It was amazing.
A couple of nights into my visit as I joined the crowd again capoeristas appeared before me. I was mesmerised. I was seeing capoeira, this uniquely Brazilian phenomenon for the first time. I had never before even heard of it. One particular capoerista caught my attention, his charcoal skin glistening in the night light as he twisted, vaulted, kicked and cavorted, gracefully, effortlessly in an expert demonstration of capoeira. I must have been transfixed like a rabbit caught in headlights, because he, the capoerista, could not but notice that someone was staring intently at him. Until his display ended.
To cut a long story short Mateo acknowledged me and in that friendly Brazilian way came forward and greeted me, saying words to me that I assumed was him saying hello and introducing himself to me. But in Portuguese. Responding warmly, I asked in English "what's your name?". Of course he did not understand and I too had not understood a word he had said at first.
In the Portuguese language 'What's your name' is 'qual o seu nome', so after repeating my question a few times in English, he recognised the name/nome similarity in the two languages, understood what I meant and responded, "aah, nome", and with that huge Brazilian smile replied "meu nome é Mateo". I told him my name and painstakingly showed him how to pronounce it, something I have often had to do throughout my life.
This was how I met Mateo. I wanted so much to tell him that I thought he was magnificent and that he was the best among the capoeristas in the group; that I myself wanted to know more about capoeira and that I wanted him to be the one to teach me. We both knew that in this brand new friendship smooth conversation would be difficult. But it didn't seem to matter and didnt deter us.
Communication was achieved, even if less smoothly than it otherwise might have been. It was not seamless but it was easy, because we both wanted it, worked at it and shared the will and desire to achieve it. It came naturally.
Oh, I have more to tell, but I shall do so on another day.
Adeus por agora. (Bye for now)