Growing up, I was not too fond of Sunday school. I had a hard time remembering prayers, especially when confession dictated that I cough up a couple Hail Marys to compensate for my sins. I had a hard time listening to sermons because our pastor didn’t have the best grasp of English. I did, however, enjoy listening to the choir; my thoughts would get lost melodically, traveling as though I were writing on sheets of music. In those harmonious moments, I did have hope. Don’t get me wrong–I believe in a God, but rather one that I’ve made up on my own. I let people read about Her in my writing, and you may already be familiar with Her. She was the first to emerge at the dawn of creation and Her presence still lingers.
I still remember my first encounter with Her. The beginning of believing in something bigger than myself was transcendent–heaven on Earth. It didn’t happen all at once, nonetheless. The unfolding journey began with cautious steps, and then in a single, captivated moment a revelation struck. At the time, my family and I had arrived in Rio de Janeiro–which some people will have you believe is the Promise Land, afterall. My mother, Anaracy Chaves Oliveira, was born in Ipanema in ‘67, the same year Sinatra released his rendition of Moraes and Jobim’s bossa nova jazz anthem The Girl From Ipanema. Throughout my childhood she would frequently sing songs such as these, including tracks by Sergio Mendes or João Gilberto. I was charmed by the guitar easily, watching my mother strum each chord to produce an acoustic harmony.
When we went to visit her dear friend Luis Otavio, I grew fascinated by the sonic chemistry between the two; her vocals and his percussion made fluid music that I fell in love with. I often play the melody in my head, and I am reminded of the different Portuguese dialects. My father, born in Portugal, speaks like a European: traditional, formal, sounding almost mumbled; whereas my mother’s tongue is more phonetically pleasing, almost as if Brazilians were taught to sing when speaking. For me, it’s resonant poetry, especially when listening to them sing corpo dourado do sol de ipanema / O seu balançado mais que um poema. Little did I know that carioca would influence me to sing, to preach and pray thanks to God.
I had reams of things to be thankful for. During this trip, I was blessed to not only celebrate Christmas in the tropics and New Year on the beach, but I would also have the opportunity to enjoy my tenth birthday in cosmic paradise. On the morning of December 26th, 2007, my mother cleaned up the champagne glasses left by guests on the counter and opened the front door to greet her brother, my uncle Tio Marcus. He is the tallest of my mother’s five brothers and I used to think that is why he had the biggest smile. Parabéns meu criança! he exclaimed while sitting down next to the balcony windows overlooking a Carambola tree bearing starfruit for us to eat with breakfast on typical mornings.
This was no typical morning, however. Although it was my birthday, I was unsure that this day would stand out among the rest. Tio Marcus had promised me an unsurmountable adventure–as if the pleasure of spending winter with summer weather wasn’t enough. It is easy to appreciate and fall in love with the world when the sun induces you to embrace it all, absorbing warmth: paz e amor. Perhaps that is why Brazilians are considerably zealous when it comes to support; citizens are said to welcome visitors with open arms and affection. If you’re lucky–like me–they’ll teach you how to worship something greater, far larger than you or me.
As we drove through the busy streets of Rio, passing art graffitied on metropolitan walls, I discovered passion in slow motion. The traffic stalled our car long enough to look out and capture the city’s vitality. Couples, extended families, friends, and feral dogs flooded the sidewalk bordering the beach. Beyond the palm trees we could see sand sculptures taking shape before our very eyes. Prodigious hands crafting intricate visions, single grains of sand collecting to form whole images: a six-story castle, mermaids sunbathing, the Gold Cup, life size stallions, the list goes on. Further in the distance, I caught the white tips of ocean waves curling like fingers towards the shore; they grab hold of bodies, swallowing anything in their way. Figures that were once floating calmly were now coasting the wave, using their abdomens as surfboards–it was terrifying and captivating all at the same time.
I watched the waves cycle, as if the ocean were breathing. Brazil is home to more than two-thousand beaches that stretch along the Atlantic coast, and the sight before me made me believe that Copacabana’s high seas are alive, subsisting and inviting us to Believe. I almost didn’t notice the car picking up momentum until I was ripped from the sight entirely. Eventually, we arrived at a landing strip where some man–whose name I can’t remember, but whose mustache I can’t forget–directed us towards a helicopter. Aviators and all, he spoke quickly, his Portuguese sounding almost like gibberish to my unfamiliar ears. He and Tio Marcus discussed navigation plans for a little while as I got distracted by the blue sky overhead. It was nearly intimidating. Having been ten years old for less than ten hours, I was only coming around to the idea of heights. I wasn’t scared of airplanes, so I was curious to think this helicopter trip would be any different. It was.
Part of me believes Tio Marcus could sense my subtle dismay, seeing as he picked me a blossom from the garden to wear with reverence. “When you see it,” he rejoiced, “You will know why Rio is the most beautiful city. Beautiful…” At take off, I watched the palm trees wave in the propelling winds as if they were sending us off with their best wishes. Into the deep blue atmosphere, inching closer to the horizon, ascension was granted new meaning. The crowds of sunbathers shrunk in size and the clouds were becoming our new neighbors. Unsure of where we were going, I couldn’t bother to ask the pilot because my words had waterfalled off my tongue and into the distance. With the helicopter’s tornadoing blades taking us higher, the substratosphere amplified and the wind would surrender to no one, whispering in tongues I couldn’t understand but somehow still echo to this day.
At one point, the air currents had gained so much strength, I believed the freshly picked flower–having been entwined in my curls–would untangle and wisp out the window and into the wind. When the Corcovado Mountains appeared before us, I finally understood where we were headed. Rio de Janeiro holds one of the seven wonders of the world: Christ the Redeemer. He stands statuesque in an altitudinous world with open arms spread out horizontally, welcoming and embracing the natural world at his feet while his body overlooks the city. The statue took five years to construct, leaving an everlasting legacy towering 125 feet above the ground. Up until then, I had no idea people could travel to the base of the mountain, congregating at His feet, now waving up at us as if they knew it was my birthday and they were celebrating with me.
I pulled the flower from my hair and felt the petals in between my fingertips, gently enough not to pick it apart. The mass of people below me couldn’t hear my voice if I wanted them to, yet I was urged to create a lasting impression–a connection. I slipped the blossom through the window slit and admired it catapult back down to Earth. I watched it pirouette, floating with the current, spinning as though traveling through a labyrinth and into the Tijuca Forest bed. Suddenly, I was struck–taken back by the Earth and all Her glory, blessed to have witnessed it from a height parallel to the hand of God–my God, Mother Nature.
Hovering above perhaps the world’s largest urban forest, I was staring directly into Her heart, falling harder in love with the Earth, realizing all She has to offer us. I heard Her sing: reverberating melodies sounding through organic, wooden instruments, complementing the choir of birds up ahead. I watched Her shapeshift: stone weathered into sand only to form another whole aggregate substance. I noticed Her breathe: lungs inhaling the ocean, pulling in salt, bodies, and seaweed, exhaling liquid oxygen as Her crest crashed against sandpaper skin. I observed Her from the celestial sphere and rediscovered faith in one of the most religious places on Earth, ironically learning to believe in a God, but not the one made of soapstone and cement clad who once stood alongside me. Now as I sit in my garden nine years later, reminiscing my discovery of Her, I understand how I have the same opportunity to appreciate the immaculate beauty I witnessed on that day. It surrounds us infinitely, sustaining human life every time we step outside.