By Brazzil Magazine
In Brazil everything ‘dances’—the palm trees, the ocean, the
verdant mountains. It’s no surprise
the samba and bossa nova
were born here, and not in Anchorage or Moscow.
"Brazil is hallucinatory, but the Brazilians seem not to realize it."
—Juan Sender, a Chilean writer in Márcio Souza’s Lost World II.
"She had an elegant way of moving her hips when she walked; you could tell she was
—Jorge Amado, Jubiabá.
Heloísa Pinheiro is not a household name, but next to Carmen Miranda, Sugar Loaf, and the mountain-top statue of
Christ the Redeemer, she epitomizes Rio de Janeiro. Over forty years ago, Heloísa, or Helô, used to walk to the beach, crossing
the intersection at Montenegro and Prudente de Moraes. There was a restaurant on the corner, the Bar Botineiro, later
called Veloso (from Raul Correia Veloso, who started the bar in 1945) where two friends often met and drank beer.
One of them was Vinicius de Moraes, the other Antônio Carlos "Tom" Jobim. They noticed Heloísa as she passed,
on her way to bask on the sands of Ipanema. The rest is history.
"Tom and I were struck dumb when she strolled by," de Moraes later recalled. "The air became lighter as if to ease
the divine sway of her step… For her we wrote respectfully and in silent wonder the samba that brought to the headlines of
the world our dear Ipanema… She was and remains for us the essence of the young Rio girl, the golden girl, a blend of
flower and siren, full of light and grace, the sight of which also brings sadness—for she bears on her way to the sea a sense of
youthfulness that will fade…"
Today, Veloso has a new name, Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) and the street out front, Prudente de Moraes
(an early Brazilian president) has seen its ‘Prudente’ give way to ‘Vinicius.’ It’s a colorful, noisy hangout; strolling
musicians gather just outside the open doors and windows to serenade the clientele. The quality of their playing is very good, and
afterwards they hope you’ll spare a few coins to show your appreciation, for they are probably as poor as they are talented.
Bossa Nova Temple
The Vinicius Bar is just around the corner, and it’s everything an American bar is not: dimly lit with a cozy,
sensuous atmosphere, music that’s prominent but not so loud you can’t converse, and the freedom to enjoy a cigarette. I sat with
my companions and listened to the sultry rhythms of
bossa nova, a guitarist and female vocalist first, then a polished but
restrained trio led by an old-timer named João Paulo. Some years ago, Sinval Silva (who’d composed ballads for Carmen Miranda)
told writer John Krich that "The secret of Brazilian music is writing love songs to a woman you’ll never meet." Maybe it’s an
audacious statement, but perhaps there’s a ring of truth to it after all.
Rio once sported the much-longer moniker São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. It was from São Sebastião that the
French, who’d tried settling in, were run off. (Later they’d get their revenge; see below) The Portuguese should have run off the
incorrect ‘Rio’ as well. The area is situated at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, which early explorers had thought was a river, hence
the name. If they’d not erred, we might today be talking about Baía de Janeiro—January Bay.
For all that, Rio is still one of the focal points of the known universe, especially during
Carnaval. It enjoyed two centuries as the capital of Brazil, until 1960 when the seat of government reluctantly moved to Brasília. Tourism remained
unaffected, that is, until the late ’80s and early ’90s when Rio gained a reputation for being unsafe, and not just for travelers.
Cartoons tended to depict the towering statue of Christ overlooking the city from Corcovado Mountain in the act of shrugging
or surrendering, but the reality of 400 to 500 daily robbery assaults was no joking matter.
It’s not that folks are meaner or greedier in Rio, it’s that the slums, the famous
favelas of Black Orpheus, if you will,
are where nearly one-quarter of Rio’s population makes their home. Visiting the city in the 1950s, Nobel Prize-winning
author Albert Camus remarked, "Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined."
I was aware of this one evening when a few of us had gone to a ‘happy hour’ destination called Arco do Telles
(Telles Arch), at the end of Rua dos Mercadores in downtown Rio. Behind the arch is something of a narrow, crooked,
pedestrian alley called the Travessa do Comércio that dates back over two centuries and is lined with restaurants and bars. The
tables and chairs fill the street so thoroughly that it’s hard to walk through when the place is bustling.
Certain districts in Germany where folks also gather after work or school have the same feel. At last we found an
open table and were able to soak in the atmosphere, sipping Antarctica beer and munching on hot cheese balls and fried
chicken. Every few minutes, one or two children, and by this I do mean children and not teenagers, would approach with items to
sell, mostly candy or gum. Some wanted to shine our shoes.
In their own interest they were unfailingly polite, but none of them were doing this out of love. Some probably came
from large families and had to pull their own weight, even at such a tender age. Others may have been orphans. In the U.S.,
most of us have seen the homeless making do for the night out of doors, but few of us, I think, have seen groups of children
huddled together under sheets of cardboard and sleeping on the sidewalks. I won’t tell you it’s a common sight in Rio, but I’ve
seen it on more than one occasion.
On the other end of the spectrum from drinking beer in the cool night air at Telles Arch is having lunch a few blocks
away at the Confeitaria Colombo, an Old World, Belle Époque salon that opened in 1894. In its heyday, poets and artists and
intellectuals gathered to discuss their ideas. At one point the establishment was even regarded as an informal extension of the
Brazilian Academy of Letters. Its flavor is something like tropical Viennese, if you can imagine that, and the sumptuous buffet
offers a wide variety of treats.
One rides up to the spacious second-floor dining area in a tiny, quaint elevator that holds just three people, plus the
operator. In a balconied corner sits a pianist performing turn-of-the-century melodies from Debussy, Ravel, Johann Strauss,
plus Rachmaninoff and (it seemed to fit right in) the "Music of the Night" number from Lloyd-Webber’s
Phantom of the Opera. Even if most of the literary hangouts have since shifted to Ipanema or Copacabana, Colombo is elegant and inspiring,
and still a place for urgent, impassioned conversation.
Two years ago, Brazil celebrated its
500th anniversary. Originally it was called the Land of Parrots and also the Land
of the Holy Cross, before someone thought it best to name it after an indigenous tree. At any rate, the country spans 47
percent of the South American continent and the national language (not everybody knows this!) is Portuguese, which I always
describe as a mixture of Spanish and beauty.
Speaking of national this and that, the Brazilian national bird should be, if it already isn’t, a black and white soccer
ball soaring through the air—preferably past the opposing side’s goalie. In 1994, when Brazil beat Italy for the World Cup
championship, virtually the whole country was on high alert: "Close to 100 percent of the population tuned into the last
games via television or radio. The country literally stopped for the final matches—Congress adjourned, schools closed, and
businesses shut down. After the victory, people poured into the streets, creating a noisy carnival of dancing and fireworks."
[This is from "Two Essays on Sports," by Janet Lever and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, found in
The Brazilian Reader, edited by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti] Presumably the country was no less enthralled in 1998—until the
astonishing defeat in the final game at the hands of the French. (I guess it was retaliation for being kicked out of São Sebastião do
Rio de Janeiro four centuries earlier!) But in 2002 Brazilians once again
lavaram a alma (washed their souls) coming from
behind and conquering for the fifth time the World Cup.
Brazil, as everyone knows, is the country where the air is made, and where it dances; in fact, everything
‘dances’—the palm trees, the ocean, the verdant mountains. It’s no surprise the samba and
bossa nova were born here, and not in
Anchorage or Moscow. The first time I landed in Rio (now 16 years ago) it was the middle of summer, and there was a sweetness in
the air, like sugarcane, that I remember to this day.
I was thinking about all this early one afternoon at Praia Vermelha (Red Beach), nestled in a quiet inlet on the
opposite side of Botofogo Bay, separated by Urca (‘Table’) mountain and Sugar Loaf. There’s a two-kilometer path, the Pista
(Trail) Claudio Coutinho, that provides a quiet walk with the rocky shoreline on one side and the sheer bulk of Sugar Loaf
looming straight up on the other (what a sight, let me tell you).
From the array of unfamiliar sound, one imagines exotic birds in the trees. And when you look close, if it’s not too
hot, you’ll spot tiny saki monkeys in the trees. In one of her short stories, Brazilian author Clarice Lispector has a line, "I
don’t go to Urca, to the rocks of Urca, because it’s full of rats." I guess we had a better experience: just monkeys. Even here,
though, in this sheltered little tropical paradise, the sunshine is deceptively potent. Years earlier a
carioca, a Rio native, had taken me with her to bask on Copacabana Beach, and I’m still sunburned from that long-ago afternoon.
Taking the cable car from Praia Vermelha to Urca, and then up to Sugar Loaf, is a must-do tourist attraction, like
going up the Empire State Building when visiting New York. But on the day that our little group was primed for its journey, the
cable was being repaired. That was the bad news. The good news was that we were going up in a helicopter. Not the kind of
substitution one complains about too vocally!
In their book, Amazon, Brian Kelly and Mark London say of Rio that "It is a city so physically beautiful that it defies
one to put in a day’s work." Seeing it from the air, who could disagree? Helisight has a number of sightseeing tours, ranging
from about 6/7 minutes ($43 per person) to one hour ($250). The flights originate from the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, shoot
out over Ipanema, glide over Copacabana, almost graze Sugar Loaf, circle around Corcovado and over Tijuca Forest.
Longer packages offer trips over the downtown area or, in the other direction, past the beaches São Conrado and Barra.
Near the water in the Flamengo district, across Botofogo Bay from Sugar Loaf, is a museum devoted to Carmen
Miranda, the "Brazilian Bombshell" perhaps best known for her fruit-cluster headgear and the song "South American Way." On
display are film stills and other photographs (from the Forties, mainly), plus various costumes, shoes, and jewelry that the
singer/actress wore on stage or in her movies. But because Carmen Miranda was life itself, always vivacious and exuberant, the
place feels a bit like a shrine-slash-mausoleum. Without Carmen, the stuff sits there, dead. Dead or waiting. Who would have
guessed it, this undertow of ‘all things must pass’?
Places for Memories
If the melancholy mode pleases you, head over to Santa Teresa, to the Parque das Ruínas (no translation needed)
and the skeletal remains of the mansion where once lived the high society hostess Laurinda Santos Lobo, whose home was a
hub of cultural activity and exchange from the 1920s to the mid-Forties. We were there in the quiet of late afternoon. Little
remains but the splendid view; and yet, and yet, within these very walls… A couple of minutes away by foot is the low-key but
engaging Chácara do Céu Museum, formerly the home of Brazilian industrialist Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Mayo, who donated
his residence, and his impressive private art collection, to the city. Precisely because it was a family dwelling, the galleries
have a curious intimacy that is lost in other, larger museums.
Yet another distinctive museum, the Casa do Pontal is located on the grounds of the Recreio dos Bandeirantes,
about thirty miles west of Rio near the beaches Grumari and Prainha, and not far from the Serra de Grumari ecological reserve.
As Brazil’s largest museum of folk art, it contains some 5,000 works by 200 artists.
On the day we were there the skies were pouring rain and inside the building one could inhale the mildew. A smell
like this has its own character, its own footprint. The discreetly placed room of erotica is worth a few extra minutes. The
mostly amusing figurines include women with a set of chompers you-know-where, plus characters presumably discussing
Spinoza and Descartes while engaging in extra-circular activities.
Jacques Van Beuque, who spent over forty years amassing this incredible array of folk art, recently passed away.
One of the larger displays depicts a samba parade, with spectators in the bleachers. Press a button, and hundreds of figures
instantly come to life. At least in theory. Some of the tiny figures were noticeably unresponsive, and the speaker was broken.
Instead of pulsing samba music, one heard what resembled an air conditioner going at full blast. It was both puzzling and
amusing, and reminded me of L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology, where ‘broke’ is part of the experience.
With 8,150 acres, Tijuca forest—in the heart of Rio—is the largest urban forest in the world. More impressive is the
fact that, although decimated from the
17th century onwards, Emperor Dom Pedro II decided in 1861 that the area should be
replanted. Major Manoel Gomes Archer and his six slaves rolled up their sleeves and didn’t stop working for the next
thirteen years. When they straightened up at the end of the day they’d planted 60,000 trees. The reforestation project not only
lured back most of the animal population, which had long since bolted, but replenished Rio’s diminishing water supply. In Los
Angeles, I look around at our Suburbans and Excursions and I ask myself, If Brazil is a Third World country, where does that put us?
There are a couple of roads that run through Tijuca National Park, and an open-air jeep tour seems just the ticket for
inhaling the splendid surroundings. Up here, as the winding roads ascend higher and higher, the air is much cooler than far
below, in the city center. The destination of any jeep tour worth its salt is the near-summit of Corcovado, a mountain over 2,300
feet in height, capped by the 125-foot tall Christ the Redeemer by sculptor Paul Landowski.
The statue, which commemorated the first century of Brazilian political independence, was dedicated in 1931. It
weighs more than a thousand tons, and might never have been built except for the fact that a tiny railway had been in place
since 1884, running to the peak from the Cosme Velho neighborhood. If you’ve taken the jeep up, be sure to take the train
down. Cosme Velho, where the writer Machado de Assis lived for his last twenty-five years, has its exquisite Largo do
Boticário, a kind of heritage square where gathered together are several restored, century-old colonial homes that replicate what
much of the district looked like way-back-when.
Not so sprawling as Tijuca is the 340-acre Jardim Botânico, with its royal palms, planted in 1842, and its 5,000 species
of tropically-indigenous trees and plants. This botanical garden was founded in 1808, and was intoxicatingly lovely on the
rainy day we visited.
Those who live in any bustling city know that you cannot wander into it for just a few days and come out with
anything more than a glancing overview of its cuisine, and this is especially so of Rio de Janeiro where there are over 860
restaurants. When we consider specific categories, however, the number drops, and it falls yet again if we limit ourselves to dishes
native to Brazil.
Of these, one might select representative samplings from both north and south, beginning with Yemanjá, which
advertises itself as "O sabor da Bahia no Rio," or the taste of Bahia in Rio. On the Atlantic seacoast in the North, Bahia was the
port of entry for most African slaves, and so not surprisingly the region’s specialties evolved out of African know-how and
Among these are the seafood stews, the
moqueca, for example, in which shrimp or crab, ray or codfish, squid or
lobster, and so on, are simmered with palm oil, coconut milk, red pepper, coriander, tomato… the list goes on. Other items include
vatapá (chicken stewed in coconut milk, seasoned with sliced shrimp, onion, red pepper and olive oil) and
acarajé (fritters of mashed cow peas, with hot pepper sauce). This is the delicious food Jorge Amado always heaps onto our plate in such books as
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
Originating in the south (Rio Grande do Sul, etc.),
churrascarias or barbecue restaurants are noted for their many
kinds of meat, cooked rotisserie-style, which are then carried to each table by waiters who offer them to the eye before slicing
off tasty slabs for the palate. One of the best of these steakhouses is Marius, with two locations
For an idea of Northeastern cuisine there’s Bar do Arnaudo in the Santa Teresa district, where the in-house specialty
seems to be carne-do-sol, sun-dried meat in a rustic environment. It’s a small, busy but friendly establishment with streetcars
passing out front. You’ll think you’re in a Graciliano Ramos novel. And of course one can’t go to Rio and not sit down with a
helping of feijoada, considered the national dish of Brazil.
Feijoada consists of black beans (red beans in Bahia) and pork, which means virtually everything the little piggy
has to offer except the proverbial squeal and the curl of its tail. We had ours at the well-named Casa da Feijoada. To help us
pass the time while awaiting an open table, we were each given a
batida, made from cachaça (sugarcane liquor) and mixed
with fresh-squeezed juice, usually lime or passion fruit. These deceivingly tasty drinks not only clear out the gullet, they clear
out the head. One small glass will do the trick; I had three. Needless to say, the
feijoada was delicious.
In Rio, breakfast buffets can be ideal for starting one’s morning, because the air at dawn "seems to hold a profound
and dreamlike quiet," Moritz Thomsen wrote in
The Saddest Pleasure. "Smells of the sea and tropical flowers hang in the air…"
The recently renovated Le Meridien, on Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana, serves quite a spread, among which is a
haven of fresh fruit—papaya, guava, melon, passion fruit, kiwi and plum. The fruta do conde, with its white flesh but big black
seeds, may be a little daunting to eat, but do try one. By the way, the
caju (cashew) milkshakes are delicious, and it was from a
Brazilian that I learned to make avocado-based smoothies.
At the buffets—I also sat down to one beside the luxurious pool at the Copacabana Palace—there are also more
beverages and juices than can be imagined: orange juice, oh sure, but pineapple and papaya and honeydew juices, coconut water
and watermelon juice as well. From the
36th floor of Le Meridien, where their buffet is served, one can survey with a
bird’s-eye view most of the purported 100,000
cariocas (residents of Rio) who hit Copacabana beach each weekend.
We had the opportunity, the honor, really, to sit in on a
macumba presentation (no, it was not held in a forest
clearing but rather a spacious community center).
Macumba is the Brazilian version of voodoo or fetishism, the word
candomblé used to describe the ceremonies in general, and these occasions are marked by a joyous yet profound mix of singing, dancing,
Syncretized with Catholic saints, the various African deities have names like Oxalá, Oxossi, Omolu and Xangô (the
‘x’ being pronounced ‘sh’). Exú, for example, is a mischievous trickster whereas Yemanjá is the alluring goddess of the
waters. That moonlight you see on the ocean? Look again, for it may instead be Yemanjá’s outspread hair.
Fortunately, to interpret the instructions of the
orixás (the voodoo spirits) there’s the
mãe-de-santo and/or the
pai-de-santo. Each deity has an attribute or two, and something by which they can be recognized: at the end of the evening the
saints’ representatives emerged in costume and danced in a line. Since Yemanjá likes mirrors and other shiny objects, she was
easy to identify.
What preceded this finale was a course of events that to untrained eyes resembled a variety show. For Brazilians, if
the decibel level is to the point of blowing the speakers, all the better. Loud, gaudy, colorful, that’s often the pervading
sensibility. Several young men and women, dressed like gypsies but seeming like renegade circus performers, came out and danced.
There was also ballroom dancing, and later a battery of percussionists.
One man with a camcorder wandered among the dancers and the surrounding tables, filming whatever caught his eye
for instantaneous broadcast on a large screen off to one side of the stage. On occasion he’d stop to chat with someone,
neglecting the camera which slowly tilted down to film the floor or up to film the ceiling. But what I found truly fascinating were the singers.
There was one middle-aged black man who might have been a bus driver judging from his appearance, yet when he
sang his voice was simply angelic, like a one-man girls’ choir. Later on, an older woman who looked like a cafeteria worker
took her turn, with similar effect. Like a revival meeting, the assembled crowd of maybe three hundred people literally got into
The cariocas, according to Érico Verissimo, "love three things above all others: the sun, the sea, and the samba…
The samba is their national language." Each year during Carnaval several
escolas de samba (samba clubs) compete for top
honors in categories ranging from costumes and themes to overall performance and general unity between sounds and colors.
Designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Sambódromo, or Samba Parade Avenue (now Passarela Darcy Ribeiro) is
basically a long avenue with concrete grandstands where the schools will try to outdo one another. Prior to the big event they
gather each week to rehearse. Most take place on Saturday night, beginning at 11 p.m. and continuing almost until dawn. They
are as loud as they are vibrant, fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible
bateria or percussion ensemble.
We attended the Salgueiro samba school rehearsal, as spectators for maybe half an hour, as participants after that. It
was to be our farewell samba, the source of our
saudade, or nostalgia, because in my case only four hours after stepping
outdoors I was at the airport, ready to depart. My ears were still ringing, like cathedral bells, a factor that transformed what might
have been a standard leave-taking into one gilded with a surreal resonance. Sure, my hearing is now back to normal, but when
I think of Brazil, it’s clear that the ringing has not yet gone away. And I suspect it never will.
With sincere thanks and deepest appreciation to Hawkins & Widness in New York, to our tour conductor Angélica
Carneiro da Cunha, to Márcia Pessôa and Andréa Revoredo of the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau, to Haroldo our driver, to
Varig Brazilian Airlines, to Maria Ercilia Borges Murakami of the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles, and to Rodney Mello of
Brazzil magazine. Lastly, of course, a round of gratitude and caipirinhas to my fine colleagues Inya Caruso, Gretchen Kelly,
Matthew Link, and Steve Markovits: may we samba in paradise yet again.
Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the
Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern California. He can be reached at