Rio de Janeiro – a city of golden sandy stretches, urban rainforests, Ipanema sunsets, beachfront strutting, abandoned mansions, samba and a glowing Christ
Toting backpacks, passports, boarding cards and delightedly jangling nerves, we were off! Three flights, a dinner in Paris and a mere 60 hours later, we arrive in Rio crumpled, exhausted and absolutely caught up in pure excitement. As we wait for the bus into the city, there’s a moment where both of us stand with our faces uptilted toward the sun trying to take in that we are here. After so many months of planning and plotting and waiting, it somehow seems surreal to find ourselves in Brazil. It’s wonderful!
The bus journey into the city gives us our first glimpse of Rio’s favelas. Red and blue kites fly above the red brick and corrugated iron of the shanty town sprawling along both sides of the motor way. We pass into the suburbs of the city, a dilapidated maze of security shutters, razor wire and graffiti when Damien, following our route on the map, pipes up that our stop should be coming up “at any moment now”. I rapidly begin to rethink this whole “adventure” idea! The bus continues on until we arrive at our hostel in Botafogo, a lively neighbourhood lightly brushing the wrong side of the tourist track. For our first foray into Rio, it’s exactly what we’re looking for! Checked in and backpacks stowed, we set off to discover the city.
Lead me to Copacabana!
The beauty of an impossibly long golden stretch of sand, clear blue sea and rainforested island hummocks rising from the bay leaves me in no doubt as to why Copacabana is so famous. Well that along with the muscle-bound men performing chin-ups on the beachfront exercise platforms, minuscule bikinis, beach vendors touting wares of sarongs, samba whistles and watermelon, and a promenade hosting a constant flow of rollerblade and skateboard traffic. It’s a place which somehow manages to be gloriously chaotic and yet completely laid back. It is about 30 degrees as we stroll along the beachfront of Copacabana towards Ipanema.
Ipanema also is breathtakingly beautiful. There is a very different feeling about this neighbourhood. Ipanema is sleek and refined while Copacabana is fabulously and unashamedly brash. I love them both! The sun is setting when we arrive and we sit on the sand drinking from a chilled coconut – our first of many – watching the lights appearing on the headland.
“With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there…”
The next day we meet up with Romain, a university friend of Damien, who is in town for the weekend and the three of us make a bee-line for the beach. We spend the morning bobbing in the waves. The sand is so fine, the waves are high and the water is warm. It is impossible to comprehend how this can be winter in Brazil! I have to say I had been feeling pretty racy in my black, low-cut swimsuit but as I look around me at the tiny, tiny string bikinis, sure I may as well be wearing a full gabardine coat! I can honestly say I was the only person in the whole of Copacabana wearing a one piece swim suit! Regardless of age or body type, the rule when it comes to bikinis seems to be the more minute the better. Yup, there is no doubt about it – I am embarrassingly non- Carioca! Besides my glaring white skin and my wildly excessive body coverage, I’m also lacking the one thing (besides Haviannas) that nearly everyone, irrespective of age or sex, seems to be sporting – braces! It’s a city where the only acceptable tan line is the one from your flip-flops and smiles glint in the sunshine. I’m fascinated!
Cobblestones, urban monkeys and coiffed canines
Mildly sunburned despite the slathering on of factor 50, we head for Santa Teresa – a hilltop, bohemian neighbourhood of crumbling mansions, cobbled streets, disused tramlines and winding alleys.
In some places in the city, the rainforest becomes urbanised or, from another perspective, the city is being stealthily reclaimed by the forest. Santa Teresa is one of those places. In the ruins of the former mansions, vine tendrils creep through the cracks in the walls and monkeys (!) run along telephone wires. Monkeys instead a squirrels – and a definite moment of wonder!
Following my trusty and massively geeky itinerary, we have lunch Espírito Santa, an incredible Brazilian-Amazonian restaurant. Full and happy we spend the rest of the day exploring Santa Teresa and the urban rainforest for more monkey-spotting on Pão de Açucar and then, that evening, the three of us wandered along the promenade in Copacabana, chatting and people-watching. Evening time in Copacabana is wonderful. Football and volleyball matches take place on the sand, the air is filled with the sound of the waves and the deliciously sweet smell of the corn-on-the-cob sold by street vendors and Cariocas, the residents of Rio, are out walking their coiffed and pampered pedigrees. It was a bit unnerving to see so many Shih-Tzus sporting the same unfortunate square bob I had when I was 12!
City of God
Lapa and it’s mythic samba was beckoning that night but post-travel exhaustion was setting in so I left the boys to it and I headed back to the hostel to finish off City of God by Paulo Lins, a hugely violent and, often, quite twisted, semi-autobiographical novel set in the slums of Rio. It’s not one of my favourite books but still an interesting read for what it is. Venturing into the favelas uninvited and unguided is not advisable but though many favela tours exist, the idea of a slum tour sits decidedly uncomfortably with me. That being so, I satisfy my curiosity with the bare glimpses of this other face of Rio afforded by the novel and our walks through the city.
Grey clouds have rolled in overnight (clouds in Rio? Surely not!) but undeterred we take the funicular railway to the top of Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park to see the most famous of Rio’s landmarks, Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). Arms outstretched and expression impassive, the icon towers at 30 metres. It’s an incredible sight! The Christ stands at the peak of the 700 metre high mountain overlooking the city and the panoramas from the viewing platforms are spectacular.
Of hope and rust
An expedition to the city’s lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas is next on the list – our chosen method of transport? Bikes, and not just any old bikes – these bikes are held together by hope and rust, their rental deposit is the princely sum of EUR 150 and, funnily enough, come without locks or brakes! We had a great time bumping over the cobble stones and weaving our way through the different neighbourhoods.
Jingles and honey-traps
In the clutches of jet lag that evening, Damien and I tune into some Brazilian reality t.v. – surely a cultural must-do in any new country?! Having followed the story in 2009 of the Brazilian television presenter who stood accused of commissioning murders to boost the ratings of his crime show, Canal Livre, I’m curious. Wedged in between the back-to-back Masses and soap operas, we manage to stumble across a reality T.V. gem. The chosen programme seems to be based on the premise of a “honey trap”. Basically, a woman would come onto the show with fears that her husband was being unfaithful and the producers would kindly provide a seductress and “convincing” scenario in order to test the loyalty of the impugned male – complete with catchy jingle and a dancing audience should the unsuspecting subject fail. Car crash t.v. with the added “advantage” of being nearly completely comprehensible despite the fact that neither one of us has any Portuguese – class!
Samba and vinegar
It isn’t until our return journey from Paraty, over a week later, that we finally venture into Lapa, home of samba. Our new hostel is straight from a horror film, a decaying ivy-covered early twentieth century Portuguese villa located in the cobbled streets of Santa Teresa. The cloying smell of moth balls and French jazz lace the air. We wander through the alleys and stairways of the neighbourhood that night guided by a French girl who works part-time in the hostel while she takes her time designing her own clothing line. She leads us into Lapa though the darkened streets and past an aqueduct, los Arcos da Lapa, telling us tales of the city. Homeless people congregate in the side alleys off the main thoroughfare. Rubbish lines the gutters and there is a definite uneasy atmosphere. It’s far from the party neighbourhood I had imagined. As we settle into our chosen bar, a helicopter buzzes overnight and we suddenly notice a steadily increasing police presence. It continues to increase and as we sip our beers, a veritable army of riot police streams past our terrace. Strains of drumming and chanting reach us and Damien and I cast uneasy glances at each other as all around us people pick up their glasses and move to the interior of the bar. The shutters begin to come down as the demonstrators come into sight. Dressed in black with their faces covered by scarves or Guy Fawkes masks, the protesters march as part of the wave of civil unrest and dissatisfaction that has gripped Brazil since early July. The issues are numerous and touch on political corruption, public transport, a constitutional amendment, employment law, health, education and the cost of hosting the upcoming World Cup. The movement has been referred to as the Movimento V de Vinagre (V for Vinegar Movement) after protesters were arrested for carrying vinegar as a home remedy against the pepper spray and tear gas used by the police. Riots and violence have been widespread but tonight, the demonstration appears to be peaceful. Deciding that we know far too little about what’s unrolling before us to take any chances, we hop in a taxi back to our hostel. It is our last night in Rio and, though the samba clubs remain to be explored another time, I’m glad to have caught this tiny glimpse of another of Rio’s faces beyond its legendary alluring beach front. If anything, the complexity of the city has made me love it even more!