Thousands of miles in the air, I sat clicking away on my computer, organizing photos I had taken of Iguazú Falls (see previous post: Iguazú Falls). Following two crazy busy weeks in Tacuarembó and a full weekend at the falls, I had a couple of hours to relax. It was an uncharacteristically quiet flight as there were many empty seats in my vicinity. Completely surrounded by clouds and struggling to keep my eyes open, I was content to let my mind drift.
Before I knew it, I felt a nudge from the flight attendant: we would soon begin our descent. I sat up in my chair and adjusted my seat. Great! We must be getting close! I pushed up the shade to my right and peaked out the window, expecting to see a city skyline off in the distance. Wrong.
In every direction all I saw was city. Miles and miles of city. We were in the heart of one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere. Buildings appeared to be stacked right on top of each another like Legos. The dark silhouette of the city’s picturesque hills appeared like a wall off in the distance, seemingly guarding the blue waters of the coast lying beyond. It was truly stunning.
Bem-vindo ao Rio de Janeiro. Welcome to Rio de Janeiro.
Known as A Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City), Rio blew me away from my very first glimpse. I couldn’t believe I was really there. I had made it to Rio de Janeiro, a city often considered among the most diverse, dynamic, and dangerous in the world. A place with so many sights, sounds, and tastes that it captures one hundred percent of your attention. It’s such an overwhelming city that I’ve decided to split my 10-day experience into two blog posts.
Fortunately, I was not to explore the city alone, and after picking up my bags and shuffling my way through the crowds at Galeão International Airport, I was reunited with Pedro.
I first met Pedro in October 2015 when I was working as a tutor for UW-Eau Claire’s Intensive English Program for international students. We hit it off and met pretty much weekly during his remaining 15 months in the United States, and really became close friends. During his final few weeks, we made a trip down to Red Wing and he was able to go snowboarding for the first time.
Now, it was my turn to step into his world – Rio de Janeiro – and, man, did I have a blast. How lucky was I? Even better than having my own personal tour guide, I had one of my closest friends showing me around, translating for me, and keeping me alive as we navigated through the concrete jungle.
Home for Pedro and his family is Campo Grande, which is the largest neighborhood in Rio’s West Zone. As we were quite removed from the heart of the city (50 kilometers, or 30 miles), we took the train everyday to get downtown, which was an adventure. It was nearly an hour ride through the city, with views of the expansive concrete neighborhoods and towering jungle peaks in the background.
Often, my view was obstructed, as the train was packed full of people. Every single type of person, in fact. Children. Teens. Adults. Black, white, and everything in between. Some wore suits and ties, while others wore in faded, stained t-shirts, baggy jean shorts and Havaiana sandals. Meandering through the crowds on the train were venders selling just about anything you could imagine: Coca-Cola, water, snacks, gum, candy, headphones, phone-chargers, make-up, umbrellas, memory cards, jewelry, even beer! As you can imagine, I learned the Portuguese word for all of these products really quickly.
Rio overwhelmed each of my five senses more than any other city I have ever visited. It’s likely you know Rio for its’ tourist sites: Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, the favelas (from Google: a Brazilian slum or shanty town) that stretch up the sides of the city’s hills, the iconic Selarón stairway, and the beautiful beaches, including Copacabana and Ipanema.
Even when none of these incredible hallmark sites of Rio were within my view, the city was captivating. Think of it like walking into a big supermarket for the first time. None of what you see would qualify as spectacular, yet the experience of walking up and down the aisles for the first time, seeing all the products, the bright lights and colors, the advertisements, etc. would be incredibly stimulating.
Every turn left me wondering about what awaited me around the corner. There were towering modern skyscrapers, businesses and banks featuring colonial architecture, widespread graffiti and some of the most impressive street art I have ever seen.
As I alluded earlier, I would be remiss not to mention all the other ways in which Rio overpowered my senses. I’ll start with the smells and tastes, which might be highlighted by a trip to Confeitaria Colombo, one of the oldest and most famous bakeries and confectionaries in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio solidified it’s place among the best food cities I have ever visited. So much so that I even googled many of the new foods I ate in an attempt to be able to describe them, which proved unsuccessful. Traditional Brazilian food consists of mostly rice, beans and beef, but you can find anything in this city. Some staples include: pão de queijo (cheese bread), coxinha (creamy chicken salad covered in dough and fried), brigadeiro (a chocolate sweet made from condensed milk and cocoa powder), maracujá (passion fruit) and açaí (a small purple “blueberry”). These two fruits and many others (lime, mango, guava, pineapple) are the essential ingredients in many drinks, including Brazil’s most prominent (caipirinha), which I shared with Pedro during what may go down as the most aesthetically pleasing experiences I’ve ever had.
Let me set the scene for you… It was our fifth day in the city and we had been walking, busing, and subway-ing all day long. We reached the black and white mosaic promenade that runs parallel to Copacabana beach and walked until we stopped at one of the many food & drink quiosques to chill out and catch the sunset.
A group of kids were playing soccer on the beach off to our right. Drowning out their hollers and laughter was the calming, yet lively urban samba melodies made by a local musician just a few tables to our left. Between sets we heard the traffic of cars and buses racing by behind us on the busy Avenida Atlântica. In front of us rested a pair of caipirinhas and a breathtaking panoramic view of Copacabana beach and the crashing waves of the ocean.
There I was, enjoying it with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. We just sat, taking it all in. The world would be a much better place if everyone was able to reach that level of tranquility on a regular basis. On the other hand, would we appreciate those moments of zen as much if they happened everyday?
Now, Rio is certainly not without its’ problems. I didn’t have a single problem regarding security during my time, but I have heard stories of others who have not been so lucky. Brazil as a nation is a mess politically and corruption is extremely common. As a result, Rio finds itself a midst an economic crisis; Poverty is rampant and crime rates have risen significantly ever since the Olympics.
I saw dozens of homeless people day every single day and had to take significant precautions in order to get around the city safely. Many parts of the city are simply off-limits for tourists, but I was able to view favelas from afar and on a few occasions was able to observe from the trains. Favelas are neighborhoods built by citizens on government-owned land. The few streets in these communities were unpaved and littered with trash. Many of the homes appeared to be structurally incomplete and covered in graffiti, and in many cases the alleys between buildings aren’t even wide enough to allow someone to pass.
On occasion, when traveling by car, one can note the foul smell that accompanies life in many of these favelas, which run into problems with sewage runoff and water contamination. Truly, I cannot imagine living in such filth, surrounded by such a potent scent. As I mentioned, these areas are extremely dangerous – even for Brazilians – as many are controlled drug kings.
However, there are organizations that offer tourist excursions to certain, pacified favelas, which really strikes a chord ethically. I can’t imagine walking through an impoverished community and taking pictures of peoples’ homes as if they were exhibits in a museum, or even a zoo. We stayed far from the most troublesome areas, but due to the way Rio is laid out, you’re never more than 5-10 minutes away from a favela. It’s extremely humbling to see areas of such extreme need day in and day out, and the experience certainly left me thinking…
Despite the large disparity between the rich and poor, and the many economic issues facing Rio, life goes on as normal for millions of its’ citizens. Affectionately known as cariocas, the people I met not only watched out for me, but embraced having me around and graciously took me in, which will stick with me forever.
Continue to Part II.