Two weeks in Rio

Trip Start Mar 16, 2008
Trip End Mar 29, 2008

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Norris and my trip began with a mood of celebration.  A limo picked us up at our house in Seattle, providing me with my first ever limo ride. We sipped on mimosas as we said good-bye to the gray Seattle skyline.  Seattle is a beautiful city, but it will be a lot prettier this summer when the weeather gets nice, so we were both happy to escape to the Southern Hemisphere and get some Vitamin D. The 14-hour flight was no joke, and airplanes are not getting any more comfortable for those who fly coach, but the long journey was validated when we arrived to sunny weather in Rio a day later. 

Norris and I allowed ourselves to live the good life in Rio.  We stayed in a beautiful hotel on a point between Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches (called Arpoador), so we could walk to either beach depending on our mood. Copacabana has a much more lively beachfront, especially at night when people are jogging along the road, eating on the sidewalks, and playing sports like soccer under the lights.  Ipanema is a more classy, up-scale beach, and the scenery is even more beautiful, but during the day you can find everything you need just lying on the beach and waiting for vendors to come to you. We were happy to take advantage of both beaches, especially for refreshing dips in the ocean, sun-bathing, and of course people-watching.

We took a couple trips by boat to get deeper into the water.  We did a full-day boat cruise around tropical islands in the Green Coast outside of Rio. Between dips in the water and lunch at an island restaurant, we sun-bathed, drank caipirinhas, and listened to the band. Later on, we took a ferry ride to Paqueta Island in Guanabara Bay, crossing under the expansive Rio-Niteroi Bridge.  The island is a preserved example of colonial architecture, and no cars are allowed so bikes and horses are the preferred mode of transportation there.  Both boat rides were perfect for a leisurely trip into the beautiful scenery.

Besides hanging out on beaches and in the water, we kept our days busy with trips to Rio's high points. A real highlite for both of us was hang-gliding in Sao Conrado, an area to the south of Ipanema that is famous for extreme sports.  With our expert guide, we ascended 500 meters to a peak in the Tijuca National Park and ran off a cliff to ride the wind back to the beach below. The ten or so minutes of hang-gliding were some of the most exhilarating in our lives, as we literally glided like birds over lush green forest, beachfront skyscraper hotels, and the Atlantic Ocean, until finally landing safely in the sand.  Whoever said humans aren't supposed to fly needs to try this!

Rio is full of opportunities for visitors to enjoy both sea-level beaches and high peaks with never-ending views of the city and its tropical surroundings.  We didn't get to jump off all of them and float back down, but the views and the various ways we got up the peaks were thrilling nonetheless. We took a trolley and a taxi up to Corocavado, the site of the impressive Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue overlooking Rio. The statue can be seen from throughout the city, and its presence must give Cariocas (or Rio residents) a sense of security and bliss to look up and see a god-like image looking down. As a tourist, I certainly felt that way.  Seeing the statue close-up only heightened its appeal.  It really is larger than life.

We took a cable car up the smaller but just as picturesque Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf) Mountain, named by Portuguese explorers for its resemblance to a loaf of bread. The cable car is evidence of just how developed Rio and Brazil are, since when it was first constructed in the early 1900s it was only the third cable car in the world. It's obviously been modified since, but it still makes visitors feel like they are the very first people reaching the summit of Sugar Loaf Mountain. The views from the top of Copacabana Beach and downtown Rio are amazing.

The last huge hill we climbed (literally this time) was perhaps the most educational experience of the trip.  We took a guided trip through Rocinha (or "Little Garden"), the largest favela in Rio, with over 300,000 inhabitants.  Favelas are commonly known as "slums" to people who have never visited them.  They are informal, seemingly temporary settlements on the hillsides of Rio, not far from the metropolitan areas where many favela residents work.  The term "favela" comes from a plant, a small shrub that grows all over hillsides.  This is an apt metaphor for the settlements of the same name because houses, some of which look like shacks, spring up all over the hills as people move from rural areas into Rio in search of economic opportunities.  From the inside, favelas are a maze of small tunnel-like alleys, wires, stairs, open sewers, and even trees and favela plants themselves. People live on top of one another, and as a result their lives are intimately interdependent.  Since the Brazilian government has a laissez-faire attitude towards the favelas, the areas are controlled by drug lords, who keep the peace and pay off the police to continue their operations.  Still, the majority of favela residents are hard-working people that simply cannot afford to live in the expensive city, so they have settled where they can avoid taxes and still furnish their small homes with all of the amenities, including refrigerators and big-screen TVs.  With the help of our resident guide, we followed the twisting alleys and staircases to the top of the favela, where we stopped to take pictures before trekking back down.

Outside of the favelas, particularly in touristy areas like Ipanema and Copacabana, Rio can appear to be a playground for the rich.  There are lots of fancy hotels and restaurants, and all of the luxuries are available to those who can afford them (Brazilians and foreigners alike). 
Norris and I ate well and enjoyed ourselves, but we also discovered ways to live more like locals and get the most for out reais (hey-ase, the name of the Brazilian currency).  We indulged in the all-you-can-eat-meat rodizios, but we also tried new foods cheaply at the pay-by-kilo restaurants and the corner juice bars.  
We partied all night at the hippest club called The Week, and we also hung out at beach-side kiosks sipping caipirinhas (the Brazilian national drink) with the locals. 
We couldn't control ourselves, however, at the numerous souvenir and craft markets, where we found lots of great gifts to bring home.

The hardest part about trying to integrate into Brazilian culture, espeically in only two weeks, was the language barrier.  While we both learned a lot of Portuguese, and while many Brazilians do speak English, we encountered many people who came up to us speaking rapidly in Portuguese, not even stopping when we told them we don't understand them.  This amusing and delightful scenario reoccurred for two reasons: first, anyone can look Brazilian, and we certainly fit the part after we got some sun; and second, Brazilians are open, lively, talkative people, and they are very easy to meet and chat with, whether you speak the same language or not.  Cariocas are such nice people, and most of the them proved to be trustworthy and considerate.  We never once felt in danger in Brazil; to the contrary, I always felt like people were looking after me, even we were just asking for directions in broken Portuguese.
  Rio and Brazil in general is the first truly multi-racial society I have ever encountered where all shades of black and white live side-by-side and seem to celebrate their similarities rather than their differences.  After all, they are all Brazilian: they love soccer, eat rice and beans daily, and they all appreciate the emergence of their country as a developed nation.


In short, Rio is a wonderful city with beautiful, happy, and proud people.  They have a lot to be proud of, since their city is a both modern and colonial gem in the middle of some of the most amazing scenery in the world.  It was hard for both of us to leave after two weeks, even though we were ready to get back to our lives and our responsibilities in Seattle.  Rio is the kind of place that you cannot visit just once, and I'm sure we will be going back someday.  Until then, Tchau, and Obrigado!  

(By the way, there are more photos in the photo gallery of this blog.  Please check them out.)
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