The White House at the Beachhead

When I went out for a paddle, first in a kayak and later in a Polynesian 6-person canoe, and looked back at the city from the water, I saw to the right of Praia Vermelha, a white house with two palm trees and a Portuguese cannon. There, from the corner of the bay, it aimed at invaders and pirates, as it has for centuries. The house sits still beneath the cables of the cable car, rising up and down from sunrise until well into the night. Bright white under the wires, it faces a blue sea. The house is at the entrance of the Coutinho trail, which borders the Urca hill along rocks and cliffs, and extends to the foot of the Sugar Loaf. Up the access ramp to the trail, to the right suddenly behind the white house appears an organic vegetable garden, a hidden treasure. Many times, from the water, I thought: if our story was different, how much I would have liked my son to study there.

The white house is a kindergarten, named after Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean Nobel winner. And the children start arriving early because the gate closes at eight. At recess, they play ball and make noise in the yard, next to the Portuguese canyon and under the palm trees, facing the blue sea. Eventually, as head of another school in Urca, I made friends in the white house. It was true, then, that there exist men and women in Rio, who once, as children, played there, in the most beautiful house in the world.

This day, I followed Alex onto the grounds. That afternoon we had begun our search for partners for our pilot project. First, we stopped in at the Minas Gerais school; whose director, Regina, knows the history of that other white house on Pasteur Avenue, built when the 1908 Exposition, in a neighborhood of Eclectic architecture, better than anyone else. We then climbed the steps of the Museum of Earth Sciences, which we call the Dinosaur Museum because it houses the largest collection of fossils in the Americas. Following an intuition, we head up to Gabriela Mistral from there.

Ana Lúcia, its director, we perceive to be a little reserved at first, and I imagine that she sees many people every day and that protecting the children in her school is her priority. But she quickly warmed to us and allowed our conversation to flow. We greet Reginaldo, the gardener who looks after her garden, whom we knew from rowing. And we ask if we might interview some of her teachers, parents, and students for a story project that would bring life back to Guanabara Bay. She is animated and calls Marcelo Barros, who manages the Pão de Açucar Natural Monument and the Urca hill, to come by immediately. We sat down to talk at her desk, and after a very nice introduction, he invites us to the MoNa advisory council meeting, two weeks later, at Unirio, on the same Pasteur Avenue with the highest density of educational institutions in the city, to present our project. In the white house, under the protective gaze of Ana Lúcia, over watermelon juice and coffee, our first partnership was born in the territory.

The night before the presentation we did not sleep well, we were anxious. We went on foot from the Urca Institute to Unirio. We went up to a room on the second floor. We arrived in time, but Marcelo was also worried: they had to change classrooms and technology failed him. The council was arriving and there was a risk of cancelling the meeting.

Many years ago, at a diving course in Buenos Aires, I was taught that the golden rule of the diver is to never lose his temper. In the depths of the sea, under a pressure in which the eardrums and lungs explode like a balloon, between apnea and death, the only way to be saved is not to panic. Our white house partnership was a premonition: the computer we were carrying saved the day. And other people and organizations working in the territory a long time ago, with such admirable results as the recovery of the eastern slope of the Sugar Loaf and the adoption of the Bondinho of the Coutinho trail, and safeguarding small plants on a repel track on Urca Hill, where about 26,000 visitors per month was remarkable.

Thank you, Marcelo. Working together is infinitely more fun and efficient than working alone. –OdiLeo

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