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|Just back: Admiring Ipanema's twin peaks|
From the top of Sugarloaf mountain, against the setting sun, Rio is all stiff peaks and dollopy mounds. Across the bay the famous statue of Christ stands on the hill known as Corcovado, or Hunchback. All the hills have names here, even if some of them are puzzling. What is a sugar loaf, anyway? Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, says it's the shape of a mound of loaf sugar. It also looks like a rugby ball. We are constantly searching for the right metaphor.
Our apartment at the southern end of Ipanema beach overlooks another hill, the Dois Irmois, or Two Brothers. From our balcony we can see only one of its peaks, blunt like a crayon tip. The other peak points the other way. Down its hillside the favela (slum) of Vidigal twinkles at night like a rhinestone epaulette, like something Michael Jackson would have worn. They love Michael Jackson here; they build sand sculptures of him on the beach. Our two oldest children are excited because tomorrow we are going to visit Vidigal to meet some friends of Mike (their father) who run a theatre school there.
But first we are going to a market, which turns out to be full of tat. Two American tourists stick out like sore thumbs. The man, sniffing at what looks like a potato chip, puts it to his mouth. "It's pot-pourri, Bob" his wife yells urgently from across the way. "You put it in a bowl!"
Walking back along Ipanema beach, we stop for a fruit juice at a kiosk. Now it's our turn, with our pale freckled skin, to stick out. Here, against the crashing Atlantic surf, everyone is gorgeous – and vain. They strut like peacocks: the men with their muscles toned on the beach exercise bars, the women with their buttocks taut as beach balls. Plastic surgery is perfectly acceptable in Brazil.
We find a taxi driver brave enough to drive us into the favela, infamous hotbed of gun and drug crime. But today this favela is peaceful. From the theatre school's leafy terrace we watch home-made paper kites flutter above a jumble of houses that looks like stacks of cardboard boxes. The only sound is hammering. Turning to look the other way, I see that we're right up against the side of the Dois Irmois hillside, dark and veined with ridges.
We make it safely down from the favela, but two days later Mike's wallet is stolen in broad daylight outside our apartment block, right under the noses of two security guards. Later, in philosophical mood, we share a beer on our balcony as the sun fades and the lights come on in the favela under the blunt-crayon shape of the Dois Irmois peak.
"By the way," Mike says, "I meant to tell you, the locals apparently call that hill the Two Tits."
Which, of course, is exactly what they are – just not the surgically enhanced sort.
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