Rio de Janeiro: City of God, or Hell on Earth?
30.11.2011 - 02.12.2011
Rio de Janeiro has a sexy reputation. It’s know as a scintillating city. When you hear “Rio” what comes to mind are hot Carnival nights where skimpily clad dancers fill the air with feathers and sequins. Images of sultry summer evenings are conjured up, where samba music fills the air and cold caipirinhas flow easily as dancers’ bodies move to the music. You think of tiny bikinis and beautiful bronzed bodies on long beaches of soft white sand. It’s touted as a cosmopolitan city, a sensual and rhythmic place, the sexiest city on earth.
This is not what came to mind as Matt and I sat for hours in bumper to bumper traffic, dirty favelas rising up on either side of us as far as our eyes could see, windows rolled up tight to keep the smell of overflowing garbage and bus fumes out of the car. Men with poles on their shoulders covered with bags of snacks ran up and down in the middle of the lanes of traffic selling food to those of us trying desperately to inch our way into the city in the heat of the afternoon.
Their road system is simply inadequate for the amount of traffic that they have. God help the 2016 Olympics.
As we fought our way toward the city, we both dreaded the moment we actually had to try to find the way to our guesthouse. I had very good directions, but we had discovered that following very good directions was very hard when there were few signs and nowhere to turn around if you missed a street. Besides that, we were actually leaving the safety of the highway and crawling up into the heart of downtown. One wrong move and we’d be in a one of the many favelas that surrounded the city in an instant.
Matt was extremely ill and the hours we had spent in the car sitting in traffic hadn’t helped.
We were doomed and we knew it.
We did everything right. We followed the signs, we followed the map, we followed the written directions the innkeeper had given us….but we still missed it. After turning up and down the same street 3 times and missing it AGAIN, we figured out there was a sign missing somewhere.
On our fourth try, we missed it again and somehow ended up on the highway again. This meant a 40 minute drive in the wrong direction in sit still traffic before coming to an access road that allowed us to turn around and drive the 40 minutes BACK to our starting point.
At this point, nerves were fried.
We finally made a desperate move up a side street. This might be our road, but it might also take us up into a bad neighborhood. After 2 hours of driving the same stretch of road, we had to do something.
As we crept down a congested neighborhood street, filled with trucks, garbage, boxes, and loitering people, I had to wonder about those that insist on saying that Rio is a fabulous city. It did not look fabulous to me from any angle, and by now, I had pretty much seen it from every angle.
As I sat in the car, I started to wonder if my parents were right. This would be the perfect time for someone to come rushing out of any of these alleys, as we sat trapped in our car, unable to go anywhere to escape. The worst part was knowing that if we were indeed carjacked or kidnapped, we were too old to sell as sex slaves. No, we’d end up digging ditches or carrying cinder blocks. Or offering up a couple of kidneys.
The only thing we had going in our favor was the fact that the word ECONOMY was stamped on our extremely cheap and crappy little car. Surely, any good carjacker wouldn’t want a cheap little car with a couple of old people in it.
As I sat there sweating it out and Matt cursed under his breath for the fortieth time, I saw our turn.
I SAW IT!!!!
After about 2 miserable hours of trying to find a guesthouse we should have been to in about 10 minutes, we were finally there. As we drove into the Santa Teresa neighborhood, I was happy I had chosen to stay here. We had just driven through the hot and congested Zona Sul, where most people stay, down at the beaches. I had not been impressed. This however, was quiet and quaint.
Despite the razor wire that appeared on every gate and the bars that appeared on every window, this seemed to be the quieter, more decent face of Rio, and for that I was glad.
Santa Teresa is a charming historic neighborhood that sits on a hillside overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro. A bohemian arts district filled with cafes and galleries, Santa Teresa has numerous historic mansions that have been converted to guest houses. The cobblestone streets are lined with colorful shops, draping tropical foliage, and a bright yellow bonde, or tram, that runs up and down it’s steep hillsides.
It was a good way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Guesthouse Bianca was a gorgeous old mansion that had four guest suites.
The owner, Guido, spoke English fluently, and greeted us warmly, showing us to our guest suite, where Matt promptly fell asleep as soon as he touched the bed.
It was about 2:00 p.m. and I was stressed out and starving. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but Matt was now completely comatose on the bed.
I wasn’t willing to walk out and about alone, not really knowing much about where we were, and Matt wasn’t going to be conscious for a while.
To keep myself occupied and to forget my rumbling stomach, I decided to explore Guesthouse Bianca.
What an amazing house this was. Our suite was very large, with a big bedroom, hall, a large bathroom, and an outdoor balcony with a beautiful view of Sugarloaf Mountain.
The house itself was filled with amazing architectural details.
The grounds were as beautiful as the interior.
When Matt woke up he sounded TERRIBLE, but said he was hungry. We took the advice of Guido and walked a short distance down the street to Espirito Santa.
The restaurant was small and comfortable, with a cozy patio in back.
We were seated outside and ordered caipirinhas, Bolinhos de Bacalhau (salt cod balls), and Pastels de Camarao (shrimp pastries).
We probably overdid it on the appetizers, because when my entrée came, I could only eat about half. Maybe it was just because that fish was huge. (Personally, I tend to think it’s because Matt forced me to skip a meal, thereby causing significant stomach shrinkage in my near-starvation state).
The fish was thick and lightly fried, wrapped in a banana leaf. It was served with rice and a sweet banana sauce.
Tired, nerves shot, not sure why we were in Rio but hoping for the best, we decided to call it a night as we walked back to Guesthouse Bianca, the lights of the city twinkling in the distance.
The sunrise over Sugarloaf Mountain was a sight to behold. It made me hopeful that good things would come from our day in Rio.
There were 2 things Matt wanted to see in Rio: Christ the Redeemer and one of the famous beaches. There were 3 things I wanted to see, the same 2 Matt wanted to see plus the Escadaria Selaron, primarily because it was only about a block from our Guesthouse.
The Escadaria Selaron is a mosaic masterpiece in the heart of the Lapa neighborhood, a seedy area that borders the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Chilean born artist, Jorge Selaron, has been tirelessly decorating this unassuming staircase that runs along an alleyway for over 20 years.
This was something that I had to see.
As we started walking to it and Matt realized it involved a one block walk down a ridiculously steep street, he decided it was NOT something he had to see.
As he sat at a corner café to wait, I headed to the top of the stairs.
Although the area is not considered one of the best, it was early in the morning and no one was out with the exception of some very nice people that appeared to be on their way to work. I never felt unsafe.
I finally reached the head of the stairs. I was awestruck. Colorful tiles from all over the world had been placed lovingly by the artist along the stairs and walls of the alley.
It was huge and seemed to go on forever, tiles everywhere.
The 250 steps were a riot of color and pattern.
Running from Rua Joaquim Silva and Rua Pinto Martins, officially known as Rua Manuel Carneiro, the steps straddle the neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa.
There are said to be thousands of tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world.
An ever-evolving piece of art, Selaron says the project will not end until he dies.
Wowed and amazed by what I had just seen, I almost didn’t notice how horrific the steep trek back up the hill in the broiling heat was.
As I rounded the corner with the little café, Matt looked up from a small table and I could tell he was furious.
Apparently, while I was gone, he came to the sudden realization that he had actually let me go traipsing about a dangerous neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro alone. I’m not sure if he was more angry at me or himself, but despite my assurances that there was nothing actually dangerous about my walk, he reminded me that I lack the self-preserving fear that God gives most people and that walking around carrying an expensive camera in my hand, I may as well have had big sign on my head that said, “Please rob me. I am a stupid American tourist.”
We made up over espresso and baguettes, compliments of Guesthouse Bianca who provided us with a breakfast certificate for the corner café in lieu of breakfast at the guesthouse.
As we ate, we kept seeing what seemed to be squirrels running up and down the power lines above our heads, but upon closer inspection, turned out to be monkeys. Only in Rio.
Not really wanting to drive through Rio again, but unwilling to attempt to use the public transportation, particularly when we had a perfectly good Fiat ECONOMY car, we piled in and went in search of that famous statue.
We didn’t realize that it was a very short drive from Santa Teresa. We drove through forested hills, following the signs, and actually found it very easily.
Christo Redentour is the 130 foot tall statue of Christ that sits atop Corcovado Mountain, in the Tijuca National Forest, it’s outstretched arms open to all of Rio de Janeiro.
Erected as a symbol of Brazilian Christianity, it has become an icon for all of Rio de Janeiro. It seems to be the one thing you must see when visiting Rio, and see it we did.
It was early and the crowds were light. The view from the top was simply astounding.
We left Corcovado and followed the signs for the Zona Sul.
The Zona Sul is the area along downtown Rio de Janeiro that houses those world famous beaches: Copacabana and Ipanema.
We had been told again and again that Copacabana is just too sketchy and dangerous and that if we wanted to get out on the beach, to stick to Ipanema and Leblon.
For that reason, we simply waved at Copacabana in passing.
Ipanema and Leblon are essentially one long curving beach, backed by towering skyscrapers and fronted by crystal clear water and blinding white sand.
Where Copacabana is described as grungy and chaotic, Ipanema and Leblon are described as cool and chic.
We chose our destination based on nothing more sophisticated than where we actually found a place to park – all the way on the Leblon side. We parked and walked down the famous black and white “wave” sidewalk that runs the length of the downtown beaches.
This guy was proof that ANYONE can wear flip flops.
After walking for a while, we paid $1 to change into our bathing suits in a bathroom. Yes, there are public restrooms on the beach, but no, they are not free.
A cheap $10 for 2 chairs and an umbrella, and we were settled into the sand.
It was a busy beach with sparkling turquoise waters, fine white sand and a vibrant beach scene. Locals were busy playing action-packed games of beach volleyball and soccer, lounging on chairs soaking up the sun in their tiny swimsuits, or standing around posing and checking every few minutes to see if anyone was watching.
We were particularly amused by all the beach vendors. You can literally buy ANYTHING from your chair. Drinks, snacks, clothing, hats. It was all there. Forgot your hat? No problem. You can buy another one. Need a popsicle? Just wait and in 2 minutes, someone will bring one to your chair. Lose your bikini top in the surf? Don’t worry, you can even buy a new swimsuit on the beach.
Somehow, I managed to get a picture of my three favorite vendors in one shot: Bikini selling guy, sarong guy, and beer keg guy. Yes, he was toting 2 beer kegs up and down the beach. Where else, but in Brazil?
When we’d had enough, we packed it in and headed back to Santa Teresa. It was then that Matt saw the Fogo de Chao sign.
Matt loves Fogo de Chao.
Sure…it’s a chain….but it STARTED in Brazil, so that made it okay to go, right?
Besides, Matt was feeling awful and he had let me drag him around Rio all day. This was the only thing he wanted. We had to go in.
My only hesitation was that I was wearing a bikini, beach shorts, and a sheer cover up top with rubber flip flops. Fogo de Chao is not a casual place.
Maybe it will be more casual for lunch, I thought nervously as the valet took the keys to our awesome ECONOMY car while I tried to kick some of the sand off my feet.
As I walked in and surveyed the tables filled with elegantly dressed women and men in suits and ties, I realized even the wait staff was dressed better than we were. Matt hadn’t shaved in 3 days and was wearing swim trunks, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap. I looked like Betty the Beach Bimbo.
I finally knew how it felt to be the hooker in Pretty Woman in your spandex dress and thigh high boots at the classiest place in town.
I held my head high and hoped that everyone would just think we were so rich we knew we could walk into a place like this dressed any way we wanted.
It must have worked, because within minutes of being seated we saw a group of waiters whispering to one another and looking at our table. Afraid they were going to ask us to leave, I couldn’t believe it when one of them came over to us and whispered to Matt, “Are you that TV artist? That American TV artist? You can tell me. I promise not to tell anyone.”
He was so serious. I remembered a few years earlier when the shop keeper in Italy insisted that Matt was “that American actor.” We still have no idea who they thought Matt was, but apparently the Brazilians think he looks like him too.
We assured them Matt was a nobody, but I could tell by his eyes that he never believed me. Hilarious.
If you have never been to a Fogo, you have to go. A Brazilian steakhouse with the most amazing 4 sided all-you-can-eat salad bar. Actually, to call it a salad bar is just wrong. There is so much more on there than salad. Smoked salmon, cured meats, artisan cheeses, salads, marinated vegetables, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, a bowl of bacon. Seriously…a bowl of bacon. What’s not to love?
I almost filled up on the cold stuff before I remembered I could also have all the grilled meat that I could hold. The restaurant serves about 15 cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and chicken cooked whole over an open fire. They are brought to you by waiters in traditional goucho attire and they proceed to slice off what you want, as much as you want.
Without a doubt one of the best meals of the trip.
We walked out feeling like maybe Rio wasn’t so bad after all.
We thought that a minute too soon.
Five minutes later, having missed our turn into Santa Teresa AGAIN, we found ourselves trapped on the highway headed in the wrong direction AGAIN and had to drive for an hour and a half in bumper to bumper traffic AGAIN to get back to our starting point.
By the time we got back to Guesthouse Bianca, we both hated Rio. Two hours in that traffic can undo any good that might have occurred before it.
Matt badly needed a nap, so he crashed while I walked to the Parque das Ruinas which was practically next door to Guesthouse Bianca.
Ruin Park contains the burned out shell of an old mansion belonging to Brazilian heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo, whose house was a salon for Rio’s artists and intellectuals in the 20s and 30s. Left in ruins, the old brick exterior has metal walkways that ascend to the upper levels where there is a 360 degree view of Guanabara Bay and downtown Rio.
Matt was feeling pretty bad, but we had reservations at Aprazivel, one of the best restaurants in Rio and just a stone’s throw from Guesthouse Bianca, so he decided he’d get out one last time for the day.
Besides, this was the only restaurant we had wanted to eat at badly enough that we made the reservations months before, via email. I used the Bablefish translator to email my request to them in Portuguese and I am pretty sure to them, it read something like this:
“Hello please. We will visit of the United States in diverse weeks. We will be remaining in the house of Guesthouse Bianca. He is possible to make a reserve for the email? We are excited to come. If he is possible to reserve a special table, that one would be wonderful, please. He forgives me for saying the Portuguese so badly. Very obliged! Until already!”
I know this, because their response to me read something like this, “Debtor for the contact. She is possible to make a reserve for email. Please, she directs me the date, the schedule and number of people to effect its reserve. Debtor for the contact and choosing the Aprazível Restaurant. I confirm reserve for 02 people in day 1 of December to 20:00 h, preferential in area with sight.”
It’s always good to be seated in an area with sight.
We decided to drive even thought it was less than a mile away for three reasons, 1) We never felt safe in Rio, 2) it looked like rain, and 3) Matt didn’t even feel well enough to walk a mile.
The restaurant was incredible. Set on a hillside in Santa Teresa overlooking the lights of the city, Aprazivel is open-air and very tropical, filled with plants, trees, an eclectic décor, and tables built into little tree houses. We were seated at a table that looked like a thick slice out of a giant tree and as I looked up at the thatched roof, I wondered it if would keep us dry as the rain started to pour in buckets just a few feet from our Havianas.
We suddenly found ourselves in the REAL rain forest café, staring at the pouring rain a foot away as candlelight flickered on our table and the waiters delivered crisp caipirinhas from table to table with umbrellas. We dined as the rain thundered and poured. It was sublime.
Matt wasn’t feeling up to a caipirinha, so he politely asked the non-English speaking drink waiter for a Coke.
Now, those of you who have never heard Matt speak need to know that he has a deep voice and a low, slow southern drawl. Sounds more like he is from Texas than Tennessee, so when he says, “Coca-Cola” it sounds more like “Co-CO-la.”
All the waiter heard was Co-Co, which is Portuguese for coconut, which is a drink staple down there. Next thing we knew a giant coconut with a straw was sitting on the table.
I nearly laughed myself silly.
Aprazivel is an award winning restaurant, and I was eager to try the food, but my late lunch had included giant platters of cold meats, cheese, and veges and gluttonous portions of grilled meat. Matt wasn’t even hungry. I opted to order 3 small plates and a dessert.
The first plate was an order of pastels, Brazilian pastries filled with meats or cheeses. Half of these were filled with cheese and shrimp and the other half with a spicy sausage.
The second plate was a Salada Aprazivel – greens topped with shaved parmesan, grilled slices of eggplant, sundried tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, topped with a tangerine vinaigrette.
The final, and best, was the escondidinho, which in Portuguese means “the little hidden.” It was a ramekin filled with shredded sundried meat topped with mashed yucca (tastes just like potato) and cheese, baked until the cheese was melted and bubbly.
Matt managed to eat some of them all, but actually declined on dessert. That’s when I knew he was really sick, when he passed on the Tarte-Tatin, what was essentially a very tall apple pie with caramel and the most delightful homemade ice-cream. It even had a crispy little toffee "Neeble" in there.
Thankfully, the rain had slowed by the time we left and we managed to get to the car without getting too wet.
Our day in Rio ended uneventfully, unless you count Matt trying to park the car on the street in front of Guesthouse Bianca, which was a very steep street and the space was barely bigger than the Fiat, and proceeding to get the transmission stuck so that it wouldn’t go in reverse and causing him to (very forcefully) smash into the car in front of him, all while some little Brazilian man was leaning out his window yelling at Matt to which Matt responded with some very special English that I hope the elderly man could not understand.
Rio ended as violently as it had begun.
The next morning we would head to Buzios, where hopefully, things would take a turn for the better after a rough day and a half in the Marvelous City. While we had managed to “make the most of it” and actually enjoyed many of the things we did and saw, the general unease that followed us everywhere we went, the fear that kept us from doing many things we would have liked to do, and the disastrous traffic system nearly undid what good we had managed to get out of the city.
I think Matt summed Rio up well when he said, “If God came down and told me I had to spend my remaining years in hell or in Rio….I’d ask him if I could have a day to think about it.”