Quite a few times during this epic journey I have honestly felt like this was happening to someone else, like this cannot actually be happening, when did this become my life? Sometimes I feel like I am living in a movie. Nowhere felt more like this than here in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, in a minute I might just wake up and......... No wait, that really was me on the back of that motorbike, clinging onto some random carioca (local guy) no crash helmet, flying through the streets of a favela, yes the famous slums of Brazil where drug dealers rule and police are no go. Raw favela life flashing past me, groups of shady-looking youths, piles of rubbish and rubble, huge graffitied walls, trying to hold my skirt, stop it flying up, trying to preserve my dignity.
My driver decided this wasn't scary enough so sped up as we turned a corner, nearly head-on into a minivan, but he swerved just in time and TURNED ROUND to look at me and ask if I was scared yet? I kid you not... In this situation you either laugh or cry right? What do you think I did? I don't think I have ever felt so ALIVE!!! …..emmm sorry mum!
A week spent in this incredible city and I was smitten. Completely head over heels, I simply couldn't get enough of this place. How do I describe it? Well, it is the most dreamy location for a city I have ever seen. The city sits within this huge bay interspersed and surrounded by lush tropical mountains and jungle as far as the eye can see. Lining the bay in sweeping curves are large sandy beaches lapped by turquoise waters, a modern city filling the land and overlooked by colourful favelas nestling along the hills.
One of the seven wonders of the world, Christ the redeemer, sits iconically on top of Corcovado mountain, arms outstretched, a sign of peace but appearing to say 'hey check this place out' You can see this statue from most places in Rio, definitely a sense of being here, you know you are in Rio! Oh you know you are in Rio alright. Anything goes here. If you want to walk through the shopping mall in your pants, fine, if you want to hand feed fruit to your customers at the market, fine, if you want to grab a random stranger on the beach and kiss them, that is fine too...! Who needs clothes? We just need beach, people and passion. Passion for looking good, passion for eating, for partying, for football. I have never tasted tropical fruit juices so bursting with life as I did here.
Oh yes, Rio de Janeiro. Yep, I quite enjoyed my time here!!
For the first few days I based myself in a hotel on Copacabana beach. This place gets its name from the original Copacabana in Bolivia, where I had visited previously, along lake Titicaca, remember where I saw the car blessing ceremonies and trekked on Isla del Sol? To get my bearings, I joined a tour to go through the jungle and up to the Christ the Redeemer for some unforgettable views of this paradise city. As we left to go to sugar loaf mountain, the cloud came in very suddenly and much of the city disappeared. We went right through a cloud as we ascended sugar loaf mountain on the cable car, thinking there was no chance of seeing much from the top. It turned out to be pretty special though.
The cloud moved quickly and would reveal different parts of the city view to us at a time, the christ statue looking like it was floating above the city. Is this heaven? I fancied staying on Copacabana beach just because it was famous but soon realised that, although I could just sit on that beach for hours people watching, it had a bit of a grey brigade vibe going on. A popular place to retire. I moved to a hostel on Ipanema beach, another famous location but much more fun.
My hostel was in a cute little Portugese-style colourful street full of houses that were converted into hostels. I stayed in the very last one on the street, one dorm, 8 beds and travellers from all over the world. Sylvia, the hostel owner, was my kind of woman. She made my time in Rio even more vivid.
Think I checked in at 11am and at 5pm I still had not taken my bag up to the dorm. We were on beer no xxxx, well we had to cool down somehow it was 40 degrees in the city, and she had this infectious enthusiasm and sense of humour, OK maybe a bit on the dirty side, think I met my match here! I seemed to have hit it lucky with this hostel, always great people to go for a few beers with, go down the beach, watch films, hang out in the juice bars (Amazonian acai juice is truly to die for) or share the national dish, feijoada. Well that dish is something else, sums up Brazilian passion of hearty black bean, pork, beef and spicy sausage stew, with some interesting accompaniments, including a large glass of only a little bit alcoholic honest Caipirinha.
This is what you call living. Back at the hostel I started talking to Emma, from Sydney, and we arranged to go visit the favela the next day followed by a samba school. I wanted to see as many sides of this city as I could.
Is it not dangerous to visit a favela? You see these places in movies all the time right? The infamous slums of Brazil, no law and order, ruled by drug barons with guns, no police allowed. If you have a heart attack here you are screwed as ambulances will not come here. So what the hell was I doing here? Well, a couple of ex-residents of one of the favelas had started doing tours. They have signed a peace agreement to make it safe for small groups of visitors to go and experience favela life and get a little cash injection in return.
This also educates people to real favela life, meeting the people that live in this society, see the problems first hand and witness some of the schemes there to help educate and care for the favela children. The divide between rich and poor in Brazil is one of the widest in the world. One in five residents of Rio live in a favela. This is an alternative and important side of the city that I needed to experience.
The 'shit hit the fan' motorbike ride, now one of the highlights of my whole trip, took us all the way up to the top of Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. Approximately 200,000 residents crammed into less than a square mile. Our big muscly guide, who had grown up in a favela himself, warned us to 'only take photos when I say it is OK to do so'.
Some residents of the favela are involved in serious criminal activity, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, robberies etc.. and, although fine with us being there, get rather nervous having their photo taken. 'If you see a gun then definitely put your camera away straight away' was the advice. 'Police raids and shootouts are still quite common so if you hear gunshots then put your camera away and stay near me' Oh Lord!! The guide then led us through the narrow, crumbling streets of the favela to see things for ourselves.
It felt much more civilised that what I had expected. OK, it didn't feel particularly safe, but this was due more to the threat of going ass over tit on the steep, decaying streets and avoiding huge clumps of power cables trailing into puddles, rather than due to any worries over security.
We were greeted by smiles, we were serenaded by a group of young lads playing the drums on dustbin lids, we admired works by local artists, we tried some delicious home made cakes and visited a community project to provide care and education for the favela kids, some of them orphans. This was a strong, proud community though, doing their best and something to admire. Graffiti with the words 'Amigos dos amigos' could be seen everywhere, apparently referring to the criminal faction that controls the Rocinha slum, a reminder that this is not a normal kind of law and order society. It was clear though that general favela life revolves around human interaction and compassion for others. It reminded me of the impressive community spirit that I had sensed on my trip to India as well as Cambodia and again brought home to me the values of living this kind of life, knowing your neighbours, looking out for each other and working together as a team to build a community.
Who are truly happier with their lives them or us in our often shallow, competitive lifestyle? This is real life. Something distinctly romantic about this place. Yes it felt like a movie, dusty, crowded and edgy, but just go and see for yourself please and feel the special atmosphere here. Feel it, this is real. Hundreds of colourful houses tumbling down the tropical slopes of Rocinha towards the ocean, music, rhythm and above all, an abundance of that Brazilian passion and creativity. Having spent an afternoon in a Rio slum, I felt like I understood the city better, the lives and daily challenges of the people of the favela, and as funny as it sounds, I actually felt more safe being in Rio generally.
Anyway, it was time for another party! Enrique from the hostel had arranged for me and three other lasses to go and take part in a samba school practise for the big Rio carnival that was a couple of weeks away.
For many gringos, the famous Rio Carnival is an absolute must, but I had already decided not to bother. If you want to stay in a hotel or hostel during the Rio carnival prices are hiked up at least double and only take bookings for a minimum week stay! Forget that. I would have loved to have stayed for the carnival but had already decided it was too expensive, too predictable and that I wanted to see the real Rio anyhow rather than the over-hyped carnival version. So, we did the next best thing and headed out to a big warehouse in one of Rio's suburbs where a samba school was having a dress rehearsal for the big event, one night of craziness! We were the only gringos there but no-one seemed to notice us. A few thousand skimpily dressed Brazilians dancing round in circles to a live samba band as if they were possessed.
The music was quite repetitive but everyone in the room, apart from us, sang the words as they sweated and shook their booties round the stifling warehouse. Around the edges of the room, there were some young kids also dancing, some maybe as young as 4 or 5. Even they looked hypnotised by the samba. This is much more than just dance to these people, it felt like a sacred ritual and a night I will certainly not forget in a hurry.
My last couple of days in Rio I spent basically bumming around on the beach and indulging with Emma in all-you can eat 'churrasco' buffets where the meat keeps coming and coming! You are basically given like a beer coaster with 'Sim por favor' on one side and 'nao obrigado' on the other, which tells the waiter whether you want more meat or not.
'Sim por favor' means you get a conveyer belt of unidentified barbecued meats, sliced off a big skewer at your table. This was also washed down of course by lashings and lashings of Caipirinha. It would have been rude not to right? We decided you can never have enough Caipirinha though and trekked across the city to a gem museum/ emerald shop where Sylvia assured us gave away free 'local beverages' to potential customers. Well, after doing our best to charm the salesman there, sitting through his pitch, desperately thirsty for some Brazilian cocktail action, we came away with nada. Free drinks fail. Oh but I did work out what happened on the beach that day! Sylvia informed me afterwards that Ipanema beach is split into 'sections' depending on sexual preference.
There is a large gay area, obvious by all the rainbow flags, a family section and one for singles. There was me thinking this guy was a 'male escort' when I was actually sat in the 'I am up for anything, come and get me' section of the beach unfortunate hehehehe!!!
Time to hit the road again towards the Amazon jungle yikes! Difficult to tear myself away from this city, special memories, if only I can bottle up how this place made me feel. I will be back here one day for sure, to spend more time in one of my favourite cities of the world. Think I left my heart in Rio de Janeiro!