Sunday, October 14, 2007

rio de janeiro, ipanema sugar loaf and christ

(View the video without sound to avoid the wrath of the evil chipmunks....I'll get them under control shortly)
Rio is a can of Sao Paulo concentrate turned inside-out. Its dramatic topography shifts the order of inhabitation such that the informal neighborhoods (favelas) which skirt Sao Paulo’s peripheral lowlands here climb steep intra-city hills. Unconquerable mountains organize the city, centering on a dialogue between two of the city’s most breathtaking vantages: Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor. The photographs at right and center were taken facing each other. Cristo is the bright white blip in the upper right corner of the night photo and the Pão is that dinosaur-egg-like protuberance above the bay.

The beach at Ipanema (image at left) wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I think I had in my head something more intimate; coves and palms and old men playing cards and drinking from coconuts, perhaps. And that untouchable girl walking to the grocery store or whatever. But in reality Ipanema is a substantial stretch of sand. It’s a sunbathing institution.

I fleshed out the beach’s remarkable social dynamic over three moderate-to-heavy sunburns. With my fellowship I’ve been looking at types of public spaces and Ipanema is certainly the epitome of its type. Without trees, without buildings (other than public bathrooms, flimsy tents, and the occasional kiosk), and even without paving, Ipanema presents unfettered (or, at most, scantily fettered) social space bounded by the ocean on one side and the boardwalk on the other.

The ocean is a dynamic boundary. The water is so cold it makes the sand feel like that granulated ice you get at Burger King soda fountains and the waves are sufficiently grand for surfing, so languid lounging doesn’t bleed into the blue like it does in more tranquil surfs. The rise of the tide acts first as a compacter and then, past a certain threshold, as an eroder. Reminded of their mobility, people eventually peel away to take their lunch or go on with their lives. With a handful of bills though, no one ever really needs to leave. An unceasing army of purveyors vending all types of food, drink, and trinkets overlays the corporal spectacle. They pass within five feet of any given point every thirty seconds singing songs of mate (tea), grilled cheese, beer, papery fried donut-like rings, and other curiosities. Some relish their patrol while others trudge along subdued but available.

Weekends usher out the entire undressed Brazilian world. The strip transforms into an unabashed repository for bodies of all ages, types, and timbres. Weekdays, however, are reserved for the specialists. There are two types of people on the beach during the weekday: men and women. Men stand and pose, women lie and bask. When the women do parade—a rare and beautiful thing—one can appreciate a unique spinal curvature that protracts the rear and ratchets the breasts horizontal. Less interesting (but very much interested) people such as myself rent chairs and wear sunglasses. The women I understand; I’m used to the idea of sunning on a beach. It’s relaxing and with a warm sun and soft breeze you can snatch an easy nap sunscreen permitting. But for the men, I can’t quite see the payoff. Well toned, chest-shaven youths will simply stand there for hours staring into space, not speaking to anyone but periodically shifting positions to self-consciously indicate various aspects of their upper body. It’s a rare brand of unrequited narcissism. Full-length beach mirrors would be a huge hit.

*center image courtesy of Ivan Valin