Running along the Copacabana beach on our first day out of Africa, a tall, dark man with broad shoulders, lean muscles and long legs passed me by. The back of his black t-shirt read “Cada Dia, Te Quiero Mas (Each Day, I Love You More). A moment later, another toned, tanned guy blew by with a t-shirt that read “Peace.” Apparently this was my lucky day to be passed by ripped Brazilian hotties. I dug deep, trying to call forth the 3 hour 9 minute marathoner I was fifteen years ago to keep up, but Peace and Love slowly pulled away and then disappeared into the shimmering heat of a tropical Brazilian morning.
Our pace was slow and comfortable in Rio, a city where I felt quite good about myself. Being settled in one place for a week straight helped, but it was mostly the attitude of the Cariocas (residents of Rio) that made me feel at ease in my middle-aged skin. In
Rio, folks let it all hang out, totally unconcerned that their bodies are imperfect as long as they are tan. With cold Skol beer or lime-infused Caipirinha cocktails in hand, they lounge in their skimpiest swimwear, not all of them supermodels, much to Ethan’s dismay. Grandmas with wrinkled Bain Du Soliel skin and moms who never lost their pregnancy weight sport string bikinis, while old guys in Speedos walk the beach, looking like the baby is due any day. By some kind of fashion miracle, jiggling butts, boobs, and balls stay contained (barely), and almost anything goes. One young woman, her big bottom split by a thong the size of a shoelace, plucked her eyebrows while her girl friend painted streaks of bleach onto her hair. It is impossible not to love a culture that is so obviously, joyously in love with itself.
Rio doesn’t even try to hide its dark side. Across from the beach, less than 100 meters from our rented apartment, lay the entrance to one of Rio’s slums. Favela Pavao Pavaozinho, or “Peacock and Little Peacock”, got its name from the peacocks that used to roam the yard of a faded mansion at the bottom of this poor, colorful neighborhood, its concrete block houses stacked like crumbling bricks up a mountain facing the sea. Drug dealers rule Rio’s one thousand plus favelas, setting off fireworks late at night to let residents know a new shipment has arrived.
But now that Brazil has the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Rio’s favelas are getting a makeover by a multi-agency group of law enforcement agents called the “Police Pacification Unit” or “UPP.” The name of this elite squad is a little misleading, as they operate by storming the favelas and killing every drug dealer they can find. While this might not be a pacifist strategy, everyone agrees it is effective.
“I’m looking at buying a couple of units in Pavao Pavaozhina,” said one cigar smoking, tank-top wearing American-born real estate agent we met. “It’s probably the safest place in the city now, and the view is amazing!” The peace police may be controversial, but they’re pretty popular.
Since the slums have been cleaned up, the most dangerous thing now in Rio may be attempting to visit the city’s famed Corcovado Mountain on Good Friday. Corcovado juts 2,329 feet into the air out of Rio’s rain forest, topped by a towering concrete and soapstone statue of Christ The Redeemer. And on the second biggest Christian holiday, it seemed every believer in South America was just as eager to see it as we were. The lines for the shuttles and trains that snake up the mountainside were hours long, so Ethan and I decided to hike it, thanking Sweet Jesus himself that we had left the kids to play Wii with our friend Marcius and his six year old daughter Maxiny. Sucking in exhaust, we periodically had to jump into the bushes to avoid getting flattened by a shuttle careening around the curves that lead to Christ.
“I think there’s a decent chance I will die here,” I yelled over my shoulder to Ethan, after a side view mirror grazed my shoulder.
“Well,” he yelled back, “if you do, at least Cristo Redentor is right there to redeem you.” I did not find this all that comforting.
Finally on top, the platform around Christ’s feet was more crowded than Disneyland on a summer Saturday, people jostling for a spot at the edge to experience the awesome views of forest, ocean, and city. Photographers sprawled on their backs taking pictures of tourists standing with arms outstretched, mimicking Christ’s benevolent stance behind them. Sightseeing helicopters darted like metallic dragonflies and vendors hawked everything from flip flops to diamond rings, giving Corcovado the feel of a buzzing modern day bazaar. After ten minutes of this madness we fled, running back down the mountain at full speed, weaving between gridlocked cars, taxis, and the occasional motorcycle, praying we wouldn’t fall.
Our final afternoon in Rio was much calmer, spent visiting with our friend Gess, a lovely, sad-eyed woman we had met in Buenos Aires in January. Gess lives in Ipanema with her daughter Marianne, a thirty two year old with Down’s syndrome. Marianne weaves intricate tapestries in her free time, her stubby fingers nimble and talented in creating works of art. She gifted me one of a blue elephant bordered in black. But when I told her I would hang the tapestry in our home in Los Angeles, Marianne’s face changed from happy to scared.
“I don’t like L.A.” she said softly, starting to fidget.
“Why not?” I asked. The young woman, who will never completely grow up, looked at her mother, and then back at me.
“I went to jail in L.A.” Marianne finally replied, tears filling her gray-blue eyes.
I cannot tell this whole story here; it is too long, too sad, too complicated and too shocking for one blog entry. But it begins when Marianne flew alone from Rio to Los Angeles to visit friends. Coming through Immigration, Marianne exclaimed, “Thank God I’m home!”–an excited outburst the agent found suspicious. But Marianne was home; despite being a Brazilian citizen, she spent the first 27 years of her life living in San Francisco, where her mother worked for the Brazilian Consulate. Marianne’s paperwork was in perfect order, but she was interrogated, jailed overnight, and then shipped back to Brazil without ever being allowed to see the people waiting for her just on the other side of
baggage claim. In a statement made after the incident, the agent said he hadn’t realized Marianne was “disabled”—which is as ridiculous as saying he didn’t realize Brazilians speak Portuguese.
“I was so cold in jail,” Marianne said when Gess finished the story, “I hate L.A.” It was one of the saddest things I have ever heard.
Now we are headed back to L.A. ourselves for a few weeks–back to the scene of my own difficult experience–with Marianne’s soft blue elephant tapestry tucked in my backpack. And there, I promised Gess, I would use my reporting skills to find out how a woman who can’t begin to defend herself was jailed in the City Of Angels. The mission gave me a purpose I hadn’t had before, and quieted the unease I had about returning. Maybe, I thought–just maybe–back in the place where this wild adventure of ours started over one year ago–I would find peace, love, and a little bit of justice.