03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ten Extraordinary Things About Rio, Including a Man Called H

We'll get to the famed Man in Rio who gifted me with good jewelry an hour after we met (24-carat gold, thank you very much). But first, reflections on two trips to that heartbreakingly beautiful and beautifully heartbreaking city. Here are 10 extraordinary elements of the venue for the 2016 Olympics.

1. Many feel that Rio's harbor, framed by Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Christ the Redeemer statue atop a rainforest peak, is the most beautiful of any city's. Hong Kong, San Francisco and Sydney are most often mentioned as rivals, but as a travel writer I've seen them, and there's no contest: Rio wins.

2. Back in the early 1980s I saw thong bathing suits for the first time here, on people of all sizes; I could see then why the bikini wax was coined Brazilian. The curving Copacabana amd Ipanema beaches with their swirling mosaic sidewalks frame the city, and are the center of socializing.

3. But there is astounding ugliness as well in Rio's favelas, slums that from afar cover the city's mountains like snow, but up close reveal a miasma of poverty, neglect, crime and death.

4. And violence breeds extremes. I attended a Macumba black-magic ceremony on night in a hot room where everyone dressed in white as a squawking chicken lost its head to a blade that flashed silver, then crimson. We were told to be silent, and since there were knives, I remained totally tight-lipped. I could smell the blood for hours.

5. The martial art/dance called capoeira, was born out of extremes as well, devised by Brazilian slaves as a way to train for rebellion. Today it is the highlight of tourist shows and performances along the beach.

6. And of course there's the samba, brought also from Africa, more a trance than a dance. I sought a place where locals go, and for hours swayed to steady drumbeats. I jumped in and never stopped, as partners of all kinds came and went. You need stamina and rhythm but it's so dark and so mesmerizing that once I let go a bit I got swept into it.

7. Caipirinha, Brazil's potent tropical cocktail made from sugarcane liquor (cachaca), fresh lime juice, sugar and ice helps stoke the trancing/dancing. At traditional Sunday lunch the green drink is also served along with feijoada, consisting of meats such as tongue and sausage, rice, beans, collard greens, oranges, and hot pepper sauce. After that light repast, I stumbled into the sun and then to bed, emerging back to the beachfront when the heat within and without subsided.

8. Even the most impoverished cariocas -- what locals call themselves -- find frenzied joy in two things. First, soccer (their revered, retired Pele is more a god than the god of fire he was named for). With a crowd of maybe a hundred thousand standing fans at the Rio stadium, the vibrations and roar never end.

9. And of course, Carnival in Rio, in February. I did visit a club preparing sequined, feathery costumes; just about everybody participates in some way, for a year. I posted about experiencing the second biggest one in the world in Barranquilla Colombia last year, but Rio's tops them all.

Can you imagine the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2016 Olympics?

But now --ta-da --the short anecdote of my Man in Rio, who charmed me, literally.

There is an H?

10. Colored gems. I was with a group visiting the worldwide headquarters of H Stern, the flagship jewelry store of hundreds around the world, admiring the twinkling colored gems, mined from nearby Ouro Preto, the colonial town I had just visited. I hung back when my group left, hoping to find just the right color among the rainbow prisms.

Then a tap on my shoulder from a woman in black. "Excuse me, but Hans Stern would like to talk to you."

"Who? "

"Mr. Hans Stern."

Hans ... You mean ... H Stern?

"Yes, and he'd love to talk with you if you have the time. He likes to talk with Americans."

So I was escorted through several gates and elevators to the top of the building, with a view of the forested mountains dropping to the water, and the wide beach below. And there behind a desk in an office lined with books was a small, sixtyish, bald man with a big grin.

Hans Stern, a German Jew, immigrated to Rio at the outbreak of World War II, when he was 17 years old. And now he talked of history and politics and America -- everything but jewelry. He seemed more like a professor than an innovative mogul. And when I got up to go, he handed me a heavy gold charm of a closed fist.

"This is a figa, a good-luck symbol which came to Brazil with the seventeenth-century slave trade. To bring luck, a figa must always be a gift."

And I thought about other reasons I had been given jewelry and how special and unexpected this one was.

As I stepped into the taxi he had called for me, Rio itself had become jewel-toned, with sky and sea the color of topaz, tourmaline and amethyst. When I returned to the hotel it was dark, and my fellow travelers were worried that I had been kidnapped, mugged, raped and murdered, in no particular order.

And when I told them the story --and they stopped envying the figa and the interview, they mentioned that they had gotten something out of it too.

As one man put it, "At least we know what that letter 'H' stands for. I thought it was Howard Stern!"