Finishing the Conversation

While we descended into Rio… / Credit: Pandotrip

As the plane began its descent into Rio de Janeiro my neighbor finally woke up and looked around sleepily. “Are we there?” she asked me. “Yes, the pilot just made the announcement,” I replied, forcing myself to sound polite. I knew it wasn’t fair, but I had been resenting the woman for having taking the window seat next to me. The doors of the aircraft had just closed and I was happily beginning to stretch out over both seats, assuming I had the entire bench to myself. Since it was still a long trip from Houston to Rio and I had already been on my way for quite some time, I was looking forward to getting some sleep. Just then the flight attendant appeared with a passenger in tow: a breathless and disheveled looking petite middle-aged woman. I couldn’t help but notice her somewhat outdated appearance. She wore baggy pants and an Indian scarf wrapped around her neck: a popular style among us young anti-establishment folks back in the late seventies. But her face was child-like despite its many little wrinkles, and her wide curiously looking eyes gave it an expression of permanent astonishment. It was framed by a mass of long grey and loosely braided hair. She looked like she was embarking for an adventure — not for carnival in Rio, which where I was heading to, but rather for an exploration of the Andes.

The flight attended showed her the vacant place next to me and I reluctantly peeled myself out of my aisle seat to let the woman in. She covered herself with a blanket and her jacket, curled up in her seat, and went to sleep. It wasn’t until we approached our destination at dawn when she tried to connect with me. “Is this your first time in Rio? I was so cold all night! Where is the line for US citizens?” But I was too busy getting organized for the arrival with passport and papers, bags, and now obsolete sweaters to engage in a conversation, and I kept my answers brief.

Had I known that this was going to be my last fully coherent conversation for a while I might have been slightly friendlier. Not being proficient in Portuguese I struggled my way through the airport, trying to read the signs to the Rideshare pickup location. A nice, but non-English-speaking driver took me to my apartment building. I climbed out of the car and thanked him in English whereupon he replied with a friendly stream of Portuguese. I turned around and was greeted by an efficient doorman. He had been instructed to hand me the keys and show me to my apartment. Assuming I understood his spate of information, he explained how to get in and out of the building, where to dispose the garbage, and many more things which I couldn’t quite grasp. I had chosen to stay in a local neighborhood instead of the bustling touristy areas of Copacabana and Ipanema where speaking foreign languages was part of business. I began to realize that this had perhaps not been the smartest decision, and that communication would be a struggle on every level.

Exploring my new neighborhood, a view of Sugar Loaf Mountain included. / Credit: Private.

I stumbled through the first and second day in my neighborhood, exploring my new surroundings, trying to read signs and labels, but being unable to utter even the simplest words. Worse, I was unable to establish any meaningful connection with people. My vain efforts in starting small talk were met with a wall of silence, and I inwardly cursed myself for not having made more of an effort to learn a few basic phrases.

Silently I went shopping at the little grocery store down the street where the annoyed cashier finally pointed to the screen to show me the amount I had to pay. Silently I went for lunch at a simple local restaurant where the well-meaning waiter served me huge slabs of meat with rice and beans and French fries — we had completely misunderstood each other. And silently I had my morning coffee at the family bakery where everybody around me was engaged in lively conversation. While lots of finger-pointing usually got me what I needed, I felt stupid and insecure and, most of all, isolated.

On my third day in Rio I finally met the other members of my travel group. Most of us had come to Brazil from the USA and Australia. We were going to dance with one of the elite samba schools, Império Serrano, at the big carnival parade at Rio’s Sambadrome. I was looking forward to making new friends, to finally having conversations in a mutually spoken language, and to be able to share my experiences. We met in the bustling center of town. The plan was to go shopping for samba shoes. Rio was already crazed by carnival, and there was deafening music blasting from everywhere, making it difficult to talk. Tourists and locals were shoving each other through narrow streets, and it was hard to stay together as a group. Not a good place to get to know a new bunch of people! Soon after purchasing our dance shoes at a tiny hidden samba shoe store, we lost sight of each other. I took a cab and went back home by myself.

That same night I got a second chance to meet the group. It was Império Serrano’s tech rehearsal at Rio’s Marquês de Sapucaí Sambadrome, an important event in preparation for the dazzling parade. We were to perform along the entire alley, about half-a-mile long, practicing our moves and singing our school’s samba enredo — the song-samba — before an audience of spectators, not as many as at the actual parade one week later, but still a sizeable number of people. ‘There will be a lot of photographers and cameras,’ our organizers messaged as I was getting ready to leave my apartment. It was going to be almost like the real deal. I got excited, put on my school’s T-shirt, my new samba shoes, and did my best to look presentable for the cameras.

Waiting for the show to begin: the Sambadrome’s main alley. / Credit: Globo 1.


We had a designated meeting point in the area where the samba schools gathered just outside the Sambadrome, the great arena which is the home of Rio’s main carnival parades. When I arrived I tried to spot the other members of my group, but I couldn’t make out any of the young women I had met just a few hours before. Hundreds of dancers had already arrived and were divided into their specific alas or wings. I stalked up and down the broad street in my newly purchased glittery samba heels, hoping to recognize some of the faces from earlier that day. WhatsApp messages kept flying back and forth with people apologizing for being stuck in mad traffic, and not finding the meeting spot.

Despite the late evening hour, the thermometer still showed 36 degrees Celsius — about 96 degrees Fahrenheit — and I was sweating, to say the least. My desperation grew as I continued not to recognize anyone from my group. My lack of Portuguese prevented me from inquiring of other participants in my samba school, all of whom seemed to be Brazilian. But finally I spotted one of our group’s organizers and followed her as she gathered her sheep. It was no wonder I hadn’t recognized any of them — they all were in full makeup with elaborate hairdos and looked completely different from when we had gone shopping together earlier in the day.

At this point our turn for the rehearsal had already been delayed by more than an hour. It was past 9 p.m. and the previous school was still parading down the Sambadrome’s main alley. From outside the arena where we waited, we could hear the music. Our feet began hurting, the heat was getting to us, and we sat down carefully on the curb so as not to dirty our white skirts. I glanced around and noticed passers-by watching us curiously. Then our wing masters started to organize us into our respective sections. I was lined up in one row with perhaps a dozen other dancers. I made a point of memorizing the people next to me so I wouldn’t get lost after the parade. We followed what looked like twenty rows in front of us with many more behind us. Craning my neck I could see I was surrounded by a sea of green-and-white — Império Serrano’s colors — but with no recognizable faces.

Waiting… and resting our feet. / Credit: Private.

The batería — the drumming section — started to play, and this was our signal to start moving. The penetrating beat of the drums pushed us forward, and we moved to the music and sang our school’s theme song: O que é? O que é?’ I had done my best to memorize the song, and managed to sing the refrain plus about five of the ten verses. Then I started skipping. I noticed that other dancers in my American/Australian group weren’t doing any better. We could only hope that no one would notice, and that the Brazilian members of the school would make up for us, and that we would be able to cover our lack of singing with some impressive samba moves. But our audience that night was unforgiving.

When we turned into the parade alley of the enormous stadium, thousands of spectators awaited expectantly and most of them seemed to be true bambas, experts in all things samba. Given the fervor and conviction with which they sang our song-samba I assumed that they came from the neighborhoods where samba had its roots, but where people couldn’t afford the stiff ticket prices for the actual parades. Instead, they flocked to the school’s technical rehearsals which are free of charge. When they spotted us skipping some of the lyrics, some of them shook their heads and pointed at us disapprovingly.

I felt guilty and embarrassed and tried my best to keep up with the fast beat of the music. It drove me forward, and as I kept singing and dancing I didn’t notice my body getting tired. I could see the big arch at the end of the arena coming closer, but it seemed to be taking an eternity to get there. I was hot, my feet were hurting, my throat became dry, but I kept singing and moving and let myself be carried away by the driving rhythm.

We had just reached the crossing in the middle of the arena when I glimpsed a familiar face at the barrier which separated the audience from the performers. I didn’t immediately realize what had happened. But as I turned again slightly to my left there it was: a child-like face with wide eyes, staring at us with a stunned and astonished look, and a mouth open with a happy smile. There was no doubt about it — it was my seat neighbor from the plane! What was she doing here? She was not in the Andes, neither was she embarked on an adventure such as documenting life in the favelas — the poor neighborhoods where many in the audience were from. No, she was right here at the Sambadrome, watching our carnival rehearsal! Did she recognize me? Probably not. Just like everybody else my face was painted with make-up, I was wearing a false braid, and I didn’t look or act at all like the person she had met on the plane. I had turned into a stage persona. Should I expose myself? Would she recognize me? What would she think? I was divided between the joy of the unexpected encounter and maintaining my cover.

Before I could decide a strong voice called me to order in Portuguese. I didn’t need to understand the words. Not having been paying attention I was now dancing out of line and was disrupting the harmony of my section. I rejoined the line again in a hurry, apologizing to our wing master, and continued dancing and singing until the end. When we finally reached the Sambadrome’s arch marking the end of the parade, I turned around. But all I could see was a distant mass of faces.

Happy encounters among carnivalistas. / Credit: Globo 1.

The bloco of Santa Teresa

The famous tram to Santa Teresa surrounded by carnevalistas.
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Santa Teresa is in anticipation of carnaval. Just as is the rest of Rio — actually as is all of Brazil. But here in Santa Teresa — a quaint little neighborhood on top of a steep hill where mansions stand proudly wall-to-wall bearing witness to glorious old times, and where small shops, cafés, and restaurants abound, and where people are clustering in bars to watch football and soap operas — the anticipation of carnival feels more intense than in the elegant neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema with their anonymous apartment buildings. The energy here on top of the hill high above the sprawling city feels different from anywhere else.

The older lady with the tiny shop next to the tram stop at Largo Guimarães— the main square of Santa Teresa — has added carnival costumes and accessories to her usual stock of t-shirts, summer hats, and other necessities for the tourists who get off the tram next to her place and find themselves in need of something important that they forgot. The flimsy plastic mannequin in front of her door is draped in a bright-orange feather boa. It’s what draws me into her store. For lack of much needed Portuguese language skills, I point at the boa. She jumps up from her stool and takes it off the mannequin, urges me to try it on and then, with the consent of her daughters, admires me with a stream of Portuguese. When I pay for it — 35 Brazilian real — she gestures me to wait and pulls out a box from underneath her folding table and hands me a paper mask with feathers: ‘a present,’ she smiles.

Touched by her kindness, I walk happily back home all the time remembering my tour guide’s words from earlier today, urging me to get some kind of costume to join the famous bloco das carmelitas of Santa Teresa early in the morning. The blocos and their bandas — the street bands that get the crowds going during carnival — represent what’s left of the quintessential Brazilian carnival. It’s the one part of Brazil’s famous carnival that hasn’t been completely commercialized yet. However, 25 years ago there were only a few street celebrations in Rio with up to a thousand revelers. These days there are an estimated 500 blocos, some of them with as many as 200,000 partyers.

It’s where regular people gather and celebrate in the neighborhoods, dancing in costumes to the live music of the bandas without having to pay exuberant ticket prices (as for example is the case with the world-famous parades in the Sambadrome). Santa Teresa, as one of the few remaining neighborhoods with an authentic feel to it, is considered to have the best bloco — and therefore carnival — in all Rio. People used to come up to the Santa Teresa bloco das carmelitas by tram, the only reliable means of transportation that could safely make it up and down the steep hill from Lapa down in the lower part of Rio de Janeiro. It crosses the 270 meter high aqueduct (not for people with vertigo) and on the day of the carnival, the wagons were so crowded that the carnevalistas in costumes seemed to spill out, clinging on to the safety bars. There are famous pictures documenting the surreal scene of all sorts of people in colorful masks and costumes on these dizzying rides. The artist across the street from my place had a framed photograph depicting such a scene, but the second time I returned to look at the picture it was gone, sold to another tourist who probably understood the rare value of the photograph. Because these days the scene can no longer be seen; the tram is no longer allowed to operate on the day of the Santa Teresa carnival for security reasons.

I was surprised to learn that the Santa Teresa bloco didn’t start at nighttime, but that it started early in the morning at 7am. ‘Get there half an hour earlier,’ my tour guide had urged me, ‘if you want to see the real thing. By eight o’clock everybody is already wasted and you can go home.’

Determined not to miss such an opportunity, I went home early the night before, prepared for the next day’s excitement with my boa and mask, and decided to go to bed early. Just as I was taking one last glance out of my kitchen window to take in the breathtaking view of Sugar Loaf Mountain in the distance and Guanabara Bay, I couldn’t help but notice some activity on the lower floor of the building across the street. The fenced door of the illuminated living room of a spacious apartment stood open, and some figures were moving about, waving arms, dancing and shaking hips. I stood and watched for a while until I realized that it was two teenagers practicing samba steps in front of a television. I could faintly hear the music. Every couple of minutes the girl turned some buttons on the television set, apparently to change the video so that a different samba performance could be played. Both the boy and the girl seemed to be quite serious about their practicing, intensely following what they saw on the screen. Then they would briefly talk and point at the screen before they resumed their exercises.

Carnevalistas gathering early in the morning to the bloco das carmelitas.

Fascinated by so much enthusiasm, I went to bed. At dawn’s first light I was woken up by some late home comers with hoarse voices, laughing and shouting and singing some kind of samba tune. Apparently there had been a carnival event the night before and they must have had a good time. No one in the neighborhood seemed to mind the disturbance at this early hour. I got up to get ready for the early morning bloco, but quickly realized that I was already late. By 6:30 people started to flock past my building towards the Largo where the action was supposed to begin half an hour later. I wondered whether the late night revelers were among them, and whether they could have had time for a shower and a change of costume before heading out again. Ever since my tour guide had told me that during the two weeks of celebrating carnival she got no more than a total of ten hours sleep nothing surprises me anymore.

So with my new bright-orange boa around my neck, I was finally heading out.

Watching people in Rio

Feeling satisfied with my choice, I leaned back in my chair and decided to leave my iPhone in my purse, settling instead into my old and mostly forgotten European habit of watching people. Now there is a difference between watching people and checking somebody out. I’ve lived in the USA long enough to understand and respect that it is generally considered intrusive


Watching people can actually be a good habit

On my second evening in Santa Teresa — the most bohemian neighborhood in all Rio, and located on top of a steep hill — I returned to the place I had discovered the night before. The Explorer Bar was not only conveniently located within a stone’s throw of the airy 1950s apartment where I was staying, but its cocktails had also been greatly praised by my Airbnb host. I went two days in a row, only to discover the second time that what the young waiter had proclaimed excitedly on my first visit — that during their daily Happy Hour everything was half price — was genuinely exaggerated. The truth was that if you ordered one cocktail, the second came for free. Duh! That couldn’t tempt me; I barely survived one. Furthermore the discount didn’t apply at all to the food items on the menu. There I had it: all day long I had been looking forward to a delicious meal at a fancy new place at an affordable price, and now this.

But since I was already comfortably seated on the lush patio, overlooking the busy street below me with the tram line where people kept coming and going, and feeling too exhausted from a day of walking around and sightseeing in the heat, I just stayed and ordered something anyway. Prices were about twice as high as at the local restaurant across the street where I had lunched the day before and where they served plates loaded with specialties from Northeastern Brazil: pan-fried beef or chicken with rice and a heavy bean sauce plus French fries on top of it. Even though this was filling for my stomach and easy on my budget, I had decided I couldn’t possibly take my meals on a daily basis at that friendly neighborhood place if I wanted to fit into my samba costume on the night of the big parade a week later. So my focus shifted to the fancy place with the great view, just slightly elevated above the street. I ordered a Nasi Goren with a light Brazilian twist and a hibiscus tea.

Feeling satisfied with my choice, I leant back in my chair and decided to leave my iPhone in my purse, settling instead into my old and mostly forgotten European habit of watching people. Now there is a difference between watching people and checking somebody out. I’ve lived in the USA long enough to understand and respect that it is generally considered intrusive to look at somebody on the street for more than a split second. But in these days of social networking, with everybody sticking their nose in a phone, most of us don’t even know how to make eye contact. I find this a regrettable situation, mostly for younger folks who have not learned how to establish what I consider basic human contact. But whenever I travel abroad I find it delightfully refreshing that this form of human contact still exists. And so I enjoyed immediately the Brazilian way of making a quick eye-contact on the street, acknowledging someone’s presence, followed by respectfully moving to the side to create enough space on a narrow sidewalk for two people to pass, or to briefly smile at each other, mumbling a greeting. That’s all. It breaks the isolation, it establishes a connection and it creates the basis for communication. 

In this way I sat at my table under the trees of the Explorer Bar and watched my surroundings. And I became aware that I was being watched, too. It was mainly young couples on this Friday night: Brazilians, locals from the neighborhood or maybe from some neighborhood close by. Young, fresh faces, no make-up on the girls’ faces, but they were all nicely dressed, with a little artsy jewelry here and there. Most of them looked like they had just come from work or maybe from studying at the university. Most of them were white, middle-class people clearly from cosmopolitan Rio, polite, and apparently educated. And most of them appeared to be quite curious about their discovery of this new bar in the center of hip and bohemian Santa Teresa. The guys seemed to be particularly insecure, most of them not being at ease at first, undecided as to where they wanted to sit until their girlfriends got tired of moving from one seat to another. One couple finally decided on a table, but just as the guy leant back in his chair a leaf fell on his nose, whereupon he frantically waved his hands across his face, leapt up and once again the seating arrangement had to be changed. When their menus came, they stuck their noses in it and there was a long silence as they both studied both the drink and the food menu.

Then my attention shifted to another couple that kept wandering about the patio, also unsure where to sit. They finally decided on a table at the outermost corner of the garden which allowed them the best view of the street. However, the guy, again uneasy, switched the seats, and reorganized things so that he and his pretty companion were facing the patio with their backs to the street. Once again there was a long silence as they both buried their faces in the menu. He apparently kept asking her questions upon which she nervously glanced around, her black curly hair bobbing, searching for a waiter who might be able to help. When something caught her eye she excitedly tried to show it to him on his menu, running her finger across the printed page and reading the description loudly to him. With wide eyes and a big smile she seemed to be trying to convince her friend of something she liked. Finally the waiter appeared and they placed their order, but not before asking him a question or two. Then they sat there in embarrassed silence, not knowing what to say after having acknowledged their lack of knowledge in matters of fancy cocktails. But when their drinks arrived they eagerly began to slurp. Their faces brightened, and altogether they seemed to be so pleased with their order that they made each other try each other’s drinks. More happy smiles, more hair bobbing, and then a long and passionate kiss.

Learning about the neighborhood by watching from my kitchen window.

I leant back and let out a long breath, feeling relieved for both of them. A happy ending! The evening could have ended badly if the drinks hadn’t been okay, or if she had lost patience with him being finicky, or if he had thrown a tantrum, or whatever. But no, these two at least had successfully managed a new and uneasy experience together, and it seemed like a promising start to their weekend. The first couple, in the meantime, seemed to be happily engaged in conversation at their table, and while they enjoyed their drinks, the waiter brought a plate of something which they admired with big eyes and carefully and respectfully put their forks in: another success.

I slowly walked downhill home, carefully placing my feet on the cobblestones, with happy joy in my heart. Life can be so simple. Just look around you and watch.