Caipirinha Nights: An American in Rio

Miscegenation Gone Wild
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 16 2006 7:16 AM

Caipirinha Nights: An American in Rio

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Let's talk about sex.

Despite some fierce competition, Brazil in general and Rio in particular rank supreme in the world's libidinous subconscious. Whisper the country's name and, after soccer, sex is the next association. If you don't believe me, just tell your girlfriend that you are traveling to Rio for an assignment and then try to explain why it's best that you go alone.

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And yet one has to wonder why Brazil holds this special place in humanity's fantasies.

Certainly, one must consider Rio's Carnaval, a festival that puts the baby-got-back back into Bacchanalia. And then there is the beach culture, especially the gatas ("attractive women") wearing tangas ("string bikinis"—thus, the Brazilian wax), who are the unofficial symbol of Rio. Their girl-from-Ipanema backsides are prominently displayed in ads across the city. Even the men get into the action with sungas ("Speedo-type swimsuits"), which are worn regardless of physique.

But physical beauty is the ideal, honed on the beaches and bronzed under the equatorial sun. And wealthy Brazilians are not shy about improving upon what God has given them. Rio is probably the only city on Earth where a plastic surgeon owns the finest mansion in town—a prominent stop on my city tour. Another stop is his charity hospital, which I assume is a combination of noblesse oblige and a desire to keep the poor masses from storming his gates.

Still, there is something more to it than this.

If you were a Martian anthropologist visiting Earth for the first time and landed at, say, Buckingham Palace, you might conclude that humans reproduce asexually. But even a Martian couldn't make that mistake in Brazil. The country is Bob Jones University's worst nightmare: miscegenation gone wild. Every imaginable combination of European, African, and Amerindian reproduction is in evidence. When government poll-takers asked Brazilians to describe their skin color in 1976, they received back 134 different terms.

It is the unspoken understanding that the difference between North and South America is that, unlike the Anglo-Saxons who set up shop at Plymouth Rock, the Iberian gentlemen who migrated to the New World had few qualms about "nighttime integration." In his delightfully digressive book A Death in Brazil, Peter Robb argues that the Portuguese crown must have encouraged its colonialists to cross-pollinate because the country's 16th-century population of 4 million was too small to conquer a country the size of Brazil, but based on my observation of a couple of Portuguese buddies, I doubt the colonialists needed much encouragement. Whatever the causes of this divergence, it is the results that seem to boil Yankee blood, turning even those with the most refined of sensibilities into drooling dirty old men.

Take for example John Updike, the literary lion of The New Yorker. His best seller Brazil sought to reinterpret the Tristan and Isolde legend for the New World (Tristão is a poor black boy; Isabel a wealthy blonde) and answer one of the great hypotheticals of 20th-century literature: What if Borges had penned a Penthouse letter? Here is Updike in an early, but typical, passage: "Standing with her [Isabel] in the warming waterfall, soaping her skin so its yielding silk was overlaid with a white grease, and then letting her soap him [Tristão] in turn, he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam, bursting with weight."

(Far be it for someone as lowly as me to critique my betters, but when I write Afro-Brazilian black-on-white erotic fiction I find that yam, while culturally and pornographically relevant as a metaphor because it is grown in West Africa and can grow up to 7 feet and 150 pounds, sounds somewhat silly. I prefer to go with a more vigorous euphemism like Shango's thunderstick.)

For purely professional reasons, I decided to do an investigative report on sex in Brazil. My first stop was Rio's red-light district, located at the northern end of Copacabana Beach. For a city of 5 million that is also a major destination spot for priapic tourists, it hardly qualified as a district, barely big enough to fit into one corner of Amsterdam's version—half a dozen strip clubs and a half-block of mini-skirted gatas leaning into taxi windows with their pimps standing by. I stood outside Niko's—Rio's most prominent "American bar," a term that signifies lap dances—long enough to question my journalistic ethics and decide my heart wasn't in it.

Walking toward my hotel at 2:30 in the morning, I arrived at HELP, the biggest discotheque off Copacabana Beach. After dropping $20 for the cover charge, I noticed a brass plaque laying out the criminal code related to prostituição.

Riding the elevator to the relevant floor, I stepped into a space designed in a style reminiscent of the hangar bay on the Battlestar Galactica. Looking around, I quickly figured out what sort of help the club provided. There were a couple of dozen European men and about three times as many Brazilian gatas.

After ordering my caipirinha, I sat down on an elevated stage in the back to get a more reportorial perspective. Almost every Western male was accounted for, and race clearly played a factor. The lighter the skin of the gata, the younger and more virile her European date. Except for me, the only unpaired male was a freak dancing around the floor in a manner that was so clearly unhinged that even the working girls refused to go near him.

As I sipped my drink, a bathtub mix of cachaca that I could almost feel killing brain cells, I felt a missile of intent lock in on my coordinates.

"You are American, I think," she said as she sidled next to me.

"Why do you think that?"

"Because you look stupid."

Charmed by her bold opening gambit, I took the bait, "And why are Americans stupid?"

To this question, she launched into a diatribe in a mixture of Portuguese and pidgin English. I couldn't follow everything she was saying, but I distinctly heard the words "Bush" and "Iraq." Forget the Zogby polls; this is how far we have fallen in the eyes of the rest of the world—even a Brazilian working girl feels the need to lecture a potential American john.

My mood significantly dampened, and in need of a change in topic, I pointed to a European on the dance floor: "Where do you think he's from?"

"Italy."

"Why?"

"He knows fun."

"Well, it was very nice to meet you," I said.

"No," she said. "We should, ah, transar." (Transar: "1. Make a deal; 2. Have sex.")

"Even though I'm a stupid American?"

"It's OK."

"I'm really sorry, but I have a girlfriend."

"Is she here?"

"Ah, um, no," I stuttered. "In America."

"I have boyfriend," she said as she playfully bumped me. "But he is far away. In the north."

Moral equivalency is a hard position to argue against without seeming rude. For a second, I considered the famous line about Brazil ascribed to a 16th-century Portuguese navigator: "There is no sin south of the equator"—the ancestor of the "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" ad campaign.

"I'm really sorry, but I can't, um, chifrar," I said. "Be unfaithful."

Using Carioca slang was probably a mistake. As her eyes lit up, she grabbed my hand, turned it over hers—which I noted with some concern were about the size of Mean Joe Green's—and read my palm.

"You are lonely here in Brazil."

"Maybe, but I still have a girlfriend."

"I have a boyfriend."

We repeated the steps of this dance for several minutes until she finally became convinced my blushing and head-ducking were not a passive-aggressive negotiating strategy. Her body stiffened. In one fluid movement, she reached across to snatch my caipirinha out of my hands and pour it into her glass.

"Americans," she said as she stalked away. "Very stupid."

I would have drunk to that, but my glass was now empty.

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