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South America, Pt. 4: Rio de Janeiro.


I finally got around to writing about the next leg of our South American trip, three nights in Rio de Janeiro.


It had to happen sooner or later and now it has — I’ve finally had the chance to write the next chapter of our South American saga, but it still isn’t completed. Right now in Singapore the weather is horrible and my work’s all done, leaving me with the opportunity to try and wrap up the story of a holiday that took place almost five months ago.

In the previous instalment (which was written a month after we had moved back to Singapore) we were strolling around Lima, Peru, eating ceviche at Canta Rana and checking out weird art galleries that featured sculptures made from real human body parts. From there we flew to São Paulo, Brazil, where we went to some great flea markets, ran over people in taxis and got Anna really, really drunk.
Now we’re onto the second Brazilian leg of the trip and this piece probably won’t be all that detailed, but thanks to the wonders (and hindrances) of modern technology, I have a ton of photos that contain the date and location to help me piece it all together, as well as bits and pieces that Anna could remember, so I will do the best that I can. Here goes…

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Flying business class. It’s what Jesus would’ve wanted.

Monday, June 27
We caught an early flight from Guarulhos Airport in São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, checking in with a bunch of very traditional looking monks (right), the type you can imagine jousting in their free time, or sitting around a large, wooden table and drinking mead while gnawing on the leg of some felled creature. It was only a short flight, so it was still morning when we touched down in Rio and as soon as we left the airport we both looked at each other and shared a weird smile that screamed, “How the hell is this place going to host the Olympics?!?” and then burst out laughing. Yes, in hindsight the Olympics may not have completely gone off without a hitch, but at the time we were in Rio we considered stocking up on Olympic merchandise due to the fact that it may one day be quite collectible. Sure, there is an entire subculture of people who collect Olympic Games memorabilia and will buy almost anything, but we were fairly certain they would be willing to pay absolute top dollar for any official merchandise for the first ever Olympics to never actually take place! The Games were due to begin on August 5, just 40 days after we arrived and it looked like they hadn’t finished building most of the city yet. No, I’m not referring to the Olympic village, Rio itself!
Anyway, neither of us had been here before, although Brazil had always been the one place I wanted to visit, especially Rio. As per usual, let’s get some background about this town from Wikipedia:

Rio de Janeiro (“River of January”), or simply Rio, is the second-most populous metropolitan area in Brazil and sixth-most populous in the Americas. Rio de Janeiro is the capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s third-most populous state. Part of the city has been designated as a World Heritage Site, named “Rio de Janeiro: Carioca Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea”, by UNESCO on 1 July 2012 as a Cultural Landscape.
Founded in 1565 by the Portuguese, the city was initially the seat of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, a domain of the Portuguese Empire. Later, in 1763, it became the capital of the State of Brazil, a state of the Portuguese Empire. In 1808, when the Portuguese Royal Court transferred itself from Portugal to Brazil, Rio de Janeiro became the chosen seat of the court of Queen Maria I of Portugal, who subsequently, in 1815, under the leadership of her son, the Prince Regent, and future King João VI of Portugal, raised Brazil to the dignity of a kingdom, within the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and Algarves. Rio stayed the capital of the pluricontinental Lusitanian monarchy until 1822, when the War of Brazilian Independence began. This is one of the few instances in history that the capital of a colonising country officially shifted to a city in one of its colonies. Rio de Janeiro subsequently served as the capital of the independent monarchy, the Empire of Brazil, until 1889, and then the capital of a republican Brazil until 1960 when the capital was transferred to Brasília.
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere and is known for its natural settings, Carnival, samba, bossa nova, and balneario beaches such as Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. In addition to the beaches, some of the most famous landmarks include the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; Sugarloaf Mountain with its cable car; the Sambódromo (Sambadrome), a permanent grandstand-lined parade avenue which is used during Carnival; and Maracanã Stadium, one of the world’s largest football stadiums.

So, it’s a city with a very interesting history and what appears to be a lot to see so we figured it would be a great trip. Obviously we were aware of the threat of the Zika virus, but we’re don’t want kids anyway. Besides, a study showed that women visiting Rio were 10 times more likely to be raped than contract the Zika virus at the time, so we just made sure we slathered on the insect repellent and stayed in well-lit areas.

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Christ the Redeemer from a distance

We got in a taxi and, as we started to get just a short distance from the airport we were instantly struck by a horrendous stench. It was coming from the favelas, the slums of Rio. A census conduct in late 2010 concluded that approximately 6% of Brazil’s population lives in favelas, which doesn’t really seem like a whole lot, but when the country’s population is 190 million people, that equates to about 11.4 million citizens living in slums, or roughly half the population of Australia. Fortunately, the Olympic Organising Committee had already taken this into account and, so as not to effect those tourism dollars, simply built a plywood wall close to six metres (20′) high the entire length of the freeway. Out of sight, out of mind, but unfortunately not out of nasal passage. Oh well, points for trying. The wall itself had been continuously sprayed by residents of the favela with phrases to the extent of, “Go home, you’re not safe here” and “The police haven’t been paid for six months.” The only area where you could see anything was a small perspex section designed to showcase how the government had been trying to help the underprivileged, a segment that had been cleaned up slightly with a park installed. To add to the confidence-instilling information about the country’s police force we had seen sprayed on the wall, Anna had also read an article that said a lot of the hospitals had run out of medication and supplies, with some doctors sitting on upside-down bins instead of chairs.

We were staying in Botafogo so when we eventually arrived at our hotel we took a bit of a walk around Copacabana beach. I saw a dead animal on the beach right near where a child was playing, so I thought it was best to point it out to the mother. Instead of moving away from it, the mum took her kid in for a closer look! Meanwhile, Anna went to use a public toilet on the beach, only to tell me upon her return that it cost US$2.00 to use and there weren’t even any locks on the doors. This was going to be an interesting couple of days. It was Winter in Brazil and it does get dark early as well as a little chilly at night, so we headed back to where we were staying, grabbed something to eat and pulled up a stool at a bar for the night. Luckily, Anna had done her research and stumbled across a possible reason for why she had been getting drunk so quickly; Caipirinhas are made with cachaça, a Brazilian spirit derived from fermented and distilled sugarcane juice. Another option is the caipiroska, essentially the same cocktail, but substituting cachaça for vodka. When she got on to these, Anna was able to party all night. Problem solved.

Tuesday, June 28
Monday was going to be pretty cruisy; Anna’s birthday was the previous day and she is impossible to buy for so I had arranged for her to get a massage and pedicure at a really nice hotel on Copacabana beach and my plan was just to walk the entire length of the beach. The first thing that struck me while I was walking is that there is absolutely nothing to do besides hang out on the beach, but that isn’t particularly for me, I simply don’t get the beach. As the late, great Bill Hicks once said, “It’s where dirt meets water.” Don’t get me wrong, I love beach holidays, but there has to be something else to do there besides lie on the sand. All there is along Copacabana beach is expensive hotels and nothing else. Go a block or two behind them and you’re in one of those areas the locals warn you about. Still, the beach was quite long and I had a lot time to kill so I walked to Ipanema and back, taking in the sights:

We had few drinks on Copacabana Beach at sunset before going back to Botafogo before it got too dark. We were planning on going to a reasonably nice restaurant so we went back to the hotel so I could get changed. On our way out to dinner I stopped in at a great record store and when one of the employees found out I was Australian he said, “I’ll show you my favourite Australian album.” He then took me into a back room that pretty much no one is allowed into and pulled out a copy of The Essential Radio Birdman from a his private collection. I honestly didn’t think there would be a single person in Rio that had even heard of Radio Birdman!
After dinner we planted ourselves in a bar for the night again, thinking about what a hectic day tomorrow would be, our last day in Brazil.

Wednesday, June 29
So what was the grand plan for today? We were going to see probably the most iconic Brazilian landmark, Christ the Redeemer. A little background:

Christ the Redeemer is an Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, created by French sculptor Paul Landowski and built by the Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, in collaboration with the French engineer Albert Caquot. Romanian sculptor Gheorghe Leonida fashioned the face. The statue is 30 metres (98 ft) tall, not including its 8-metre (26 ft) pedestal, and its arms stretch 28 metres (92 ft) wide.
The statue weighs 635 metric tons, and is located at the peak of the 700-metre (2,300 ft) Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city of Rio. A symbol of Christianity across the world, the statue has also become a cultural icon of both Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, and is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, and was constructed between 1922 and 1931.

Getting up there was going to be a bit of hard work, as we were both still a little sore from our trek through the Andes, but hey, at least we didn’t have to try and cart a 635 ton statue up there.
We were somehow able to avoid all of the monkeys that eerily resembled the one from the film Outbreak, eventually making it up there unscathed and managed to get some great shots:

As is the case with most major tourist attractions, there are the obligatory shots everyone tries to get in front of them — At the Leaning Tower of Pisa people pose like they are pushing it over and visitors to the Pyramids of Giza pretend to be putting their finger on top. At Christ the Redeemer all the tourists try to get a picture with their arms outstretched, emulating the statue and a lot of them get really pissed if you try to walk past them while they’re doing it, despite the tight confines at the peak of Corcovado mountain. Still, it was great to see.

We came back down, saw some pretty interesting items in the local shops, then went to a churrascaria in Ipanema for a traditional dinner for our last night in Rio, but we didn’t want to have a really big night, because we had a reasonably early flight back to Lima, Peru, the next day. Or so we thought…

Rio had been some fun, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected. The photos make it all out to be beautiful, but that is mainly because I didn’t want my phone to be stolen in the other areas so I didn’t take any pictures. I mentioned that I had always wanted to come to Brazil, especially Rio, but in hindsight if we hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have really missed too much. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time, but it gets more than a little tiring constantly being on your guard, on the look out for mosquitoes, pickpockets and rapists. Also, I will never understand how they pulled off the 2016 Olympic Games, because hardly any of the venues were any more than a shell just over a month before the event. That funding probably could have been better spent paying police officers, funding hospitals and housing the homeless. We even saw cops going through neighbourhoods with dogs to try and chase the bums out.

Still, I am glad I got to tick Brazil of my bucket list, however, whenever I hear the Peter Allen song I Go to Rio I’m just going to think how unfortunate that must be. I would recommend São Paulo over Rio de Janeiro to anyone any day. Now, back to Lima!

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About Dr. Tan's Travels (102 Articles)
My name's Tim. I'm a freelance writer and former ESL teacher from Melbourne, Australia, who taught in Daejeon, Korea for six months in 2007 and, until February 2015, had taught in Singapore for seven years. My wife, Anna, is an ophthalmologist. Between March 2015 and July 2016 we spent a month in Pondicherry, India, three months in Bonn, Germany, and 12 months in New York before returning to Singapore, all for training and work placements for her. The reason I wanted to keep this blog is because I suffer from epilepsy and have a terrible memory, therefore this would be a great way to help me remember our travels. I will do my best to keep it updated and even continue writing now that we're back in Singapore, but there is one problem; I have a pretty severe phobia of anything medical.

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