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Under Rio's Spell

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).

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