FLYING DOWN TO RIO


“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.

(DAY 2)

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!

(DAY 3)

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.”

(DAY 4)

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.

(DAY 5)

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….

(DAY 6)

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.

(DAY 7)

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.

(DAY 8)

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?

“Viagra.”

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 endangerin