By Dan Goldman
T here were ten of us sitting around a long wooden table in an old cantina in Santa Thereza, the “old bohemian village” high up on a hilltop overlooking Rio de Janeiro, a place full of echoes of the charming days of chorinho [an old style of samba] and painters and a simpler, better life. That’s what the funky friends and family of our host explained as we chatted for hours in a two-way-translated stream of Portuguese and English about the failure of modern education, the death of curiosity, the devaluing of old things, the promise of the post-Internet world where anyone can learn anything. A woman singing a sad old samba classic floated out of the radio via a local AM station that “preserves the true Brazilian music”, one of the ladies in our party said proudly. Wow, the cariocas [residents of Rio de Janeiro] were so different to the paulistanos; we’d been here just a few hours and Rio de Janeiro felt like Brazil with the upstairs lights on.
Apparently our host had talked me up to his friends as “the online comics genius I met at MIT”, making me blush before the beer even touched my lips, and everyone had checked me out beforehand. They were better educated, opinionated conversationalists, well-traveled and more than anything… open-minded. In Brazil, while Rio hasn’t been the nation’s capital since the 1930s, it’s still considered to be the seat of the culture; most of TV/film production, print media is produced from here, and I could feel that with every breath. This was an epic two-hour lunch with great conversation, shitloads of personality from every direction, unbelievably heavy food. I’d was told the cariocas were more health-conscious (a little hippie even), and I’d come expecting lighter food, seafood if not full-on vegetarian. Instead, there was a never-ending stream of linguiças [Portuguese sausages] and torresmo [fried pork cracklings], farofa [toasted yucca flour] and picanha [center cut steak]as the ceiling fans twisted the air of the cantina into cooler curls around us. This was so nice; we were all so drunk, not just on beer but on life: “this” — my host claps me on the back and gestures around the table to all the flushed faces smiling back me — “is the whole point of life.” We clink glasses and someone makes a joke in Portuguese that no one can translate for me and my blank look is waved away, not important. The bill got paid and we staggered outside into the blazing heat; February is high summer and it was nearly 105 outside.
We walked downhill on wobbly cobblestone streets with ancient trolley-car tracks that curled around the hill, lovely old apartment buildings on either side, but through the alleyways the hill dropped off into open air and you could see all of Rio spread out below, all mountains and ocean and trees and sunshine. There was a tiny dark-skinned lady sitting on the curb with a plastic cooler; one of the girls in our party called to her.
“Oi tia! Tem sacolês?” She turned to me and said in English: “Dan, have you tried sacolê? It’s a very carioca treat.” Well no, I had not.
The old woman pulled handfuls of sacolês from her cooler; they were long, thin ice-pops in plastic wrap, like the old Otter-Pops but home-made from frozen fruit. She had seven flavors which all sounded amazing; our host suggested I try the seriguela, a cherry-tomato sized fruit that’s tart and floral that sent my eyes all googly, so perfect a thing in this steaming heat. Our group then split up into two cars and we said our tchau-tchaus and drove back downhill through salty breeze until we parked on the street at Praia Leblon.
As we stepped on the beach, the sun was just getting golden. Our host pulled off his shirt and stretched out his arms: “This is what I was talking about, Dan… look around at this!” Each finger pointed towards opposite ends of the beach, each side had its own landmark mountains, prehistoric chunks of stone covered in ancient forest and ringed by luxury hotels. “You are very lucky to be able to come to live here, my friend. Brazil is the future.” It was hard to argue with a future that looked like this.
The sea was calm, the sun starting to lazily set. We sat together on towels and drank water from green coconuts to rehydrate, some Brazilian hippies sat nearby with guitars and started singing Bob Marley songs with thick accents (“Nooo wu-mon no cry…”). Maybe the alcohol was leaving us, but we talked a lot less at the beach. Everything was just… too big, too beautiful, the air too sweet. The overabundance of used condoms in the sand couldn’t even bother me.
Being in Rio de Janeiro really did capture that “Brazil of the Imagination” that the rest of the world assumes all our lives here are, that silly romantic dream Lil and I clung to when we dreamt of leaving New York for a better life. But this wasn’t the place we’d moved to. That thought brought me down to earth in a slow bummer, matching the sun sinking away behind the sea. Our coconuts were empty and the hippies were still singing Bob. We piled back in the car to head to my pal’s apartment, looping around the seaside streets and through the city’s older neighborhoods at the bottom of the hills where the people with money lived. The moon was a wistful spotlight on us as the car surfed up and down the hilly streets around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, through the sleepy streets of Botafogo and Laranjeira and Flamengo to his apartment.
He was talking about going to see a historic futebal game tomorrow afternoon, but I wasn’t really listening. I couldn’t take my eyes off that golden moon above us, staring down into this beautiful dream like a stern conscience, a celestial post-it note reminding me I shalt not covet another man’s city.
Next time: “Class Warfare”
Previously in TOUCANNUÍ:
Part 00: Intro: Dead Yorkie, a dead dog and mission statement of sorts
Part 01: A Month by the Sea, in which the journey begins in a red minivan
Part 02: Bem-Vindo, mostly airplane and airport
Part 03: Tanta Chuva, about a rainy first day in-country
Part 04: The View from São Joaquim, meet the new joint
Part 05: The Fruits of Feirinha, a greenmarket odyssey
Part 06: Ser Estrangeiro, on being a foreigner
Part 07: Nova Express, the brain’s first language level-up
Part 08: Bonito, Part I, the family Christmas trip to the wild begins
Part 09: Bonito, Part II, bacon-flavored fish & piranha soup
Part 10: Bonito, Part III [fim], river magic and bye-bye
Part 11: This Will Be Our Year, a new year, a clean slate, grandparents
Part 12: Velorio, a funeral with animal spirits
Part 13: Post-Dictatorship Spending Disorder, urban Brazilians & their money
Part 14: Global Digital Speedbump, the working-abroad dream sours
Part 15: The Visa Countdown, fucking trials of fucking bureaucracy
Part 16: The Brazil You Think I Moved To, welcome to Rio de Janeiro