“Welcome to Rio de Janeiro! The organizers of the XIII Rio de Janeiro International Book Fair are honored with your participation in the Cultural Program:
-Discussion Forum, September 15th, 7 p.m. Topic: ‘Love, Religion and War.’
We hope you have an excellent stay and thank you in advance for your presence at Latin America’s largest cultural event.”
– package handed to me upon my arrival in Rio de Janeiro, September 13th
(DAY 1) Arrive, dead to the world, at noon, after a bumpy, 14-hour flight, including layover at São Paulo. Rosanna, of Faggia, the company that is organizing the fair, tells me that I will be greeted at the airport by her team.
I know virtually nothing about the Bienal, which I gather is kind of a Latin American version of the Frankfurt Book Fair, except that I am scheduled to appear in a seminar with the comically vague title of “Love, Religion and War.” Covers a lot of ground, wouldn’t you say?
I have come here out of loyalty to my Brazilian publisher, Jorge Zahar — which, to my surprise and delight, bought the rights to my book, “The Frank Family That Survived,” two years ago — as well to satisfy my lifelong curiosity about Brazil. For years, I have wanted to “fly down to Rio” (as they used say back in the day); I just didn’t have a good enough reason. The publication of the Brazilian edition of my book seemed like a good enough reason — so, Carmen Miranda, here I am!
As I get into line, a representative of H.Stern, the Rio-based maker of HAND CRAFTED SAPPHIRE WATCHES, hands me a map. In a daze, I read:
“The cariocas speak Portuguese. The currency is the real – always check the exchange rate! Wear light and informal clothes.” (Got it.) “For business meetings, a suit and a necktie are appropriate.” (Right.) “The water is filtered and treated, but we recommend bottled mineral water.” (Okay…)
Customs is mercifully quick. After an epically long overnight flight including stopover in São Paolo (during which I nearly pass out at the airport), I am a dead man walking. The growly border control officer doesn’t ask me a single question, merely stamps my passport, nods. “Obrigado!” I say, brightly, trying out my Portuguese. Tudo bem? Grrr.
Here is my “team”: a distracted-looking young man holding a “SANDER” sign, and an eager-looking, if somewhat bedraggled driver in his late 50s. Neither, it develops, speaks English. I make do with with the sorry vestiges of my high school Spanish and some naval hand signals. After considerable gesticulating, I understand that there is a car waiting for us downstairs. We descend. My Rio experience has begun.
I emerge, bleary-eyed, from the innards of the terminal, into crackling sunshine. It’s springtime! The team leader disappears. The driver indicates that he will be back in a minute. Many minutes pass; I fall asleep on the bonnet of the car. Mercifully, my driver decides to take control of the situation and shovels me inside. As I drift back to sleep, we are off to someplace called Barra da Tijuca, where my hotel, the Windsor Barra, is located.
Open my eyes. The highway is lined with signs for the Bienal featuring the likenesses of the well-known authors, like Isabel Allende, who have descended from the literary heavens in order to participate in Latin America’s biggest cultural event. Alas, I am not one of them. Maybe next time.
At first hypnagogic blush, Rio strikes me as a mad mélange. One minute, there’s a stretch of high-rises; the next, we’re back in “City of God” territory, with row upon serrated row of colorful shanties. These are the favelas, the gleaming skull beneath Rio’s iridescent skin (to quote my late mentor, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). I pass out again.
Finally, we arrive at the Windsor Barra, a hulking, impersonal conventioneers’ hovel that is headquarters for the Bienal. There are three police cars astride entrance, lights flashing for no apparent reason except to drive home the point that Rio is in a state of emergency.
Everyone says you’ve got to be careful. You know, the violence. Yes, I saw “City of God.” And “Bus 174.” Yes, yes, I assure my friends before I leave, I will be careful. “Stick to the beaches,” says one friend, who lived in Rio for several years and whose father-in-law was robbed. “Watch out for gangs of pickpockets,” says another. Fine. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been in danger zones before; after all, I did walk the wild side in post-Soviet Estonia (not to mention cover nightlife in early ’90s New York!). It’s not like I’m an innocent abroad…or am I?
“Rio is one of the most violent cities in the world. As of 2007 the homicide rate of the greater metropolitan area stands at nearly 80 victims per week, with the majority of victims falling to homicide, assault, stray bullets or narcoterrorism. The numbers are comparable with war conflict zones like Baghdad and Kabul–” — “Rio,” Wikipedia
So I’m careful. And you know, over the course of 12 days, not one thing happened to me. But of course, I was very careful.
Too wired to go to sleep. It is 6 a.m., too early for breakfast. I open the curtains to my 11th floor room and Klieg-like sunshine floods in. Below, beyond the police cars, over the already-busy highway, the alabaster beach beckons. Seconds later, still groggy, after stumbling across the trademark black and white mosaic pavement, my toes are digging into the sand. Everything seems to be in slow motion: the waves, the slowly melting mist, the earth itself. So, this is Rio.
For a moment I have the whole beach to myself — but just a moment. Then the first jogger, a well-built man type in his 40s, slowly materializes from the mist, followed by another one, a portly dude in his 30s, chugging along, eyes focused inward, seemingly running out of a sense of duty. The carioca parade has begun.
I still haven’t eaten or slept in close to 24 hours. I order the express from room service: 1/2 mamao, café, leite, chocolate, paes doces e salgados, torradas, geleia, manteiga, suco de laranja, queijo, frios (1/2 papaya, coffee, tea, milk, chocolate, assorted bread basket, toast, butter, honey, jams, orange juice, cheese, cold cuts).
Then I drop.
“Okay,” I say, dashing into the shower a few hours later, “it’s showtime!” First, my publicist, Eliza, whom I have yet to meet but sounds lovely from her emails (insofar as one can divine a sender’s personality from emails — but, being limited to email because of my hearing impairment, I am getting pretty good at it) has arranged for me to visit a temple. After that, we’re due at the opening night party for the Bienal.
Envelope under my door: “MESSAGE: Mrs. Eliza called to inform that she’s going to be late about 20 minutes and she’s on the way…” So, she is a Mrs.
Twenty minutes later, after meeting Mrs. Eliza (who turns out to be as nice as she sounds) in the antiseptic lobby, we are off for the temple. It is Rosh Hashanah, and we are being ushered inside a handsome, modern shul. Smiles all around. Who knew that there were this many Jews in Brazil?
Rabbi Nilton, a charismatic young man, starts to sing; he is clearly a star here. Our host, an ebullient woman in her 60s who speaks excellent English, greets Eliza effusively, despite the fact that, at least to the best of my knowledge, the two have only exchanged a few phone messages. That’s Brazil.
She asks me whether I would mind opening the ark. This is a surprise. “But of course,” I respond. The service, a festive affair with lots of singing and dancing, commences. I put on the talis, and now I am being led to the ark. Vague memories of my bar mitzvah. I turn around. Shouldn’t my father be here? Definitely one of my 50 top moments. (I have been collecting them at a rate of one or two a year; think we’re up to 40 by now….) Somewhere, the ghosts of my grandparents are smiling down on me. Mazel Tov, Gordon! You done good.
Party time! After a vexing hour long drive from Barra di Tijuca to Copacabana, we are whisked inside the opulent Copacabana Palace. Suddenly, I am surrounded by hundreds of cariocas, dressed to the nines, sipping exotic drinks, making literary chit chat, eying each other. I pose for photos with my publisher, Mariana. Flash! Then my editor, Rita. Boom! Flashback to Anita Ekberg’s paparazzi-festooned entrance in “La Dolce Vita.”
A quick meeting with my fellow Zahar author, Andrew Carroll, author of the best-selling epistolary anthology “War Letters.” Nice guy. Very self-assured. Looks to be on the verge of having one too many. Boy, that punch is good. Mind if I join you? Andrew introduces me to his two young American friends, Tom and Liz, Georgetown grad students studying international relations in Buenas Aires. Slow fade to the agreeable sound of glasses tinkling, Portuguese lit-chat fortissimo. Interesting night. Boom! Flash!
Showtime! Today we’re off to the Fair to hold forth on “Love, Religion and War!” Otimo! But first, another amusingly misspelled message from the Windsor front desk informs me, I am to be interviewed by someone from O Globo, the leading Rio daily. Nossa!
The helpful driver from Zahar points out the sights as we head to the Bienal. “Barra shopping!” he shouts out. But here are we going? I still don’t have my bearings. Voce fala ingles? Desculpe, he doesn’t. Who knows? Maybe I am being kidnapped. No, he’s too nice to be a kidnapper. I flip through my dictionary. Qual a distancia–doqui? (How far is it?). This only elicits a puzzled smile. Guess my pronunciation is off. Or maybe I am being kidnapped. What the hell.
And now here we are at the Centro, a vast, multi-building emporium somewhere in the middle of Rio, snaking through the Bienal, which is crowded with thousands of people. Shades of Frankfurt Book Fair. Who says Brazilians are only interested in sex and football?
Here’s my interviewer, a tall, enchanting young lady by the name of Suzanne Velasco, accompanied by photographer. Good interview! Best of all, she’s read the book.
And now I am riding a cart to the auditorium, where my distinguished fellow scribes and I are slated to hold forth on “Love, Religion and War.” I find myself seated next to Juliana Iootty, the svelte assistant editor of O Globo, who is chairing the discussion.
“I read your book,” she confides as we whoosh towards the room. “I’m so glad that your family survived.” Me too! How about lunch? She hands me her card. We’ll talk.
A crowd of a hundred or so is waiting for the four panelists, who include a well-known Brazilian journalist; another American writer, Jay Kooperman; a former Marine lieutenant colonel who wrote a book about the dog he adopted in Iraq. The other panelists have come prepared with notes; I still have no idea what I am supposed to speak about. Finally Juliana passes a note informing me that I am supposed to speak for 15 minutes about my book. But what about that “Love, Religion, and War” stuff? Oh, never mind. When my turn comes I ad lib something about the book’s Pandora’s box story, my original breakdown in ’79 when I first tried to tackle it, etc. A note is passed: “Sorry. Your 15 minutes are up.” I wind up. Andrew writes out: “Good job.”
Question time. How’s this for a stumper: “What’s the difference between a Nazi camp and Guantanamo?” Well, I’m no fan of Guantanamo,” I offer after a long pause, “but last I checked we weren’t in the business of exterminating anyone.” The colonel nods.
So much for my contribution to “Love, Religion, and War.”
My final day at Barra da Tijuca.
Barra is the Miami of Rio, with malls and shopping centers set against the tropical landscape. The middle classes first began moving here in the 1970s, when the situation in urban Rio seemed as if it had reached boiling point, but Barra da Tijuca is no longer fashionable; it’s too far from anywhere and suffers from huge traffic bottlenecks. The upper classes have begun moving back to Ipanema.
My sentiments, exactly. The best thing about Barra, I decide, is the rooftop pool of my hotel, where I spend most of the day, immersing myself in my guides, musing on the eternal verities, and drinking in the sun.
A wafer-thin blonde in a fio dental wafts by, deposits herself a few chairs down, buries herself in a newspaper. Doesn’t look Brazilian. No smile. Icy look. Shades of Helsinki. A few minutes later she is joined by a fat, bald man in his 30s. Diamond-encrusted watch. Russian. So, they’re here too.
Tomorrow I am supposed to move to the Sofitel in Copacabana. Time to experience the real Rio.
Message from Zahar: A problem with my reservations. Sofitel is full. Instead I am being moved to another “very nice” hotel called the Ouro Verde, further down the beach. Fine.
So we move to the Ouro Verde, just two blocks away from the Copacabana Palace, on the “edgy” side of Copacabana. As the amiable desk clerk checks my reservation, my eye is drawn to a glass-enclosed article on the wall from what appears to be the Ouro Verde’s opening, sometime in the early 1950s. Gazing at the photo essay, which depicts a well-to-do couple eating breakfast while casting winsome looks out to sea, I catch a blast of Rio’s golden age. “This is the second oldest hotel in Copacabana,” the clerk informs me. Looking around the dark, musty lobby, I believe it. And hey, isn’t that Sidney Greenstreet hiding behind the velvet curtain? I have arrived at the original Hotel Long Ago and Far Away. Wait for me, Carmen!
Dinner with Tom and Liz, my two new young friends from Buenas Aires at Carretao, at an all-you-can-eat churrascaria around the corner. Upon being seated, we are set upon by a veritable conga line of waiters carrying trays with different sorts of meat. Here’s the grinning frango man. Ole! And now the rosbife man! Sim, por favor! And now the maître d’ is asking us if we would like this wonderful bottle of wine. Somehow, anywhere else, a culinary assault like this would be invasive, gauche. But that’s the thing about Brazil — everyone is so nice. Yes, they want your money, but it’s not all about the buck here.
And how do Tom and Liz like Buenas Aires? “Rio is better,” they say.
Walk back to the hotel. A mangy looking man with a bottle emerges from the shadows. No question, Copa is definitely dicey.
You want the lowdown on what’s happening in a new city? Talk to the night person at your hotel. Conversation with Luciana, the night desk clerk at the Ouro Verde: yes, there are a lot of cops, Luciana agrees. “But they’re not very good. I mean, for you and me, they’re okay. But not for the important stuff, the drugs.” I ask her about the much-publicized coordinated gang attacks earlier in the year. “Oh, it was terrible. I was afraid to go home. I had to sleep in the hotel.” She complains about the “girls” who ply their trade nightly outside. “They always bother our customers.” Rio has “gone down,” she contends. All the “money and power” are in Sampa….
Edward is the ultimate front desk man: always glad to see you, has your schedule memorized, full of helpful tips. Friendly without being oleaginous. Too bad the aging grand dame of a hotel where he works is on its last legs. Last night, water started coming out of the wall in the bathroom; today, one of the elevators is out of order. “I love this place,” I tell Edward, before going out for an early evening stroll along the Avenida, “but it’s breaking down.”
Edward looks pained, but it’s the truth. And yet, I love this place.
Today, at the branch of the Banco de Brasil around the corner from the hotel, I get another taste of what Luciana is talking about. The first thing I see when I enter the bank is a cop. I enter the main customer area, which about the same size as that of a typical Citibank. To my left is a kind of raised, semi-concealed platform, atop of which is another cop, carefully scanning the faces of those who enter the service area. For a moment, he gets me in an eyelock; I guess I pass muster. He continues scanning. I walk upstairs to another customer area, pass another cop. Something tells me that this place has been robbed in the not-too-distant past — like maybe last week? I pass another one on my way back downstairs in the teller line, then scope yet another standing behind a pillar, hands at his side. Five cops, all on high alert. I take my money and walk back to the hotel — quickly.
When I return Edward greets me effusively. “So, it went okay, you got your money?”
“Yes, it went okay.” (Gulp.)
For the first time since I have arrived, it rains for a few hours. Cariocas clearly don’t like rain. They run around with a disoriented look on their face, like children.
4 A.M. Sleepless. Go to my window overlooking Avenida Atlantica. Eight floors below, the “girls” are busy doing their thing. A car slows down. One of the girls leans in; car passes. No deal. Further down the street there is another cluster of girls, maybe 20 altogether. Here comes a cab; it slows down. In this town — or at least, along this once-elegant Avenida — even the cabbie goes cruising. Girl leans in. Deal.
In the distance, a mysterious light flashes on and off at irregular intervals. What is it from? A boat? A buoy? God? Maybe there is no light. Maybe it’s just my imagination running away from me.
Blame it on Rio.
I need some scissors, duck into a farmacia. The man behind the counter doesn’t speak English. Time for charade. Yes, scissors. You know — cut, cut. Não, does not have, desculpe. But he doesn’t want to lose my trade. He asks me whether I need “agar,” or something like that. (Bear in mind: I am hearing-impaired.) Once again, louder. Agra? How say? He goes around to the back of the pharmacy and emerges with his partner, who speaks English. “What does he mean?” I ask?
Right. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
It is 3 p.m. Avenida Copacabana, the colorful spine of Copa, is bustling with shoppers. I join the parade. There are quite a few vacant storefronts; clearly, as Luciana said, Copa has seen better days. I pass a knot of street kids — Rio’s untouchables — who give me the once-over. I walk on. Here’s some local wall art showing beneath the slogan: “A traditional batalha do real presenta: Liga dos MC’s.” (Later I am told this means: “The traditional battle of the real presents: the league of MCs.”) I take out my camera, frame the shot, do a quick pirouette to see if anyone is following me (flashback to driving around the Falls in Belfast with Alister in ’99, and photographing an IRA wall before getting into a fight with my late English cousin Alister because he felt I was endangering both of us), whip out the camera, pistol-like, shoot, replace. The whole sequence takes less than five seconds.
After three days in Copa, I feel sufficiently acclimated to explore its byways. I am intrigued by a sign that indicates the presence of a café down an alleyway, in the rear of a general store-type establishment. I duck into the alley. And here, away from the madding Carioca crowd, is a standing-only café, with a few world-weary types hanging about sipping their mojo, tended by a matronly type in her 50s. I ask for a coffee. The barista unsmilingly, but not rudely, indicates that I need a chip of some sort. Where do I buy the chip? Around the front, she gestures again, as a blast wave of forro emanates out of a rusty overhead PA.
So I trot around to the front to buy a chip for coffee. My attention is drawn to the counter, where a group of knives are displayed. Say, I could use one of those. The owner of the store, an undemonstrative, mustachioed man in his late 40s, notices my interest. I ask him to take out the knife, a Swiss Army type job with several different blades, including scissors. Not bad. And only 18 Reals.
Then I remember that I also need film. Does he have film? He whips out a cigar box full of 35 mm. Falou! I buy two rolls. 24 Reals. Then I remember that I also need a battery for the camera. He wouldn’t perchance…He would. So he takes out another cigar box. Nossa! This dude has everything. I go for broke — how about a lens cap? Sorry. He adds up the total: 50 Reals. Not bad. Then I remember the original reason for my mission: to get a coffee chip. My new friend shakes his head. Coffee is on the house. My man!
The article about me in O Globo is published today. Clearly Ms. Velasco, the reporter, has spent some time on the piece, takes note of of my “narrative gifts.” Muito obrigada! I wish I liked the photo as much as the text, which my gentle giant friend Edward translates for me. I wish I could find those scissors!
Lunch with Rita, my editor at Zahar. First a tour of the Zahar offices in the center. Very cozy. Smiles all around. The article in O Globo has gone over very well. Rita gives me a large, gorgeous coffee table book about prehistoric Brazil. Obrigada!
Lunch at an elegant restaurant nearby, overlooking the harbor. Rita is interested in my Finland book; I promise to send her a chapter. Who knows? Maybe they can publish it in time for the next Bienal! For my part, I can’t get over the fact that my book, about my family’s story — a story that, after all, took place 60 years ago on the other side of the world — is being published here, in Brazil. And you know what? Of the four editions of the book to be published thus far, Zahar’s is the sleekest, most handsome of all. (Apologies to Random House, Prometheus, and Cornell University Press!) But then again, is that such a surprise? After all, this is Rio, the most beautiful city in the world. Should I be surprised that they know how to make a book?
Inevitably the talk turns to crime. I mention “Bus 174,” one of the most harrowing films I have ever seen. I gather that most affluent cariocas are in a state of semi-denial about the situation, and it reminds me of the attitude New Yorkers had during our own plague years. “And the thing is,” Rita says, “it happened in the best neighborhood.” As if what the hijacking revealed about the tattered state of the Brazilian commonweal, not to mention the scandalously woeful state of police training for such emergencies, would have been any less tragic if it had taken place in a not-so-nice neighborhood. In the far distance, a sailboat is tacking. Someone is having a good time. And in the shantytowns above us the drug wars continue. Rio: city of contrasts.
…COPACAPANA PALACE. Rio’s most famous hotel, the Palace has hosted heads of state, rock stars, and other prominent personalities. The dazzling white façade dates from the 1920s, when it became a symbol of the city. Today it is the premier hotel of Rio-following a massive facelift–The Palace rooms range from antique-filled superiors to gorgeous suites with balconies and parquet floors. There’s also a lovely pool, excellent restaurants and service fit for royalty (Princess Di stayed here, as did Queen Elizabeth)–
–from the Lonely Planet City Guide to Rio de Janeiro
I have a new nighttime routine. Around 9 p.m., I walk over to the Copacabana Palace, which is just a block-and-a-half down the avenida from the Ouro Verde, past the skirmish line of black-suited security people. Despite its increasingly dicey surroundings, the Palace is still a glamorous world-within-a-world — and a heavily fortified world, at that. There are police cars here, too, with their constantly whirling lights, though now that I have seen and felt how dangerous Rio really is, I am beginning to think of them more as ornamental fixtures, and rather surreal ones at that. Something occurs to me: I have seen a lot of happy people in Rio, but I have yet to come across a happy policeman.
Now I am in a movie, you know, a noir. It is 1958, or 1938. I walk down the palatial hall, past a large display with exotic jewelry from H.Stern (I am beginning to think that H. Stern owns Rio), half-expecting to bump into a vacationing Rita Hayworth. Finally I enter the inner courtyard, with its vast, shimmering, bottom-lit pool. And now I glide into the restaurant, past the pianist, who looks up and smiles at me — but, of course, this is a movie. He is playing the theme from Gilda. And isn’t that President Vargas over there in the main dining room waving at me? “Tudo bem?” he mouths–.
Rio has been used as a backdrop for many films, such as “Notorious” (1946), “Black Orpheus” (1959), “L’Homme de Rio” (1964), “Moonraker” (1979), “Blame it on Rio” (1984), “The Girl from Rio” (2002), “City of God” (2002) and “Doom 2″ (2006)–
I do a little writing in my notebook, nursing a Scotch. I look up: the president and his party are gone. Yes, this is all a fantasy. I’m not really in Rio, am I?
Later I take my drink out to the pool and lie down on one of the chaises by the beckoning azure abyss. It is — like every night has been since I arrived — a beautiful night. The stars are laid out like sugar sprinkles on a black velvet cushion. Who is that couple making out in the corner of the pool? Is that those globetrotters Tyrone and Annabelle Power? Must have flown down here on Pan Am. So, they have decided to take the exotic waters of Rio, too.
I notice that a young woman has taken a table fairly close to me — but not too close to me, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to tell in the dark. I toy with the idea of going over, think better of it. And so we stay, two strangers staring at each other in the dark. Or perhaps I am merely imagining her. The Copacabana Palace is like that. Rio is like that. Reality impinges.
Midnight. Witching hour on the Avenida. Time to head back to the Hotel Long Ago and Far Away, before the “girls” come back and the nocturnal floor show that is the Avenida Atlantica shifts into gear.
Cab it to Centro, the business district of Rio, for lunch with my editor, Rita. First a quick tour of the Zahar headquarters. Very cozy. Smiles all around. Everyone is very pleased with the O Globo article. Rita has a gift for me: a a copy of my lavish coffee table book Zahar has published about prehistoric Brazil. Obrigada! Lunch is at an elegant restaurant off the harbor with a view of Sugarloaf. It is sunny. Isn’t it always sunny in Rio?
And again, as it always seems to here, the subject turns to crime. Yes, the danger has been exaggerated, but of course you do have to be careful. I get the feeling that cariocas are in a state of semi-denial about crime. Obviously they know how much there is — all they have to do is to turn on their TV — but as long as their neighborhood is okay, they can cope.
I have found my favorite place to write in Rio — the Confeitaria Colombo in Forte Copacabana, the large fort-cum-military museum on the border between Copacabana and Ipanema. They make a great vanilla milkshake. You can sit there nursing your shake, scribbling away, sunning yourself, looking at the waves.
As it happens, this evening, the launch of the Zahar edition of Andrew’s book is held at the Forte. Andrew receives a medal, the Brazilian equivalent of the Legion of Honor. A tiny Brazilian solider, all dolled up, walks up to the stage holding a velvet cushion with the medal on it. Said medal is pinned on Andrew, who looks appropriately moved by the occasion. Later, as we are exiting the auditorium en route to the reception, which is held at the military museum, elsewhere on the fort grounds, I congratulate Andrew. “Congratulations, Colonel!” Then I give a salute.
We walk out into the night, towards the reception, which is being held at the military museum, which is also on the grounds. To my surprise, one of the invitees, an elderly man, comes up to me and says, “I’ve read your book.”
“Thanks,” I respond, slightly surprised. How did he recognize me? From my photo in O Globo? Or perhaps, more likely, someone from Zahar pointed me out to him. All I care about is that he read the book. Are there any sweeter words to an author’s ear?
The foyer of the museum, where the reception is being held, contains photos and display cases illustrating Brazil’s contribution to the Allied cause during World War II. I make a mental note to brush up on the subject.
Mariana, our publisher, invites us to have a drink with her and the Zahar gang afterwards. Where? “Leblon.” An hour later, the ten of us are arrayed around a table — or, technically, two tables — outside Bacarense, a large, boisterous bistro located on a leafy street in Leblon, chugging beers, nibbling on plates with slices of the most delicious roast beef I have ever tasted, and getting progressively drunk. At one point, as we are finishing up the second round — or was it the third? — our waiter comes over and surprises us with a tray of more drinks, on the house. Cheers. And the party continues. “This wouldn’t happen in the United States,” Andrew observes. “We’re too capitalist.” Finally, as we finish off that round, with attendant hors d’oeuvres, and we are getting ready to make our exit, comes another tray on the house Cheers. Andrew and I shake our heads and dive in. While we are still able, Andrew and I offer a toast to our gracious and generous publisher. All hail Jorge Zahar, the coolest publisher south of the equator! Muito obrigada! And hey, would you mind passing the….
My next to last day in Rio. Things are coming to a climax. Next up: the piece d’resistance — Ipanema and the Fasano, the new, much-talked-about five star hostelry by way of Philippe Starck where, thanks to the good offices of Paula Mello, I have arranged to stay my final night.
Time to bid farewell to my beloved Ouro Verde, and my friends Edward and Luciana, et al. “I’ll be back!”
First, before I make the move, I have booked a taxi, via the front desk, to take me to Corcavado atop of which stands the statue of Cristor Redentor that has been hovering on the periphery of my vision for the last 10 days, like a little plastic Jesus over on the dashboard there (hit it boys: I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sitting on the dashboard of my car–), encouraging me, taunting me, blessing me. My chauffeur du jour — Rodrigo, a former bellboy at the Ouro Verde turned driver, owns his car. Rodrigo strikes me as a joyous man. I suppose this is what distinguishes Brazilians from we northernly types: for all their problems, for all their worries, they have joy. Now, how many New Yorkers can you say that about?
Up and up and finally we are at the foot of Corcovado. It is only 9 a.m., but the parking lot at the base of the mountain is packed. I say good bye to Rodrigo, line up to buy my ticket, and board a bus to take me to the top. Up and up we go. I feel like I am literally ascending to the heavens. The bad breath of the passenger squeezed in next to me breaks my celestial trance.
And finally, we are there — and here He is, all 100 feet of Him, arms outstretched, welcoming one and all. And there is Rio, stretched out below, the cidade marvilhosa. Beyond words.
Definitely worth the schlep. A man next to me just stares, open-mouthed. A gorgeous, flame-haired teenage girl plants herself in front of Him and opens her arms in emulation — except I don’t know whether He would approve of her come-hither look….
It’s getting crowded up here; time to go. I walk down to the area where the bus let me off, but the bus is not there. Lots of other buses, but not my bus. I wave my ticket. The other bus drivers shrug. And now it’s time to have my first Fucking Shit! moment, i.e., when I lose it. (Not that it happens very often, but it happens.)
Here it comes: “FUCKING SHIT! WHERE IS MY–” Before I go any further, a young man who has apprehended my dilemma walks over, takes me by the arm, and points me to the next level, where my bus is waiting. I thank him and descend, feeling like a proper babaco (jerk).
And that was the only Fucking Shit moment I had the whole trip!
Next up: Pão de Açúcar, known to you as Sugarloaf.
Once again, in our by-now familiar routine, Rodrigo drops me off in the parking lot next to the site. I join the sizable line, crowd into the cable car, and up we go. Then I realize something: I don’t like cable cars. Suddenly I recall the tragic Italian cable car accident involving that NATO fighter plane that came in too low, severed the cable, causing a dozen innocent vacationers to go splat. (Question: why are the victims of horrible accidents always described as innocent?)
The ascent to Sugarloaf is a two-stage ordeal: first, you ascend to a fairly high mountain called Morro de Orco; then you take another car for the final, far steeper and scarier ascent to Sugarloaf proper. After due consideration, I decide that one mountain is enough, hang around Morro a while, grab some eats, take some snaps, sheepishly head back down. All the while I hear the devil whispering in my ear, “Chicken!”
My dauntless driver Rodrigo is waiting for me at in the parking lot, waving, with his incandescent smile. “How did you like it?” he asks.
“Oh, fine, fine,” I say.
Still have half an hour, so I decide to tour Urca, the small, exclusive neighborhood located in the shadow of Sugarloaf. Mariana, my publisher, told me she lived there, so I figure it must be nice. It is. No tourists, no hotels, just a little enclave of perhaps 20 blocks lined with beguilingly decorated homes, dotted with a few shops and a delightful pocket beach, where a few hundred blissed-out cariocas are sunning themselves and playing volleyball and flirting with each other and just lolling around, and an old man with an arm full of inflated animal balloons is sauntering as he desultorily looks for business. Distillate of Rio. Funny city.
As we leave, we pass a number of fishermen trying their luck. I ask Rodrigo to stop so I can take some photos. The fishermen don’t seem too happy to see me. Clearly outsiders are not welcome in Urca. Nearby, a German shepherd is resting atop a wall surrounding a house. The matron of the house, an unsmiling woman, is looking out the window, following us. By way of defusing her, Rodrigo smilingly offers a salutation. The woman’s unsmiling expression is unchanged, as is her dog’s.
“Guess they really don’t like tourists around here,” I remark, slamming the door. “No,” Rodrigo replies. And we head back to Copa.
On to Ipanema and the fabulous Fasano.
The Fasano brings its incomparable hospitality to Rio de Janiero. Their new hotel is uniquely situated at the heart of Ipanema Beach. Imagined by Philippe Starck, the hotel features a lobby lounge, the Londra bar and the Fasano Al Mare Restaurant. The rooftop, accessible only to hotel guests, has a spectacular view over Ipanema Beach featuring a pool, fitness center, sauna and a coffee shop for drinks and light meals…
– From the back of a pack of promotional “playing cards” illustrating the virtues of the Fasano
So here I am a few hours later, walking around the sleek rooftop pool of the chic Fasano. After 10 days here, I am getting to be an expert at rooftop hotels, and the Fasano — with its mahogany bar, sauna area, mod “floating” pool, and above, all, that view of Ipanema — is definitely head of the class, as is the rest of this Starck-designed cubicle of cool.
It’s a quiet afternoon up here, three or four attitude-rich guests taking in the sun, talking on their cellphones, reading the paper under the watchful eye of the white uniformed staff, who rush over at the blink of an eye. The staff have the slightly insecure, eager-to-please look one sees at a new hotel. Soon enough they’ll acquire that thousand yard stare, but for now everyone is a king and nothing is too much to ask. I have the feeling that if I asked my waiter to jump off the roof, he would smile, put down his towel and proceed to do so. Of course, Mr. Sander. Certainly, Mr. Sander. And when I return will there be anything else you require?
Waltzing around, doing my sniper photo thing, zooming down on the beach. Hey, girl from Ipanema, hold it! Hold it!
“Are you a photographer?” asks an amiable, roly-poly man. “Well, yes and no. I’m also a writer.” Yada, yada. He seems sincerely nice. I extend my hand. “Gordon Sander.” “Fernando___”
“Would you like a drink?”
Fernando proceeds to tell me his story, which could be entitled “A Day in the Life of a Bored Rich São Paolo Architect.” Evidently the weather in Sampa isn’t, or wasn’t, as good as it is in Rio. “So this morning I woke up, looked out the window, and the weather was shit. And so I decided to fly here for the day.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. That’s the way I do things. I move fast.”
Fernando’s cell phone rings. He gets up, waddles into the pool, phone to his ear. Fernando, it develops, owns his own architectural firm in São Paolo. Educated in the U.S., Master’s degree at Stanford, hence the accent-free English. To hear him describe it, the world is his oyster. Sure looks it, too. Another joyous man. A joyous, rich man — but without the attitude. I decide I like Fernando.
Fernando’s father is the owner of the top steakhouse in Sampa; it has several branches. Soon, he says, he will be starting his own steakhouse in Washington, D.C. It, too, will be “top!” I like Fernando’s exuberance. I like the way he says “top.”
Fernando, it further develops, is divorced, but has many girlfriends. Or, rather, he has a girlfriend in Sampa and an ex-girlfriend in Rio who is not really ex. She, too, is “top.” He tries to get her on the phone. No luck. “No problem,” he smiles. He will try later. Meantime, would I care for another drink? I would.
Fernando is only in town for the night, leaves in the morning. And what will he be doing tonight? Getting together with the ex who is not really an ex. I am welcome to join them. We make a deal: I will give him a copy of my book. He will buy me a dinner, but not just any dinner — dinner at a “top” seafood restaurant.
Time to hit the beach. Fernando and I exit the Fasano, past the nodding security men with their entwined hearing pieces, down through the sand to the area of the beach reserved for Fasano guests. The two men assigned to monitor the area hurry over, offer us water, chairs, validation: we are, after all, Fasano guests. We are, as Fernando would say, “top.”
The sun is about to set. Essentially we have the beach to ourselves. “Isn’t this great?” he exclaims, joyously extending his arms in gratitude to the gods.
Fernando tries again to call his ex. No response. “That’s okay. We’ll still have some fun tonight.”
But first I have to get the copy of the book I promised him. Unfortunately, I left my lone remaining copy in my room at the Ouro Verde. No problem. The hotel is two miles away at the other end of Copacabana. I could cab it, but instead I decide to walk it. This, after all, is my last night in Rio, my last chance to drink in the crazy stew that is Copa.
A week ago, I would only have felt safe walking back along the Avenida; now, I zigzag down the small back streets between Atlantica and Copacabana. I stop at a smoky bar-cum-eatery with a small neon sign swaying in the wind and order a chicken ball and a chopa, gulp them down, followed by a small cup of Jell-o. Two and a half reais — $1.25 total.
I walk on, past a record shops, hamburger joints, fruit stalls. It is 8 p.m. The streets are relatively deserted. Once again, I hear my internal movie camera whirring. I feel like I am following a script. I am no longer walking; I am tracking. Flashback to the long tracking shot at the start of Orson Welles’ “A Touch of Evil.” Up music: the sound of drums. Is it from that record shop I just passed — or is it my imagination, running away from me? Oh, Rio. Something tells me that I will remember this walk….
An hour later, autographed copy of book in hand, I meet Fernando in the lobby of the Fasano. We go off to dinner. Fernando is in a strange mood. “First I want to go to a brothel,” he informs me. “Just to get a peek.” The cab driver dutifully hands him a laminated card with the name of a near by brothel.
“Uh–I’m not sure I want to join you for that.”
“Okay, okay,” Fernando says. “Let’s go to dinner.”
It is a fine dinner. Top place, obviously. Fernando inveigles the restaurant owner in convivial big shot talk. I have the seafood platter; Fernando prefers raw fish.
Fernando, however, is no longer in such a top mood. “I’m not rich,” he confides. “I’m okay. I mean, I can pay my bills.” I am beginning to wonder whether I am going to have to pick up the tab, but Fernando reads my mind. “Don’t worry — I will pay for dinner.” Good to know. Still, all that glitters is not gold.
We depart in separate cabs. I return to the hotel; Fernando heads off to a brothel. “I just want to get a peek,” he says. “Just a peek.”
Weird day. Blame it on Rio.
Last day. My Rio sortie ends fittingly with brunch at the Fasano with Juliana Iootty, the beguiling moderator of the Bienal seminar. Juliana says she enjoys her job at O Globo, but is intrigued with the notion of returning to academe to pursue a degree in international relations. She once worked at the United Nations. She liked New York, looks forward to returning, perhaps in the spring? She has quite a family story to tell, too: her father, a professor, was imprisoned under the former regime, tortured. I encourage her to write it.
Once again, the ever-present topic of crime surfaces, including “Bus 174.” “The sad thing about that incident,” Juliana says, “is that it took place in the best neighborhood.”
Where have I heard that before?
“Shall we go to the beach?” Juliana suggests, changing the subject. Why not? After all, as I am learning, life in Rio revolves around the beach. And with beaches like these, why not?
Ipanema is crowded today. Vendors weave amongst the crowd bearing candy, trinkets, blankets, you name it. “Have you tried the ice cream?” Juliana asks. “You must. It’s very Rio.” Yes, I must. I choose the chocolate, Juliana, the same. We indulge. The sun beats down. The waves crash. An aging biplane trailing an advertising message putters by at an impossibly slow speed looks like it is about to fall out of the sky.
We part in front of the Fasano with hugs and promises to keep in touch. “I will be back,” I promise. And I will. No question: I have fallen for Rio.
I spend my last hour lying on a chaise on the roof of the Fasano, watching the sun set over Ipanema through my toes.
A few hours later I am winging home. Shutting my eyes, I again see that mysterious light I saw from my window at the Ouro Verde. Was it a boat, I wonder? Was it a buoy?
Or was it Rio?