I’m back at my favourite writing spot on Botafogo Beach. I still gape at the stunning view of Guanabara Bay as much as I did when I first arrived, but after two months in Rio my perception of this beautiful spot is attuned to the flaws I missed or ignored in my first few weeks here. The waft of sewage riding in and out on frequent waves. The white cigarette butt that my toe kicks in the sand. ALL the other white cigarette butts that I suddenly spot scattered across the beach.
But then I see a solitary boy – maybe 9 or 10 years old – place a ball deliberately on the sand in front of a wonky goalpost. He takes three steps back and stares down an invisible goalkeeper for nearly a full minute. Then the referee’s whistle must sound in his ear because he jolts to life, lunges at the ball and sends it sailing through the upper right-hand corner of the goal. It keeps sailing long into the distance because there’s no net. He sinks to his knees, head bowed, clutching his hands together in prayer. He’s just won the World Cup for his country. It’s clear. He challenged himself to shoulder the weight of his nation’s expectations and pride and now it is the relief that has pulled him to his knees. He has erased the humiliation of Marcelo, the tears of David Luiz, the agony of Fred and Hulk. And he has erased my ability to process my experience in Rio rationally and remember the good, the bad and the complicated the way they really are. In the future when people about ask me about Brazil, I’ll probably tell them about the boy on the beach. They’ll leave that conversation thinking…Brazil…beach, football, passion…
The pamonha is definitely this way. It has to be, we’ve already searched all the other pathways. I think. We sidestep a tiny child propelling forward with a balloon, bypass the masses waiting for açaí (although we’ll come back here for dessert), pause to ogle at a middle-aged man belting a “tune” in front of a karaoke machine in a bar. This is the fourth karaoke spot we’ve see here at the Feira de São Cristóvão (also known as the Feira Nordestina), but this guy’s shiny silver-sequined vest jacket is worth taking a moment to admire. Is this real life?
We resume walking, sure that the pamonha stall is just up ahead. But no, we reach the end of this path only to find more stores selling clothes we have to duck under and hand-crafted gadgets that may or may not be from the northeast of Brazil as the fair’s name implies. And there’s the bookstore with tiny paper-bound pamphlets that contain full books ranging from Le Petit Prince to manifestos on democracy and protest. We’ve been here before. And here, the pamonha is not. It’s strange, searching so ardently for something I knew nothing about just an hour previously. Soon after we had entered the fair, my friend had spotted the food wrapped in corn husks and excitedly explained that it was a traditional Brazilian product made of sweet corn and milk. Pamonha. Pamana? No, pamonha. I keep forgetting the name even as we hunt for it. Eventually I tell myself it’s “Pomona College, but…not.”
I’m eager to try it for the first time, but we’re getting really hungry. I can probably “settle” for one of those simmering sticks of chicken from a stall whose aromas could seduce even the most pious of taste buds. It’s impossible to keep directions straight in this market. Although the fair is enclosed in massive stadium walls, we lose track of those walls in the maze of passages between stalls, distracted by the relentless stimuli craving our eyes, ears and noses’ attention. We pass a bar with a dance floor occupied by ten or so couples, young and old, whose feet frolic frantically around each others’ without crashing once and whose hips seem to have taken on lives of their own. What I would give to be able to dance like that! We give up and look for other food, but then there it is – the pamonha stall where we least expect it. We douse the hot corn-stuff with extra cinnamon and a sweet, thick sauce and then mm mm mmmmmm.