Pico Iyer Journeys

A Day in the Life of the Marvelous, Desperate City

Up above, we can see girls with cellphones chatting on second-floor balconies, and along both sides neighborhood bars are thronged, and the crumbling, elegant old houses might be auditioning for a part in Fidel Castro’s imagination. This is the Rio of secrets, of privacy, a place where there are layers, unlike in the free-for-all of the beach. I get off and walk along a couple of deserted, uneven streets and come to the Museu Chacara do Ceu (or “Museum of the Small Farm of the Sky”), an executive’s mansion turned into a spacious and languorous museum, where you can look out over the city or see paintings of what Rio looked like a hundred and fifty years ago.

We hear, nearly always, about the 1 million or so people who live in the slums of Rio, as shown in the prize-winning movie, “City of God,” or the 300,000 or so who live the good life of the Zona Sul, the affluent southern areas. But for 8 million Cariocas, life passes between extremes, and as I amble down in the sleepy afternoon I pass a city entirely normal: a neighborhood block is enjoying a barbecue on its tiny road, overlooking the city and the ocean far below, a few matrons have set up deckchairs on the sidewalk for their gossip and the high-school girls in the tiny coffee-bar are jacking the jukebox up high. On the wall of a building, an elaborate mural commemorating the country’s victory in the 2002 World Cup says, “Between Reality and the Dream.”

Since Rio’s signature tune is flamboyance, a banning of all embarrassment (or turning of embarrassment to camp), I stop off then at a little pod in the middle of Flamengo Park, which looks like a set of public conveniences, but has a door that flies up in front of you (shades of the Jetsons) and admits you to the Carmen Miranda Museum. This is an eccentric labor of love–you can see the heroine’s hairbrush, her face powder box, the “mirror found in her hand when she died,” her “social clothes for Beverly Hills parties”–and even the restroom doors are swathed in pictures of the woman with the extravagant hats. She was discovered, famously, by America–a video shows Groucho Marx wiggling his eyebrows at her–turned into a figure of fun and then ejected again, to die at 46 after shuttling back and forth between Rio and Hollywood. The guestbook is signed by “domestics” and massage therapists from around the city, as well as by a scientist from Poland, a professor from Australia, some real-estate brokers from Seattle.

The other blessing of Rio is its gardens. On a normal day I might now take a walk from the Miranda Museum along beautiful Botofogo Bay to Sugarloaf Mountain (much more beautiful than Corcovado, for my money), strolling through the semi-colonial streets of Urca at its base in the afternoon light and stopping for a guava or honeydew sorbet in the Sorvete Brasil outlet next to the cable-car ticket-booth. But Sugarloaf is a face of Rio we’ve all seen too often, so this day I take a bus to the Botanic Garden, where different parts of the city’s heritage come together. The gardens were founded by King Joao VI, who also brought the imperial palm to the city, and you can see 900 different kinds of palm here, more than 140 species of birds, an attempt to civilize Nature, in a way, and show off its splendors to a visitor from Europe. The place looks therefore a little like a canvas by Douanier Rousseau: an almost feral lushness temporarily tamed to make space for the trespasser from civilization. Tall, tall palms make the tourist feel very small indeed; the prodigal and layered green is close to exorbitant; and in the distance you can see mist-wreathed tropical hills as in Tahiti. In the Garden’s tiny bookshop, they are selling, as only in Rio, copies of Marx and Engels and a book by Machiavelli.

My friends in Rio would tell me at this point, as the afternoon begins to decline, to go to Barra de Tijuca, the most beautiful stretch of beach in the city, where the locals go on Sundays. But I am quite happy to see Ipanema again, its residents having largely departed (or disappeared onto the beach) by now, and the visitors from everywhere else more vividly apparent. A man in a gas mask, covered in tattoos, spraypaints portraits while you watch, another is laying out old Jethro Tull and Yes LPs on the sidewalk, a refugee, perhaps, from the weekly Hippie Fair nearby. Goateed playboys in their trunks sip at coconuts at the little beachside cafes, hissing at nymphs in ponytails who walk past, and two itinerant musicians stop in front of every table, strumming furiously.

This is the closest I will come to the Rio of fantasy and borrowed pleasure, and there’s no quarreling with some of its flourishes. On the beach, boys and often men play a dazzling form of volleyball in which they serve, spike and retrieve not with their hands, but only with head, feet and chests; along the sidewalks, urchins press the buttons on refresher machines that spray everything around them with a cooling rush of water. Tall black boys from the slums have created stunning Oriental cities, and a stricken Jesus, out of sand, and if you stop at one of the cafes, you can sip pineapple juice with mint, the sweetest tangerine juice you’ve ever tasted, or other juices from fruits you’ve never heard of that mix the city’s tropical abundance with its passion for health (acerola, so they say, has more than 40 times more Vitamin C than lemons). At moments like this, Rio looks like Havana with shades: the same sultriness and freedom from all diffidence, the same sense of recklessness and pleasure-loving ease, but appointed here with designer details.

As the light begins to fade behind the mountains at the end of the street, around Leblon, the teenagers, who own the beach now, start padding back home, through the tree-lined streets, or making their slow, sauntering way to Arpoador, at the very end of Ipanema, where it turns into Copacabana. The rocks above the surfers’ beach are where Cariocas (the name, interestingly, means “House of the White Man”) go to take in the sunset, scrambling up a grassy slope or two to see the sun pick out gold in one of the giant condo-blocks, while the kids catching the waves (as they will deep into the night) turn into just shadows, or ideas.

The city lives out in the open, or so it says, and a large part of its appeal has to do with the way the rich dress down, as if they were poor (darkening their bodies, stripping down to sandals, coming to the beach with nothing more than a natural sense of privilege), while the poor, especially at Carnaval, dress up. That raucous week is a literal Saturnalia, in which whites dress as blacks, men get up as women, society hostesses pretend to be slaves and slaves to be slave-owners. On the beach, at least, or in the baroque pantomime of Carnaval, you can’t tell have from have-not, as you can so easily in a Bombay or a Los Angeles. Yet as the sun sinks behind the buildings, and the city eases into night, the illusion of democracy is pricked: the Gisele Bundchen girls with their long glossy hair and bare midriffs return to their condos nearby, while the vendors (by some counts, 33% of Brazilian workers are street-vendors) head back up into the hills. As recently as twenty years ago, Brazil had the most severe income inequalities in the world.

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