Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - Fabriana


We were sitting in a sidewalk café beneath the canopy of a red and white umbrella on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach when Fabriana came into our lives. Protected from the still-intense tropical sunlight, even though it was late afternoon, my husband, Tom, and I, watched hundreds of sun-stained Brazilians clad in rainbow-colored string bikinis, along with camera-toting tourists, stroll the black and white mosaic promenade before us. Across the wide white, baby powder-fine sand, waves lapped gently against the shore, amid volleyball games and sunbathers absorbing the last rays of sunlight.

The world of Rio seemed to pass before our eyes in slow motion as we sipped caipirinhas, local famous drinks made with crushed limes, sugar, ice and pinga, a potent sugar cane liquor, the sensation of which I could feel from the time it touched my lips, all the way to my stomach.

Two street musicians paused at our table. One held a drum made from a tin can, a piece of cardboard stretched across its top. The other had a small ukulele missing a string. On their makeshift instruments they played and sang a rendition of The Girl From Ipanema for the benefit of the tourists crowding the café.

Vendors soon approached our table, hawking everything from colorful silk beach wraps imported from Bali, gaudy t-shirts crowded with palm trees and white sand, complete with near-naked women proclaiming, 'Blame it on Rio." They also offered whole coconuts with straws tipping from their tops, available for instant refreshment.

A mulatto with bare calloused feet approached, a large tin-can device hanging from a wire around his arm. The can's bottom was filled with charcoal. Over a screen on its top sat a pile of yellow cone-shaped containers. We shook our heads when he gestured to them, so he peeled the top from one and poured some roasted nuts onto a tiny scrap of paper and placed it on our table, signaling for us to try his product.

Still stuffed from lunch at a churrascaria, where local barbequed meats of every space and description were piled onto our plates each time we attempted to clear them, we did not have room for even one nut. So the small mound sat on our table untouched.

But it wasn't long until I saw a tiny, mud-streaked hand approach the pile of nuts from the corner of my eye. Turning, I stared into the huge brown eyes of a girl not more than three peering over our table top. I smiled at her and scooted the nuts across the table where she could more easily reach them. Delicately, with the movements of a ballerina, she scooped up several and put them into her mouth. Then she smiled at me and I smiled back.

Seeing this as a symbol that 'everything was okay,' she took several more nuts from the pile, each time asking permission with her eyes. Her tiny white teeth quickly crushed them and I wondered when she had last eaten.

But before we realized it, the pint-sized chocolate-skinned girl with Shirley Temple cork-screw curls framing her round face, attempted to climb onto the third chair at our table. Tom pulled it out for her and she scrambled up, her bare bottom shining for a moment in the sunlight.

Turning quickly, she sat down and smiled at us once more. Her tiny bare feet, calloused from wandering the streets, dangled over the edge of the red plastic chair and I wondered if she had ever owned a pair of shoes. Then carefully, she pulled her tattered flowered dress below her knees as if she had spent hours in etiquette class, and proceeded to gobble up the nuts.

Realizing how hungry she really was, Tom motioned to the nut vendor and purchased a whole cone of the salty snack and placed it before the little girl. Immediately, she tore away its top and tipped the packet to her mouth.

We watched her with sadness, yet fascination-one so tiny, yet caring for herself in the cruel world of Rio, where the chasm between rich and poor runs so deep. I felt tears fill my eyes for the plight of the little girl before us. But she was not about to cry over her condition. Instead she smiled and offered some nuts to us. Since we did not want to deprive her of the only nourishment she had probably had all day, we each took only one. We quickly discovered that they were good, warm, and could actually be filling.

She sat with us for quite some time, all the while chomping down the remainder of her nuts. After finishing, she clapped her hands to the music and played with the straws on the table, chattering unknown Portuguese words to us. We ordered a Coca Cola for her, remembering that 'all the world loves Coke,' and the straw never left her lips until the glass was empty.

Suddenly, we heard the cries of a woman coming toward our table. "Fabriana! Fabriana!" she shouted. A dark-skinned barefoot woman, her belly swollen with child, soon stood before us. Her eyes filled with tears as she scooped up the little girl at our table into her arms. Then she kissed her over and over again. "Fabriana, Fabriana."

Tom and I looked at each other and smiled. Little Fabriana-a product of the hopeless poverty of the favelas, the slums of Rio filled with crumbling hovels made of tin, cardboard or crumbling stucco that lacked water and electricity and clung high to the mountainsides-why she was not as destitute as we had imagined. She had the one thing that mattered most-Love. I was so relieved at that moment of seeing Fabriana in her mother's arms, that I wanted to cry again. But this time at least there was some sign of hope. For at least Fabriana had a mother's love, far different from many of the destitute street children of Rio.

By this time, Tom had pressed all the cruzeiros that remained of our cash into Fabriana's mother's hand and I motioned for her to sit with us.

"Obrigada," she said, kissing her daughter once more as she sat down. She patted her stomach through the thread-bare garment she wore and motioned with sign language that she was carrying her ninth child. After she rested for only a few minutes, she motioned to Fabriana to come with her. They both got up from the table and walked out of our lives as quickly as they had entered.

As the sun sank beyond the bend of the shoreline and the white sands of Impanema Beach, I glanced up at the mountain top behind us. The huge Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer statue, loomed high into the pastel sky, arms outstretched, the eternal protector of Rio and its inhabitants.

I turned my head toward Fabriana and her mother, now specs in the distance. I hoped He was looking after them.