The Concrete Jungle

Trip Start Dec 18, 2009
Trip End Jan 11, 2010

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Where I stayed
Um Meia Tres, Santa Teresa

Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Friday, December 18, 2009

From favelas to forests, beaches to big buildings, big bums to big guns, Rio de Janeiro is a wonderfully unique city, full of sharp contrasts.

We only had 3 days to explore and tried to cram is as much as possible. We stayed with Bill, Sue and Tom in their beautiful B&B - Um Meia Tres in Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa could be considered the bohemian part of the city with artists and expats residing behind Hollywood style security in the hills overlooking the city centre - Centro. Still, if the incredibly steep streets may look like somewhere holing up Brangelina and the Osbournes, the place certainly doesn't lack in community spirit.

The town centre of Santa Teresa is a bustling hive of friendly locals waving to cars that pass them by and honk their horns. There's a good range of restaurants, shops and a cinema; and the cultural centre serves up a sassy mix of samba music and good food. We were fortunate that our visit coincided with a "bloco" (samba party) to launch the 2010 Carnaval t-shirt for Santa Teresa's “banda” (band), known as the Carmelitos. The event took place in Parca das Ruinas which had a “ruined” house which sported a tower with 360 degrees of Rio. You get the impression the Cariocas (people who live in Rio) need little excuse for a get together, a drink and a dance i.e. a party. Here you felt a real sense of community, something TV soap operas like Eastenders and Coronation Street try embarrassingly to replicate. 

We bought tokens for the food and the beer on offer with a little profit going towards the Carnaval fund. Young and old mixed freely until the 5 piece band worked them up on to the 'dance floor'; not that you feel they need much encouragement around these parts.  The 5-piece was followed by the Bateria, the drum section, with up to 20 drummers deafening the crowd!

The day preceding that evening's t-shirt party was spent in Centro. Choosing to stay in Santa Teresa allowed us the wonderful experience of travelling on the 'bonde'. As far as public transport goes, this is without doubt the oldest I have travelled on. It makes the Budapest system seem like Tokyo. I've been told it is the only remaining big city tram system in South America and well worth the experience. Speed and comfort are not on the agenda, in fact you can hang on the side for free, but once we crossed over the 100ft high viaduct I was glad my rear was rested on the century old wooden seat.

We'd been well warned about the dangers of petty crime in the city, especially Centro, so we duly dressed down with minimal visual signs of loot to plunder. However, at no point did I feel threatened. Granted, parts of the city centre reminded me of many American downtown areas with plenty of homeless people, derelict buildings and nothing to attract your typical teenage girl looking for 'shopping'. Nonetheless, once you got into the bustling market selling a myriad of items (including a stall with a brilliant range of original LPs such as Morrison Hotel and Dark Side of the Moon) you started to get a real feel for Rio. We ventured further into the densely packed streets, lined with shops selling low cost goods and I was questioning why it was so busy. Of course, I had forgotten that it was the last Saturday before Christmas. It may have been 29 degrees centigrade, but some things cross many cultures! It was at this point I started to notice the Christmas decorations, it may not have been Grafton Street, Dublin or Oxford Street, London but we finally realised that Christmas was coming in Rio as well as at home.

Day 1 finished with a short trip to Copacabana beach followed by Ipanema the next day. I'm not a huge beach fan myself but we're talking about arguably the two most famous beaches in the world. Copacabana, like Blackpool has lost its allure and image of forty years ago, but it is still a sight to behold. Bikinis barely cover the anatomy of the wearers and when you consider that a lot of the female beach visitors have a lot to cover - top and bottom, it makes for interesting people watching. Although, we mustn't forget the males, who seem to be vainer than their counterparts, strutting their toned, tanned bodies up and down the beachfronts with more pride than the peacock we saw in the municipal park.

Of course an obvious element of Rio's culture has been missing from this tale to date - football. While I'll visit the Maracanā shortly, an element of the beautiful game is synonymous with Brazil and Rio - beach soccer. With a bigger crowd than you'd find at a FAI or IFA league game, I bore witness to a Copacabana beach football tournament. With no cries of "get it out" and not a hoof of the ball in sight, this was when I finally realised I was in South America.

Ipanema, made famous from the song about the girl, is probably what the neighbouring Copabana was in the past. Chic, trendy and cool. We visited a lovely restaurant there for lunch, where everything from the decor, service, food and ambience was first class. The beach, what can I say, it looked pretty much the same to me, including the clientele. But then it's hard to tell whose rich and who's poor with a couple of strips of clothing covering every one's body.

Day 2 was completed with a trip to the Maracanā. Sadly, I like to collect visits to football stadiums the way other people spot planes. Celtic Park, St. James Park, Millenium Stadium, Stade de France, Stadio de Olympico, San Siro, Camp Nou the Bernabeau (to name but a few) could now be joined by the jewel in the crown for me. The Temple of Football, as they so appropriately call it - The Maracanā.

Ok, yes, this is meant to be my honeymoon, but countless days fighting insect bites and sunburn on beaches deserves some return and my lovely wife knew what she was marrying after accompanying me to many of the aforementioned stadia.

Gone are the days when allegedly two hundred thousand people used to pack into the place (there's now a capacity of 60,000). But the Maracanā still holds a mystique and an undeniable status, especially with the approaching 2014 World Cup Final. There's a museum tour for 8 reais, which seemed like a rip-off to my wife but great value to me, so judge that as you may. However, the highlight is the stadium tour. The halls are adorned with pictures and information on the true, true greats of world football, while there's a version of the Hollywood hands using, understandably, football feet. Not only have local legends such as Garrincha, Pele, Zico and Ronaldo places their soles in cement, but they are joined by luminaries such as the Kaiser - Franz Beckenbauer. Aside from viewing imagery of days gone past, which in fairness you could do from your home, the tour allows you to visit the changing rooms (incredibly sparse and simple) and walk out the tunnel on to the side of the pitch.

While soaking in the splendour of one of the best bowl stadiums in the world, we were joined by a middle aged man dressed in an eighties Brazilian kit who proceeded to put on a display of dazzling ball skills that Soccer AM's 'Skill School' could only dream of. I could not recognise the man, but my heart broke at the sight of him performing like a sideshow at a rundown travelling circus. \due to my shock I shamedly joined the wall of silence at the end of his performance, which he had no doubt been degraded to after years in front of thousands of adoring fans. My wife recorded the ball juggling act, but I find it hard to watch it again.

Other highlights of the tour include a view from the top of the stadium and entrance into the VIP area which included seats occupied by Pope John Paull II and Queen Elizabeth II. Maracanā, like most stadia around the world, is situated in a poor neighbourhood with a favela (shantytown) in the close background, but again I didn't feel any threat and was impressed by the excellent metro system that took us there and back. In fact I have to say the whole public transport system in Rio looked great from what I could see. The roads were packed with buses and taxis and the metro was frequent and timely.

Our third and final day in Rio lived up to the saying "saving the best till last". It was a beach buggy tour from a local guide. Recommended by our host Bill, we took the full eight hour tour with the effervescent Dolores Loao. The transport may not have been the most comfortable for eight hours but that was the only criticism we could have of our experience. Dolores, a true Carioca in the sense, showed a deep knowledge and deeper pride in her city.

Departing from the B&B in Santa Teresa, we were in the national park, high above the city, within minutes. Dolores' cartographic comprehension of Rio meant we were shown the most stunning views of the city - a photographer's dream. What was most amazing was how we seemingly moved so far across the heights of Rio and through the rainforest in such a short space of time. One moment you'd be at a certain vantage point and then 10 minutes later, you'd be looking at it as if you'd been there hours ago. The rapid transformation from a densely populated, noisy city, to the tranquility and beauty of the forest and back again was stunning.

Our tour included a visit to the Christ Redeemer on Corcovado, which provides the most phenomenal view of a city I’ve ever experienced. We also jumped off  a 1,000ft high cliff edge and hang-glided down to one of Rio’s lesser known beaches Tijuca. Come to think of it, lesser known elements of Rio were the real standout part of the tour. Having held a fascination with the favelas since the City of God did for Rio what 'Slumdog Millionaire’ did for Delhi, it was interesting to hear Dolores’s perspective as she gave a detailed explanation of the favela life. Being a Short Strand Belfast child of the seventies, I could relate slightly to this environment but it was reassuring to hear that as expected, the incidents in ‘City of God’ weren’t a regular occurrence.

Throw in a sandwich at Pepe’s (regular hangout for the likes of Pele) and a trip along the coastline in the buggy, (well you can’t do a tour in a beach buggy and not take it to its natural environment) and you’re left with a far deeper appreciation of Rio and its environment than ten trips on your own wouldn’t achieve.

All in all, we left Rio with a feeling it truly is one of those cities that lives up to its name. The only regret was that we didn’t get to feel the samba experience. But then there’s always June 2014…..

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