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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Marvelous City

Rio de Janeiro truly deserves the title of The Marvelous City.

The name Rio de Janeiro, meaning River of January, was given by the city's Portuguese founders, who sailed into Guanabara Bay on 1 January 1502 and mistook it for the delta of a huge river.

The sprawling metropolis is home to rolling hills, tropical rainforest, samba parties, bossa nova, shiny modern buildings, favelas (slums, preferably referred to as poor urban neighbourhoods nowadays), world-famous landmarks and of course, the beautiful Copacabana and Ipanema beaches lined with beautiful bodies. Rio is also home to 14 million people (the population of Brazil is estimated to be a whopping 196 million, the 5th largest after China, India, USA and Indonesia.)

But Rio's bad reputation for crime, drugs and violence precedes it's less famous moniker of La Ciudad Maravillosa. Anticipating limited seats and sky-high airfares over the Christmas and New Year period, we had bought our flights departing from Rio for Guatemala City in October. A few days later, we read news of people being killed on the streets as a result of violent acts, which involved the gunning down of a police helicopter and buses being set aflame. This came just days after Rio was awarded the opportunity to host the 2016 Olympic Games. We realised too late that maybe, it was a very very bad decision to fly out from Rio.

We were seriously concerned whether we would make it out of Rio alive. We asked every traveller we met on the road whether they had been to Rio, and whether it was safe to go to. We received mixed reviews. Some scoffed and said that Rio was like any other city in South America - no more dangerous, no less dangerous. Others admitted that they didn't feel very secure walking the city streets.

Chewing nervously on our fingernails, we prepared ourselves the best we could by:

1. Timing our arrival in Rio for noon, which would give us plenty of time to locate our hostel in broad daylight;

2. Conducting thorough online research on the safest areas in the city to stay;

3. Booking a room at Rio Dolphin Inn, a guesthouse located right in Ipanema, reputedly one of the safest places to be in Rio. Previous guests also mentioned in their online reviews on Tripadvisor that they felt safe staying at the guesthouse and walking the area around it;

4. Checking with the guesthouse owner prior to our arrival on the best way to get from the bus terminal to the guesthouse and the expected taxi fare for the trip;

5. Copying down word for word the description of the location of the guesthouse in Portuguese, as dictated by the owner, on a slip of paper, which we would hand to the taxi driver upon arrival at the Rio bus terminal.

Unfortunately, we didn't expect the 18-hour bus ride from Florianopolis to turn into a 30-hour nightmare due to flooded roads and traffic gridlocks. We arrived in Rio just past midnight - thus screwing up Precaution No.1 big time.

The taxi driver dropped us off at the given address in the rain. It turned out to be a cluster of houses behind a securely-locked iron gate. I realised that I had forgotten to note down the unit number of our guesthouse. Staring at the intercom device with house numbers from 1 to 12, I hazarded a guess and hit a number, only to be told by the voice emitting from the speakers, that there was no such unit known as Rio Dophin Inn and to try the hostel next door instead.

Dragging our bags and the taxi driver along with us (whom we refused to pay until we confirmed that he had dropped us off at the correct place), we found out that the said hostel was Arpoador Beach House - not Rio Dolphin Inn. We asked if we could use their computer to search online for the phone number of Rio Dophin Inn, so that we could ask the owner of the inn for assistance. A large unsmiling lady who appeared to run the place refused to let us even step beyond the gate unless we paid 80 Reals (S$64) for a room at her hostel.

It was 1 am.

It was dark.

It was raining.

In a city famous for crime and violence.

Things were happening in a language that we couldn't understand, much less speak.

Dan's foot was swollen and hurting from a mild gout attack.

The cab driver was insisting that we just stay at the (wrong) hostel and kept demanding for payment.

Our bags were still in the cab.

The only English-speaking staff at the hostel was chiding us for stupidly paying a US$330 deposit in advance for our room at Rio Dolphin, which we were now going to lose, especially since the place might not even exist.

The fat unsmiling lady was threatening to close the door on us and leave us out on the street.

This was our welcome to the so-called Marvelous City. Hip.Hip.Hooray.

Left with no other choice, we resignedly agreed to pay for a night at Arpoador Beach House. I insisted on borrowing their phone to call John and Nina, our hosts at Rio Dolphin (who had been so warm and friendly over email), to inform them that we would not be turning up that night, lest they wait up the whole night for us. A friendly staff, afraid that Fat Unsmiling Lady would skin him alive for letting us use the hostel phone, called Rio Dophin from his personal cellphone.

In less than 3 minutes, John from Rio Dophin arrived at Arpoador Beach House to collect us. We explained our plight and he marched up to the counter and berated Fat Unsmiling Lady (who was hiding behind the wall while letting her poor staff front the situation) for her utterly inhospitable attitude towards visitors to her city. She insisted that we were now her guests as we had filled up the registration form (as if we had any choice! Thankfully, I used fake particulars) and wanted to charge us 80 Reals, whether we were staying or not. I asked if we could just pay for the use of the computer. Yes, she said - 80 Reals.

After more heated exchanges in Portuguese, we escaped from the clutches of Arpoador Beach House after paying 10 Reals (S$8!!!) for 1 minute on their computer, and hurriedly trotted out behind John our saviour, and over to Rio Dophin next door.

Frayed nerves soothed over glasses of grape juice which John kindly offered, we were shown to our room. It felt as if we had emerged from a trying 30-hour ordeal and into heaven.

Before this, I had never thought of heaven in the form of a cosy little room

Over lunch the next day, John and Nina answered our questions about Rio and allayed our fears about safety (or the lack of it) in the city. Walking around Ipanema with John on an orientation to the neighbourhood, I was surprised and relieved to find that it was no different from being in Holland Village or Tanjong Pagar at lunch time back in Singapore. I felt safe enough to dump Dan at the guesthouse for the rest of the day to recover from his gout and check out the bikini shops on my own. But he said no - I wasn't going anywhere by myself, and especially not in Rio, or my dad might kill him. *pout* We compromised by taking a slow walk along the shops later that day, en route to the only Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet we know of in Rio. Guess who was a happy lame boy that day.

Gradually, over the following week, we discovered sides of Rio that we really loved:

People we interacted with on the street and in shops were generally very friendly, even though we can't speak much Portuguese apart from "bom dia" (good day) and "obrigado" (thank you). Given the similarities between the Spanish and Portuguese languages, they tried hard to understand our half-baked Spanish and converse with us on our level.

The food, although expensive in comparison to food in Singapore, was varied and generally very good. Fruit juice stands dotted every street corner, and like those back home, offered just about every tropical juice available - sugarcane, pineapple, watermelon, banana, guava, etc. In addition, there was whole list of strange Amazonian fruits that were totally foreign to us. We tried suco de caju (juice of the cashew fruit - whose stems we are more familiar with as "cashew nuts") but decided that we liked acai (ah-sa-yee) - a type of palm fruit - better.

We loved the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the iconic black-and-white mosaic sidewalk running down the length of the waterfront. So much so that we are dedicating an entire blog entry to the beaches of Rio (see later post.)

Even the scary slums encroaching every hill slope seemed less scary after we did a favela tour (details and photos coming soon!)

Rio has beautiful weather. The average monthly high ranges from 27 degrees Celcius in July to 33 degrees in February, and it never gets cold. To us, who hate the fuss of layering and feel bogged down by heavy winter wear, we felt right at home walking around in singlets, shorts and flipflops.

We took advantage of a rare sunny day (it was abnormally rainy while we were there) and signed up for a half-day city tour.

View of a favela while driving up Corcovado hill to see Christ the Redeemer

From the platform of the Christ statue, we had wonderful views of the city (for more photos of the Christ statue, see later post.)

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas - the lake where rowing and canoeing events will be held for the 2016 Olympic Games. Beyond that is Ipanema beach.

From left to right: Guanabara Bay, the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana beach. Marathon swimming, triathlon and beach volleyball events will be held Copacabana for the 2016 Olympic Games.

We visited the Maracana Stadium as well. While Dan and I are not football fans, it was pretty exciting being in a place which played a part in creating World Cup history. The Maracana was completed in 1950 and hosted the 4th World Cup in the same year. Brazil met Uruguay on home turf in the final match, but failed to maintain a draw to win the world championship, shocking the 200,000 spectators cramped into the stadium to tears. Renovated in 2007, the stadium now seats 88,000 people. It will host the World Cup again in 2014, as well as the football finals and opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Non-footballing events are held there too, with past performances by Sting and Madonna, and Beyonce is due to perform there as part of Carnaval celebrations in February 2010!

The Maracana Stadium, as seen from helicopter (guess who was the lucky man who went up!)

Taking photos and eating ice-cream outside the stadium, cos we didn't want to pay 20 Reals (S$16) each to go onto the pitch.

Basking in the presence of famous footballers

GGGGGOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL *yell continuously for 30 seconds without taking a breath* (that's how commentators here do it)

Next stop - the Sambadrome, venue for Brazil's famous Carnaval parade every February. Built in 1984, this 700m worth of seating galleries can hold 90,000 spectators.

Aspiring samba dancer... real sexy eh.

Imagining a standing ovation for our couple dance

Now, imagine a cathedral built in the shape of a pyramid. Okay... no need to work that imagination, just scroll down....

It exists!

Called the Catedral Metropolitana or Catedral de Sao Sebastiao (after Rio's patron saint, Saint Sebastian), the ultra-modern building was completed in 1979 to criticisms that well, it didn't look at all like a traditional cathedral. But any naysayers were soon won over by the oddly-shaped sanctuary bathed in natural light streaming in from hundreds of windows and the 4 floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. 20,000 people can fit, standing, in the 75m-high cone.

Beautifully, naturally lit

The 4 stained glass windows stretch high up to meet at the cross-shaped apex

Light & Shadow

Happy with our visit to so many of the city's icons in one morning, we zipped off to Rio Sul, one of the bigger shopping malls in the city. Brazil is amazingly modern in many aspects. Compared to its South American neighbours, it has the best paved roads that we have experienced on this continent. Cross-country travel is facilitated by comfortable double-decker buses, fitted out with free WiFi (but whether the WiFi actually works or not is another issue altogether.) All public toilets are equipped with toilet paper (hooray!) I felt like a silly country bumpkin bringing my personal toilet roll (a necessity in all other countries in South America) around in Brazil.

Together with Leblon Shopping, Rio Sul is the most modern indoor shopping mall that we have been to in South America and both malls are on par with many of Singapore's shopping centres - clean, air-conditioned, presence of departmental stores and brand-name fashion outlets, cineplexes, foodcourt, etc. We spent a rainy Sunday afternoon at Leblon taking in the Christmas decorations and jingles, window shopping, exploring the food court and just basking in the festive atmosphere and air-conditioned comfort. We even caught 2012 on big screen - popcorn and all! It was our first visit to a cinema in 9 months. I had apparently forgotten how to slip a huge cup of Coke back into the cup-holder positioned on the arm-rest after sipping from the straw - and spilled a good part of the icy contents of the fat 1-litre cup onto Dan's lap. Ooops.

However, our malls back home are no match for Rio's when it comes to one aspect - toilets. Here, there are 4 types of restrooms - Gents, Ladies, Family (where parent-child pairs of mix gender can enter) and Baby (equipped with changing tables.) The Ladies restroom (which, of course, was the only one I visited) was incredibly clean. The floors and sink counters were dry; the liquid soap dispensers actually had soap in them and worked; toilet paper, paper towels and electric hand-dryers were provided; and best of all - it didn't stink. There was even a waiting area comprising a small couch and a couple of arm chairs in the restroom - something I've only seen back home in the restrooms at Changi Airport Terminal 3 and swanky hotels. Unless the standard of restrooms in Singapore shopping malls has been raised with the birth of Somerset 313 and Ion Orchard (which I have yet to visit), I'll still be trying my darnedest to avoid visiting public toilets back home.

A big Christmas tree at Leblon Shopping standing in for the whole of Orchard Road for us this year

Despite our initial impressions of Rio de Janeiro and the nasty introduction to the city, through our hosts' assurances and our own interaction with the people and places here, we have come to love Rio and all the wonders that The Marvelous City has too offer.

P.S. We have yet to see any flaming buses on the streets *cross fingers* Regarding the incidents of buses being set alight in October, John told us that the arson was carried out by rebels with a heart. They had waited until the bus reached its final destination and for all the passengers (and the driver) to alight before setting the empty bus afire. That actually sounded really comforting to us!


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