Rio - and Runchmen reunited part 2
I’m in love again. I know, it must seem like I’m being very fickle in matters of the heart at present, but I can't help myself. This time her name is Rio (and she dances on the sand – sorry, couldn’t resist!). I’m captivated by this place, that's all I can say. Really, what more could one ask for? It’s beautiful (stunningly so – and I defy anyone whose been up the Sugar Loaf Mountain, or climbed to the Christ the Redeemer statue to disagree), it’s bohemian, it has beaches, culture, caipirinhas, everything you could wish for. Oh, and it’s so nice for me to be in the pulsing thrall of a real city once more. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m a city girl at heart, and that, much as I love pretty little beach towns and quaint colonial cobblestones, ultimately my soul yearns for tree lined avenues, towering buildings and taxis, and a bit of grub, grime and ‘streetlife’ (even if that is in the form of shifty characters trying to bum a few bucks off you). Great museums and galleries probably grab me more than the great outdoors if I'm honest, and, well, I just love that kind of urban energy that it's so hard to sum up in words.
From what I’ve seen of Rio so far it definitely seems to have all of my city-shaped desires wrapped up. In fact, it is reminding me a lot of my ultimate city, New York, taking me back to my time there in the summer of 1999. This is especially so because I worked on a community project with the elderly back then, and the elderly who I have seen in Rio really bring back to mind a lot of the old folk I encountered in New York’s Upper East Side. Spritely, spirited and young-at-heart, they promenade along the beach shakily with their strollers, still managing to look quite the part (old men in singlets and speedos, hunched over old ladies in chic sun visors with lots of lipstick). Maybe I should retire here and become a ‘carioca’ by proxy in my old age?! These pensioners seem to lead just the life that I would like to lead when I’m an old granny, supping healthful vitamin-filled juices in their city’s wonderful juice bars, and some of them even going out for a morning jog or power-walk (I saw this when I went for a run myself along Copocabana beach earlier today – it was fantastic!).
Alas, I have to leave my new love behind now, and I’m about to move on for two days in Sao Paulo. If things could get any better, perhaps they will. From what I’ve read about Sao Paulo it’s a vast metropolis, teeming with cultural diversity, and thus with beautiful people of beguilingly mixed geneology (some genetic researchers therefore call it the ‘city of the future’). This is all on account of Sao Paulo’s significant immigrant-attracting history (people from Japan, Italy, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in particular flocked there early last century). There are supposed to be some great museums and galleries in the city, so that should keep me happy. A thriving music-scene and buzzy nightlife should also be on offer from what I’ve been lead to believe, and perhaps I’ll be able to sample some more nice sushi (or pizza, goulash, or falafel). Mmm, OK – maybe I can move on from Rio, but not without a sharp pang of regret. I definitely want to come back here and stay longer. Like I said, maybe in my twilight years…
Looking back on my time in Rio, my arrival here on Thursday wasn’t quite as straightforward and smooth as I had hoped it would be. This was due (no surprises here) to my 26 hour bus journey from Salvador turning out to be more like 30 hours. Stuck in traffic outside the city, and without a functioning mobile here in Brazil, I had no way of contacting Glenda, my Rio Couchsurfing hostess, to tell her I was going to be late. Poor her – she got quite stressed, especially when I then proceeded to get lost trying to follow her instructions on how to get to her flat in Lapa. In her Couchsurfing profile Glenda describes herself as a ‘neurotic teacher’, so she was probably the worst person that this could have happened with (I don’t think I helped her neuroses much!)! I felt terrible, but there was nothing I cold have done. I got a bit of a telling off from her when we first (and finally) met (“this is Rio, not f*cking Disneyland, anything could have happened to you!”). Thankfully things improved between us after that though. Glenda did warn me a lot about the darker and dicier side of her home city (and I have no doubt that she speaks the truth – I saw some pretty dodgy looking blokes wandering menacingly around the streets at night). I kept my guard up on account of this, but, once again, I can say in the end that I experienced nothing but helpfulness and courtesy from the cariocas (Rio dwellers) that I encountered during my stay.
Glenda was actually good company once I got to know her, with a sharp and amusingly dark sense of humour. Amongst several other things (she held down an impressive array of jobs to fund her travels and pay for her small studio flat in Lapa) she worked as an art teacher for blind people - something that sounded incredibly interesting and quite poignant (she works with people who were born with sight, but who subsequently became blind, and helps them to practically and psychologically readjust).
Glenda lived in the heart of Lapa, right by the famous ‘arches’ in this shamblingly bohemian ‘district’ of Rio. It’s a place that bursts into life at night with samba street-parties and pokily cosy little bars opening up to customers who spill out onto the pavement from dusk until dawn. It was great to be based in the middle of that for three days, and I relished the cafes and bars in the neighbourhood. In some senses it reminded me of Shoreditch – just without all the effort, attitude, and expense. Cheap, cold ‘chopp’ (Portuguese for draught beer), live music, and tables on the side of the road were all it took to create the scene in Lapa. Of course, everyone seemed artfully attractive, but you knew that they weren’t trying, and that silly hairdos and copious amounts of ‘styling’ weren’t the currency of cool in this particular area. As always, I was happy to swoon at many a handsome Brazilian man! The carioca mix of tanned skin and dark hair, along with artsy-intellectual specs (a lot of guys here wear those little black-rimmed glasses), combined with frequency on the streets of Lapa to create a host of my text-book perfect men - sigh! Needless to say, I was content just soaking up the scene.
On Friday morning I started off by taking the Lonely Planet’s suggested walking tour of the city’s ‘Centro’, and this helped me to orientate myself with Rio prior to taking a ‘bonde’ (actually pronounced ‘bongi’!) train up to the sweet little hillside settlement of Santa Teresa. The streets here are home to some characteristically ‘Rio’ bars and restaurants, along with several funky little shops and boutiques. The eateries weren’t necessarily fancy, but they did feel authentic. I stopped off for lunch in a place called ‘Bar Do Mineiro’, which had shiny tiled walls adorned with old black and white photos. Here I happily sat and people-watched for an hour or so as seemingly loyal local customers came and went and waiters bustled round making sure that no-ones bottles of beer ran dry. The only not-so-great thing about the experience was the fact that I mistakenly ordered something that I think had tripe in it (yuk!). One of the ‘pratos feitos’ (or meals of the day) was what I thought was feijoada (the bean and meat stew that I’m kind of used to, and that I quite enjoy now). When I ordered it at ‘Bar Do Mineiro’, though, it arrived with lots of very fatty lumps of meat that had a worryingly furry intestinal texture to them! Eurgh - although I’ve tried to return to being a carnivore with a gutsy attitude and an open mind, I don’t literally want to eat guts! Oh well, I picked out the offending tripe-y bits and washed down the remaining rice and beans with my ice-cold Antartica. I guess it wasn’t so bad…
Other highlights of Friday were Rio’s fantastic ‘Museu De Arte Moderna’, which had an astonishing photography exhibition by a Brazilian guy called Vik Muniz, who creates images out of rubbish, peanut butter, diamonds, caviar, you-name-it, and then photographs them to intriguing effect. Then, just after the sun went down I ascended the Sugar Loaf Mountain cable car for breathtaking views of Rio (unfortunately my camera’s a bit rubbish in the dark so my pictures didn’t come out as well as I hoped). At such a great height, my vertigo somewhat got the better of me. However, it was so beautiful it was worth feeling a bit shaky for.
That night ended up with late night drinks in Lapa with an animated bunch of Glenda’s friends. When I woke up the next day feeling utterly lousy I initially wanted to blame the caipirinhas and Antarticas. However, the truth is, it wasn’t just that – I actually have another miserable cold. I won’t bore you with all the moany details - I think I’m just going to have to put up with this every couple of weeks, counting it as an unfortunate side effect of travelling and switching from the sweaty tropical outdoors to over air-conditioned buses (and, er, perhaps germ-swapping by kissing so many strangers at Carnaval didn’t help!).
Yesterday I dosed up on Lemsip (I actually found some in the bottom of my ruck-sack when I had a clear-out) so hopefully it will pass. However, the cold made making it to the Christ the Redeemer statue on Saturday, as I felt I had to do (it seems like one of Rio’s ‘must sees’), a bit of a challenge. Crowded with tourists, and requiring a lot of queuing and waiting, the ride up the mountain in a little cog-train to the statue made me wonder if it was actually going to be worthwhile. The answer in short, though, is that, yes, it was. Although I got very jostled, and found the sight of silly Americans doing Christ-like poses in front of the statue evoked the kind of murderous feelings I never knew I had, the vision of the huge stone figure itself was mesmerising (and very calming – perhaps that’s what stopped me strangling anyone up there!). Once again, as a non-religious and non-Christian person, I found myself feeling soothed and sanctified under this looming piece of religious iconography. There’s just something about the statue – its gentle outstretched arms and beatific, if oddly unfocused, gaze. It was another very stirring moment for me on my journey…
That afternoon I took a ferry over to Niteroi to take in Rio’s other famous modern art draw – the Oscar Niemeyer designed ‘Museo De Arte Contemporanea’. In truth, the exhibits inside weren’t much cop at all (especially compared to the Museu De Arte Moderna from the day before). However, the building itself and the views back over the Guanabana Bay from Niteroi (quite an elegant and affluent place by the looks of the smart apartment buildings near the museum) made it worth it. Taking the ferry back into the pinky-purple sunset was stunning.
Yesterday, after a final local Lapa breakfast with Glenda, I took the bus to Copocabana and checked into the beachfront Golden Tulip Regente hotel, where I was due to meet my parents later on in the evening. Once more, the small miracle of Runchmen being re-united so many thousand miles away from home took place, and we met up much more smoothly than that chaotic time in Acapulco! It was wonderful seeing them again, giving them both a big hug, and taking the opportunity to share news (last night over a caipirinha nightcap and this morning over a lovely posh hotel breakfast). Although we won’t have shared much time in Rio, we’ll be meeting again in Foz Do Iguacu in a couple of days and then again in Buenos Aires next week. I really hope they enjoy their little taste of Brazil as much as I have (I’ve been giving them plenty of tips – especially on that favourite Runchman topic – what to eat and drink!).
So that’s where I’ll leave you for today. Enjoy the pictures of this beautiful city – I hope some of you might get the chance to see it with your own eyes one day…