The Girl From Ipanema: A Cruise to the Muse

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Tall and tan and young and lovely and now 62 or 63 years old, depending on whom you ask, Heloisa Pinheiro -- the one and only woman who inspired "The Girl From Ipanema" -- has never made a single centavo off the song.

I don't know about you, but when I heard that I was deeply troubled. Inconsolable, kinda. Friends tried to tell me that Pinheiro wrote neither music nor lyrics for the bossa nova classic, that her sole contribution came in walking past the Rio de Janeiro bar frequented by a musician (Antonio Carlos Jobim) and lyricist (Vinicius de Moraes) in 1962, day after day, usually while picking up a pack of smokes for her mother or making her way to an obscure stretch of sand the world would soon come to know as Ipanema Beach. They'd noticed the girl and been moved to write a song, but in essence she was just an impressive pedestrian.

Yes, I'd reply, but a pedestrian with a walk like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle, and unpedestrian poetry like that doesn't just drop from the ether. All right, they'd say, she was their Muse. Exactly, I'd reply. And for a Muse, artistic immortality is enough of a reward, they'd say. The hell it is, I'd say, she deserved more. Soon things would become unprintable.

People go places for all kinds of reasons. I like to spend my vacations seeking out unwitting cultural revolutionaries and finding out if they've made peace with obscurity -- it's a niche, I know. And so, I was determined to sail to Sao Paulo (Pinheiro abandoned Rio years ago) and make the acquaintance of the now-Grandma from Ipanema.

Another thing I like to do on trips: avoid other Americans -- whom I think we've all had just about enough of -- at all costs. Given such a penchant, a cruise ship might seem the wrong choice -- unless your destination is South America. Despite being one of the last places on Earth where the dollar isn't struggling, despite relatively untrampled ports of call where nary a trinket salesman rushes the boat, despite sailings that can be as cheap as 400 bucks a head -- despite all that, the continent is still overlooked by many an American cruiser. Meanwhile, a newly emerging Latin American middle class is filling cabins in unprecedented numbers.

I couldn't have been happier last December when Pinheiro's husband, Fernando, whom I'd e-mailed out of the blue, invited me to visit the Sao Paulo dress shop his wife runs called . . . Girl From Ipanema. It would just be me, Grandma, hundreds of gorgeous, cruise-happy Brazilians and not a single American anywhere. Go ahead and try to think of a more perfect holiday, I dare you.

A Damp Day in Rio

2007 was a banner year for the Brazilian coast, one in which more passengers boarded cruise lines there than at any other time in the country's history. Ships from most of the major lines prowl its waters (or, like Carnival in 2009, soon will be). Itineraries range from lavish Chile-to-Brazil sailings via the Chilean fiords and Cape Horn to modest four- and five-day Brazil-only trips, where the stops include Rio and smaller ports along the Emerald Coast.

The Costa Victoria, my ticket to Ipanema and beyond, specializes in trips of the latter sort; they leave out of Santos, a port town 50 miles from Sao Paulo. Costa Cruise Lines may be owned by Carnival now, but it still references its Italian roots, in the Victoria's case by naming most of its decks after operas. Which is how, on a gray, overcast day just before Christmas, I found myself making a quick pass through my Manon cabin before racing up six flights past Carmen and Tosca and Rigoletto, arriving at the pool on the Butterfly deck (think Madame). More than a thousand Brazilians had already bounded up the gangplank -- not a single American in the bunch -- and I didn't want to miss it when burger bar met butt-floss bikini, when swarthy and skinny cariocas tried to samba their way through "I'm Your Boogie Man."

I mention "I'm Your Boogie Man" because later that evening the ship's house band, Melodia Brasil, did a remarkably good cover of it, and also because I will forever be in the debt of KC & the Sunshine Band for convincing me that I'd been somewhat, shall we say, naive about how easy it might be to escape America.

To wit, let's take a quiz. Do you remember the I wanna be your rubber ball part of "Boogie Man"? Right. Me neither. But here's the amazing thing: Everyone in Brazil knows that lyric. Everyone. Hundreds of people packed the dance floor that first night, all of them chanting with perfect diction: At first I was afraid, I was petrified and it's like thunder and lightning, the way you love me is frightening and you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man: no time to talk and you make me feel . . . mighty real. They certainly looked like Brazilians -- especially the women, who teetered on impossibly high spikes and favored those bright, sexy dresses that go to the brink of vulgar and pull back at the last possible moment -- and an actual conversation in English seemed beyond most passengers. Still, I have no doubt each of them could have gone five rounds on "The Singing Bee," no problem.

I sidled up to the bar for another caipirinha. This was going to be a long cruise.

It was raining in Rio when we docked the next morning, otherwise known as our only day in Rio, this being a cruise ship. The fog never lifted from the peaks of Sugarloaf and Corcovedo, and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, just a few miles from the ship, were desolate. Some of my cruisemates valiantly braved the elements and snap, snap, snapped a few pictures, but their presence on the beach did little to combat the surrealness of an empty Ipanema.

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