At 450, Rio de Janeiro Does
Not Look a Day Older Than Me
According to family records, Maria and Heitor were watching the Carnival parade on a Rio de Janeiro street, an early Ash Wednesday, when she went into labor. A rush to the military hospital was all it took for her third and last son to be born, a couple of hours later.
That’s probably why I never really liked Carnival. As for Rio, whose 450th anniversary is Sunday March 1, is not just Brazil’s premier party town – even when Cariocas decide to have fun with you – but where physical beauty and pleasure are steeped into its DNA.
The Saturnian nature of that night, and the subconscious background of music, rhythm and drums, was all I took from the city by the sea when we left it five years down the road. Oh, yes, I took something else too: in 1960, it ceased to be Brazil’s capital, a title transferred to Brasília.
Still one never really leaves Rio. I went back a few times – as if some insatiable thirst could only be quenched at that source -, lived there again for a few years, but since then, the city and I went our separated ways. One side misses the other more but there’s no bitterness.
My place of birth is no longer, anyway. From its then 2.5 million, it’s metastasized into a megalopolis of over 6 million people, pollution, urban violence, extreme income disparity, guns, drugs, corruption, you know, the full range of ills most South American cities know so well.
NATIVE FOREIGNER AT THE FAVELA REALM
But there are mysteries worth probing, hiding in its plain, 100 degrees average heat. The name, for instance: River of January? That’s got to be an inside joke: it’s not a river, but miles of seashore just a walking distance from downtown businesses. How do they mix? Don’t ask.
Also, it was officially founded on the third month of the year, not the first. Again, someone must have had a laugh about that. And for all the good vibes it inspires on people all over the world, reality on the ground in Rio is often more brutal than in New York. Now, go figure.
On a day in February I’ve left the 50s for the second time in my life, just like I’d done with Rio. As a dragged my own private Rio around the globe, mostly being a heavy-accented foreigner wherever I went, when I settled in the only city I’ve consciously chosen, New York, I finally knew where I’d come from.
TWO FEET IN THE 50S, TWICE LIVING IN THE CITY
Guanabara Bay will always inform everything feel about this life, even if now we speak different languages, and natives admire my perfect pronunciation of Portuguese, better than many a legal alien. But this transitional state is the ground I’ve made of by now, and will probably be laid to rest onto it too, someday.
I was born to the syncopated sway of Bossa Nova, the joy of samba and catharsis of football, with the urban explosion of Brazilian cities and the Cinema Novo, a vibrant youth ready to synch up with the world in 1960s. Then the military took over and the party was all but over.
The Brazil that’s emerged on the other side of those dark years was a more jaded one. It still hasn’t fine tuned its vision of the future or perception of its past losses. A fragile democracy, it may take a while before it finds its voice, step, and claim to its own greatness.
But Rio de Janeiro will always be more than the sum of its cliches. The ‘river that lives at sea,’ as the old song goes, was born to encapsulate some of best feelings about Brazil. And some of the worst too. I should know it because its blood runs in my veins.
ALL THINGS SUNNY, WARM & BLUE
Born on an Ash Wednesday, of course I hope my own will be sprinkled all over colonial Santa Teresa, from its streetcar down the Lapa Arcs, from the top of the Christ the Redeemer, or out of the window of a Sugar Loaf gondola. Then again, I won’t really care. That’s the Carioca in me: we hardly get too hot about anything.
In my heart, though, I’m still a Meier kid, mesmerized by the sands of Copacabana, and often in my dreams, I tread those famed wave-like sidewalks. I fly over the Corcovado and land with grace on the top of the Maracanã stadium. But it’s at the old one that I saw my team play, so that’s where you’ll find me.
But they won’t recognize me as one of their own. I wouldn’t. The comeback as dust scenario is the most likely to happen. It’ll be breezy and warm, and it may be on Yemanjá day. The Yaruba Queen of the Waters is the unofficial patron saint of the city. She’s blue, just like me. Happy Birthday, Rio de Janeiro.