Having to stay with a family on my first night in Rio de Janeiro as hotel rooms were unavailable – with Rio+20 delegates filling them well before the event -- I found myself in for a pleasant surprise.
The Brazilian couple, now retired, live in an apartment in Lapa, the happening place for music and dance lovers in Rio de Janeiro. My hotel booking was available only from the day after my arrival that night after a long flight. Because of the recommendation of a Brazilian friend of a friend, this couple kindly hosted me that night. All my apprehensions vanished into thin air the moment the lady of the house rushed downstairs to greet me at the entrance to her building despite it being close to 11 pm.
“Welcome to Brazil, to Rio, to Lapa....” she gushed, grabbing my suitcase and guiding me to the elevator. She has three children, she informs me. The older son lives with his wife elsewhere and the other two stay here. She ushers me into what looks like the master bedroom, with two neatly made beds facing the altar that was filled with several figurines, books, candles and memorabilia. The dressing table is an old-fashioned one with three adjustable mirrors and an embroidered white linen runner completes the picture. But what caught my attention were the several replicas of women wearing ankle-length clothes sporting decorative hats and carrying parasols or hand bags. “Oh, they’re my collection,” she explains. They’re made of bagasse, sugarcane waste, very eco-friendly, no plastic.” Well, so I was already being initiated into the Green Protocol, even before getting anywhere near the venue of the much-awaited Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainability!
I spot a figure of the Laughing Buddha on the shelf below, flanked by more bagasse women and behind him stood a hooded angel she’d bought in Rome. “Now what I need to add to my collection is a Krishna! I love Krishna,” she says. “I’ll visit India once I save up.”
One shelf below are neatly arranged books – wait a minute, isn’t that something by Helena Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society? “My husband is very interested in theosophy,” she says. “You know Helena? You know theosophy?” She was clearly excited. She would refer to her Portugese-English dictionary every now and then to continue our conversation. I was overwhelmed by the eclecticism and warmth, completely unexpected in what I thought would be a formal, catholic household.
She pulls out the slim volumes and thrusts them into my hands, inviting me to take a look as they were in English. (All the other books on the shelf were in Portugese). She’d bought them in London for her husband, a retired lawyer and a music buff. I could see several guitars and other musical instruments in the living room. When she said goodnight, she promised to take me on a walk through Lapa before I set off to the hotel the next morning.
I leafed through the booklet – extracts from Madam Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine with a commentary. Wrote Blavatsky: “The aim of this work may thus be stated: To show that Nature is not ‘a fortuitous concurrence of atoms’ and to assign to man his rightful place in the scheme of the universe, to rescue from degradation the archaic truths which are the basis of all religions; and to uncover to some extent, the fundamental unity from which they all spring; finally, to show that the occult side of Nature has never been approached by the science of modern civilisation.”
I read more, my hair standing on end. What was this, a sign, perhaps to do with Rio+20? Don’t be silly, I told myself as I continued reading till I was overcome with sleep: “...Before the building of a new structure can commence, it is sometimes necessary to clear the ground of obstructions. Similarly, in order to prepare the western mind for the reception of the esoteric philosophy it was necessary to attack the entrenched positions of the materialistic science and dogmatic theology that characterised the latter part of the nineteenth century...” I drifted off to sleep to the strumming of guitars and melodious songs that drifted up from the street below.
I slept right through the night and woke up to the gentle peal of church bells. I’d left the door unlocked and found myself looking into the eyes of a pristine white cat seated on the floor before me. I step gingerly around the cat and walk into the corridor. My hostess is already up and about. “There’s a cat in my room,” I say softly, not wishing to alarm her. “Good morning, good morning! Oh, so sorry, you should have locked your room, that is Bright, our cat,” she says, shooing the cat out of the room. When I told her I enjoyed the music from the streets last night, she told me she just loved to dance. Samba? “Oh no,” she says, “I love to dance to rock music.”
Once we got ready, she’d laid the breakfast on the table: Steaming hot, strong Brazilian coffee, freshly brewed. Divine. And there’s a platter of white cheese, and a selection of breads, butter, marmalade and honey. “I know you are vegetarian,” she says as her husband joins us. Soon we’re walking outside and we come face-to-face with Bapu! It’s a statue of M K Gandhi, in that characteristic Dandi-march pose – the plaza and the road are named after him, Mahatma Gandhi Road and Mahatma Gandhi Plaza. Crossing the road, as we walk towards the Theatre, an ornate building , we find ourselves walking through an open-air exhibition (Terra Vista) of photographs depicting the environment from different countries, a Rio+20 offering no doubt.
We hurry back home as it is now time to say goodbye. I loved her spotless kitchen and collection of potted plants, her washing hanging neatly in the balcony directly above the top-loading washing machine and the little knick-knacks I found all over that define both her, her home and family. And of course her altar crammed with deep philosophy and warmth.
Thank you, Ma’am.