Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – November 1997
8:00 am. Mick and I descend to the lobby of our hotel on Copacabana Beach. As we step out of the elevator, Claudio rises from a couch. “Mick! Julia! Good morning!” His voice slices through the fog in my brain. We met Claudio the night before last when he picked us up at the airport. He’s a close friend of our Brazilian colleague at the travel agency. He’s a retiree who loves to show people around Rio. There’s no better way to see Rio, our colleague said.
As Claudio leads us to his car, he goes over the day’s itinerary. “First we will see Corcovado and Cristo Redentor! They are in the Floresta de Tijuca! After that I will take you to Sugar Loaf! Finally we will go to Ipanema, Leblon, Sao Conrado, and Barra de Tijuca!” He unlocks the car door and holds it open for me. “You will see everything!”
I look at Mick, who nods. “Go ahead and sit in the front.”
When we’re all settled inside, I turn to Claudio. “Can we visit the Carmen Miranda Museum as well?”
“Yes! Yes! I can take you there!” In the confines of the small car, his voice is deafening. His breath hits me in the face full force. A stench of decay, chemical and organic at the same time. Like the smell of a great-grandmother’s closet thrown open to reveal mothballs, fetid polyester, and decomposing mouse carcasses. My eyes tear up. I force a smile and open my mouth to breathe.
Claudio turns to Mick. “Okay! Now I will tell you about Corcovado! I know everything about Rio! Everything! At the end of the day, you will know everything, too!”
And off we go.
Just after 10:00 a.m. “Okay, I wait for you here! I’ve seen it many times! Take your time! I will wait here!” Claudio points at the path to the lookout point for Cristo Redentor. “There! You go there!”
Mick and I smile and nod as we walk away. When we get out of earshot, we look at each other and laugh.
“Okay, I’m glad it’s not just me. This must be karma for every time I’ve spoken loudly to a foreigner thinking that it made them understand me better. Volume does not aid comprehension.”
“I know.” Mick groans. “And he’s speaking in our language, not his. God, how many times did he tells us that Corcovado and Cristo Redentor is in Floresta de Tijuca? And how can you stand his breath? I can hardly stand it and I’m in the back seat.”
“Breathe through your mouth.”
He nods. “Oh, yeah. Duh.”
A thick blanket of smog covers the city. Copacabana is almost completely obscured. The tip of Sugar Loaf pokes through the haze.
Mick hands me his camera. “Can you take a couple of me?” He stands in front of the statue, arms limp at his sides. Instead of a smile, he wears a bewildered expression. It’s as if he’s some random tourist who’s wandered into the viewfinder. He’s photobombed his own photo.
After I’m done, he says, “Okay I’ll take some of you.”
“No, that’s okay.”
He shrugs. “What’s the point of having photos of your trip if you’re not in them? If I wanted photos of the tourist sites, I could just buy them. Besides, Bruce wants a lot of photos of me.”
I nod. He’s got a point there. “Maybe later if the smog burns off.”
Claudio grins and waves when he sees us. “Okay! Now we go to Carmen Miranda Museum!”
Around 1:00 p.m. The parking lot of Sugar Loaf. The Carmen Miranda Museum has been visited. Lunch has been consumed. During which we’ve learned the explanation for Claudio’s name. It is Italian, because his blood is Italian. He’s really Italian, even though he was born here. Claudio is Italian. He is Italian. He’s been to Grand Rapids to visit our colleague. He likes Grand Rapids. He likes it a lot. Claudio has been to Sugar Loaf many times, so he points us in the direction of the cable car. In case we haven’t noticed the signs.
“All right. You’re sitting up front when we get back. I’m getting a migraine. Meek!” I mimic Claudio’s pronunciation of Mick’s name. We laugh.
Mick nods. “Okay. Okay. It’s only fair. He’s such a nice guy. I hate to make fun of him, but he’s driving me crazy.” A hint of a whine creeps into his voice. “And the way he says ‘Grand Rapids’ is so annoying.”
Some of the smog has burned off. The high rise hotels of Copacabana are visible. I take more photos of Mick at the various lookout points. His photo presence remains bovine. Finally, we brace ourselves as we make our way back to Claudio.
A little before 4:00p.m. We’ve been with Claudio for close to eight hours. “We should drink something before we go to Ipanema!” He parks the car next to a shop. He waves our money away. “No! I will buy! Attention!” He points at my purse. “Close all of the windows and be careful!” He slams the car door and goes into the store. There’s a void left behind where was once his presence. In the silence, my ears ring. Mick and I can only manage to exchange a glassy, bloodshot glance.
Claudio returns. “Guarana for you, Julia! And for you, Meek, chopp! Brazilian beer! Okay! Now we go to Ipanema! We are very close! There you will see Ipanema!” He points to the left and then to the right. “There you will see Leblon!” Again to the left. “Ipanema!” And to the right. “Leblon!” And again. “Ipanema! Leblon!” He empties half of his Coke. The beach comes into view. “There! Ipanema! Leblon!” He unleashes a spray of spit and fetor at Mick.
Mick flinches. His ear seems to redden and shrivel up in defense.
My body starts quaking. I try to stifle it, but laughter erupts. Mick’s red face and the cartoonish bulge of his eyeballs only makes me laugh harder.
Claudio smiles. “What is funny?”
I shake my head and point out the window. “That guy on the bike.”
He shakes his head and laughs to himself. After a few minutes I compose myself. Mick shoots me a look of death.
We drive by Ipanema and Leblon, and then Claudio drives us by Rochina, the largest favela (slum) in Rio. It clings to the hillside inland from Sao Conrado. It is now rush hour. Claudio takes us on a quick drive through Barra de Tijuca before driving us back to Copacabana. He turns on the radio and falls silent. I lay my head back against the seat and close my eyes.
“No sleeping! We are almost at the hotel!”
A short time later we are in front of our hotel. “Okay! Meek! Julia! I will see you on Thursday at eleven in the morning! I will take you to my friend’s jewelry shop and then I take you to the airport!”
We wave to him and smile as he drives away.
“I’m sorry, Mick.”
“Man, that was not cool. Do you have any idea how hard it was not to laugh?”
“Yes. I hope he didn’t know that I was laughing at him. I’d feel so bad.”
Mick narrows his eyes and hisses. “I think he just thought that you were stupid.”
I narrow my eyes back at him. We break into laughter.
I wipe my eyes. “I’ll buy dinner tonight.”
“Okay. Sounds like a deal.”
We exchange an exhausted smile and head for the hotel to get freshened up for dinner.
*I’ve changed his name, but I couldn’t resist posting his photo here. I hope that it’s apparent that I’m poking fun at us more than at him. Even though it was exhausting, he added color to the day and I wouldn’t have chosen another person as a guide.*