There’s a seminal quote in the beginning of Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard, while reflecting on his feelings about his previous service on Vietnam, proclaims:
“When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.”
No other sentence in the human experience has ever captured so accurately the confused astonishment caused by the accounts of men who have been in a war. There’s the unfathomable anguish that comes from being isolated in a very dangerous place, while living in precarious conditions and engaging in the soul-destroying wickedness of methodical killing. And there’s the deep longing for a place that, while dangerous beyond all measure, is also the place where they felt the intense bond of brotherhood and the gut-wrenching, adrenaline-infused experience of combat. This conflict surfaces when you happen to feel like you belong to a place that could very possibly kill you.
While being in no way the same, the turbulent feelings towards my birthplace are similar in many ways. Rio de Janeiro is an evolving myth. It is a place of despair and hope. It is heavenly paradise. It is hell on earth. It is a bipolar land of concurrent, diametrically opposed circumstances. It is a city that you plan on leaving forever while being utterly sure that it is not possible to find happiness anywhere else on this planet.
If there is a greater demonstration of the coexistence of existential bliss and existential despair in a single city, I have yet to hear of it. On a lazy Saturday afternoon spent in the promenade with a light beer and the infectious Brazilian warmth of your companions, you feel content with the idea of spending the rest of your life in this place; something that you thought would never be able to happen. For a brief moment you make your peace with the irreconcilable idea that men are born and that men die and you’ll never understand why.
It is a place where the beauty of sunsets resists the weariness that comes from the inexorable passage of time. A morning on Ipanema beach can make you sure of the existence of God, even though you’re an atheist who loathes the beach. It is place that makes me doubt the wisdom of Greek philosophers, whose ideas are considered by Western civilization as the guide to the question of how we should live.
At its best, life there seems to have achieved the perfect balance of priorities, not focusing on the question of how much we should work and how much we should play, but focusing instead on how we should work and how we should play. Their answer is that the important thing is not only recognizing the transitory nature of life, but actually acting on it. There’s nothing inherently wrong about submitting to the whims of impulses and desires, and denying their expression is a puritanical mistake that can only lead to guilt and regret.
But even before the light disappears and the night emerges, it is possible to be confronted with the daunting possibilities that come with the worst angels of our nature. It’s barely noon, you’re in the middle of heavy traffic and you can see barefoot children, dressed in dirty rags, knocking on the car window trying to sell you the saddest candy you’ve ever seen, or simply begging for money. They are not shy. They call adult strangers by “uncle” our “aunt” and they look right into your eyes when they ask for money.
It must be over a hundred degrees, but inside the car, you’re comfortable with the cool breeze of the German-made AC, while your mother teaches by example that you should just ignore them. You see those children almost every single day and, like the fading beauty of a sunset, their tragedy becomes just another part of the scenario, no different than the white uniforms of the black maids of rich children, the palm trees between the avenue lanes and the tropical forests covering the mountains.
Something as menial as the daily chitchat between passing acquaintances can become a recollection of tragic events. A friend who was shot by a stray bullet. Someone’s father was kidnapped for a couple of hours. A cousin who was coming back from the supermarket and saw men on the back of motorcycles, armed with automatic weapons, firing shots towards an unseen vehicle. My mother having to escape a nearby robbery by driving the car on the sidewalk.
She and my father were born in a tiny village in northern Portugal. They married young and, instead of settling for the resigned gloom of a life in a fascist dictatorship, they moved to Rio. They raised three children and spent over 30 years there, until the heartbreaking point of inflection where the day-to-day paranoia overtook the euphoric pleasure of life in the tropics. But even in this day, more than ten years after moving back to Portugal, the unsolvable dilemma of life in Rio still haunts their relationship. Whenever she wishes to upset my father, she proclaims: “We never should’ve left Rio.”
That’s what she says, even though she was the one who originally proposed that we move back to Portugal. Those five words have an eerily silencing effect at the dinner table. Everyone looks down. We chew the food and drink the wine. The sound of the cutlery clinking on the porcelain helps cut the tension. Everyone’s glad to live in a safe country but, after a while, we look up at each other, everyone knowing exactly what everyone else is thinking:
“We never should’ve left Rio.”