When the Music ends in Rio: Part 1

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.


A Toast to a Travel Legend

“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.” – Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

I hardly ever get weepy about celebrity deaths. In many ways it made me feel like a hypocrite, mourning the loss of someone I never knew or even met. How can you actually lose someone you never had? Over the years I’ve come to realise that you don’t actually need to have known or met someone for them to have touched your life.

There was something oddly moving in the words Anthony Bourdain left behind, no doubt crystallised during his pursuit of travel; international culture; cuisine; and at the heart of it all, the human condition. In the same way, I feel almost funny looking back at the posed smiles and frozen tourist attractions in travel albums, because it’s mostly the moments I miss rather than the places and the sights seen. I think of Rome, and I have difficulty recalling the names of the many coin-bloated fountains or describing the immensity of The Colosseum. I instead recall the surprise stalks of roses at the foot of the Spanish steps, and the night we ate two dinners (amazing wood oven pizza and good ol’ bolognese) because us four starving students were so unequivocal in our dissatisfaction at the first one that we justified the expense on a second meal. I think of Athens, and I remember us hunched over our luggage bags, struggling to wheel them over cobbled streets because the stupid hostel got our bookings mixed up. I think of Santorini, and I remember that beach from another world. I think of the Lake District, and I remember us huddled in the tent for warmth, shivering in our shorts in the single digit weather because we ruined all our warm clothing after we fell in the mud. I think of New York, and I remember sitting in Bryant Park, reading and writing with the sprawl of green and glass before me. I think of Barcelona, and I can still smell the pigeon poop left splattered on my entire family after a particularly vicious flock of birds flew overhead during our walk in a park. I think of Venice, and I remember the incredible balcony which we sat and had our home-cooked dinner and talked and bared our hearts for hours. I think of Paris and I remember cheese, more cheese, wine, and the strums of the musician’s guitar outside the sacre-coeur. I think of Whistler and I remember being towed down a slope with a pulled hamstring, and learning how to identify the Big Dipper for the first time. I think of Montreal and I remember bagels and lying on that giant mossy hill where everything smelled sweet. I think of Miami, and I remember the giant frozen margaritas and the Pornstar posse we met at that nightclub. I think of Rio and I am filled with saudade for my Brazilian host mothers and the random acts of their kindness that will stay with me for life. I think of Sydney, and there I am again, sleeping out under the stars in a giant makeshift campsite with hundreds and thousands of others. I think of Hong Kong, and I remember many sleepless nights and somehow always ending up at Tsui Wah. I think of Sri Lanka, and I remember dangling my legs over the edge at World’s End. I think of Boston, and we are frantically trying to cook dinner in a thoroughly impractical apartment mysteriously filled with absurd animal art sculptures and Friends Box DVD sets, without a single pot in the kitchen. I think of Capri, and I am eating freshly-plucked blueberries along the Path of the Gods. I think of Norway, and I remember high-fiving my best friend at the top of Preikestolen and looking out at the fjords. I think London, and there is simply too much. I remember the different occasions, the different company, the different emotions, the different hopes and dreams that I had with each different visit.

It’s so cliched but all too true – I live not by days, months, or years, but by experiences, moments, memories, lessons.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.” Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)