Eleven Things About Rio You Wouldn’t Know
from Watching the Three Caballeros,
Black Orpheus, and Central Station
By Larry Tritten


Just as the beaches and avenues of Rio display legions of beautiful women with skin the
color of honey, leather, chocolate, tea, and coffee, so do the confectioneries entice the
eye and palate with gorgeous parti-colored pastries and a panoply of vivid pastel ice
creams and sorbets in tropical flavors whose names take the imagination to dance—pitanga,
tamarindo, jabuticaba, frutti di bosco, not to mention the blackberry
with white chocolate.

Among these the premier establishment is clearly the Confeitaria Colombo in downtown
Rio. It was founded in 1894 and the style is neo-French with jacaranda wood. Downstairs it
is a huge bakery and upstairs, beneath a vast stained glass ceiling of green, gold, and
blue a sumptuous lunch and dinner buffet of Portuguese delicacies is served in the
gallery. There must have been a place just like this in downtown Oz. But if a smaller,
quieter, and more intimate sweet shop is what you’re in the mood for, try the Cosìcaffé
(Pães, Doces, Panini & Ristorante) in Ipanema.


One of the first things I noticed on the beach at Ipanema was that every concession
stand was festooned with dozens of what looked to me like green gourds. These were green
coconuts, a ubiquitous and hugely popular potable. Everywhere one looks there are people
sipping their milk through long straws—on the beaches, at sidewalk cafés, at upscale
buffets in expensive hotels. I always thought that coconuts are brown. In any cases, I
passed on the ritual and as a result wonder now what I missed and have recurring dreams of
green coconuts, the missed opportunity.


But I did try another popular Brazilian beverage, Antarctica guaraná, a native soft
drink. The Coca Cola people tried to buy the company but it would not sell and continues
to hold its own against the monolithic presence of Coke and Pepsi. Its flavor is not
unlike that of ginger ale but with an undertaste of what the samba might taste like if it
were gustatory.


On my first day in Rio, I wondered if I would be able to easily find a newsstand. An
aficionado of magazines, I anticipated a huge array of same, a colorful and exotic
spectrum of pictures and logos. Wondering if I could find a newsstand would be, I soon
discovered, like wondering if I would find cacti in Arizona. In downtown Rio it seemed as
if there was a newsstand on every block, scores of them and I remember finding two on one
block, seeing as many as four at a glance in one place, some of them cave-like kiosks
exhibiting a variety of gaudy international magazine covers, others little walk-in shops.
And they also sell Brazilian lottery tickets and scratchers. Spend a couple of reais
(one dollar) and try your luck with a Super Premiada or Dinheiro Já. You just might be
the one to win enough reais to corner the green coconut market. In any case, the
print culture is alive and well in the newsstands of Rio.


If the newsstands of Rio are a contemporary manifestation of the health of the print
culture, its heritage is dramatically represented by the Real Academia de Leitura (the
Portuguese Reading Room) located in the center of the city in a Portuguese style building.
Stepping inside is like entering a cross between a huge antiquarian bookstore and Merlin’s
library. 350,000 tomes are shelved on successive tiers all around, many of them too large
and heavy to be easily lifted, their gold-stamped spines alluring to the eye—books
from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Directly inside the doorway on either side two
computer screens glow brightly, seeming gauchely anachronistic in this solemn sanctum that
dates back to 1837. Barnes &, eat your heart out.


Ever since Carmen Miranda left Brazil to become a major star on Broadway and in
Hollywood movies, Brazilians have had mixed feelings about her, which must explain why the
Carmen Miranda Museum is in an isolated location in a tiny concrete building reminiscent
of the fuhrerbunker. In fact, I enjoyed this museum much more than the huge Museum
of Modern Art with its stark paintings and cryptic abstract objects, which seemed to me
too clinical to reflect the humor, vitality, and color of Rio. There are a couple of
lackadaisical attendants and not many patrons, but the exhibits, which include some of
Carmen’s costumes and jewelry, do reflect the spirit of the Rio of legend—the samba,
Copacabana, tropical passion. And if you want to be knocked for a loop by Carmen at her
gaudiest, rent The Gang’s All Here and feast your eyes on the three-strip
Technicolor extravagance of the musical numbers "The Woman in the Tutti Frutti
Hat" and the "Banana Ballet."


Another small, relatively obscure museum is Monumento aos Pracinhas, which is both
museum and monument and a testimonial to a largely unknown part of Brazilian history, the
country’s role in World War II. Brazil is one of two Latin American countries (Mexico
being the other) that sent forces to fight in the war. Brazil’s 25,000-man expeditionary
force saw combat in the Italian campaign, which is commemorated in the exhibits of
weapons, medals, documents, photographs and uniforms. Two columns flank the tomb of the
unknown soldier and on the first Sunday of each month Brazil’s armed forces stage a
colorful changing of the guard here.


My guidebook in China said that the most dangerous activity in China is crossing the
street. But surely downtown Rio is a contender in the dangerous traffic category. Stand on
a street in downtown Rio in the middle of the day and at any given moment there will be
ten or fifteen buses passing by on the same block, all of them hurtling past as if they
were on the track at the Indy. Apparently the reason for so many buses is that there are
so few bicycles, which account for a large percentage of the traffic in China.


My earliest memory of something Brazilian is of José Carioca, the anthropomorphic
boulevardier parrot in Disney’s The Three Caballeros. To my young mind he was
enchanting. But my attitude about parrots changed when I lived with a couple of them in
the eighties and found them to be noisy prima donnas. I refer you to what John Huston says
about the parrot in his autobiography. Huston loved animals of every kind but made an
exception for the parrot. There are birds and animals on Brazilian currency, a parrot on
the 10 real note. There are, of course, parrots everywhere one looks in the gift
shops. My advice: stick with the equally high-profile toucans.


In the tropical Tijuca forest, a former coffee plantation in the heart of town, I saw
spiders the size of baseball mitts. All right, this is hyperbole, but hyperbole is kosher
when the subject is spiders. In Annie Hall when a terrified Annie calls Alvy over
to her apartment to kill a spider, Woody Allen (Alvy) goes into the bathroom to check it
out, comes back, and says, "`There’s a spider the size of a Buick in your
bathroom." My guide told a story about being confronted by such a spider while
driving his car and bolting from the car to abandon it in heavy traffic. As for the
butterflies, the forest seemed to be full of huge blue ones, their color virtually
luminous. We encountered one of them, injured, on the paved road and our guide in the
forest stopped the jeep to run to its assistance and stop traffic just as if it had been a
bird or kitten. The lepidoptera is being well cared for in Rio.


I first encountered the word cachaça in John Updike’s novel Brazil. It
sounds like a word that belongs in one of Carmen Miranda’s songs. Cachaça (which
means burning water) is a lethal liquor made from liquids distilled from sugar cane. It
has a 70-80 percent alcohol content and is very cheap, which is why it has always been
popular among Brazil’s poorer people, although lately it has been acquiring a vogue among
upscale drinkers in North America. Cachaça is also the soul of the caipirinha,
Brazil’s national drink. If neither green coconuts or Guaraná Antarctica are the potable
of your choice, try one of these, perhaps as an addendum to your feijoada (the
national dish). Cachaçaboom!

The Places:

Confeitaria Colombo – Rua Gonçalves Dias, 32

Cosìcaffé – Rua Garcia D’Ávila, 134 Loja D

The Portuguese Reading Room – Rua Luís de Camões, 30

Carmen Miranda Museum.- Av. Rui Barbosa, 560, Flamengo

Monumento aos Pracinhas – Parque Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, Flamengo

Floresta da Tijuca – Estrada da Cascatinha, 850

Veteran scriptor horribilis (freelance writer) Larry Tritten has
published some 700 pieces in such publications as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Travel
& Leisure, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Spy, American Way, Harper’s, National
Lampoon, ad infinitum. You can reach him at

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