Thursday, February 28, 2013


The alley smelled of day old urine and burned popcorn. I picked my steps among light and dark spots on the ground, skirting the semi-rotten wooden planks covering godknowswhat just before reaching the lion's head gate of #13. The white haired ladies standing there wore faded blue jackets and lumpy gray pants (all cotton) like everyone else, yet their high voices stood out.

I got into the habit of slowing down as I approached their shadowy figures.  Despite of my reluctance at hearing their words, I couldn't help learning about how "Jun whose brother is dumb. He scratches himself there when girls walk by so no one walks by his door after a while. He sits on the street howling into nothing or something but nobody knows." Or how "Ann's old maid sister got caught with a man. They were just lying there side by side in the middle of the day. Oh the nerve of that woman!"

 I did not understand half of what they were saying.  But eventually I learned to fear the "dumb" guy sitting on the edge of the street with his long hair and beard fanned out. His name was long forgotten but everyone called him something like "dumbo" or "retard". He peeked at the world through the curtains of his hair and punctuated any length of silence around him with an outburst of curses and fist pumps.

We called the gossipers "big moms", more for their voices and words than their statures. The gangly one squeezed her eyebrows together and the shorter one pursed her lips like they didn't belong on her face. I avoided eye contacts with them but we exchanged quick glances. They looked like a couple of stand up comics practicing a not so pleasant routine yet they chuckled at themselves here and there. As I walked away, their voices meshed with cicadas singing on top of tall trees and made the summer air thick and cutting at the same time.

Outside the gate the asphalt shone like mirrors. I shaded my eyes as I searched for the ice cream lady wheeling two wooden boxes behind her bicycle. She always covered her ice cream bars like babies -- with layers of thick cotton quilts. So imagine my surprise when I first saw those frozen bars intact in her quilted cocoons but "sweated" into the palms of my hands. Ying stood behind me waiting for our bars - 5 cents each. She was good at waiting, letting me take actions and make decisions without making a peep. Her ten year old big sister took over as soon as she got back from summer camp but for now she and I are best buddies trolling the street looking for trouble, for stories and for ice cream bars.

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Scent of an Ocean

The scent - that ocean'y smell - was notably missing in this seaside city they called "January River (Rio)".   Perhaps it was the surrounding mountains, with all of 'em trees climbing about cliffs and hillsides alike, absorbing everything in the air into their thirsty and porous cells.  Perhaps it was the rain, warm, fat and urgent drops that patted our heads, massaged ocean's tired ripples into actual waves while washing out ancient pavements and the pungent smell of every colorful market stalls.  

In fact, we smelled nothing that brought onto memories of beaches back home. No overflowing sunscreen, seaweed or sand crabs, nor smoky scent of barbeques flowing from mobile vacation homes. The beach belonged to the playful youths, no matter their actual ages.  They flunted their sun drenched bodies in barely there bikinis or speedos, playing futvolley, soccer, beach balls or simply turning themselves over every 30 minutes.   Age or body types didn't matter, the rainbow arrays of shapes displayed on white sand beaches were a marvelous giant kanga of human dignity and loving acceptance of oneself.

Children who were old enough to swim gathered just before sunrise, when the beaches were still empty, their movements all dark, nimble and shiny against white surfs like seal pups chasing after tasty oceanic treats.  The sun would make her first yarn precisely at 6, blushing through layers of clouds and morning fog as you began to think you might have missed it.  You were almost ready to settle into simply admire different shades of cotton candies - purple, pink, blue, coral - weaved into an exploding show into the eastern sky.  Then that red, round, radiant face would leap up above the horizon line, first only a crescent, but rising and promising the rest glowingly and surely.  Your heart would leap then, too, along each step of that glorious morning's ascension. 
We spent our days sipping fresh Agua de Coco and beer.  Before sunset, we'd climb to the rooftop and watch the sun settle back down beneath the clouds' covers and eventually, behind the horizons' lines. The Favelas would light up all over the hills then, like misshapen pieces of quilting fabrics barely covering mountains' sides.  Tall, oppressing darkened shapes receded into the backgrounds then, an elusive and faint reminder of past misfortunes and violence, or perhaps so we wished.  


Of all these sights pressed into our minds rich in colors and sounds, I searched for that scent and found none.  Or perhaps Rio simply has its own signature scent of freshness, of youth and of rising hopes.

Sunrise over Copacabana Beach
Sunset on Ipanema


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