Tuesday, February 02, 2010


As far as I see it, words trigger interest points or sensors in our brain. What type, how many and with what resonance it whacks into these sensors is testament to the power of the word in question. For me, "Rio" is a very powerful word.
Few sounds conjure up such contrasting, colourful and extreme images. Similar ones that jump to mind are "hell" or, to be fair to the mixed nature that is Rio, "heaven". For this reason, pulling into Rio after a 28 hour bus journey through lush hilly countryside, the hideous eyeore that is Sao Paolo and much in between, I was very excited. Would it live up to all the reputation and whispers? Rhythm, rainforest, crime, chicas of a scantily clad nature, favellas, football and passion.

We had a few days at the start and end of our "Brazil time" to find out.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS - It was a Saturday night. Zooming out from the rodarivario (bus station) in the back of a cab, through dank streets lit up by the lights and sounds of a night about to break into fiesta. An excited bambling bad Spanish/Portuguese conversation with the cabbie about football. Honks of horns all around. The place felt alive.

The area of Lapa, once full of mansions, has long since dilapidated to the depths. It is though in the midst of a mini, culturally-enhanced bounce. We were staying a few minutes walk up the hill towards Santa Theresa. In between were dark, rainy streets of the sort everyone advices not to stray into in Rio. Covering this distance for the first time that first evening was uneventful, but a small part hair-raising. All the expectation and stories… nothing happens, you forget about it, but your the nerves were still on end.
Lapa was buzzing buzzing. Tomorrow Rio's biggest football club, Flamengo, would win the title for the first time in 17 years if they could just beat Gremio. Smiles, noise and football shirts everywhere. A great introduction to Brazil proper. People full of life and energy. Drinks flowing. Artery clogging food being delivered by the armful.

A DAY I'LL NEVER FORGET - I awoke with a mild hangover (the result of some delectable post-Lapa caipairinhas with odd new age Belgian company back at the hostel) and was just trying to work out what to do with our first full day in Rio when a Brazilian dude called Diego invited us down to the beach. I just about convinced my turgid first thing enthusiasm to unravel and we jumped in the car.
To Ipanema. While Copacabana is its better known, "seen better days" neighbour, Ipanema has to win out as the most stunning city beach in the world. I do not say that lightly. On jumping out the car (where, Brazilian style, Diego had to pay a random dude a few Reals to "look after his car" – read pay me or I'll scratch it) my jaw dropped to the floor. Backed by surprisingly nice high rise, white powder sand washes down to a blue ocean. Its crowning glory are the Dois Irmãos (two brothers), green towering peaks that rise out of the surf and mark the end of Ipanema-Leblon. The only comparison I can make is to Table Mountain, but Ipanema just has more life in it then Camp's Bay et al could hope to offer. Add footie-volley pitches, the ever-present beach-beer and an array of barely covered people and Ipanema takes the biscuit.
Back in the car, I learnt Greek drivers are tame and Brazilian automobiles must have the highest turnover of break pads. Racing along, accelerator-break- accelerator-break-pedal to pedal. To coast is not heard of here. We raced a maniac bus for a couple of miles on the Copacabana strip, missing him time after time by a matter of inches. How there are not more dents on the average car here – and there are a few – amazes me.
The thing is we needed no more adrenaline. We were seeking out the BIG GAME and time was running out.
As is apt in this part of the world, we found time that did not exist ("manana manana") for a few beers on the harbour wall before juggernauting from one district to another trying to find the a suitable place to watch the match. While it was showing on every corner (and we had regular updates from every other one), we wanted to do this in style.

In Botafogo we found the right place. A whole complex of bar next to bar across from bar all pouring out into a ca park covered with hundreds of fans glued to the screens. The red and white of Flamengo was proudly adorned on hats, scarves, drums, tattoos, bellies, cleavage…everywhere. Nervous silence, they were 1-0 down. This was not the script. We had not been there 20 seconds and the whole place erupted in momentarily relieved jubilation. 1-1. Time to settle in for a lot more beer and some chewed finger nails.
A look around the crowd reminded me (if I needed it on this day) of why I love this part of the world. Man, woman and child brimming full of passion and life…… and nerves as time dragged on and they needed another goal.

An odd moment of chance or fate. High above us Christo Redemptor (Christ the Redeemer) had been covered in cloud all day. I glance up and see the last whisp of cloud clearing from the symbol of the city and the moment Christo is free of these willowy shackles… GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLL… rings out from all angles. With Christo looking down Flamengo had done it. Pure elation! The final whistle went. Addictive mayhem all around.

Still polishing off those beers – clearly drink driving is more socially accepted here – we race off dumbed by the preceding few hours emotion to the bottom of a favella. Others must fulfil their needs. A sitting duck in a police no go area at the door of one of a favella. It does not seem out of the ordinary today.

More caipairanihas, a trip down to Lapa and crash out while the city still rings with the chants and cries of victory.

PERSPECTIVE OF ELEVATION - From another five or so top-notch days taking in Rio, my thoughts are hijacked by two differing perspectives.

DOWN BELOW…. On the ground and around the hugely varying barrios. Such a divergence of wealth, prospects and security. How do you compare the glitz of Ipanema with the downright grunginess of the area around the Maracana (let alone the numerous favellas which twinkle from the hills at night)? A confusing place.
Stuck in the middle of all this is a rather surprising downtown. A strange mix of hideously ugly modern buildings and the odd gem of colonial and post-colonial architecture. Walking around at midday there was a refreshing "just get on with things" hustle and bustle. Power dressed people, merchants, shoppers, students and hangers on. Beyond pick-pockets, I did not feel a need to watch my back. The highlight was, against all the odds from its exterior, the Catedral Metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro. From the outside, a concrete fur-cone gone wrong, on the inside a shining gem. The vast interial chasm is flooded with light from a cross of stained glass windows starting at the pinnacle and falling in four lines to the earth. The dark of the concrete monstrosity is ripped into four by an array of colourful luminescence. Impressive and surprising.
A not to be missed aspect is given by the old tram line running up and through San Thelmo. With local kids hanging on the sides you climb over a viaduct and through oft-crumbling grandeur before reaching the base of yet another favella. In between the buildings glimpse after glimpse of abject poverty.
Down to the beaches, one after another becoming nicer as you move away from the port. Here money can buy you everything. Just how nice some of these areas are only heightens the reflection of how dire a state much of the city is in. The juxtaposition explodes into graffiti on every street corner.
Heaven and hell, it is unfinely balanced chaos.
UP ABOVE… Standing on one of the soaring peaks that rise up and split the city, you are entreated to quite a different perspective. In front of you is the most awe inspiringly beautiful mega-city of the world.
Via the tram which chugs up through the rainforest and up the steps to the peak of Corcovado mountain. You stand at the very feet of Christo Redemptor. The largest art deco statue in the world looks out over 360 degree views of this most scenic of landscapes. Swathing humanity is squeezed between the ocean - white sand beaches keeping the peace - and the steep, pointy mountains. Somehow nature has its say as jungle clings to the more precipitous parts. A clash and conglomeration of life. Simply wonderful.
And then a parting image from Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf mountain). A tumultuous scene. As the sky deepens to red and black, the last rays of the days shoot though the clouds and rain down a spray of light onto a city boarded by towering rock. A tear to the eye and gasp. A sight I'll never forget. If I travel for nothing else, it is this.
Farewell to Rio de Janeiro. Truly one of the great cities of the world.
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