Rio! Rio de Janeiro! We arrived. We did it! We crossed an ocean, we crossed the equator, we changed hemispheres. We landed on a new continent, in another culture, in another world. We were incredulous; we were jubilant!
Michel had estimated that we should see some of the lights of Rio de Janeiro around midnight. (See vignette Thirty Days posted July 14, 2011). There was no GPS in those days and Michel accomplished all our navigation with a simple sextant—the same instrument used by ancient mariners. We crossed 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean in 30 days with a daily routine of taking sun sights to find our way. Carefully perched on the deck, Michel and I would try and find stable seated positions as the boat rocked and rolled. He would adjust the sextant while I vigilantly kept my finger poised on the stopwatch. As soon as he cried "Top!" I hit the the button, capturing the exact time he got a still sight of the sun above a clear horizon. Then I would write down the numbers he rattled off the instrument settings for that particular take. We repeated this several times until he was satisfied that at least one or two of his sights was exact enough to calculate an accurate position on the chart.
It was a credit to his ability when right on target, following his prediction for midnight, that I spotted a very bright single light around 1:00 a.m. on February 21, 1983, during my watch. It just seemed to hang in the sky. It confused me since it was stationary and high up from the coastal horizon; it didn't seem to be moving as an airplane would. As we sailed closer to the coast and the dark dissolved into dawn, the “sky light" proved to be the iconic statue of Christ. Oh what a feeling! This really WAS Rio! Michel had steered us without a fault.
We were somewhat amazed—no maybe dazed—to have crossed this ocean under our own power. It didn't sink in right away. Physically and mentally it was a strange feeling setting foot on land after 30 days at sea. The shore literally felt as if it was rolling under our feet when we walked. Our bodies had become so accustomed to the constant movement of the boat and the water, that our brains seemed to be on autopilot with some sort of leveling mechanism within our equilibrium, acting as a constant motion sensor even on solid land.
Simple everyday things seemed odd at first. Crossing a street proved a bit challenging; it would take a few moments to register the meaning of a red light or a stop sign. Our brains were working in slow motion. We almost—a few times, but just ever so briefly—even regretted having arrived. I found myself once or twice longing for some of those nostalgic moments back out at sea. Life seemed easier there. We didn't have to figure out these newfangled "modern" constraints.
Eager to get our Brazilian adventure started and feel comfortable again on land, we had to first face the music: the bureaucratic maze of layers of offices, passports, papers, and stamps, all to officially acknowledge our arrival and legality in Brazil. We laughed thinking how the proverbial Martians would feel, landing here from space as we surely felt just landing from the sea. I was wishing that someone would take us to their leader so we didn't have to figure all this out for ourselves.
So Michel took Sean with him and they set about deciphering the paper chase. They were gone all day; I was beginning to wonder what happened. It turns out they had to go hither and beyond, shuffling from one office to the next. There was the police followed by immigration, then customs and agriculture, and finally the navy. It was the most cumbersome entry process he had ever dealt with. Compounding the aggravation and time spent was that every office was in diametrically opposed locations in the city ranging from north, south, east, and west of Rio. Not knowing the city, nor the transport system, nor the language, the whole day proved a veritable exercise in torture and wonderment at human-wrought useless complications!
Adding to the difficulties was that Michel refused to cave in to that of the understood and awaited handout, bribe, or "baksheesh." It was our policy to never give in. We encountered it often and we always resolved to wait out the issue. We could be patient, we had the time. Our principle was that we would not be doing any cruisers, yachties, or foreigners who followed us any favors. If we gave in, the recipient would expect as much or more from those who came after us.
As Michel dealt with one step after the other, he was befriended by Dr. Bastos at the Public Health Service department who took a liking (or pity) to Michel, accompanying him to some of the remaining offices as translator, facilitating his understanding of some of the "technicalities."
Nevertheless, it seems there was a particular issue with the kids' visas, which we had procured two months earlier at the Brazilian consulate in Dakar, Senegal. Since the visas were affixed to Michel's passport, the authorities deemed them invalid and that the children would have to leave the country. They were only 3 years and 9 months old! They obviously couldn't leave by themselves. This took some doing, however, to convince the powers that be (while refusing to slip them the expected wad of bills), until eventually Michel found himself before Madame-the-head-of-something-or-other who recognized the inaneness of the situation, and with one thump of her powerful stamp on the passport and visas in question, she rendered the problem a moot point. Dr. Bastos then accompanied Michel and Sean back to Cowabunga to verify our health records, and we were officially admitted to Brazil.
Ah Rio! It really was the wild west. It was hot, it was samba. It was very rich, and it was very poor. It was the beach, it was a grand yacht club put at our disposal. It was voodoo offerings on crowded street corners and in intersections. It was rampant crime, it was pickpockets, it was robbery. It was the favela slums, it was unimaginable inflation, it was the daily black market money exchange. It was cars and buses running red lights to avoid the ever-present danger of holdups in stopped traffic. It was Churrascaria restaurants: veritable orgy feasts of meat. It was the Caipirinha—the signature Brazilian cocktail. It was the permanent street odor of alcohol, fueling cars "Made in Brazil." It was "tipo" this and "tipo" that for a myriad of products modeled after international trademark names—all manufactured in Brazil. It was an abundance of lush, colorful, and new tropical fruits pervasive at street corner juice stands. It was music, it was loud, it was the city soundtrack. It was modern shopping malls, it was back alley vendor stalls. It was a place where children were king. It was a kaleidoscope in contrasts, it was dynamic, it was welcoming, it was relaxed, it was unpretentious, it was alive!
Brazil is most famous, of course, and perhaps Rio de Janeiro in particular, for its celebration of "Carnaval," or Mardi Gras as referred to in the States. Not really knowing much about this Brazilian custom, we didn't think much about it until we arrived in Brazil. That's when we learned that it is the biggest and most elaborate celebration of the year throughout the country, founded on the celebration of their national dance and music, samba. Samba is uniquely Brazilian—revered, serious, a road to stardom for some, a reason to live for others, and together with soccer, a national pastime. Carnaval in Rio is perhaps the granddaddy festival of them all—an unbelievably huge, weeklong national revelry of parties, dancing, and most importantly the all-consuming and encompassing parades and competition of the samba schools in Rio's specially constructed Sambadromo.
However, upon our arrival this February 1983, we discovered that we had just missed it! This singular moment changed our plans for the year to come. We hadn't come this far not to see and experience this cultural phenomenon. The solution was simple: we would just have to stay in Brazil for the year, visas be damned! We would find a way. And voila: That's how plans were changed and made in our fluid world.
Our stay in Brazil was parceled out in three-month intervals; every three months we would have to renew our visas. The first three months easily became six thanks to an automatic three-month extension renewal. After that, it was a bit more complicated. Thus we easily settled into Rio and the environs for the first three months. (For the second three months we headed south, exploring the coast). While in Rio, some friends from France came to visit, we met local French and American expatriates who took us on outings in and around Rio and invited us to their homes for dinners; we were welcomed to avail ourselves of the services at the exclusive Iate Clube do Rio (the Rio Yacht Club) free of charge, we visited the iconic sites of the Sugar Loaf Mountain in the bay and the Christ figure of the Corcovado, and the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Dr. Bastos and his wife became friends, inviting us out several times as well as to their apartment in Copacabana.
It became quite obvious to us that there was a very wide class divide between the lifestyle of a public employee such as Dr. Bastos, ensconced in the comfort of the visible luxury of Copacabana, and the poor slum dwellers situated literally in the favela around the corner and up the hill. It was also very curious to us that the poorest districts of this huge metropolis were located in what would be the upscale high rent districts of any other worldwide capital. The favelas in Rio occupied key hilltop and hillside real estate, with exceptional views. Yet this is where the cardboard huts and the tin-roofed cabanas hugged the unpaved, crime-ridden muddy alleys while their richer neighbors hid behind heavily guarded and locked gates down below on beachfront property.
We spent our first few weeks in a slip in the municipal marina. The Brazilian owner of the boat in the neighboring slip also befriended us, very eager to help out. He insisted we use his car one weekend while he was out of town, and we were thrilled to take advantage of this opportunity, driving around as much in and out of the Rio area as we could.
What most amazed us in all these instances was the genuine kindness, generosity, and invitations from everyone we met. It was even more surprising in that the "us" always included the four of us, with our two very small children. Our newfound friends didn't seem to mind, in fact they encouraged us to include the children. The question if our kids could come seemed to perplex them. Why wouldn't they be included? Indeed children were king in Brazil. They were everywhere; they ruled the streets, they were excused, they were forgiven. The fact that ours had very blonde and red locks endeared them even more to the local population. Such hair colors were rare!
We are also fairly convinced that thanks to the constant presence of our children by our sides, we were spared a lot of personal physical aggression and crime. Just about everyone we met in Rio, even Brazilians, had some sort of personal encounter in either a holdup situation (sometimes even a group holdup on a city bus), or with pickpockets, or backpacks literally cut off their backs. We always had our two boys with us, and we never experienced any personal attack. We were also very careful to "dress down" when going into town, i.e. to forgo jewelry and watches, wear simple cotton T-shirts and shorts, and keep money in our shoes or in a money belt hidden under our clothes.
Money in Rio in the 1980s was a joke. It was the era of hyperinflation and the rate was over 100% when we were there in 1983, and by the 1990s the percentage was in the thousands! Prices in the grocery stores and boutiques literally changed every day. Consequently we only exchanged dollars for cruzeiros on a daily basis. Every day was a markedly different rate. Key to the joke was the unofficial black market exchange rate. No one ever exchanged money in a bank or official currency exchange office. The "official" black market rate was published every day in the newspaper, right next to the actual rate, and travel agencies were the "official" exchange spots. Perpetual lines snaked out of travel agency doors all day long, every day. (Argentina was also in the grips of this hyperinflation economic meltdown era, and when we were there 6 months later, bills of 20,000 pesetas were only good for bus fare. Shortly after we arrived, the inflation rate was so out of control that rather than print more useless bills with more zeros, it was decreed that everyone just pretend that the current 20,000 peseta bill in circulation had two zeros less, and that would be the new base currency!)
Settling into a lifestyle, we quickly got the hang of the language. With our Spanish and French, Brazilian Portuguese often almost seemed like a mixed mesh of the two, and pretty soon we were easily hailing the natives with the familiar thumbs up salutation and the all-purpose greeting "Todo ben, todo bon." Sean learned how to swim and drive the Zodiac dinghy with the outboard engine; Brendan took his first steps on the beach. We enjoyed a constant, lively camaraderie and solidarity among the yachties gathered there, all represented by many nationalities: French, German, South African, American, British...We all shared the common experience of having crossed that ocean and were now partaking of this new culture and country. Daily routines varied amongst all of us from tourism to grocery shopping to laundry to repair work. Most evenings, though, we would share potluck fare, good laughs, tips for this and that, or exchange navigation charts and discoveries of paradisiacal anchorages near and far. It was thus that we learned of Ilha Grande and its 300 orbital islands. At just a day sail from Rio, we eventually moved on and discovered some of these tropical jewels along with the legendary resident Peter, Lord and King of Paradise.