Days 13,14 – grey Rio fails to subdue the spirits



You know Rio. The most famous beaches in the world, basking in sunshine and full of party people dancing and surfing and drinking and laughing.


Er, not quite.

When you can hear the rain in the morning through your 4 Star Sofitel double glazing, it is not a good sign. Christ the Redeemer statue is under cloud, the beaches are empty save for a handful of surfers and – hang on – they are wearing wetsuits. Chapeau to the city’s PR team as this is common weather for June yet nobody has ever seen a photo of Rio with grey skies, like we never see Kate Middleton staring into the paparazzi’s lenses.

We stay calm.

We have felt rain often in Brazil and it soon passes.

The race course in front of Ipanema and Leblon.

A very large cemetery with mini favela to the top right of it. Copacabana is behind.

Later we ascend to Corcovado, the Christ statue. In a city built in the wrong place (it is full of abrupt hills with little flat land and a socking huge bay) land use reveals the social politics. Tall modern apartment blocks flank the beaches with their rooftop swimming pools. Multiple high-density favelas perch in corners on the steepest (and cheapest) land. Low-rise colonial housing contains the older mansions; the cemetery seems impossibly big yet far smaller than the horse racing track built in the middle of the city. How this survives in a city beyond bursting at the seams must be testament to the enduring power of the Brazilian aristocracy.

The favelas are front of mind yet out of sight. The tourist ‘favela tours’ have been stopped apparently due to the increasing violence as drugs gangs battle each other and the police. Our guide says there are four current outbreaks of violence across the city. But with the right connections you can see a wider view of the city: we meet a group of American students. When I joke that this is a great trip (“Rio for a college tour – how good is that?”) they softly say they are medical students and have been treating people in the favelas as part of their training. Which puts our trip into context.

From high above the city it looks like the urban planning department went for a lunch break in 1968 and never came back. Or perhaps when you have so much natural beauty (and the bay and beaches and hills are spectacular in a way that perhaps only Cape Town can rival) you care less about what the buildings look like. Or perhaps the corruption is so pervasive that it reduces the margins for good building. Rio’s previous Governor is in prison for large-scale bribes and his wife is under house arrest and the country seems resigned to corruption taking place.

Consecrated by Pope John Paul II and built in the 70s, a very modern cathedral.

We go inside two striking buildings and of course they are churches. The modern cathedral is in the middle of the business district, an upside down concrete cone built in the 70’s. It should be horrendous, all water-stains and architect statement, but it is incredible. The round shape was a contrarian move to symbolise unity, hence the congregation congregates in a circle. The lack of gold was deliberate to illustrate humility and the huge doorways are a symbolic gesture that everyone is welcome, although they have been ‘half-closed’ since the truckers strikes.

Old school religion tactics: plunder the gold and use it to recruit believers.

The second church feels like a temple to colonial greed. The gold is nauseating, covering every surface, a symbol of the historic recruitment policy. This church is part of a monastery that also owns and runs Rio’s best private boys school. We leave at going-home time and in the many ‘escuela’ buses queuing to join Rio’s evening traffic, every single boy (aged 7 to 16) is looking at their phone.

Okay, okay, enough social commentary, what about the surfing, the music, the booze, the parties?

Well, this is a family blog and we are useless at clubbing as you may have read about in Olinda.

However this is Rio goddammit so we go out on Friday night to Rio Scenarium, the kind of bar / music / dinner / dancing venue that people write down on bits of paper and tell you to visit. Arriving at 7.30pm we go through a security airport metal detector – Luce I hope you put the gun in the hotel safe… We are the only customers except for a few old grand dames in stiletto’s busting some booze-fuelled moves. There are no children in sight and Cesca wants ear plugs. The girls are pallid so instead of taking them home we bribe them with Fanta (better for you than Coke, or not).

As for the music, it was samba-type music. Don’t give us a hard time, we don’t know. Imagine one long tune played by three happy guys, repeated relentlessly over a couple of hours; the only part we recognise is a bit of Oye Como Va by Santana. By 9pm the tables are full, our stomachs are rejecting the from-frozen food and our advice is go and dance there but eat beforehand.

The front of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches feel very French, with out-of-reach apartments hiding so many stories and separated from the beach by six lanes of high-risk traffic. Rio is like an ageing French actress – past its heyday but with enough natural beauty to keep up pretences. For now at least. Where the money for the metaphorical plastic surgery is coming from is anyone’s guess. The Brazilian Real is at a two year low, the stockmarket is struggling and the truckers have just brought the country almost to its knees. Our guide tells us about lots of Olympics-related investment, but it is hard to see only two years on. She is disparaging about the local authorities, saying “It is only when private money is involved that anything good happens in Brazil.”

Of course the imperfections create the interest and we loved Rio like we have loved Brazil. We have only seen a very privileged, touristy side of this gigantic, complex country but we are grateful for the experience and sad to leave.

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