RIO – Chapter One

Saturday morning, February 2, 2008

John Burke gazed upon Jesus, and promptly rubbed the crust of sleep deprivation from his eyes. Nothing he’d imagined could ever portray the majesty that he was witnessing. Jesus, in sun-drenched regal white robes, stood at the summit of a mountain peak amidst the pastel clouds of dawn.  His outstretched arms delivered mercy to a world of sinners below. John suddenly felt thirsty to receive His forgiveness too. The Lord wasn’t smiling.

The celestial morning service was tersely interrupted. “Good morning,” a tinny speaker directly above his head blared. “This is your captain wishing you a happy Saturday from Rio de Janeiro. On the left side of the plane is Christ the Redeemer, known here as Cristo Redentor, sitting high atop Corcovado Mountain. It’s one of my favorite views in the world, and I hope you like it too. The local time here is 5:42 a.m. The local weather is 22 degrees Celsius or 72 degrees Fahrenheit, with a high today expected to be a toasty 32 Celsius, 90 Fahrenheit.  But with over two million people here to celebrate the Carnival straight through Fat Tuesday, Rio will be one of the hottest places in the world, if you know what I mean.  I wish all of you a fun and safe stay while you’re here in Rio. We will be landing in fifteen minutes. On behalf of my entire crew, thank-you for flying American Airlines.”

As the American Airlines jet touched down, John was still fuming about spending another late-night reworking the presentation his boss, Waverly. Talk about putting whipped cream on a pile of bullshit, he thought. John had dressed in his finest black pinstripe suit, like he always did, and listened just outside the boardroom should there be any questions. There never were. Waverly’s performances rarely used John’s extensive risk analysis. In yesterday’s meeting, Waverly extolled the potentially favorable impact of the government’s $146 billion economic stimulus package. He also ineptly downplayed the firm’s looming toxic junk bond peril, for it had been management’s decision to make these investments in the first place. Everyone in the boardroom huffed and puffed and took another hearty gulp of the Jonestown Kool-Aid. This renowned Wall Street flagship would weather this storm, as it had all others. Lehman Brothers was simply too big to fail.

Adding insult to injury, as John rushed out to flag down a taxi for LaGuardia Airport, Waverly’s parting words were: “Burke, you could use some time off. But you damn well better leave your Blackberry on. In these tumultuous times, you never know when I may need you.”

John had begrudgingly strapped on his Dell laptop backpack and lugged his leather workbag to the airport, rolling his carryon suitcase behind him. But due to the airline’s two carryon bag limit, the agent had required John to check his suitcase. His flight to Miami was delayed by snowstorms, so he barely made the connecting night flight from Miami to Rio. Sweating and stressed, he wedged his 6’4” burly frame into a window seat in front of the exit row. The blessing was that he had a view. The curse was that due to FAA regulations his seat didn’t recline, thus he had been shoehorned for a ten-hour sleepless flight to Rio. After landing, he trudged through the Galeão Terminal 2 corridors only to discover that his suitcase had missed the connection in Miami. Agents promised that the bag would be delivered to his hotel sometime this week. “Whatever,” John rejoined.

Then, after standing for an hour in the immigrations line, the agent officiously asked him if he had anything to declare. “Yeah,” he stated, “I declare I’m gonna’ to party ‘til it’s time to head home.” The officer barely understood English, not that he would have gotten John’s play on words anyway. Nor did he know that John would finally be reuniting with his former roommate Peter Chroust, who was flying in from Indianapolis to join him in the pagan rituals and debauchery of Carnival. I haven’t seen Petey since graduation. John thought. He and I have a lot of catching up to do. Done right, we’re both gonna need lent to regroup.

Omniscient and Omnipotent God always forgives, doesn’t He? Then again, when mankind makes plans, the Lord merely smiles. John exited security into the airport lobby and made his way to the currency exchange window. That’s when his Blackberry, tethered to him by holster, buzzed once again, as if to remind him that he was still a prisoner to its whims. There’s no escaping this Lehman crap, he thought, but then read an unexpected e-mail:

Hey Big John—

It looks like you’re on your own, buddy. Last night I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. No worries—they got most of it out before it burst. Believe me, I would rather have rushed to Rio but now I’m stuck here for a week due to peritonitis.

I hope this doesn’t deny you a fabulous vacation. Remember last year’s loss to Northwestern? We should have won, but shit happens.

You always bounce back. Start by having your first caipirinha on me.



“Aw crap.” he mumbled, scratching his sandy-colored, two-day stubble. “What the hell’s next?”

“Excuse me, but are you all right?” John was startled to see an exotic young woman seated behind the exchange window. The teller’s bronze skin beautifully contrasted with her tight, white shirt and navy skirt uniform. He nearly forgot about his friend Peter and even Lehman Brothers.

“Uh, I’m sorry. You must have seen me wince.” John quickly re-holstered his Blackberry. “I’m okay but dog gone it, my roomie from college is all laid up.”

“My English is not so good. What’s a roomie?” she asked in a Rio carioca-accented English.

“Someone who won’t be making it down for Carnival.” John shook his head in dismay.

“I am very sorry, but I think you will still have a nice time here. This is a friendly place. You should meet a lot of pretty girls here.” Her half-moon smile beautifully offset her olive-yellow and sky-blue sunflower eyes, which were framed by stunningly high cheekbones and lush black eyelashes.

John ran his hands through his tousled curly hair stammering, “I’m not any good with that kinda’ conversation. Petey was…the ice-breaker.”

“What is an ice-breaker?” Her eyebrows rose with intrigue. “You are telling me you are shy with women, no?”

John’s fair complexion quickly blushed, and so he quickly changed the subject. “So…is this Carnival everything it’s cracked up to be?

“It is more than you could ever dream, but let me suggest that you are a bit overdressed.”

“Oh, you mean my crumpled suit? Or maybe I should lose the salt-streaked trench coat?  I guess I’m not a fashion statement at the moment.” The woman looked at John quizzically. He fidgeted while searching his fatigued brain for something clever to break the deafening silence. The best he could do was, “So what’s a guy like me supposed to do while I’m down here?”

“That all depends on what kind of guy you are, Senhor.” She suppressed a giggle.

“I guess I’ll just have to figure it out on my own,” he said, sensing a high risk in pursuing a beauty like her. He reached into his wallet and dealt out all his bills. “Please change eighty-five dollars into reais, if you don’t mind.”

“As you wish,” she sighed. “Your passport please.”

He slid it under the bulletproof window. She studied his passport. “That will be 129 Brazilian reais and 20 Centavos, Mr. Burke.”

“I thought the exchange rate is 1.6 reais to the dollar. Doesn’t that make the conversion closer to R$134?”

“I see you are good with numbers, sir, but there is also a five percent service charge.”

“Well,” he ventured, “I have to admit you’re nicer than an ATM, that’s for sure.” John put his new currency in his wallet.

She smiled. “What’s an…”

“Never mind,” John cut in. “I’ll be using credit cards from here on out, so anyway, its been nice talking to you.” He set off on his adventure.

“Bem-vindo ao Rio,” she quietly offered from behind. “Welcome to Rio.”

He made his way through the airport lobby and exited to a very long taxi line. That figures, he thought. If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. The pilot hadn’t told him that although the temperature was in the 70s, the humidity was stifling—especially to a guy who still wearing layers of Wall Street armor. His shirt began sticking to his skin, and so he removed his London Fog raincoat and his Pierre Cardin suit jacket and draped them over his arm.  From the corner of his eye he saw a grimy, chewed up hand scatter some dust across his black Florsheim wing-tipped shoes.

“Oi. Bom dia. Shine your shoes? Shine your shoes, patrão?” It was a blotchy dark-skinned early-teen male garbed in a soiled, unbuttoned plaid shirt, jean cut-offs and a chewed-out pair of Havaianas flip-flops.

“Hey, you think I was born yesterday? I saw you toss that dirt on my shoes.”

“Shine shoes cheap,” the boy said in a raw, phlegmy voice.

“What’s the difference, I’ve got nothing but time,” John groaned. “Why not?”

The boy knelt down, hastily dusted off the wingtips with a rag, and slapped some wax on lest his customer change his mind. “Put foot here,” he commanded, slapping his right knee. John obliged and the boy vigorously seesawed his rag across John’s shoe.  Though a young pup, his muscles rippled throughout his husky black torso.

“So what’s your name, anyway?”

“Pantera. Now…other foot,” the boy commanded. His limited English was obscured by a thick, native accent.

“Pantera, huh. That’s an interesting name.”

“Good name.” The kid’s broken-tooth grin gleamed against his black freckled skin. His left forearm had a makeshift splint around it secured by rags.

“What happened to your arm?” John asked.

“Which one?” Pantera teased.

“Come on, you know,” John replied. “What’s the story?”

The kid shrugged and replied, “A vida acontece.”

“What was that?” John asked. “I didn’t catch what you said.

“A vida acontece,” he repeated emphatically. He snapped his cloth one more time across each shoe and then stood. “Finish. Twenty reais, por favor”

“Hey little man, not so fast. That’s more than twelve bucks.”

“What you got?” Pantera scratched a rash on his neck like a dog with fleas.

“It’s not about what I got. It’s about what a fair price should be. How about five reais?”

“Obrigado,” Pantera nodded nervously in agreement. Like a predatory animal, his high-set wedge-shaped ears perked up and his eyes darted about scanning the area for anything suspicious.

“Okay, just hang on a minute.” John transferred his raincoat and jacket to his right arm, and then awkwardly removed his wallet from his rear pants pocket. In a flash Pantera snatched it from his hand. “Até logo, sucker” he barked as he dashed into the crowd.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” John began sprinting after him, but reconsidered when he saw other street kids loitering closer to his two bags that were as good as gone if left unattended. “Shoo, get outta here,” he yelled. “Jesus, what kind of place is this anyway?”

An elderly woman pointed her spindly index finger at him. “Never encourage these rats,” she scolded. “You’ll only make the problem worse.”

In disbelief, John reentered the airport. “Hello Mr. Burke. Back so soon?” The lady teller was returning to her station with a morning coffee in hand.

“This hasn’t been one of my finer days, Miss…what’s your name anyway?”

“Serrano, Gabriela Serrano,” she replied with cheerful interest.

John did his best to compose himself. “Gabriela, someone just stole my wallet.”

“Oh meu Deus.” Her face fell to an all-business mode. “Who did this?”

“Some street kid. I never saw it coming. He snapped it out my hand and took off like the wind.” John nervously rubbed his flushed forehead. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

She took charge. “Never take your wallet out for starters. Come,” she instructed, “we should sit down over here.” They settled on a lobby bench. “Do you still have your passport?”

“Yeah, thank God. It’s in my jacket.”

“Do you have any traveler’s checks?”

“Nope, and my debit card was in my wallet too. Damn.”

“I’m truly sorry.”

“Shouldn’t I file a police report?”

“That would be a waste of time. There are thousands of homeless children here. The police will not even try to find him. I am sorry, Mr. Burke.”

“Call me John,” he said, “and the kid’s name is Pantera. There can’t be that many kids running around with that kind of name.”

“Probably not…John,” she replied. “In your language, a pantera is a ‘panther’, which is an all-black jaguar. There is little chance this is his real name.”

“Well, he definitely preyed on me then bolted like a panther, that’s for sure. But for his sake, he’s gonna need nine lives if I ever run into him again.”

“To survive on the streets, I’m sure he has at least nine lives.”

“Are you defending him? That little shit ripped me off, and I was even going to tip him.”

“This may not make sense to you, but to a child who has nothing, the money he stole from you means everything. When you pulled your wallet out, it was like dangling a hunk of raw meat in front of a starving predator.”

“Well, you’re probably right,” John agreed, sensing that Gabriela had an inestimable pool of compassion for the disadvantaged, and so no argument of his would have made a difference. “Pantera also said something else that I didn’t understand. What does ‘A vida acontece’ mean?”

Gabriela didn’t blink. “Life happens.”

“The kid has a point,” he replied with resignation. “Maybe I should just turn around and go back home and get on my life. I don’t belong here.”

She saw his shoulders slump and his expression morph from anger to melancholy, so she gently patted him on his knee. “Senhor, what matters right now is that I help you get your life back, if not your wallet. I sincerely believe you need this vacation more than ever. Now do you want to use your cell phone to cancel your credit cards or should I do it for you?”

John’s adrenaline was spent. “I didn’t sign up for the international call plan. I can only receive or send messages.”

“Then I will make the calls for you now.”

“Naw, I’ll do it but after I settle into my hotel room.”

“Where are you staying?”

“The Sheraton Rio—I guess it’s just west of Ipanema beach.”

“Yes it is,” she said. “That is where many Americans stay.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still on a budget, so I’m staying where I could use my travel points. I hope it’s a nice place, ‘cause if my luggage ever arrives, I might be able to enjoy it.”

“Your luggage did not arrive?”

“Look, absolutely nothing’s gone right today, Gabriela. In fact, nothing’s gone right this year, and I don’t see my luck changing anytime soon.”

“And I live by my faith, not by my sight.” She reached into her purse and pulled out three-crumpled R$20 bills. “This becomes the moment when your luck will change. Here—use this for your taxi fare.”

“Sixty reais? Hey, you don’t have to do this,” John protested.

“Can you tell me how else you will get to your hotel?” Her plump raspberry lips formed a sympathetic smile. “John, I want to do this.”

“Maybe I should take the bus and save you some money.”

“Absolutely not.” She adamantly shook her head. “Tourists should never ride the bus. Believe me, you have had enough excitement for one day. I want you to enjoy the rest of your time to Rio. Repay me when you can.”

He studied her benevolent eyes. “With interest, no doubt,” he responded. She scrutinized his sky-blue eyes, and her right eyebrow rose as he realized his unintended double meaning. His face reddened and he quickly added, “I mean, obviously I need to return the favor.”

“I hope you do,” she whispered.

They stood to exchange contact information and part ways. She was so sleek, so refined beside his chiseled frame, and yet he was the one who was helpless. “Thank-you so very much.” John shook her silky warm hand as it melted into his big paw.

“It was my pleasure.”

“See you soon, Gabriela,” he said as he timidly placed his other hand over hers.

“Até logo, John,” she gently responded. It occurred to him how sweet her parting words sounded as compared to the same phrase Pantera had used to taunt him.

His cab ride proved to be as thought provoking as his dawn arrival at Galeão Airport. In the distance, he could see colorful shantytowns, accentuated by lush surrounding mountains. The villagers lived in jerry-rigged shacks, built upon mud and rock, powered only by stolen electricity, and yet how happy they seemed to be. As the cab rambled down toward the voluptuous south beaches, it was clear to John that Rio was unlike any world he knew—one filled with wonders but fraught with risk. Rio was going to be a treacherous yet exciting rollercoaster ride, and undoubtedly not mere merry-go-round.

For the first time since New York, John loosened his striped tie. As the cab zipped along the shores of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, he spotted Jesus atop the Corcovado. This time Lord appeared to have a twinkle in his eye.


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