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I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m an improbable carioca (local term for a citizen of Rio de Janeiro). I can sunburn in 15 minutes flat, for one thing. But bear with me.
I’m a junior at Princeton, studying Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American Studies and Brazilian Studies. Over the course of my first two years in college I fell in love with Rio from afar through scratchy samba recordings and in 2011, I finally found my way to the city for a semester abroad. It was hyperbolic – the city both was and wasn’t what I’d dreamed, and I spent a lot of my six months chasing after the ghosts of my favourite writers and musicians.
I wrote something every day while I was in Rio, trying to leave a record of my time there. This is a kind of diary, so read with caution.
This was the question as I faced down the prospect of a day without PUC classes, when all the museums and archives where I do my research were closed. I have to admit, I was a little lost. Not to mention the fact that I found Dia das Crianças a somewhat ridiculous idea – we have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the States, but somehow we haven’t thought to pass it on to the kids. But then an image came rearing up in my head: when I was heading to the airport on my way to Bahia back in July, I’d seen what looked like a castle on a hill, resplendent and spiky and looking as if torch-bearing villagers might storm it at any moment. “Castle,” I scribbled in my omnipresent notebook, “go visit”. Some time later, I was informed that it was the Igreja da Penha, which made me feel slightly bad about the Frankenstein comparison, but not really.
But it was really Noel Rosa who convinced me to go. If I’m trying to decide where to go out and Dama do Cabaré comes up in my playlist, I head obediently over to Lapa. In this case, happily enough, the song was De Qualquer Maneira. I hadn’t sworn any oaths, I hadn’t promised anyone, and sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of taking life advice from random Noel Rosa songs but dammit, eu ia na Penha. I was going to follow in the noble tradition of millions – millions? I’m no good at estimation – of pilgrims who have come from all over Brazil since the 19th century to climb the 382 steps of the venerable church and pay their respects to Nossa Senhora da Penha.
At first, in the spirit of the true pilgrim, I wasn’t going to take anything with me. Then the voice of reason intervened, bawling over the Noel Rosa playing in my head, and pointed out that I should bring my notebook. Then the prospect of boredom reared its head and insisted that I should bring something to read. Then my mother and grandmother started yelling at me (in my head, but you get the point) to bring a bottle of water. So my romantic imaginings surrendered to my packrat instincts, and I ended up bringing my enormous messenger bag. This always happens. If I were to try to backpack across Europe, I would probably end up bringing a steamer trunk. The one thing I refused to bring was my massive camera, because that seemed flat-out sacrilegious.
So that Wednesday morning I took a bus, and then the metro, and then another train, until I arrived at Penha. Rio has always seemed jaw-droppingly massive to me. You should know that I grew up in a town of 40,000 people (100,000 if you count our “metropolitan area”, which has an embarrassing number of cows). So even Zona Sul was gigantic and overwhelming at first; now it feels practically cosy. But whenever I catch a train out of Central do Brasil, I’m newly stunned by the vast span of the city. And Zona Norte is a different city. For a lack of any eloquence on my part, I’ll just say, “Os casebres de açafrão e de ocre nos verdes da Favela, sob o azul cabralino, são fatos estéticos.” After so many months of living in little cafés and on azulejado sidewalks, heading north is like slipping sideways into another dimension.
After at least half an hour of thinking in quiet panic that I had gotten on the wrong train, I disembarked in Penha. At first I had no idea where to go, but then I spotted the church rising up before me on the hill. There, in the 17th century, Baltasar de Abreu Cardoso was supposedly saved by Our Lady from certain death at the jaws of a snake; the rest is history and baroque architecture. I headed uphill. The Rua dos Romeiros was utterly abandoned, all the shop fronts shuttered for the holiday. I began hearing the sounds of a country fair – the whirring and clunking of machinery, children’s screams of joy and terror – and as I rounded the corner I saw that there was a carnival on the hill below the church. Dia das Crianças indeed. I passed the amusement park rides and the cotton candy stands and headed up the cobblestoned slope. Slowly but surely, amongst the crowds of families with children, I spotted my fellow pilgrims, trudging slowly but serenely. I fell into step.
As I made my way higher and higher, Zona Norte began to spread itself out before me. Then I saw the spiraling stairs up to the church itself. The steps at the church are low and narrow – perfect for the kneeling pilgrim. Normally I go up the stairs two or three at a time, but this was neither the time or place; I took my time in making it to the top, one foot in front of the other. 382 careful plods later, I was on top of the city.
Looking at the clouds mantling Rio’s mountains, I felt the sort of peace usually reserved for the smuggest of Buddhist monks. Families, couples, and clumps of friends wandered around, stuck in limbo between tourism and reverence. “Voa, voa!” yelled a little boy, throwing a piece of a plastic bag between the bars of the railing. “Gabriel, não!” cried his mother, but it was too late – the little beige fragment was caught in an updraft and spiraled out across the neighbourhood.
I could still catch strains of music from the carnival, and after a few seconds I came to the conclusion that the song I was hearing was, in fact, If I Were a Boy. Fleeing Beyonce, I moved over to the other side of the church. Down below in the gift shop they had wax casts of various body parts for sale, presumably to be cured by Nossa Senhora (or to thank her for curing them; I was a little hazy on the subject and didn’t feel up to asking anyone). On a little shelf outside the church, a little collection had accumulated: four heads, a nose, a foot, a heart, a spine, a sort of unidentifiable bone, an arm, and two penises. Silently but sincerely, I wished all of them well.
After a respectful spell, I started heading down again. Almost as an afterthought, I stopped into the queimador where the pilgrims (and, let’s be realistic, mainly tourists) leave candles. It was a tiny, singed, dark room with little barred windows. There were grated altars on two adjacent walls, all littered with flaming half-melted candles. It was nothing like the white-and-blue, golden-cross simplicity of the church itself. The queimador was frankly ugly – there were burned-out candles, candles clumped together in shapeless wax masses, broken candles still dripping onto the floor, massive candles propped up against the wall and scorching the stone into a deep black, all disintegrating into vast molten grayish puddles. It was a mess, it smelled like burnt plastic, and it was beautiful. On the grate someone had put out a little singed cloth with a can of Itaipava Malzbier, a glass, and a cigar. A man was standing in front of the makeshift altar. “Vitor, vamos,” said a woman as she walked out. He didn’t turn away for a long time.
I made my way back down the steps, but I felt myself not wanting to leave the church. As a band blared away in the square, I headed into the Museu/Casa dos Milagres, paying R$ 1 and signing my name in the guest book. I don’t know what I was expecting – subconsciously I think I was hoping for a sort of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, full of stories of women giving birth to snakes and Jesus popping out of toasters. The first room was, frankly, disappointing: a baroque altar, some alms dishes and other gilded church accessories, a mimeograph machine, and an attendant, who clearly wanted to be down in the square listening to the band, leaning out the window. Then I walked into the next room and saw all the soldiers’ uniforms. And the wedding gowns. And the severed braids, and the badges, and the shoes, and the diplomas, the wheelchairs, the crutches, the braces, and the photos. All offerings to Nossa Senhora da Penha, thanking her for her miracles.
Oh, and the photos. In the last room of the Casa dos Milagres, the walls and the columns were plastered with them. Thousands of faces, smiling and serious, family and passport pictures, carteirinhas de trabalho, country club memberships, police and military IDs, graduation pictures. But most of all, there were pictures of babies. Newborns, toddlers, babies in the bath. All those prayed-for, long-awaited, fiercely loved children. I’m not a religious person, but in the last room of the Casa dos Milagres my knees started trembling uncontrollably. The place was deserted, and I sank to the floor. What else could I do, in the presence of such love?
Yes, I had a Hallmark moment. Don’t make fun of me.
Flora's Rio diary was hosted by the Rio-based culture magazine Piauí, who has kindly allowed us to republish a selection of her posts here on Litro.