In the late fall of 1994 I was in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of the International Federation of Food, Wine and Travel Writers—a junket, really, largely financed by the Brazilian tourist authorities. Of the 60 or so people at the conference only a handful were real journalists (as opposed to people who write about restaurants and travel) and none of them were there to do any serious digging—not that the Brazilian tourist authorities would have encouraged it, though they did set up a press meeting with the local police chiefs, who gave us the usual warnings about sensible conduct on the beach.
In terms of stories, I wasn’t really interested in the food, wine and travel angles. You can only digest so many meals and attend so many receptions. I was more interested in the underside of the place (the local criminals call tourists filet mignon). One afternoon a writer from LA and I took a taxi into the favela that was the main drugs pipeline out of Colombia, and I let it be known that I’d be interested in meeting Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who was in hiding in Rio from British justice, if anyone knew where he might be.
I thought it was a long shot, but on the day I was due to go home someone drove up beside me as I was walking in the street beside my hotel and slipped me a piece of paper bearing a phone number. When I called it, Ronnie himself answered. “Sure, come on over,” he said.
The nervous taxi driver insisted on dropping me a few streets away from the actual address, a twisting, cobbled street in a village-style neighborhood of Rio called Santa Teresa, and I found the house with the help of a passing local who asked if I was looking for “Mr. Biggie.” Mr. Biggie was taking a nap when I knocked, and answered the door in a green singlet and khaki shorts, his long, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s my diary entry. Continue reading