How to start an article about Rio? Let’s try some adjectives: beautiful, stunning, huge, hot, chaotic, crowded, loud, peaceful, friendly, smelly, dirty, scary, dilapidated. If some of these contradict each other… well, these are the words that come to mind when thinking about Rio and our experience over the last week… now, as we are sitting at the airport, waiting for boarding.
The city has so much beauty… it would rival Sydney easily in terms of its natural assets (I’m not talking about samba girls here 🙂 – sugar loaf mountains… big and small (some well-known) dot the landscape, covered with rainforest and dropping down into the sea, with sweeping ocean beaches in between and a huge natural harbour several times the size of Sydney’s. Looking at Rio… from the Corcovado (where Christ the Redeemer with his outstretched arms welcomes us) or from the Sugarloaf Mountain at the entry of Rio’s harbour… just takes your breath away. We spent almost a whole day at the latter trying to take it all in. We had amazing views from our Pousada too… you just can’t get enough. It’s like an addiction.
At the top of the Sugarloaf Mountain is a little statue of a woman, symbolising Rio, with a poem at its feet… her breasts being the mountains, her hair the rainforest, her curves the beaches… I can’t repeat it exactly but I thought it is very fitting.
If it wasn’t for some of the other (less welcoming) attributes I could imagine myself living here, at least for a while. But sadly, there weren’t many times when I wasn’t conscious of our safety. I felt safe in our favela, perched on a mountainside between Santa Teresa and Laranjeiras, overlooking Flamengo, Botafogo and the Sugarloaf Mountain. A little oasis among the mayhem, where a rooster would wake us up at 0615h… just in time to watch the sunrise above another Sugarloaf mountain across the bay. A village in the big city, a community where people say hello, stop at the corner shop for a chat over a beer, kids play between the buildings and neighbours help each other build houses. I’m glad we stayed here despite the shortcomings we experienced with regard to our accommodation, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I am also aware that our favela is sadly not the rule. Just on the other side of Santa Teresa, a few hundred metres away, are favelas where we wouldn’t be safe, and further north and west in Rio are favelas where people live in fear of being shot, caught in the daily war between drug gangs and the police.
Major events on the horizon
There is a lot Rio needs to do to get a grip on that violence and to make the city a safer place. Not just because of the World Cup and Olympics, and not just for the people visiting the city.
Something else the city needs to look into, particularly given these major events, are congestion, pollution and hygiene in general. Rio during the carnival is one big street party that lasts several days. The samba drome spectacular is what you see on TV. Carnival here is Cariocas dressing up, meeting friends, listening to bands, dancing and (often) getting drunk. As a result, many places in the city now look like a rubbish dump and smell like a railway station toilet.
A few more words on Santa Teresa… The neighbourhood reminded me a bit of San Telmo in Buenos Aires… well, a mountainous version of it. It’s like an old charming lady…you can tell she’s seen more glorious times. Beautiful stately homes with views over Centro and Lapa… but many of them derelict, some of them taken over by squatters. Sadly also, the old yellow tram up to the Corcovado which goes through Santa Teresa derailed in August 2011 and has not run since. People have been rallying to get their ‘Bondinho’ back and are hoping it will be put back into service for the World Cup.
Well, let’s hope Brazil’s fortunes as one of the fastest-growing economies and the investments made in preparation of these major events will make a (positive and lasting) difference to the city and its people, no matter where they live. I’d be happy to return :).