RIO DE JANEIRO — The apartment broker turned the key. Thedoor didn’t budge. He put his shoulder against the unit’s front door, pushed gently. Nothing.
He put a little weight into it, and the door gave way with a wood-against-wood squeak that echoed in the dim living room.
“It’s the damp,” he said.
His tone wasn’t apologetic, just factual. I stepped in and felt the air brush against my face, moist and unwelcome like the breath of a stranger on a crowded bus.
Lights on, I could see the ad hadn’t lied: newly finished floors in blond wood, spotless white walls. I also saw what it left out: The entire sixth-floor unit was face to face with one of the granite monoliths that surge against Rio de Janeiro’s skyline. This was, indeed, an Ipanema apartment that would allow me to “walk to the beach!” as announced. It hadn’t promised a view.
Further exploration revealed jagged holes in the stone countertops of the kitchen and bathroom. Someone had ripped out the faucets.
I looked around for the broker — was this the right apartment? Two bedrooms, one bath, newly refurbished? Number 608? He had sagged in place by the door, all of his body language informing me he’d done enough when he left his air-conditioned office and met me, half an hour late, by the building’s front gate with a key in hand.
“Yup,” he said, thumb jabbing toward the “608” nailed to the open front door. He wasn’t wasting words on the obvious. The missing faucets, the mold, the dirt? “I just open the doors, ma’am.”
It was December of 2010. I had landed in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks previous as the Associated Press’ new correspondent. But it wasn’t my first time in Brazil. I was born there, but had left when I was 3 years old with my family, following my father’s job as an oil company executive.
We moved around the Middle East, Europe, and eventually, the United States, changing cities more often than most families change cars. Our homes were always temporary, half-furnished with mismatched couches and too-large tables passed down from other executives’ families. My sense of the country named on my passport was patched together from conversations, the outdated magazines that reached us, and yearly visits to our vast extended family.
Each time we landed back in Rio, there would be a moment after we left the airport when I’d roll down the taxi window and let in the city’s humid embrace. It was the first sign I was home.
I always returned hungry for this city’s hothouse atmosphere, where green shoots pushed from every crack and thick-petaled flowers bloomed year-round. The people thronging the streets — bare-chested men and women in short-short-tight-tight everything — walked with a fluid grace as if on well-oiled joints. They talked a lot and laughed out loud, the rounded vowels of Brazilian Portuguese tumbling out like marbles. To my eyes, the Cariocas, as Rio residents are called, seemed almost obscene and entirely fascinating. But our visits were always too short, and before I could grasp what it meant to be of this place, we were on our way to the airport again.
After decades of this itinerant life, I settled in the United States — in California, where everyone seems to come from somewhere else, and “home” is a rather malleable concept. I became a journalist, a professional outsider of sorts. Maybe I could get used to this idea that “home” was wherever I happened to lay my head at night.
By 2009, the city I had finally learned to let go of began drawing attention — and not just my attention. Rio, and Brazil, had moved from the back pages of newspapers to A1 headlines.
The country had already been chosen to host the 2014 World Cup. By October 2009, Rio was chosen as the site of the 2016 Olympics. Change was ripping through the landscape. There was money, political will, and a deadline to deal with the lack of security, poverty, pollution, and urban chaos that had marred Rio. The enthusiasm was catching; I felt it from California.
What happened there mattered — not just to me as a Brazilian, but to me as a reporter. I applied to be the Associated Press’ Rio de Janeiro correspondent and got the job. Within three weeks, I had rented out my San Francisco apartment, sold my car, given away my books, and bought a one-way ticket to Brazil.
From the start, nothing was as I expected. During that first month, a drug-dealing gang that controlled many of Rio’s favelas, began to push back against a new policing program. They set public buses on fire and staged dragnet robberies around town, leaving commuters in panic. The attacks culminated with an invasion of the gang’s main redoubt, a warlike operation in which tanks rolled through residential areas and the police required the support of the Brazilian Armed Forces.
And now, this. I had started the apartment hunt with some confidence, harboring images of ocean views, a porch with a hammock, flocks of parrots flying by. I had not expected monthly rents that hovered between San Francisco and Manhattan for dank flats with no discernible natural light — or faucets.
The Brazil I remembered was affordable, at least to those bearing dollars. But over the previous seven years, one dollar had gone from buying 3.5 Brazilian reals to only 1.7. Real estate prices in Rio, in particular, were rocketing. A huge new oil discovery 180 miles beyond the state’s coast promised to heave the country onto a higher geopolitical echelon. It drew millions in investment and scores of foreigners flush with petrodollars.
I should have known my dreams of an ocean view were in trouble when I saw a Nordic-looking man taking long-legged strides down the bike lane in Ipanema on what looked like cross-country skis on wheels. Of course. The foreigners flocking to Rio, the newly well-off locals — they wanted it, too. Asking prices in Ipanema had gone up nearly 300 percent over the last handful of years.
The apartment with the missing faucets and the rock wall view was the 25th or 26th or 27th place I’d looked at; I lost track after the first couple of dozen. With it, my search seemed to have hit a wall — a mossy, weeping wall of sheer granite.
I began to feel as if this running in place were a test of my desire to call Rio home. But if Rio was not as expected, I needed new expectations. The parrots and the ocean breeze were slashed from my wish list, and my price range was jacked to a laughable $2,000 a month, not counting all the additional fees.
I also stopped perusing the ads, and turned to doormen for help. In informal Rio, they were the ones with the real goods: tidbits about who was moving, which building offered better value, and which unit was torn apart by a divorcing couple on their way out (it was the doorman who explained the mystery of the absent faucets).
This was how I eventually found a place. It was on the second floor of a slightly down-at-the-heels 1970s Ipanema building called Superstar, apparently without any irony.
It was well above my price range, with a view into the private lives of the elderly couple across the street, and above an intersection of the neighborhood’s main bus thoroughfare. The screech of brakes and deep rumble of revving diesel engines ricocheted off the concrete walls and into my bedroom. When Carnaval rolled around, the acoustics brought the resounding bass of roving samba bands into my living room. The kitchen door came with a resident termite colony that had been breeding, unmolested, for years.
To top it all off, the bathroom window was inside the shower stall and opened onto the exhaust pipe of the restaurant below, which specialized in grilled meat served sizzling on a cast-iron skillet. Each time I bathed I had the disturbing sensation I was soaping up with a chunk of medium-rare steak.
All these qualities would reveal themselves later.
As I stood in that empty, airy apartment, I wondered briefly if this whole thing was a mistake — leaving my San Francisco life, my cozy American routines, for this beautiful, maddening city and the hope of something as abstract as. . . home.
Outside, a cluster of women laden with beach chairs chattered loudly. A popsicle vendor called out his wares. They spoke in my language — the language of endless family lunches, of the songs my grandmother sang as she cooked, of my nephew as he squealed when splashed by cold surf. Hearing it had always meant I was among my own.
I leaned out the window, took in the warm breath of the day. Mixed with the oily discharge from passing buses was a tinge of ocean spray.