“Sorry, can you tell me where the Academia Brasileira de Letras memorial is?”
“Who are you looking for?”
“Machado de Assis.”
“Relative of yours?”
If you asked me, in all good faith and honest curiosity, what the ceremony at the Vale do Amanhecer was about, I would have to admit that I have no idea. I do feel bad about this. It is my responsibility, in a certain sense, as chronicler and storyteller, to be able to provide you with an idea of what it was exactly that we witnessed. But unfortunately, short of yelling “Look over there” and running away, I have very few outs. So I will forge ahead in my task with the full knowledge of my defects, much like someone trying to make a getaway in a booted car.
Our tour guide was a youngish guy with some sort of a speech impediment that made me give up on understanding him almost immediately. I wasn’t alone in this. “At first I thought he was switching ts for ps, but I think he just switches everything with everything,” said one of my friends in quiet despair. His job was to keep an eye on us while the ceremony went on, which he did admirably, apart from periodically offering earnest and utterly enigmatic bits of information.
Soon the area around the star was packed with the faithful – nymphs (women) and jaguars (men) in all their finery (and I do mean finery), queueing up to do something. For a long time people just arrived and got in line; then, if memory serves, a quavering voice started singing bizarre hymns over the outdoors loudspeaker system and the line began to move. It was a testament to the extraordinarily odd asymmetrical configuration of the place that it wasn’t even clear where the line (a “fila magnética,” to be precise) was going. Some princesses walked up a ramp, some couples walked down through a series of arches half-genuflecting as they did, others plodded in the opposite direction towards a raised pavilion. Someone started preaching eventually, if that’s the word for it, but none of us could figure out where the voice was coming from. The sun was tanning-bed deadly, beating down on us and the seemingly indifferent nymphs and jaguars.
Here’s a brief video I shot of the nymphs’ procession and then a bit of the sermon – in which the pastor?priest?jaguar? reels off a list of amazingly nonsensical titles for himself, my favorite being green knight, special knight.
After lunch – punctuated with comments from our political scientist friend – we piled back into the car to try to find the Vale do Amanhecer’s star. Apparently it was up on top of a hill? And this is where they channeled the energy of the sun and the moon to make holy water? We’d all listened to the same tour, but somehow everyone came away with slightly different interpretations. I would blame the água benta, but we only drank it at the very end. Not only that, but it came out in our discussions that each of us had very different ideas of what the star would be like. Personally, I was kind of hoping for a silvery asteroid with a spring bubbling from it. I think in the end we were all disappointed.
The Vale do Amanhecer is tiny, and it would’ve been easy to go on foot, but as we were walking over to the lanchonete – two of us toting enormous DSLRs – a guy passing in a car warned very sincerely us not to wander too far to the west. So we piled into the car and headed up one of the Vale’s main roads. Sometimes you can almost mistake the Vale for a normal little town in the middle of nowhere – rows and rows of low houses with small yards – but then you spot a sacred eye or a string of Stars of David in a window and you remember that, no, you’re among very special people.
This time the illusion of normalcy was shattered as we rounded a corner and saw what looked like, yes, it was definitely a sizable pyramid. And a lake? And a series of massive cut-out figures of deities hanging out at the edge of said lake (revising: more like a pond)? Everything painted in the unabashedly, starkly ugly color palette of the Vale: primary colors applied with no regard for any mortal sense of “going together.” General awestruck silence. The car crept up the hill until we were overlooking the whole mess. No star seemed to be in evidence, unless you counted the sacred-eye-full-of-Stars-of-David that we were suddenly next to. If that thing was the star, we were in trouble, because as non-adepts we weren’t supposed to be near it. Slightly uneasy, we beheld the Valley in all its splendor. Continue reading
As I begin to say my goodbyes to Rio, I’ve taken to wandering again. Monday afternoon took me in looping trails from Cinelândia to Praça XV to Praça Mauá to the Pedra do Sal over to Itamaraty, stopping in every cultural center, sebinho, and lojinha that caught my fancy (starting to contemplate getting souvenirs for family and friends, given that even I can’t convince myself that anyone back home will want to get a used copy of Quincas Borba in their stocking). And, even though I utterly failed on the souvenir front, the Livraria Camerino ended up winning my heart. “I’ve found the best sebo in all of Rio de Janeiro,” I wrote to two friends the next day. “É 30% livros e 70% poeira.”
I was making my way back from the Pedra do Sal, going nowhere in particular, when a pile of LPs in an open storefront caught my eye. I came in, said my hellos, and, to the proprietors’ evident consternation, began rummaging. Judging from the level of dust on them, the records seemed not to have been touched in several years; either that or the two guys behind the counter make a point of sprinkling their wares with dust as a sort of preservative, because soon my fingertips were almost black.
I squeezed my way through the narrow little aisles, price-checking Mário de Andrade and Fernando Pessoa, until I spotted what looked like a treasure trove: the bookstore’s back room, a narrow doorway opening onto a cavernous dark storage space. I made my way back to the front desk and begged the owner to turn on the light. “That’s our extra stock,” he said confusedly. “I know, I just want to see it.”
“It is very dusty, you realize”, he said somewhat frowningly. Yes, I realized. Continue reading