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Vamos a la Playa

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Our final bus ride was also the longest yet, an arduous twenty five hour journey via Sao Paulo. It was cruel to have such a city, particularly with their football team and striker Ronaldo on form, dangled so temptingly in front of our eyes. However, what we did see out of our misted windows (the rain followed us all the way) was not particularly inviting and as we came closer to Rio the green, tropical mountains were blanketed with lazy clouds and it promised a much more spectacular introduction. I scanned the horizon waiting for the moment when the hills would part and the glorious city would reveal itself but it never happened. Gradually it got dark and we were introduced to the city slowly, with dark suburban streets and seedy hostels with neon signs – the most memorable of which was medieval themed.

Our hostel was reassuringly devoid of neon advertising and although I would have welcomed being a knight for a night, our simple room up a small, winding staircase had a very Brazilian character and was more than adequate. I slung my bag down and was ready to go and get my first decent Brazilian meal when we were introduced to a Brazilian guy who was on his way to watch one of the local sides, Flamengo. One fleeting moment of hungry hesitation later and we were on the bus to the Maracana stadium.

The stadium was amazing – a huge, circular structure with the pitch only a few yards from where we stood – but disappointingly the fans formed only patchy groups in the wet stands and the noise came mostly from above our heads where the “real” fans seemed to have arranged to congregate. Still, it was a good game. Flamengo, with a heavy footed Adriano (actually he was pretty heavy everywhere else too) struggled against a lively Cruziero side who, after conceding an early goal, came back to win 2-1. We got a metro back and at midnight I couldn’t quite believe I was wandering the dark streets of Rio de Janeiro but it seemed we had chosen a good area (Ipanema) and I found my paranoia easing with every mugging-free minute.

My carefully staggered storytelling style leads me back to Buenos Aires where you will remember La Boca – the colourful streets, the football stadium, the football match inside the cage. We actually visited this area twice – the second time with Niall so that he could see what Josh and I agreed was one of the best parts of town. We left him at the football stadium, having already done the tour ourselves, and arranged to meet him at the cage for a kickaround. To pass the time we went to an art gallery, which had been closed the last time we were there, and looked at some huge but otherwise fairly unremarkable photographs.

When we got to the cage we found Niall wide-eyed and with his shirt torn. He had been targeted by two guys who had tackled him to the floor, held him down and raided his pockets, stripping him of his camera. None of us could believe it – only a few days before we had been wandering around with phones, cameras and money with no real sense that we were in any danger of being robbed. We had even left our jumpers lying around while we played football.

We reported it at the police station and, feeling responsible, bought Niall a steak. If he hadn’t been on his own it wouldn’t have happened. It was a well-timed warning for Rio, particularly alongside the numerous stories we’d heard about robberies there, and it underlined the importance of moving in groups. Josh likes to point out that without him I would have been robbed by now, and this is probably true but I’m also pretty sure he would have been targeted too had it not been for my, admittedly less convincing, back up.

We were still being plagued by rain and our first trip to a deserted and windy Ipanema beach was not what I had imagined when I dreamt of Rio all those months before. Huge waves crashed heavily onto us as Niall and I, red with cold, struggled to stay upright. The tide sucked our legs from under us and even with a hazy glimpse of the green mountains at the end of the long white beach we all agreed it was a bit of an anticlimax.

It was Niall’s birthday on the Saturday after we arrived and with the “Favela Funk Party” on the Sunday (yep, a party in the favela…gulp) it promised to be a good weekend. We started the celebrations on the Friday with the Brazilian favourite, caipirinhas. These basically consist of cachaca, a spirit made from sugar cane, mixed with sugar, crushed lime and ice. They were so good we drank all of our cachaca and ended up too pickled to do anything beyond a local bar. On the Saturday we started things a bit more tentatively with just a few beers but once we got to Lapa where a busy street party was ill full swing we were tempted by offers of caipirinha by the pint.

When we eventually reached the club, Niall was picked out by the bouncers as being too drunk. A few minutes later any argument to the contrary was vomited along the busy street and the birthday boy ended up in a taxi with a plastic bag. Our association with such a spectacular wreck was enough to see us blacklisted from the club and we ended the night a few hours later after spending a while watching a ten piece band playing samba music and wishing that we could dance. The night was pretty bad and this coupled with the constant spells of rain and the windy beach amounted to a really disappointing first few days.

Bitterly hungover, the next morning should really have been a low point. Instead I was woken by excited shouting; bright sunshine filled the room. It was a miracle! The weather forecast predicted cloud and rain for the whole week and yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! It was hot! I dragged my physical remains out of bed and after a hurried breakfast, wasted no time in heading up to Christ to thank him for his part in the glorious day. Seeing Rio in all its sun drenched glory was amazing, the city is spread across such a stunning coastline and surrounded by towering green hills – from every angle it is a spectacular location.

Conscious that this may be our only day of sun, we headed to the beach which was buzzing with the bronzed and beautiful crowds who until now we had only seen in tacky postcards. I must say that surrounded by these pumped up thong clad beach types my own luminescent loins seemed deeply inexperienced and comically out of place. Being self-conscious is what travelling is all about though isn’t it?! Anyway, the sun eventually disappeared but our spirits were lifted and we approached the favela funk party with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

Josh and I dressed down but soon realised we were the only ones that had and that any attempt to blend in was hopelessly futile. After being delivered to the door in minivans (which I assume were bullet proof) we, the gringos, were gathered in a separate line to enter. Once inside we were no more inconspicuous; it wasn’t a problem though. The crowd was mixed and friendly and although there was a lot of testosterone on display it tended to take the form of topless gyrating men rather than the embarrassing fistfights which are the mating cry of the Brits.

There was no hostility whatsoever and when we arrived the club was already crowded with an unmistakably Brazilian party atmosphere. Guys danced synchronised routines and the girls threw their ample posteriors around energetically. Typically of South America, drinks were paid for in one part of the club and collected in another but as they were priced at four beers for £2 I had little cause to complain. My favourite part of the night was a dance off which involved some of the more confident dancers getting up on stage and showing of their most impressive, or most sexual, moves. It was hilarious; I’m pretty sure their mothers wouldn’t have approved but then what do I know? This is Brazil.

It was an experience I will never forget and gave me the sense that there is a lot more to life in the favela than the prevalent drugs and violence. I had always been curious about life in the shantytowns but now my curiousity was heightened. The hostels always offer overpriced tours which are best avoided as most of the time you can go without them for a fraction of the price. For example, when we went to see Flamengo play the tour group who left before us were paying 75 reals. We went on the bus and got a ticket on the door for 20 reals! It was ridiculous. Still, when it came to the “Favela Tour” I didn’t feel so confident. Although I resented paying a lot of money just to walk around an area of the city, we both agreed it would be worthwhile – if only for the privelage of being able to take your camera without any worries.

It turned out to be a really exciting tour. First we were driven up to the top of the favela on the back of motorbikes driven by teenagers – an interesting shuttle which, as far as I could tell, has been set up specifically to taxi people in and out of the favela. Once at the top we left the main streets – busy with shops and stalls – and entered the more familiar narrow concrete alleys that I had seen so often in films like City of God. I had seen and heard so much about favelas at school and in the media that now wandering through one seemed almost as absurd as snorkelling after sharks or stamping around looking for snakes. I had always seen them as completely unapproachable places but, as our guide explained, the politics of the area creates a tightly controlled environment where drug dealers rule and where less lucrative crimes (ie. theft) is not tolerated.

To put it simply, robbing gringos in the favela will get you killed. The drug gangs make a horrendous amount of money– the business is highly organised, an integral part of the favelas, and they are careful not to attract unnecessary attention from the police. Everyone who enters and leaves the area is monitored by young guys with walkie-talkies - they are paid around 2,000 reals per week (this amounts to £35,000 a year) so it is easy to see how people get into this dangerous line of work. It is a fascinating but deeply worrying set up – anyone who knows anything about favelas will probably not find this a shock but it struck me harder than ever when I actually saw the scale of Rocinha – the population is estimated to be anywhere from 60000 to 150000 and the whole area is controlled by a 23 year old drug dealer.

It was a gloomy, wet day and the alleys were empty. Rain flows through them, carrying rubbish down into the lower favelas. The filth builds up the lower you get and at the bottom, fittingly, the drug dealers process and sell their product. A few open doors along the way gave me a sneaky peek into small but well furnished homes where small kids watched cable TV. Most of the houses have electricity, cable, even the internet – all of which is hi-jacked from pylons struggling under an amusing tangle of wires. Young women padded around barefoot doing washing. In spite of the rain, a number of small bars and shops were open with music blaring out of little radios. A number of locals stood around drinking and smoking, seemingly indifferent to our tentative invasion.

Approximately 10% of the favela population are involved in the drug trade. Most work in the city and it was good to see that part of our money was going towards a youth centre/ crèche where parents could leave their children for the day. One of the kids, who was white with light brown hair, had been nicknamed “gringo baby”. The tour guides (who inevitably make the same jokes day after day) had made so many jokes about gringo visitors being the child’s father that he had started calling any white people “father”. The tour operator agreed that these jokes must be stopped in order to prevent any lasting psychological damage to the poor guy.

Our trip was coming to an end. Although I was vaguely aware of the depressing situation I would find myself in when I got home I was also excited to be putting a full stop on the end of such a well executed adventure. It was pretty amazing, considering all the stories we’d heard, that we hadn’t suffered any serious physical, financial or psychological damage ourselves. Niall had a catalogue of catastrophes to take home with him – even as he got on the bus to the airport he stepped nonchalantly into a cycle lane and was almost run over by a bike. Still, there was time...

On our last night the two local teams, Flamengo and Fuminense were playing the second leg of their Copa Sud America match – an irresistible local derby which we hoped would be louder and more exciting than the game we had seen on the first night. We went with Raphael, a Fluminense fan who worked at our hostel (and who provided me with a shirt for the game!) and Declan, a charismatic Irishman who we had met a few days before. Before the game I found myself alone in the stadium toilets and considering that perhaps wearing a Fluminense shirt was not a particularly good idea. Unlike English stadiums, you see, the home and away fans are not kept separate in the Maracana. At the last game we had seen police holding back crazed Cruziero fans who seemed to have an aversion to the Flamengo supporters that surrounded them. This suddenly came to mind as I stood entirely vulnerable and I hoped that I wouldn’t turn around to see a wall of black and red (Flamengo) shirts between me and the door. I don’t ever want to die in a toilet.

Thankfully no such incident occurred and I was particularly glad to be alive when we walked out into the stands. We were now in the higher section where all the noise gets made and we sat down among a large group of Fluminense fans banging drums, holding huge balloons and waving incredibly large flags – something which I noticed requires considerable skill. These were the real fans. When we arrived I was given a massive balloon and I can not express my childlike joy. This balloon was everything. It meant I was one of them! In this group I was invincible! If I needed the toilet again I would just hold it in…
At the players came out onto the pitch we all released our balloons and the fans really got going. The chants were filled with music and dancing, the smoky air with flags and flares. The players gave them plenty to shout about too – each team scored and had a goal disallowed and by the end, with the scores level and Fluminense looking set to win with an away goal, two Flamengo defenders were sent off for desperate last ditch tackles! We danced and clapped when we were supposed to and even joined in a few of the more basic chants. It was such a good night that I bought the shirt off Raphael when we got back.

And so came our last day. Pachamamas parting gift was a full day of magnificent sunshine and we spent most of the day on the beach, drinking coconut milk and being flung around happily in the crashing Ipanema waves. We had meant to move to Copacabana but our little room in Ipanema – which we had to ourselves the whole week – was too good to give up and a couple of trips to Copacabana confirmed it as a larger, more touristy version of what we already had.

In a generous, if slightly undignified, gesture, Josh gave away his camera to a small child who was selling chewing gum on the beach. I saw undignified because moments later every beggar, salesman and prostitute within a five mile radius was to be found lounging alongside us on the beach, gesturing towards what was left of our possessions. Josh left the beach in just a pair of shorts.

Before our flight we treated ourselves to one last slap up meal. I loved the Brazilian food and an all you can eat buffet seemed like the best way to say goodbye to each and every dish. I said goodbye to rump steaks, to roasted spring chickens, grilled sausages, lasagne, baked fish, beans, rice and roasted vegetables. Then I said goodbye to the fruit. I always joke, when I go to all you can eat places, that I might do a poo halfway through to make some room. This time I actually did it and I can tell you that it doesn’t work. There you go, I’ve taught you something. And on that bombshell I will bloatedly bid you farewell.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on September 2, 2009 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Rain, Beach, Christ, FootballMatch, Favela, Cachaca, FunkParty and CharityBackfire

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