The International Journal of Sport and Leisure
(Some sport. Some leisure. Also, schistosomiasis.)
Galapagos Islands (5)
About Me (1)
Ecuador: Quito (5)
Honduras: Utila (4)
Rio de Janeiro (2)
South Africa (13)
Temporary Update (1)
* South of Durban
* Escape from the Cape
* Skydiving for Bacon
* Rage Against the Machine
* Bite Me
* Africa Cold
* Scum-Dodging on Long Street
* Cable Cars, Lentil Soup and Bart Simpson
* Cape Town
* Cape Drear
* Lows of Travel ("Welcome to Africa")
* High Entertainment
* Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 2 of 2)
* Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 1 of 2)
* Don't Make Me Cry, Argentina
* Hago el Vago en Buenos Aires (Part III: Final Week)
* Gloom at the Top
* Its The End Of The World As I Know It
* Perito Moreno Glacier
March 24, 2005
Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 2 of 2)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Sunday - Thursday, March 20 - 24, 2005:
How to describe my time in Rio de Janeiro, the South American city that is probably most familiar to and most visited by Americans? It is a city of beautiful beaches and beautiful people. It is also a densely-packed city of impoverished favela shanty-towns and desperately poor people who mingle with and beg in vain from the rich upon the heavily-touristed streets of Ipanema and Copacabana. I loved the place and I hated the place, though I do not think Rio itself can be credited or blamed for being what it is (because, to be even more pedantic, it simply is what it is). While Rio is world famous and constantly inundated with wealthy international travelers, I found it one of the most baffling, mysterious and impenetrable cities I have visited thus far. I do not say this only because I could not understand much of the strangely beautiful Portugese which they speak. Rather, the contrasts, juxtapositions and bleeding together of races and cultures lend the city a dizzyingly eclectic atmosphere I could not begin to sort out during my time there. I am not sure whether I would want to return to continue the challenge of trying to sort some more. That said, I would return to Brazil without question.
On my second day I had lunch at a traditional but casual Brazilian steakhouse in Copacabana, just a block off the main street on the beach. It almost pains me to say it, but Argentina does not have a monopoly on excellent beef --- the sirloin I ordered that afternoon was just as good as anything I had in Buenos Aires. It was topped in crispy fried garlic cloves and served with rice, blackbeans and a manioc and garlic mash called farofa. During my time in Rio I tried a number of beef and seafood dishes as well as different forms of sausage. I think that at one point I ate pig ears without knowing it. They were very good, though I don't plan on deliberately seeking them out in the future. Buenos Aires is a city with a range of restaurants and excellent food, but I had to go out of my way to one or two neighborhoods to find certain types of cuisine. Rio (or at least Copacabana and Ipanema) seems to have a far wider variety of international dishes available (there is no end to Japanese options, for instance) and the spicy, hearty Brazilian fare was never bland or boring. Finally, the chilled green coconuts you can buy from kiosks all over the beach are The Perfect Drink.
I spent a lot of time in Rio with Mara, 28, a Brazilian girl who had just moved to Rio from the more northern Bahia region. I met her on the afternoon of my second day at a kiosk on the beach of Copacabana. She was working odd and end jobs --- most recently slicing up fish, though she had been forced to quit because of her boss harrassing her and the dangerous working conditions. Mara understood almost all of my Spanish and I could generally understand a lot or most of her Portugese, though there were times when I had to have her repeat things several times or say them a different way. In any event, she saved me a lot of the effort of having to try to communicate complex ideas to other Brazilians by acting as my interpreter. More importantly, of course, she was friendly and a great resource. She seemed to find the idea of me traveling alone in Rio a slightly dangerous and/or ill-advised one and was determined to look out for me. After a few days, I sensed that she was reconsidering her decision to move here in the first place: the poor and homeless depressed her and although she said there were plenty of the same back where she was from and all throughout Brazil, I think it was the seeming cold and callous vibe of Copacabana and Ipanema in relation to the poor that put her off --- the shocking poverty in such close proximity to the shocking wealth and the way that the authorities practically (or literally) imprison the populations of favelas inside their own ghettos to keep them away from tourists. All of this definitely put me off, but it isn't an easy thing to suggest solutions to. On almost any occassion in which we ate something in a restaurant that we did not finish, Mara would have it wrapped up and seek out the nearest homeless woman with children. "You never know, it could be me or you someday," she said.
Shoppers need not worry that Rio will not provide for them. There were immense malls filled with designer stores and plenty of Ipanema boutiques selling anything a wealthy American, Japanese or European tourist could possibly desire. There was a Louis Vuitton store not two blocks away from my hotel. Gold jewelry seemed a hot item. Want to dress like a pimp in a pink tailored suit? Go for it --- you won't be all alone.
My free pamphlet on Rio included an advertisement for a company that takes
Copacabana at night can be one big insane party. There are nightclubs, bars, discos, the works. On one night I passed hundreds and hundreds of 20-somethings out on the street celebrating a beer festival. At 2 AM on another night, I passed by hundreds of people in line to enter a club. While there are plenty of tourists in the mix, I sensed the majority of participants in all the revelry were the wealthier young cariocas.
On a late afternoon Mara and I hired a cab to take us to the top of the 2500+ foot mountain Corcovada, where the 38-meter art deco statue of Christ the Redeemor (built in 1931) lifts his open arms above stunning views of city and sea.
Corcovada looms over Ipanema and Copacabana and you can see Christ the Redeemor from the city streets, provided that he isn't covered by clouds. Our taxi took us up steep hill after steep hill until we reached a parking lot and a series of tourist shops at the foot of a large elevator bank that takes visitors the final distance to the top of the mountain and the foot (feet) of the monument. The driver told us that he would wait for half an hour and then return us to Copacabana (total price: a reasonable $20 after Mara bargained him down from over $30).
Taking a brief look in the tourist shop, I noticed that they were playing Duran Duran over the sound system. Sadly, I probably first learned of the existence of Rio because of the Duran Duran song of the same name(www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/duranduran/rio.html) (however, the song being played in the shop wasn't "Rio" but "Notorious").
After ascending on the "Elevator to Jesus," we reached a platform that led to several additional "Escalators to Jesus." Then, finally, we stood below the monolithic figure. I freely admit that I am not the world's foremost afficionado of enormous Jesus statues, but I have to say that this was a tasteful, well-designed and generally "artistic" version I was looking at. And he had a view fit for a king, if not a god, if not God. The Brazilians have a saying that "God is Brazilian," and the cariocas put their own spin on this by saying that God is a carioca (from Rio). If they are right, Corcovada could well be Mount Olympus --- from here you can see for miles over all of the districts of the city: Copacabana and Ipanema to the East; the sky scrapers in the city center to the North; middle class suburbs scattered toward the south; and endless shanty-towns further inland to the West. It is a view on par with or superior to that of New York from the Empire State Building and the city you look out on seems no less immense, though it features stunning green mountains and the blue ocean stretching away endlessly into the distant horizon. While I thought that Buenos Aires was the most European, sophisticated city I visited in South America, Rio was by far the most beautiful --- not for its architecture (the nod goes to BA) but for its incredible natural setting.
You guessed it --- its usually hot and sunny and nearly perfect. However, when it isn't hot and sunny and nearly pefect, it can cloud up quite suddenly and pour buckets of rain down on you for hours on end. As a general rule, it is hot and sunny and nearly perfect whenever I am indoors or walking in the city with no intention of going to the beach. It is cloudy and rainy whenever I decide to go to the beach. If you are going to Rio, make sure you find out whether I will be there at the same time and what I have planned on any given day.
On a rainy evening after unsuccessful attempts to visit the beach, Mara and I went to see the Keanu Reeves movie Constantine, based on a comic book character. The theater was immense and modern and impressive. The movie was generally special effects fluff, but I was starved for anything pop and American, no matter how trashy. This film was at least entertaining. The intelligent, funny depictions of the Devil and the angel Gabriel are reasons enough to rent it when there's nothing much else to do (how's that for a glowing recommendation?). Finally, there was a novelty to watching the film in a room filled with Brazilians, seeing the ways they reacted, and being able to read the subtitles in Portugese.
If you read the bold, italicized introduction, you know that I really can't sum Rio up. As I prepared to leave on my last full day, I couldn't decide if I was happy or sad I was going. The place really has a lot to offer but also seems to bring to the surface that Wealthy Tourist Guilt in ways few other places could. On my last morning before flying out, Mara told me she was probably going to head back to her family in Bahia for a while to figure things out. I was happy to hear it. Rio is expensive for Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike and seems like a hard place to get by in without a lot of money. Yet, for all of the criticism I can throw at it, the city is beautiful, the food is great, there are plenty of activities and the people are with few exceptions extremely friendly to tourists, even when you sense that they have little reason to be.
Perhaps Duran Duran summed the city up best when they sang (in the song "Rio"): "do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do."
Posted by Joshua on March 24, 2005 07:02 PM
Category: Rio de Janeiro
Email this page