Part 2 of a 4-part series on my year-end jaunt through the Promised Land, aka Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro shielded herself from us on a rainy Saturday evening. We landed through clouds at Santos Dumont airport, built back in the day for biplanes and puddle-jumpers and perched on a tiny patch of land jutting into the bay, LaGuardia-style. After several aborted attempts to get cash from non-cooperative ATMs (none operated with the Cirrus network my bank uses), we charged the $45 cab fare out to our rental apartment in the far-flung neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, home of Ronaldo and other upscale Brazilians, three tunnels away from all the action at Ipanema and Copacabana. At US$2500 for the week (in a city where $15 hostel beds in Ipanema were going for $75 a pop during New Years), the two-bedroom, air-conditioned flat sat across the road from the beach in a boxy, California-style complex with pool, fitness center, restaurants, and black-suited security staff. Being short of the requisite funds, we convinced the kindly old landlord to take the cash we had on hand, plus Roberto’s passport as collateral until the rest of the group arrived with the rest of the money on Monday.
The next morning, we soaked up sun and surf out on the endless expanse of Barra, fighting huge waves and monster currents, sipping icy purple açaí smoothies, and fellowshipping with the Colombian couple who found us the apartment and their crazy/cool in-laws visiting from the States. The others got sunburned – I didn’t. Later that day, however, it became apparent that, as a typically-independent traveler, I wasn’t going to do all that well with the group thing. Transpo into town proved difficult as taxis were scarce and inexpensive, and the buses infrequent (it was a Sunday night, after all). We didn’t eat until two hours after we initially set out for food and I had a headache. After scouring the seedy streets of Copacabana-After-Dark for a 24-hour pharmacy, I felt my spirit rise and wanted to head to a nightclub for some Brazilian Hellos (see post below). Roberto and the rest of the group were tired, so…I did me.
And of course, that threw an organizational wrench in our group, as my timetable was thrown off from everyone else’s. For me, that’s okay – the optimal group trip in my opinion is when we all take little breaks from each other regularly, convening for meals and such but having our own periods of individual experience. But that individualism caused a fissure to form in our group’s energy that only widened as the week passed.
Accounts were settled with the landlord on Monday when the other members of the group arrived from Colombia, increasing the population of our apartment to the planned five. After a pleasant-enough breakfast, I headed into town to grab some beach time at Ipanema with another set of friends from São Paulo. The rest of the group…very…eventually…found their way to a flea market in Copacabana. The plan, then, was to meet up with my friends Downtown at 9pm and hit a samba school practice, to dance and drink and sweat and sing with thousands of people in anticipation of Carnival, a rare treat since practices were suspended between Christmas and New Years. We arrived at midnight. There were a few hundred folk still gathered around the remnants of the event, funk carioca playing over huge speakers and kids jerking and whirling their lil scrawny waists like at a Liberty City block party. The practice was over.
I had to let the kids play on their own the next day, because the night before had been a fiasco. I did the beach thing at Barra while the other four hit the sights I still haven’t managed to get to after three visits to Rio: Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf (I reckon, until I’ve seen these icons up close and personal, there’s always a reason to return to Rio).
Finally, the Big Day rolled around, and we knew organization was crucial, since the entrances to both Copacabana and Ipanema would be blocked to all vehicles except taxis and buses at 4pm, and commuting time from Barra into town on December 31 was estimated at 3-to-4 hours. The plan for wearing all white in traditional New Year’s homage to the Yoruba sea goddess Iemanjá (Yemayá in Spanish) was scuttled when my t-shirt got stained and then got locked up in the dry cleaners when they shut down early for the holiday. Still, I had a nice, crisp light blue shirt as backup, and since Iemanjá’s colors are blue and white, she and I were still cool. Luckily, our lovely Colombian couple decided that we’d all pack into their SUV and take the back way through the mountains on the breathtaking Linha Amarela expressway into Downtown, then hop the subway down to Copa, and since they were organizing the transportation, the whole crew left on time!
The night was balmy with low-hanging clouds as we piled out of the truck in a shopping center parking lot and hiked over to the subway station. The whole of Brazil snaked out of the entrance, dressed up, dressed down, in all-white, all-green, linen, lamé, old, young, black, white, brown, polka-dot. With every passing train, we inched closer and closer to the platform. Then we squeezed ourselves into the first available train car, the temperature rising along with spirits as groups of people started singing and swaying with infectious laughter, my midsection gradually warming a decreasingly cold bottle of champagne that I sneaked onto the train. Fifteen stops and a train change later, we exited the station in light drizzle. Nobody cared – the expectation of being soaked by champagne, sweat, and/or seawater roundly anticipated. We had an hour to wrestle through the crowd of millions packed on the sand between Avenida Atlantica and the South Atlantic. We squeezed through the folk, o povo, “the people” in Portuguese, arms brushing arms, eyes meeting, the whole society from top to bottom converged on one arc of sand. Finally we settled into bubble large enough for the seven of us, right next to a group of boisterous, bounteous, bodacious black women gettin they drink and New Years’ swerve on. And the countdown – dez, nove, oito, sete, seis, cinco, quatro, tres, dois, um…Feliz Ano Novo!
I reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllyyyyyyy hope I can get the footage up soon.
Bottles popped, fireworks exploded, hugs and smiles and renewed energy swept the crowd. Roberto and I stripped down to our skivvies and dove into an inky black ocean lined with sparkling cruise liners, at once crazy and thankful and raucous and humbled. The music started on stage – the three winning samba schools from last year’s Carnival enticed with hips and sequins and drumsticks and tambourines – and we joined the povo in the sand, kicking up swirls as we samba’d ourselves senseless, again and again, celebrating with our bodies the start of another lap around the Sun.