The Girls and Boys from Ipanema
With Brazil the focus for the next month — 2014 FIFA World Cup — we thought it timely to share with readers (once again) a formidable travel account by Nevada Powe.
I must admit that when the pilot said "fasten your seat belts as we're about to land in Rio de Janeiro", I immediately started humming the seductive chords of The Girl From Ipanema. Corny? Perhaps, but my mind locked into song replay mode and I was stuck with it the entire time I was in Rio. "Tall and tan and young and lovely....dada dad a da..."
For the longest time I was uncontrollably excited about travelling to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The very words "Rio de Janeiro" connote bronze bodies, sensuous music, postcard-perfect beaches, cosmopolitan glamour and sex. Then about a month before I went, all kinds of bad news about the city started to reach me. I kept running into people eager to share horror stories about armed teenagers on crack, juvenile pickpockets and even gangs holding up fashionable restaurants at gunpoint. Everyone kept saying "be careful in Rio." And to make matters worse, a friend who recently moved to Rio. from Tel Aviv told me that he travels everywhere with a bodyguard. "Pondi, I felt safer in the West Bank than I do in Rio."
So with this as background information, I get to the Fasano Hotel on Ipanema Beach and I barricade myself in. For 48 hours I stay in my room, hang out by the rooftop pool, eat all meals at the hotel's award-winning Italian restaurant Fasano al Mare, and drink caipirinhas (the Brazilian national cocktail of Cachaca rum, sugar and lime) at the hotel's hip bar the Londres, where Madonna recently did a photo shoot. I decide that I will be seeing Rio from the confines of a posh boutique hotel. By the end of the second day I am going stir crazy.
I arrange for a city tour through the Fasano concierge with a female guide and an armed driver. My guide Raquel is a true blue Carioca, which is what they call people born and bred in Rio. She has never lived anywhere else and does not travel much outside the city because Rio, she insists, has it all.
We first head up to the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue for which Rio is famous. "Cristo Redentor" has just been named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, along with Petra, Machu Picchu, Chichenitza, the Coliseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China. While it is indeed impressive at 120 feet tall and 98 feet wide arms outstretched over the bay, I am not sure that I would have put it on the list of 'Wonders' while leaving the Egyptian pyramids as runner-up. Nevertheless, I know that grandma would be pleased that I finally found Jesus.
We take a massive cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain for amazing views of the bay and lakes. We visit the Maracana stadium where there are concrete imprints of Pele and other football players' feet reminiscent of the actors' hands at the Chinese Mann Theater in Los Angeles. The stadium walls are full of passionate declarations about football like this doozy: "It is easier to stop loving a woman than to stop loving a team."
Raquel is perfunctory and efficient as we drive through various neighbourhoods and she tries to give me a robust overview of the city. After a long morning she takes me for lunch in Leblon, the wealthiest section of town, at a restaurant clearly designed for foreigners and for everyone to feel safe. At this point I am getting increasingly irritated as this is not how I want to experience Rio. This is not what I had dreamed. Finally I ask, so how dangerous is the city really?
She replied: "I have been robbed at gunpoint six or seven times but I do not let it bother me. They only want your money so I just give it to them and let it go. If you follow this simple rule, then the city is not dangerous at all and you are free to go everywhere."
And with that my orientation changed and I hit the road. I leave the hotel each day with no more than the equivalent of US$50, a photo copy of my passport and a small US$200 digital camera in my pocket. No ATM card, no credit card, and no jewellery apart from the cheap 10 year old swatch watch I always wear. I literally had nothing to lose. I was mentally prepared to be robbed. (Maybe even hoping to be robbed so I could put it behind me?) And then I was free. I went everywhere. Good neighborhood, bad neighborhood, big boulevards, small side streets, wide open beaches and dingy parks. My Campion College Spanish was enough to understand Portuguese and to make myself understood. I walked up and down the highways and alleys of Rio de Janeiro taking taxis, buses and subways with ne'er even an incident. And what did I find? I found an open, friendly and engaging people. I found steamy music and dance. I found beauty and sensuality. I found the Rio de Janeiro that I had seen in the movies. I found the Rio of my boyhood dreams.
The first thing that strikes you is how Brazilians actually look Jamaican. That complex fusion of Chinese, Indian, Caucasian and Black which creates the broad colour spectrum of "out of many one people" also exists in Brazil. This is the only place I have ever been where the entire population of Jamaica could be teleported to the middle of the city and no one would realise that they had been invaded by foreigners.
What's more, any Jamaican would also understand the rules of Brazilian "pigmentism" even without understanding a word of Portuguese. Their colour hierarchy, social rules and class clannishness mirror ours. Every Jamaican would instinctively know which bars, nightclubs or neighbourhoods they belonged. Even their newspaper social pages, like ours, are colour-coded. Fascinating!
You also find that Rio de Janeiro is the most sensuous city in the world. Living in such close proximity to beaches and lakes means always being ready for a swim or a tan. On any given street half the people are wearing indoor-outdoor beachwear showing copious amounts of skin. A bodacious beauty in a bathing suit is walking comfortably next to a man in a blue suit with his shirt open below his chest. When they get to the restaurant, she throws on a top, puts on her heels and walks in. This is Rio!
You have big belly or big batty? No problemo, let it all hang out! Everyone here exercises their God-given right to wear string bikinis and thongs no matter what excess baggage is protruding. There is no body shame and it's simply marvellous. Although, don't get me wrong, most of the Cariocas sport smoking bodies.
Sundays on Ipanema Beach is a sight to behold. The men are buffed and waxed. The women are tight and curvaceous. And everybody is oozing sex. There are open air massages, temporary tattoos being applied, and lots of people touching, necking and canoodling. It is a sexually liberated place where the straights, the gays, the trannies, the old men-young thing pairings all make it their own.
There was surprisingly less music and dance on the streets and beaches than I had imagined except when you go to the Favelas or shanty towns. Here music and dance seemed to be full on decibels all the time. One of my best experiences was going to a young people's "baile e f*ckie" session in one of the Favelas. (The things I do abroad that I never do in my own country!) Watching gyrating teens with their pulsating hips, my mind ran to the hysterical ramblings of Mutabaruka, Esther Tyson, and "slackness is slackness" Teerob back at the ranch who are all having conniptions over Jamaican teenage decadence and licentious expression. If these purveyors of propriety were to witness the Brazilians grinding and groping, they would have no option but to lock themselves away in a monastery. Brazilian youths deploy the entire portfolio of subversive hedonistic dance styles as they taunt each other to increasingly outrageous degrees of "slackness". Our daggering-romping shop teens still have a while to go. These girls and boys are having fun.
There was one girl in particular that I cannot get out of my mind; scantily clad, bare feet, perky 'melons', dark hair asunder and vibrant violet eyes. She looked like she could knife you as easily as she could seduce you. This femme fatale would sway her hips in front of one guy and after he was wound up, she would sway away in search of the next. She was a joy to watch. Each time she swayed by me I kept hoping! "I smile but she doesn't see... she doesn't see meeee" The cruelty of a beautiful woman in any language. Wordlessly she proclaims me not man enough to entice her to dance.
Rio de Janeiro may be the final frontier of a sexually open society. I am not sure if this was where the sexual revolution began, but it is clearly where it has found its fullest expression. There may be some irony in the fact that a large statue of Jesus Christ presides over the most openly sensuous city in the world. And then again maybe not, since Jesus himself is largely silent on the issue of sex and sexuality as sins. Maybe his wide open arms over the City of Rio is actually saying "be free, my children!" That is certainly how the girls and boys of Ipanema see it. Ay Caramba!
Despite dire warnings and my initial trepidation, I came to absolutely love Rio de Janeiro. Out of the blue, it may even have shot into one of my top three - after New York and Paris - favourite cities in the world. I must try and make it back for Carnival.
"Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking and when she passes, each one she passes goes "a-a-ah!" Da da da doo doo dada daa dada daaaa..."