Redeemed in Rio

Redeemed in Rio

In Brazil. Rio to be precise.

After returning from Zanzibar in January we had decided a matter of days after that we couldn’t possibly hack another year of employer sanctioned holidays and instead we were going to put into motion the plans that we’d had for awhile: Project Escape.

But enacting Project Escape in all of it’s wonderous and freeing glory would mean lining up a number of things: Firstly, we would need to choose where we wanted to go for the 6 months away (not too difficult considering we both have a list of places that we want to travel to as long as our arm!), then, we would need to figure out who was going to look after the cats (again, not too much of a challenge provided our lodger didn’t have any overly ambitious plans about travelling anywhere whilst we were away). Of course we would need to also rent out our house (to a couple preferably, and ones who were happy to mind our cats whilst we were gone).

Then there was the more long-term and serious considerations, such as us being able to financially support ourselves whilst we were travelling, aswell as when we returned because yes, I was going to be leaving work, permanently, to join Josh building the business. So we needed to be sure sure that this was going to work! And I had also decided to learn to drive, giving myself a couple of months to do so before we left in preperation for our long-term plans of relocating to the South of France. Leaving work for me was a pretty big deal, not only because I had been there for 12 years and though it was quite a mundane role with no chance of career progression nonetheless I was happy and content there. Alas, contentment wasn’t going to give me the lifestyle that I had always dreamed of, Josh was getting itchy feet since he had already relieved himself from the pressures of full-time employment and quite frankly, I was ready for the next chapter in my life.

So we put the house up for rent, I left work, passed my driving test (2 days before we flew out no less!) and now here we were in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil at the start of our 6 month extravaganza.

Rio, A Riot Of Colour

Of course like many people I already had my expectations about Rio before I’d even gone there. My friend Marisa had gone there a few years back and sung the praises of the beauty of the people there (the men especially!). She told me how warm the people living in the favela’s had been but though I could tell she had been enamored by the place, to be honest Rio had never been on my bucket list but the attractiveness of a country’s population was never going to be a serious consideration for my travels and I had no intention of venturing into the favela’s.

What I understood from what I’d seen on TV and read about Rio, it was a very colourful city, with a passionate people who loved football, samba and there was a very sharp divide between the rich and the very poor (who mostly tended to be black and lived in the favela’s), but could it live up to my expectations?

Josh and I had only stopped by Rio because we had found some amazing flights from Norwegian Air and we were planning on being in Brazil for 3 months before going onto Colombia for a further 3 months then around the Caribbean on a cruise from Miami. We figured (much like going to Japan and not passing through Tokyo), that forgoing Rio completely would be a bit of a shame. Sure, we didn’t have much interest in city breaks but since we had 3 months to play with we thought that we might aswell take advantage of this opportunity. We had booked a hotel right on Copacabana beach, the iconic 4 km beach linking the busy city of Rio to the other famous beach, Ipanema. If we were only going to be here for 4 days then we decided that we were going to do all of the typically touristy things that you’d expect in a location such as this!

Our hotel in Rio wasn’t great. It was dated and was in need of a good repaint (and preferably a renovation since it looked like it hadn’t been touched since the 80’s), but it was no cheap digs – it commanded a reasonably high price due to it’s location in the centre, overlooking Copacabana beach.

And we didn’t have time to waste. We really wanted to make the most of our time as it seemed unlikely that we would be returning. On the night we arrived, after dropping our bags in our hotel room we went out to a local pizzeria. We had arrived late and didn’t have time to be walking around looking for food places so we asked for a recommendation from one of the hotels receptionists and walked the few blocks there. Even though it was around 8:30 pm it was still very warm outside, around 26 degrees which we both enjoyed immensely after having a long and particularly depressing stint in the UK battling intermittent rain, grey skies and the relentlessness of an unpredictable and contentious Brexit.

Just to feel the warm air on my skin (and so far no scurrying cockroaches were to be seen), was a pleasure indeed. The Pizzeria was full and though we had brought our language translator with us we had left it back at the hotel so we figured we would have to try and communicate in broken Spanish or Spanglish as it might be called. It turned out that the Portuguese language was actually very similar to Spanish and most people were able to speak and understand both, but despite it’s reputation as a tourist mecca, in comparison to many other places I had frequented, most of the people we had encountered were Brazilian or from neighboring Spanish speaking countries. Oh and of course there were Americans, but nobody from further afield really. Since Josh’s skin hadn’t yet had the opportunity to acclimatize to the country we were in, he was still very much a “gringo” in their eyes, and thus people immediately either tried to speak to us in Spanish or English as they knew that we weren’t from there.

The pizzeria wasn’t like your normal pizzeria, instead of ordering what you wanted from a menu like you do in most restaurants, the waiters brought a a variety of different slices of pizza around and you simply took what you wanted. Of course you could also order from the menu but it seemed like most of the people just chose from whatever was brought around. I found it slightly odd but it seemed that was the norm here. The pizza’s were huge and neither myself nor Josh could finish ours as unlike pizza’s back in the UK they were very generous with their pepperoni slices. The pizza was nothing to get excited about but it hit the spot and it allowed us to go back and get an early night after the 11 hour flight from the UK: We were bushed!

There were lots of things to do in Rio but rather then get overwhelmed we had made a list of our must-see’s whilst we were in the city and we planned to tick them off one by one. We’re not really big on “tourist traps” which is probably the reason why we avoid places that have lots of them but we also knew that some places really did live up to the hype and Copacabana beach was one of them.

Rio was a lot like the US in a lot of ways: it had the same grid system, people obsessed with fitness and looking good, a lively nightlife and it took it’s inspiration from American culture. But Copacabana beach had something that Miami did not: it had vibrancy.

From the sellers pushing their carts full of fresh fruit, ice cubes, coconut water and pashmina’s and shouting out to people as they went by, to the children building sandcastles and doing cartwheels in the surf, to the tanned and bronzed Brazilians letting you know that they are always very much #beachbodyready, to the group of laughing friends lounging underneath their colourful umbrella’s drinking an ice cold beer or a Caipirinha, to the fancy footwork from the Ronaldo and Pele footballer wannabe’s, to the beat of the samba drum from the musicians on the beach, this wasn’t a place for quiet contemplation or boredom: it was place of colour, passion, creativity and sound.

Always #beachbodyready

And the people were just as colourful as their state of dress. People of all skin tones, shapes, hair textures and ethnicities, all were represented here and thus I felt immediately at ease. Nobody was looking at me. Why would they? – I was just like everyone else, and since the Brazilians are descendants of the Portuguese Josh was too (or would be once his tan started to take effect!). Of course the people were as beautiful as everyone said that they were, but I also found them to be very natural, I loved seeing my skinfolk looking so at ease with their skin with their natural hair, and their curves wearing it as they could with pride. They looked resplendent in the sunshine.

And of course you cannot come to Brazil without having a Caipirinha, so I had decided that for the rest of my time in Brazil I was going to try and have at least one Caipirinha a day #acaipirinhaaday. My first Caipirinha I had whilst I was sitting outside a beach bar overlooking Copacabana beach people watching and it was particularly delicious because unlike in England where they are made using vodka, it came with a very generous amount of Cachaca, the traditional Brazilian distilled spirit. Tres bon!

A #caipririnhaaday

The beach was packed but thankfully it was a very long stretch of beach so you could always find somewhere to sunbathe in relative peace. I say relative because it was immensely noisy, there was always some commotion on the beach whether that be people blasting out music, parents shouting to their children, a gym session, lifeguards blowing their whistles to remind people that it was still very much a red flag beach and they shouldn’t go so far out, beach sellers selling everything from handmade trinkets, to ice cold drinks, hot food and of course drugs (on the low low), but even though the people here seemed happy and laid back there was still the very real danger of our belongings being nicked from right in front of us and with this many people occupying the beach it was easy to see how. Thankfully we hadn’t travelled far to get to the beach (our hotel was literally across the road), so we didn’t have too much with us, and we had intentionally bought our beach towels which had a secret compartment where you could store your phones and wallets etc. Judging by the information we had been given by our Brazilian friends and from the staff at our hotel, we should be vigilant at all times and not flash our valuables around. I wasn’t one for wearing lots of jewellery anyway but this did mean that we needed to be much more purposeful about what we walked around with and in particular where we went especially late at night.

The beach was wide and the sand was soft and powdery but the waves here were no joke. I soon realised that there was to be no striding sexily into the sea like a Brazilian supermodel, infact the current was so powerful that when I eventually did make it into the sea the force of the waves knocked me over straightaway which embarrassed me no end. It was hard to stand up, let alone play around in the sea like everyone else seemed to be able to do with ease as I felt the pull of the current dragging me down into it’s watery depths.

Fresh Coconut Anyone?

Despite the dire warnings about crime in the city, I felt pretty safe. When the locals did try to engage us in conversation (usually because they were selling something), a quick No Gracias usually sent them on their way. This would be unheard of on some Caribbean, African and European beaches. So I didn’t feel concerned at all, but then I guess we were still in a relatively “sanitized” part of Rio. What I did notice though was the presence of the law enforcement, aka Po Po. They were stationed on almost every corner everywhere from the airport to Copacabana beach, they would just be standing or sitting there inside their cars with their police lights flashing as if to warn any would be criminals of their presence. For a tourist to Brazil, who had probably heard every scare story going about the favela drug wars fuelled by poverty in the city, to see a hench looking Brazilian cop with his romper stompers looking like he had just returned from Afghanistan was a somewhat disconcerting sight, alas if that it was kept the crime to a minimum then that was all right by me. I had every intention of surviving this trip until the very end. And infact I’d love to return and say to all of those naysayers (including those who had expressed concern when we told them that we were planning on going to South America), that I travelled there for 6 months and didn’t have one bad experience. We’ll see!

The promenade that ran down the side of the beach and alongside the hotels was decorated with a distinctive black and white wavy pattern that I found out is called the Portugese wave. Despite it’s distinctive design however there was also a powerfully distinct smell of urine that accompanied it. It would seem as though the rough sleepers in the city (of which there looked like quite a few but less then there is in London these days in my opinion), used this area to err…relieve themselves, and the smell was very distasteful, particularly when you got a blast of wind come off the sea to carry it along and shoot up your nose. Nawsty.

After Bali I never thought that I would experience having to put my toilet (spoils) into the accompanying bin. And after doing that a couple of times and wondering why the toilet wasn’t flushing I had to acknowledge the inevitable: That shit won’t flush. Afterall Brazil was still a second world country, they didn’t have advanced plumbing like we have in the West.

That evening we went to Churrascaria Palace, a steakhouse with a Brazilian twist. There we dined on meats of all types brought to our table by friendly waiters. It was tasty but the waiters only brought round the meats, all the rest we had to get from the buffet table and as you know I am not a buffet fan.

The following day we had booked an excursion around Rio. For travellers like us, who thought it was nearly always best to discover a place on your own, get lost, and find your way again, this was definitely a departure from the norm, but we only had 3 full days to explore Rio and we wanted to see as much of it as we could. So, starting at 08:50 am we had booked a 8 hour long excursion which would take in the sights of the city and see some of the most important and iconic Rio landmarks, including the famous statue of Christ for the Redeemer, which for a proud atheist such as me is quite an irony but one doesn’t have to respect the doctrine to respect the craftsmanship. Infact it seemed to be incumbent upon me to acknowledge the fact that human beings are capable of the greatest (and the worst) things, and with inspiration are capable of doing anything they put their minds, hearts and hands to. This includes creating a 98 ft high concrete and soapstone sculpture weighing 325 metric tonnes up the 2,300 ft mountain in Tijuca Forest.

The tour would also take us to the Rio’s largest football stadium, to the place where the samba parade started, to the “colourful steps” and Sugar Loaf mountain, aswell as lunch at a local restaurant. Had I of designed the tour myself there were probably only 2 things I would have included that were missed out and that would be watching some Capoeira and a tour to see some of the cities graffiti. Infact I would have missed off visiting the Cathedral (it was soon becoming depressingly clear that these Brazilians took their “faith” very seriously), and chosen to go and watch some Capoeira and see some graffiti art instead, afterall that is far more creative and distinctive to Brazil then another obscenely priced building built with the sweat of others to further tiresome religious ends.

We started off with a coach that took us through some of the most vibrant and creative city sights I had ever seen. Forget Rome, this was the real deal: a culmination of the efforts of the residents, who with their powerful art told the story of their pleasures and pain. It was colourful, it was beautiful, it was raw. And the faces staring back at me painted on the walls looked a lot like mine but they started back at me with expressions of the struggle and the fight to be seen. I never realised such emotion could come through via pictures painted onto a decaying walls but it was. And this art was everywhere. I honestly could have spent the entire day just travelling through the city looking at the various graffiti alas we had places to go and things to see.

I didn’t realise that so much time would be spent travelling between the tour stops but as I came to find out Rio was a huge city, it would be impossible to see all of it in such a short period of time. Our first stop was at Maracana football stadium, the largest football stadium in Rio. We didn’t actually go inside (for that you needed a ticket and since Brazilians were football mad that meant the queue to get in was very long). For me personally, going to a football stadium didn’t hold much appeal and I didn’t feel particularly inspired by what I saw but my little brother is football mad so I knew that he would be impressed just knowing that I had had the opportunity to be in such a place so I took this picture for him:

Maracana Football Stadium

Afterwards we drove onto Sambodromo, another stadium but this time something more to my tastes: The Samba Stadium! Yes, this was the place where the world famous Rio Carnival started and in true Rio style, they made a big deal of their carnival, dedicating a whole stadium to the event. From here you could watch the carnival dancers in their colourful regalia as they done everything in their talented power to impress the judges. Because Rio Carnival unlike carnivals elsewhere in the world, was a competition. It was a competition of dance, music, song and most importantly, dress. I have always been impressed by the sensuality, grace and strength of samba dance and of course the women when wearing their get up were so beautiful nobody could match them. It’s why the Brazilian woman is revered worldwide as being the most desirable. As mixed as you could get, they were an effortless combination of Portuguese, African, Native Indian and in many cases Japanese as Brazil I found out actually had the largest concentration of Japanese people outside of Japan. Intriguing!

Outside of Carnival time, the date of which changed every year, at the Sambodromo you could learn more about this fascinating Brazilian tradition, aswell as buy some memorabilia including discounted carnival outfits, music, speak and take pictures with an actual Samba dancer (who had legs like a stallion), and of course get yourself a Caiprinha for the road 😉

Carnival time at the Sambodromo 

Next we stopped by a Cathedral which for the most part was interesting with beautiful stained glass windows but of course the fact that it was a Catholic Church to me was only indication of religions insidious pyramid scheme in this region, brought over by the colonising Portuguese who had been heavily influenced by Rome. It was that way all over the world, how telling that the religion of the day was spread by conquest only for people to adopt it truly convinced that they had found the true path to heaven.

Escadaria Selaron

I’d actually never heard of this place before but I did remember seeing it in many music videos not realising that it was filmed here in Brazil. Escadaria Selaron was the colourful tiled steps of the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Santa Teresa, considered one of the arty neighborhood’s in Rio, not only had the beautiful multi-coloured tiled steps but also lots of amazing graffiti art. The stairs were absolutely crammed full of people, mostly tourists, baying to take pictures for their Instagram, and as I was being a shameful tourist myself, I took one for mine too 🙂

The beautiful tiles in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood

Amazing graffiti art near the Sscadaria Selaron

Rio I was finding, was a place of contradictions.  Obsessed with social standing, beauty and health, they had also refused to sanitise their more edgy side, their struggles, the crime and their past which was still visible in living painted glory of the city walls. It was also very green here. Much more so then I’d expected. Part of the reason why I forgo large cities is because they often ignores the nuance in favour of a dramatised version of what the country and people are about. Here I felt that it was very authentic, and rather then just a concrete jungle it still had a lot of the kind of nature that in my eyes is what Brazil is really all about. The hills, the trees, the lakes, the plants, the mountains..somehow nature managed to co-exist amongst what was still quite Americanised in it’s approach to city building. It reminded me a lot of both New York and Miami, but was far more interesting and authentic to me then both of them: Take heed Americano’s.

Sitting on the steps

After the colourful steps we went onto see Christ the Reedemer at Corcovado, the sight that everyone immediately thinks of when you talk of Rio. After a long coach ride and a lengthy climb to the top of the mountain in the intense heat we finally reached the statue of Jesus. Of course the surrounding area was packed full of tourists there to take pictures and some where even there to pray (but not many). This was definitely a tourist attraction and one worth ticking off our Rio bucket list. We gazed upon Christ in all of his stony glory in front of us with his arms outstretched over Rio as if blessing it with his presence, but I knew the reality was that he was designed, engineered, sculpted and transported for the purpose of impressing the world with his significance, so all I could do was marvel at the determination and skill of the human beings who created him.

Redeemed

These Brazilians do love a buffet. That much was becoming clear after our buffet like pizzeria experience the night we arrived, the Churrascia last night and the local restaurants most of whom did one buffet offering or another. So naturally it was to another buffet that our very nice and extremely fluent tour guide took us to. I was reluctantly coming to the realisation that not only did they love a buffet, not only did they love beef in all of it’s many forms, but they also didn’t really eat all that much. Their portions were pretty small by England standards which was surprising since I thought they liked to be like Americans and we all know that Americans have huge portions!

The food at this buffet was okay, but nothing special. They had things like salads, french fries (which they seemed to love), vegetables, rice, pasta (another favourite) and beef which you could have cut especially for you at the grill. My friend Sasha who herself was Brazilian had actually warned me of their aversion to spices and I had found that hard to believe because of the diversity of the people who lived here, but it was true: Brazilians didn’t do spice, not even pepper! I had imagined that their food would be extremely flavoursome with lots of fruits, vegetables and spices but it was not to be. They were perfectly content with rice, beans, french fries and beef seasoned simply with just salt. And preferably buffet style. In short: Their food was bland.

The realisation that Brazil with all of it’s creativity and diversity, a region that surely must grow it’s own amazing fruits and veg and is surrounded by all of the other Spanish speaking countries including Peru which is supposed to have some of the best cuisine in the world (yet to be confirmed by me), then how on earth could it not have delicious food in abundance?

I simply could not go on eating beef everyday. I would find it far too boring and I like to enjoy my food thank you very much.

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Sugar Loaf Mountain was the world heritage site in Brazil shaped like a loaf – a peak jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean. To get to the top of it we had to take 2 cable cars which was pretty scary for alot of people in this region but not for Josh and I who were used to taking cable cars to get to the top of the ski runs.

The panoramic sights of the city, ocean, mountains and beaches below was a sight to below. Seeing the sprawling city from here, with the setting sun casting glimmering down on the white boats in the harbour below, an atmospheric mist floating magically by, houses perched on the top of clifftops, soaring birds spreading their wings, the sound of silence, was truly one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights that I’ve ever seen. I don’t know where it felt like but it certainly didn’t feel like Rio, it was far too beautiful for that. Or was it? Perhaps this was the contrast that made Rio such a unique and positively alluring place.

The loaf made of sugar 

Josh and I on top of the world!

The Girl From Ipanema

Well of course I went to Ipanema Beach, how could I not?

Just the thought of being able to take a picture on this iconic beach was enough to make a special trip to visit. We spent the whole day there drinking Caipririnha’s and people watching. People watching on Ipanema beach was even better then in Copacabana beach which seemed alot more casual. Here people were here to impress, and being beach body ready as they were, impressing wasn’t too hard to do. We had a great day.

Another #caipirinhaaday 🙂

On our last evening in Rio we went to a local underground Bossa Nova club called Beco Das Garrafas for an event in their Little Club. Being a Bossa Nova fan as I am I was delighted to find out that here in Rio we could listen to live Bossa Nova and Jazz for the price of a glass of Prosecco. Now that’s my idea of a night out! In this small, dark club we would find a Bossa Nova band (with an amazing blind piano player) playing nearly all of the songs that I had recently discovered on a Youtube Bossa Nova playlist. They played really well and the singing was great too. I was in seventh heaven.

Rio, I underestimated you. I thought you were just about glamorous people with plastic surgery walking about trying to pretend to be American. I didn’t realise that you were this vibrant, colourful, characterful, friendly, warm, laid back. I didn’t know you had one of the most beautiful birds eye views of a city I’d ever seen, nor that your Capririnha’s tasted like THAT. I didn’t know that you were so artistic, your music so catchy. I didn’t know too, that you rained (sometimes), that your city was so huge, that you had such a problem with petty crime so as to make it the norm, and I really didn’t know that your food was so bland. But that’s okay, 4 out of 5 is okay. Especially for a city. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime?

Next stop: Florianopolis, Brazil!

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