The first time you visit Rio de Janeiro, fly. The second time, I suggest that you go by ship. On that first trip, fly into Rio from the south, preferably from Montevideo or Buenos Aires--even from Sao Paulo, Brazil's thundering, big, industrial metropolis. Book passage aboard a plane scheduled to arrive at sunset or minutes afterward, when the sky will be darkening along the rugged coast, above the steep, deep valleys, with a million city lights coming on.
Time yourself to reach the city at the moment the floodlights illuminate the 126-foot statue of Christ atop the 2,366-foot peak of Corcovado the Hunchback, which will be the moment, too, that Sugar Loaf's 1,283-foot summit is lighted at the bay's entrance. Inland from the sea, the lights will spring up in all the twisted canyons caught between the dark, thrusting hills. Then, you will achieve some understanding of the bumptious pride of Rio.
As you've doubtlessly observed, most places on earth look quite a lot like someplace else; Buenos Aires looks surprisingly like London, and also Rome, but--here's my point--Rio de Janeiro is different. Rio is generis . Because of that marvelous, great blue bay, because of those intrusive mountains that steal much of the show in every vista, Rio is an original. Rio de Janeiro looks like nothing but Rio de Janeiro.
Rio people call their town Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City), which to some may seem an excess of self-esteem; yet, there's a leavening sense of humor close beside. Rio bristles at criticism from outsiders, but within the family it kids itself unmercifully. A favorite carnival song one season extolled the exquisite beauty of the Cidade Maravilhosa , which, the lyric confessed, "in daytime has no water and at nighttime has no lights." It's a fact that this jampacked pleasure resort of 5 million people--nearly the size of Los Angeles and Paris combined--struggles along with ramshackle public services. Water supply, electric-power supply and public transportation are light-years away from dependability. They break down, jam up, blow up. Yet, nobody gets really mad about it; hardly anyone writes letters to the editor. Typically, they compose songs instead and go lie on the beaches until the mains are repaired.
As I said at the outset, arriving at Rio on shipboard is good too. On my very first trip, I huddled on the bridge deck in pre-dawn chill, watching a nearly full, butter-colored moon slip behind the western peaks. I was pleased to recognize Corcovado and the Sugar Loaf. I had not expected the mountains to be so high; I had not expected the city to be so white.
Rio is one thing at dawn, with the sky soft as silk . . . another at noonday, when the searing metallic sun cooks the pavements . . . very much another thing in moonlight, which seems to galvanize both sexes. I can add to the picture only by declaring that Rio's great bay is one mile wide at the mouth, 18 miles wide at the broadest point and has 100 miles of shoreline. All the navies of the world could be accommodated in this Guanabara Bay, although much of it is shallow, and some navies, at least, would run aground.
On the noonday of my initial arrival at Rio, I lunched with a Brazilian newspaperman at a gracious restaurant called Ouro Verde, overlooking Copacabana beach. We drank a caipirinha cocktail, a tasty concoction of raw rum laced with lime, and ate, of course, Brazil's national dish, feijoada completa , a sovereign masterpiece of culinary art--black beans, rice, sausages, pork and more . . . much more.
My host talked winningly. "To discuss this city as a place ," he said, "is misleading. Rather, you should understand that Rio is a spirit, constructed of emotion. I will explain carefully. The facts concerning Rio are simply the dull data of universal urbanization--discovered by so-and-so, founded in the year such-and-such, so many square miles, so much population. I believe that we should all resist such facts.
"I should hate," he continued, "to know Rio's per-capita income, because such mundane matters actually impede understanding. Would you seek to comprehend a lovely woman by memorizing her blood pressure and her pulse count? Never!"
Dinner time came, and for dinner I sat in a German restaurant on the Avenida Atlantica, in Copacabana, and listened to further searching observations, these from an American advertising man called Red. Red loves Rio; he swears that he'll never leave there. In a tone that would brook no argument, Red said: "Rio is the sexiest city in the world."
"I suppose so," I said. "I suppose . . . ."