When I booked my ticket to South America, my first stop was going to be Rio de Janeiro. I was confident it was a good place to start, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect.
Why did i think it was a good place to start?
Like Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro and another couple of cities in South America have the cheapest flights in and out of London. Those included Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Lima. After looking at the different weather for the countries I wanted to visit and how they could broadly fit together, I realised Brazil would be in good weather and would deteriorate over time. With the country in the midst of carnaval celebrations, I also thought it would be high on most backpackers lists, so plenty of like-minded travellers to bump into in the hostels and overlap journeys with. So with weather, a solid backpacker trail to start on and cheap flights, it became my first destination.
I was looking to fly early February as soon as I got what I needed to get done in London sorted. That meant there was a chance it would be close to carnaval, but deep down, I didn’t want to land right in the thick of such a high energy celebration as my first destination. I was a little apprehensive of the culture shock that would entail.
When I arrived on 15th February, I checked into my hostel around midday to find hostel workers packing all sorts of party toys into a cardboard box. Wigs, horns, tambourines and more. When I joked with the hostel receptionist that I just missed the party, I was informed that there were in fact three more days of carnaval left. I extended my three day booking to six immediately.
Before heading to Rio, I did a fair bit of reading up to see if it was a safe destination. My view, is that like any city, there are good and bad parts. Rio is no exception and in my opinion is probably more extreme both ways. I opted to stay in an area called Leblon, which is considered a good suburb of Rio, but within a couple of blocks from the beach.
When I think of Brazilian passion, I think of their love for football. After all, with the most successful football team in all of history and the World Cup in this very country only a year away, it seemed a good idea to sample the footballing culture now while I could. Flamengo vs. Botafogo it was.
After a fantastic meal in a neighbouring suburb to the stadium with a local friend of a guy in our group, six of us headed off to the stadium in two taxis. The aim was to meet up at the ticket collection. The taxi journey alone was an experience in itself. As the taxi drove closer to the stadium through the narrow roads, you could see the sketchiness of the area degrade with it. Even the most innocent of things had connections with the lives of people of the underground.
I saw a child unravelling a ball of thread and setting a kite into the air in the forecourt of one of the houses we passed. No longer than 2 minutes later, a handful of police cars sped by. For those who don’t know, kites are used by the favela gangs as an early warning mechanism. They warn everyone that a rival gang or police are on their way. With kids placed on most corners, if they see another kite go up, they launch theirs.
Close to the stadium people were trying to find spaces to park (not an issue for us, as we were in a taxi). You could see guys on the pavement beckoning people to park their cars in the free spaces in the road. Whilst technically, the spaces were free to park, they naturally involved a “protection” fee whilst you were away.
To cut a long story short, after being dropped off at the stadium and a screw up with the taxi driver and none of us having mobile phones meant we missed the first half of the game, but found our friends inside a 55,000 seater stadium. Compared to the stadiums in England where every ticket is a designated seat, the upper tier where we sat was a free for all. We sat (stood) in the Flamengo half of the fans.
So what’s the atmosphere in the stadium like? Passionate is the word that springs to mind. Constant singing, standing, flag waving, balloon popping and everyone staying the full 90 minutes. Being a Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder in the past, I’ve had my fair share of passionate supporting, but in Brazil, it’s most definitely on another level.
To explain a bit of background about Flamengo that I learned. Flamenco is known as the team of the favela boys. Each of the unique flags you see in the photo below belong to a different favela in town. Back in the days when drug dealers run the favelas and police had little/no power, these groups would regularly fight amongst themselves. These days, it’s not the case any more. If it still goes on, it’s behind closed doors.
I mentioned that when I landed, there were three more days of carnaval left. Although I didn’t get to go to a bloco (it was a toss up between a bloco and the football match for me), I did go to see one of the night time parades. These parades take place in prebuilt stadiums, where each of the samba schools in the area get a chance to parade down the number sections of stands for around an hour each. Tickets are sold to the various sections, with the most expensive (section 1) stand at the start and the cheapest (section 13) at the end of the procession.
Naturally, the only tickets you could get outside the parade from touts were section 13. Being the final day of parades and having plenty of tickets available now, instead of being 100s of Brazilian Reals (R) a ticket, we got them for 7R each. Naturally, amongst the six tickets we bought, one was fake. But that didn’t pose an issue at the gate. Inside the section, families, friends and all walks of life congregated on the stone steps in anticipation of the floats.
As each Samba school started their allotted time, they let of fireworks and danced along the 400m or so of track past the stands set up on either side. Each samba school has a theme for their floats. I must have been several levels of understanding off, because I couldn’t work out the theme for a single school. As the floats passed, the crowd danced, cheered and celebrated. Some people in the crowd were there to support their school in particular, others there to just see them all.
Obtaining the tickets for the parade was again, like the journey to the football match, an eye opener. As one of my Portuguese speaking buddies did his best to bargain with the touts to get the tickets. I stood back and took in the scene. I saw touts squabbling amongst each other for “fair play” when one tout tried to out-do the other tout who was already engaged in conversation with us customers. I saw some shady characters swarming by trying (and finding out retrospectively, successfully) to pickpocket customers looking for tickets. Lastly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a young boy wearing only shoes and a pair of shorts, not more than 18 year old lying limp on the grass across the road.
I watched as a girl walked up to the boy, tried to wake him, check his pulse and then look over to the police standing no more than 10m away. She gave a sign that suggested the boy was dead as the police stood there motionless as if to say “just another favela kid in Rio”. It’s sad when you see something like that right in front of you, but as I was fast learning, this is the roughness that Rio residents are just “used to”.
During the football and the parade, with most guys going shirtless, I couldn’t help but notice the number of people with scars around their hips. There were just too many to believe they were accidental, rather than a sign of knife crime of the past. Even in the nice parts of town, security guards and security gates dominate. It’s a shame, but I think it’s just the accepted norm here.
Outside of the hostel I typically went out without my camera (as I did for the parade) and only cash that I thought I would need in my pocket. In my left shoe, I’d have my driving license (ID for bars) and 50R folded up in my right shoe (enough to get home in a cab from most places in Rio).
As I began to understand more day by day, I could feel that locals were more than at ease with this way of life. This is Rio, this is just how life goes on here.
It really isn’t a lie that Rio is a beautiful city. Lush hill and more beaches that you can hope for all within metres of each other. People take pride in their appearance in Rio because more often than not, they’re walking around in board shorts or bikinis. It’s fairly obvious that plastic surgery helps them achieve this too. Copacabana and Ipanema beach are catwalks in disguise. If anyone’s into their running, there are cycle/running lanes in between the beach and the main road that stretch for a good 6km for each beach.
I took a day tour which was a whistlestop tour of the main tourist attractions in Rio. Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Saint Teressa and Escadaria SelarÃ³n (the famous tiled steps). Seeing the Christ the Redeemer statue close up was amazing, such a powerful figure looking over Rio from all angles.
Saint Teresa is a beautiful suburb of Rio. It reminds me of a lot of Notting Hill with winding narrow streets and Bohemian vibe. Coffee and artists shops dominate the cobbled streets.
Escadaria SelarÃ³n are a set of tiled steps put together over many years by a rather eccentric Chilean man (see the last of the three photos). He’s taken tiles from almost every country and built up the steps from those. Most people head up the steps to find the tile from their country.
Some of the views from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and Pedra da Gavea (which I’ll write more about in a separate post) are exceptional.
I couldn’t help but notice the indulgence the country has on food. I’m always one to consider ordering a second main course at a restaurant, but in Rio, I had trouble finishing a meal that way meant for just one person. Even the local sandwich shop dished out sandwiches with twice as much filling as there was bread.
PorcÃ£o restaurant is worth visiting, if only once to indulge. Its an all you can eat restaurant for 90R where waiters will come round with skewers of meat to carve off onto your plate until you say no or turn over a discrete “Feed Me” type card on your table. Being pescetarian, there was even freshly made sushi to which I devoured 3 huge plates worth.
When you think of poverty in Rio de Janeiro, you can’t help but think of favelas. I didn’t have the guts (or some would argue the stupidity) to go strolling into a favela on my own to see what they were like. My experience included the taxi ride toward the stadium, the favela tour (see below), the families in the parade and a night organised through the hostel called the “Favela Funk Party”.
At the parade, it was clear that families had scraped everything they had together to support their local samba group. For them, it was one of the most important occasions and they willing to go without in order to go. It was like someone in the west saving up for a Christmas dinner for the family.
The Favela Funk Party, was a night billed to us hostel dwellers as backpackers only in a building in one of the favelas in town. Drop off around 11pm and pick up at 4am. With most of the hostel (and other hostels in town) going to it, I didn’t think there could be too much wrong with the experience. When I got there, I realised it was a little more mixing with the locals than I imagined. In what felt like a big warehouse, five cross dressing guys where doing synchronised dancing in the middle of the room. At first, the crowd was a little tentative, probably because they didn’t expect to be in a favela club mixing with the locals.
As time went on, everyone was up and dancing. The social dynamics of the place were amazing. So many unique characters in the club, which in hindsight, we all enjoyed exchanging stories of the night. With time, it was apparent that the “old guy” sitting on a stool by the bar with a young lady was the owner of the club, and probably the local “boss” of the area. He laughed as he watched a backpacker walk off round a corner with a lady, only to find that she was a cross-dressing prostitute.
By 2am, there were plenty of favela boys entering the club and making sure they paid their respects to the man. Perhaps on his orders, nothing bad was to happen to the crowd, who were obviously a great money spinner for him. The 4am pick up couldn’t come soon enough for everyone, but was an interesting one – the mini bus drivers were too worried to make their way to the designated pickup spot outside the club as the crowd spilled out onto the streets. Instead, like a heard of sheep, we walked down the street to the mini buses. The driver spent a good 30 minutes running around the streets looking for the last backpacker who had gone walkies.
When you mention the country Brazil, you can’t help but think ahead to 2014, when Brazil hosts the World Cup and in 2016, when Rio hosts the Olympic games. Two major sporting events in the space of 2 years is bound to change the face of Rio as we know it.
I went on a favela tour, which for me, demonstrated the future of Rio and how government intervention into the favelas will make some permanent changes. The tour was me and another backpacker taken through a favela by a local. The tour started by catching the local shared mini-bus into Favela da Rocinha. One home owner, had converted his home (tiled floors and roof terrace) into a viewpoint. From there, you could see over the favelas and into the heart of Rio.
Looking back up the hill, gives a real feel of the randomness of the buildings.
Walking down through the alleyways, doubled up as a great graffiti tour.
With government intervention, this area was fast becoming a place that people would consider their first home. Towards the bottom of the hill, we made our way down a road where a line of homes were demolished to make for a wide road in return for a freshly built and painted home. Anyone evicted from their home were given first choice, then the rest were sold off. People are now buying homes in past favelas. I watched as guys in suits would walk through the narrow alleyways, once used to hide drugs and weapons, but on their way to work in the city centre.
That was my experience of Rio, a city where poverty, indulgence, crime, celebration, beauty, passion and future all live in a strange harmony.