RIO DE JANEIRO — The first few days of the Olympics have been dazzling. But in Rio, I was more dazzled by the everyday feats ordinary Brazilians perform to stay healthy and safe.
On my first day there, I pedaled behind local journalist Thalita Pires as she weaved through rush-hour traffic on a bright orange bicycle from the city’s bike share program. Each time we hit a big bump, her bike chain fell off, sending her to the curb for emergency maintenance.
She kept her cool. But my heart raced as we tried to navigate the gridlock, fumes, and dangerous driving that Cariocas, as Rio residents are called, face daily.
Along the way, I got a glimpse of some serious athleticism on the beaches, where Cariocas play volleyball with their heads and feet — no hands. Others, like social worker Adilson Gomes, refuel each morning by pumping iron at a public outdoor gym with barbells made of cement.
I began to notice that strength in less obvious ways, too: Hotel workers meeting near the beach to give each other back rubs before stooping over to clean tourists’ toilets. Gay couples holding hands on the street, despite an epidemic of anti-gay violence in Brazil. Kids climbing steep cement stairs to their homes past waterfalls of sewage. Fishermen wading in the polluted mud to find crabs, exposing themselves to skin disease and stomach bugs.
At Rio’s Municipal Hospital Souza Aguiar, I met Thomas Florindo, who rode the bus for an hour to seek treatment after a splinter of steel flew into his eye at work. He said he was eager to get back home to his kids in Jardim Gramacho, a neighborhood on Guanabara Bay dominated by a huge, notorious, abandoned trash dump.
The greatest feats of strength I saw took place in northeast Brazil, in the city of Recife, where grandmas, grandpas, aunts, and cousins have stepped in to care for babies with Zika-related microcephaly, a malformation of the brain and head that can leave infants struggling to hear, see, and swallow.
One grandmother, Maria Soares, told me she took over caring for her grandson, Pedro Miguel, after the baby’s father abandoned him and Soares’ 17-year-old daughter couldn’t handle her baby on her own. Soares quit her job as a hospital janitor to focus on the child. Now she spends her days with her grandson, shuttling him to endless medical appointments and holding him during seizures and crying fits.
As she waited at a medical clinic, other families of babies with microcephaly filled waiting rooms. They accompanied their babies to therapy sessions. They studied how to sing to, listen to, and tickle their babies, stimulating their ears, eyes, bodies, and minds to help them overcome severe developmental delays. It’s a full-time job that takes constant feats of patience, hope, and strength — Olympian feats that will continue long after the Games are gone.