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Open Markets - A Rio de Janeiro Travel Story


Ronaldo José da Silva has no front teeth and wants to know if I am gay. He asks this while simultaneously grabbing his crotch. "Why, do I look gay?" I ask him and notice that the only teeth that he has in his upper jaw are his molars. Everything else is stripped clean to the gums. He has a cellophane bag of soda cans resting in the tan sand of Copacabana. There are only five cans inside, crushed flat. "I'm not gay," I tell him and show him my wedding ring. He doubles back, covers his mouth, and offers me a handshake. "Puxa, meu! Pardon me! I'm sorry. I thought you were gay. You look gay."

The view of Copacabana from the top of Po de Acar.  Kenneth Rapoza"Sorry to disappoint you." After I said that, he stood erect and slapped his chest with his fist. He had on a dirty tank top, baggy Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. He was as brown as topsoil and it was impossible to tell his age (though he later said that he was 30).

"I'm not a fag, man," Ronaldo says. "I've got three girlfriends!" He displays this number with his fingers. "You've got any children?" he asks. He seemed to be looking for another way to prove his initial observations were accurate.

"One daughter."

"Puxa, meu!" he exclaims in surprise, slapping his head and reaching for my hand again. "Pardon me. If I were you, I'd punch me in the face, cara. Please forgive me."

"Tá bom, rapaz. I'm not worried about it," I say, shaking his hand.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

"Londrina, Paraná." I didn't tell him that I was American and lived most of the year in the United States. It was 7:10 pm and getting dark. The moon was like a giant, ripe orange hanging over Pão de Açúcar Mountain in Rio. Children played soccer on the beach in the dusk. A coach would blow his whistle whenever the ball went out of bounds or one child tripped up another and fell face first into the sand. The beach was becoming vacant, but the foot traffic along Avenida Atlantica's sidewalk had increased; a mix of people heading home from work, tourists in fanny packs wearing sneakers with colored socks, and a huddle of poor people here and there, most of them under 20 year's old, some of them innocent, some of them stoned and angry. The most dangerous time in Rio is when the sun goes down.

Two hotels sit in the sun along Copacabana's Avenida Atlantica one quiet morning.  Kenneth Rapoza"Sit down here with me," Ronaldo says. "I'm sorry I insulted you." He shakes my hand again.

"Tá bom, meu. I've gotta go. I'm meeting a friend for dinner."

"Sit here, man. Let's talk. Senta."

We sat side by side on the sidewalk, where black and white square tiles created the shape of waves going all the way down the beach. On hot days, those waves seemed to evaporate and distort passers-by as if they were walking through thin smoke, or passing a funny-mirror in an arcade. Ronaldo said he had children, but that he was not a father. Father's stay with their children, he said, which stood to reason why he wasn't a father for real. Slapping his chest with his fist, he said, "I only care about myself and God." He points to the orange and blue sky. "Without God, I wouldn't exist."

"Hmmmm," was all I could think to say. All these toothless guys like Ronaldo had was God. And God can't even give this guy a dozen crappy cans of soda to sell to recycle. Instead, he's got half a dozen. I didn't know where I stood with God, so the only thing I thought to say instead of a mumble was a quote from Jesus: 'the flesh is weak.' Even Jesus had it bad. This really is a rough world. "You make your living collecting cans?"

"Yeah. It's honest work. Today was too cold." It was about 85 degrees. "Tomorrow's a holiday in Rio. The beach is gonna be lotado," he says, squinting as if the sun were in his eyes. He demonstrated with his hands just how crowded Copacabana would be in the morning by stretching his arms out wide. With the beach a hundred yards away, his opened arms appeared to hold the entire ocean in suspended animation.

"What do you do with the money you make? Do you have a house?" I ask.

"I've got a house."

I asked the following in the coolest, subtlest, gentlest way possible so he wouldn't feel like I was interrogating him. "Do you spend it on drugs and stuff?"

"Naw, man!" he counters angrily. "I don't spend… I do honest work!" He slapped his upper arms. They were probably about 14 ½ inches thick and he probably weighed about 165 pounds. He was no wimp. "Sometimes I'll smoke some marijuana. But, I don't have the money for that. My street is full of it. Drugs everywhere."

"It's bad?"

"It's bad? Do you see how the drug dealers shut this city down last week? They said to these store owners here that if you open your doors Monday, you're dead," he says, pointing a fake gun to my head and pulling the trigger.

"I know. It's bad. Filho da puta..."

"Puxa, meu. You've got children and parents on drugs in my street, meu."

A young boy, about ten-years-old, approached Ronaldo from behind. He stood as tall as Ronaldo sitting down and had a piece of tree bark in his thick hair. He was not wearing a shirt. His teeth were whiter than stars.

"I don't have any money for you," Ronaldo tells him, and then points to me. "Ask him. He's got money!"

The barefooted boy holds out his hand. I had some loose change and a 10 Brazilian "reais" note in my pocket, which was the equivalent of $2.85. "All I've got is change," I tell him. He keeps his palms up, half smiling. It is getting darker out. "Here…"

The young boy slowly moved the coins around in his hand.

"Puxa! Look at him, counting his money in front of you! No shame! Sem vergonha, pô," Ronaldo says and the boy seems to like it, because he chuckles without making a sound. His eyes light up.

"What've you got?" I ask him.

"Ninety cents total," he replies, and then walks off without saying a word.

I turn to Ronaldo, somewhat reserved. He had become my friend just then. "He's not going to spend what little he has on drugs is he?"

"No."

"Do you know him?" I ask.

"I see him around all the time."

"Is he homeless?"

"Yeah."

"He has no family?"

"He might," Ronaldo suggests. "But they don't take care of him."

"You have children."

"No," he says, and I didn't know if he had lied before and was telling the truth now. Then he twists his torso towards me and explodes, "Puxa, meu! Are you sure you're not gay?"

"Enough of this already."

"Alright. I'm sorry."

"I gotta go now. I'm waiting for a friend."

"Why did you come here?" he asks, reaching for my hand to shake again.

"To work. And to meet a friend," I say, shaking his hand and then letting go. I thought the worst out loud in the dark. "You trying to mug me or something?"

"Tcch, no way. Never. I'm a man of God," he said.

"Good, I gotta go now. I have to get ready to go out to eat. I'm hungry."

I stood up and wiped sand that had stuck to my white pants. He stood up, too. "Hey, man," he says, calmly. "Can you give me some money?"

"Ô, Ronaldo, I thought you said you weren't going to ask me for money?"

"I said I wasn't going to rob you."

"I just have 10 reais in my pocket and I need it to eat tonight with my friend," I say, though there is much more in other pant pockets and drawers and bank accounts.

"Puxa, meu. God illuminated a path for you and he just gave me life with nothing. Come on…please."

Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer statue.  Kenneth Rapoza"I need to eat, too."

"Uê, you said you were working here. Aren't you making money tomorrow?"

"Okay. Come on, we'll split the money and I will buy you a pastel de carne."

He gets mad. "But I just ate. I'm not hungry. What am I going to eat tomorrow?"

"I can't give you all my money because then I won't be able to eat," I tell him. The cabana stands on Avenida Atlantica didn't always like making change unless you bought something. Money was scarce. "Come on, I'll buy you a pastel."

"I don't want a pastel. I just ate. What am I going to eat tomorrow?" he asks and lunged for my wrist, grabbing it in his hand. He anchored his body weight so that I couldn't move without making a show of force to push him away.

"Let go of me, and I will help you." The command came out with the utmost confidence, sort of like a cop or a spy who knew that something really dangerous could unfold and the only way to fool yourself into thinking positive was to display a certain degree of fearlessness. Ronaldo let go and stepped back. I took two steps away, then turned around to face him, reaching to shake his hand again, "Nice meeting you," I say, securing with my thumb against my palm a pink ten note with a parrot on it. We shook hands like a maitre de and a casino guest looking for the best seat in the house, then separated. "Look in your hand. You'll eat tonight and I will not. Tá bom? Tchau-tchau."

His energized face turned solemn when I told him that he would eat in my place. It seemed as if he wanted to reply. Instead, he looked in his hand, and then looked at me, then we were apart for good and we did not exchange a single word and nobody except the moon, a hovering bird and a careful and patient observer witnessed the interaction.

Brasilians play a game of

When You Go:

Getting There:

Varig Brazil Airlines links Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and New York to Rio de Janiero. Visit their website at www.varigbrasil.com/english/

Other Information:

For hotel and tourist information go to Brazilian Tourism Information: www.brazilinfo.com/index_en.htm

The writer recommends the pricey but nice Sofitel Rio Palace Hotel and urges caution at cheaper hotels in Ipanema.

For those who have never been to Brazil, the Guarana to drink is Antartica. (Guarana has significantly more caffeine then coke or coffee.)

Copacabana has a lot of outdoor restaurants, all moderately priced meals to cheap eats. Don't eat outdoors unless you want to be haggled for money.
 

"Hmmmm," was all I could think to say. All these toothless guys like Ronaldo had was God. And God can't even give this guy a dozen crappy cans of soda to sell to recycle. Instead, he's got half a dozen. I didn't know where I stood with God, so the only thing I thought to say instead of a mumble was a quote from Jesus: 'the flesh is weak.' Even Jesus had it bad. This really is a rough world. "You make your living collecting cans?"

"Yeah. It's honest work. Today was too cold." It was about 85 degrees. "Tomorrow's a holiday in Rio. The beach is gonna be lotado," he says, squinting as if the sun were in his eyes. He demonstrated with his hands just how crowded Copacabana would be in the morning by stretching his arms out wide. With the beach a hundred yards away, his opened arms appeared to hold the entire ocean in suspended animation.

"What do you do with the money you make? Do you have a house?" I ask.

"I've got a house."

I asked the following in the coolest, subtlest, gentlest way possible so he wouldn't feel like I was interrogating him. "Do you spend it on drugs and stuff?"

"Naw, man!" he counters angrily. "I don't spend I do honest work!" He slapped his upper arms. They were probably about 14 inches thick and he probably weighed about 165 pounds. He was no wimp. "Sometimes I'll smoke some marijuana. But, I don't have the money for that. My street is full of it. Drugs everywhere."

"It's bad?"

"It's bad? Do you see how the drug dealers shut this city down last week? They said to these store owners here that if you open your doors Monday, you're dead," he says, pointing a fake gun to my head and pulling the trigger.

"I know. It's bad. Filho da puta..."

"Puxa, meu. You've got children and parents on drugs in my street, meu."

A young boy, about ten-years-old, approached Ronaldo from behind. He stood as tall as Ronaldo sitting down and had a piece of tree bark in his thick hair. He was not wearing a shirt. His teeth were whiter than stars.

"I don't have any money for you," Ronaldo tells him, and then points to me. "Ask him. He's got money!"

The barefooted boy holds out his hand. I had some loose change and a 10 Brazilian "reais" note in my pocket, which was the equivalent of $2.85. "All I've got is change," I tell him. He keeps his palms up, half smiling. It is getting darker out. "Here"

The young boy slowly moved the coins around in his hand.

"Puxa! Look at him, counting his money in front of you! No shame! Sem vergonha, p," Ronaldo says and the boy seems to like it, because he chuckles without making a sound. His eyes light up.

"What've you got?" I ask him.

"Ninety cents total," he replies, and then walks off without saying a word.

I turn to Ronaldo, somewhat reserved. He had become my friend just then. "He's not going to spend what little he has on drugs is he?"

"No."

"Do you know him?" I ask.

"I see him around all the time."

"Is he homeless?"

"Yeah."

"He has no family?"

"He might," Ronaldo suggests. "But they don't take care of him."

"You have children."

"No," he says, and I didn't know if he had lied before and was telling the truth now. Then he twists his torso towards me and explodes, "Puxa, meu! Are you sure you're not gay?"

"Enough of this already."

"Alright. I'm sorry."

"I gotta go now. I'm waiting for a friend."

"Why did you come here?" he asks, reaching for my hand to shake again.

"To work. And to meet a friend," I say, shaking his hand and then letting go. I thought the worst out loud in the dark. "You trying to mug me or something?"

"Tcch, no way. Never. I'm a man of God," he said.

"Good, I gotta go now. I have to get ready to go out to eat. I'm hungry."

I stood up and wiped sand that had stuck to my white pants. He stood up, too. "Hey, man," he says, calmly. "Can you give me some money?"

", Ronaldo, I thought you said you weren't going to ask me for money?"

"I said I wasn't going to rob you."

"I just have 10 reais in my pocket and I need it to eat tonight with my friend," I say, though there is much more in other pant pockets and drawers and bank accounts.

"Puxa, meu. God illuminated a path for you and he just gave me life with nothing. Come onplease."

Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer statue.  Kenneth Rapoza"I need to eat, too."

"U, you said you were working here. Aren't you making money tomorrow?"

"Okay. Come on, we'll split the money and I will buy you a pastel de carne."

He gets mad. "But I just ate. I'm not hungry. What am I going to eat tomorrow?"

"I can't give you all my money because then I won't be able to eat," I tell him. The cabana stands on Avenida Atlantica didn't always like making change unless you bought something. Money was scarce. "Come on, I'll buy you a pastel."

"I don't want a pastel. I just ate. What am I going to eat tomorrow?" he asks and lunged for my wrist, grabbing it in his hand. He anchored his body weight so that I couldn't move without making a show of force to push him away.

"Let go of me, and I will help you." The command came out with the utmost confidence, sort of like a cop or a spy who knew that something really dangerous could unfold and the only way to fool yourself into thinking positive was to display a certain degree of fearlessness. Ronaldo let go and stepped back. I took two steps away, then turned around to face him, reaching to shake his hand again, "Nice meeting you," I say, securing with my thumb against my palm a pink ten note with a parrot on it. We shook hands like a maitre de and a casino guest looking for the best seat in the house, then separated. "Look in your hand. You'll eat tonight and I will not. T bom? Tchau-tchau."

His energized face turned solemn when I told him that he would eat in my place. It seemed as if he wanted to reply. Instead, he looked in his hand, and then looked at me, then we were apart for good and we did not exchange a single word and nobody except the moon, a hovering bird and a careful and patient observer witnessed the interaction.

Brasilians play a game of

When You Go:

Getting There:

Varig Brazil Airlines links Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and New York to Rio de Janiero. Visit their website at www.varigbrasil.com/english/

Other Information:

For hotel and tourist information go to Brazilian Tourism Information: www.brazilinfo.com/index_en.htm

The writer recommends the pricey but nice Sofitel Rio Palace Hotel and urges caution at cheaper hotels in Ipanema.

For those who have never been to Brazil, the Guarana to drink is Antartica. (Guarana has significantly more caffeine then coke or coffee.)

Copacabana has a lot of outdoor restaurants, all moderately priced meals to cheap eats. Don't eat outdoors unless you want to be haggled for money.