Welcoming The World…

In my last post, I took you on an armchair tour around my pre-work weekend in Rio de Janeiro, where I climbed mountains, strolled along the beach, ambled around the lagoon and sauntered through markets and gardens. And I must say that throughout the trip, I kept thinking to myself ‘I am in Rio. Who gets to live this kind of ridiculous (in a good way) and surreal life?’ Apparently that would be me.

Standing on Arpoador with Ipanema beach stretching away behind me.

But for all its easy amiability, there’s another side to Rio: More than a million of the city’s poor live in favelas, or shanty towns. Over 900 favelas perch on the hills around Rio, hundreds of delapidated shacks clustered amongst the green slopes rising from alongside Rio’s most affluent communities.

This is a view of Copacabana from the Arpoador Fort – you can see the favela lights stretching up into the hills to the left of the lamp post.

There has been significant investment to improve conditions and reduce violence and general crime since 1994 and I am told this continues in earnest as next month’s FIFA World Cup and more particularly, the 2016 Olympic Games will focus the world’s eye on the city. A police presence has been installed in a number of favelas and construction projects like the cable car system for the Complexo do Alemeao are being designed to facilitate workers’ ability to earn a living. The cable car has also made the favela itself something of a tourist attraction (although reports of occasional outbreaks of violence and drug trafficking was enough to deter me).

The favelas have attracted many artists. The towns themselves are well known for their brightly painted shacks and are popular subjects for local painters with dozens of colourful canvasses on display in local markets.

One of a myriad of favela art collections on sale at the Feira de Artes de Ipanema 

While I didn’t visit any favelas, they were easy enough to see, one of the largest climbing the hills behind Ipanema and Copacabana whilst the Complexo do Alemao and its cable car were clearly visible from the main road leading from Barra de Tijuca to the airport. I found myself bemused by this glamorous portrayal of Rio’s slums and I wondered how many tourists pay eagerly for their ‘authentic’ souvenir, oblivious to the abject poverty and danger that these people live with every day. I felt like the proceeds should somehow go towards further improving conditions in these communities.

In any case, most of the colleagues I spoke to would never dream of venturing into one of these areas yet were complimentary of programmes to improve conditions and safety. What was also interesting was their surprise at my catching a local bus service from Cosmo Velho (near the station whose train takes you up to Christ the Redeemer) back down to Ipanema on Saturday afternoon – surprised that I actually worked out how to manage this and pleased that I felt safe enough to do it. 

That’s the thing – I felt safe. Shoulder to shoulder with locals, the bus whizzed through suburb after suburb and I felt like I saw more of the ‘real’ Rio in that 40 minute trip. And despite the lack of English speaking amongst local storekeepers and waiters, everyone was friendly and willing to help – so with the aid of a very limited ‘Lonely Planet’ vocabulary and some pretty impressive (if I do say so myself) charades, I managed to feed, water and generally navigate myself around this great city…

…walking along Ipanema Beach, I watched the cariocas (residents of Rio) play, at one with the sand and the sea…

Top left is Praia de Diabo (Devil’s Beach); the rest were taken on Ipanema Beach

…admiring the easy yet watchful opportunism of the local traders, whether on the beach, in the market or simply capitalising on a captive audience…

Clockwise from top left: opportunistic selling on the ride up Corcovado to Christ the Redeemer; bikinis for sale on Ipanema beach; one of the most popular drinks in Rio is coconut juice; a bit of carnival spirit at the Hippie Fair; local art on display; sarongs for sale.

…and ambling along tree-lined streets with their colourful apartment blocks, wondering who might live there.

Top row; Ipanema
Bottom row L to R: Leblon, Ipanema, Laranjeiras

Rio is a city tucked cosily around its mountainous surrounds and retains the easy intimacy of a cluster of villages rather than the hustle and bustle of a metropolis of more than 6 million people. It is surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty and spectacular scenery and the natives – or cariocas – are outdoorsy, easy-going and hugely welcoming. You might argue that I’ve only scratched the surface but I think the world will enjoy its first Olympic soujourn in South America.

Let’s hope that Rio will be able to put its best foot forward.

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