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Flying Down to Rio

by Mary McHugh

When I told people I was going to Rio last month, they said, Its beautiful! Then they said, But be careful. Hold on to your purse.  So I was a little worried when I flew off to Rio, but Im used to New York where I hang on to my purse but dont really get anxiety attacks.  Ive worked and lived in New York at various stages of my life for 50 years, and the worst thing that ever happened to me was the time a homeless man reached over the hedge of an outdoor restaurant and grabbed my cheeseburger. 

But when I got to Rio I was immediately reassured as we drove past one of the beautiful beaches that stretch for 50 miles along the coast of the city.  There, working out in immaculate blue and white shorts and shirts were 200 of Brazils finest young men training for their jobs as 'tourist police,' an innovation started in 1994. These men are stationed throughout the city at places most frequented by tourists, and the crime rate has gone down, along with the anxiety of citizens and tourists.
 
My anxiety level was zero as I cruised through the Hippie Fair (their flea market) on Sunday morning checking out tables and booths where you could buy purses, sandals, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, scarves, rugs, and all the other stuff you usually find at flea markets, and took only the ordinary precaution of wearing my purse across my chest instead of at my side. I had a great time. 

It didnt hurt that our group of seven journalists was staying at the Copacabana Hotel on the Copacabana beach.  This glorious old hotel, built in 1923, was the only place to stay in the 40s and 50s, when every movie star and VIP came to Rio.  In fact, its still the only place to stay for President and Mrs. Clinton and Ricky Martin,  but I really dont care about them.  I wanted to hear stories about Marlene Dietrich who asked for a champagne bucket filled with sand in her dressing room because her dress was too tight to use the regular ladies room, and Ava Gardner who trashed her room and wept oceans of salty tears at the Copacabana Palace after her break-up with Frank Sinatra, and Lana Turner who nearly had a breakdown there when she read that Howard Hughes was marrying Jean Peters when she thought she was going to be the bride, and Orson Welles who threw the furniture from his hotel room into the swimming pool after a fight with Dolores Del Rio, or the Prince of Wales who got seriously drunk and tried to catch fish in the fountain. Carmen Miranda loved the Copacabana and there is even a Carmen Miranda Museum nearby where you can see her fruit basket hats, 6-inch platform shoes, and outrageous earrings and bracelets. Its just a tiny little museum, but it will bring back memories of all those musicals with Betty Grable and Cesar Romero made in the 40s, always with a chica-chica-boom-chic by our vivacious Carmen. 

I stayed in a suite, with a beautiful living room with a balcony, a huge bedroom and a lavish bath. I swam in an Olympic-size pool.  I discovered the Brazilian drink called caipirinha made with cachaca, (a sugar cane liquor), lemon and sugar, which tastes like a more interesting marguerita. I dined in the Copacabanas elegant Cipriani restaurant with incredible food like quail stuffed with foie gras, partridge with acerola fruit sauce, ravioli filled with ricotta cheese with a wild mushroom sauce, and Venetian Tiramisu and Almonds tuille and ate Brazilian delicacies at the amazing buffet in their more informal restaurant, the Pergola.

 My room looked out on the Copacabana beach just across the street from the hotel where cariocas (people who live in Rio) walk around in thongs and perfect tans, and tourists stroll by in shorts and regular bathing suits and try not to stare at the cariocas in thongs. The beach, like all the beaches in Rio is wide and beautiful and you can find surf to your liking all along the coast. If you go there, hire a car and driver (about $100 a day, and its worth it because you could really get lost if you tried to rent a car on your own) and ride up to Grumari to have lunch outside at the Point of Grumari restaurant, where you can see the Barra da Tijuca beach, eat giant shrimp and drink ice-cold Chopp beer. 

 On the way back, stop at the Casa do Pontal, a wonderful museum of Brazilian folk art, with little clay figures depicting everyday occupations, birth, death, children, old people, and a special erotica room with a door to keep children out, with glass cases filled with Brazilians doing the naughtiest things you could ever imagine, and of course, we took the most notes in that room. There are also wonderful displays that play music, show people walking  tightropes, and riding in the Mardi Gras, when you push a button.  Children would love this. (Just keep them far away from the erotica room.

One evening we took a cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset, and for once we were quiet. We stood looking out over Rio as the lights began to come on,  watching the sky turn from rose to lavender to deep red and orange. It is an experience you should not miss. Nor should you miss the train ride to the top of Corcovado, where the 115-foot statue of Christ towers over the city with arms outstretched to embrace all us sinners below.  At night, the statue is illuminated and you can see it from all points in the city, a white figure that seems to float above Rio. Religious or not, you cannot help but be moved by this statue.  One man a couple of years ago was moved to sneak up Corcovado in the middle of the night and parachute off one of Christs hands, but most people treat the statue with reverence.

Another day, we ate an authentic feijoada lunch at Confeitaria Colombo, a gorgeous turn of the century bistro with huge Belgian mirrors in hardwood frames, rosewood cases, and a stained glass ceiling to die for. At  the buffet in the center of the room, you pile your plate with pigs tails, pigs ears, pigs feet, pigs insides, and beans, beans, beans. You will know you have eaten. 

 We had dinner the next night in a traditional barbecue house called Marius-Leme, next to windows open to the world and ate food from a buffet with Brazilian foods, salads and fruits, and then waiters came to your table with large haunches of beef and pork and sausage and sliced off superbly barbecued pieces of meat. If youre a vegetarian, dont worry about all this meat. There are always large platters of vegetables and fruit, which are fresh and delicious.
 
 But probably the most fun was the night we went to a Macumba ritual. You walk into a room where women in white are dancing barefoot to drumbeats, swaying, their eyes closed, until one or another goes into a sort of trance, falling on the floor and being helped to the side by another woman in white. When they have recovered, but are still in a trance-like state, they light up a cigar and counsel people who line up to speak to them to find out what will happen to them in the future, to talk to relatives who have died, to ask for help with a problem.  It is very seductive, and if you let yourself be open to the experience, you feel  the drumbeats go through your body down to your toes. My fellow journalists were a little skeptical about all this, but I happen to be one of the worlds most suggestible people - I once had a baby under hypnosis - so I entered into this rich and occult experience and felt slightly changed when I went back out into the pleasant seventy-degree air that is normal for Brazilian winters. (We were there in June.)

 Now you know and I know that poverty is a constant presence in Rio, as well as many other South American cities, and when you see the slums that line the beaches in many parts of Rio, you cannot ignore the plight of many people in the city. But  money from tourism provides jobs, and if you can rationalize the vast gap between the haves and have-nots in this way, you will love this city of exclamation points - the Copacabana! Sugarloaf! Corcovado! Macumba! the Samba! Carmen Miranda! 



For more information about the Copacabana Palace and Rio, call toll free 800-211-533; or check out their home page: http://www.copacabanapalace.orient-express.com.

 

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