by Patricia Lightfoot

As the Olympic Games begin, I am re-posting a small tribute to Rio de Janeiro, which is the most spectacular city I have ever visited. For the people of Rio and all who are competing, I hope that the Games go well.

There are mountains all around, ocean, beaches, lagoons and mysterious forests inhabited by parrots, toucans, monkeys, marmosets and myriad other fauna. There is a palette of dark greens with the contrasting colours of the flowers, as if the “Douanier” Rousseau had been commissioned to paint the backdrop for Rio de Janeiro. It looks as though the vegetation could swallow up the city if it felt like it. There are mansions, such as that at Parque Lage, now an art school, which is set against the rain forest and the Corcovado mountain, on which the art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer stands surveying the city. Against the beauty of the natural setting, some of the streets are shabby. There are dilapidated buildings next to beautiful ones. The favelas look like cubist paintings nestled into the hillsides, when viewed from a distance. There is some interesting street art, but a lot of what looks like indiscriminate tagging.

Rio’s inhabitants, also known as Cariocas, clearly have many origins, given their varying skin tone, but as my cousin pointed out, you can identify a Carioca by their comfort in flip-flops. Other characteristics seem to be a love of ice-cold drinks, enterprising road-crossing skills, calmness in a crowd or the endless traffic, enviable skill with a soccer ball or a volley ball, and a sense of ease in their bodies. Parks we went to, such as the Jardim Botanico and the Parque Lage, featured numerous heavily pregnant women having photo shoots with friends and family that were focused on their beautiful bellies. This seemed to be a much-practised local custom.

We dined very well one evening at a revered churrascaria, or grilled meat restaurant, called Fogo de Chao in Botafogo overlooking the bay, with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain. The array of vegetables at the buffet table was paradoxically excellent in a city where meals are often, as my cousin described, “meat and two carbs,” and these occupied most of my attention. Once we had our vegetables, we sat down at our table and turned over our red cards to the green side to show that we were ready for meat. Waiters came by with hunks of meat on a skewer, which they would shave off with a sharp knife. The customer was expected to take hold of the piece of shaved meat with sugar tongs. Quite quickly, this process caused the table cloth to became increasingly blood spattered, as if someone had been shot or stabbed at a lively dinner with the Borgias, and necessitated the protective covering of the large cloth napkins over our clothes.

As reported around the world, there was a vote in the lower house in April to impeach Dilma Rousseff. This proved to be a lengthy process, as each member of parliament made a short speech before casting their vote. We started watching in a bar in Ipenema once the broadcast of a local futbol game had ended. Some MPs wore pink as a sign that they supported the president, whereas those who supported impeachment were literally holding the national flag or its colours and were considerably more numerous. Some MPs were dressed in grey and thus hard to read until they spoke. MPs dedicated their votes to God, their children, their grandchildren, the workers of Brazil, though a certain Jair Bolsonairo apparently dedicated his vote to a colonel under whose aegis the president was held and tortured in the early seventies. It seems extraordinary that anyone would want to refer to such a shameful episode in Brazilian history, but apparently some feel comfortable doing so. We taxied to the Gavea neighbourhood and repaired to the Rei de Bacalhau, so we could eat salt cod, and where, having missed a number of these impassioned short speeches, we started watching again. It was confirmed the following day that the majority favoured impeachment, so the question went to the upper house.

The enormous disparity in income and resulting crime in Brazil is well known. There are a lot of bars and gates in Rio. According to Stephanie Nolen in The Globe and Mail, there are four murders a day in Rio. One had taken place near the art deco Copacabana Palace hotel, which looks as if Cary Grant and Grace Kelly should have stayed there in some fifties heist-romance, hours before we enjoyed caipirinhas there beside the pool. There is a good life for people with what would be a middling income elsewhere who can afford to employ household staff in Rio. This situation is not necessarily a good one for the staff, whose low incomes often do not permit them to improve their circumstances. I learned that there are even prisons in Brazil for those with a university education and different prisons for those without.

A word about the language

Once our flights were booked and the application for visas submitted, the next step was to learn some Brazilian Portuguese through the incredibly useful, though sometimes odd, Duolingo website. Access is free, and Duolingo provides a fairly painless way of acquiring basic language skills. That being said, there is the oddness of some of the phrases included in the lessons. An example in one of the early lessons was the phrase “congratulations, boy” or “parabens menino.” How often would one need that? My cousin explained that the word “congratulations” is used in a fairly creepy fashion by some men trying to simultaneously patronize and pick up women.  The inclusion of the word fantasia or costume in the lesson about clothing ahead of more mundane terms such as socks may be explained, my cousin said, by this word’s importance in all things Carnaval-related. There is, however, surely no explanation for A abelha escreve uma carta or “The bee writes a letter,” though it is memorable and may be the phrase in Portuguese that stays with me long after I have forgotten everything else I learned.