Here we are, on Ipanema beach. Blinding white sands, far-off rocky humps like a lady lying on her back form the horizon, and to the West impossibly steep granite teeth puncture the sky: ‘The Two Brothers’, their flatter parts blanketed in forest. And the endless vendors who pass like ants carrying their loads and straining with the weight.
A ginger-haired vendor passes. He is covered from head to toe in white cloth. On his head is a straw hat – a colonial relic – under which sits a wider green one. He looks absurd. I wonder about his ancestry: Irish? Scottish? Perhaps his great grandfather, a young dreamer bored of the grey estates of Glasgow, signed up to crew a ship bound for the Americas, and found himself here, on this very beach, when the fancy apartments were just palm trees bearing coconuts and every-coloured parrots. He saw the light, jumped ship and stayed, then founded an army of little ginger chaps to wonder the streets and remind him of Scotland.
Another vendor walks past with a useless foot. It vibrates like rubber as it flops against the sand. Those carrying lemonade carry it in cylindrical silver tubs, the ice rattles as they pass. Up above a propeller drones, mixing with the foaming sea and the cries of the vendors. It’s a plane chugging a banner through the perfect blue sky advertising a type of cachaça – sugar cane rum, the key ingredient in the Caipirinha. A few clouds congeal amongst the peaks. An ageing man stands and his belly bursts out over his shorts and comfortably lolls about. He strokes it pensively.
We end up on Ipanema beach on three different occasions. The first time Max and I pitch up and find a space amongst the multitude and order a couple of chairs and an umbrella. While one of us is reading the other swims, and then we switch. After an hour or so a man sat down opposite us. He wasn’t reading, and his shades prevented us seeing exactly where he was looking, but given that we were taking up most of his field of vision we assumed he was looking at us. We continued reading, although the spectre of his package looming out of focus just above the top of the page made it difficult to read productively.
A short while later an older man sat beside him, his package likewise wrapped up in nothing more than skimpy speedos. His face looked like a stretched out piece of leather, on which was printed a fixed look of vague curiosity. For the first time we look around, really look around, and see all around us gay pride flags and men with ripped torsos creaming up their equally ripped counterparts, and couples sitting side by side with matching speedos. I look across at Max, by my side in his short shorts, and he looks at me, the pale and skinny Englishman in his sports shorts, and we both go “ooohhh… so that’s why…”. We’re around Post 9, the gay-friendly part of Ipanema.
The stereotypes are true: Ipanema and Copacabana are beaches for showing off. The men are the worst. Every so often they will get up from their chair, on which they have been doing precisely nothing, and stand. There is no objective to this standing other than to be seen; what’s the point of sculpting a body if no-one’s going to see it? To the body are added sunglasses, grease, and minute swimming trunks.
After a period of being seen they sit down again, and return to the nothing. Sometimes one will actually walk somewhere, holding his arms away from his body and moving them in awkward lurches, as if using invisible railings, to make his chest look bigger than it is. When you see a skinny man doing this, which is not uncommon, it’s a rather pathetic sight. I can’t help feeling a twang of sympathy for such people, encouraged by the norms to become something they just cannot be.
The second time we find ourselves on Ipanema beach is after the bloco in Parque Lage. We were knackered and contentedly drunk and collapse there in the afternoon sun. I awake two hours later, dazed and sunburnt. And buy some kind of cold drink, before going into the thronging streets of Ipanema to find food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg nor require us to perform some disagreeable sexual activity.
My last visit to the beach is on my last day, where I meet up with an old friend and his English acolytes and pass the hours writing and drinking beers. To protect the beers from the heat they put the beers into a big plastic bag, dug a hole and placed the bag inside, then covered it all with sand.