One of the advantages of practicing optometry in downtown Berkeley, California was the opportunity to meet people from every conceivable place on the spectrum of humanity. One moment I could be chatting with a Pulitzer Prize winner and an hour later I’d be airing out the exam room after working with a homeless street person. I look at those two examples as extremes, but if you don’t, I respect that.
Occasionally, a couple, sometimes married, would arrive and while I was examining one the other might sit in the extra exam room chair observing—or putting in his or her two cents when I’d ask the patient a question.
One such couple that I recall well were both physicians from Brazil who were attending a medical conference in the Bay Area. He was Lafayette, an orthopedist, and she was Lillian, a dermatologist. They each spoke English quite well and were, like most Brazilians, cheerful and friendly.
When I mentioned that my wife and I would be visiting Buenos Aires in a few months, the husband quickly suggested, “As long as you’re in South America, you should come to Rio de Janeiro—you can stay in our apartment overlooking Ipanema Beach.” His wife smiled broadly, nodding in agreement.
I had been writing some notes in his chart, but this stopped me in my tracks. I recall putting my pen down on the desk as I turned to face them.
“Is this a real offer? Because if it is, I’m going to take you up on it.”
“Absolutely,” he replied. “We’re usually in São Paolo—that’s where our clinic is. So you and your wife can use the apartment for as long as you want. I can pick you up at the airport when you arrive.” He gave me a card that included both their names and other information, including a fax number. Much international communication was done by fax in those pre-internet days. “Just fax me with your arrival and flight information.”
We finished the eye examinations and I asked again if this was really okay. They both assured me that they love having guests stay in their apartment and that we were sure to have a wonderful time.
When they left the office, I called Sharon.
“We’re going to Rio!”
She was rightly puzzled. “But our trip is to Argentina. Rio’s in Brazil.”
“That’s right. We’re going to both countries!”
I explained the offer we’d just received, and so began the readjustment of travel plans. It was only later that I discovered that Rio de Janeiro is over 1,600 miles from Buenos Aires—about the same distance between New York and Houston. But free is free. Not only that, but I had long been a lover of Bossa Nova, and a visit to Brazil was very high on my to-do list.
Today, Rio de Janeiro’s international airport is named after the legendary Brazilian composer and musician, Antônio Carlos Jobim. This fact makes me wonder why no major American airport is named after Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. “This is the captain speaking. Please fasten your seat belts. We’ll soon be landing at Rodgers and Hammerstein Airport.”
But Americans would rather name airports after such luminaries as Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. (sigh)
Travel plans were adjusted, and as the date of departure grew closer, I worried that my language skills might not be up to the level required. We knew some Spanish, but other than a few Jobim song titles, my Portuguese was nonexistent. I was informed, however, that Brazilians can understand Spanish, and I later found that generally to be the case.
A few weeks before we were set to fly I received a fax from our hosts-to-be. “Could you please purchase a Sony Camcorder for us? The taxes would be very high if we bought it here ourselves. Just discard the packaging and carry it in a camera bag as if it were your own. We’ll reimburse you in American currency when you get here.”
“This trip to Rio was your idea,” my wife reminded me. “What are you going to do if they don’t pay you?”
“I guess I’ll be the proud owner of a Sony Camcorder.”
I had to lay out about a thousand dollars for this high-end video camera, plus the cost of the camera bag. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.
A few days before we were set to depart, another fax from Lafayette came in. “My mother-in-law needs to replace her Hoover vacuum cleaner. Can you please bring one with you?”
I pondered this as I faxed back, “Do you want the canister model or the old-fashioned push style?”
A few hours later, he replied that they wanted the old-fashioned kind. I walked around the corner to Berkeley Vacuum and Sewing Center where I plunked down another $125 for a vacuum cleaner, which they packed up in a plain cardboard box. I wondered how many other passengers would be bringing a Hoover with them.
It was a long flight to Rio and I was nervous about getting our “gifts” through customs. But they didn’t question the American tourist with a camera bag slung over his shoulder while shlepping a suitcase and a Hoover vacuum cleaner.
And when we stepped into the arrivals area, there was my friend, Lafayette the orthopedist, waiting for us. Friendly as ever, he drove us around downtown Rio and then took us to the apartment that had been owned by his family for decades. It was on the third or fourth floor of a building that was a little bit tired looking, but did indeed overlook Ipanema Beach and the ocean.
Sharon and I sat on the living room couch and in a scene out of some kind of spy movie, the doctor lowered the shades overlooking the beach. He then took a thick envelope out of his pocket and began peeling off one-hundred dollar American bills as if they were Monopoly money. The currency looked okay to me, and that was that. He said goodbye, and we never saw him again.
After settling into the apartment, we went out for a walk on the beach where we found the beautiful girls from Ipanema, most wearing both halves of their bikinis, and several sporting the results of obvious “augmentation” procedures.
Over the next few days we found our way around, eating in local restaurants and enjoying the scenery. The weather was great and, in spite of Sharon’s fears, we didn’t get mugged once.
We took a side trip to Búzios, a resort town made famous in 1964 by Brigitte Bardot. (After her visits to the town it became popular with the high society Cariocas who wanted to escape from city life.) But the two highlights of our visit—for me, at least—were both musical.
Adjacent to our apartment building was the Copacabana Hotel. At the top of the Copa was a piano bar featuring a magnificent view of Rio at night, including the famous Pão de Açúcar (aka Sugarloaf Mountain) rising above the harbor, as well as the Cristo Redentor—a giant statue at the peak of Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city.
Sitting at the grand piano with the city lights sparkling all around us was a young man in a tuxedo performing songs from the Great American Songbook. Sharon and I sat at a nearby table and seemed to be the only ones listening to him and clapping after each tune. When he took his break he came over to join us. He spoke English. I told him that I was a musician and was truly enjoying his performance.
“Would you like to play?” He seemed serious.
“Of course. I would be honored.”
As I sat down at the grand, with the lights of the city surrounding me, I knew before I played a note that I’d always recall this as a peak experience in my life. I played the introduction to “Misty,” relaxed, and took it all in. Just sublime.
The next day as we walked through the lobby of the hotel where we were having lunch, we stopped to listen to a middle-aged woman playing an upright piano near the bar. In between songs she engaged us in conversation and I told her how much I loved Brazilian music. She said, “In that case you must go to hear Leny Andrade—she’s in town.”
Although not a household name the U.S., in Brazil Leny Andrade is known as the First Lady of Jazz. Just a few years older than I, she is often compared to Sarah Vaughn. Tony Bennett once referred to her as the “Ella Fitzgerald of Brazil.”
Due to poor timing, we arrived five or ten minutes after Leni’s performance had begun. An usher escorted Sharon and me to a front row table; I felt terribly embarrassed. But we settled in and along with 150 or 200 other guests we were enthralled by the performance. It seemed Leni, accompanied by a piano-bass-drums trio, was performing every song from the Antônio Carlos Jobim songbook, and I was delightedly familiar with all of them. Occasionally, the entire audience would enthusiastically join her for a chorus (you’ll never hear a Brazilian say, “I can’t sing”). It was a great night. This was the Rio de Janiero I’d always longed to visit!
To this day, I continue to be amazed at how a series of coincidences combined to form this once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.
The next day we took a taxi to Jobim Airport and began the next chapter of our South American adventure: Buenos Aires.