You may have sailed in the bay of Istanbul and taken a trip up the Bosporus and down the Sea of Marmara admiring the onion domes of the mosques in the seven-hilled old town; you may have gazed upon San Francisco Bay and the fog-covered Golden Gate Bridge on a balmy night enhanced by the skyscraper lights; you may have been smitten by the winding shore of Sydney Harbour or the Nordic patrician charm of the islands that make up Stockholm: you have seen nothing if the sea breeze has not caressed your brow in the Bay of Guanabara, its sensual mountain curves emphasised by the luxuriance of the vegetation, the celebrated beauty of its beaches and the colours of its coves dancing in front of your eyes.
Forgive me if I get too melodramatic. Rio brings out the poet in you, good or bad.
Visitors flock to the jagged peak of Corcovado not to kneel in front of the 125-foot-high statue of Christ the Redeemer but to admire the view from Maracanã to Leblon. Whether below in the bay, or from a bird’s view up high, the visual experience of Rio is so overwhelming, it has drowned Brazil itself in the same way that the Amazon has become the focus of rainforest activism: it inspires images and invokes ideas implanted upon us from myth, legend and hearsay.
Rio has a fabled quality that towers over the rest of Brazil: Copacabana, Ipanema, Flamengo, Botafogo, Sugarloaf Mountain roll off the tongue as familiar as Piccadilly, Hyde Park, Victoria and Soho. But it’s Ipanema that I love more than any other place in Rio. It’s where I am now, compiling this on a busy Sunday.
The sun is hot, and every single square inch of the beach has a bum on it. Well, part of a bum really, as the Carioca behind is of considerable circumference. It takes me half an hour to find my friends in the crowd, and it takes me another half hour to butt-off the space to stretch out my own bottom. It’s sad, but diving in the sea is a no-no most days, unless you are an intrepid surfer. If the waves don’t get you (Ipanema means ‘bad, disturbed water’ in Tupi), the freezing water will put you off decisively. At least there is no experimental Petrobras oil rig in the ocean spoiling the view. Ten years ago they had started drilling within sight of the beach: sacrilege!
My attention wanders off to that fantastic Brazilian invention, foot-volley. It’s played with normal volleyball rules except that a player can’t use his hands to handle the ball: strictly head, chest and legwork. No wonder Brazilian footballing skills are so exceptional, for you need full body co-ordination and expert ball control to hold up your own – and on sandy terrain. The sport has recently been introduced into British footballing schools, but the Brazilians have one up on us – their all-year, 24/7 training ground: the beach.
Every city has an anthropomorphic image: London is a City gent in a striped double-breasted suit, holding his chin up as he rushes by without an umbrella in spitting rain. New York is a loudmouthed, overweight baseball fan, cap and all, who pushes you away from the salt beef deli queue as you fumble for your change. Paris is a chic grand-dame, ex- model, ex-actress, her make-up dextrously applied, who walks her Pekinese in the Jardin de Luxembourg. And Rio is a callipygean copper- coloured beauty, as naked as Eve, dancing in stiletto shoes to the blast of beating drums. Like the legendary Girl from Ipanema, whose soulful portrayal by Tom Jobim jump-started the whole bossa nova craze in the 1960s. Or the ‘Nega Sem Sandália’ fifty years later who inspired Junior Jack and its house megahit E Samba.
And it is here in Ipanema that I, myself, wrote the draft of the first chapter of my book below, which you read above.
The 2012 edition of Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul by John Malathronas is now available on Kindle.