South America—Rio de Janeiro

December 15th, 2011 § 0 comments

Nothing about South America is what I expected. It’s a huge continent, and you can’t hop from country to country like you can in Europe; it took four hours just to fly from Brazil to Argentina. There are entry fees and visa’s required, which seems exciting until you actually have to pay them or get one. Because you have to fly everywhere you want to visit, I had to ask (and then pretend to be) a travel agent what would be a doable two-week trip. I had to fight my instincts for months while I planned, otherwise we would have covered all of South America in fourteen days. When the trip was finally narrowed down to Brazil and Argentina, the debate over Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo began. It’s hard to ‘pick’ a city when you don’t really know what it is you’re picking, but I chose Rio on the advice of a good friend. In the end I planned what was probably the most reasonable vacation of my life: one week in Rio, and one week in Buenos Aires.

Most of what I knew about Rio de Janeiro came from a certain scene of an old black & white movie starring Bette Davis called Now, Voyager. In it, Davis points out to her future lover all the sights of Rio—Sugar Loaf, Copacabana Beach, Christ the Redeemer—and it’s a cute scene that seems to sum up American tourism in the 1940s.

Exhausted and disoriented after a night of flying without sleep, we landed in Rio on what would be a sunny Sunday morning. Driving toward the city from the airport in a dinged up old car with a very friendly driver, my first impressions of Rio were intimidating. I’ve been to places that are poor, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the kind of poverty I saw on the outskirts of Rio. It’s an interesting contradiction that Brazil is a developing country with an economy that is doing well, and I wonder how much the upcoming World Cup in 2014, and the Olympic games in 2016 will change parts of the city. As we drove in we saw that they were already building new bridges and roads, but it was hard not to notice the favelas. For a few hours that morning I wondered where exactly I had brought us.

We had decided not to stay on the beach, even though it’s spring in Rio, because this wasn’t that kind of trip. Of course we wanted to walk the beaches, the scalloped coastline in Rio is breathtakingly lovely, but we also wanted to explore the different neighborhoods of the city. We choose to stay in Santa Teresa, a lovely residential neighborhood nestled into the top of the Santa Teresa hill, which meant daily walks down along little windy roads where a tram runs, and nightly cab rides up. Staying in the beautiful guesthouse of an Indian artist and a French musician, with their two Portuguese children and their dog named Bob, it was a good home base, the perfect place to start from every morning and return to in the evening. Coming back to the neighborhood after a long day of walking the city felt like retreating from the crowds, and it’s strange how quickly the windy mountain streets became so familiar. In the evenings, we’d rest up, shower and change before heading back out again for dinner and drinks.

Portuguese isn’t Spanish, my boyfriend discovered, though we got by pretty well thanks entirely to him. Where I would have resorted to pointing at things in frustration, he tried valiantly to bridge the language gap, and to pick up the strange accent of the city, with varying degrees of success. I remember when my high school art friends moved to China, how they hated visiting rural areas where the residents had never seen a non-Asian before, as they became oddities beyond merely tourists. Rio is the only place I’ve ever visited where people wanted their picture taken with me for that reason, (Nelson made sure to take their picture in retaliation), and there was defiantly an insular feeling to Rio, as though they don’t get many tourists. We certainly came across our fair share of them, but I don’t think we saw or heard any other Americans until we reached Buenos Aires. Most of our interactions with the locals were good, but my critique of Rio is that it feels a bit like what I call an ‘old man’s city’. It was a specific feeling at times, we ate at a number of restaurants where I was the only woman inside, and drank at bars with a similar feel, mostly it was a pervasive attitude I felt throughout the city.

Rio is beautiful, without question, and it seemed even more stunning after spending a week in the manmade, and very European styled Buenos Aires. The landscape of Rio is amazing; the mixture of beaches, mountains, and jungle foliage. It reminded me of other tropical places I’ve been, Costa Rica or Puerto Rico, but it isn’t like them aesthetically. Because of the landscape the tourist attractions involve climbing high above the city in terrifying contraptions, be it the cog train that takes you to the Christ Redeemer high above the city, or the suspended cable cars that swing their way to Sugar Loaf. You don’t realize how long the beaches are until you try to walk them, and walking Copacabana can take all day, if you stop at the fort along the way. I liked Ipanema better, as it felt more like the people’s beach than a tourist’s beach. I don’t think it was the high season while we were there, but the beaches were still full of people hanging out and eating street food. Britney Spears, on her South American tour, followed us from Rio to Buenos Aires, and we ran across her screaming fans in a swanky hotel in Ipanema our first day in town.

I love Brazilian food, where they have lunches and dinners by the kilo, good seafood, and refreshing drinks like Coconut water and Acai, the latter of which is probably the best fruit drink I’ve ever had—the first day I tried one I think I ended up having three or four. The street food is great, pizza without tomato sauce, breaded turnovers with cheese and meat, and plenty of other things we never got to try. Unlike Buenos Aires, fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere, and on almost every menu I came across was a heart of palm salad. One night mid-week we had a fantastic dinner in a restaurant called Aprazivel, higher in the hills than even our hotel. From there at night you could see all the lights of Rio. I also enjoyed the nightlife in Rio, and it’s a very, very happy drunk you get sitting in a lovely samba club like Rio Scenarium in Lapa, drinking Caipirinhas and talking about anything and everything with complete enthusiasm and conviction.

I’d go back to Brazil, next time with a little more Portuguese under Nelson’s belt, I’d visit São Paulo, and I’d go in the summer so I could sit sunning myself in the white sands of Copacabana. But, who am I kidding. I’ll go back to South America, but with so much of the country left to cover it’s going to be a long time before we are back in Rio again.

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