The fellow in the next seat was a Brasilian surfer-journalist returning from a month in Hawaii. He said he traveled about four months a year writing for Brasilian surfer magazines and tells me I should go to Ipanema, but stay away from Copacabana: “Drugs, hookers . . ., bad scene at Copa”.
When I asked him about the Amazon he was encouraging, but in a vague sort of way, as it turned out that while he had been seemingly all over the world, to Bali and Nepal and India, he has never been to the Amazon. This would turn out to be not that unusual among the Brasilians I meet.
I caught a bus at the airport. The approach to the city was fairly unattractive, with dirt and grafitti spray-painted bare cement walls which, in the tropics, always look like they are rotting, but finally we came out along the ocean-front beaches and things began to look more promising. I got off the bus at Pilar No. 9 on Ipanema beach, two blocks from my hotel.
We are told that in the old days, when immigrants arrived in America, they wrote home declaring that the streets were paved with gold. When I got off the bus at Ipanema I was amazed to see that in Brasil the streets seemed to be paved with money. There were coins scattered about. I looked around and no one seemed to be claiming them, in fact everyone was apparently ignoring them. So I began picking them up. There weren’t vast quantities of them, as though a bank truck had turned over, but in less than a minute I had perhaps half-a-handful. They were small coins, true, but they were money. Eventually I began to worry that there might be a candid camera that all the locals knew about and I would find myself the butt of some ridiculous TV comedy program, so I stopped picking the money up and went looking for my hotel.
In the days that followed I saw more money lying in the street, but by then I had realized it was the old, inflated money which, strictly speaking, was still good, but the exchange between the old money and the new was 1,000:1 and the old coins were worth less than their value as scrap metal, so I quit picking them up and later, when I would drop a small coin, I wouldn’t pick it up. At first this seemed profligate and then it seemed like littering, but eventually I quit thinking about it.
The next day I felt like I had several days of sleep to catch up on and so I stayed around the hotel until evening, napping and watching television. While I had studied some Portuguese for the trip, I had never heard it spoken and assumed it would be rather like oddly-pronounced Spanish, and since I was sure my Spanish was as oddly-pronounced as the next person's I expected no particular difficulty with the language and was a bit concerned that I didn’t seem to understand a word being said on the television. I watched the news and saw soldiers arresting some feeble-looking fellows and displaying a pair of pistols and a hatful of cartridges as evidence of their malefaction, and university students demonstrating and a young woman reciting their grievances in an indignant, high-speed monotone. I could read the words on the screen, but not catch anything of what was being said. Fortunately, there was a very loud children’s program hosted by a handsome and very wholesome-looking young woman called XuXa and I could enjoy her company for an hour untroubled by any difficulty with the language.
When I got to the beach at Ipanema I found it was exactly as it has been represented. The girls are young and lovely and wearing mostly string, though if anything the men are even better looking. There are police in swimming suits carrying what I can only assume must be waterproof sidearms. There were surfers at play, as mindless as otters. It was at Ipanema, I had been told, that fashion trends begin, and I saw no reason to doubt it. Several people came up to me to ask the time and I realize that I am one of the few people on the beach who was wearing a wristwatch. But I don’t do hanging out well and I was bored, even sitting on one of the world’s lovelier beaches surrounded by young women wearing mostly string and would be just as happy back in my room studying Portuguese irregular verbs. And it was hard to imagine that on the other side of the country -- and seemingly five hundred years away -- Indians might be shooting arrows at settlers. I think I’d rather be there, or at least someplace other than here.