Pico Iyer Journeys

A Day in the Life of the Marvelous, Desperate City

“In unjust societies like our own,” said Itamar Franco, a onetime president of Brazil on his first speech to the nation, in 1991, “the only thing distributed with equity is fear.” In fact, the hope of the poor may be that they have nothing to lose; fear is the special province of the rich. The druglords who rule the favelas, I will be told, on visiting one, do everything they can to reinforce law and order, because they don’t want needless attention from the police. The police, in turn, are often more than ready to receive $4000–a year’s income–just to look away from a certain streetcorner for a month. Part of the stress of Rio is that everyone has access to dreams and glimpses of the good life; most of the favelas are full of cellphones and satellite TVs. It’s only basic sanitation and municipal protection that they lack.

In Suketu Mehta’s remarkable new book, Maximum City, he describes how the Third World megacities of the near future, swollen by dreamers and people coming in from the countryside, may have 5 million people living in the streets, while others pay rents higher than in Manhattan. The police will simply shoot criminals because they know the justice system is overcrowded already. And most people will more readily turn to gangsters for protection than to the government because they know that organized crime is more organized–and more generous and watchful and enterprising–than any official bureaucracy. The city he uses as his case-study is Bombay, but it could be La Paz or Shanghai or, more than anywhere, Rio.

I decide to end my day by going to Copacabana, the somewhat loud and lurid tourist strip that I’ve avoided till now. Copacabana is the tunnel between Ipanema and downtown; it’s the place, most obviously, where the foreigner’s Rio and the local’s Rio intersect. With more than 4000 people crammed into a single block, it can have something of the high-rising placelessness of Waikiki or the old Miami Beach; but late at night, it is where you can see the different Rios mingling.

The boys along the beach in Ipanema are playing a fast, skilful game of soccer close to midnight, the ones with shirts up against the ones without, and the kids who juggle (with stumps for arms) or sell beer at red lights, are mostly gone now as the bus takes me along the backstreets of Copacabana, past the cinema where they’re showing Perfect Women (or The Stepford Wives, as we know it), past the places where I’d seen old men in sandals collecting Coke cans in plastic bags. When we get to the beach, I decide to walk all the way along the famous, curved strip of seaside property, its sidewalk mosaic happily mixing black and white together. Most of the street vendors who turn this into a kind of leisurely Patpong are gone for the night, and little vans have appeared on sidestreets to sell passersby snacks and soft drinks.

Next to almost every car on the street stands a tall, tall woman, often very dark, and around them circle all kinds of light-skinned visitors: a Japanese soccer coach I’ve seen earlier in the day, leading a group of teenagers around, geologists here for a conference, their name-tags banging against their sunburned necks, groups of frat-house explorers strutting up and down in the dark with a borrowed confidence.

Two parts of the city are meeting, and each has what the other needs. The cops–many of them female–circle around the luxury hotels and the Help discoteca and among the last few diners in the streetside restaurants, a Chinese man circulates with glow-in-the-dark pens, and an old man hovers with a Polaroid.

The foreign men are wearing way too many clothes, the Carioca women are wearing far too few, and all parties are looking to redress the imbalance and rectify some inequity. Long past midnight now, the signs at every streetcorner still show off the day’s temperature–20 degrees centigrade–and the buses still judder along towards Barra de Tijuca in the south. Five hours later dawn will return, and with it the pretense that the official, business-conscious future is on the way. A long day in Rio tells you, however, that it is the unofficial world, the powers of night and of the countryside, that are rising in power every month.

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