Sunday, 9 November 2008 12:00 AM
Rhian Nicholson has swapped the bright lights of London for a three month journey across South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. Here is her 16th, and final, blog entry:
They don’t call it la cidade maravilhosa for nothing: Rio de Janeiro is one of those cities that has to be seen, experienced and savoured. From up high, the sweeping panoramic moves from sea to beach to skyscraper to small tree clad mounds all nestling under the watchful gaze of that most iconic of Rio landmarks, Christ the Redeemer, perched atop Corcovado. Just don’t visit when the clouds are low otherwise Christ, shrouded in mist, looks as if he’s been mysteriously decapitated and that celebrated view is non-existent.
At sunset the best seat in the city is undoubtedly at the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, camera poised to capture the shadows falling over Copacabana beach and the twinkling lights around the bays. On ground level, the streets are swarming with the whole spectrum of Cariocas (Rio dwellers) from the young and the beautiful, the not-so-young and cosmetically enhanced (Brazil is after all one of the best places to get those physical flaws fixed) and the old and crippled.
If you’ve got the body, or even if you haven’t but you’ve got the confidence, Ipanema is the place to bare as much as you dare – and while thong bikinis are pretty much standard, going topless is illegal. A two kilometre stretch of white sand almost hidden under a sea of beach umbrellas, where tanned torsos jostle for space, Ipanema is also prime people-watching territory.
From the bikini-clad beauties and the moulded muscles of the volleyball players to the cellulite ridden thighs and paunches overhanging the Speedos of the older generation it’s really a case of flaunting whatever you’ve got. And once the sunscreen has been liberally applied there’s little else to do but lie back and soak up the rays along with the cacophony of beach life. It’s certainly loud and proud from the grunts of the energetic minority playing beach tennis to the squawking groups of friends you’d think hadn’t seen one another for years and the hollering vendors selling everything from jewellery, sarongs and sunglasses to coconuts, ice cream and prawns.
A short stroll down the road, the same scene is played out on Copacabana.
A sunny winter weekend when temperatures nudge a mere 30 degrees centigrade brings every person and their small yappy dog out in force, either strolling down by the crashing waves or sipping ice cold drinks in one of the many cheap beach hut cafes. At night time these double up as prime caprinha drinking locations for those suffering from the inevitable end of trip self inflicted poverty affording views over the empty beach almost as good as those from the Marriott hotel. And if the budget will stretch just that little bit further, there are always the night market stalls just in case you’ve been hankering after a Brazil flag or a smaller replica of Christ the Redeemer.
La vida maravilhosa does not, however, come cheap: prices in Rio are comparable to those in England which makes you wonder how the average carioca on the beach affords to feed let alone clothe themselves. Mind you, on that front all you need is swim wear, a sarong and a pair of Havianas and you’re kitted out for the entire year. Still, it’s a bit of a shock to the bank account after months of cheap living in South America.
If you’re really feeling the pinch though, a visit to the favelas quickly restores your sense of perspective. Notorious as the preserve of gangs, poverty, guns and drugs, a trip round Rio’s biggest slum is a gritty experience, but as essential as visiting Christ the Redeemer to truly appreciate the city. Swerving up the main road of Rocinho on the back of a motorbike without a helmet in sight you wonder what on earth possessed you to put your life in the hands of a kamikaze driver – especially when he undertakes a bus on a blind bend and narrowly misses the stream of oncoming traffic.
Ten hair raising minutes later you’re deposited at the edge of another world where 300,000 people scrape together a living. More dilapidated than the backstreets of Venice and with ten times more guns than a Croydon council estate, Rocinho is a maze of tiny narrow streets with hundreds of cables dangling precariously close to your head from where the locals have fixed up their own supplies from the main electricity pylons. Guarding the entrance to this largely impoverished ghetto are the watchers, paid 2,000 reals a week (about Â£700) by the gang managers to report on who’s coming and going and raise the alarm if the police or a rival gang show up.
When that happens the streets ring to the sound of gunfire with the normal favela dwelling people caught in the crossfire. Luckily it’s a fairly infrequent occurrence and as favela rules dictate that no one can steal from anyone else, including tourists within its grimy walls, your wallet is probably safer than anywhere else in Rio. Still, when you’re walking past teenagers brandishing guns, the hairs on the back of your neck start reaching towards the heavens. Scariest of all, Rocinho – which has a monthly turnover of $4 million (Â£1.8 million) from drugs and gun dealing – is run by a 23-year-old bloke. You obviously grow up fast in the favelas – and it’s certainly not uncommon to be a grandparent at the ripe old age of 28.
Unsurprisingly many turn to crime to feed their growing broods – or just their drug habit – and so bag slashing and pick pocketing are fairly common occurrences in the downtown areas. If you’re really out of favour with fortune, there’s also the prospect of having a knife or gun held to your throat until you hand over the valuables so unless you happen to have a guardian angel who works overtime, wandering along the beach late at night and a little bit tipsy isn’t the best plan.
And with super-clubs, bars full of beautiful people and street parties in full swing until the sunrise, it’s easy to have one caprinha too many. On Friday and Saturday nights, half of Rio seems to relocate to Lapa to drink, dance and mingle until exhaustion stops them in their tracks. By 01:00 the streets are overflowing with revellers and pulsating to samba beats blasting out from all directions. If that’s too tame, the favela funk parties allow you to dance till dawn in a rundown concrete hovel which smells like it’s suffering from a major sewage leak while jumping around to the favela’s own brand of music – samba beats with people shouting over the top.
No visit to Rio would, however, be complete without a visit to the world’s biggest football stadium to appreciate the Brazilian love of the beautiful game. Indeed Cariocas get rather passionate about their ailing local team, the Flamengos, leaping up as if someone had put a firecracker under their seat every time their team even touches the ball. Add to this the foot stamping, clapping, howling and wailing while the band blasted out a samba version of ‘When the saints come marching in’ and it all looks like a rather surreal exercise video. And that’s before the Flamengos actually scored to secure their first win in seven matches, at which point some bright spark decided to let off a few flares and Maracana stadium looked like it was going up in flames. Still, at least the atmosphere made up for the lack of talent on the pitch.
When city life starts to become a little overwhelming, the tree covered paradise of Ilha Grande provides a spot of welcome relief with sandy beaches you can actually sprawl on, calm turquoise waters and lush forests the energetic can hike through. A short boat ride away is the private tropical island of Brazil’s top plastic surgeon costing a mere $20 million – business must certainly be booming in the land of the beautiful people…
It’s hard to tear yourself away from Rio’s seductive charms: it’s spectacular setting, its brazen confidence and its raw energy have a magnetic pull which make the prospect of emigration a serious possibility. If this is what’s it’s like in during the quiet winter months then Carnaval must be truly mind-blowing. I’m booking my ticket now!