David Cogswell | April 05, 2016 1:00 PM ET
Knocked Down in Rio
Sometimes your good deed for the day is just to do nothing.
That was the case for me the day my Brazilian friend was showing me around Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro. It was late afternoon and the sun had just moved behind Two Brothers Mountains at far the end of the beach, leaving a spectacular composition of orange, pink, blue and purple streaks across the sky over the horizon. The sky was still bright, but city lights were starting to turn on as the evening approached.
The beach was still full of busy Cariocas, Rio natives popping volleyballs back and forth, skateboarding, swimming, jogging, doing flips, riding bikes or just being gorgeous on the beach. It was the whole glorious spectrum of lively, beautiful Brazilians at a legendary beach with a reputation of being one of the sexiest places in the world.
Half an hour before, we had been in the bar where Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes had written the song "Girl From Ipanema" enjoying Caipirinhas, the drink made from the Brazilian liquor cachaça, lime juice and lots of sugar.
Back in 1962 it was called Veloso's Bar, but now it bears the name in Portuguese of the song that is its claim to fame: "Garota de Ipanema."
Nothing could better get you in the mood for Ipanema Beach than a Caipirinha. It was all absolutely fantastic, larger than life. Rio is so incredibly beautiful and vibrant, it lives up to its legend and more. It is over the top, beyond human comprehension. Just being there is almost too much to believe.
We walked around along the beach, taking it in, my friend pointing out things of interest. The cars streaming along Avenida Atlantica along the beach had begun to turn on their lights.
But all good things must end, and after taking in as much as we had time for, we reluctantly turned to cross the broad avenue. The beach was crowded, the sidewalk was full of moving people, the street was streaming with cars and motorcycles as well as bicycles in the bike lane that was drawn onto the street with a white line on the pavement four feet from the curb.
There were people all around us as we stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street. Suddenly my attention was captured by an angry yell to my left and I realized I was blocking the way of a vendor who was trying to pilot his cumbersome food cart from the sidewalk over the curb to cross the street. I apologized profusely and stepped back to get out of the way to let him cross.
Impact! Suddenly something collided into me. In a moment that seemed to stretch out in time I felt myself losing my balance, teetering. It seemed to play out in slow motion. I had plenty of time to observe and think about what was happening, but I couldn’t move fast enough to recover my balance. I let myself go down.
I had my cell phone in my right hand and as I put down the heel of my hand on the pavement to break my fall, I was careful to avoid smashing the phone.
Then I was on the warm pavement, my perspective radically altered as I looked up to see people looking down at me. Despite the language barrier, I knew they were asking me if I was all right.
As I had turned around to face the angry vendor, I had not realized that I was standing in the bike lane. When I stopped to get out of the vendor’s way, I threw off the timing of a bicyclist gliding by in the bike lane, and she had plowed into me.
The only pain I felt was acute embarrassment. I got up to a standing position as quickly as I could. A friendly man was asking me if I was okay. I nodded that I was. And then there was the bicyclist, a pretty, athletic woman in her early 20s, still straddling her bike, with a withering expression on her face.
I approached her obsequiously and told her in English how sorry I was for blocking the bike lane. She looked at me blankly, not understanding my words. I felt stupid. She looked fearful. My friend came to the rescue and spoke to her in Portuguese. She was afraid that she was in big trouble. If you are a bicyclist, even if people are stupid enough to linger in the bike lane, it is your responsibility to avoid hitting them.
But it was my fault. I was the clueless foreigner who didn’t know what I was doing. First I had gotten in the way of the vendor and then I had blocked the bicyclist.
It was all resolved in a flash. My friend asked me if I was OK, and I said was. We had a friendly word with the cyclist, bid her fond farewell, pulled ourselves out of the crowd that had gathered and turned once again to cross Avenida Atlantica.
The bicyclist was visibly relieved that she was off the hook. No police. No insurance companies. No exchange of phone numbers. Nothing. It was over, as if it had never happened.
I was happy to see her gloomy expression give way to a smile that lit up her natural vivaciousness. My friend and I turned to go, and she mounted the cycle again and prepared to continue her ride.
My humiliation was subsiding. I was happy to flee the scene of my embarrassing moment, get the hell out of there and get on to our next adventure.
It was all over in a flash.
Authentic experiences? Encounters with locals? Yeah, I would say that qualifies. You would never see it in the tour operators’ brochures: “Day Four. See Ipanema Beach, get knocked over by a beautiful Brazilian bicyclist.” But it had an effect on me. And I'll never forget it. It was an odd way to experience Ipanema Beach, but not a bad way.
Tour operators like to say that they can arrange things for you at the destination that you can’t get for yourself. I would venture to say that even a tour operator couldn’t, or wouldn’t set up such an encounter as I had at Ipanema Beach that day. And yet it was a special encounter, part of a very special day in Rio, a day I was so lucky to have.
Somehow though it was all over so fast, and though I don’t know the bicyclist’s name and will never know any more about her, somehow it was a meaningful encounter. Why? I can’t say. But if felt that way to me.
It brings to mind a quote of the Colombian writer Laura Restrepo.
“Those of us who make a living by writing live for the hunt of minute coincidences and subtler proofs that reassure us that what we write is, if not necessary, at least useful. Because it responds to currents that flow beneath what is ordinarily apparent, currents that turn back upon themselves and twist fate in circles. I also told him that a blind poet named Jorge Luis Borges believed that every casual meeting is an appointment.”
So it may well be.
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