Rio de Janeiro

Foto! Mateus and Joao, the two kids from Solar Meninos de Luz, scream into both ears as my friend from Da no Coro, Alexandre, snaps a toothy grin of us three. I had previously met Alexandre at a festival in Normandy, France, three years ago and upon his invitation, decided to walk the really steep steps of Escadaria Saint Roman to a school set up by Paulo Coelho. The green building hangs onto one slope of the Pavão-Pavãozinho, staunchly sheltering and educating at-risk children of the favela. You can hear their innocent laughter as they fumble after mispronouncing a word from group recitation beyond the hollow block perimeter gate crowned by barbed wire and bougainvillea. It reminds me vaguely of home where the language of barbs and bougainvillea seems a common thread.

Alex explains to me that during his free time from singing professionally in dance halls in Rio, he and the other members of Da no Coro do outreach programs in areas such as Pavão-Pavãozinho, helping kids gain confidence through music and ultimately connecting them to the external possibilities of life outside the favela.

Over the last two decades, favela culture has found its way into the common first world psyche through trendy music videos like Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us. Even Billy Joe Crawford’s City Lights had its video shot in the glamcrepit alleys of Rio’s famed favelas. Entrepreneurial spirits have built hotels within these settlements to both my chagrin and delight–a touristic immersion of the underbelly of one of the world’s most fascinating cities and a human safari of sorts. There is a lot to be said about the ethical value of this relative phenomenon, but then again, in the larger scheme of things, isn’t traveling to a culture completely foreign to yours a safari unto itself? And if the dollars trickle back to the community, wouldn’t the guilt then become less deplorable?

Yes and no, my two other friends, Stephanie and Arthur declare. Not too long ago, special police forces have helped mitigate violence in Rio’s favelas. So much so that local businesses have begun thriving again. It’s not uncommon to see a group of German high school students taking photos of makeshift houses and then wolfing up farofa, a roasted cassava flour dish, being sold by their occupants at their doorstep. It is chic to be found in a favela. And indeed, international confidence is upon Rio, being awarded both the
recent World Cup and the upcoming Olympics. But locals like Stephanie, a teacher, and Arthur, an up and coming pop-singer, think this confidence is unraveling at the fingertips of the corrupt. Recent news of favela police force corruption and collusive olympic construction contracts are at the top of the list. When they get to the political nepotism part, my ears ring at the parallels of the Philippines’ daily struggle. Over bottles of Xingu, a dark brew from Jacarei, we talk about the intricacies of singing professionally, the sacrifices and rewards and decide that next year, Arthur will have to do a bar tour in the Philippines. We walk to their friend’s house, a commune reminding me of Israel’s Kibbutz (which my brother Sheen could not stop raving about back in high school), and watch a game of football. Arthur instructs me to cheer for the right team or earn the wrath of a hundred ciclones. I am so nervous I would squeak at missed goals hoping the squeak is germane. The commune’s chef brings out some goodies and Stephanie introduces me to Pão de queijo–mini cheese bread balls that would quickly become my snack of choice while in Brazil. It’s like a mini Pinoy Pan de Sal with cheese comfortably melted deep inside.

Common to these parts of South America, meat is quite the staple. And it is really flavorful, honest to goodness meat. My first day in Rio, coming in from Brasilia, had been a full day of consuming meat in all its forms, shapes and sizes. And I am not a big meat eater, to start with. Churrasco falling off of skewers in rodizios overlooking Ipanema is probably as fogo de chao as you can get in Rio. Wait, it’s the other way around. So on my second day, I am down to having just fruit. Because the body and the wallet just could not allow the violation.

I take a subway into downtown and wander around leafy squares and boulevards enjoying the sight of retirees playing street-side board games in such imposing shadows as the Imperial Palace, the Candelaria Church, the National Theater–signs of Rio’s past as a capital of the entire Portuguese empire. I peek into a green, alien-looking phone booth plastered with suggestive pictures of women and their phone numbers (those are men, Luna corrects me in retrospect). I follow a gathering crowd and am ushered into a pier and then on a ferry boat to someplace nice to get lost in. After an hour of walking around Niteroi, I hop back onto the ferry and make my way back downtown, where I profusely search for, and ecstatically find, the legendary Confeitaria Colombo.

Confeitaria Colombo is stuck in Belle Epoque, with bow-tied attendants, floor-to-ceiling rosewood cupboards, equally tall Antwerp-made mirrors, and touches of Art Noveau everywhere. There is an air of history and period grandeur in its two story atrium, Portuguese azulejos and massive chandeliers, interrupted only by the constant draw of commuters asking for a quick coffee and pastry fix. I emulate another Carioca, order black coffee, and point to an obviously French pastry. After I consume it on a marble counter standing up, I grab my jacket and hurry out. But I walk back in a couple of minutes later to take photos and buy a canned marmalade for my mom. A young guy behind the counter chuckles knowingly.

Ubiquitous suco bars hug every other street corner in Copacabana. With every imaginable tropical fruit bursting out of these places’ curved, antiquated counters, it might be safe to construe that this is where the juice bar phenomenon began.

It’s easy to spot a tourist in a Churrascaria, because, you know, every tourist would like to eat his own weight in meat. At a juice bar, however, a local and a tourist may both look like Giselle Bundchen in queen bee shades and a tan that would give Tahitians a run for their money. But you can tell if you look closely at what they drink. The sentient would most likely be sipping on açaí while the local would be drinking anything but. Such is my narrow and misguided idea of Cariocas, really, that they look so good because of the sun, sea and all the antioxidants they derive from açaí berry, when really, they’re just as mundane as little old me trying to negotiate a banana milk shake.

I put on my running shoes, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova on my earphones and run the length of Copacabana next to Av. Atlantica, take a little selfie break next to the legend’s statue, and then continue the length of Ipanema along Av. Vieira Souto and Av. Delfim Moreira. Rio’s beach culture is no more evident than when, even at 11:00 pm on a Wednesday night, people still play volleyball, hold parties and partake of fruity libations from beachside kiosks. At this time in Florida, I’d be passed out with a negligence case study on my chest, a sharpie highlighter in my hand, and an episode of Kimmy Schmidt playing into the night. For absolutely no one.


The next day, I wake up early, rent a short board and surfed for a little at the foot of Mirante de Leblon. Half dry, I then hop on a bus to bring me to Corcovado where a funicular awaits to bring visitors to the iconic Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue.

The rickety rainforest train reminds me of the ride up Victoria Peak in Hongkong, where the slope is so steep gravity pulls your cheeks into an unintentional wanton smile. The statue is majestic as is the view from its base. Rio de Janeiro elicits a breathy sigh so above and foreign to relief and amazement that I could not quite fathom what it is for. People hold back tears, smile politely, and jostle to take solo photos in vain. I apologize to the ones I’ve injured after my fruitless jump shots and hurry back down before the crowd descends with me in the funicular.

I take another bus to get to the famed Pão de Açúcar, the Sugarloaf Mountain, which, my local friends declare, is best visited right about sunset. True enough, the double cable car ride to the top, the drowning sun, and the votive candle-like blinking city lights make for a hard earned reward for the weary traveler. This is arguably as marvelous as marvelous gets.
I meet a nice Peruvian guy who silently declares me his personal photographer and we share a bottle of red wine as we watch the sunset completely envelope the city. Not so distant is Santos Dumont, the downtown, seaside airport with its business jets narrowly avoiding us, and its rainbow-colored landing lights dancing like a carnaval all its own.

The Museu Historico Nacional is a good place to brush up on your Brazilian history. I take a leisurely stroll towards the colonial building from downtown where I take photos of the tram clanking away on the viaduct overhead. Just below it is a concert tent where Arthur, Stephanie and I will be watching a Candomblé concert later tonight. On the way, I stop at a stall whose occupants are dressed Bahian style. They are making interesting fritters that are drawing a long line of hungry commuters bisecting a plaza. They call this Acarajé–black-eyed pea fritter that is deep-fried in palm tree oil. It looks like an oversized tempura, slit in the middle and filled with vatapa–a combination of  yellowish coconut milk sauce, shrimp in their skin, breadcrumbs, salsa, cashew nuts and dende (African palm tree oil). I am obviously a big fan.

Set across the road from Santos Dumont, the museum is pretty exhaustive of the various migration patterns of the original Brazilians, the country’s still palpable shift from an agricultural to an industrial society, and the European influence on Brazilians’ daily lives. After a couple of hours, I walk into a courtyard where an obdurately decadent party is taking place.

Everybody looks either distinguished or trophy-like, so I chat up a tuxedoed waiter and obtain maybe five macaroons and a couple of hors-d’oeuvres of unknown origin.

At the concert, Arthur explains to me that Candomblé is a genre borne out of a religious creolization of a West African belief system in the Bahia state of Brazil. This was brought over by the enslaved farm workers during colonial times and took on other influences from Catholic, Islamic and native American deities. What is especially interesting is that it is not restrained in the duality concepts of good and evil, but that every person is set to a certain destiny and that they must work to live towards that destiny the fullest.

It is loud, heady, percussive, throaty, like hypnotism required of earthly purgation. Women in frilly white dresses and turbaned head pieces throw flowers and spin around and sing with spiritual fervor that I am hard pressed not to keep my head from jerking in time to the beat. Strong arms pound at the , rumpi and the rum–percussive instruments aiding followers towards inevitable trance. I am amazed at how much control the performers (or followers, if you may) of Candomblé give up to reach this state of bliss and ashamed that the only instance I normally give up control is on a yoga mat.

My final day takes on a languid beat beginning with a visit to the Escadaria Selarón. It is one of those oddball stories that finds its way into a backpacker’s bucket-list, whose mature career as a Conde Naste or The Guardian writer spills the beans into the forefront of tourism.

Jorge Selarón was a thriving Chilean artist who settled in the Santa Teresa/Lapa neighborhood of Rio. He sold paintings of various incarnations of a pregnant woman with African roots. At times, he would have his lights cut off and at other times, he would be kicked out of his apartment for non-payment, not unlike the lives of every other character in La bohème-era Paris or Rent-era New York. The story takes a curious twist when, in 1990, he became obsessed with “fixing” the dilapidated steps right outside his home.

He began to pave them with a few dozen home-made tiles depicting the pregnant lady. Then he added found objects from broken porcelain pieces to mirrors and glass. Eventually, the neighborhood took heed and the whole task of repaving the steps extended to another area with tiles donated by travelers from all over the world. Peculiar objects would range from royal English tiles to Portuguese Azulejos to bronze mailbox slots fashioned into tiles to decorate what has now become a bursting alley of uncooperative colors and ideas. On days, he would fix the steps, changing tiles on a whim. At night, he would fraternize with tourists armed with long lens cameras. When asked about the pregnant lady, he would refuse to expound but that she was a marker to a distant mistake.

In 2013, Jorge Selarón’s body was found splayed on his namesake steps, doused with paint thinner and covered in burn marks–the pregnant lady on the tiles watching stoically over him. There was an outcry from the artistic community and his international cult following and investigations went underway. But none came out more than mere speculation. La bohème-like thriving artist tragedies are decidedly universal. But Jorge Selarón’s is entirely Carioca.

As my plane flies west to Santiago, I remember the deferential attitude my friends from the Coro expressed at the neighborhood bar in Pavão-Pavãozinho, about the olympics, about tourism, about progress, about Rio in general, and I wonder how they could allow themselves to miss all of this to go on another trip to Normandy next year. Luna is excited to practice her French (her English is flawless, by all necessary standards), Luisa is upset that tourists inflate the prices for locals, and Liz, Marcio and Bob are just so over it; how all this is dissonant to a visitor’s Disneyfied view of Rio; and how I am caught in the middle just trying to drink my beer. 

(All photos ©M. Sanchez)


6 thoughts on “Rio de Janeiro

  1. Found your blog while browsing, and I’m so glad I did! Love the way your posts are organized; love your writing; love traveling vicariously. Great pics too

    Liked by 1 person

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