At least two or three times every year I think of Renato, even after 28-years since he died. And whenever I recall him it is always with a smile on my face. That was Renato, a creature who walked this earth with the sole purpose of spreading as much happiness as possible – and to a very large degree he succeeded.
Today, sitting overlooking the lighthouse of Barra in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, my thoughts are only of Renato. This was a city where he had loved and lived: it was not hard to see why. Salvador was Renato and Renato was Salvador: big, bold, colourful, pulsing with energy and beautiful to look at. Watching a capoeira performance I slipped back in time to the distant beach at Hikkaduwa and Renato doing his evening capoeira workout, often surrounded by an appreciative audience of young Sri Lankan males. Bright red boxer shorts flashing in the sun as he twirled, sand flying up as he landed. He was a magnificent sight: big boned, well-muscled and tanned. Tight brown curls, bleached by the sun, framed his finest feature, a splendid aquiline nose that spoke of a rich Italian lineage. On his right shoulder was a crude tattoo, hand drawn by a female admirer in Salvador; it depicted a small bird, as if drawn by a child, with matchstick legs, round body and head with triangular beak open in song.
Initially he was a peripheral figure in my travels during the late 1980s, first encountered in Sri Lanka, again in Bangkok and lastly in Australia, where for a while, along with a few others, we rented a house in Brisbane looking out over the bay to Stradbroke Island. He and I found ourselves thrust together when in early January, short of cash after an exuberant Christmas, we made the daily pilgrimage to the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES). After these often fruitless visits, we would adjourn to the local swimming pool to cool off and chat to anyone willing to engage, women were a top priority. To Renato all women were of equal appeal, all had characteristics and charms to be divined, and he was extremely enthusiastic in his pursuits. It was the same for men, there was nobody he would not spend time with in order to further his quest to learn as much as possible about the human condition.
It was one of the key tenets of his belief system that people were intrinsically good and even though they gave him both the best and the worst of experiences, this was all part of the process. Renato needed to spend time in the very midst of people, to be at the very epicentre of human activity, but after deep or lengthy immersion in the bath of humanity often felt the need to go off for some time by himself, to process and reflect. Thus his itinerant lifestyle was a blend of solitary travel alternated with intense periods of deep connection to individuals or groups of people.
He lived with his antennae tuned to a very wide bandwidth of reception, every and any opportunity was entertained, weighed in the balance, acted on or not depending on the circumstances. Non-judgemental in the extreme, he revelled in healthy two-way discussion and was wholly objective and rational in his observations and analysis. He was exhausting, but never dull.
There are a host of Renato stories I could draw on but I like the following one the most: It is frivolous on many levels and not wholly indicative of his more serious side but it is the one that resonates most strongly for me because it connects with his occasional need to escape the human melee – it also has a wry twist that he found hugely ironic and which, with an energy that few can summon, he totally capitalised on.
Towards the end of January during one particular visit to the CES I was pulled from my job searching by a delighted cry and turned to see Renato dancing around whilst holding a small green job card aloft. He had found an ideal position for that moment in his life – a 3-month stint as a lighthouse keeper on a remote post in the Pacific Ocean. I will always remember the stunned look on the employment clerk’s face when he asked Renato what qualifications he had for the job. “I just want to be alone,” beamed Renato, before going on to say how he needed some time to himself, that he would not suffer boredom or go crazy out on the remote station. Suffice to say, in spite of his irrepressible enthusiasm and desire for a Greta Garbo experience, he did not get the job. However, the clerk, in an inspired piece of intuitive detection, found him the next best option, that of a Roman Centurion – complete with full costume – to market the opening of a new Italian restaurant in the centre of town.
We all went along for the first night and were not disappointed, it was a tour de force. Renato looked as though he had just stepped out of the Coliseum and in a mixture of English, Italian, some Spanish and a few Monty Python references had a large audience on the pavement and the maitre d’ of ‘La Dolce Vita’ working his utmost to get everyone seated. Inside the restaurant was packed. By popular demand Renato’s presence inside was requested and when he came and sat at our table the evening really got going. Wine flowed like it must have done in Tiberius’ time and women approached our table all evening for a photo opportunity with his Imperial Renato-ness. The finale came when Renato, with some backing support from the rest of our table, belted out his favourite song, ‘La Bamba’, in out of tune but hugely enthusiastic Spanish. The whole place erupted and a local legend was born. Thus are great memories made.
At the tender age of 25 I was not fully aware of just how rare a bird Renato was and it pains me now to think of early missed opportunities to get to know him better. But that I did get to know him for a while is a treasured memory. The fact that he died in a motorcycle accident in Bali a few months after leaving Australia was proof perhaps that those the gods love most die young. One of his favourite songs was in French and began with the line “Ma vie, que Je brule au feu de mon couer” – ‘My life, which I burn in the fire of my heart’.
There are not enough people like Renato in the world, I know that now. How would it be to meet him today, would time have dimmed his astonishing lust for life, the intense joy and pain he was prepared to endure to understand himself and the world around him. It is very good to be here in Salvador and to think of Renato. In remembering there is a kind of meeting. Although my eyes are misty with tears, I am smiling.