Valentines Day in Rio

I had the most wonderful Valentine’s Day: Adam, not so much. After two delayed days, our city tour finally took us up Sugarloaf Mountain.  The day was beautiful and cloudless! When Andre arrived he said our tour would be going on a little later than planned, but that we would be having a fabulous buffet churrasco after the mountain and that it would be a great time. I was excited, but unfortunately, Adam already had a date at 12:30, that was much more important than hanging out with me. So, we went our separate ways and I left for the tour while Adam stayed behind. The tour was supposed to end about 1:00, so we agreed to meet back at the hostel sometime around there, although I had no problem waiting if Adam was a little behind.

So off I went in the van to Sugarloaf! In total there were 7 of us, 4 Brazilians, 2 other Canadians and myself. I was thrilled that there were other English speakers on the trip, since I was dreading another tour entirely in Portuguese. Katelynn and Scott, are both from Toronto and they are the most wonderful couple we’ve met on the trip so far! (If you guys read this, it’s true, we are so glad to have met you! Hopefully our paths will cross again!). So naturally, I clung to my fellow Canadians throughout the afternoon. I don’t remember any of the stats about Sugar Loaf Mountain, except that it took 3 minutes on the gondola to reach the top (and even then I’m not sure If that was for the first peak, or the second). But I do know it was STUNNING! The view of the city was gorgeous. It looks down over Copacabana, and across to the Christ the Redeemer statue. Another beautiful 360 degree view of Rio checked off my list!

I knew I would get along with Katelynn and Scott immediately when a quarter of the way through the trip they suggested grabbing a beer from the concession before going further: so we did. Immediate best friends.  Then we caught up on each other’s travels, and took touristy photos from every angle possible.  It was a wonderful time!

After Sugarloaf it was time for the Churrasco (Brazilian BBQ).  This was the most elaborate buffet I have been to yet! A plethora of barbequed meats, salads, starches, seafood, fruit platters, sushi, desserts, It was all available.  So, I crashed Katelynn and Scott’s romantic lunch, and was third wheel to a couple I met only hours earlier on Valentines Day.  Impressive, I know.

Once the BBQ was finished, I was dropped back off at the hostel. It was about quarter after 3 and I felt bad that Adam was probably waiting for the better part of 2 hours for me; however,  when I walked through the front door, the receptionist handed me a note: “Hey Hil, still out, be back as soon as I can”  Uhoh!

So Adam’s Valentines Day plans actually started a day earlier. We were running errands after the Favela tour – i.e. I needed to get 4000 types of mosquito repellant so I don’t get eaten alive in the Amazon. While we were at the pharmacy, Adam figured he would pick up Malaria pills that he didn’t get in Canada before he left. No big deal, I did this is Bangkok and saved myself hundreds of dollars! What we then found out, unfortunately, was that Brazil and Thailand have different laws on prescription medicine. In Thailand you can probably get heroin handed to you over the counter for $1, in Brazil, prescriptions are needed for everything, or so we thought, just like in Canada.

So the pharmacist sent us to the hospital a few blocks up to speak to a doctor. Ya, like our Portuguese is good enough to figure this out at a hospital! Nonetheless, off we went.  We knew we were in trouble when even the receptionist didn’t know what we meant when we handed her a piece of paper with “I need a prescription for Doxicycline” translated into Portuguese. Luckily, a random man nearby spoke English well enough to help us out. Turns out, we were in the wrong place.  “You need to go to emergency,” he said. “No, no” we explain, “Adam doesn’t HAVE malaria, we just need a prescription”. Still, need to go to emergency. So we walk over to emergency and can’t even figure out how to grab a number to wait in line! We’re never going to make it. Then all of a sudden the man from earlier comes in and wants to make sure we’re all right.  Everyone in Brazil is SO nice. He helps us through the whole process, and we sit and wait to be called.

Once we get into the room, the doctor has to go get a translator who can help us out. We explain our situation and the doctor shakes her head. “No, we only TREAT malaria, not write prescriptions. If yo need one you have to go to the free clinic a few blocks away; unfortunately, it closes at 4:00 which is three minutes ago.” Luckily, she tears up Adam’s form, so he doesn’t need to pay $280 just to SEE the doctor!

So thus begins Adam’s Valentines Day. He got up early to be at the free clinic by 8:30. No one could write a prescription there until the doctor arrived, so he makes an appointment for the only available time 12:30 – thus his previous engagement as mentioned earlier. By 3:15, when I got back from my awesome day of touring and eating, Adam was STILL waiting at the clinic. I went down to meet him, and we crossed paths a couple blocks from the hostel. I look inquisitive; Adam shakes his head. “No prescription”.  Apparently, he had spent the better part of the day staring at a white wall, watching patients go in and out of rooms, until finally he asked about his doctor. “Nope, she’d left the hospital to work at her other job across town”. Fabulous. We then heard there was a malaria injection that was quick and easy. We asked about that, and “yes!” they could do it. So Adam gave his passport and information, we waited a couple minutes, then the nurse turned to us “sorry, we ran out for the day. We have yellow fever shots only now. Come back tomorrow”. Unfortunately, we had a 15-hour bus ride to be on in a couple hours, so we’d have to try in Salvador: we left defeated. Productive day. We spent the remaining hours of Valentines Day stuck on a bus, headed to God knows where, 15 hours north of Rio.

In the end, it turns out you can “trick” pharmacists, when you drop the word prescription from your note, and translate Doxycycline to the Portuguese equivalent “Doxicilin”.  Then, they will freely hand over the drug! We later bought the pharmacy in Olivenca out of drugs. The rest were easily obtained in Salvador. Thank goodness!

Rocinha Favela

On Monday morning, Adam and I set out for a tour of the largest favela in Brazil (population wise). I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that favelas are areas where the very poor live, for cheap, and that the living standards are exceedingly sub-par. But to be honest, I had little other expectations. Turns out, I found this to be the MOST eye-opening and interesting tour I’ve been on yet.

There are over 1300 favelas in Brazil, and a total of 59 million people exist within their borders. In Rio alone, a little over 10% of the population lives in a favela. Rocinha Favela has a total of 300 000 people, and is considered the largest in all of Brazil as far as numbers… and we were about to explore it.

Our tour bus dropped us off at the military base that was stationed at the foot of Rocinha. Our guide told us we would be taking moto-taxis to the top, then slowly walk our way down as a group. Now… for anyone who knows my history with motorcycles, you would understand that this was already a terrifying experience for me. Why I choose to only ride sketchy motorcycles in countries that have zero traffic laws is beyond me; but here I was, on the back of a motorcycle, with a random local, speeding through the windy streets, barely avoiding buses and pedestrians, taking me deeper into the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. 
The streets were overcrowded and the shops were simple and cheap, yet I found it very interesting watching the bustling life as it went by. When we arrived at the top, I assumed we would take the same route down and learn the history of the area along the way. Yes, the place was clearly an over-crowded, dodgy neighborhood, and yes I was still excited to hear about the tour, but, I had no idea what I was in for.

Our guide congratulated us all for not dying on the motorcycles on the way up.  Hooray!  Then she told us we were not, by any means, allowed to take our cameras out for the first part of the tour. Once we got IN to the favela we were free to do as we pleased, but the people here wished to remain anonymous; if their photos were taken at an entrance or an exit to a favela path, it would make it easier for the military to track them down. First of all, I already thought we WERE in the favela. Secondly, the reason no one wanted to be identified, was that the majority of favela folk are either drug dealers, or into some kind of illegal activity; and so, our guide also warned us not to take any photos of people with guns, or bombs that we saw along the way. Well this sounds safe!

Apparently, the section of road that we drove through was considered the VIP area of the favela. The fact that there was a ROAD, with CARS on it was a major hint. This area has cheap restaurants, some stores, and even a fast food chain called “Bob’s Burgers”. So we walked about a half block down the street, before we turned down a side street and ended up on our first path. This was no street really; it was hardly a sidewalk if you really think about it.  It was a path, partially paved (and those parts were NEVER even) just a few feet wide, that led us deep into the neighborhood.

Now, I know I will never be able to give the place justice as far as a description, because the place is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but I’ll try. The path wound its way between large concrete structures that are considered “homes”. The families that live there normally build these homes by hand. The problem with Rochina is that it is sandwiched between a giant mountain and the Tijuca forest; and so, there is no more room to expand outwards. Thus, the place has begun to work its way upward. For example, the higher your property, the better your position in the favela. Rent at the base of the hill (the entire favela is positioned on a hill) goes for about 100 reais/month ($60). At the top, the same building is 700+ reais/month.  For some perspective, the average family income is 900 reais/month: HOWEVER, if you can find a place to build your own home, you are free do to so, since the land is centered on a first come, first serve basis. Thus, someone will build a home, then, they will sell their roof to another man, and he will build his home on top of the first, then that second man will sell his roof to another man, and so on, until the building has 4 or 5 levels of families living in it. Utter chaos! And these homes are made of anything!! Concrete, tin, cardboard, you name it, it’s probably fashioned into a wall somewhere in Rocinha!

In addition, no family pays for any kind of cable, Internet, or electricity. They do their own wiring of the house and street, and manage to rig the power meter to say zero. The government has given up on taxing them, and has consequently raised the rest of the population’s taxes to make up for the billions and billions of lost dollars.

Another thing you should know about favelas is the families. On average, there are 7 or 8 children per household. Then, each of those children, start having their own kids at 12, 13, or 14 years old.  We met a man there who was 28 years old and already had 2 grandchildren!  Each of the children grow up with dreams of becoming famous movie stars, or dancers, but in reality, 9 out of 10 will remain jobless and living in favelas their entire lives.
  A very sad reality check…

Anyways, we began to walk along the narrow path of the favela. The sidewalk wass covered with thick bundles of low hanging, rigged electricity wires; the houses looked outrageously unstable as they teetered on makeshift stilts and were plastered together with uneven, and clearly homemade, concrete jobs. The piercing sound of 6 or 7 babies screaming was so constant I didn’t even notice it by the time we reached the bottom 2 1/2 hours later. The smells changed every two steps. First, it was baked goods from a random 20ft squared bakery that sat along the side of the path. Then, it was the overwhelming reek of urine. Then it was the smell of garbage, which filled the lower areas, sometimes a couple feet deep, with trash. The sewage and the water systems were mediocre at best, but mostly, all the sewage runs through the streets to the bottom: thus why the lower homes are so much more affordable!

The path wound up and down, with mud, garbage, and cracked concrete for what seemed like kilometers. Hundreds, if not thousands of paths led off from the “main route” that we walked. Some paths led to homes directly, others were stairs that continued into deeper crevices of the favela.  The place was amaze: nothing was in order, nothing was labeled.  It would literally take the knowledge of someone who lived and breathed the favela from birth to understand the complex routes of Rocinha.  Yet, almost surprisingly, the people were friendly. Obviously they knew our guide very well, and we were there during the middle of the day, but everyone was just as curious as we were! The kids were happy that random gringos wanted to see their homes. The women making beads to sell on the beach loved to banter and flirt with the white men on the tour, and the bakers on our path were happy to sell us their fresh goods and make a few dollars.

Obviously, I would not recommend exploring a favela alone based on how nice the people we met were. Without a guide, and during the night, a favela would be a very dangerous place. Drug dealers, the very poor, and the people who live day to day in a corrupted community, are the reasons favelas and police are so closely linked. Rio’s police force has been diligently working to clear out drugs and weapons from each of the favelas, one at a time. But having a full-fledged weapons war is a sketchy operation in a tight knit society where only the residents know the roads, and where weapons are around every corner. However, for the upcoming Olympics and World Cup, Rio is trying to clean up its act. The police announce on television, a week before a raid, exactly where and when they will be entering a favela. That gives time for the drug dealers to leave, and avoid any conflicts. Whether this tactic works is hard to judge, but propaganda says it has been beneficial thus far. Either way, it looks like favelas are in for the long haul in Brazil. Their way of life is so integrated into society, it would be close to impossible to change their ways.

Rio De Janeiro

Rio is, for lack of a better word, dramatic. The city is defined by its sweeping expanses of white sand beaches, looming mountains, colourful neighborhoods and crowded favelas. It is 1/3 the size of Sao Paulo, with a measly 7 million people, yet easily has 3 times the character.
  We stayed in the Copacabana district of Rio, just a short couple blocks from one of the most famous beaches on Earth. The neighborhood is crowded with Barzinos, cheap juice bars and a boardwalk lined with street venders and thrifty places to enjoy caipirinhas!

On our first evening, we decided to enjoy the boardwalk nightlife. We walked a good stretch of the Copacabana surf before stopping in at a lively bar full of people playing drums and dancing on the sidewalk. We ordered a caipirinha each and a coconut (which was incredibly refreshing) and watched the locals dance through the night. 
Dancing appears to be a huge part of Brazilian culture. People have no problem stopping in the middle of their walk to drop some sweet dance moves for 5 minutes and then continue on their way. No dance floor needed; couples and or singles will dance in the sidewalk, next to their tables, out in the sand, or wherever they feel! But why not when every person in the country could kick ass in a “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” episode. I guess we’ll see how Adam and I fair in a dance off as Carnaval countdown begins!

The next morning, we had a full day of touring. With only three days to see the city, we felt the need to pack our days full. We booked a city tour through the hostel and ended up getting an amazing private tour of Rio from our guide Andre. The three of us hopped in a taxi and spent the morning hitting the sites! 
We started off at the Sambodrome, the giant Carnaval parade route where people sit in the stands and watch the samba schools go by. The stands have several levels of VIP. The lowest ticket prices are around 80-100 Reais per day, and the more affluent box seats will sell for up to 100 000 Reais ($70 000ish) per evening! We visited the Sambodrome 3 days before Carnaval started, and crews were working round the clock to set up the area.

After the Sambodrome, we went to the big futbol stadium. The Maracana futbol stadium used to be the largest stadium in the world, holding up to 200 000 fans in its bleachers. Right now, the stadium is closed for repairs as crews renovate the stadium for both the 2014 world cup, and the 2016 summer Olympics. Construction crews are keeping the shape and structure of the stadium, but changing the capacity a much more manageable 55 000: all with proper seats (unlike my earlier description of the Boca stadium in Buenos Aires). Although we were unable to actually go IN to the Maracana stadium, the layout is so open, that you are able to see into the center from the road, having mainly large gates and no walls as the outside structure.

After the stadium, we quickly stopped by the centro of Rio to see the city’s largest church. It is a huge conical shape right in the heart of the business district and seems very out of place. The building is quite unique, with massive stained glass motifs stretching towards the ceiling. The church holds a total of 20 000 people, making it by far the largest (I think in the country). We just happened to arrive during Sunday mass, which was very neat; however, even though Brazil has the largest catholic population in the world, the place was not close to being full.

From the church we drove over to the Lapa district to see the Santa Teresa steps. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day. At the top of a couple hundred steps, there is a convent where women spend their entire lives cloistered, making shoes for the poor and praying all day long. The story goes, that you could hear the women, through the window, praying for the souls of the less fortunate. So, in order to bring some cheer to the neighborhood, and to the women who spent their lives dedicated to prayer, an artist decided to tile the steps and 
make them beautiful. He collected tiles from all over the world, and in one amazing mosaic collection, he created the now famous Santa Theresa steps. The artist still works there during the week, constantly adding to the collection. We walked the steps and found tiles from every country imaginable. Our guide told us that people now send him unique tiles from their home so they can be included. The mosaic really is breathtaking, and there was even a couple that was having their wedding photos taken on the steps when we arrived!

Once we took about a thousand photos of the steps, we made our ascent up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. I have seen this statue in countless numbers of films and TV shows and have ALWAYS wanted to see it for myself. It’s such a beautiful idea to have a statue, of which you can see almost anywhere in the city, as a welcome, literally with open arms, to the immigrants and visitors of Brazil. The statue is 28m from hand to hand and 38m from top to bottom. It is one of the wonders of the world, and, once again, another bucket list checked off!  
We had to drive up most of the mountain, take a bus from there, then an elevator, and finally, climb stairs to reach the top… But the resulting view was spectacular! With a completely unmarred, 360-degree view of Rio, the mountain is PERFECT for photographing the city. The beaches, the mountains, the centro, all the things we had just explored in the city were there. However, viewpoints are viewpoints, and even after taking a shot of the beautiful Copacabana or Sugar Loaf Mountain, when you turn around and are faced with this unreal, larger than life statue, it is… Unexplainable. It is awful, in the sense of the word that it “fills one with awe”. It is moving and exciting and I couldn’t get over the fact I was standing right under it and looking up. After seeing so many world wonders in the past few years, you would expect them to be less wonderful. But I’m amazed, every time, how incredible and unique each one is. Once again, I recommend Rio’s Christ the Redeemer!

After this, our tour ended. We were forced to postpone our tour of Sugar Loaf Mountain for a couple days due to Carnaval rehearsals, and so, we were dropped off at the hostel early. This didn’t phase us in the slightest, as we grabbed some beers and checked out the beach for some afternoon rays! (Or at least Adam did, since I am still required to sit in the shade).  
After dinner we explored the beach nightlife again, this time waking in the other direction, and enjoying the music of a solo guitarist playing at one of the local restaurants. We had planned on going out on the town to a funk party, but after dressing up, found we didn’t have the energy to party until sunrise, only to be at our favela tour for 9am the next morning.