BOB BONE'S TravelPieces

Exhibit in the Carmen Miranda Museum, Rio de Janeiro
 

Real Rio
 

This vibrant city on a bay, with its
underlying samba beat and lively people,
is also a favorite of those looking for
inexpensive plastic surgery

 

© By Robert W. Bone
 

RIO DE JANEIRO -- I arrived in Rio in a historic year. It was 1962, a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that passed by virtually unnoticed here.

More important from the Brazilian perspective, it was the year the "Girl from Ipanema" began passing by a certain bar on her way to the beach. "Tall and tan and young and lovely," the song began.

In the year I spent in Rio, I didn't meet the girl from Ipanema. But I was single and 30, and there were many tall and tan young lovelies around.


 


 

Photo by ROBERT W. BONE
Atop Corcovado, a stone statue of Christ, which has stretched its arms above Rio for 71 years, as seen from a cafe on the mountain.

The song -- "Garota de Ipanema" in Portuguese -- soon became popular the world over, along with other examples of the Brazilian musical style known as the bossa nova.

If I had known, I might have visited the place the day the song was born. A specific open-air bar and restaurant, now renamed Garota de Ipanema, was where the two composers were enjoying a glass of "cachaça" (sugar cane liquor) when they were inspired by a fine example of Brazilian womanhood who walked by on her way to the beach.

Though I had missed it in 1962, the Garota de Ipanema restaurant was one of my recent stops in Rio, my first visit to the city in 40 years. I hummed the tune mentally while sipping a bowl of traditional black bean soup and a "caipirinha," a strong drink made from cachaça and lime juice.

Ipanema and Copacabana are two beachside neighborhoods in Rio. Ipanema today is the more trendy, consisting of smart shops, good restaurants and popular nightspots. Prices for goods and services are still cheap, measured in American dollars, a third of what we would pay at home.

Copacabana is probably better known in the United States. It has been the playground of prominent North Americans since its discovery by Hollywood in the 1930s, and then popularized through such musicals as "Flying Down to Rio." (As a result of that era, there is a museum here devoted to Carmen Miranda, the late samba queen.)

In those days, the elegant Copacabana Palace Hotel reigned supreme, and stories surrounding it are legion. Many remember the day director Orson Welles, fed up with the difficulties of making a film in Rio, threw a piano out the window and into the swimming pool below.

My own 12-month career in Rio was less dramatic. In 1962-63, I was the editor of an English-language business magazine and a part-time news correspondent for NBC radio. I had a tight group of adventurous friends.


 

Photo by ROBERT W. BONE
The cogwheel train that takes visitors to the top of Corcovado.

Among them was Hunter S. Thompson, destined for gonzo journalism fame on a literary and temperamental level about even with Orson Welles. Hunter was still enjoying youthful obscurity, barely staying out of trouble while freelancing for the now defunct National Observer.

Hunter maintained you could not get decent scrambled eggs in Rio. All that changed one day when I watched him leap over a cafe counter, grab a pan from a frightened cook and forcibly teach him and other startled onlookers the art of preparing fluffy "ovos mexidos" Hunter Thompson. Today, Hunter and other friends are long gone from Rio. I have turned 70 and have now discovered some of the more traditional tourist attractions of the city.

I TOOK THE cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf, that bulbous rock that dominates the harbor, there to view the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and other suburbs from a seemingly precarious perch 1,300 feet up in the air.

I also rode the cogwheel railway up Rio's other famous mountain, the Corcovado, where that dramatic stone statue of Christ has been stretching its arms for 71 years.

After visiting museums and architectural marvels of one kind or another, I climbed aboard the ancient yellow streetcar from the artists' hillside suburb of Santa Teresa, and rattled down to central Rio. The tracks cross the narrow and somewhat frightening aqueduct that carried water down from the mountains in the 18th century.


 

Photo by ROBERT W. BONE
Sugar Loaf Mountain, which dominates the harbor, as seen from an approaching cable car. Sugar Loaf's 1,300-foot perch affords a panoramic view of Rio and its famous beaches.

But the central attraction of the city was and still is the "cariocas," as the citizens of Rio are called, and they are still as I remember them -- a vibrant population who, like the famous garota, seem to devote their lives to good food, good music, exercise and showing off their healthy bodies on the sands that stretch along the city's shoreline.

Few cariocas actually enter the ocean, and some feel the water is probably the only unhealthy thing on the beach, devoting themselves instead to baking in the sun and often a vigorous game of volleyball.

Rio residents who are more successful in economics than in maintaining a body beautiful often turn to modern science. The city's yellow pages are filled with advertisements for plastic surgeons.

Traffic moves more smoothly in modern Rio de Janeiro. Considerable land has been reclaimed along the shoreline, and good landscaping has provided wide thoroughfares and plenty of parkland for joggers, skaters and bikers.


 

Photo by ROBERT W. BONE
Ipanema, a trendy beach area of shops, clubs and beautiful people, gained fame from the '60s song "Girl from Ipanema."

The growth of the city had always been hampered by some of the things that also give it its natural beauty. Its neighborhoods wind around many granite monoliths that were thrust up in ancient times. Today, many of them have been blasted away, creating more tunnels and canyons. And some new highways have been elevated above narrow streets that were laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Rio has always been a beautiful city. In 1808, while Brazil was under Portuguese rule, the king was so taken by its charms that he moved his entire family and the royal court from Lisbon to Rio.

Many of today's parks, gardens and tree-lined boulevards are credited to the farsightedness of Roberto Burle Marx, the late horticulturist whose verdant estate has become a tourist attraction. He was a friend and collaborator of Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who designed Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, as well as some of the best modern architecture and landscaping in 20th-century Rio.

Visitors to Rio in March or April can take in the world-famous pre-Lenten carnival, in which dedicated samba schools compete for music, dance and costume prizes at the spectacular parade.

For some reason, I can still remember the melody and words of the winning samba song of 1963, even though I have forgotten almost all practical Portuguese. But when I hum, it's always the "Garota de Ipanema."

This travel piece appeared in several publications: Information

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