Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years in Rio de Janeiro

Happy 2013, everybody! A mathematician I know, once upon a time my brother's classmate in grade school, shared this nerdy fact on Facebook: 2013 is the first year since 1987 to have all digits different from one another. "So there's something special about this year," he wrote. Possibly because its lack of repeated digits, the number looks odd in every sense of the word, like making fire by striking a piece of iron against a flintstone. The lack of symmetry is slightly off-putting and at the same time feels exciting and daring.

Dave and I met the New Year at the beach in Copacobana with about two million people who flocked to Rio from Brazil and all over the world for the occasion. It was at the same time the most laid back and festive New Year's party we'd experienced. We spent most of the night lying around on the warm beach, surrounded by the bright lights of the beach-front hotels and cruise ships facing off with the hotels from the ocean. Dave took a couple of dips in the warm water; I abstained until after midnight. We sipped our drinks and chatted, half listening to the music that carried from the stages set up to our left and right, and messaged friends scattered in various parts of the beach, making vague plans to meet up later. Between all the electric lights, we could see the stars; I recognized the easily identifiable Orion's Belt, and looked for but did not positively find the Southern Cross.

Dave called his parents from the beach--it was still a few hours till New Year's in Philadelphia, and they were getting ready to go to a party. Earlier in the day, I'd called my parents, catching them about half hour after New Year's in St. Petersburg, where they were partying with their friends. My brother and his girlfriend, they reported, were celebrating New Year's in Sochi, in the south of Russia--the place hosting the next Olympics (the winter Olympics before the summer Olympics coming to Rio). Dave's brother and his fiancee celebrated in Seattle, Washington. 

My mother, when I called, was excited to hear from us, and asked if in Rio everyone was wearing white--and they were. Most people weren't wearing all white outfits, but rather something white--a shirt or shorts or a skirt, but many local women wore white dresses clearly reserved for this occasion. White in Brazil is the color of peace; other colors of the rainbow mean different things: yellow is for money, red is for passion, green is for good health, and so on. Vendors in the city and on the beach that night sold color-coded flowers, cotton candy, hats, glow-in-the-dark drinking glasses. Even the color of the underwear you pick to wear for New Year's carries symbolic significance. The tradition of throwing white flowers in the sea at midnight is an offering to the goddess Yemaja of the Yoruba religion, the goddess of the sea, who looked over the African slaves as they were brought to the Americas. Her worship is very much alive in Rio alongside the Catholic traditions.

After midnight, we met up with Alex, a friend of my Israeli cousin Jenya (who now lives in Germany). Alex and his wife Tanya live in San Francisco, not far from us, but he was spending his holiday in Rio, and after texting back and forth for a while we met up and walked over together to a party on a small beach between Copacabana and Ipanema. The crowd there was mostly in their twenties and thirties, the music was low key, and at three am many started drifting off to sleep right there on the beach, tired but yet unwilling to return home before sunrise. Dave and I met up with Marcelle and Davog (our hosts), had another drink, and chilled until we couldn't chill anymore. We left the party before everyone else and still didn't get to sleep before the sun was up.

The local superstitions around how to properly welcome in the New Year are elaborate and varied, but one of the few that we tried to follow was to jump over seven waves in a row, making a wish each time. We had changed into our flip-flops for this (after my adventures with footwear this week, my feet are still plastered with band aids, and I'd been sticking to wearing tennis shoes with socks). On the second jump, I managed to lose both of my flip flops in the water. Dave leaned down and fished both of them out of the tide. We continued jumping the waves and making wishes, and later, in better lighting, we saw that the pair was mismatched--the two flip flops were of different colors, although of the same brand and size. We took this for a good sign. In the words of Kozma Prutkov, a Russian 19th C equivalent to Monty Pythons, If you want to be happy, be that.

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