Loosely translated as “that embrace”, the title of this famous Gilberto Gil song captures the sentiment of the first time I stepped foot on Brazilian soil 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve had the fortunate fate of vacationing, living, and adventuring in this country that welcomed me in its warm embrace like a close friend.
And it’s felt that way ever since. Having continually returned to Rio de Janeiro, or the “cidade maravilhosa” as it’s known by its neighbors and fellow Brazilians, I discover a new facet of this glittering urban gem with each visit.
My latest discovery happened, serendipitously as it seemed, when I attended a yoga class one Saturday morning. I met Kauan at a cultural center down the street from my apartment in Botafogo. As she arrived, I instantly knew she was the teacher from her commanding walk that was fit for a reigning queen. Although I practice yoga, I found myself struggling to keep up with her challenging class “Flexionamento.” With every one of her lithe movements and authoritative, yet reassuring chants of “respira” and “relaxa”, I felt a tad more at ease as the class progressed. After class, I had the chance to learn more about my captivating instructor. Trained in dance performance with a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts, it turns out Kauan is a bit like royalty. She comes from the Gracie family, pioneers in the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and fitness champions throughout the world.
Upon learning that we were both raised in Los Angeles, we became instant friends. As we talked, Kauan shared the story of how her family made açai famous. This Amazonian fruit, touted for its antioxidant and energy-boosting qualities, is somewhat of a Brazilian delicacy. Kauan recently learned of her family’s connection to the açai culture here in Rio while casually eavesdropping a conversation between a patron and the man behind the counter at Arataca, a Copacabana landmark frequented by author Paulo Coelho and other Brazilian greats.
Her eyes glistened as she recounted the details: “I go into Arataca and overhear this old man saying that he brought açai to Rio, but I knew that he had to be wrong because as far as I knew, it was my family who brought açai to Rio. So I asked him to tell me more and it turns out he was a retired pilot who used to fly the plane that literally brought açai from Pará to Rio.”
As the story goes, Kauan’s great uncle Carlos lived in the building above Arataca and used to eat this delicious, cool treat after training. Being one of the key members of this famous sport family in the city, and throughout Brasil, people started to emulate Carlos, his diet, and his lifestyle, and began to enjoy this ambrosia from the north, making açai more popular as the years went on. “No one here really ate it before”, Kauan mused, “so in a way my family brought it to Rio, too!”
Enthralled with her story, I asked if she’d take me to this açai landmark. Learning more about her story over this delicious local delight, Kauan said that she had been dancing her whole life and that given her family history, fitness and health were always at the forefront of her life. She recounted how in her post-graduate work in Italy, she didn’t really find the dance and styles she was looking for and eventually made the move to Rio, a natural next step in search of her family’s roots and progression as a dancer. “The outdoor lifestyle drew me in immediately. Rio stimulated a lot in me – I knew I wanted to stay.” Luckily, her transition was easy. She landed a job as a dance teacher after attending a class at a nearby school with a friend. The teacher, commenting on her “talent, spontaneity, and connection with the students”, hired her immediately. It was here that Kauan got connected with Carlinhos de Jesus, famous samba school choreographer and judge of Dança dos Famosos.
For all things gastronomy, I defer to my friend and celebrated food photographer, Tomás Rangel. With the tough assignment of photographing Rio’s award-winning restaurants and bars for Veja’s annual Comer & Beber issue, Tomás is the source for whatever pleases your palate. Lucky to have him as my tour guide on an afternoon stroll through Santa Tereza, I was enchanted with the old world charm of this neighborhood that offers sweeping views of the city.
Our first stop was to an unnamed padaria that Tomás stated had the best “pão de queijo”, or cheese bread, in Rio. And he should know. With family lineage from Minas Gerais, which is known for having the best pão de queijo in the country, Tomás made some recommendations on other places in the area to grab a bite, including the outdoor café, “Simplesmente” that sat right across from our anonymous bakery. Wandering around the winding streets of Santa Tereza, we stopped at the Museu da Chácara do Céu to take in some of the breathtaking views that offered a panorama of the city below and a glimpse of the ever-watchful Cristo Redentor.
Weaving our way through the streets lined with boutiques, bars, and beautiful churches, we stopped for a drink at Bar do Mineiro. Sticking with the theme, we both agreed that it was a welcome reprieve from the afternoon jaunt. Having lived in Minas, I asked Tomás about his impressions of Minas cuisine and if it’s impacted Rio menus. We compared notes on our favorite dishes from this state, deciding that Minas Gerais should be on every foodie’s bucket list. Ruminating on the delectable demands of his assignments as a food photographer, Tomás and I decided that I would have to return to the city soon to continue my sampling of Rio’s culinary scene.
On the way back from Santa Tereza, I stopped by Catete, a neighborhood absent of any tourist flair, but with all of the energy of this city’s heartbeat. I wandered over to Palácio do Catete, wanting to see the photography exhibit by anthropologist Anthony Leeds entitled “O Rio Que Se Queria Negar.” Roughly translated as “Rio In Denial”, Leeds’ black and white photos highlighted life in the favelas during his fieldwork in the 1960’s, casting a sobering and poignant glimpse into the construction of Rio’s landscape.
While reading the captions on each picture, I realized although I had lived in Brazil and traveled here many times, I never quite understood the labor migration and urban development that resulted in this city’s sprawling ghettos. I returned to my apartment and looked up some of Leeds’ work, which led me down the virtual path of a crash course in Brazilian socioeconomics. My curiosity, possibly intensified by the occurrence of Brazil’s recent Dia da Consciência Negra, a holiday analogous to our Black History Month here in the U.S., heightened the similarities between the two countries when it comes to the intersection of race, class, income, and upward mobility. That evening, as I translated some of the lyrics of the samba songs woven throughout Leeds’ images, it was with a heavy heart that I began to understand the title of the exhibit and I wondered at what point we’ll stop denying injustice and begin to acknowledge the chasm that exists between our communities.
Of course it wouldn’t be the quintessential Rio vacation without a visit to its beaches, made famous with songs like João Gilberto’s “Garota de Ipanema” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” Rio’s beaches are not for the faint of heart. Before you even step foot on the steaming sand, you are greeted by an ambush of sights, smells, and sounds that embody the carnival spirit that this city is famous for sharing with the world. Once you’ve nestled into the sand with a chair and umbrella, highly recommended by the way, you’ll see vendors selling everything from rosaries and holy cards, to beer and bikinis. This flurry of activity is set against the backdrop of bronzed bodies basking in the balmy heat, some of whom stand like proud peacocks on the shore.
When I need a respite from this lively scene, I make my way to the rock formation that divides Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Arpoador. An ideal lookout for those trying to capture the perfect shot of Dois Irmãos in the distance, or for locals diving off of the cliffs into the whirling sea below, Arpoador always feels like a world away, although it’s only a few steps from the avenue. While up here, I make it a point to meditate and thank the universe for the magnificent memories of my visit. As I bask in the glorious sunshine, I can hear the hum of the frigate birds swooping by, some diving into the waves that wash up on the rocks nearby.
To outfit yourself for the coastline of Ipanema, or really anywhere else in the world that admires gorgeous beach attire, you must stop by Lenny Niemeyer. Beyond just outfitting you with a proper Brazilian bikini for your beach visit or afternoon pool party, Lenny’s colors, cuts, and canvas of styles put most resort wear to shame. Made famous by word of mouth amongst Rio’s fashion mavens of the 80’s, Lenny combined her background in architecture with a love of lush landscapes and natural beauty to launch her eponymous swimsuit collection. One visit to her boutique will provide you with everything you need to look the stylish part on your warm weather adventures.
Making my way along the animated Ipanema avenues, my next stop was to one of my favorite music stores, Toca do Vinícius. This is a mecca for anyone who considers themselves a Bossa Nova enthusiast, or for those in search of an obscure Brazilian jazz record. Named after one of the godfathers of bossa nova, Vinícius de Morães, this tiny treasure of a shop captures the spirit, and the soundtrack, of Rio. Standing in this “library of bossa nova”, I am instantly transported to memories of sitting in my grandfather’s office with the melodies of João Gilberto playing in the background.
Later that afternoon, I headed to the other side of town to the Museum of Modern Art. I was again transported to 1960’s Brazil, revealing yet another perspective on life during this tumultuous time in the country’s history. The exposition, “Opinião 65”, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the original exhibit that introduced controversial artwork by Roberto Magalhães, Antonio Días, Carlos Vergara, Hélio Oiticica, and other avant-garde artists who used their canvases to speak out against the military coup of 1964. Given the protagonistic context of this period in Brazilian history, it is no surprise that this spirit of rebellion showed up in other art forms of this era.
While looking at one of my favorite paintings, Fausto, Mefistófeles e Guida, an oil piece by Carlos Vergara, I was instantly transported back to my first visit to the opera with my father. He took me to the San Francisco Opera House to see Faust, quite a hefty piece for my first opera, making it all the more memorable, of course. Devouring any material I could find about the plot, I eagerly read up on Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles, the Devil’s representative. Oddly enough, I identified with the protagonist’s hunger for endless knowledge, and empathized with his perpetual plight.
As I wandered through the exhibit, I was drawn to the sound of bossa nova muddled by voices in Portuguese, eventually ending up in front a video piece featuring interviews of some of these neo-expressionist artists. Discussing the initial exhibit in 1965 and how it was a radical departure from what had been done in Brazil until that point, Vergara stated that “our goal was not only to fight the military, but to fight complacency. The complacency of the people with themselves, and we had choices to make. Art is a field of action.”
Back home in Botafogo, I met up with one of my former students to catch up over at one of my favorite neighborhoods spots, Hell’s Burguer. While it’s not the only
burger joint in town, it has definitely made its mark with the locals, as there is rarely a time I’ve been by where there isn’t a bit of a wait. But it’s well worth it. The menu is small; burgers and fries, with a small sampling of beers and other cold beverages. My usual order is simple: the house named Hell’s Burguer, a juicy, grilled rib meat patty topped with a generous amount of cheese, both sandwiched between a soft bun. It’s accompanied by steak fries perfectly cupped to scoop up the house-made spicy sauce, nicknamed “So Hot It’s Stupid.” Which it’s not. Brazilians don’t really have a palate for spicy food, unless you’re in the northeast or a few other pockets of Brazil. Either way, try it, as well as their Voodoo BBQ Sauce – they’re both delicious!
After finishing our hamburger feast, my student, a fellow football fanatic, talked about the upcoming Rio Olympics and the changes that were happening all over the city. Working to strengthen the infrastructure for this impending sports competition, Rio has faced quite a few challenges preparing itself to host athletes, fans, and tourists from all over the globe. But the more we talked, we both remained hopeful that this “marvelous city” will live up to its nickname as it prepares to showcase this historic event on its urban stage in just a few months.