The heat is overpowering. The sky of Rio de Janeiro stretches blue and untouched above my head. Homeless men line the sidewalk, passed out in drug-induced sleep, no shirt upon their backs, skin jet-black from the sun. A woman walks past me, nursing her naked brown baby at her bare breast.
People swarm the Ipanema Beach, dressed in as little as possible. String bikinis, speedos, tube tops, no tops. I am dying in capris and a t-shirt, my umbrella open above me, giving only slight relief from the sun.
There is a tropical magic in the air. This is the region where the famous “Girl from Ipanema” was composed. The story goes that Antonio Carlos Jobimwould sit every morning in his favorite cafe facing the window and see a blonde-haired beauty walk by on her way to work. He composed the bossa nova jazz tune and had his friend, Vinicius de Moraes compose lyrics to match the story. I understand the curiously striking and exotic aura of the song, seeing the hot charm of the Ipanema Beach.
Our hearts are beating irregularly from the heat, so we stop at a side cafe and get a glass of sugar cane juice to cool off. It is fascinating to see the long green stalks grind into the great juicing machine. Every restaurant, cafe, gas station has one of these. Even at the very smallest, greasiest dive you can get a glass of fresh-squeezed mango juice.
I drink the sweet green juice, trying to still the beating of my dehydrated heart. But it makes me thirstier, so, seeinga concessions stand with a big waterfall of coconuts hanging off the side, we head for some coconut water. One coconut is 5 reals, a little over 1 American dollar. We order two, watching as the man gets an ax and lops off the tops of the coconuts and sticks a straw inside. It is raw, sweet, refreshing. The hairy coconut is heavy and awkward in my hands.
We pose for a picture with the statue of Antonio Jobim, the blue umbrella framing our faces and melding magically into the sky. Teenagers from the favelas sit under scant trees, selling handmade jewelry and woven baskets. I buy a mismatched pair of feather earrings.
Then my husband points it out. The Ipanema Cafe, where Antonio Jobim wrote “The Girl from Ipanema”, sitting in a sticky corner overlooking the simmering sidewalk. The restaurant is packed to the gills, the fans whirring desperately above the pictures on the walls of Jobim’s manuscript.
I push through to sit at the one empty table without waiting for the receptionist. A drop of sweat runs down my back. I lift my hair, all two feet of it, twisting it on top of my head, feeling the fan on the nape of my neck, the breeze wafting through the open windows. I wave a hand at the waiter, “Con license! Con license!” No one seems to understand my version of “Excuse me.” Finally he turns towards me, sees my raised hand. “Agua. Agua.” I mime drinking desperately. James tries to supplement my broken Portuguese. Sizzling iron skillets of picanha float to the tables around me, adding to the heat of the room.
My heart flutters. Weariness and nausea from the heat overtakes me. It becomes apparent to me that I need to get back to the hotel before I die. Visions of the swimming pool flash through my head. I slap a mosquito off my arm and call an Uber on my iPhone. The waiter brings two water bottles. I guzzle mine, marveling how the locals around me aren’t affected by the heat. They are laughing, talking, eating hot food, drinking beer and Guarana sodas.
I feel like a tourist. I suppose because I am a tourist. I am in South America and I feel a sudden happiness at the experience, the adventure, being able to see what life is like on the other side of the equator, even though it may give me a heat stroke. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
We leave 5 reals on the table and climb into the Uber. The air conditioning hits me like heaven. Cold, sweet luxury. I lean my head back and dream of the hotel swimming pool only ten minutes away.
Hear my favorite version of "The Girl from Ipanema" here.