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Cougars in Copacabana

12:45 AM May 27, 2015

With great alacrity but careful to “double the money and discard half the clothes,” I packed for my Brazil-Argentina trip early this month. I was determined to travel light and challenged myself to live out of the regulation 12×21 carry-on suitcase plus a backpack for the 10-day trip. Rolling each garment as tightly as I could to squeeze out air and maximize space, I managed to cram among my clothes several warm camisoles for layering, a gray woolen sweater that would serve as my jacket, and a light raincoat to protect from the spray of Iguazu Falls. I threw in a white wide-brimmed cricket referee’s hat from Sri Lanka and slipped my laptop into my backpack where I had already stashed my pills and cosmetics. A pair of walking boots completed my ensemble.

When I arrived at the Miami airport, the gateway to South America, I felt like it had swallowed and disgorged me into another country where only Spanish was spoken. Engulfed in the Spanish sounds and feeling very much like a stranger, I gave in to the moment as a way to prepare for the trip, but I realized that I had overestimated my language ability as soon as my group arrived in Rio. Trying to make conversation, I asked the hotel receptionist the name of Brazil’s president. I expected to hear something like “Dilma Rousseff,” but what I heard sounded, well, foreign. My first cultural shock disabused me of my notion that I could understand Portuguese just because I spoke Spanish.

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For the longest time, “Corcovado” and “Copacabana” meant little to me, and I knew “Ipanema” only because of Frank Sinatra. They leapt to life when we rode up the 2,000-foot-high mountain in a cable car to reach the top where the statue of Christ the Redeemer lords it over everything below. The concrete statue stands like a steady presence guarding the Brazilian faithful. The Iguazu Falls has always beckoned because it challenges the mind. How can anything be three times as wide as the Niagara? Eleanor Roosevelt was reported to have exclaimed something like “Poor Niagara!” when she saw the Iguazu. It overwhelms with its size and power and dazzles with its magnificence. To appreciate its full sweep, one should try to hike the mile-long upper and lower circuits, but with well-conditioned legs because of several steep stairs. As I was bringing up the rear on the last few feet of the circuit, I was glad I stuck to those daily asanas and crunches. Both the physical preparation and mental preparation are key to enhancing one’s appreciation of the “Foz.” The sight is so mind-boggling that the human mind almost fails to wrap itself around it, like the photos taken by Hubble in space.

But the gem that caught my eye in Rio was this: the carefree revelers on the beaches of Copacabana. One afternoon, I grabbed some downtime to lose myself alone in the crowd, and absorb the local energy by just watching the scene. I was blown away by the Brazilians’ almost total unconcern for bodily appearance as they sauntered by, relaxed and oblivious of how they looked. A 50-year-old beachgoer’s skimpy Speedo clings below his oversized gut but he struts in his Havaianas with the bravado of a catwalk model. Women with sagging breasts stride with pride in their stretched bikini, in utter disregard of others’ eyes. Couples did not always seem to match. I saw some men with women who haven’t got it anymore, and women who could have done better than their current beaus. One was almost tempted to make a bad joke and ask, “What were you thinking?” But everyone played it cool and ignored the incongruous pairings in color, height, weight, looks, gender and age. The unconventional Leni Riefenstahl, original cougar and movie director, would have felt comfortable in Copacabana. She was already 60, albeit a legend, when she took up with her 20-year-old boyfriend Horst like latter-day cougarettes Demi Moore and Halle Berry.

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If this perception proves false, can one blame TV images of suntanned and Brazilian-peeled Carioca bodies for distorting the flesh-and-blood reality? Have the wideness of the sea and the constant tallness of the surrounding mountains taught Brazilians that physical differences do not mean much? Perhaps the subtle caipirinha packs enough power to blast away irrelevant ideas, bestowing on the Brazilians the Holy Grail we all long for: The ability to see beyond skin-deep flab and focus only on what’s in the heart. The idea inspired an amateur haiku:

Let’s love in Rio

Lost to all but each other

Turkey neck and all.

From the samba and caipirinha of Copacabana, our travel group shifted moods in Buenos Aires with Malbec, melt-in-the-mouth barbecue, and tango. I wondered how Argentina compared with the Philippines: Both were ruled by the Spaniards and the Catholic Church for three centuries. One stunning difference stood out. On July 2010, the Argentine legislature approved same-sex marriage—the first country in Latin America and the 10th worldwide to do so. In contrast, Filipino legislators can hardly pronounce the word “divorce” without gagging.

Speaking of words, “Evita” is better left unspoken in urban polite company lest the talk unleash fiery Latin tempers; the masses continue to revere her. No ruins like Machu Picchu in either country, only living legends Bergoglio and Tagle. Like the Mindanao natives, the Argentine tribes fought off the conquistadores and were never subdued. In the end, lured by gold in Colombia and Peru, the Spaniards left Argentina and were replaced in the 1800s by millions of hard-working Italians and French. Perhaps owing to them, Buenos Aires today enchants with elegance and sophistication, the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, and the incomparable delicacy of a warm empanada. It bewitches no end.

Violy Hughes, 76, is a balikbayan who lives in Ohio in the United States and San Pablo City. She retired from The Ohio State University in Columbus.

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TAGS: argentina, Brazil, Buenos Aires, caipirinha, Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana, Corcovado, cougars, Evita, Iguazu Falls, Ipanema, Jorge Luis Borges
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