Rio de Janeiro

Demonstrators Stage Largest Street Protests In Two Decades
      This ain’t no Carnival. People pissed! Image source: AP

Right now, Brazil convulses with the heady combination of indignation and optimism that characterizes popular movements. The People – that vast and oft-evoked abstraction made up of millions of students and truck drivers and dental hygienists and single mothers and retirees and first graders – have gotten so fed up with the economic and political oppression that has always plagued Brazil, Latin America as a whole, and, at many times in its history, the United States, that they’ve taken to the streets to voice their exasperation with the greed, corruption, official acts of violence, and woefully poor quality-of-life that have hampered the upward mobility of most Brazilians in the face of unprecedented “national prosperity” and vanity projects like the World Cup and the Olympics.

What that means, exactly, remains to be seen. Moneyed and political interests are too entrenched in the business of making money at all costs to really engage in the necessary paradigm shift even if they wanted to. And I’m just cynical enough to believe that nothing lasting is going to happen; after all, a columnist from Brazil’s largest daily reflected the general cluelessness of those in power: “From paradise, we have slipped…into limbo.”

Paradise for whom?

No, there will be no New Deal-style governmental investment in infrastructure, no nationwide jobs program, no major overhaul of the educational and health care systems. There’s too much unfettered greed infecting the country’s economical and political elite for that to ever happen. It’s a refrain in heavy rotation: “Brazil never moved away from the slave plantation.”

I have friends who were injured by police during last week’s protest in my beloved São Paulo. I have friends who live in the areas most heavily affected by teargas and rubber bullets in the center of the city. Some of the clashes between protesters and the police occurred on the street where I last lived not a full two years ago, where I last walked not a full two months ago, and where I spent several years becoming part of the city’s social fabric, another brown face popping in and out of lunch counters and convenience stores, hopping the bus to work during the week or home from the club on the weekend. That was my street and my neighborhood and my people and my city. It’s unnerving to know that I could just as easily have been shot with a rubber bullet outside my door or teargassed on my way home from work as any of my friends, neighbors, or coworkers.

It’s easy to change the channel when you have no direct connection to the events on the screen, but it’s something else when you are linked to the places and people being affected by strife. When the air clears, I’m still not sure what will have changed in terms of corruption, accountability, state-sanctioned violence, or quality-of-life. But I know that neither the powers that be, the media, nor Brazilians themselves will continue to blindly brush off indignities and injustices with a tudo bom (It’s all good) and an evocation of Brazil’s trademark deflectors: sun, sex, and soccer.

Maybe that refusal to accept indignities and injustices is the necessary spark. Hell, it only took 9 cents to finally piss enough people off. And that’s just my 2 cents.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Digital StillCamera

Three years ago, shortly after dusk on a crisp July evening, I left the gym and walked with a friend down a cavernous back-street in Copacabana, the gritty, dense, intense, world-famous beachfront neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.  At that time, my Portuguese skills were nonexistent, and I conversed with my friend in an uneasy Portuñol that was more functional Spanish with a passable Brazilian accent. Being the intrepid, street-wise flâneur that I am, I dressed in nondescript shorts, a white t-shirt, basic black sneakers, and took along a Discman: a) to have some music to listen to in the gym, and b) specifically to ward off anyone interested in making even the least bit of profit by robbing me…who the hell would want a Discman in the 21st century?

Well, some ten-year-old kid shows up asking me for who the hell knows what and I told him, in Spanish, that I didn’t really have anything to give him (I didn’t). He then grabbed my arm. I flipped: “no me toques, hijueputa” I said and jerked my hand back. Then he started shouting in Portuguese, I shouted back in Spanish, and then he hit me in the foot with a rock. I swear, if I had had on a belt, that woulda been his ass, but my friend dragged me away and the kid ran off. It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that I thought about what would have happened had the kid pulled a gun: you could have cast me in Airplane!.

Never, in all my years of travel, had I been accosted in the street by anybody. I mean, I’m a 6’2, 210-pound black man…I’m the one who makes people nervous.  In fact, it was the lack of control that was most unsettling aspect of what happened.  And it didn’t matter that I understood all the socio-economic history behind why this kid was running the streets, probably high on glue, looking for hand-outs.  In that moment, I was just a “rich” foreigner, nothing more.  I’ve not felt 100% secure in Rio ever since.

I’ve been back to the city several times; twice, I’ve rung in the New Year on Copacabana.  And there are myriad things to like about the place: the attractiveness of the people, the stunning landscape, beaches with actual waves, the history and the music.  Still, I’ve always seen Rio as Miami/LA to São Paulo’s New York: plastically attractive, with no real depth; a city full of shameless social-climbers, hooligans, and a large percentage of strivers you never meet in person because they’re working themselves to the bone while the first two groups crowd the beaches (no shade on Miami or LA, y’all).  The coolest Cariocas I’ve ever met have been ones living outside of Rio, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any person I know there who I can count as a true friend (the friend who was with me when Lil Zé tried to get at me actually spends most of the year in his hometown of Porto Alegre).

Downtown Rio de Janeiro

But the last couple of times I’ve visited the city, I’ve ventured out of chic and/or titillating Zona Sul into regions I hadn’t charted before: Downtown, full of neo-classical architecture from Brazil’s Belle Epoque that’s slowly-and-surely being restored; the hilly boho enclave of Santa Teresa, with its feijoada dives and political graffiti; futuristic Niteroi, the burgeoning suburb across the bay full of Niemeyer architecture and the vibe of Rio before the crack epidemic.  Hanging over the “Marvelous City” is an atmosphere of tense anticipation, a mixture of hope and anxiety about hosting the 2016 Olympics in a city notoriously besieged by bad management and corruption, class and racial conflict (don’t let ’em tell you differently), and lawlessness (shooting down a police helicopter? Damn!).  There’s also the promise of an Olympic-sized renaissance, a reversal of the former capital’s fifty-year decline since losing that title to Brasília and a return to the world stage of one of Earth’s great urban playgrounds, anchored by a remarkable history as the hemisphere’s only imperial capital and an indefatigable culture of music and dance centuries in the making.

In spite of our shaky past and my status as a bona fide gringo paulista, I’m excited about witnessing Rio’s resurgence.  I hope, soon, that we’ll be completely reconciled and I can name her as one of my favorite cities; after all, Paris and I didn’t exactly get along at first, either.

Chillin’ at the feet of Jesus, overlooking Ipanema.

This is the first of a new monthly series of eye candy at Fly Brother, imaginatively named VTP (short for Vintage Travel Posters). We’ll see how travel companies and bureaus have been enticing people off the couch since international leisure travel first became a bourgeois conceit. Our first destination: the marvelous city of Rio de Janeiro, where both terrestrial and corporal landscapes have been hot commodities since the 1920s.

Fly Brother welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment and/or click.

Part 3 of a 4-part series on my year-end jaunt through the Promised Land, aka Brazil.

Slightly sore from having crammed seven people, plus driver, into an overpriced taxicab from Copacabana to our truck parked uptown the night before, we stretched out at the beach in Barra for January 1. All day, January 1: we got there before noon and it was dark when we left the beach. Got some good dancing in, too (observe, Exhibits 1, 2, and 3 from our in-house paparazzo…guess which one’s me!).
Now, if you’ve read this interview of me at Travellious (wink, nudge), you’d know that one of my most memorable meals was having sushi in São Paulo and sipping on guaraná soda (a fruity, almost ginger ale-ish flavor made from an energetic berry which grows in the Amazon…or at least, the original formula was made from that berry), while my girl Sade was playing over the sound system. Well, the night of January 1, we went to a sushi place in Rio and damn it if they weren’t playing Janet Jackson. I mean, my man rollin’ up the salmon-rice-and-seaweed was jammin’ to the Janet. album. I told y’all Brazil was the lick. And yes, I had the guaraná.

The next day, I let the crew handle themselves on their own while I made some fundraising calls to the United States. I had a serious cash flow problem and was needing something like an advance on the next paycheck. It was also Roberto’s last day of enjoyment in Brazil, as we were heading back to Sampa the next morning and he back to Colombia that evening, so they went hang-gliding over the beach while I caught up on some much-needed sleep. Sounds boring, I know, but as I’ve said before, I usually travel solo, and groups can be a lil too much. I hit the pool and the gym before heading into Ipanema for some reeeallly cheap postcards to take back as gifts (I said there was a cash flow problem*) and then to meet the group and the Colombian couple for dinner and samba at a downtown hotspot called Rio Scenarium.

Historic downtown Rio looks more French Quarter than City of God, with its packed sidewalk bars and its tipsy revelers draped over second-floor balustrades like clinging ivy. The thumps and plinks of competing drums and guitars emanated from each locale, serenaded by its own in-house samba band. As should have been indicated by the interminable line extending from the front door and guarded by a troop of besuited black men (I don’t think there’s a brother over six feet tall in Brazil who isn’t a bouncer), Rio Scenarium was the main attraction of the neighborhood. The three-story warehouse-turned-dinner-and-dance hall sat lording over Rua do Lavradio like a dowager madame running a plush brothel: red velvet and fringe and cut-glass decorated the interiors, along with watercolor landscapes, oil portraits of society ladies, black-and-white prints of 1940s Brazilian pinup girls, scores of antique clocks, radios, and other random antique doodads. The mixture of heat and history and color and sound conjured up the energy of New Orleans, Havana, Kingston, Cartagena, of course Rio, and all the other tropical port cities in the hemisphere all at once, and at only 9pm, it was evident that our rather large group of seven would be standing for most of the night.

Photo by Overmundo.

Three bands played live samba that evening and the dancefloor bounced with a good cross-section of ages, if not economic levels. The crowd was clearly upscale Cariocas (as folk from Rio are called) and a smattering of foreigners, and most of the brown in the place was on stage, but watching older couples or groups of middle-aged women having a girls’ night out getting their samba on was refreshing. And as the rhythm picked up, the drummers kicked out more energy, and the crowd swelled, Roberto and I got lost on the dance floor, dancing alternately with the tall and tan hotties our own age, as well as with some of the older ladies whose step might no longer have as much pep, but who were determined to be out there stepping anyway. At one point, as the entire place was singing along to an upbeat tune that I had never heard before, the woman I had been dancing with asked me, in Portuguese, why I wasn’t singing. I responded that I wasn’t Brazilian and didn’t know the song. After a moment of vocal disbelief, she said, in Portuguese, “Well, you’re here now, and you can samba, so…you’re Brazilian to me.” I’m sure I blushed.

Finally, at the end of the night (at least, before we left, soaked, wilted, beat, and ever-so-lightly toasted), the band played a samba with a refrain that everyone, including the non-Portuguese-talkin’ furreners, could wave their hands in the air and sing along with:

La laaa la
La la la LAAA, la laaa la
La la la LAAA, la laaa la
La la la laaa, la laaa…

And that, capped off by some sweet Carioca Goodbyes (see “Brazilian Hello” in previous posts), was our last night in Rio.


*Part of this cash flow problem was caused because I had to buy a new pair of frames for my glasses. One night, at the club, tryna look sexy, I slipped the glasses into my jeans pocket and lost one of the arms. Somewhere. In the club. And new, plastic, rectangular frames in Brazil ranged in upwards of US$100 every place I checked. And I’m cheap enough to check a lot of places first.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Part 2 of a 4-part series on my year-end jaunt through the Promised Land, aka Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro shielded herself from us on a rainy Saturday evening. We landed through clouds at Santos Dumont airport, built back in the day for biplanes and puddle-jumpers and perched on a tiny patch of land jutting into the bay, LaGuardia-style. After several aborted attempts to get cash from non-cooperative ATMs (none operated with the Cirrus network my bank uses), we charged the $45 cab fare out to our rental apartment in the far-flung neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, home of Ronaldo and other upscale Brazilians, three tunnels away from all the action at Ipanema and Copacabana. At US$2500 for the week (in a city where $15 hostel beds in Ipanema were going for $75 a pop during New Years), the two-bedroom, air-conditioned flat sat across the road from the beach in a boxy, California-style complex with pool, fitness center, restaurants, and black-suited security staff. Being short of the requisite funds, we convinced the kindly old landlord to take the cash we had on hand, plus Roberto’s passport as collateral until the rest of the group arrived with the rest of the money on Monday.

The next morning, we soaked up sun and surf out on the endless expanse of Barra, fighting huge waves and monster currents, sipping icy purple açaí smoothies, and fellowshipping with the Colombian couple who found us the apartment and their crazy/cool in-laws visiting from the States. The others got sunburned – I didn’t. Later that day, however, it became apparent that, as a typically-independent traveler, I wasn’t going to do all that well with the group thing. Transpo into town proved difficult as taxis were scarce and inexpensive, and the buses infrequent (it was a Sunday night, after all). We didn’t eat until two hours after we initially set out for food and I had a headache. After scouring the seedy streets of Copacabana-After-Dark for a 24-hour pharmacy, I felt my spirit rise and wanted to head to a nightclub for some Brazilian Hellos (see post below). Roberto and the rest of the group were tired, so…I did me.

And of course, that threw an organizational wrench in our group, as my timetable was thrown off from everyone else’s. For me, that’s okay – the optimal group trip in my opinion is when we all take little breaks from each other regularly, convening for meals and such but having our own periods of individual experience. But that individualism caused a fissure to form in our group’s energy that only widened as the week passed.

Accounts were settled with the landlord on Monday when the other members of the group arrived from Colombia, increasing the population of our apartment to the planned five. After a pleasant-enough breakfast, I headed into town to grab some beach time at Ipanema with another set of friends from São Paulo. The rest of the group…very…eventually…found their way to a flea market in Copacabana. The plan, then, was to meet up with my friends Downtown at 9pm and hit a samba school practice, to dance and drink and sweat and sing with thousands of people in anticipation of Carnival, a rare treat since practices were suspended between Christmas and New Years. We arrived at midnight. There were a few hundred folk still gathered around the remnants of the event, funk carioca playing over huge speakers and kids jerking and whirling their lil scrawny waists like at a Liberty City block party. The practice was over.

I had to let the kids play on their own the next day, because the night before had been a fiasco. I did the beach thing at Barra while the other four hit the sights I still haven’t managed to get to after three visits to Rio: Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf (I reckon, until I’ve seen these icons up close and personal, there’s always a reason to return to Rio).

Finally, the Big Day rolled around, and we knew organization was crucial, since the entrances to both Copacabana and Ipanema would be blocked to all vehicles except taxis and buses at 4pm, and commuting time from Barra into town on December 31 was estimated at 3-to-4 hours. The plan for wearing all white in traditional New Year’s homage to the Yoruba sea goddess Iemanjá (Yemayá in Spanish) was scuttled when my t-shirt got stained and then got locked up in the dry cleaners when they shut down early for the holiday. Still, I had a nice, crisp light blue shirt as backup, and since Iemanjá’s colors are blue and white, she and I were still cool. Luckily, our lovely Colombian couple decided that we’d all pack into their SUV and take the back way through the mountains on the breathtaking Linha Amarela expressway into Downtown, then hop the subway down to Copa, and since they were organizing the transportation, the whole crew left on time!

The night was balmy with low-hanging clouds as we piled out of the truck in a shopping center parking lot and hiked over to the subway station. The whole of Brazil snaked out of the entrance, dressed up, dressed down, in all-white, all-green, linen, lamé, old, young, black, white, brown, polka-dot. With every passing train, we inched closer and closer to the platform. Then we squeezed ourselves into the first available train car, the temperature rising along with spirits as groups of people started singing and swaying with infectious laughter, my midsection gradually warming a decreasingly cold bottle of champagne that I sneaked onto the train. Fifteen stops and a train change later, we exited the station in light drizzle. Nobody cared – the expectation of being soaked by champagne, sweat, and/or seawater roundly anticipated. We had an hour to wrestle through the crowd of millions packed on the sand between Avenida Atlantica and the South Atlantic. We squeezed through the folk, o povo, “the people” in Portuguese, arms brushing arms, eyes meeting, the whole society from top to bottom converged on one arc of sand. Finally we settled into bubble large enough for the seven of us, right next to a group of boisterous, bounteous, bodacious black women gettin they drink and New Years’ swerve on. And the countdown – dez, nove, oito, sete, seis, cinco, quatro, tres, dois, um…Feliz Ano Novo!

I reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllyyyyyyy hope I can get the footage up soon.

Bottles popped, fireworks exploded, hugs and smiles and renewed energy swept the crowd. Roberto and I stripped down to our skivvies and dove into an inky black ocean lined with sparkling cruise liners, at once crazy and thankful and raucous and humbled. The music started on stage – the three winning samba schools from last year’s Carnival enticed with hips and sequins and drumsticks and tambourines – and we joined the povo in the sand, kicking up swirls as we samba’d ourselves senseless, again and again, celebrating with our bodies the start of another lap around the Sun.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Yesterday was the end of my three-week long Christmas vacation in Brazil. There was sun, sweat, sand, sex, song, and samba in varied combinations on various days. My buddy, Roberto, and I conquered the mean streets of that tropical urban behemoth, São Paulo, before jetting over to raucous Rio to ring in the New Year with millions of Brazilians on the beach at Copacabana. I resurrected old friendships, established new ones, soaked up the music and dance of my cultural cousins, renewed, refreshed, recharged, and gave it up to God, the Cosmos, Iemanjá, whatever you want to call it. Next week, I’ll lay out the adventure with incriminating photos and juicy details in a three-part series guaranteed to titillate and inspire. Because that’s what I do here at Fly Brother…titillate and inspire. 😉

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)