South America Trip Day 16 – Rio de Janeiro

Woke and went to the roof of the Atlantis Copacabana for a morning view of Rio, the sprawling favelas up the mountains, the distant statue of Christ the Redeemer, the lure of the Copacabana and the inviting blue Atlantic…..the sun was out, and it was going to be a glorious day indeed.

We attempted to go to Santa Teresa today and caught the very clean subway to Centro, the business district of Rio, full of tall and modern skyscrapers where banks, insurance companies and the like all have offices. It was deserted. Barely even a car. Of course – it was Sunday. Everyone was at the beach. Those that weren’t were tourists who all read the Lonely Planet, which advises the reader to go to Santa Teresa on Sunday. As a result, the line to get the tram to the top of the mountain to Santa Teresa was incredibly long, and I was told we’d have to wait for 2 hours. Fuck that. Alex and I headed back the way we’d come, and hit Copacabana beach instead.

It was exciting walking down to one of the most famous beaches in the world. It wasn’t that busy though – most people were on Ipanema, the next beach down. Still, it was beautiful, with sugarloaf mountain in the distance and the city curving around with the shoreline. A number of sunworshippers – locals and tourists – were laying their bronzed bodies out to the sun gods, and a few groups of favela kids were playing football, inevitably, occasionally running into the surf where more adventurous sliding tackles were permitted. There was a game of beach volleyball going on further down, and further down from that a women’s beach football tournament, played in front of the grand old Copacabana Palace hotel. I took out the frisbee, much to the amusement of watching locals, and Alex (wearing a River Plate shirt to try to appear Argentinian perhaps) and I had a competitive game on the beach and in the bracing surf; a splendid way to while away an afternoon in Rio. I would have joined in a footy game with the favela kids, but I knew I’d embarrass myself, so I was content with just watching their amazing skills. “Leave anything that is or looks valuable at the hotel, including sunglasses…” says the Lonely Planet. No sunglasses? On a beach? Everywhere I looked people were wearing sunglasses, watches and had bags. Everybody heeding the guidebook looked like targets straight away – they were all carrying plastic bags with their stuff inside and not wearing sunglasses. One has to be careful not to let paranoia take over. Police posts are all the way up the beach. Just have fun and don’t be stupid, and you’ll be fine. Then you can actually enjoy Rio!

After a couple of hours we decided to stroll down towards Ipanema. On Sundays in Rio, the entire stretch of road from Leblon to Leme closes to traffic until 6pm, and the seaside lanes are taken over by rollerskaters, pedestrians, cyclists and joggers. Families were out eating ice-cream and riding special trikes, couples strolling peacefully along together, they were nice scenes. Alex and I stopped some distance before Ipanema for a refreshment stop. I had a Brahma and Alex a water, then Alex headed back, exhausted. I stayed on for another couple of drinks, soaking in the jovial atmosphere, enjoying the views. I got talking to a table of locals, and was soon invited to join the table and have a drink, the conversations taking place in a strange mix I called Portuspanglish. Whatever it was, with smiles and gestures included, we communicated well. Wherever I looked here I saw racial integration. White, (including many descendants of Italian and German immigrants) black, mixed (indigenous people with Portuguese and other mixes), Japanese, Arab and indigenous people, young and old, all mixing together. On the surface then, Brazil seems to be a very colour-blind society. Indeed, the people I was sat with now at a beach front kiosk on the copacabana were a mix of white, black and mixed race people. I’m not sure why I noticed it. Perhaps living in largely homogenous Asian societies for so long I’m not used to such mixing anymore. And so we all talked and drank and talked some more, the sun going down on the beach and the Atantic ocean. I found out Lapa was the place to go, the samba capital of Brazil, and that I should have gone the night before – the best night of the week. Always good to know the great things you’ve missed. Soon it was dark, and Ipanema would have to wait for another day. I found my way back to Atlantis Copacabana and had a much needed powernap, before Alex and I got ready, had a shot of Drambuie, and headed out into the promise-soaked Rio night once more. We got in a taxi and went straight to Lapa.

I knew it was special as soon as we were on the main street in Lapa. The streets were dark and grimy, but people were out on those streets, spilling out of those bars, dancing the night away, caipirinha in hand, samba music blaring from each happy bar, people full of smiles. I wanted to hop straight into one of the bars and get dancing, but we needed to eat first. Neither Alex nor I are particularly good at ‘being Bower’ and making decisions, so we wasted time traipsing up and down looking for a restaurant. Eventually we found one. In Rio, many restaurants offer special 2for1 meals of a meat or fish and vegetables. Money saved! We opted for the fish this time, washed down with a bottle of Brahma. Delicious. Now we were ready to get into the swing of things. We headed back down to dimly lit street where all the bars were with all the music. Except now they were largely empty. The music was quiet. We’d missed the boat. Being past 10pm on a Sunday, the place had all but closed down. Pissed off with ourselves, we wandered up and down and found a place with a people outside. A samba club! We’d found one. I pretended to be looking for a friend to go in and have a look. It was buzzing, there was a samba band, people dancing in a lovely old hall with frescoed columns and an authentic old feel about it. This was clearly the place to be on a Sunday. We went in and received a special ticket with a drinks menu printed on it. The system is such in Rio. Every time you get a drink, they punch your ticket. You pay right at the end. A great idea, and slightly dangerous too!

Alex and I headed in and were straight on the incredibly strong caipirinhas. We got talking to a few people, then joined a group from Salvador on the dancefloor, who were very amused by our lack of samba dancing skills. Not dancing in Brazil is not really an option, so we were given a short lesson right there on the dancefloor. Samba’s a tough dance, fast and quite difficult, much more so than merengue or even salsa, though maybe easier than tango, but I gave it my best shot! I had a great night, and the band were tight, talented and really knew how to whip the crowd up into a frenzy. Again, we stayed until the lights were up, paid, and wandered Lapa’s seedy streets. Prostitutes, pimps, beggars and ladyboys were out in force now, crawling out of the woodwork as they do at around 3am. Still thirsty, we popped into a tiny, grimy streetside bar, casa de cachaca for a final, potent caipirinha. Here they had all kinds of the sugarcane rum, all flavours imaginable. We sat with other Cariocas at the little tables outside, getting annihilated. A real Rio evening.

Author: Neil

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