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.
It didn't seem as if we'd spent an excessive amount of time indolently lolling. We had, after all, gone that very morning to the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museum of Contemporary Art and to the august Museum of the Republic to see the bloodstained pajamas that memorialize the suicide, in 1954, of former Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, and thus we were in need of cosseting. But, hunkered down in some particularly lovely and heat-retaining Ipanema sand—the Brazilian translation of sex on the beach, I was not surprised to learn, is "fried in bread crumbs"—I turned the last page of my paperback, a novel by Trollope, and suddenly realized that I had just finished an 825-page book.
Gradually, deep relaxation bred imperviousness; then the desire to test the parameters of this imperviousness led to thrill-seeking. We spent an afternoon exploring Santa Teresa—a sleepy neighborhood long favored by Rio's artists and intellectuals—largely because I wanted to ride the bondinho there. The bondinho is a rickety yellow tram that chugs up a hill to cobblestoned streets, front-yard gardens, and tiny crafts shops. Due to its aforementioned rickety quality, the bondinho is itself somewhat anxiety-producing, especially because it goes across the top of the Lapa Arches, a 56-foot-high aqueduct built in the 18th century (which, to this non-engineer's eye, does not embody the word sturdy). The ride is not skin-flayingly frightening, but it isn't without suspense. Think valley descent with recalcitrant burro or late-night lift from Ted Kennedy.
We ambled about the narrow sidewalks, some of which slope at a 40-degree angle. At one point, a guitar-carrying man kindly stepped into the street to let us pass; at another, a barefoot vendor told me to watch my wallet (I felt, as I did throughout my trip, entirely safe, even though a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Lula described rampant crime in Brazilian cities). While Santa Teresa's earthy, publike restaurants were packed with families and neighborhood bohemians, its public spaces were empty. In a dusty park that surrounds the eerie ruins of a mansion that belonged to 1930's socialite Laurinda Santos Lobo, we found only a napping gardener: a Brueghel painting in which all the figures have gone inside for a drink.
I wanted more. More action, more thrills. I'd become a fun-seeking missile: everywhere we went, people were enjoying themselves so immensely that I wanted to join in. This impulse was born of neither envy nor discomfort; it was more like getting swept up in the tide of bodies at a party upon the sudden introduction of cocaine or heavily frosted baked goods.
To sate my craving, I decided that Greg and I should jump off a 2,100-foot cliff. For roughly $160, a man named Mosquito would take us to a mountain called Pedra Bonita and then strap us to a hang glider. Mosquito would pilot us down to the beach, one at a time, on a 10- to 15-minute ride offering gorgeous panoramas of the Tijuca Forest and the beachside resorts below. Off we went. We waited for Mosquito on the edge of São Conrado Beach and watched several other hang gliding operators and their clients assembling gear. Mosquito, a thin, energetic man in his forties with a leathery tan, drove us to the top of Pedra Bonita.
The view—and the notion of bodily entering that view—was staggering. We walked to a 20-foot-long wooden ramp that sloped slightly downwardand led off the edge of the cliff. Mosquito fastened me into a safety harness and showed me how he and I would clip ourselves to the metal frame of the glider and then run in tandem off the ramp. The most important thing to remember, he told me, is to keep running once we were off the platform, so that we pushed ourselves out and away from the cliff. Look at the sky, not your feet, while running, he advised.
That I was meant to run while in the air confounded me; I was reminded of the prehistoric automotive skills of Fred Flintstone. Peering down 2,100 feet, I wondered whether I hadn't exceeded my bite-to-chew ratio. But suddenly we were running and, after an initial shudder passed over the glider's sail, we took flight. What followed were 15 of the more exciting minutes of my life. The joyous tendrils of air coursing over my body made me feel as if I were lying in a riverbed. Then Mosquito encouraged me to let go of the glider's metal frame and stretch out my arms like a bird. In my next life: wings.
Once we'd landed, I clambered onto the sidewalk at the edge of the beach and waited for Greg to descend. I was flush with bravery. I felt I had done something that not only was true to Rio's spirit but, absent the presence of a live shark, could not be outdone. The utter naïveté of these feelings would become clear to me moments later, though, when I saw the next hang gliding customer land. It was not Greg, but rather a long-haired Brazilian woman in her twenties. As she unyoked herself and walked over to the sidewalk, I looked down at her feet and did a double take: she'd run off the platform wearing 31/2-inch-high wedgie heels.
Back in our room at the Copacabana Palace a few hours later, I remembered reading about some of the unbuttoned conduct of the hotel's former guests. In 1942, Orson Welles, jilted by actress Dolores del Rio, lashed out by throwing chairs into the pool; Marlene Dietrich, while performing at the hotel in 1959, asked for a bucket of sand to pee in between songs. Having engaged in my own go-go behavior in Rio, Welles's and Dietrich's actions did not strike me as the childish antics of divas, as they would have before I arrived in Brazil. No, they'd simply got caught up in the spirit of Rio. Like me, they'd had trouble accepting the word não.
HENRY ALFORD, a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure, is the author of Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Middle (Broadway Books).
Varig, Brazil's national carrier, flies to Rio daily (often direct, or with a stop in São Paulo) from Los Angeles, Miami, and New York, as do American, Continental, and United.
WHERE TO STAY
This recently renovated Jazz Age landmark was built by French architect Joseph Gire. DOUBLES FROM $320. 1702 AVDA. ATLANTICA, COPACABANA; 800/223-6800 OR 55-21/2548-7070; www.copacabanapalace.com.br
A 222-room tower across from Ipanema Beach. DOUBLES FROM $280. 460 AVDA. VIEIRA SOUTO, IPANEMA; 877/223-7272 OR 55-21/2525-2525; www.caesarpark.com
Ten of Brazil's leading architects and decorators designed the hotel's 12 floors. DOUBLES FROM $128. 17 RUA FRANCISCO SA', COPACABANA; 55-21/3288-8800; www.hotelportinari.com.br
WHERE TO EAT
Classic Italian fare. DINNER FOR TWO $125. 192 RUA BARÃO DA TORRE, IPANEMA; 55-21/2521-0627
DINNER FOR TWO $35. 240 AVDA. PADRE LEONEL FRANCA, PLANETARIO DA GAVEA; 55-21/2540-8041
Siri Mole & Cia
Try one of eight types of moqueca, a seafood stew, including lobster, crab, and squid. DINNER FOR TWO $30. 50 RUA FRANCISCO OTAVIANO, IPANEMA; 55-21/2523-4240
An 1894 Art Nouveau salon with a lovely afternoon tea. TEA FOR TWO $24. 32 RUA GONÇALVES DIAS, CENTRO; 55-21/2221-0107; www.confeitariacolombo.com.br
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
20 RUA DO LAVRADIO; 55-21/3852-5516
Rio Tandem Fly
Hang glide from the mountains down to São Conrado Beach. $80 PER PERSON. 55-21/9966-3416; www.riotandemfly.com.br
Electric trams to the Santa Teresa district leave downtown Rio every 15 minutes. www.riodejaneiro-turismo.com.br