A crazy guy and his amazing stairway

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Flag of Brazil  ,
Thursday, November 29, 2007

We decided to spend the day exploring the Santa Teresa area of Rio.  This began as a relatively simple endeavor.  We took the metro to the Centro and then walked behind the weird Rubik's cube to find the teeny tiny tram.  This one-car creation would take us all the way to wherever it was that we were attempting to go.  The ride nearly gave me a heart attack because of the stupid teenage boys trying as hard as humanly possible to land themselves in the hospital.  Teenage boys should not be allowed to hang off the sides of trams.  Our ride abruptly ended, however, when there was a car parked in the middle of the track.  This ended up being a good thing because if we had stayed on too much longer I think we would have ended up in the dodgy part of town.  As it was we ended up having to backtrack a little bit to find...anything. 

Santa Teresa is known for its pretty houses, and we did see some pretty houses.  But not a lot, and I think the best part of the morning was our discovery of the Ruins Park, where we could look out over the whole city and climb around a partially restored, burned out, ruined house.  The house was apparently where a rather famous Rio lady had famous salons long, long ago.  So we explored and then went for a nice walk through the neighborhood in an attempt to find the Santa Teresa convent. 

I'll be honest.  The only reason we had any desire to see the convent was because I misread the Rio information pamphlet and thought that the Selaron staircase actually lead up to the convent.  This is not true.  We did find the convent, but not the staircase, and the convent was rather stark and forbidding, and the windows had giant spikes coming out of them.  It is more picturesque from the Lapa vantage point, however, as it sits up on the hill surrounded by trees, watching over its neighborhood in simple red and white comfort. 

What we were really looking for was Lapa, and when we found it it was pretty much the most amazing thing of all time.  And this staircase isn't even in the Lonely Planet.  Lame. 

I don't know exactly how to start.  We arrived at the staircase and thought to ourselves that it was quite possibly the most garish thing in the world.  As we were reading the tile painted with the English explanation of the staircase, a young woman approached us and said she could save us some time reading, because, you see, she worked with the artist and he sent her to show us around because he speaks no English.  Apparently when he sees foreign people he sends one of his English-speaking friends to talk to them, and when his friends aren't around he asks the country of origin and then points out the tile for that country. 

So here's the story of the most amazing staircase of all time:

Selaron was born in Chile, but spent much of his life trying to make it as an artist in many other countries.  After a stint in New York he made his way to Rio and, because he couldn't afford to live in a place like Copacabana or Ipanema, he moved to Lapa, which is just outside the center of Rio.  But why would tourists ever go to Lapa?  How could he sell his work?  I don't know if his thinking was quite so linear, but he decided to tile a staircase near his house, and he made it blue, green, and yellow for the Brazilian flag because the people of Brazil were the people who finally accepted him. 

Our friendly unnamed guide told us all kinds of interesting things.  She first pointed out the artist, who was busy standing in his signature red shorts ordering his tiling man to put a tile there...no, higher.  Apparently his favorite color is red, and he has a red toothbrush, towel, and speedo.  Good to know.  We might have guessed, considering the massive amount of red tiling on either side of the staircase

The project started in 1990 and Selaron says that it will end when he dies.  He gets tiles from everywhere - some from a sort of flea market, some he paints himself, and some are sent from people who have seen or simply know of the project.  There are tiles from 126 (or maybe 136... I can't exactly remember and Travis is not being so helpful at the moment) countries.  We went and found the one from DC.  Woot!  Selaron says that it is his dream that everyone who visits the staircase will send him a tile.  I say everyone who reads this sends a tile, because I am not joking about the serious amazingosity of this vision.  It became my favorite thing on the entire trip thus far, surpassing even the amazingosity that was the Inca Trail.  Absolutely fabulous.  Go to Rio just to see this thing.  Travis wasn't in quite the transports over it that I was.  I couldn't stop talking about it for three blocks or so. 

What began as just a plain, public staircase leading from one road to another has become one man's masterpiece.  The government owns it, but lets Selaron do as he likes as long as he leaves them alone, too.  I guess there's just a little bit of animosity because he's not actually a Brazilian.  On either side of the staircase there was originally nothing but sloping concrete, so Selaron bought bathtubs and lined them up next to the stairs, creating interesting pyramids and planters that he could then cover with tiles.  There are random walls on certain parts of the stairs that were built solely to be covered with tiles.  This guy loves his tiles.  And not actually only tiles.  There were also plates and other interesting ceramics cemented into the pattern, like an owl (3D!) and cross from Mexico.  One kid in New York painted a set of tiles and mailed them with a map instructing where each tile was meant to go.  Just look at the photos.  It's not exactly pretty, but it's spectacular. 

We also got to see some of Selaron's paintings (not just the ones put into tiles), and I rather liked the larger ones.  The smaller ones painted for tourists on non-breaking wood were a little weird.  One interesting thing about this dude is that he always paints a pregnant lady because of what he terms "a personal problem," which never gets explained more than that even to his friends.  This we learned from our guide who lives next to him.  And he sports some crazy mutton chops, or however you call the mutton chop-moustache combo.  Interesting guy.  And he didn't seem that interested in talking to Travis and me, like, a bit shy, but reading other things of his makes us think that he's not shy at all.  He's very proud of his work, and he has reason to be.  I almost felt bad that he couldn't charge for people to see this piece of work, considering that it's what he puts all his extra time and money into.  But we needn't feel too bad, because he seems to be doing pretty well for himself.  There have been news articles printed around the world about the staircase, but you might be more interested in the Snoop Dogg music video filmed at the stairs, or perhaps the Rio episode of CSI: Miami that featured a snapshot of the stairs.  And it's not like this thing is obvious to the passersby - it's down a random side street. 

Anyway, I love the stairs and you should totally go see them right this instant!

In the afternoon we walked down to the Rio legislature, which is free, but rather boring.  Then I made a yummy dinner while everyone in the hostel went to the Capoeira.  That would have been a neat thing to see, but we'd had a long day.  Maybe next time. 

Go see the stairs.

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