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Under Rio's Spell

This is a story about unraveling, a story whose dial is set to defrost, an account of how I—a tired, numb, and very, very pale urban wreck—arrived at an oceanside city cradled by mountains and left two weeks later contemplating the purchase of body glitter and wee swimwear.

How did this happen?Throughout my trip to Rio de Janeiro, I tried to pinpoint the precise set of circumstances responsible for my spiritual and psychic thaw. I knew it had something to do with the time I danced to samba music past midnight surrounded by an undulating horde of gorgeous strangers, and something to do with buying fruit salad from a man who was walking up and down Ipanema Beach dressed as Carmen Miranda. But other forces seemed to be at work as well, and I was at a loss to name them.

And then, one sunny afternoon, when my boyfriend, Greg, and I were parked poolside at the Copacabana Palace hotel in the manner of two strangely chatty pats of butter, I got a clue. Greg delivered the startling piece of information that I had been mispronouncing não, the Portuguese word for "no," by saying noh instead of a nasal naow.

The revelation hit me with all the gravitas of a struck gong: I am in a foreign country where I literally can't say no.

It had started with the fresh pineapple juice. To drink this pale yellow nectar, readily available at juice bars, cafés, and some restaurants for only a few Brazilian reals, is to feel your shoulders instantly lower and to become intimate with everything that is desirable about both bubble baths and the Latin tropics. With just one sip, I'm all devil-may-care abandon and unaccountability; I'm the sign at the ticket booth for the trip up Corcovado to the statue of Christ the Redeemer: WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WEATHER AROUND CHRIST.

The other Rio entity that, early in my trip, was a force for unraveling and that I visited repeatedly, as if in thrall to a powerful drug, was a music venue called Rio Scenarium. Located in an antiques warehouse in the slightly seedy nightlife district known as Lapa, it's actually two vast, three-story 19th-century mansions with a central atrium, at the bottom of which locals samba to live music. Rio Scenarium fairly radiates an anything-might-happen life force. Random objects, such as a bicycle and several chairs, are suspended from the ceiling; patrons sit amid a jumble of religious vestments, apothecary bottles, and a Marilyn Monroe mannequin. Only the absence of an airborne cat assures you you're not in a photograph by Salvador Dalí.

A rotating selection of local groups played samba and forró, the accordion-haunted music of Brazil's northeast. Each time the band played the opening bars of a new melody, people in the audience started singing, then gently lifted their arms skyward as if to bodily embrace something heaven-sent. The well-heeled crowd seemed to be mostly over 40. One Sonia Braga look-alike wore enough silver bracelets on her arms to suggest recent proximity to Santa Fe, and a stunningly handsome dreadlocked man and his much younger date, seated in a corner, continually rubbed their legs against each other in a furtive pageant. But it was an elegant, stern-looking man in his sixties who most caught my attention. He was an indefatigable dancer. The pelvic oscillation known as Cuban motion seemed to render his midsection a fifth appendage. As the music's tempo grew faster, his gentle swaying became blurrily seismic.

At midnight, when Greg and I returned to our hotel, we left the man—who'd worn out three partners—rapturously dancing with one of the building's columns. Over the next few days, this parting image started to occupy an increasingly larger space in my brain and came to represent, for me, what it means to fully embrace Rio: Dance until the others drop, and then continue dancing.

We also spent a certain amount of time lying on the beach. My dermal hue shifted from fish belly to tandoori. Greg and I had quickly formed the opinion that the tall-and-tan-and-young-and-lovely of Ipanema—both the neighborhood and the beach—were far preferable to that of the more touristy Copacabana. We'd decided that unless you were in your hotel, there was little or no reason to spend time in Copacabana at all. Palm-fringed and sparklingly clean, Ipanema Beach is more than a mile long. In the distance, soaring granite heaps known as the Two Brothers point at the sky with a pertness that seems almost brazen, reminiscent of breast cones by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Antônio Carlos Jobim, the father of bossa nova, once remarked that real social justice will come to Brazil only when everyone can live in Ipanema; I would happily enlist myself in his brigade, a beach umbrella my cudgel.

It's often said that Ipanema, Copacabana, and other stretches of beach are the most democratic sections of Rio, one-third of whose inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day. Indeed, when you walk around the city proper, the socioeconomic extremes can be jarring: barefoot men pull wagons of goods within a stone's throw of luxury hotels; a small percentage of the populace seems to have devoted itself to rooting through the garbage. Though the leftist administration led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has reduced inflation and stabilized the exchange rate, unemployment still hovers at 12 percent.

But on Ipanema, inequities of birth and circumstance take a momentary back seat to the universal pursuit of pleasure. Wealthy couples from upscale neighborhoods place their beach chairs next to those of teenagers from the favelas (hilltop shantytowns in which one out of every five Rio natives lives), who lounge right next to gay men from the United States and Europe. Indeed, Brazilians like to sit so close to one another that every movement is a veritable act of frottage.

Seconds after you have spotted what is surely the World's Most Revealing Bathing Suit, you see another that makes the first one look toga-like. Formulating the dangerous hypothesis that perhaps it's the Brazilians' swimwear that accounts for their breezy delightfulness and their caramel-colored, statuesque beauty, I contemplated buying a bathing suit even smaller than the one I'd managed to squeeze myself into, but I suddenly feared the epithet Thongzilla. Instead I trained my eyes on the vendors weaving in and out between the sunbathers, hawking goods hooked to thatched palapas; in a two-hour period I saw 27 such entrepreneurs, among whose more unusual wares were jackfruit, prayer cards, hand-carved mortars and pestles, henna tattoos, and an inflatable kiddie pool.

To my right, a sulky, hyper-chic couple were conducting concurrent monologues at each other in Portuguese. It was easy to imagine what they were saying.

He: Do I look fat?I'm hoping a heavy tan will make me look slimmer.
She: Go get me a juice.
He: I will turn black. Black is slimming.
She: Here's five reals.
He: My new body will excite others.
She: Pineapple. With a straw.

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