Pico Iyer Journeys

A Day in the Life of the Marvelous, Desperate City

By eight in the morning, the crowds are already beginning to form, huffing and puffing along the gorgeous strip of coastline that curves around Ipanema’s two miles of beach. Old old men in thongs and bathing trunks, wrinkled women in their two-piece swimsuits, power-walkers jutting their elbows back and forth as they waddle along the concrete–they’re all in evidence this buoyant midwinter morning, when (because it’s Sunday) half the wide boulevard stretching along Ipanema, and Copacabana around the point, is closed to traffic. A nun, with more clothes on than the rest of the dawdlers combined, a roller-blading mom, pushing along a pram as she glides in and out among the near-naked bodies, a man on a bike with speakers attached to each handlebar so he can blast his enthusiasms to the crowd–all of them are contriving to turn the stretch of pavement into a neighborhood gathering of sorts. Air-kisses, hellos, rumors. What’s happening to Fernando (“Sit!” to a yapping dog) ?

The young are nowhere in sight, still claimed by the night before, and to the north, in Copacabana, two fishing boats are bobbing on the water and the illuminated shacks have yet to turn off their lights to greet the day. But here in privileged Ipanema, bronzed men who might be the older brothers of Picasso are diving into the sand to retrieve a volleyballer’s spike, and matrons are parading past as if serenaded by a new song called “The Old Girl of Ipanema.” Age–or care, or time itself (not to mention all the settlements in the hills)–is nothing that can’t be wished away in free-and-easy Rio. In the tourist brochure I’d read over breakfast this morning, the back-page interview was with a cosmetic surgeon.

The carnival in Rio never seems to stop, even in the 51 weeks of the year when mayhem is not official policy. And though it is the most underdressed urban center in the world, Rio has worked hard to make nonchalance a large part of the way it markets itself, bewitching the world (and, more dangerously, the countryside around it) with images of the “Marvelous City.” Display is the city’s currency, it’s easy to believe, and shyness the only taboo. The day before, after I passed through immigration facilities at GIG (Rio’s international airport is the only one I know that is named not after a head of state or a fighter for social justice, but a bossa nova singer, Tom Jobim), the first Brazilian to greet me was a young man in an old lady’s unflattering dressing gown, hairy legs shown off to disadvantage, holding up a sign under his Bozo-red nose and bathing cap that said, “Did you bring your swimming pool ?” (a catchy, if oblique, incitation to the duty-free store nearby). Driving in to the city from the airport, past bicyclists taking in the sun, and joggers in the park, around the main lagoon, I’d seen clowns prancing around outside many stores, and tall figures on stilts waving their arms about on sidewalks, adding their yellows and oranges to the city’s tropical blaze.

Ipanema could be said to be the largest health-club in the world (with one of the world’s largest swimming pools next door–though no one goes into the ocean, and in places it’s actually polluted). Rio in its public aspect is a cathedral to the Body Beautiful, its chapels the hundred of jiujitsu parlors and body builders’ gyms tucked among the bookstores and the juice stands (which sell vitamin supplements and what they call “Natural Viagra”). Four scuplted men are dribbling and swerving on the sand as if playing soccer on level ground, and an old man is selling CDs of himself playing “I Just Called to Say I Love You” on acoustic guitar, bossa nova style.

Yet the one thing that startles me this bountiful holiday morning is that through all the long blocks of Ipanema and neighboring Leblon, at least in the early hours of the day, I see not a single colored face. No Asian features, no dark-skinned Hispanics, none even of the Africans who have given the world much of what it imagines of Rio (soccer and samba and the love-potions, the jaguar teeth and bats’ wings of Yoruba magic). I could, in effect, be walking down Munich a la plage. After a long, long while I see a nanny wheeling a German woman along the beach, and a woman in African head-scarf trying to sell ice-creams. In Copacabana, farther along, the scene is always more mixed, and to that extent more dangerous. But in Ipanema when it is most relaxed, showing itself off to itself, the mulatta chic and racial mingling on which Rio prides itself is nowhere to be seen.

I first came to Rio when I was eighteen, and after three months of bumping around Central and South America on a bus (and on a busboy’s wages, to boot), I felt as if I’d landed in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when I arrived in the Brazilian city, took in the wide expanse of ocean, the Gavea golf course near my friends’ parents’ house, the most tropical urban wonders I’d ever seen. A few years later I came down again for Easter, on my way to Paraguay, and eager to contrast Rio with the enclosedness, the unvisited privacy for which Asuncion is famous. Now, though, I want to take in the city’s contradictions at a deeper level: my plan is to spend one whole long day just wandering the city, trying to absorb its moods, its quirks and secrets and preferences the way one would do if spending eighteen long hours with a stranger. Every city has its tensions, which define it as they define most people, and you can best tease these out if you surround yourself with them for a day that reaches into night.

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