Paraiso di Atlantico

July 27, 2012

When I first moved to Texas I had a clever job in what used to be called alternative school. Twice a day the school turned off its lights, lay down and listened to a cassette of my friend Vicki Jones leading us through a series of progressive relaxation tense and release, in the background was the sound of slow surf. I’ve never been much of a beach type, but Vicki left a warm association with the sound of waves turning over. This morning after a somewhat arduous night at the Recanto Park Hotel (a cultural gaff, I didn’t understand how the a/c worked and in the middle of the night a red light began flashing. Don’t bother there isn’t a phrase anything close to that in the book) I wrestled the wake-up call at 5:30. We went down to breakfast and sat on our luggage waiting for our car to the airport. Colorful buses filled with Argentine families carrying thermoses of hot water for their mate left for their day at Foz do Iguacu, or Paraguay. Iguacu has a pleasant small airport. No one suspects you may be a sleepy terrorist. Travelers walk out to their planes on a painted lane of tarmac. The person seated next to me had terrible body odor, a scent days of sweating without showering, old laundry and coffee can make. He was traveling with a woman who had my sympathies for any proximity of intimacy. The flight wasn’t nearly full so I moved to a vacant window seat and retired into Infinite Jest as soon as the lakes and terraced hillsides disappeared beneath clouds. When I looked up Rio was coming into view.
I tried to get myself on point for a major cosmopolitan city. The litany of warnings friends and articles gave about pickpockets, thieves, cutpurses and general South American criminal behavior clattered through the slow slot machine of my morning’s mind. Generally I don’t care much; I’m never worth much more to a thief than mutual annoyance. Besides I was surrounded by a group of Japanese tourists, whom I would rob for cameras were I in that trade. Try as I could, I just couldn’t wake up to full terrier alert. Really I would have been just as happy to be back in my flying cocoon reading about depraved tennis players and having the flight attendant bring be chocolate cookies and purified water. But such are the odd demands of tourismo.
We had a waiting car with a loquacious driver, named Augosto, trying to maneuver us into booking him for a tour. I wasn’t in the mood to visit the mountainous Christ even though, he pointed out, the week before he had taken the Tallow Wood Baptist Choir (also from Houston) to summit Christ and sit under the arms of their Redeemer. Strangely the religions of reformation reformers and anti-idolators have far more faith in graven images than those surrounded by them, such is experience. As we drove down Avenida Atlantico, Augosto prudently warned us that the café next to our hotel was good for lunch or snacks, but after dinner it was a famous hang out for prostitutes who worked at Dolce Vita. He covered a full spectrum of tourism did Augosto. We thanked him for the advice, however we had five pages of instructions on bus routes, cab negotiations and recommended restaurants and all that was on my mind was that I wanted to change my shirt quite a lot. We arrived at the Hotel Lancaster only to find the room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00PM at the very earliest. The lobby was too small and crowded; I changed my shirt in the men’s room. After some pointless moments of complaint, we locked our luggage and set off to find Manoel E Joaquim, one of the recommended restaurants on our list. The smiling manager assured us if we could enjoy a leisurely lunch watching Copacabana Beach after lunch our room would be ready. He made something of a magical gesture with his hand resembling a moving snake, smiled, and said “four or five quartos. Welcome to Brazil.”
I am ever like a dog, ready for long, pointless meanders. Carol doesn’t share my enthusiasm to be off leash, she was fatigued and grumbly after our long fruitless walk to find Manoel E Jaoquim. (After several dozen erroneous quartos we found it, but it was closed on Monday). Instead we had lunch at a different pleasant sidewalk café where the waiter immediately brought us translated menus. La Doctora ordered bean broth and fried cassava. She said it was one of those vegetables described as a perfect food. I ordered bean soup as well and sardines. There were misunderstandings or mistranslations. Carol’s order arrived as she requested. They were generous with the fried cassava. The waiter brought me four perfectly grilled sausages, a piece of garlic bread and no soup. When I asked for my soup and sardines, the waiter brought me a ladle and an empty bowl pointed at la Doctora’s soup and insisted I ordered sausages, linguica. They were small and I held out hope that they might be sardine sausages. They were tasty anyway, especially with piri piri .
Following lunch the clerk assured us the room was only two hours away from being properly prepared. We asked for directions to a nearby bank. He made the same magical gesture said “right, right, left” and off we went. It was the wrong bank. I got trapped in an electronically operated bulletproof revolving door. Quite apart from any guide book or article I decided it was culturally appropriate to assume uniformed persons casually pointing an automatic weapon can determine my directions to anyplace. Before the afternoon was over at least four gentlemen each with shaved heads, each holding a very impressive looking firearm told me my destination was four or five quartos, made the same magical gesture with their hand as the desk clerk, smiled, and said “Welcome to Brazil.” We needed to change some currency, which is a relatively easy task except in the United States where natives look at foreign currency as if it were counterfeit monopoly money, and it seemed Brazil. After talking to a French ex-pat and another bank guard I found a cambio inside of a place called Wizard. Magic can be made to happen anywhere.
Fortunately for me la Doctora is fond of bodies of water, after an hour or so walking four or five quartos at a time I could sense a certain reluctance from her to go on. It was my (and our) good fortune to be only a couple of quartos from the brilliant light reflecting off the beach. Our promenade ended back at the hotel. The room was ready. The clerk went himself to check. It was a high ceilinged room on the tenth floor with french doors opening to a terrace overlooking the beach, worth the wait. My beloved opted for an understandable short nap. I changed into my running shorts.
Copacabana Beach and Avenida Atlantico follow a three mile arc with the ocean on one side and a wall of hotels on the other. Most of the hotels are modern towers. It’s home to the famous Copacabana Palace, currently being refurbished. It’s a legendary stretch of waterfront. It’s as gorgeous of a beach as I’ve seen. Since it’s winter, it wasn’t crowded. The Atlantic is still too cold for any but the insanely determined swimmer. A few families sauntered along the promenade. Children played soccer in the sand. Couples rode rented bicycles. I took my run in the bike lane. It was a relief to have no direction to think about beyond how far I felt like running. I trotted down to the fortress and back. Although I inhaled too many diesel fumes (as if there were an amount that wasn’t too much) the air was salty and humid, a prescription for a person who had spent too much time in airplanes in the last week. I ran along easily exchanging thumbs up with other runners and a wave from a guy leaning out a bus window who mistook me for someone he knew. This was joggers paradise, no one even wore watches let alone ones capable of recording splits and laps. We were all happily drifting towards some measure of health.
When I returned to the room the terrace doors were wide open, the sun was an hour or so away from setting. I stood sweating on the terrace watching the sky turning pale pink. I showered, rinsed out my running clothes and hung them discretely on the terrace to dry. A sleepy Doctora told me she had no desire to leave her spot in bed. I wrote for a while and briefly fell asleep at the keyboard. When I awoke, Carol refused to wake. I dressed and went out to stroll in the fresh dark washing up on the beach.
I passed small beachside cafes along the promenade selling, coco verde, beer, snacks and pizza in a cup. The beach itself is lit by banks of lights, so there were dozens of football matches cheerfully passing and stealing. Young kids planted flip-flops for goals and chased the ball. Three young men were taking turns doing pull ups on a chrome apparatus. The sidewalk edge was filled with displays of scarves, jewelry, tee shirts, beach towels, carvings, and twenty varieties of glowing statuettes of Christ, all for sale. Families walked along, hand in hand, mothers with their arms around daughters, father’s laughing at their son’s greed. A man with a misshaped foot was folding palm leaves into grasshoppers for a fee. The throaty hum of Cesaria Evora was like a night blooming vine entwining one passing conversation with the next. I came to an old man in a worn brownish shirt selling popcorn, picocada, my favorite snack. He let me have a bag for three reales. I walked and ate. It seemed like I was the only person walking and eating. It seemed everyone, but me, knew if you don’t have the time to sit and eat, if you don’t have a few moments to sit over your coffee, you’re wasting your life. Nearby a samba quartet was ending their first gig of the night. As they left, we walked along together. They laughed with one another. As we passed a bar playing music, one of the musicians slowed and played along with such casual ease his playing was indistinguishable from the recorded song. His friends called him, he looked up, laughed and caught them up. They had many more sambas waiting before they went to bed. And I had bed.

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