Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro: where urban chaos meets velvety sand and turquoise sea. I hear people laughing, waves breaking, beach vendors shouting, offering simple delicacies: Açaí, Açaí! Cerveja! Maaa-tchi! On a normal day, it melts into background sound.
Today is different though. Today I want to hear the story of someone who is here for a different reason than me, the tourist.
She is skinny, tall, curly hair lightly touches her shoulders. Smooth skin, scars carved in. Voluminous lips, pursed in concentration. Her fingers are running through a girl’s hair, turning silky strands into cornrows. She appears flamboyant, but there is something tragic scratching the surface.
After she’s done styling the girl, she turns to me. “What would you like?”- “To get to know your life”. A glimpse of surprise. “Sure”, she says. “What’s your name?”, I ask. – “Cleópatra”.
She decides it’s time for her lunch break anyway. We walk to a street restaurant, plastic chairs on dusty pavement.
While the thick, humid air embraces us, Cleópatra tells a story that sends shivers down my spine.
„My name given at birth is Maurício, but I find that ugly. I always wanted to be a girl.
I came from Bahia to Rio in search of luck, but I had nothing. I lived on the streets, I got sick, I suffered.
I worked as a prostitute, but clients disrespected me. And then there was this guy who refused to pay me after receiving full service.
So I drugged him and took his money. Police detained me. I went to jail.
Now I work where you found me, braiding hair at Copacabana. Tourists recognise me, sometimes recommend me, things are getting better.
You said you love travelling – me too. I want to get to know the world.“
I feel with her. But when I have to use the bathroom, unpleasant thoughts invade my head. Taking my bag to the bathroom would be rude and demonstrate mistrust. Still, I wonder who I am entrusting my new DSLR. What will be left on the table when I return?
Everything. Plus sea fish, black beans, fresh pineapple juice. We eat almost in silence, savouring the food and the moment we are sharing.
When the bill arrives, I pull out my purse. Cleópatra stops me: “Please let me pay. I have tough years behind me. I received help. And I’ve worked hard to be the one who treats others”.
I decide to photograph her. I want to capture her beauty and her tragedy. I promise to reveal some of the images to her. Three days later, I take the bus back to Copacabana. To continue our connection.
But I don’t find her.
[This story relates an encounter I had in Rio a while ago. I submitted it for a travel writing competition which I did not win, but I won’t lose the opportunity to share it with you this way].