The second syllable explodes in my mouth, the third slips off the tongue and tickles my teeth, the fourth languidly brings the name to my lips: I-pa-ne-ma. I would lie in bed in the damp cold of the countryside, hands behind my head, eyes fixed on the ceiling, wanting with all my being to embrace the beaches, bars and heat. Lost amidst long-forgotten cane fields and plantations, up in the north of Rio de Janeiro state, I imagined being caressed by streets with names like imaginary lovers. Joana. Angélica. Maria Quitéria. Farme de Amoedo.
I thought Farme was a woman’s name then.
Muse of countless writers, filmmakers, actors, millionaires, drunks and musicians – Ipanema. I read a lot about Ipanema. I devoured any news story, book or alternative magazines that mentioned Ipanema, that brought it to me, brought me to Rio. I was a long way from the coast, but I felt close to Ipanema. Nevertheless, when I finally encountered the place for the first time, in the summer of 1983, I still wasn’t prepared.
I found myself in neighbouring Copacabana, on Rua Rainha Elizabeth, in a friend’s apartment, the owner of a shoe shop. I was looking for work to pay my way, and to pay off the debts I’d amassed in an unsuccessful printing venture. I’d copied English words out of glossy magazines and stamped them onto cotton T-shirts. I’d brought the remainder of the stock to Rio with me and had managed to sell a few, in between mending high-heels and insoles. The most successful T-shirt featured the name of a trade union, Solidarity, printed over a map of Bolivia, which I’d labelled ‘Poland’, and told customers really was Poland. Solidarity was in fashion, and it happens that the map of Bolivia was the one that best fit the printing screen.
My friend agreed to pay me a little pocket money for doing shoe repairs. With my basic needs taken care of, I was close, very close, to finally discovering Ipanema. I could smell it. The morning perfume of bikini-clad girls, bright-coloured sarongs brushing against their skin as they swayed past, unconcerned by the holes in the Portuguese paving. The smell of bronzing lotion or sun cream on the men.
It was a straight line from the building on Rainha Elizabeth to the beach. When I reached the sand, I turned right, seeking the shade of the pavement. I walked as far as the lifeguard station at Posto 8, then went onto the sand, running to the darkest part, the part licked by the sea. I then followed the line of the wash, passing the stretch in front of Farme, which was easily recognisable due to the sudden concentration of voluptuous, muscly men, as far as Posto 9, my final destination.
The printed T-shirts were my Rio calling card. Cariocas bought them and recognised me the next time they saw me, inviting me to sit down on the sand with them. I blended in with old acquaintances and newer friends, those recently incorporated into a group that was always growing and changing shape. Groups of various tribes assembled on the beach, different people coming and going. I found myself hanging out with people I’d only just met, sharing glasses of beer, light-hearted conversation.
“You’re Taurus, I could tell right away, you’ve got that down-to-earth Taurus kindness!”
“Actually I’m Aquarius. But that I swear I can be very kind.”
Rio’s voices, its perfumes, its accents, its many-coloured bikinis, all became familiar to me on that beach of well-being. I dedicated Saturdays and Sundays to my romance with Ipanema. It was a romance based on sun, dips in the cold water, simple pleasures, silences and casual conversations. I comforted an artist whose flip-flop I’d mended and who was depressed because her teacher at Parque Lage said her taste for beads was tacky; I suggested lyrics to an alternative musician who shunned the mainstream; I was given the basics on Cinema Novo from a guy who taught in the Cinemateca at the Modern Art Museum; I got lessons in literary criticism from a poet who published his work in photocopied booklets; I was invited to join an amateur theatre group by a girl looking for a wild actor.
Walking barefoot on the hot Rio soil was the easy part of embracing Carioca life. The hard part was having to go to the beach in my thick-lensed glasses. I learned to ask one of my new friends to look after my specs whenever the sun tempted me into the cool Ipanema waters. I’d then use the lifeguard lookout as my point of reference when I emerged from the sea and had to pick out my beach tribe from all the others, find them amongst the out-of-focus, colourful masses. On one such occasion, I came out of the water, trembling with cold, and found my tribe was still there, but not the dark girl in the blue bikini I’d appointed guardian of my glasses, my indispensable compass.
I began a desperate investigation into who had betrayed my ocular trust. Question by question, I found my way to an apartment building five blocks from the beach. I explained who I was to the doorman, got in the lift and pressed my nose up against the panel of buttons, trying to figure out which one corresponded to the sight-abductor’s floor. I had to stand on the tips of my toes to read the numbers on the doors. Finally I reached the dark girl’s apartment. Another squinting sweep of my weak eyes and I found the doorbell. I pressed it, anxious. She came smiling to the door, wrapped in a towel, her hair wet from the shower, my thick lenses held hostage in her right hand. She gave me a warm kiss on each cheek.
I never saw her again. Sometimes the city swallows its peoples, sometimes it returns them for a few minutes, glimpsed at a party, on a pavement somewhere. From then on, I decided not to take my glasses to the beach. Guided by my short-sightedness, a few weeks later I decided to change my usual route home from the beach. “This beach is heaven on earth”, I was once told by a filmmaker, who I used to buy a few beers for in exchange for a little insight on Glauber Rocha. I set off, walking in the clouds.
In the street with the poet’s name, on the corner near the bar where I always turned right, I went straight on. Instead of encountering Copacabana, as I expected, I came to a halt in front of a huge avenue that seemed to me to be like an expanse of sea, albeit with different reflections to the ones my blurred vision usually painted on the Carioca ocean. On the horizon, mountains. Lost and out of focus, I could move no further forward; I hadn’t even an inkling that I was actually before Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. I turned around, disorientated, frustrated and hungry, and headed back to the beach I’d just left. On my way back there, I tripped over a stone, come loose from the Portuguese paving. Betrayed by Ipanema.
Betrayed by her. Ipanema promised me heaven on earth, like the filmmaker’s cliched promise. But it was warning me it couldn’t be won so easily.