I practiced, practiced, practiced my versions of Rio de Janeiro’s local customs throughout July 2003, from ordering an açai with granola at the corner juice bar to people-watching, while being watched, on the beach. One internationally accepted custom that varies in local execution is looking put-together while not attracting the attention of pickpockets or scammers. I studied the poses and gestures of Carioca women–esse jeitinho, that little way of doing it–so that I might communicate, without over-communicating, that my sporty red fabric cross-body bag and my canvas tote held nothing worth pinching.
The usual contents of my two bags: a notebook, a cell phone with a prepaid SIM card, some cash, a bottle of water, and a book or two if I was headed to PUC, Rio’s Catholic University nestled at the edge of the lush Tijuca Forest, or to the Botafogo neighborhood to visit the Rui Barbosa Foundation’s special archives, which include the literary papers of Vinícius de Moraes, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, João Cabral de Melo Neto, and Clarice Lispector, all translated into English by Elizabeth Bishop during her years in Brazil.
One afternoon I decided to walk from PUC, in Rio’s Gávea neighborhood, to my apartment in Ipanema. July is the coldest month in Rio, with an average temperature of 18°C (64°F), and this particular day was cloudy, so almost no one was on the beach. As I entered Ipanema by way of the bustling foot traffic on Rua Visconde de Pirajá, I noticed that the street vendors, who usually displayed their wares on large pieces of dark fabric that could be made quickly into knapsacks if the police arrived, held the day’s items tightly to their chests. A cluster of women, and a few men, jostled each other with arms outstretched to buy.
I stopped and stared at what was being sold: dark brown handbags stamped in a gold monogram pattern and decorated with pink smiling flowers arranged in whimsical irregularity. The flowers beckoned me with their red mouths, which I then noticed were open, midlaughter. The prospective buyers’ tensed expressions, and the fact that others on the sidewalk were studying the scene, made me ask myself, Do I want one too?
I had witnessed, and wanted, an extravaganza of counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags in the cherry blossom motif created by Takashi Murakami and commissioned by Marc Jacobs. Some say these are among the most counterfeited handbags ever. Read More