So the last update I posted I was sleeping in Coco (my VW bus) in Copacabana Beach….I woke up the next morning with the sun, drowning in the tropical heat of the car (this uncomfortable stifling heat has become my alarm clock once I continued traveling north in the car). I got out of the bus to have a stroll around Copacabana to stretch my legs and see what was hidden in darkness when I arrived the night before.
What I saw was a true beach culture, walking down the street the smell of suntan oil is everywhere, coming from the half naked bodies who stroll around as if it were perfectly normal to walk down the street barefoot in a speedo or string bikini. Copacabana is crowded and somewhat chaotic, it’s the beach for the masses. For me it was my introduction to Rio de Janeiro, one of the most dynamic and marvelous metropolis’ I have ever seen, a city that I am now comfortable in
There is certainly no other place like it in the world. The city (of 14,000,000 people) is surrounded by and peppered with tropical rainforests complete with toucans and monkeys. Huge jagged cliffs with bits of lush greenery clinging to their sides jolt skyward from oceans and random neighborhoods as if the city was built amongst gigantic stalagmites, miniature mountains, and lofty hills. Nowhere is flat, except for the blue ocean and beaches which are as much a part of the city as the buildings, roads, and people. It truly is a beach city. Life revolves and happens around sand and sea.
So luckily I was saved from sleeping in Coco in a big crazy city by couchsurfers Flavia and Russo. They lived in a great neighborhood called Botafogo in a beautiful apartment just a few hundred yards from Botafogo Beach (Unfortunately one of the many beaches in Rio where the water is too polluted to swim…but a beautiful view nonetheless). Flavia and Russo had never hosted anyone before but as usual I was impressed and inspired by the generosity and hospitality that couchsurfers are capable of. Flavia is studying Social Science and Russo is a musician. I spent three nights with them, taking night walks to nearby beaches drinking beers and eating soggy french fries together in Lapa (A hip area with lots of nightlife), sharing meals together, and talking about all the things that make Rio such an interesting place.
After a couple days in Rio I was joined by a dear friend of mine from Holland named Safira who planned to travel with me for a couple weeks. She would be my cohort and copilot for the next leg of the trip.
After Safira arrived we met another couchsurfer,Vanessa, who was like an angel to us. spiritually healthy, aware, and beaming with positive energy, Vanessa’s kindness and presence during our stay definitely played a part in the general positive feelings we took away with us from our time in Rio. She had just moved out of her apartment in Ipanema to another neighborhood and since the apartment was empty she let us stay there for a week! Almost all my memories of Rio will be linked to this apartment which became like a second home to us. (not to make Coco jealous).
For me one of the most interesting things about Rio was the diversity. Racial Diversity, economic diversity, and cultural diversity. You see every type of person from rich to poor and of every possible race and color. That is not to say that they all live together in harmony, quite the contrary. Most of the poor population live in one of the many slums in Rio which are called Favelas. To me the existence of these favelas and the culture behind them was one of the most fascinating things about the city, but no matter how much info I gleaned from couchsurfers, the internet, and personal experience (We visited one), I still feel like I don’t quite understand it all, and neither do the people from Rio… as they were quick to admit that it’s a difficult subject to explain clearly.
But basically all over the city, in almost any direction you look, you will see a favela built up onto a hillside. Almost always on the hillsides with crumbling little buildings build precariously onto very steep terrain (Many with stunning views of the ocean that ironically none of the millionaire houses have). There are usually no roads in the favelas, you can only access them on foot. Their locations and proximity to “nice” neighborhoods is one of the most mind-boggling things. For instance, in Ipanema beach you can have an apartment where the rent is a couple thousand dollars a month…walk out the front door of your flashy building and walk 40 meters across the street and there is a huge elevator that you can ride up to a favela.
The city will say the elevator was built to serve the folks who live in the favelas but work in Ipanema (As maids, dishwashers, etc.). But others will say that it was built to hide the Favela from the eyes of the tourists (Which incidentally it does do quite well). This idea of “hiding” favelas is talked about alot with the upcoming summer games in Rio and the world cup the city is trying to clean up its image.
To clean up this image of out of control drug lord-run favelas the police are waging a serious war against the cri in the favelas. People die literally everyday, sometimes by the dozens in shootouts with the police. There are some Favelas that the drug lords “own”, meaning they are so well entrenched and armed that the police don’t even dare to enter because they know they would be killed. There are other Favelas where the police are trying to win the battle. If they “win”, the favela becomes known as “pacified”. Right now, of the over 200 favelas in Rio, only 5 are considered pacified (the ones closest to the touristy areas). Anyways, I could talk forever about this subject as it was so complex and interesting but….moving on…..
To try and experience Samba we made a mission to go to one of the “Samba Schools” in Rio, of which there are 19. They aren’t really schools but are more like clubs. These are the driving forces behind the famous Rio Carnival parade. Most of their members and fans are people who live in favelas and they are almost all named after the favelas they represent. In the months leading up to Carnival they have “rehearsals” every Saturday that are open to the public and are really just huge samba parties that the whole favela participates in.
So Safira and I set out one Saturday night to see the Manguera Samba School which was formed in 1928 and is one of the most famous. A long bus ride from Ipanema dropped us off in a dodgy neighborhood at the edge of the Manguera Favela at about midnight. After a hasty walk we found the party in full swing. The music, people, and mass of energy was thick and in your face in a ghetto sort of way and that was just the scene outside of the huge warehouse that houses the samba party. I was standing in line to buy our tickets when I turned and looked at Safira – the look of apprehension on her face said it all…so I escorted her to the bus back to Ipanema and made my way solo back through the crowds of people to buy my ticket.
Inside was much louder, more crowded and twice as much energy but with a surprisingly safe and family like general atmosphere. About 60 percussionists pounded on drums of all sorts while a whole warehouse of people danced the samba, which i discovered is basically a form of who can vibrate and shake their body the fastest and most sexiest way possible, but with some good funny theatrics to go with it. I finally left the party (It was still in full swing) around 5am and miraculously caught the bus back to Ipanema only to wake up the next morning with a hangover that only the beach could cure.
Rio was also my first real taste of the African Culture that makes Brazil so exotic and unique. African slaves brought with them their own voodoo religion which mixed with Christianity and to this day is still practiced alongside of Christian rituals. A huge percentage of the population belives in black magic and voodoo but its not practiced in the open although sometimes you see signs of it…
Other memories of Rio are: The beginning of an addiction to coconut water (cold coconuts are sold EVERYWHERE and are chopped open with a machete and poked with a drinking straw), a visit to a little artists neighborhood called Santa Luiza that we fell in love with, taking a hike through Parque Nacional Tijuca (A beautiful national parque in the middle of Rio complete with rainforest and waterfalls), Fruits (Had the best mango in my entire life in Rio, Sucos (fruit juices from all types of normal and exotic fruits…they make them everywhere), and Açaí (An Amazonian fruit that is served frozen with granola and/or many other toppings and tastes amazing and gives you tons of natural energy), oh, and I fell in love with this old 1940’s Disney Cartoon about Brazil and Samba…a great one from the archives…if you have the time watch it….
Well, that’s about it for now. This should have been posted on January 19th when we left Rio to begin the road trip up north. The road trip has been one of the most amazing adventures of my life and I’ll be reporting more on that later but its not in the slightest conducive to keeping up with a blog since I rarely have internet access for more than short periods of time. But I promise to get something up soon. Until next time, Tchau!