Pssst!

    Pssst!

    Eleven Things About Rio You Wouldn’t Know
    from Watching the Three Caballeros,
    Black Orpheus, and Central Station
    By Larry Tritten

    SWEETS

    Just as the beaches and avenues of Rio display legions of beautiful women with skin the
    color of honey, leather, chocolate, tea, and coffee, so do the confectioneries entice the
    eye and palate with gorgeous parti-colored pastries and a panoply of vivid pastel ice
    creams and sorbets in tropical flavors whose names take the imagination to dance—pitanga,
    tamarindo, jabuticaba, frutti di bosco, not to mention the blackberry
    with white chocolate.

    Among these the premier establishment is clearly the Confeitaria Colombo in downtown
    Rio. It was founded in 1894 and the style is neo-French with jacaranda wood. Downstairs it
    is a huge bakery and upstairs, beneath a vast stained glass ceiling of green, gold, and
    blue a sumptuous lunch and dinner buffet of Portuguese delicacies is served in the
    gallery. There must have been a place just like this in downtown Oz. But if a smaller,
    quieter, and more intimate sweet shop is what you’re in the mood for, try the Cosìcaffé
    (Pães, Doces, Panini & Ristorante) in Ipanema.

    GREEN COCONUTS

    One of the first things I noticed on the beach at Ipanema was that every concession
    stand was festooned with dozens of what looked to me like green gourds. These were green
    coconuts, a ubiquitous and hugely popular potable. Everywhere one looks there are people
    sipping their milk through long straws—on the beaches, at sidewalk cafés, at upscale
    buffets in expensive hotels. I always thought that coconuts are brown. In any cases, I
    passed on the ritual and as a result wonder now what I missed and have recurring dreams of
    green coconuts, the missed opportunity.

    ANTARCTICA GUARANÁ

    But I did try another popular Brazilian beverage, Antarctica guaraná, a native soft
    drink. The Coca Cola people tried to buy the company but it would not sell and continues
    to hold its own against the monolithic presence of Coke and Pepsi. Its flavor is not
    unlike that of ginger ale but with an undertaste of what the samba might taste like if it
    were gustatory.

    NEWSSTANDS

    On my first day in Rio, I wondered if I would be able to easily find a newsstand. An
    aficionado of magazines, I anticipated a huge array of same, a colorful and exotic
    spectrum of pictures and logos. Wondering if I could find a newsstand would be, I soon
    discovered, like wondering if I would find cacti in Arizona. In downtown Rio it seemed as
    if there was a newsstand on every block, scores of them and I remember finding two on one
    block, seeing as many as four at a glance in one place, some of them cave-like kiosks
    exhibiting a variety of gaudy international magazine covers, others little walk-in shops.
    And they also sell Brazilian lottery tickets and scratchers. Spend a couple of reais
    (one dollar) and try your luck with a Super Premiada or Dinheiro Já. You just might be
    the one to win enough reais to corner the green coconut market. In any case, the
    print culture is alive and well in the newsstands of Rio.

    THE PORTUGUESE READING ROOM

    If the newsstands of Rio are a contemporary manifestation of the health of the print
    culture, its heritage is dramatically represented by the Real Academia de Leitura (the
    Portuguese Reading Room) located in the center of the city in a Portuguese style building.
    Stepping inside is like entering a cross between a huge antiquarian bookstore and Merlin’s
    library. 350,000 tomes are shelved on successive tiers all around, many of them too large
    and heavy to be easily lifted, their gold-stamped spines alluring to the eye—books
    from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Directly inside the doorway on either side two
    computer screens glow brightly, seeming gauchely anachronistic in this solemn sanctum that
    dates back to 1837. Barnes & Noble.com, eat your heart out.

    CARMEN MIRANDA

    Ever since Carmen Miranda left Brazil to become a major star on Broadway and in
    Hollywood movies, Brazilians have had mixed feelings about her, which must explain why the
    Carmen Miranda Museum is in an isolated location in a tiny concrete building reminiscent
    of the fuhrerbunker. In fact, I enjoyed this museum much more than the huge Museum
    of Modern Art with its stark paintings and cryptic abstract objects, which seemed to me
    too clinical to reflect the humor, vitality, and color of Rio. There are a couple of
    lackadaisical attendants and not many patrons, but the exhibits, which include some of
    Carmen’s costumes and jewelry, do reflect the spirit of the Rio of legend—the samba,
    Copacabana, tropical passion. And if you want to be knocked for a loop by Carmen at her
    gaudiest, rent The Gang’s All Here and feast your eyes on the three-strip
    Technicolor extravagance of the musical numbers "The Woman in the Tutti Frutti
    Hat" and the "Banana Ballet."

    MONUMENTO AOS PRACINHAS

    Another small, relatively obscure museum is Monumento aos Pracinhas, which is both
    museum and monument and a testimonial to a largely unknown part of Brazilian history, the
    country’s role in World War II. Brazil is one of two Latin American countries (Mexico
    being the other) that sent forces to fight in the war. Brazil’s 25,000-man expeditionary
    force saw combat in the Italian campaign, which is commemorated in the exhibits of
    weapons, medals, documents, photographs and uniforms. Two columns flank the tomb of the
    unknown soldier and on the first Sunday of each month Brazil’s armed forces stage a
    colorful changing of the guard here.

    BUSES

    My guidebook in China said that the most dangerous activity in China is crossing the
    street. But surely downtown Rio is a contender in the dangerous traffic category. Stand on
    a street in downtown Rio in the middle of the day and at any given moment there will be
    ten or fifteen buses passing by on the same block, all of them hurtling past as if they
    were on the track at the Indy. Apparently the reason for so many buses is that there are
    so few bicycles, which account for a large percentage of the traffic in China.

    PARROTS

    My earliest memory of something Brazilian is of José Carioca, the anthropomorphic
    boulevardier parrot in Disney’s The Three Caballeros. To my young mind he was
    enchanting. But my attitude about parrots changed when I lived with a couple of them in
    the eighties and found them to be noisy prima donnas. I refer you to what John Huston says
    about the parrot in his autobiography. Huston loved animals of every kind but made an
    exception for the parrot. There are birds and animals on Brazilian currency, a parrot on
    the 10 real note. There are, of course, parrots everywhere one looks in the gift
    shops. My advice: stick with the equally high-profile toucans.

    SPIDERS AND BUTTERFLIES

    In the tropical Tijuca forest, a former coffee plantation in the heart of town, I saw
    spiders the size of baseball mitts. All right, this is hyperbole, but hyperbole is kosher
    when the subject is spiders. In Annie Hall when a terrified Annie calls Alvy over
    to her apartment to kill a spider, Woody Allen (Alvy) goes into the bathroom to check it
    out, comes back, and says, "`There’s a spider the size of a Buick in your
    bathroom." My guide told a story about being confronted by such a spider while
    driving his car and bolting from the car to abandon it in heavy traffic. As for the
    butterflies, the forest seemed to be full of huge blue ones, their color virtually
    luminous. We encountered one of them, injured, on the paved road and our guide in the
    forest stopped the jeep to run to its assistance and stop traffic just as if it had been a
    bird or kitten. The lepidoptera is being well cared for in Rio.

    CACHAÇA

    I first encountered the word cachaça in John Updike’s novel Brazil. It
    sounds like a word that belongs in one of Carmen Miranda’s songs. Cachaça (which
    means burning water) is a lethal liquor made from liquids distilled from sugar cane. It
    has a 70-80 percent alcohol content and is very cheap, which is why it has always been
    popular among Brazil’s poorer people, although lately it has been acquiring a vogue among
    upscale drinkers in North America. Cachaça is also the soul of the caipirinha,
    Brazil’s national drink. If neither green coconuts or Guaraná Antarctica are the potable
    of your choice, try one of these, perhaps as an addendum to your feijoada (the
    national dish). Cachaçaboom!

    The Places:

    Confeitaria Colombo – Rua Gonçalves Dias, 32

    Cosìcaffé – Rua Garcia D’Ávila, 134 Loja D

    The Portuguese Reading Room – Rua Luís de Camões, 30

    Carmen Miranda Museum.- Av. Rui Barbosa, 560, Flamengo

    Monumento aos Pracinhas – Parque Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, Flamengo

    Floresta da Tijuca – Estrada da Cascatinha, 850

    Veteran scriptor horribilis (freelance writer) Larry Tritten has
    published some 700 pieces in such publications as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Travel
    & Leisure, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Spy, American Way, Harper’s, National
    Lampoon, ad infinitum. You can reach him at ltritten@core.com

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