Dave Barry

The weird and wild — yet mellow — world of Copacabana Beach

Let us stroll down to Copacabana Beach and join the party that has been going on nonstop since approximately 1565.

It’s a wonderful scene, a seaside carnival. By day tens of thousands of sunbathers lounge in the soft sand, tended by an army of vendors passing among them, selling snacks, candy, ice cream, water, beer, cocktails, selfie sticks, sunglasses, phone chargers, henna tattoos, hats, flags, jewelry, Christ the Redeemer towels, a truly spectacular array of cheeseball souvenirs and much, much more — all of it, always, at a “special price.” You can get pretty much anything you want here without leaving the beach. I would not be surprised to be approached by a vendor selling reverse mortgages.

My favorite vendors are the guys selling bikinis, which they display dangling by the dozens from an umbrella, so they look like a walking bikini tree. The bikinis range in size all the way from extra small to subatomic. Brazilian women — this is not a complaint — tend to be unselfconscious about their bodies. This is true regardless of age. Your American woman, as she reaches middle age, tends to become more modest at the beach, wearing a one-piece bathing suit, which she covers with a beach wrap, which she in turn surrounds with a towel and, if she plans to stand up, a trench coat.

Whereas your older Brazilian woman at the beach is attired in such a way as to broadcast the following proud message to the world: “Take a gander at THIS behind!”

Meanwhile your younger Brazilian woman is wearing essentially three gum wrappers.

Again: I am not complaining.

Brazilian men also do not appear to suffer from body shame. You see men of all ages and sizes wearing minimal Speedo-type package-display bathing suits. A lot of the men, even the older ones, engage in strenuous beach athletics — volleyball, soccer, paddleball and beyond. I saw one group of middle-aged men who had half-buried a large blue exercise ball in the sand; they were using it as a trampoline, launching themselves in the air, doing flips and landing with varying degrees of success. I cannot imagine middle-aged American men doing this on a public beach. Even if they tried, the authorities would stop them. Or squadrons of product-liability lawyers would arrive via Jet Ski, and within minutes the jumpers would all be wearing neck braces and suing the ball manufacturer for failing to specify DO NOT DO FLIPS OFF BALL in the instructions.

But Rio doesn’t roll that way. I assume there are rules, but nobody seems to take them too seriously. So Copacabana Beach is a delightful combination of relaxed and exuberant, mellow and wild.

It gets even wilder at night, when the action moves from the sand to the promenade, throngs of people flowing up and down past the bars, the vendors, the Olympic megastore, the beach-volleyball venue. Most of the bars have musicians performing, so there’s always music coming from somewhere; people passing by sometimes stop and dance. They LOVE to dance here.

The scene changes constantly; you never know what you will run into. The other night my daughter and I came upon — why not? — a full-on Mexican mariachi band, performing Cielito Lindo to a delighted crowd. A few minutes later, we encountered a bigger crowd, this one gathered around a group of women who were chanting and performing a dance that involved a great deal of high-speed twerking. These women could make their butts move completely independently from the rest of their bodies. It was like butt ventriloquism.

The people in the crowd seemed to be familiar with the dancers. Using my fluent Portuguese, I asked the woman next to me if they were famous.

“Famous?” I said, pointing to the dancers.

“Famous,” she confirmed. She wrote their name down in my notebook. They are called Bonde Das Maravilhas, which means (I think) “Bonde Wonderland” (whatever that means) and they are, in fact, famous, or at least they are on YouTube, where you can see that I am not kidding about their twerking ability.

Hanging out with Bonde Das Maravilhas was another performer, a tall flamboyant woman with a deeper voice, if you are catching my drift. She seemed to speak English, so I conducted the following interview:

ME: Do you speak English?

HER: Thank you.

So I gave her my notebook, and she wrote her name, which is “MC Trans,” and the word “YouTube.” She is, in fact, also on YouTube, and I urge you to view her videos. She had a cameraman with her, and she had me record a video, repeating words in Portuguese as she spoke them. My daughter, who understands a little Portuguese, told me that I had declared my love for MC Trans.

Hey, it’s 2016.

Soon after that we ran into the Mariachi band again; now they were all drinking caipirinhas, the powerful national cocktail of Brazil. They were still performing, but they could use only one hand apiece, since they needed the other one to hold the drink. The trumpet players had a distinct advantage.

A little past that we passed a nearly empty bar that had a karaoke machine. Two middle-aged American men were belting out “Sugar Sugar,” by the Archies, which may be the most gringo song by the most gringo group ever. The entire audience for the Americans consisted of an older Brazilian man — he might also have had a few caipirinhas — who was moving around in front of the singers in slow, graceful circles with a look of utter bliss on his face.

As we were watching this wonderful scene from the sidewalk, some women wrapped in Brazilian flags stopped next to us and started dancing exuberantly to “Sugar Sugar,” moving their hips in a way never envisioned by the Archies. The American singers, seeing this, yelled, “BRAZIL!”


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