Compared to the North, Southern Brazil is like crossing into an entirely different country. Sao Luis was the happy medium between the poor, underdeveloped north and the affluent, beautiful south.
Rio is a beautiful city. It reminds me of a cross between Vancouver BC and Hong Kong. It’s a city of mixed culture nestled between the ocean and green mountains. In the south, the scenery became more beautiful and all of a sudden English was widely spoken, but this comes with a cost – prices are more than double that of the North. The city is highly divided between the rich, who settle in high rises and gated condos at sea level and the poor who have migrated from the interior and build their own communities crawling up mountain slopes in the favelas.
Arriving to the city’s north bus station at 6 am, we quickly became aware that we were in a different world. Café con Leite (coffee with milk) was no longer R$1.50. Now it was closer to R$5. Still in shock but needing coffee after a hellish bus ride the night before, we had two and headed to the city busses. After a quick look at the crowded and slightly unnerving rigs, we opted for a cab at R$30. The cabs may be faster…but no more safe. They’re not necessarily unsafe; being in a car at all in Rio comes with risk. Maybe we should have taken the bus.
Still foggy from a broken, bumpy sleep we arrived in Ipanema to investigate “hostel row”. Arriving early did not do us justice; we needed to just hang tight until places opened. Two hours, and six places later, we found ourselves at our first option Wave Hostel, in 2 dorm beds at R$40 per bed. Ipanema, the section of the city we called home for a few days is like a snap shot right out of Mediterranean Europe. We had to resign ourselves to the fact that money wouldn’t last long in one of the world’s top 10 most expensive cities. A nap and some food and we were good to begin to explore the area. Only blocks from the beach, it was the obvious first direction to head.
Part 1 of Brazil’s redemption was complete. The beach was one of the best we’d seen in ages. Large chested men and women abounded and there were surf breaks as far as the eye could see. The constantly flowing fresh water available from hoses provided entertainment for two young boys; I’m sure you can figure out how they were using them. Despite the obvious vanity that reminded us a bit too much of Beverly Hills 90210, there was a sense that everyone was allowed to be exactly who they wanted to be. Steroid ridden men worked out next to those who chose the natural route, on an old school steel gym set- both with equally poor form. No one seemed to care whether your breasts bounced naturally or whether they rigidly stuck to your rib cage like chewing gum stuck to a table. As long as you wore something skimpy, you were accepted. This must be what is referred to as “Brazilian beauty”. It certainly was fun people watching, but having left our skimpy bits in our packs, we opted not to join the masses of tourists and locals baking in the sun. We stuck to the boardwalk.
The next day was another day to roam. Three bookstores gave us the much needed opportunity to rummage through stacks for English titles. Finally, entertainment for those long buses. Staying at a hostel, the inevitable “night out” found us, followed by the predicable harsh morning. A little rough around the edges on our last full day in Rio, we had booked a city tour. Determined to make the best of the day, we sucked it up in order to enjoy the sites of Rio.
A full day of sightseeing gave us an excellent view of the different parts of the city. Our first stop was highly touristed and mighty overpriced “Cristo Redentor” – Christ the Redeemer, the 38m statue atop a 710m peak which looks over the city as a protector. We’re not sure why, maybe we thought sweating it out would help the wooziness, but we decided to walk up instead of take the shuttle bus. By the time we reached the top, we had forgotten about the hot, snail paced, head pounding walk up and marvelled at the view of the city. Absolutely magnificent. Looking away from the statue on the clear day, elbowing our through the rest of the tourists, we could see every aspect of the city. The favelas that creep up every mountain slope, the 10 km long beaches, the 14km bridge that attaches two sides of the city, the lake, the soccer stadium and the greenery that surrounded it all.
After a multitude of pictures, some fatty fried breaded looking thing and fresh mango juice we fought our way onto a shuttle back down to the park entrance to meet our “friendly” cab driver. On our way out of the park, winding down through the cobblestones of Santa Teresa, our cab driver was deliberate at pointing out “money vs. no money”, living right beside each other in a single duplex building. Along the route, we stopped to look out over the favelas. In these 2-3 story structures, one family literally supports the other. With the obvious segregation between each level, we learned that 1 family lives on just one floor, with 2 more families on top of them; if something happens to that bottom level, the whole thing slides away with the slope of the hill. A family dwelling is no more than a few hundred square feet of living space, a small box with a bucket like object in one corner, and a “Kitchen” in the other. Plumbing gets worse the higher up the mountain slope the favela spreads. Sanitation is a bit of an issue and there is no school access. Unlike a few years ago, when police wouldn’t dare enter, favelas are less of a danger.
After a quick stop at one of the coolest looking cathedrals we’d ever seen we moved onto the Escadaria Seleron. Here again, we took a multitude of pictures and got to see the artist. He’s an eccentric Chilean guy who has tiled the whole thing with ceramic from all over the globe. Being still a little under the weather we headed back to the cab and waited for our fellow travellers. When they got back we found out that one of them had left his bag in the cab when we first got to the steps. When he (nearly) immediately went back to find it, he caught our cab driver with his hand in the cookie jar…or knapsack as it was. Thankfully, nothing was taken. Our trip was over shortly after that as we watched the cab fare hit R$140. All 4 of us had pre-paid R$50 each so we know the cabbie was paid well.
That was it for Rio de Janerio, January River. The verdict – a liveable city that comes at a cost. It’s a place we could go back to when we’re prepared to drain our wallets.