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Notes from Rio


I went down to Rio in mid-March with no agenda other than to soak up some sun and sand and to experience that great city for the first time. Carnaval had ended two weeks before I arrived, and it was the end of summer, so the place was returning to its normal groove. And normal in Rio means lots of sun and sand, and great things to experience, all punctuated by the constant presence of violence.

Ipanema vendor. Photo by Viviana Toranzo (2008).
Ipanema vendor. Photo by Viviana Toranzo (2008).

After spending my first few days at acclimating to the tropical humidity by hanging out on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, I met up with some American acquaintances. We went for dinner at a high-end churrasqueria in Ipanema. Next to us, alone at a circular table, sat another compatriot. Though fluent in Portuguese and chatty with the waiters, he heard us talking in English and so turned his attention to us.

It turned out that Robby Fisher (as I will call him) knew Rio well, and had started setting up shop there in the mid-90s. In his 50s, but very youthful, Robby was from New York City, and apparently friends with Julio Iglesias; he mentioned the “tears streaming down” his face while backstage at a recent Iglesias show. He seemed to know an array of other celebrities of that particular vintage, the 80s, and that decade’s pop culture had clearly shaped Robby’s perspective. He had even named his travel business in Copacabana after a cheeseball flick about Rio starring Michael Caine and Demi Moore.

Robby saw plenty of opportunities for both pleasure and business in his chosen city. On the latter front, he was most excited about his new business, self-service laundromats, which bore the same name as the bad Michael Caine movie. Beyond the D.I.Y. innovation (most laundries there are drop-off places), Robby was most excited about the American product he had started delivering. Prior to his handiwork, “They didn’t have Tide down here,” Robby said, proudly.

Our feast of unlimited meats and a buffet spread full of many fresh fruits and vegetables finished, we parted ways with Robby, but not before he imparted a friendly warning. It had nothing to do with the favelas or working girls, both of which are hard to miss. Instead it was simply that “You’re gonna love it here, and when you’ll go home you’ll have what I call the ‘Rio Blues.’”

Robby was certainly the genuine article, but plenty of far more authentic local characters roamed the beaches of Copa and Ipanema. As the Rail’s Matty Vaz says, the beach vending scene there is “probably the best in the world,” and he would know, having spent last summer in Rio researching the informal economy (and also having written “Coney Island Beer Hustle,” a classic piece about local beach vending found in these pages a few years ago). Among Ipanema’s countless peddlers are Pelé, who rents umbrellas and beach chairs and brings fresh coconuts to those sitting in them; and a very dark guy with a very bright white beard who carries more than his own weight in beach chairs on his head and who is as old as the morros.

As for what items a beachgoer can procure from vendors while lounging on the beach, the list is rather varied, including but not limited to: newspapers (carried on the head); beach balls (ditto); ice cream; barbequed cheese on a stick, prepared on a toaster oven-sized portable grill; skewers of prepared shrimp; usable souveneirs, like Copacabana beach towels or Rio hats; frivolous ones, like Brazil license plates; faux handicraft jewelry; real cotton candy; cigarrettes; “natural” sandwiches; slices of watermelon; fresh coconut drinks; matte w/ a lemon twist, poured from barrels on each arm; beer; water; flip flops; candy; plastic flowers for little girls’ hair; and various sweets that I couldn’t identify. These are city beaches, after all.

Bip Bip. Photo by Alvaro Figueroa (2009).
Bip Bip. Photo by Alvaro Figueroa (2009).

On them the locals play all sort of ball games, all day. Leathery men and women of all ages and shapes compete in volleyball and high-speed paddleball; younger dudes kick a soccer ball around in a circle like a hackey sack. And the truly skilled of both sexes play “futvolley,” “soccey-ball” or whatever the right name is for the amazing game of volleyball with no hands allowed, only the head, chest, and feet (i.e. soccer rules). The crowds were more spectacular at the soccer match I saw at Maracanã, Rio’s great stadium, but the game itself was no more enjoyable than the wizardry in the sand.

“I understand the beaches are pretty nice” in Rio, President Obama told Brazil’s President Lula, during the latter’s recent visit to the White House. Indeed they are, from both a geographic and social perspective. Not only are they beautiful, but there’s also much more interaction between the classes (and races) there than on most beaches I’ve been to in the U.S. or elsewhere. People’s wallets are from far equal, but all things being mostly naked seems to temporarily minimize the disparities. Then again, my mushy thinking probably stems from the fact that I really didn’t feel like thinking much about global inequality while I was hanging out on the beach.


My pal Alvaro, a Chilean who lives in Argentina, joined me in Rio, and our main goal was to hear some good music. We quickly found out that the Bossa Nova is alive and well, and that many leading players get together for informal sessions on Sunday nights at Bip Bip, which as non-Portuguese speakers like Alvaro and I eventually realized, is actually pronounced “Bip-ae, Bip-ae.” The open-air storefront/bar is located a block from the beach close to where Copacabana meets Ipanema, thus bringing the music back to its birthplace.

Bip Bip’s proprietor, Alfredo Melo, is a local fixture, passionate about both music and politics. The soothing sounds of Bossa Nova and fiery socialist oratory may seem like an odd mix, but it’s Alfredo’s signature blend. Rather sternly, he watches over the Sunday night scene, keeping record of how many beers each patron has taken from the refrigerator. After a couple hours of flowing tunes, Alfredo stops the music and gives a short speech. He passes the hat (actually, an old Johnnie Walker canister) not for the musicians, who play only for free beers, but instead for his “special projects” aimed at helping the city’s many street kids. In his talks he decries injustices faced by the city’s poor, such as the lack of free public toilets, and declares his own personal distaste for perfume. Then the music resumes.

“El es un monstruo,” Alfredo later in the evening told Alvaro in Spanish, referring to one of the singers currently at work. Here in the U.S., a monster in the music scene usually means a guitar player or saxophonist who delivers a hard-charging, frenetic solo. But in the land of bossa nova, it can refer to a crooner reaching high octaves. In either case, it’s a positive term, applied to masters of the craft. By any such standard, Alfredo is certainly a monstruo, too.

Yet, as Alfredo’s speeches reminded us, Rio’s inequalities are still glaring. Lula’s 80 percent approval rating suggests that Brazil is headed in the right direction, though. And as his American counterpart imagines, the beaches in Rio are also pretty nice. But the music is even better.


After our first Sunday night at Bip Bip, Alvaro and I spent most of the next week at Ilha Grande, which, as the name suggests, is a large island. About two and a half hours south of Rio, it’s a beautiful setting, one that the Brazilian government is trying to preserve parts of as a natural habitat (and monkeys did swing on the trees as we walked to the beach). The residents, who formerly survived on fishing, are increasingly turning to tourism, making the place seem ripe for overdevelopment. Even so, the beaches are beautiful, the fish is delicious, and there are worse ways to spend time than traveling around an island in ferry boats listening to Bob Marley.

Alfredo Melo. Photo by Alvaro Figueroa (2009).
Alfredo Melo. Photo by Alvaro Figueroa (2009).

We sought out more indigenous sounds in Rio the following weekend—or, more accurately, the music found us. In Lapa, the center of the city’s nightlife, we came upon a Friday night free concert, of samba-hip hop, complete with about 75 percussionists. The next day found us at Modern Sound, a Copacabana record store with a café where an excellent jazz trio played, the drummer at one point simultaneously playing the trumpet. And late Saturday afternoon we stumbled into a lively outdoor Bossa Nova gathering on Rua do Ouvidor in Centro. The rhythm is indeed everywhere in Rio.

And so, too, is the violence. As we left Centro early Saturday evening, I understood why guidebooks say to avoid it on weekends, as parts of it become a homeless encampment. The entrance to the Metro station at Carioca was closed at 7:30 at night, but beside it, a flower stand was for some reason open. Next to it was a fountain where two men bathed, while another guy built a fire with branches from the flower stand, around which he was setting off fire crackers. It was definitely time for Alvaro and me to alight our tour.

The following day, as we left the residential neighborhood in Copacabana where we were staying, it seemed like a tranquil Sunday morning, with kids and dogs playing in the square. Next thing we knew came the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire from the favela on the hill. Whatever else that is, it’s not my kind of good percussion.

The first day of fall in Brazil was the last day of both of our vacations, so Alvaro and I planned to go to the beach, then Bip Bip again that evening. But the rain—rather like “Aguas de Marco,” or, in local slang, açúcar (sugar)—kept us off the beach, so instead we checked out Ipanema’s excellent bookstore (Livraria da Travessa), very fine cd and record shop (Toca do Vinicius), and the regular Sunday event called the Hippie Market. Calm prevailed in all three places.

The music had already begun when we arrived that evening at Bip Bip. When I went to the back for a beer, Alfredo asked where I was from. When I said the U.S., he said “Obama?” I replied, “Si, Obama.” And thus he added me to the book in which he counted his customers’ drinks. Yes, for one night in Rio, I was now named “Obama,” and it felt good.

My two weeks in Rio seemed to be ending on a high note. Yet as Sunday night became Monday morning, more gunfire rang out from the favela on the hill behind us. The jist of Alfredo’s speech earlier that night, and every Sunday evening, remains very true: the problems of the city aren’t going away anytime soon.

But Robby Fisher was right, too. Back home in Brooklyn, I’ve got the Rio Blues.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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