The cabin’s steward had left on my bed a small piece of paper on which was printed my dinner assignment. It told me that I was at the first dinner which began at 6:30 PM and that my table was 183. I was excited. I had gone on this trip alone and one of the things that I had hoped for was meeting new people at dinner. I had watched a lot of Love Boat in my time and understood that this was the way of meeting people. Combine this with my gregarious nature and thought by the end of the cruise I would have a fleet of new friends.
It was these high hopes that I headed off to dinner that night. The first blow to my fantasy was the table was for two instead of the 8 or 10 top I had imagined. But I still held out hope. Perhaps my dinner party would be exotic woman with an even more exotic backstory. Is not that how meet cutes work. That fantasy was soon dashed with the arrival of Diego, the recently graduated law student from Buenos Aires.
He was friendly and could not have been any nicer. At least I think he was genuinely nice as I spoke no Spanish and only enough English to tell me his name and let the waiter know he had an American Express Card. We tried to speak to each other through hand signs, Spanglish and pantomime but it was a failure. We spent most of the evening staring off into space wishing that dinner and embarrassed by our silence. I left dinner thinking that I had made a grievous error in taking this trip. But I am an optimist so I went to the bar and had a few drinks in the hopes that I would be able to meet new friends while commiserating with my old friend Jack Daniels. Jack was sympathetic but the bar scene was dominated by loud music and couples that ruled out meeting anyone new.
That night I lay in bed with sleep always just beyond my grasp wondering whether I should cut my losses and just fly home.
I awoke the next morning as the ship pulled into Guanabara Bay in Rio Di Janiero. It was a picture postcard day with picture postcard scenery. Tall mountains, the tallest on the Atlantic, with plush green forests, ringed the harbor. Sugarloaf, with its famous cable car, made famous in film and posters lay to port. I was excited. Rio, at least in my imagination was a mystical place of Carnival and what I later learned to call Carioca spirit was on my bucket list of places to visit. Moreover, I knew Dad had never been there and was looking forward to telling him about my adventures here.
Our time in port was only eight hours. Not nearly enough time to fully appreciate the city but I was determined to make the most of the time I had. As a consequence, I had booked through the ship a “Jeep Tour” of the city. The brochure showed happy tourists complete with cameras and sunglasses, touring the city while riding in the open back of Land Rover Discovery’s. I had chosen it because it sounded a little more adventuresome that some of the other tours which were largely conducted on air conditioned buses and seem to be mainly designed to give people a chance to sight see a little and shop a lot.
It was apparent that the jeep tour was not exactly what was envisioned in the brochure. There was not Land Rover Discovery. It had been replaced by a pick-up truck fitted with wooden benches and makeshift seat belts. The tour was really more an audition for the driver entrance into Formula 1 racing. It turned out that it was really more of a grand prix race on the back of a pick-up truck. My compatriots on this expedition were two sixty something year olds from Lucarno, Switzerland. They, of course, spoke no English and my Italian is limited to a couple of dozen words most of which could not be shared in polite company and one for toothpick (stuzzicadenti) which baring a dental emergency would do us much good on this trip. Thankfully our guide spoke both Italian and English and promised to do dual translations for us.
The trip began on a mad dash through the city streets up to the Statue of Christ the Redeemer that sits on top of a mountain overlooking the city. The great news about being on the back of a pickup is that you notice a lot of things you would notice on a bus like how close Brazilians like to avoid accidents by millimeters or the drunk not yet home from the night before giving you the evil eye when you were paused at a traffic light.
The roads to the Redeemer have more curves than a geometry textbook and steep. Some are the roads are lined with beautiful homes. Other with slums or favellas where having a roof was a big luxury. But the forest and the trees are pervasive. To avoid being consumed by fear of dying in a fiery crash at any moment I focused on the forest and the crystal blue sky that had blessed us that day. That and being impressed with the legions of bicyclists who were making their way up the steep grade seemingly undaunted. My quadriceps ached just looking at their efforts.
Our timing was perfect. We reached the statue just as the sun climbed about the head of the statue giving Christ a beautiful halo. Our guide lectured us many facts about this penultimate symbol of Rio but I was overwhelmed by the panoramic view of the city and retained little of what she said except that the architect of the monument was Jewish. She explained that he had been chosen not only for his talent but to make the symbol more than the obvious religious one. That Rio, and Brazil, were embracing of all religions and people. Normally I would have cracked wise and said something about Christ’s architect being jewish but I didn’t think my fellow travelers would appreciate my sense of humor so I just smiled to myself.
As impressive as the statue was the view was more impressive. The crystalline day allowed us to the whole city from lagoon to Ipanema to Copacabana to Bahia Dicuca from sea to forest. It was awesome. I thought how fortunate I was to be here and how lucky Rio De Jennerians were to live in this beautiful spot. At one point while I was enjoying the view an iridescent blue butterfly landed on the railing where I was standing. I have a thing about butterflies. I think they are lucky. So I made a wish to return to Rio one day when I had more time.
The next stop was the Ipanema which is a beautiful beach side section of the city. It is of course the section of the city that Jobim made famous and as we drove through its busy streets I tried to get a sense of the inspiration for that beautiful jazz melody. The crowded outdoor cafes,the beautiful women headed to the beach, and the bustle of people doing their everyday life allowed you to easily imagine sambas and bossanovas. Inspired by the sights, I sought and found a version of The Girl from Ipanema sung by Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim and played it on speaker for my and other passengers enjoyment.
The Tijuca forest our next stop. It completely surrounds the city and is densely populated with trees of every sort from Palm to Oak to species I have never seen before. There were hanging vines that would have made Tarzan happy and beautiful flowers in red, yellow and purple that would have made an impressionist reconsider his palate. But it is the story of the forest that I found the most amazing. In the 1700’s it was completely deforested to make room for coffee plantations. But the deforestation had a horrible effect on the city. The tropical climate turned dry and with it the city lost much of its ability to survive. The city fathers, came up with a remarkably ambitious plan that was far ahead of its time. They decided to reforest the mountains surrounding Rio. They accomplished this through the use of 2 slaves who labored away for 10 years planting every single plant in the 50 square kilometer forest.
Deep in the forest, the tour paused long enough to take a hike to a nearby waterfall. At one point along the trail our driver became very animated and kept calling “Cobra” and pointing towards the ground. Alarmed, thinking that a venomous snake was nearby we all shied away until the guide explained that “cobra” in Portuguese means snake. Regardless, I was glad I didn’t wear flip flops. The waterfall was gorgeous as waterfalls tend to be. On the way back to the “Jeep” we passed a statue of a slave bent at the waist, his arms reaching out his hand cupped around a live flower someone had placed there. It was a memorial honoring the slaves that saved Rio. We are told that Brazil’s history with slavery is not as onerous as the United States. The slaves were treated far better and were not considered inferior simply because of the color of the skin. While I know that this is not entirely true, Brazil imported three times the number of slaves than did the US, I am not aware any statues to slaves in the south where they helped King Cotton become an economic power.
On the way out of the forest the driver abruptly stopped in the middle of the road. He pointed to the tree limbs above us where a pack of monkey’s were leaping from tree limb to tree limb trying to cross the road without touching the pavement. I had never seen a monkey in the wild before and I am mesmerized by their graceful movement in the trees and how camouflaged they were from their environment. Then it occurred to me what was happening and it made me laugh. I now knew how the monkey crosses the road. I was going to share this hilarity with my other passengers but realized that they would never get the joke so I just smiled to self.
Eventually we made our way to the Copacabana. I could tell that it was a totally different type of beach than Ipanema. There seemed to be more athletic things going on. There were lots of volleyball nets set up on the beach and there were many mini soccer fields. I was not tempted to play “The Copacabana” by Barry Manilow but I would not have had the time anyhow. Our truck driver must have looked at his watch and realized the tour was running long so he was doing his best to show us the city at 120 kilometers per hour. I was not unhappy with his decision because I had realized that despite my best American sunblock I had managed to get pretty crisp from the tropical sun that had been beating down on us all day.
I bid good bye to the guide and the Swiss and made my way through the port building to the dock. Trying to take a short cut to the boat I cut around the path through a seating area where I saw a short woman with long blonde hair taking pictures. I realized that I was lost and reversed course and eventually made my way to the docks where I saw a very attractive brunette standing near the gangway scanning the dock as if she were waiting for someone. I wistfully thought to myself that I wished she were waiting for me.