The thing about all open houses – be it properties or universities – is that you only ever get to see its ‘First Date Face’. Weeks of planning and a plump (often overspent) budget ensures that only its best foot forward is put forth for your special visit. Floors are extra sparkly, the food in the cafeteria is astonishingly good, neighbours are a bundle of affable smiles.
This was what greeted me in Rio de Janeiro back in 2013, when I arrived in the city alongside 3 million other Catholics for World Youth Day. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had spent hours on forums with some rising trepidation. “Avoid the beaches at night!”; “Beware of scams!”; “Was robbed at knifepoint.” It was my first initiation into South America, and we were two young female travellers who didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. And mind you, this was a language where nothing sounds like how its spelt.
Yet all feelings of apprehension evaporated within minutes of my landing in Rio. There I was, with multiple coatings of plane grime; buoyed by the flashes of bright banners waving gaily in the sunshine, the cheery choruses of greetings welcoming groups and groups of visiting pilgrims. The streets were teeming with people, the air was abuzz with a dozen native languages. Rio had clearly risen to the occasion. Public transport was running smoothly (or as smooth as one could expect from having to ferry literally millions); police and security were on every street. This was also the year right before Brazil was to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the government’s bid for approval was loud and clear.
It was a week of extraordinary kindness, warmth, and love (another story for another time), and like all good things that must come to an end – the days flew by faster than my 30-hour journey to Rio. Some of us stayed on to properly see Rio as tourists, but the city was already rapidly clearing out. Like a deserted dance floor left only with the remnants of confetti, there was an abrupt emptiness to the streets. After bidding a tearful farewell to our host mothers in Tijuca – one of the most traditional districts in Rio – we found ourselves an apartment in Ipanema, an upscale neighbourhood best known for that iconic bossa nova song and a beach second in fame only to Copacabana.
Our landlady proudly declared herself a true blue carioca. Malu was born in the city, extroverted and authentic, loved the beach and the warm weather. She worked to live, and never lived to work. After a rocky start caused by our late check-in (try moving in a human jam caused by the migrating millions), and a particularly unpleasant encounter with her adopted street dog (hid in our bedroom for hours after that), things warmed up after she made us a special green concoction that she declared “necessary to clear the hangover” the morning after our night out to Lapa, Rio’s party district.
Over toast and sips of green goo, we asked Malu about the photographs which lined her walls. The black and white portraits and headshots (“I am an actress”); the people in the frozen moments of glory days gone, whose knowing smiles wore just a hint of mischief, like they knew some of the city’s best kept secrets that they would never tell (“These are actors, artists, and friends”); the collectibles sown in her airy rooms (“From my travels”). Her space had all the trimmings of an artistic spirit, and there was every sense of a wild life well-lived.
To be continued.