This is the second to the last post of my “Fond Memories of Brazil 2009” series. I wish I could say that we saved the best of our Brazil experience for last, but as you can probably guess from my overly enthusiastic posts about Jericoacoara and Salvador, those two places were the ones that really stole our hearts. But to be fair to Rio, we would’ve enjoyed our time there a lot more had Mother Nature played nice. All we wanted to do in Rio was go hang gliding and lay out on its world famous beaches, but, spoiler alert, we did neither.
We did, however, still get to watch a soccer match at Maracanã and visit Búzios, a posh nearby beach town, with one of my friends from college who was living in São Paulo at the time. I know that most of these “Fond Memories of Brazil 2009” post have little to do with honeymooning, which is admittedly a bit confusing as this is a honeymoon blog, but Búzios was definitely a worthy honeymoon destination. Part 1 has more to do with Rio, but come back next week for Part 2 to read why Búzios is great for honeymoons in Brazil.
In lieu of a 27+ hour bus ride from Salvador to Rio, we opted for a two hour flight, then took a taxi to our hostel in the Catete neighborhood (pronounced “kah-tetch”). Aaron’s email is below:
Q: Before this trip, you told your parents that you wouldn’t go to Colombia and that you wouldn’t go to the favelas in Rio. And you’ve broken both of those promises now, haven’t you?
A: Well … yeah. But when I said those things, I didn´t know that there were safe, well-organized, fascinating favela tours.
The favelas (again trying not to sound like a Wikipedia entry) are these huge shantytowns built into the hills, areas the government has basically given up on, areas with no infrastructure, areas controlled by drug dealers (our favela was run by a gang with the very un-gangsta sounding name “Friends of Friends,” which I guess does sound a little Mafia-like). It sounds horrible and lawles, but really there is less petty crime in the favelas because the drug dealers won´t allow any non-drug-related crime (they don´t want the police to have an excuse to raid the favelas.
Since this kind of area is obviously fascinating, tours have sprung up recently, all of which work with the communities they visit, and give a lot of money back. As a result, we felt very welcome the whole time we were there. And safe. Our guide even made fun of our disposable camera, thinking we considered it too dangerous to bring a digital one. Of course, our digital was still broken, which is too bad, since every view in the favela has enough texture to be an award-winning photograph.
Anyway, our favela, Rocinha, was the largest in the city, with over 200,000 people, all of whom appeared to be siphoning electricity from one mid-sized generator at the top of the hill. Since the favela is surrounded by rocky cliffs on one side and a national park on the other, there is no room to build but up. As a result, there are no roads in the favela, just an endless series of tunnels and catacombs leading in all directions.
Q: And, after months of bashing your head on pretty much every hanging thing in South America, were you finally able to use your freakish height for good in the favela?
A: Surprisingly, yes. Our tour spent a fair amount of time in the day care that the tour sponsors, where we played with the kids and generally smiled at everyone. While there, I was able to reach a ball that was stuck between some wires. So, y´know, I guess I wasn´t TOTALLY imposing on South American culture the ENTIRE time I was there. Now someone bring me a caipirinha.
Q: Um … there’s no one here. Anyway, what’s up with the hang gliding?
A: Soon, hopefully. The cliffs around the city make for excellent hang gliding, with a view of the city, the ocean, and the jungles all at once. We were supposed to go yesterday, but there was no wind, so we went to Copacabana Beach instead. We rescheduled for this morning, but the clouds were too low, so we went up to the Christ the Redeemer statue instead. Now, we hope to go tomorrow.
Q: Copacabana? Christ the Redeemer? Those are some pretty solid backup plans. Want to talk about them?
A: Copacabana, despite being one of the most famous beaches in the world, was only average in terms of beach quality, though there were a series of incredibly complex sand sculptures commemorating the 2016 Olympics. It was like Old Yankee Stadium … you go for the mystique, not the actual experience. And, since we´re staying only three Metro stops away in the Catete neighborhood (first time on a South American subway … yeah!), it´s easy to stop by for an afternoon.
The Christ statue is probably even more famous, and you can tell by the dozens of camera-waving tourists all trying to pose for the exact same picture in front of it. Still … huge statue on a cliff overlooking the city = cool thing to see. Not much more to say about it, really.
[ … the following is from another email written one week later… ]
Q: So, for a variety of reasons, things slowed down considerably this week, huh? It started out strong, though … big-time Brazilian soccer and Game One of what would surely be a hard-fought series between the Twins and the Yankees. So let´s start there. Wednesday night. The last time it wasn´t either raining or about to rain.
A: Yeah. Lotta rain and far-away baseball sadness this week. Wednesday night, though, all was full of possibility, as we headed out to Maracanã Stadium with the two German guys from our hostel. Maracanã is both huge and historic, to varying degrees, depending on how you ask. Wikipedia lists the capacity at just under 90,000, though various guidebooks claim it has held, in less fire-code conscious times, anywhere from 160,000 to 200,000. From the looks of the stadium, though, 90,000 sounds about right (also, Ilana gets FURIOUS if you even hint at the possibility that a stadium is bigger than the Big House in Ann Arbor, it´s kinda funny, really). It´s an iconic place for all of South America, and it´s about to become even more so, as it will host the final of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
And, if it seats 90,000, that means that, on Wednesday night, there were (being generous) 75,000 empty seats. Probably more. There are four first division soccer teams in Rio, and three of them (Flamengo, Vasco de Gama, and Botafogo) are very successful, with huge fan bases. The fourth, Fluminense, was in last place at the time of the game, and there were whole sections left empty. It looked like a Marlins day game in September. The best analogy I can think of would be going to Los Angeles, telling people, “I just want to see NBA basketball,” and then going to a Clippers-Kings game because the Lakers were out of town.
We went into the game knowing that the home team was terrible, but we remained excited about the visiting squad, Corinthians (from Sao Paulo), because of their star player, Ronaldo, once an international legend, now a fat old guy relegated to playing at home (fans in Rio call him “The Whale” and toss around rumors of a secret liposuction surgery. Ronaldo, however, did not play in the game we saw (three days later, he scored an impossible goal and added a very pretty assist in a game we only caught the highlights of).
Q: Despite all that, you managed to learn a few things about Brazilian soccer, right?
A: Absolutely. First of all, I learned that even the mediocre soccer players go by one name only. More than half the guys on Fluminense did so. I dunno, I guess I thought that you had to be really good, and, once you reached a certain level of success, there was some kind of ceremony, and they allowed you to go by one name. Not the case. Anybody can do it. The guy who scored Fluminense´s only goal (the game ended in a 1-1 draw) went by the exotic name of … Alan.
Second, it was fun to watch the hardcore fans of a terrible team. Though the stadium was 90% empty, the fanatical cheering sections for both teams were packed, with waving flags and songs for the entire duration of the game. And these guys were LOUD. If this stadium had been even half-full, it would have shook. So we left a little disappointed, but definitely grateful to have seen a game there at all. We may try again with first-division soccer in Uruguay and Argentina.*
Q: And as you left the stadium, it started to rain, and it rained all day Thursday and Friday. Serious rain. Instant-soaking rain. Build-an-ark rain. What does one do in Rio de Janeiro when the heavens have opened?
A: Um … nothing. It´s a city built on beaches and wandering around various far-flung neighborhoods. We barely left the hostel over those two days. Not that these were bad times. We sat around the common room and listen to Anna, the hostel owner, tell stories about her life. The daughter of anthropologists (her father apparently has things named after him at UC Berkeley), she was born among the indigenous people in rural Peru, and has since visited 85 countries (Ilana´s eyes got really big upon hearing this … I think she has a new life goal). We also debated the logistical validity of importing peanut butter into Brazil. Apparently they love peanuts (and have these awesome little peanut and sugar candies), but have no peanut butter. So … if you know any venture capitalists …
In the evenings, we cooked pasta (Ilana and I are close to perfecting a sausage and peppers dish that I´m sure we´ll be completely unable to recreate in San Francisco, and I will go back to having no cooking skills at all).
On Friday, the rain appeared to let up for a few minutes, and we jumped at the chance to get outside. Basically, this entailed jumping on the Metro, getting off to pouring rain, wandering around the Leblon and Ipanema districts, soaking wet, eating lunch, and going home. On the other hand, I mean, we didn´t catch pneumonia. Keeping it positive!
* We did end up going to soccer matches in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and both were pretty incredible.
Come back next week for the very last Fond Memories of Brazil post!