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Indian Program

A book traces the trajectory of the Rio de Janeiro shoreline, from the indigenous loinclothes (loincloths) to the miniscule thongs of Ipanema

At the beginning of our national era going to the beach literally was an Indian program: “Plunging into the water like fishing rods, sometimes more than twelve times per day, the Indians walked nude, since in this way they saved themselves the trouble of taking off their clothes all the time”, observed the fifty year old French traveler Jean de Léry. “On a certain Sunday we saw a canoe with more than thirty savages capsize. We went to give assistance to those shipwrecked but they were all laughing and they asked us: where are you going in such a hurry, Mair (as the natives called the French)?” What those of the land quickly learned took time to become a habit for the European conquerors, who only during the reign of Don João VI had discovered bathing in the sea. During all of this time they had lived close together and unhealthily in the center of  Rio de Janeiro.

The story of  how it took time for the passage of the Tanga of the Indians to the miniscule Tanga of  Ipanema is deliciously told in Orla carioca: história e cultura [Carioca shoreline: history and culture]  by Claudia Braga Gaspar, published by Metalivros. “The original Carioca, through long abstinence, who had gone through two complete centuries of adhering to firm ground and had resisted the first decades of reckless change of the eight hundred year old city, did not even think about bathing in the sea”, Claudia explained.  And when he did begin to think it was in medicinal terms and not for having fun. With a leg inflammation, brought about by the bite of a tick, Don João VI, stuck inside a box, was the first European pioneer to risk a dip in the Carioca waters.

The beach, imitating that which was done overseas from the colony, transformed itself into a “small hospital” and as such there was a demand for decorum: “Women must use long trousers, tied off at the ankles and on top blouses of the same material, as well as Maria Antoinette head caps. On the feet canvas shoes and covering everything a wide shaped dressing gown”, wrote a magazine of that period. In order to avoid greater dangers, there was a team of Italians and Portuguese who were burdened with carrying the young women in their laps in order to wet their feet delicately in the sea. All possible care was taken. The dictionary of ecclesiastical sciences of 1760 had recommended the “use of  bathing assuming that it was not done for pleasure. Sick people were permitted to bathe every time that they judged it to be necessary, but for those of good health, especially the young, such bathing must only be conceded very rarely.”

“The change from the therapeutic use of the beach to one of social use and of a pastime was linked to urban transformations through which Rio passed at the turn of the last century, along with wide avenues and tramcars, involving the birth of a new city, bringing modernism and advancing the city limits to the southern zone, up until then a vast and deserted stretch of sandy beach.”

But everything moved slowly as one would do walking in the sand. From the start, going to the beach at dawn, between three and four in the morning. The bather would arrive early, change in the changing cabins, in the European manner, and after only five minutes in the sea, then the time judged to be recommended, he would take a little bit of air and sun and leave the seashore at eight o’clock to have breakfast, since fasting was necessary in order to go into the sea. Cafés came about in order to attend to the bathers’  hunger, which shortly afterwards converted themselves into today’s kiosks. But liberty has a price and the State saw that it necessary to regulate the new mania.

In 1917  decree number 1,143 advised that one could only go to the beach between the 1st of April and the 20th of November between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. As well as describing the type of bathing suit suitable and other details, the new law expressly forbids “any type of noise or loud voices on the beach or in the sea during the period of  bathing”.

One year later, for general relief, along Copacabana beach six Lifeguard Stations, complete with lifeguards, were built. People then began to bathe in the sea in the vicinity of these stations, a habit that has remained until today, though it may be for other reasons linked to the “tribe” that the bather belongs to. “The First World War brought with it weighty behavioral changes that were going to reflect in the dress code of the era. What was wanted was a healthier lifestyle, with fresh air, where sports were more present, such as rowing, diving and swimming”, the author observed. “Accompanying this evolution, the bathing suits became more modern, becoming a single piece suit. The beach gained popularity. Seaside hotels came about on the French coast and Rio, jumping on the bandwagon, a series of seaside hotels were inaugurated: Hotel Glória, Hotel Sete de Setembro, Copacabana Palace, among others”.

“The Carioca taught himself to walk on the beach with the same dignified elegance that he walked on the asphalt. Beach life exercised upon him that could be felt in new ideas, sentiments, in his physical and moral constitution. The beach, has been uncovered for the day to day life of the city’s population, and it is powerfully vitalizing and inciting the people to happiness”, the magazine O Cruzeiro announced with precision.

And the bathers became more and more daring, leaving the calm of the waters of Guanabara bay for the shoreline of the oceanic beaches. “The beach began becoming more popular and gaining status in the social area. The city in movement went on to conquer spaces and widened the leisure of the Carioca on the shoreline of the city. Body cult, more and more exacerbated, aligned itself with the advances in the materials used in the manufacture of bathing suits:  latex, during the decade of the 1940’s, helanca in the 60’s and 70’s, and lycra in the 70’s and 80’s.”, Claudia remembered. The habit of bathing was also modified. “The beach hours extended themselves and if, at the start of the century everything had been limited to a restrictive permanence of a few hours, starting from the decade of the 30’s the taste for the beach brought about the desire to make use of this space in the best way possible.”  With the smallest quantity of material possible. In 1948 a German, Miriam Etz, put herself on display every day with the recently created bikini on Diabo beach, bringing together crowds to see the bathing suit that was a moral atomic bomb. In 1960 it was no longer a novelty and consecrated itself as the Carioca uniform.

A curiosity: it was the progress of modernism that, to a large degree, helped unite the Carioca with nature. It was not easy to get to the southern zone when coming from the central regions where the majority of the population lived. Then came the extra help from the tramcars. The first lines arrived at Copacabana at the end of the 19th century and in 1894 the “Igrejinha”  Ipanema line was opened, even to the dislike of the company’s shareholders who believed that it was foolish to project a tramcar to “a sandy desert, without homes and whose development would be slow”.

“Much later, during the decade of the 60’s, the opening of the Rebouças tunnel, directly linking the southern zone to the northern zone, accelerated the integration of the city in its growth, making flexible the flow of  bathers from the northern zone to the southern beaches. Previously, the oceanic beaches were basically frequented by local inhabitants and tourists or by those who owned a car”, Claudia explained. With time, the beach became unrestricted leisure for all Cariocas and the tabus were broken: the beautiful thing is to remain bronzed. New opportunities, however, did not come free. In order to build the city of his dreams, mayor Pereira Passos began the practice of landfills, which ate up and generated new beaches.

“Whoever today walks through the center of  Rio steps, without knowing, on land-filled beaches”, the author stated. The “knock-it-under” attitude decimated the seaside houses to form the line of docks and separated the city from the ocean. Today, between Rio and the sea runs Avenue Beira-Mar. In 1952 mayor Dulcídio Cardoso pushed the waters even further back, extending, between the public pathway and the Viúva Hill, the Flamengo landfill, built between 1953 and 1962. Seven beaches disappeared to make way for the port docks; four for the Navy Arsenal; nine were land-filled with the rubble from the Castelo Hill and that of Santo Antônio. Even the sea itself was invaded: in 1944, with the rubble from the Castelo, the Santos Dumont airport was built.

The Indians would no longer recognize the shoreline where they played much to the horror of the Europeans. Even at that they would be pleased with the newly born “tribes” who have gone on to divide up the spaces in the sand as a function of  behavior, in general concentrated around the lifeguard stations, such as that of the surfers at Station No 7;  the GLS at Station No 8; the more relaxed youth and artists at Station No 9; and the beach volleyball players at Station No 10. “The expression “this is not my beach”  has, for sure, in the tribes of those present, a status of union and pertinence that pledges them to specific behavior”, Claudia noted. The rest is sea.