Flying back from Rio to Buenos Aires, via a short stop in Montevideo, I caught myself already regretting that I didn’t see more of Rio, and Brazil more generally. A full week in one place seems like a reasonably long time, but it isn’t really, particularly when trying to squeeze in a number of experiences each so uniquely Brazilian. It was over before I looked up. Rio was truly a marvelous city, or The Cidade Maravihosa, as it is called by its local inhabitants – the Cariocas. Bright, beautiful, musical, diverse, eclectic, and something more singular and ephemeral that I can’t put my finger on. Buenos Aires, for all its sophistication and grandeur, feels a lot like Paris, or London, or parts of New York. Rio doesn’t feel like anywhere else, at least that I have been.
We stayed at the Rio Othon Palace on Copacabana Beach, the largest hotel of the three main beaches in Zona Sul, the touristy beach section of Rio. There is no way around it, the Othon Palace is a shit hole by American or European standards, but those must be disregarded in lieu of Rio standards (where the Rio Othon somehow warrants a 4-star rating), standards beaten down, made pulpy and unappealing, by the colluding blows of an unstable economy, violently jumpy exchange rates, the natural ebb of high-end travel destinationship, and a high concentration and segregation of wealth. You can see glimpses of what Rio used to be, in its 1950s and 1960s bossa nova heyday, particularly in the glittering ivory of the Copacabana Palace, peaking out through the clouded dank of dilapidated post mid-century architecture. This only reminds you of what is now missing, high culture urbane charm, replaced by other, more diluted, inelegant charms. The Othon Palace is well located and is fronted by a gloriously long and wide white-sand beach, bookended by lush rainforesty mountains, breathtaking from almost every angle. Our nondescript (other than the view) hotel room ran an absurd 1920,00 Brazilian Reals a night, which amounts to just over a thousand U.S. dollars a day. Fortunately, we were staying there free as a result of a timeshare condo I traded in Florida, and didn’t have to suffer the obscenity of those rates, but even knowing them was difficult to reconcile mentally.
View from the Hotel
On our first full day, Arual and I decided that our number one priority had to be to do something about our awkward pastiness, a sign of extreme shame, and an invitation to public derision, gulpy throated hand-covering-mouth look-away disgust and a powerful amount of sexual apathy, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since high-school, and Arual hasn’t felt since our last Tuesday date night, or really any date night (I just want to be clear that I don’t have some recurrent libido drop on Tuesdays, which are like one of my big days otherwise). In any case, we needed a little color, lest we be mistaken for that untalented pasty white British guy from Twilight and that even less talented pasty white girl that he wants to kill/date, or worse, Canadians. Luckily, the sun was doing its part, kicking at a solid 95 degrees and sidling all up in my grill like a creepy close talker with hot buttery breath. We headed over to Ipanema Beach, a short jaunt from our seaside location, where we were told the crowds were a little younger and hipper, a residual image-illusion of ourselves we still desperately cling to. We found a nice little spot in the Farme Gay stretch of Ipanema, creatively titled that because it is well frequented by Rio’s gay and lesbian community, the male members of which, called Barbies, you might not be surprised to learn enjoy basking in the sun with nothing but thin tautly pulled lycra chorizo hammocks, providing more textural detail than one could conceivably want outside of the context of a very thorough pudendal-flesh sifting prostate exam. In any case, we like sunbathing with our gay friends, who appreciate deeply the finer points of undercarriage groomery, and provide cognitive coverage for our fears of being sexually irrelevant to those we would otherwise like to impress. Just because the lesbians, or the body-obsessed gay men, aren’t super digging on male torsos shaped, colored and textured like a spooned out clump of creamy mashed potatoes, suntan oil glistening like two dollops of melting butter in the hairless vortex of a concave chest and its hilltop omphalic neighbor to the south, freckles (a friendlier, less carcinogenically suggestive word substitute for moles) sprinkled sloppily like pepper bits by a drooling idiot chef-God, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t play back home with the hetero ladies.
A double-edged sword of the Rio beaches is its perpetual state of cheap vendorism, a predictable result of the extreme wealth gap I suppose. Wandering endlessly on the beach, selling their goods and homespun wares, are vendors of every sort, shape and annoyance. This means that you can, for just a few Reals, sitting in your cheaply rented beach chairs, under rented umbrella staked by some strange man into the sand of your proprietary clump of earth for the day, purchase almost anything your heart desires – cocktails, food of every kind, sunglasses, clothing, jewelry, obscure crafts, poetry, whatever. It also means, of course, that you could theoretically buy, and will certainly be offered, significantly more than any heart in the history of the world has ever desired. Just when the smile on your face grows all idiot huge, a cold coconut-ed cocktail in one hand and tasty presunto e queijo in the other, the pages of your new book (in my case: Harry Potter and The Perfectly Natural Body Changes of Hermione) fluttering gently on your lap, some giant-toed local salesman, bumbles up flicking sand from the pulpy tips of eponymous toes, eclipses the glorious sun and offers you a sarong or t-shirt or fedora or license plate, or fill in random unwanted inanimate object here, that, naturally, says “Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro” on it, as if for some reason that only grandmothers in the late 80s understand you desperately want to, at some point in the future, commemorate your visitation to a far off land by wearing an ill-fitting tank-top (made of a fabric with the substantive elusiveness of cotton candy) that says exactly where you overpaid for it, an enduring unequivocal (at least until the first wash) written testament to your shamelessness. You can just imagine your horribly idiotic child asking a decade later: “hey dad, where did you get that cool faded pink tank-top?” “Well, I am really glad you asked, mildly retarded child of mine, but if you look right here on the front, just below the windsurfer, or on the back (not on the sleeves cause it doesn’t have any, fucking a!!), you will see that I got this fine article of clothing on travel with my first wife, Betty, you know the woman who drops off your significantly more loved older brother every other week, in Rio de Janeiro. Copacabana Beach if you really want to be specific………The shirt does.”
- Beach vendors (stock photos)
Perhaps because we were in the gay section or because Arual was drinking a white-wine spritzer and was justifiably confusable with a beach hooker (she isn’t one ……. to my knowledge), we were also offered several times to purchase cocaine. I said no, but they assumed I merely protested too much perhaps, because that was followed by a more sincere, crouched and winking, offers. Eventually, after several hours of only getting through the same two or three sentences in my book (and anxious, naturally, to see what happens with that oh-so lovable Harry, who is like in his mid-twenties and in his 14th year at a wizard school for children), and politely shooing away vendors with “noa, abrigado”, you learn to simply ignore them completely. Responses of any sort, only encourage them for further haggling salesmanship, adjusting prices and technique. It’s better to pretend they aren’t even talking to you and look right past them, a skill I have long practiced when Arual the Saying Something Long-winded and Irrelevant wants to have a “serious conversation” or talk about her “feelings” after a family member’s funeral.
One of the other great anachronisms of Rio, so seemingly remote from the sun-drenched beauty and white-façade edificios that serve as pillars to the gentle smoky striated clouds above the beach, is the casual frequency of theft and violence, lurking as it were behind every corner, or in the shadows under every flickering street lamp, or right there under your nose in the meaty blind spot of human complacency ready to convert from pre-kinetic potentiality to painful irrevocability in an instant, just when the thin first coat of absent-mindedness glosses over the natural tendency for defense of self and property. Our Rio guide-book reads like two books woven together, one trumpeting the charms and eccentricities of a veritable coastal and cultural paradise, the other like a self-defense manual for virgin atheist American women living in Mosul. Every encouragement to visit the gorgeous beaches comes with a friendly reminder never to step away from your belongings or even fall asleep with goods unclenched, and certainly not to walk the beaches at night, where violent muggings and “quicknappings” are somehow quotidian. You shouldn’t miss the nightlife in Lapa or Leblon, but you should cab directly to the restaurant or bar, and back to your hotel, or risk violence and robbery if you turn down the wrong street denoted with street signs you certainly can’t read. Seeing a Favela (one of the poor shantytowns) is one of the best experiences you can have, but never go without a tour guide, and make sure he gives money back to the residents, and never, ever, ever go at night, lest you want several City of God gang children to tear the clammy skin from your trembling bones, laughing Samba-maniacally at the adorable futility of your horror. But, all of that pales in comparison to the greatest danger posed in Rio, at least according to our guide-book, and our hotel concierge, and one of our tour guides – the prostitutes and, particularly, the transvestite prostitutes. This was truly disappointing to me, particularly since I have always been a huge fan of both, and the rare celestial combination of the two, but even I don’t want to be stabbed to death (or stabbed really at all), or potentially raped, by violent hooker transvestites that roam the streets near Lapa once the sun recedes, picking out drunken tourist men seemingly sporting a heavy wallet and light stumbley defenses. All of this creates a low-grade sense of unease in almost any activity you do in Rio, particularly when you are traveling with a notoriously terrible fighter like Arual, who, from what I have seen domestically, can barely even finish washing dishes (which better be clean this time) after being punched. I also feared that they will want to dance fight in the style of the capoeira, for which Brazil is renown, and my go-to Robot moves or the Sprinkler won’t provide for adequate defense, unless they only attack the sides and/or front middle of my torso, where I may actually have some dominant robot arm blocks. Arual really only knows how to do The Worm, which is a very weak fighting position historically.
Scary City of God Kids (Good movie)
Copacabana Beach at Night
Very Rough Approximation of Arual Being Beaten Up by Capoeira
That said, we really didn’t experience any tangible threat of violence or crime against us while in Rio, begging the question of whether the warnings had just done their job, or were far overstated in the first place. I think it was the latter, frankly, as those books are written to confirm the presuppositions of many travelers with a natural tendency to distrust unknowns, and see every petty crime as something more sinister. Either way, the people were extraordinary welcoming, kind, gracious and joyful on every street, dark or lit, that we walked down and the hookers were complete professionals.
Random from Sugar Loaf
Random street art from Lapa
Random pic of building
Random city pic
[to be continued]
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