Rio de Janeiro was not a destination that I would normally consider for a spring holiday. I, however, was invited to be the best man at a good friend’s wedding. Consequently, another friend and I journeyed some 20 hours, four time zones and 11,000 kilometers to the world famous Rio de Janeiro. We arrived one Thursday morning after being awake for about 40 hours and found our way to a small hotel called Orla Copacabana that was across the road from the, also world-famous, Copacabana Beach.
As Brazil is only a four hour time change and we had both slept fairly well on the plane I, at least, suffered no jetlag. My friend, however, had just returned from Thailand two days previous and was still jetlagged from his first trip. Our first few hours on Copacabana Beach, with little consideration to jetlag or personal safety, saw us venturing out to ogle the sunbathers on one side, the numerous restaurant/bar stands in the middle, and the procession of bronzed athletes exercising both on the pathway and beach.
On Copacabana Beach all of the hotels are across from the beach and divided by a four lane road, as well as a decorative winding pedestrian pathway consisting of millions of broken tiles. Hundreds of people use this pathway, walking, running, roller blading, and cycling. A beautiful white sand beach stretches down to the south Atlantic Ocean with thousands of sun worshipers lazing or exercising in the sand. It seemed very much like the pictures I had seen of Rio. I was not disappointed.
In Rio seven million Cariocas, as the locals are called, are crammed between the ocean and the mountains in one of the world’s truly beautiful settings. The Cariocas pursue pleasure like no other. Beaches, body beautiful, samba, soccer, cerveja (beer) and Caipirinha, (a sugar cane rum mixed with lime) appear to be the heart of their being. I personally sampled a few Caipirinhas and found this a wonderful drink, somewhat like tequila, but can attest that two such drinks in one sitting is sufficient.
A third of the people live in the favelas (shantytowns) on the hillsides. This poverty tends to seep out into the wealthy areas with criminal acts committed flagrantly throughout Rio. While we were in Rio a local doctor had been killed for his bicycle while cycling on one of the trails we later jogged around. There was a makeshift monument to this man along the path with his bicycle locked to a stone wall. His 16 year old assailant was subsequently arrested and will likely never see the bicycle or his flavela home again. The trail encircles a large lake in the centre of Rio and will be the site of several water events in the upcoming Rio Olympic Games. This beautiful city seems to have an ugly underside.
Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches appear to be the centre of Rio, at least for the wealthy. The lust for life was very visible in these areas. The Brazilians are a handsome people who enjoy the sun, beach, music, restaurants, and splendor of Rio. We were, however, looking at the lucky ones who have, somehow, achieved wealth and enjoy it to the fullest. I doubt you would see people jogging or rollerblading in the favelas. Their struggle to survive is more exercise than they desire.
This vast contrast between wealth and poverty obviously brings out the crime with tourists easy victims. We were warned not to wear jewellery, show cameras or cell phones, or display wealth. Our first run along the beach was completed without incident. We returned unscathed, revelling in the wealth and glitz of Rio. After a good night’s sleep, and a long walk the following morning, we felt pretty certain that no harm would befall two strapping middle-aged men, even though some may say we are blindly unaware of our advancing maturity. I could be seen flashing my gold chain, rings, and fancy Ipad, taking pictures of all that came within my view. We were convinced of our safety and certain no harm could possibly befall us!
Our second night we walked down the beach about a kilometer and entered a heavily guarded building with 12 foot high fences and 24 hour security. This would be our home for the next 8 days. We had booked a beautiful apartment across from the beach. Our room was very nice and offered a wonderful balcony overlooking the beach where many hours were spent sampling the local beer and watching the bustling activity below.
After a quiet night in our new apartment we rose early to venture out for a run, heading south on Copacabana Beach, through a busy business district, and on to Ipanema Beach. We could see nothing but beauty, prosperity, energy, and stunning vistas. The heat was fairly gentle as we were approaching the Brazilian winter with a nice 27C average temperature throughout our stay. We plodded along the bicycle path with numerous joggers and others relishing the day. After covering about half of Ipanema Beach a cyclist seemed to be riding in our lane coming towards us. I thought he would jump the medium as others had previously done but, continuing to approach, he seemed to be ignoring us. As we passed, he ripped my gold chain from my neck. We were shocked and both stopped abruptly. By the time we realized what had happened the cyclist was about 30 meters away where he stopped. His thumbs up signal was surprising before he rode away. Several Brazilians stopped to enquire about our situation. They kindly apologized and seemed ashamed of their countryman’s action. We were mostly uninjured with only a small scratch on my friend and a ripped shirt on me. We jogged on, significantly more wary of our surroundings. This experience caused us to feel very jaded towards Rio and Brazil in general. Even though we had been warned, we felt anger and betrayal. We had been shockingly made aware of our vulnerability and locked all of our valuables in our room. As the week progressed, however, these feelings dissipated and we began to feel an affinity for the country, city and culture.
There are surely problems in Brazil and one must be careful but there is also a very rich and vibrant side to this country. One aspect of their culture that I was most impressed with was their national dance, the Samba. This is a dance style developed in Brazil with origins from the African slaves and religious traditions. The Samba has become a symbol of the Brazilian culture. The groom’s family took us to a bar where tourists normally do not venture, allowing us to experience an authentic Samba band amid the Brazilian people, not tourists. In fact, after a couple of Caipirinhas, I was sure I could dance the Samba and was of Brazilian ancestry. In our Samba experience the whole establishment seemed to dance including the musicians, waiters and clientele, all swaying to the music. The band sat at a large table near the front of the room that appeared more of a jam session with musicians coming and going. There was no specific dance floor and people danced where ever they could find a space.
Another very visible aspect of the Brazilian culture is their enjoyment of health and fitness. As it was the winter season, there were very few tourists in Rio yet the beaches and pathways were flooded with people participating in all manner of activity at any time of the day or night. On Copacabana Beach, when the sun had not yet emerged over the horizon, each morning about 6:00 AM large groups of runners were seen labouring along the pathway. Smaller groups were involved in exercise classes on the sandy beaches. Troops of soldiers frequently jogged along the beach while singing, and pairs or foursomes were slapping balls with paddles between each other as nets strangely stood behind them. We never did learn the name, or nature, of this game but it was played much of the day and night by numerous players along the beaches. One night we were awakened at 2:00 AM by a very boisterous soccer match on the beach with full teams and spectators. The game proceeded until at least 4:00 AM, severely limiting our sleep that night.
The famous Christ the Redeemer statue is visible from almost anywhere in Rio and is known by the rest of the world as its symbol. It is remarkably breathtaking. I think we took pictures of it from every angle possible. Christo, as the locals call it, was on our list of sites to visit but our first touristy type activity, other than consuming Caipirinhas, was to take a trusty yellow cab up to Sugarloaf Mountain that could be seen from our wonderful little apartment balcony. Sugarloaf is a peak situated at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean just past the end of Copacabana Beach. Rising 1,299 feet above the harbor, its name is said to refer to its resemblance of a traditional shaped refined sugar loaf. We took the cable tram and enjoyed the panoramic views of the city while clicking pictures with our cell phones as our Ipads were safely locked in our room.
There are several tourist attractions recommended to visitors of Rio. Being hardened and frugal travelers, we avoided the expensive tour groups and chose the, not so infamous, yellow cabs for our means of transportation to all activities. Our second touristy activity was to touch Christ the Redeemer or Christo Redentor. After all, I needed some redeeming after a week in Rio. We boarded a yellow cab and were deposited at a little train station called Corcovado at Cosme Velho, a suburb of Rio. We paid $62 Reals each and boarded an ancient red trolley consisting of two cars and holding about 100 people. The cars groaned their way up a very steep mountain pass with the jungle brushing our windows as we passed. We had been warned of the huge line-ups and four hour waits each way as this site had been named one of the world’s wonders. We found no such wait but there was certainly a packed house at the top.
Christo was very impressive. It was built between 1922 and 1931 as a symbol of Brazilian Christianity but has since become the symbol of Rio. The statue stands 98 feet tall with an additional 8 foot base. The arms stretch 92 feet while it is formed by 935 metric tons of concrete and soapstone. We did the usual selfies, had a quick lunch at the base and headed back to our home away from home.
The other most significant tourist activity, other than watching our buddy get hitched, was visiting a most interesting street in Rio. Our trusty English-speaking cab driver, took us to the ‘Selaron Steps’. Apparently a Chilean-born artist named Jorge Selarón built the stairs as a tribute to the Brazilian people. In 1990 he began renovating some dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his home. At first, neighbours mocked him for his choice of colours as he covered the steps in fragments of blue, green and yellow tiles – the colours of the Brazilian flag. It started out as a side-project to his main passion, painting, but soon became an obsession. He found he was constantly out of money, so Selarón sold paintings to fund his work. Today there are 250 steps measuring 125 metres long which are covered by over 2000 tiles. The tiles were originally scavenged from construction sites but later were donated by visitors from over 60 countries around the world. Many of the tiles are hand painted by Selarón and depict a pregnant African woman, a subject and theme that he never revealed. He was found dead on his stairs in 2013 with burn marks on his body. The stairs were quite impressive. The story….not so much!
The reason for our journey to Brazil was the marriage of my good friend and his Brazilian wife to be. You may ask, how did he ever meet a Brazilian woman while living in quaint little Penticton? It is a long story but he essentially met a man while climbing Mount Everest a few years ago whom he visited in Brazil and was introduced to his sister-in-law. It was love at first Samba, and the rest is history.
The big day finally arrived and we hopped a cab to the beautiful mountain-top venue that was a huge rental home. All five Canadians present eventually assembled with various wedding planners and countless caterers in a converted mansion. Being the best man, I was a little concerned that there was no rehearsal planned and the ceremony was likely to be in Portuguese. Luckily the bride’s sister was my partner throughout the ceremony and shoved me this way and that, so that I would not miss any cues or obligations. The wedding was very similar to a Canadian wedding although in Portuguese. Luckily there was a bilingual wedding planner who served as translator.
As the ceremony began I accompanied my wedding date to the front, joining the officials and the wedding party minus the bride. A wedding march began as we peered down the aisle, expecting to see our beautiful bride join us for the ceremony. A few minutes passed and no bride could be seen. My lovely date could be heard exclaiming something, that sounded interestingly like a curse in any language, and strode down the aisle in search of our bride. My groomish friend leaned over and suggested to me that his intended may be having second thoughts. I assured him she was simply powdering her nose and would soon be at his side….but I was also having my concerns. A few more minutes my, sort-of, date rejoined us and advised that a few tears had been shed and the bride would be along shortly. She did arrive and the wedding proceeded as planned. My one responsibility was to witness the wedding signature, in which I did with little exertion. Signing, I hoped I was not bequeathing all my assets as a generous wedding present. With my obligations satisfied, I was now free to partake in the wedding festivities. Champagne and beer flowed endlessly. Waiters brought plate after plate of food while, strangely, pop American music filled the airwaves with several of the bride’s family frolicking happily on the dance floor, song after song. It wasn’t until several hours later that the Samba was played and all were lubricated enough to cavort Brazilian style, regardless of race, demographic or relationship. Being dignified Canadians, we maintained our stately demeanor and avoided such frivolity. As was the point of this excursion, my friend was happily hitched and has been visibly adopted by his new family. He is very enthralled with Brazil and its people, not to mention a certain lady.
After eating and drinking our fill and being the subject of countless pictures, my travel companion and I found a friendly yellow cab and returned to our little Copacabana home. A few more days were spent being tourists with our groom’s two adult sons who accompanied us on several adventures, as the groom was performing his husbandly duties. The boys, although many decades younger, turned out to be excellent travel companions and fine young men. We eventually said our goodbyes and boarded planes for our various destinations.
It is difficult for me to evaluate Rio and Brazil in a one week, one city, experience. We became aware of the richness of the culture, the glitz, the beauty, but also the ugly side of the city. I never felt entirely safe and was constantly aware of my surroundings after being robbed. The very fact that we were robbed, then others apologized for their countryman’s actions, suggest there is much good in Rio but a great need for societal change. I saw a people that were fiercely proud of their culture, their place in the world and, with open arms, ready to show their country off to the world. Unfortunately there is a deep dissatisfaction with their government, much poverty, corruption, and crime. There seems to be a strong desire, and need, for change. I am uncertain if I would return to Brazil with its current problems but would reconsider if there was significant change. There is much to see, experience and learn in Brazil. Hopefully the country leaders will make the changes necessary to do what is right for their people.