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Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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A cruise to meet the muse of "Girl From Ipanema"

Heloisa Pinheiro — the woman who inspired "The Girl From Ipanema" — has never made a single centavo off the song, but is now a grandmother living in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

The Washington Post

If you go

Cruising Brazil

For more information: Costa Cruise Lines, 877-882-6782, www.costacruises.com.

Tall and tan and young and lovely and now 62 or 63 years old, depending on whom you ask, Heloisa Pinheiro — the woman who inspired "The Girl From Ipanema" — has never made a single centavo off the song.

I don't know about you, but when I heard that, I was deeply troubled. Friends tried to tell me that Pinheiro wrote neither music nor lyrics for the bossa nova classic, that her sole contribution came in walking past the Rio de Janeiro bar frequented by a musician (Antonio Carlos Jobim) and lyricist (Vinicius de Moraes) in 1962, day after day, usually while picking up a pack of smokes for her mother or making her way to an obscure stretch of sand the world would soon come to know as Ipanema Beach. They'd noticed the girl and been moved to write a song, but in essence she was just an impressive pedestrian.

But is artistic immortality enough of a reward for being a muse? I'd say she deserved more.

People go places for all kinds of reasons. I like to spend my vacations seeking out unwitting cultural revolutionaries and finding out if they've made peace with obscurity — it's a niche, I know. And so, I was determined to sail to Sao Paulo (Pinheiro abandoned Rio years ago) and make the acquaintance of the now-Grandma from Ipanema.

Another thing I like to do on trips: avoid other Americans — whom I think we've all had just about enough of — at all costs. Given such a penchant, a cruise ship might seem the wrong choice — unless your destination is South America. Despite being one of the last places on Earth where the dollar isn't struggling, despite relatively untrampled ports of call where nary a trinket salesman rushes the boat, despite sailings that can be as cheap as 400 bucks a head, the continent is still overlooked by many an American cruiser. Meanwhile, a newly emerging Latin American middle class is filling cabins in unprecedented numbers.

I couldn't have been happier last December when Pinheiro's husband, Fernando, whom I'd e-mailed out of the blue, invited me to visit the Sao Paulo dress shop his wife runs called ... Girl From Ipanema. It would just be me, Grandma, hundreds of gorgeous cruise-happy Brazilians and not a single American anywhere.

Leaving America

behind — mostly

Ships from most of the major cruise lines prowl South American waters. Itineraries range from lavish Chile-to-Brazil sailings via the Chilean fiords and Cape Horn to modest four- and five-day Brazil-only trips, where the stops include Rio and smaller ports along the Emerald Coast.

The Costa Victoria, my ticket to Ipanema and beyond, specializes in trips of the latter sort; they leave out of Santos, a port town 50 miles from Sao Paulo. It was raining in Rio when we docked the first morning, our only day in Rio. The fog never lifted from the peaks of Sugarloaf and Corcovedo, and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, just a few miles from the ship, were desolate. Some of my cruisemates braved the elements and snapped a few pictures, but their presence on the beach did little to combat the surrealness of an empty Ipanema.

I wandered inland a few blocks, looking for the Rua Montenegro, the street Pinheiro once owned, where "when she passes, each one she passes goes — ah."

This proved difficult; they've changed the name to Rua Vinicius de Moraes, after the "Ipanema" lyricist. I looked in vain, too, for the famous Veloso Bar, where he'd first caught sight of his muse. Yep, it's the Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema) bar now. Soaked to the bone, I walked slowly back to the ship. Suddenly I was seeing the American Way everywhere. Even all those skinny, gorgeous passengers on the boat began to look different. Huddling with the masses who'd sought refuge at the indoor pool in the Pompei spa, I saw paunches cascading over Speedos and kids sucking Cokes while their moms worked the treadmills with the identical hopelessness of treadmillers everywhere.

But then, the following morning, the ship slowly approached the lush garden isle of Ilhabela, 150 miles southwest of Rio. Thick trees glowed green, clung for dear life to steep mountainsides and leaned uncertainly over the sea. A few cars cut through the vegetation from time to time, but all roads led to pastel-tinted colonial architecture and raucous sidewalk cafes and not a single franchised anything.

Best of all, though, was the sound coming from a bandstand just off the docks, a sound I'd given up thinking I'd ever hear in Brazil: samba. A quintet of white-shirted men strummed and sang while shoeless kids tapped their feet and a few showoff couples swayed with the palm trees in the breeze.

Suddenly I felt my hopes surge. Here it was — the Brazil I needed now, a place cordoned off from cultural imperialism — and oh, wait: Every beach umbrella on the island was sponsored by MasterCard. Every one. Oh, and just across the street, the secret ingredient in Cafe Atlantico's signature appetizer turned out to be Nacho Cheese Doritos.

But still: Just a few steps off the main drag you entered a forest primeval where candy-apple heliconia flowers dripped from the trees and natural water slides wound their way to chilly lagoons. In another direction lay powdery beaches and the chance to snorkel for sand dollars the color of blood. And everywhere was another person with whom you could only communicate via hand gestures. Paradise regained.

Brazilian melodies

Back on the ship, they seemed to be taking a tip from Ilhabela. As night fell and the Victoria steamed south to Porto Belo, the boat's band Melodia Brasil mounted the stage and began to conjure some actual melodies of Brazil. In response, the dance floor quickly flooded with geriatrics and teenagers alike. Soon the ship itself seemed to be dripping with sweat. Here it was — an unending Dionysian parade of gleeful Brazilians. What about that woman I was cruising to? Somewhere out in the wavy darkness sat Pinheiro, who had forgone fame and self-promotion and countless American overtures so she didn't have to leave this glorious place. Now I really couldn't wait to meet her.

But I had to wait, as Porto Belo beckoned. An overnight sail south from Ilhabela, the little town on the Emerald Coast is notable mainly for its proximity to Ilha de Porto Belo, an island just off the mainland, and secondarily for its unequaled collection of Sao Paulo's beautiful people, for whom the island is a cherished weekend destination. Not being one of these, I decamped for the hiking trails, where I chased mauve-dotted butterflies with my camera as enormous black vultures hovered overhead.

When the boat docked for a final time it was in Santos, a 1 ½-hour ride to Sao Paulo, the third-largest city in the world with the worst traffic in the universe. I fell hard for Sao Paulo: the smartly dressed men sipping espresso on the Avenida Paulista, the grungily efficient subway system that stopped mere steps from the MASP museum and its unparalleled collection of Latin American art and especially the enormous Mercado Municipale. At night the restaurants replenish their stocks there, but by day Paulistanos of every stripe wander its stalls, buying fruits you've never heard of and eating pork sandwiches made from parts of the pig you never eat.

Just a normal Girl

And then, at last, it was time. The taxi rolled over a hill and we were there: Garota de Ipanema, a closet-size boutique on a nondescript street in a district far from the glitz.

Inside, I was greeted warmly by Fernando, a former star volleyballer who beat out Jobim for Pinheiro's heart all those years ago. He led me upstairs to a small fitting room that appeared to double as an office and a shrine, with giant posters of Pinheiro in her glory days staring down at us. Twenty minutes later, a woman in an aqua blouse strolled in, golden-haired, tall, tan, as young and lovely as it is possible to be at 62 or 63. Her smile hadn't lost any of its wattage. "I am the first one that used the two-piece on the beach," she said, by way of explaining her unlikely path to musedom. "But it was so big" — the pair of bottoms, that is, which Pinheiro confirmed by showing me an old black-and-white photo of herself wearing what looked like a Sears catalog girdle. But it hadn't hidden that body completely. You could still see writing a song to that body. And to this one, for that matter.

"I had a simple life," Pinheiro said, remembering the day she turned on her radio and first heard the tune. She was in her bedroom, already aware of the rumors about having inspired the song.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any announcement, girls all over Rio started staking claims to the title, which is why, Pinheiro said, de Moraes finally went public with the news that there was only one girl from Ipanema, at which point photographers from all over the world descended on the small flat she shared with her mother — "it was snap, snap, snap" — and the offers began pouring in.

"The American people came to Brazil ... and they asked my mother, 'Please, we want your daughter to make a movie.' And my mother said, "No, no, no, it's impossible!' " Pinheiro's mother was convinced that Hollywood would lead to drug use and other loose conduct, and so she kept her teenager under house arrest until all evidence of photographers had passed.

Pinheiro watched from the sidelines and eventually married Fernando, had four children and opened a dress shop. It hasn't all been anonymity, of course. Pinheiro tried TV journalism for a while, gave out a clue in Season 2 of "The Amazing Race," posed nude in Brazilian Playboy with her daughters a few times.

Still, it has been mostly anonymity ... until now? It is, after all, the 50th anniversary of the bossa nova, which Brazil is celebrating this year — and the photographers may once more descend.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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