February 21st: Rio de Janeiro
The city of Rio de Janeiro is situated in one of the most beautiful natural settings imaginable. Stark granite mountains fall steeply to forested lower slopes. High rises in the CBD and affluent apartment buildings fringe golden beaches. Higher up the mountains the favelas cluster higgeldy-piggeldy on the slopes, providing an exotic, colourful and beautiful backdrop. Above them all, Christ the Redeemer smiles serenely over the faithful, and provides a convenient spot for great photos of Sugarloaf mountain, downtown Rio, off shore islands and those venues remaining from the Olympic games.
Argentinian Buenos Aires was elegant, cultured and cosmopolitan. Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro is a younger, wilder and much more dangerous sibling. There’s a similarity in the history of colonisation and immigration, but Brazil’s history and cosmopolitan heritage is largely a result of the use of slaves. It was African slaves who built the city; slaves who planted coffee and sugar cane, and it is those black bloodlines that are responsible for Rio’s particular racial diversity and extremely beautiful people.
There’s a violent undercurrent here. Police and military are heavily armed, even outside shopping malls. Last night our bus was forced to retreat from the CBD because of a demonstration about the government’s plans to privatise water. Our guide made it clear his fears were not centred on the water issue, but because thugs, in recent times, have used these demonstrations as an opportunity for destruction, violence and damage to property and people.
Fortunately, tourists are protected from the extremes of local politics. We are in Rio a week before carnival, and there’s an excited vibe in the city. The Samba schools (which aren’t educational institutions, but function as clubs) compete for elite status during the carnival. Costumes, floats, choreography – the celebration involves thousands of people, and the pride of the various schools is at stake. Exotic looking dancers prowl the tourist areas, drumming up support for the event.
Cavan and I did the usual touristy things. We took the train up to Christ the Redeemer. I was startled and charmed to see that in the forecourt, a large number of rubber mattresses have been provided for tourists to lie back and take the iconic shot upwards at the massive statue. The views are amazing of course, and the spot is crowded.
The train trip to reach the statue through the jungle of the Tijuca park was interesting. Apparently 100 years or so ago, when the mountainside was covered with coffee plantations, the good citizens of Rio noticed their water supply was running low. They traced the problem to the de-forestation of the mountain caused by the plantations. Without the cover of thick jungle protecting the water sources, the city suffered drought. The solution was to reforest 8000 acres of land and by doing so they managed to restore their water. It seems incredible that a people who recognised this problem, and fixed it, a hundred years ago can’t extrapolate that information and protect the Amazonian rainforest today.
The beaches? The beaches are stunningly beautiful stretches of golden sand. I didn’t see any beautiful bodies frolicking on said beaches, but no doubt they are around. Alas, all that glisters is not gold. The problem for me is the quality of sea water lapping the shore. I wouldn’t touch it with a toe nail. This morning, as we walked by the sea, the water stank; and yesterday, as we sailed into harbour, the area ahead of the ship showed a path of scummy debris. If it had been behind the ship I’d have put it down as ship’s wake, but this was clear (I use the term loosely,) water ahead of us.
Rio is vibrant, exciting exotic and unsettling. I’m glad I’ve been here for a visit – hell, I’m over the moon with excitement at having been here, but I wouldn’t want to live in Rio.