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Flag of Brazil  , Rio de Janeiro,
Monday, September 19, 2011

The bus seat rattles as the wanna-be race car driver swings and swerves his way around endless cracks and potholes. Outside the window, gated mansions are encircled by favelas-- big and small-- some pacified by the UPP (Rio's occupying forces) and some where drug lords still openly flaunt their AK47s. In Rocinha, a favela that borders the elite neighbourhood of Gavea where $2 million is barely enough to get you a shabby house, a barefoot child skips over dog dung as he traverses this maze on a hill on his way to school, a one-storey concrete structure.  Down below, perched at the foot of the hill, the exclusive and well-guarded Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro expands across the forest. Tuition there is $2500 per month per child. A family in the rocinha earns less than $2000 per month.


Only a stroll in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest slum, and the fear-engendered image of a place where working class men and women seek to find order and dignity crumbles to pieces.

From a Rocinha rooftop, the sheet of water down below at the Sao Conrado beach reflects a luminous sky.  Rio is most beautiful from Favela windows, an irony for the priceless views add little value to the real estate.  A cloudless sky meets the opulent dark blue Atlantic in the far off skyline. The beauty, the urban sprawl around the towering mountains, the lagoa (big lake) below the outstrectched arms of the Corcovado, the glitter of the waves crashing on the shores of Ipanema beach, that stunning view  from up top somehow vindicates the less glorious faces of Rio. Somehow the soot, the cacophony of its unbearable rush hour traffic, the greying of its buildings, the claustrophobic human traffic in the center, the kitchyness of Copacabana's stores and buildings, all frozen in what was maybe hip for the 1950's, are justified by a stunning purple sun-set.

 Nowhere does this city's soul more evidently emanate than from Rocinha's twisting alleyways, smiling faces, loud samba and forro, and the constant wafting aroma of slow-cooking beans and meat.

It is great to be with family and see cousins getting married, building families. There is nothing like being back in Brazil, where childhood memories buried and forgotten float so fiercely back to the surface. Vovo Mercedes' food is still the best just and the beaches are still beautiful.

Rio, of course, never changes. Sure, millions ``are coming out of poverty'', the favelas are being ``pacified'', and lots of money is changing hands as property prices climb to a level unthinkable a decade ago. But the rhythm at the beaches, the unspoken social contracts between poor and rich, the shops at Ipanema's ritzy avenues, the ladies strutting about in their g-string bikinis, and most of all, the Carioca ``jeitinho de ser'' (way of being), never changes. And as Cariocas ``vao levando'' as they best know to do (let things flow),  one can only wonder how Brazil can ever remain an economic powerhouse once its abundant resources  are depleted.


To take a rest from all the city noise and the dry season, many in Rio go up to Serrana region. We went to a lookout in the town of Teresopolis, where  gaps are visible in the mountains where huge chunks of stone came crashing down last year following storms that left hundreds dead. We hiked the well-known serra dos orgaos forest reserve where funny looking mountain structures such as the famous ``Dedo de Deus'' (finger of G-d), spike out  from the mountain range like a work of art. We slept in our family's vacation house, a typical holiday retreat condominium with sauna, Jacuzzi, etc.

Angra dos Reis

The most unforgettable part of our stay in Rio, before we caught our flight to Manaus and began our journey in Northern/Northeastern Brazil, was a 4-day stay at my uncle Jacob's house in Angra dos Reis. The bay at Angra, about 130 km west of Rio, is dotted by 360 or so islands, one for each day of the year, say the locals. Uncle Jacob loaned us his playboy house with his own private sailor and cook. We took boat rides everyday to uninhabited islands with the most pristine beaches and clear, see-through ocean-water. The view from the porch at the house looked out to a bay, enclosed by an opaque ring of land that hung in a transparent blue.

We ate delicious fish fillet cooked in coconut milk sauce, filet mignon, cooked banana deserts, pudim (Brazilian flan), and freshly squeezed juices. Although it was winter and our neighbourhood, where mansions owned by some of Brazil's filthy rich such as the owner of the cookie company Piraque  was mainly deserted, we had splendid summer weather.

Three weeks later, after spending much time with family, going to the theatre and other activities with mom, and exhausting our time in Rio, we are now off to the Amazon jungle   
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